Leslie Omana Begert was born in Greece to a Norwegian mother and American/Venezuelan father and was raised in Spain. Her mother had very strong artistic leanings, and many of her parents’ friends were well respected artists who made Spain their temporary home, sometimes staying for extended periods with her family. Her parents often bought their friends’ work, creating a beautiful collection that became part of Leslie’s daily world. The two most important artists were the Norwegian painter Knut Jorgensen and the American bronze sculptor Roy Shifrin both of whom became the backbone of Leslie’s early artistic influences.
As a teenager, Leslie moved to England. She was schooled in London, attended Oxford (BA Psychology, Philosophy, and Physiology), and completed her Masters at Cambridge (MSc Social Anthropology), before going on to work in finance and marketing. London provided a wealth of museums that she enjoyed, but aside from a short time in the studio at school and her limited studies of art history, the arts did not play a significant role in her life in England. It was only when she moved to China, far from the corporate world, that her artistic self became re-ignited.
China – Finding Zen in her hands and developing her skills as a sculptor
It was in Shanghai, where she lived constantly beyond her comfort zones, linguistically, existentially, and emotionally, that she first started to reach for a creative outlet that might produce an inner calm. As she watched the city that she would grow to love blossom before her very eyes—transforming from a sleepy, dusty communist backwater to a sophisticated worldwide mecca—she was also witness to her own unanticipated journey of self-discovery. In Shanghai, Leslie journeyed away from the intellectual and cerebral to discover the magic of working with her hands and the extraordinarily grounding effect clay had on her soul. Once her hands were engaged in the process of creation, her loud and restless mind stopped racing. Sculpture came to be the closest thing to meditation she had ever experienced. Amidst the chaos and turbulence of Shanghai and her own active mind, sculpture came to be her peace and quiet.
The city not only led Leslie to discover sculpture in her life, it presented the opportunity for her to develop the skills that form its foundation. She studied under three “Master Sculptors”: Jenny Xie and the widely collected husband and wife team, Qu Guangci and Xiang Jing who taught at Shanghai Teaching University. It was during this three-year period of intense formal training in classical sculpture—in which she focused almost exclusively on life studies of the Nude—that she honed her skills as a sculptor. She modeled in clay and had her work cast in bronze at foundries in Sichuan province.
Argentina – Exploring new territory and enjoying artistic freedom
Leslie left China in 2005 to travel around South America with her husband. This journey led her to attend the studio of Sara Mansilla in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for five months. Here she explored other media, concentrating on cutting and welding metal and casting in a variety of different materials, from transparent acrylics to cement. Having spent years under the disciplined, technical guidance of her Chinese teachers, Leslie was inspired by the artistic freedom in Argentina, and it has propelled her on ever since. Where China had taught her great technique, Argentina helped her build the self-confidence needed to access her passion, break through boundaries, and explore new horizons.
In Buenos Aires, Leslie created the installation piece “Baby Heads.” She cast identical heads in different materials and presented them as multiples or singles. The variations in material and in the groupings of the heads produced a wide range of interpretations and emotions in viewers—from a Buddha-like peace, to the startling sadness of a child’s untimely death, to the eerie science fiction of replicated perfection, to the beautiful ugliness found in cracked, deeply damaged individuals.
Austin – Finding her voice: her original love with her own approach
Austin, Texas, is Leslie’s current home. Her husband is a Texan, and they have a little boy named Gus and another child expected in January 2010. It is here in Austin that she has finally found her voice, returning to her original medium of clay, but abandoning the fine tools that made her former work so precise, and instead adopting a large stick with which she pounds her clay into shape. It is a very physical process, and through it she meditates on and digests the more emotional events in her life: having a baby, the tender and less-tender aspects of breastfeeding, motherhood, fatherhood, family, death, and her on-going study of the Nude.
She has increasingly focused on a less mimetic approach, so that now aspects of her sculptures are entirely abstract and invite the eye to indulge in and delight in the physical medium in which she works. Other aspects are loosely figurative, dealing with a theme close to her heart and drawing from her deep understanding of sculpting the human form.
Since her installation of “Baby Heads” in Argentina, the focus of Leslie’s creative exploration has shifted beyond her new study of a more abstract form to a relentless search for new media in which to cast her work. She spent more than a year experimenting with a wide range of materials before striking upon her current signature combination. In her most recent body of work, she sculpts in clay, which is fired, then cold cast in a unique combination of nickel and graphite, followed by her hallmark cast-iron patina. Her newer pieces come in a series of seven.
Leslie works at the studios of Steve Dubov, Atelier 3D, a nourishing and inspiring space, located in East Austin. Sculpture continues to be Leslie’s main form of meditation, a time in which her mind goes silent and her hands take over.