Gardens of Earthly Delights

These L.A. artists are reinventing the landscape game with objects and furnishings hewn from everything from volcanic soil to stained glass
Oxford House Projects 

When she turned 11, event planner, curator, and author Jennifer Lehr told all her girlfriends to pack their bags, had her mother drop them off at the Burbank airport, and had her art-dealer dad pick them up in his Cadillac to chauffeur them to their Sherman Oaks home, which Lehr had converted into a hotel/spa operated by her parents. “We stayed at the ‘hotel’ for the weekend, went bike riding, and had a formal dinner,” recalls Lehr. “I was always doing parties like that.” She didn’t stop when she grew up and for years held similar events at her Los Feliz home, organizing weddings and wellness retreats and curating art exhibitions—until the pandemic hit. Lehr got her groove back last summer—after she, her husband, and their two kids moved to the house next door—hosting on her terrace an acclaimed show of new paintings by Delia Brown. This spring, Lehr took her business, Oxford House Projects, to a brick-and-mortar storefront on Hollywood Boulevard, where she’s been hosting poetry readings, selling art by the likes of Brown, Kristin Calabrese, and Nano Hernandez, and offering treasures—from 1930s cane lounge sets to Francois Carre’s pinwheel chairs—that people can buy or rent to gather in style. “There’s a Yiddish word, haimisha—it’s like elegant, cut with homey and cozy—which is generally what I find missing from events,” says Lehr. “Everything should be celebrated because life just goes so fast if you don’t stop and take the time.”

Jeffery Sun Young Park

As a licensed marriage and family therapist, Jeffery Sun Young Park worked more than a decade with homeless people and transient youths for L.A. County and the Los Angeles LGBT Center until COVID-19 hit. Then, a few months into the pandemic, his partner introduced him to ceramics as a form of self-care. “I was in my own burnout state, and I immediately responded to it,” says Park, who started hand-building plant forms—semi-realistic cacti and anthropomorphic flowers, all of which have faces—that caught on quickly with friends and art collectors. “I just wanted to make things for my garden.” After the West Hollywood gallery Stroll Garden reached out, he created a whole ceramic plant world, Dokkaebi Desert, for a December 2022 solo show that examined “the mass movement and displacement of Koreans to Southern California and the process of growing roots in new soil.” Park, 36, is working on integrating more ceramic workshops into his therapy practice, which now accounts for just 40 percent of his workload, and a booth with Stroll Garden for the Design Miami fair. “I’d love to create an entire world where everything is ceramics,” he says. “But I’m also side-tabling this idea of making a therapist’s office in clay.”@youngsunceramics

Jude Pauli

Swiss-born sculptor Jude Pauli studied ceramics at Otis College of Art and Design under the whimsical clay legend Ralph Bacerra and then taught for a while, but she wasn’t making ends meet. So she went to study industrial design at ArtCenter. “I designed backpacks for Adidas for 15 years,” says Pauli, who began making totemic sculptures about a decade ago—influenced by utopian architecture—and firing them in gas kilns to pull abnormalities from the clay she mixed with sand, grog, and hemp fibers. Thanks to a few successful shows with La Loma Projects, her work—which includes Frank Lloyd Wright-style hanging sculptures, aggregate clay boulders that can be used for seating, and some planters sold at JF Chen—is now in high demand. “I don’t want my work to look like some midcentury thing or something that you’ve seen before,” says Pauli. “I look at things that are ancient and things that are modern—I think a mark of good design is that it can’t be placed in time.”

Hun Chung Lee

As you walk around the sprawling Culver City studio of Korean ceramics master Hun Chung Lee, which brims with scalloped chaise longues hewn from 500 pounds of clay and hulking planters dripping with glazes that appear to bleed patinated copper, it’s hard not to touch everything in sight. “That’s what I pray for. I want people to touch,” says Lee, who models his creations—he calls them “bridges between people and cultures”—in miniature before constructing them for clients like Brad Pitt and architect Norman Foster. Lee also has a studio in Yangpyeong, South Korea, where he’s looking forward to producing a series of monumental chairs made from five types of volcanic soil from the Azores islands of Portugal. “I don’t want to push people to understand if this is a sculpture or if this is a chair,” he says. “I want to give them imagination, more possibilities. That’s my job, I think.”

Kelly Wall

Having grown up in West Hollywood, Mar Vista-based sculptor Kelly Wall has long been fascinated by Southern California light and the power of “memory-holder objects” like the aluminum-frame lawn chairs that scream space-age Americana. “I was working on stained glass, and I wanted to do something three-dimensional, and those chairs look really nice with glass,” says Wall, who has been obsessed with distorting mass-produced domestic objects—from logo-stamped coffee mugs to motel key chains to jadeite ashtrays molded into oil derricks and billboards—since she graduated from CalArts in 2019. After showing one of her chairs at New Low, where she’ll have her sophomore solo show in September, Wall has taken to fusing lawn chairs together and embellishing them with stained glass. She even started making stained-glass awnings. “Traditional stained-glass windows are made to be outdoors, so I like having the opportunity to do an outdoor sculpture that can be outside interacting with how light changes throughout the day.”

Lily Clark

Not every Angeleno would argue that the Silver Lake Reservoir is an elegant architectural triumph, but Lily Clark grew up next to that concrete-lined basin and thought it was wild to witness this Brutalist structure every day of her childhood. She internalized her appreciation for the concrete monolith, as well as the work of Light and Space artists like Lita Albuquerque and Helen Pashgian, and turned that into a practice revolving around resin and stone fountains that evoke the architecture of Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler. “Anticipating how water is going to behave has been the biggest challenge,” says Clark, who was part of a two-artist booth with Stroll Garden at Design Miami that won a best-in-show award last year. Following a residency in Japan, she’s been working on more ceramic, granite, and marble fountains. “I want these pieces to age gracefully over time.”

Matthew Nichols

“This stuff is the sum of my experience, the sum of my interests in these materials,” says Matthew Nichols in his South-Central L.A. studio, where he’s been busy making thickly impastoed floral paintings (some of which he casts in bronze or resin) and sculpting chairs, tables, even a ping-pong table from blocks of foam which he then coats with truck-bed liner. For Nichols, who grew up in Fillmore, studied at UC Berkeley and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, then started making very tight graphical paintings and highly rendered furniture, it took a long time—and a serious reckoning after some hard living and a sight-threatening eye infection—to learn how to loosen up. “I think this is about bridging that gap between looking and feeling,” says Nichols, who carved smiley faces into the mesh backs of a set of plastic Home Depot chairs before melding them to lava-like foam legs and spraying the whole thing with black Line-X coating to raves at the New Art Dealers Alliance fair in Miami last December. “It’s like taking everything I know and running it over with a truck and putting it back together and kind of seeing what happens.”

Shahla Friberg

Shahla Friberg focused her art practice in photography for years until she went to a 2012 trade show for a conceptual fine jewelry collection she’d started. “I needed display cases so I taught myself how to make vitrines with a few tips from the owner of a stained-glass supply shop,” says Friberg, who eventually ventured into lighting fixtures and then mirrored wall-mounted sculptures. By 2017, she was making freestanding sculptures that mimicked rock formations, which she has shown (illuminated from within) as part of a Jeffrey Deitch-Nicodim Gallery pop-up during Frieze LA at the old Spago and with the design and architecture dealer Edward Cella. “The boulders have a life about them that mimics what I experience in nature, but a version from another world,” says Friberg, who moved with her family during the pandemic to Sweden’s Kulaberg peninsula, but still comes back to Los Angeles once a quarter to work on commissions and spend time with her adult daughter. “I want to create one that is completely immersive like a sensory deprivation tank that only blocks out the pain or the grotesque and showers you in every brilliant color of the light spectrum.”

James Herman

For the Oregon-born multimedia artist James Herman every material has a purpose—and a potential. When the artist Gary Lang presented with him with an opportunity to live on a hillside bluff on his Highland Park property, without running water or a sewage hookup, Herman jumped at the chance to build a Shangri-La with a composting toilet and a garden- hose shower complex that were so well built—with detailed woodworking and scrap-tile mosaics—that the latter made it into a solo show with Ibid Gallery. At his new live-work space just down the hill, he’s been busy making mosaic mirror paintings and task lamps (sold at the MOCA store) from pigmented cement and tiles. He’s also working on rocket stoves with trivets and embedded with agates. His goal, however, is to create a total work out of art that merges the indoor and outdoor worlds, a junk dada wunderkammer to aestheticize an off-the-grid utopia. “I think a lot of what I’m interested in are the scraps and the pieces,” says Herman, who is also known for his “earth pizza parties” where he makes a pizza oven out of a few bricks and a pile of homemade clay then cooks for all his friends. “You could build one of those in like a day if you wanted to.”

Jackie Rines

As a grade school student at the Cranbrook Academy outside Detroit, ascendant ceramic artist Jackie Rines was introduced to a high level of “refined opulence” from an early age. “My parents were modernists, so I grew up in a house that was all white and beige,” says Rines, who spent a few years in a communal mansion in the city’s Boston Edison neighborhood when craftivism and DIY movements were all the rage before getting an MFA at UCLA. “I don’t really want to sit around my studio and make things that don’t have some sense of joy,” says Rines, now a teacher at USC, who has made everything from ceramic planters and punch bowls made with psychedelic glazes to high-fire animal skin rugs and eight-foot-tall columns in the form of high-heeled legs in Missoni tights which have made their way into some of the best art collections in the country. “I would love to do swimming pools with medium-relief tile effectively becoming this exploratory landscape,” says Rines. “The bottom of the pool is kid territory so if you’re ready to throw the goggles on and get down with it, there’s like a whole other world that’s only eight feet away.”