There is something about the sinuous curvature of a seashell, the shapeliness of a piece of driftwood, and the delicacy of a chrysanthemum’s petals that William Leslie has always found soothing. “When I look at them I get an overwhelming feeling of peacefulness,” says Leslie, whose light sculptures take on similarly organic shapes. “If I am in a state of peacefulness when I’m creating, then hopefully, the people who buy my work will feel the same way. I guess I’m a medium for the natural form.”
Working with layered tissue paper, thin strips of luan and reed wood, and polyvinyl resin (a fancy name for Elmer’s glue), the college professor of philosophy and weekend artist turns out weightless, three-dimensional lighting that quietly illuminates his theories on life as much as the rooms they adorn. “As a follower of Taoism, I know our lives flow more effortlessly if we take instruction from nature,” explains the 56-year-old, who is based in Oceanside, Calif., and who grew up surfing the beaches of Southern California and hiking the Sierra foothills in between jaunts across India and Hawaii. “There is something in the human psyche that comes from thousands of years of growing up in nature. We are often reminded of that, and we retreat to that for mental healing.”
Leslie’s designs may not have quite the same psychological and medicinal benefits as a walk on the beach or a summer afternoon spent looking for hidden objects in billowy cloud formations. But it is clear from gazing at his light-filled masterpieces—from 2-foot coral-shaped table lamps and standing life-size sculptural cocoons to 10-foot cascading paper wall sconces and chandeliers—that nature provides a constant and ever-changing source of inspiration for his work.
“People have been making lamps out of paper and wood for hundreds of years, from the early days of origami to the 20th-century creations of Isamu Noguchi, but never like this,” says Lois Lambert, owner of Santa Monica’s Gallery of Functional Art, one of two California dealers that represent Leslie (the other is the Trios Gallery in Solana Beach). “His work, like the architecture of Frank Gehry, is very fluid and has great movement,” adds Lambert. “He has this ability to take something that could be extremely mundane and make it beautiful, but also functional and even a bit theatrical, but not overly so. And where Noguchi’s work was more about modernism, Leslie’s is more about art.”
The designer first saw the light of paper sculpting in 1976, when he shared a beach house in Hawaii with, among others, Stephen White, a sculptor and lighting designer now living and working in Eugene, Ore. It was White who discovered the extraordinary hardening effect of polyvinyl resin on tissue-thin paper. Leslie so admired White’s craftsmanship that he signed on as an apprentice. When Leslie left his graveyard shift at the Dole pineapple cannery a short time later to start his own lighting company, Paper Sun Lightsculpture, he made sure to differentiate his designs (which are priced from $500 to $8,000) from those of his teacher. “If you saw our work side by side you would see an obvious difference,” says Leslie, who has been known to spend 200 hours on a single piece. “Stephen’s style is more formal and refined. Mine is a little wilder, a bit riskier, and more adventurous. If his work is like an orchid, mine is like a spider mum.” The flower is an appropriate analogy for his lighting, the artist adds. “Both are beautiful objects that inspire serenity.”