Her newest exhibit opens April 28
By Len Lear
Bette Lesher, who is now in her 70s, grew up on Johnson Street in Germantown and moved with her family to Gowen Avenue in Mt. Airy when she was 16, where she remained until she got married at age 23, but “Chestnut Hill was one of my favorite places in the world to both shop and hang out with my friends! On Friday nights, we would go the dances at the Water Tower and spend hours plotting and planning what we would wear to the dance!
“One of my favorite shops was the Deb Shop on Germantown Avenue. They would always put the cutest dress ever in their window, and I would drool over it and wish I could afford to buy it. If I was lucky, my cousin Joanne, whose wardrobe was purchased in Chestnut Hill, would pass on down her clothes to me, and I would almost die when one of the labels said ‘The Deb Shop.’ Little did I know at the time that Joanne, who lived in Flourtown, would one day get married and move into one of those big, beautiful English Tutor homes in Chestnut Hill, and as I was becoming the artist I always wanted to be, teaching myself to draw and paint, Joanne would commission me to do a portrait of that house.
“Being self-taught, it took awhile to become accomplished enough to take that on. It would be many years before I found my calling to become an artist, but Chestnut Hill played a huge part in the subject matter I would later choose as I developed as a painter. I could tell you many stories about the influence the beautiful town of Chestnut Hill had on me.”
Lesher has become one of the region’s most admired watercolorists. According to Albert Fairorth, a center city artist whose work is reminiscent of Kandinsky, “There is no question that Bette Lesher is one of the best watercolor artists in Philadelphia. She has been painting most of the city’s magnificent scenes, and she has a real feel, along with Klee, Picasso and more than a few of the greats. She has excellent brushwork and fine detail. In all her work you can see her love of painting and of all of us.”
An exhibit of Bette’s stunning paintings and fine art photography will open with a reception Friday, April 28, 5 to 7 p.m., and continue through June 27 at the Cosmopolitan Club, 1616 Latimer St. in center city.
A graduate of Little Flower High School, Bette was first drawn to architecture, “but I couldn’t do the math and found the lines too restricting.” She had an office job with the city’s Redevelopment Authority, but “I hated my job, and every chance I got, I would hang out in the planning department. I was drawn to large drafting tables, and today I create my work on one of them.”
After getting married, Bette had five children in 10 years. In the 11th year she got divorced. Naturally she was stressed out when an acquaintance remarked, “Bette, have you ever thought of becoming a painter? You have a remarkable talent for mixing colors (with ceramics).”
Shortly thereafter, Bette rented her first studio in 1979, a small loft in an old building in Haddonfield, NJ. Bette bought her first drafting table, pencils, India ink, drawing paper and an old Minolta camera. “Before I ever picked up a brush, I was sketching and drawing but only with the training I had in high school art classes. I never thought I was good enough to actually begin to paint. I had to learn to draw well first with perspective, the right proportions, the human body, Victorian houses in Haddonfield, how to draw a tree, etc. I began to draw house portraits in pen and ink and sold my first one for $60.”
Bette insists she had to first learn to paint badly and make lots of mistakes before she even remotely thought she knew what she was doing. In time (lots of time) she got much better at mixing colors, but she was in her 40s before she dropped pen and ink (“a crutch”) and gradually developed into an important watercolorist.
“Today,” she explained, “when I begin a painting with difficult subject matter, like ‘Off Broadway’ of an intersection in New York City, I still feel I don’t know what I am doing, but when I am inspired to do something, the drive in me takes over, and I just keep at it until the painting begins to take shape and my confidence returns.
“Often, I just have to overcome the fear of making a mistake and just mix the colors, and lay them down. I remember the first time I ever comfortably called myself an artist was when I completed a painting of the Philadelphia Art Museum & Waterworks. It was commissioned by a bank in town. I was surprised I even could do it! Lots of my first serious paintings went like that!”
Bette devoured books about artists, especially the Impressionists, and learned that many of them were also largely self-taught. She was particularly drawn to the courage of Van Gogh. “In spite of his mental illness and difficult life, he just kept painting!” Each painting takes Bette from two weeks to three months to complete. “But once I am attracted to a subject matter, it will not leave me alone, and I must do it!”
Bette, who now lives in center city, has been able to make a living as a full-time artist for many years (not an easy thing to do)! She has a limited edition print business, as well as frameable art cards of most of her works. She also does paintings on commission. For 17 years she has also used her work to raise funds for worthy causes such as Gaudenzia House and other drug and alcohol treatment centers.
Two years ago, her work was chosen to hang in the newly renovated William Penn House, 1919 Chestnut St., on all 24 of their floors. And she has had many shows in the Philadelphia area, including a one-person show at the prestigious Newman Gallery, two shows at ING Bank on Walnut Street and many shows in New Hope, Lambertville and Doylestown.
“But the hardest thing I ever did was raise my five children as a single parent, which I consider my most important job ever, and while I was doing that I had many part-time jobs to make ends meet … If I could do it all over again, I would never spend time trying to change other people. I would get rid of anger and resentment as quickly as they came upon me. I would have pursued higher education before I married and put more value on loving others and less on loving things and not take myself too seriously!”
For more information about the new exhibit: 215-735-1057, ext. 10, 215-985-0703 or www.lesherart.com