Bloom and Grow
Ysabel LeMay’s evolving style as a painter, photographer, and collage artist
by Hannah Morrow
Photographs by Barbara FG
It started with a seed — “The Seed,” to be exact. It was 2010 and Ysabel LeMay was living in Montreal, a snowball’s throw from her native Quebec City. After a decade in advertising, where she helmed art departments, LeMay left on a yearlong sabbatical and landed in Naples, Florida, where she began painting. Eight years into those studies, she felt disillusioned and ultimately unsatisfied by the medium. “I never really enjoyed it,” she says. “I felt very limited by the expression because it required so much expertise.” Once more, she took a step back, retreating to Canada and into her own intuition. She sought an inner blueprint, a direction toward authentic invention and her own artistic methodology. Her creative efforts were all dressed up with nowhere to go.
During this period, a friend lent her a camera. “I photographed simple things like plants and flowers because I was living in a place where there was nothing else to photograph. It was an accessible subject matter,” says LeMay. “It was also really basic work, and I didn’t know a lot about the technology. I learned basic and simple tech in Photoshop. So it’s by accident and a total lack of technique that I started creating these hypercollages.”
“The Seed” completed in 2010 was LeMay’s first venture into hypercollaging, a digital collaging technique based around photographed images. Considering her recent work, the piece is uncharacteristically simple. The scene is set on a white background and uses only one type of subject, a sea’s worth of goldfish superimposed into a mandala-like orb. There’s an illusory effect of motion, the school seemingly swimming about the 48-inch-by-48-inch setting despite its one-dimensional actuality. Now, after years of experimentation and practice, LeMay’s large-scale ethereal landscapes introduce viewers to worlds of her own creation.
Though they could pass as hyperrealistic paintings, these otherworldly scenes are built from a brilliant collection of blooming florets and cascading greenery all captured by LeMay’s own camera lens. But LeMay credits her painting studies for the complexity and life the works take on. “I call those eight years my internship,” she laughs. “The collages look like paintings because I have applied all the techniques that I learned — the shadow, the depth of field, the glazing.”
Photography is the first stage of her hypercollaging technique; she travels internationally, taking pictures of nature that she will later digitally isolate into separate elements in her Austin studio. Once she has enough material to draw from, which often amounts to hundreds of attuned images, she allows a new seed to plant. What blooms, she says, is always intricate and always a surprise.
“Without being too metaphysical, I connect with the energy of the plants and the space,” says LeMay. “Sometimes when I work on a piece, it doesn’t come from a place I’ve actually visited. It just comes from a place that makes me feel something.”
Look at it this way: Close your eyes. Drop into your favorite memory of nature. Feel the wind sweeping your hair at the top of a hike or dig your toes in the sand and hear a wave crash. Joy derived from the natural world is particular and exuberant. LeMay’s works emanate these connections, and though the scenes are of her own design, knowing they are built out of the marvels found here on earth makes them all the more wondrous.
Since “The Seed,” LeMay has garnered worldwide recognition. She won the KiptonART Rising Star program in 2011; represented Texas at the fourth edition of Women to Watch in Washington, D.C., in 2015; and held her first solo retrospective show, titled “WOW: Wonderful Other Worlds,” at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey, last year. Her latest and proudest achievement is the 27-foot mural commissioned by the U.S. Department of State for the U.S. Embassy in Taiwan. Her work has been featured in more than 115 exhibitions worldwide.
But just as quickly as LeMay arrived at her hypercollaged worlds, she intends to leave them. “I’m working on phase four of my life,” she says. “I’m looking for a new visual form of expression that will take a very different shape.” Like the flora over which she has long fawned, spring is on the horizon, and LeMay will be blooming.