Leah Beth Fishman is a master gilder on the Board of Trustees for the Society of Gilders and her works of art have even graced the covers of Architectural Digest. We traveled upstate to see Leah’s process and talk about everything from her unexpected journey into the ancient art of gilding, her inspirations, and how she explores modern designs using traditional techniques.
You mentioned that you became a gilder through a series of accidents and a love of restoration. Can you tell us a bit more about your unexpected journey and what it was about this ancient art form that drew you to it?
I think I always knew that I was going to be an artist for as long as I can remember, but it was always a question of what kind. You know, I was a comic book artist, a piano player, a musician, and then I ended up going to school for illustration. I loved that, but it didn't really have as much of a tangible and tactile quality that I needed.
Another thing that was always impressed upon me from my family and everything around me is just a love of history, art history, and antiquity. From growing up on my great grandfather's farm in Vermont that he built in 1905, and being around my mother—she’s the kind of person where it hurts her physically to drive past the antique store that she doesn't get to go into.
So when I stumbled upon the fact that my school had an antique restoration major at the time, it really resonated with me as a way to combine all of those loves into one thing. Then with gilding specifically, because when the program at my school shut down, it was my gilding teacher who basically mentored me and taught me so much.
1. Water gilded gesso carved samples by Leah.
2. Ornate designed gilded panel assortment by Leah.
1.Verre églomisé and gesso carved gilded samples in Leah’s studio.
2. Verre églomisé samples featured in Leah’s studio.
Looking at some of the hand-carved gilded samples here in your studio it's apparent that you enjoy exploring a variety of textures and designs. What would you say are some of your creative influences?
As I grew up surrounded by a lot of antiquity and a reverence for that, and my parents are both also very much children of the 60s and 70s, I would say those eras are kind of where my brain goes to first. You know, like the ugly, ornate tile patterns in our kitchen in Baltimore in the 70s with all those shades of orange, brown, yellow, and olive green, and just psychedelic swirling patterns. I would also say that turn-of-the-century Vienna was a huge influence for me, and the Wiener Werkstätte, which was post-Vienna Secession. Mondrian is another one of my favorite influences—I love really geometric shapes and just the universality of condensing something into its purest form like that.
Your gilding can be admired in both the large and small installations that you've done. Do you have a project to date that you are especially proud to have worked on?
I mean, I'm excited about any project I get to work on, but the two things I get most excited about with projects are either when I get to restore something of historical significance or when I get to add my own artistic design. Both are opposite ends because restoration is not really creative, but it's still at the heart of why I love what I do—preservation."
I was in LA helping to restore the Egyptian Theater, which is the site of the first old Hollywood premiere, and then here in New York I helped restore the ceiling of the New York Public Library—things like that that make me really proud.
As you are on the Board of Trustees for the Society of Gilders and have that passion for preservation, what do you see for the future of gilding?
These things ebb and flow in different eras and I think a lot of younger people these days are kind of reacting to the past 20 to 40 years or so as a reflection of a throwaway culture. So, people really are gravitating more towards putting the time and effort into hand-made things and actual craftwork—things that are going to last.
In addition to gilding and interiors you've also done gilding on the tops of skyscrapers and sides of historic buildings—not for the faint of heart even with a safety harness—it is a whole other skill set. When working on projects where you are gilding a building’s exterior, what unique considerations are involved in the process?
You definitely have to take into consideration the time of year, the weather conditions, the climate, you know, and are you okay with being way up there—you have to kind of practice and know your limits.
For the most part I always advise using gold leaf over metal leaf because gold leaf will never tarnish, it's less brittle and more fun for me to work with, and I do think it has a different shine and elegance to it. It doesn’t need to be sealed in exteriors or interiors and it’ll last for hundreds of years.
Tell us more about your aspiration to create designs with modern aesthetics using traditional gilding techniques. What kind of creations and applications do you envision for your future gilding projects, and what directions do you want to explore?
Some people will see gilding as gaudy, or too glam, or the other side as a crafter thing for little old ladies. I like turning that notion on its head and translating it into the world of fine art. I myself have a more minimalist and modern design sensibility so that's what I like to work within. I love playing with textures and the reflective quality of the leaf, so working with it on glass is something that I love because it's just endless possibilities of how it can be seen depending on the light in the room, the way you look at it, and the color you put next to it.
I love using the most traditional technique of gilding, which is water gilding, and pre-dates the Renaissance. It requires layers of gesso and clay, and burnishing, and just all of these traditional materials that I love making into large modernist works of art. I see a lot of that happening more and more now—which is really exciting—an entire hotel lobby will have a giant carved water gilded design. I think it is undergoing a really interesting phase in modern design, and I just hope to be a part of that.