An Artist Passionate About Structures and the Idea of Shelter

Photo courtesy of Jaclyn Brown.


When she’s not tending to the grounds at VMFA, Horticultural Assistant Leila Ehtesham tends to her art. A graduate of Parsons School of Design, Ehtesham is an artist passionate about structures and the idea of shelter. Her interest in landscape architecture led to the horticultural position at VMFA and is  reflected in her personal endeavors.

“In the last five or so years, I’ve been interested in the intersection of art and nature,” Ehtesham said. Her most recent work, Gonbad, is on display at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond as part of Wild Art: A Journey Off-Campus.

Lewis Ginter challenged local and regional artists to complete a structure that was 75 percent natural material. Ehtesham chose dried grass from Lewis Ginter’s grounds and recycled paper from various sources. The completed structure contains 850 bricks of grass and paper.

VMFA staff provided Ehtesham with shredded paper to use for the Persian-style dome installation. She was interested in using only recycled paper, so she even looked through recycling bins in her neighborhood for old mail to use as additional construction material for the shelter. She relates her architecture to the way in which a wasp creates its habitation, thus reiterating the themes of home and shelter as “living art.”

Photo courtesy of Leila Ehtesham.

Two years after her birth in New Hampshire, Ehtesham moved to United Arab Emirates with family and older brother, where she lived until early adulthood. The experience contributed to her interest in what people define as “home.” After graduating from Parsons, she moved first to Raleigh then to Richmond three years ago. It was during her senior year at Parsons that she developed an interest for environmental works and “building something that’s encompassing.”

Gonbad stands at 5 feet tall and 8 feet wide, and garden visitors at Lewis Ginter can walk inside the structure and look up at the sky through the open roof. The inevitable breakdown of the structure doesn’t worry Ehtesham, who believes that nature has ultimate control over her work. Gonbad, which took three months to complete and two weeks to build, has already been weathered by its surrounding environment. The bleached color and the crumbling paper are parts of the process.

Photo courtesy of Leila Ehtesham.

Her installation at Lewis Ginter is her second major exhibit, the first of which took place in Raleigh. The medium of paper bricks relates the two structures, but the foundation of the first was more free-form. Wild Art: A Journey Off-Campus exhibition is the first of Lewis Ginter’s to feature a group of local artists, such as Ehtesham and the Teen Leadership Council from Art 180. These exhibitions are important ways to connect the general public to not only professional artists but also people of all ages with a passion for creating art recreationally.

“It’s really important to support artists in your community,” said Ehtesham.

After installing Gonbad, Ehtesham has decided to focus on making more models to figure out structural roadblocks on a small scale before her next big installation. Wild Art: A Journey Off-Canvas features works by 13 artists and remains at Lewis Ginter through October 1, 2017.

Photo courtesy of Leila Ehtesham.