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NewsMay 24, 2021

Making room for art

Mary Lesser ’21 has spent a lifetime carving out her own creative space

"School Day" by Mary Lesse — Painting, red background, children that are actually coronaviruses run around with red school in the background
"School Day" by Mary Lesser

An appellate prosecutor by day and artist by night (and weekends), Mary Lesser ’21 spent much of her adulthood balancing her profession as a lawyer and her passion to create.

“They were like two separate sides of me,” she says. “The only hard part was switching. Monday morning at work. It would take me about an hour to get back into being a lawyer.”

Law gave her the space and resources to continue her art practice, but she always wanted to devote more time to it. An early retirement in the late 1990s, gave her the time to create her paintings, which are “almost cartoony” but with an undercurrent of disaster.

Yet, Lesser, who lives in Connecticut, wasn’t done learning and “on a whim” found herself in our low-residency MFA in Visual Arts program, from which she graduated this year.

The young artist at her easel

A native of Washington, D.C., Lesser remembers falling in love with art at age 8 when her mother enrolled her in art school. She relished learning to paint still lives and portraits with her own paints and easel.

“I don’t really remember why my mom sent me to art school. I think she always regretted it,” she says.

Her mother, a 1934 graduate of Columbia Law School, thought art was a dead end and wanted her daughter to follow in her footsteps.

“She believed women should have a career with which they could support themselves.”

Mary Lesser demonstrating something in an art gallery
Mary Lesser

A tale of two careers

After college and 10 years of trying to make a go as a ceramic artist, “I felt like I wasn’t contributing enough to the family,” says Lesser, who admits she was never great at marketing herself.

By now a wife and mother to two young sons, she acquiesced when her mother offered to pay for her law degree. Lesser attended Yale Law School and later accepted a job as an appellate prosecutor.

Pollution Playground by Mary Lesser: Painting of connected smoke stacks with a few people climbing on them
"Pollution Playground" by Mary Lesser

“I knew that would give me time to make art,” she says. The job required little overtime, and her husband, also a lawyer, supported her creative endeavors. 

Lesser returned to painting and steadily sold her work while also being involved in New Haven art community. Upon retiring in 1997, she spent three years studying art at the New York Studio School. The institution didn’t offer an MFA, but when a friend persuaded her to go to the New Hampshire Institute of Art a few years ago, Lesser enrolled on a whim.

The institute merged with New England College in 2019 and Lesser transferred to Lesley for her final three semesters.

“I was so glad I did,” she says. “I thought the teaching was fabulous, and the curriculum.”

Quirky and disquieting

Working in acrylic and flashe, a French vinyl paint, Lesser’s work is colorful and quirky with a serious subtext.

“They’re basically about climate change, wildfires, refugees, immigration, all the social ills,” says Lesser, who has turned some of her paintings into animated shorts, something she taught herself to do during the pandemic.

"Hands Up Don't Shoot" by Mary Lesser - painting of a black man in a hoodie holding his hands up with three wolves pointing guns at him.
"Hands Up Don't Shoot" by Mary Lesser

In “School Day,” Lesser depicts a school playground where the children’s bodies are coronavirus bacteria with arms and legs. In “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” a Black man in a hoodie labeled BLM (for Black Lives Matter) is held at gunpoint by wolves. In “Pollution Playground,” kids scale smokestacks. The paintings were the focus of her final thesis at Lesley.

“I have always been interested in social justice,” Lesser says. “I was part of the student civil rights movement. I marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C.” 

While social justice wasn’t connected to her work as a lawyer, she doesn’t regret, and even enjoyed, appellate work. Now, though, she’s thankful to be a full-time artist and one with an MFA.

“I always felt like having an MFA made you a real artist. I’m really glad I did it,” she says. “Now I’m back in my studio making more art. I’m just going to paint for the rest of my life.”