A picture of Lehman welding mounted next to her artwork. All work by Ann Lehman. Photos Kapp Singer.
Ann P. Lehman never threw anything away. Even the smallest scrap she saved diligently. When inspiration struck, she’d dig it out of the back of her shop, and, by the heat of her welding torch, turn it into a marvel. There emerged intricate horses with delicate limbs outstretched like a Giacometti; tiny wire bees; abstract, patinated constructions of sheet metal, peeling and folding; chairs made of thin steel bar bent into the shape of a flower.
Last Sunday, dozens gathered at 80 Audubon St. for the opening of The Alchemy of Art: Ann P. Lehman & Creative Arts Workshop, an exhibition celebrating Lehman’s contributions to the New Haven arts community. Lehman, a prolific sculptor, beloved art teacher, and founding member of Creative Arts Workshop, died in 2022 at the age of 94.
Curated by Thea Buxbaum, the exhibition features a wide array of Lehman’s pieces, including chairs, tables, mosaics, figural sculptures, and abstract metal constructions, from the miniature to the massive. All the works are for sale, and proceeds will benefit CAW.
The show runs from December 3 to January 27 across CAW’s three galleries; hours and more information are available here.
“Ann was such a leader in the non-institutional arts community here—although she did build an institution,” said Buxbaum. “I really believe she broke so many glass ceilings for so many disenfranchised communities to follow in her footsteps in building vehicles for experiencing art, making art, seeing art, and learning creative problem-solving.”
In early 1960, Lehman and a group of other artists noticed a lack of accessible, community-based arts instruction in New Haven. Institutions in the area like the Yale School of Art and Paier College (then located in Hamden) catered to elite students with established arts pedigrees. If you just wanted to take a class on painting, drawing, or sculpture, there were few, if any, places to go.
Lehman—who had studied at Smith College, Cranbrook Academy of Art, and then at Yale under the legendary Bauhaus instructor Josef Albers—set out to address this absence. With several of her friends, she began offering classes in the summer of 1960, located in what would later become the Audubon Arts District. They were a smash hit.
“By word of mouth, we had 150 people enrolled that summer,” Lehman recalled in a short essay featured in The Alchemy of Art. “We had children’s classes, pottery, painting and drawing, photography, block printing, jewelry, and more.”
In its early years, CAW was a dedicated but shoestring operation, teaching classes out of the basements of the John Slade Ely House and the former home of Congregation Mishkan Israel at the corner of Orange and Audubon Streets (the building, which has since been expanded and renovated, now houses the Educational Center for the Arts).
Faculty slowly expanded their operations and their budget, and in 1972, CAW moved into its permanent home at 80 Audubon St.—part of the city’s project to develop the Audubon Arts District—where it still exists today.
“There is nothing that you see here today that isn’t related to Ann Lehman,” said Trina Mace Learned, the interim executive director of CAW.
Throughout her life, Lehman shaped both the literal and metaphorical landscape of art in New Haven. In addition to CAW, she was also a founding member of Artspace New Haven, and her sculptures are visible throughout the city—perhaps most notably hertwisting red arrows on the corner of Temple St. and Trumbull St.
All the while, Lehman was teaching metalworking classes and inspiring a new generation of artists. “She was a leader among the instructors at Creative Arts Workshop,” said Susan Smith, who served as the executive director of CAW from 1987 to 2014. “In any one class she’d be teaching people at all levels—she was a master at that.”
As inspiring a teacher as she was, Lehman’s friends and former students made it clear she didn’t take it easy on them. “She was my mentor and my tormentor,” her former student Lianne Audette said with a laugh.
“She wasn’t gentle about teaching. She just jumped right in,” added Sherry Block, who grew up next door to Lehman. Block eventually became a metalworking teacher herself at CAW, working alongside her instructor.
“To be able to teach for so many years and still have that passion is amazing,” Block said.
Looking around the gallery, one just as easily notices Lehman’s love for her craft as her astounding range of skill. Her abstract, gestural pieces and precisely carved busts are equally evocative. In one particularly impressive cast sculpture of two men sitting on a bench, you can practically hear them talking.
“I’ve seen all this stuff scattered around the house, but to see it in one place, it’s pretty incredible,” said Becky Lehman, Ann’s granddaughter. “Overwhelming, too.”
“In the house we didn’t really treat it as gallery artwork,” she added. “We’d put cups on the tables and throw things onto the chairs. It’s different here, but it’s still the same.”
Lucy, Becky’s sister, looked around at the crowds admiring her grandmother’s art. “She loved parties, and people loved her and loved her art. She was such a huge part of so many people’s lives. It’s really something.”
Listen to an interview between former CAW Executive Director Daniel Fitzmaurice, MakeHaven Founder J.R. Logan, and Ann Lehman here.