Artists Leslie Davis and Alia Manetta find inspiration in an unexpected discipline.
By Ashley Ryan
From the age of 14, Leslie Davis was enthralled with stained glass. “Walking home from school, I always passed this antique shop and they had all these leaded glass lampshades,” she explains. “All I did was talk about them. But we were so broke. … From then on, I read about stained glass, how to do it, but it wasn’t in the cards for me,” she says. At least not yet.
As a young girl, she found a job in order to help her mother, then studied journalism at Orange Coast College, ran some small businesses, worked as a professional dancer and even spent 10 years in space flight operations at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But it all led her back to a career in glass.
After leaving JPL, Davis and her then-husband moved to Laguna Beach and, three months later, she launched a successful stained glass business that she ran for 25 years. Then, she took a leap and applied to the Pilchuck Glass School, located an hour north of Seattle and co-founded by glass giant Dale Chihuly. She was accepted into a lampworking program—doing scientific glassblowing, heating glass with a torch—where she herself started from scratch, but learned alongside third-generation lampworkers.
With her newfound skills, Davis designed her first exhibit in 2006 at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Ana. But she wasn’t creating vases or lampshades. Instead, she explored a more scientific topic.
“I would have loved to have been a scientist, but I have absolutely zero math skills,” Davis notes. “But I have a creative mind. … Back 200 years ago, a scientist was considered an artist. It was interlocked; it wasn’t separate. It’s the way you use your mind to think outside of the box.”
The art show, titled “Worlds in Collision,” focused on four illnesses—malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and breast cancer—as she attempted to put a face to serious ailments affecting people all over the world. It was a multifaceted exhibit, as Davis crafted four sculptures, one for each disease.
For malaria, Davis made an 11-foot mosquito called Anopheles using steel, wire, torch-worked glass and kiln-cast dichroic glass. Within the wings are faces of men, women and children, representing the many people who have been lost to malaria worldwide, all formed from molds she created herself. The tuberculosis sculpture—TB Man, a deep blue skeleton with red lungs—features lights inside the lungs that flicker to showcase effects of the illness. Her HIV/AIDS piece depicts circling HIV particles that are prevented from entering a modified host cell in a message of hope. The final sculpture represents a large breast cancer tumor made using torch-worked and kiln-cast glass along with steel, clay and paper mache, fabric and twine.
“From about 2005 on, I started with the part of my life that I wanted to educate and give back—I wanted the art to help make situations better,” she explains.
Davis has created other large-scale pieces as well, including an hourglass sculpture called The Vanishing Point that uses slices of MRI scans to emphasize the degeneration of an Alzheimer’s patient’s brain for a Mission Hospital/OCCCA exhibit, five works of art for the opening of UC Irvine’s Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, and a double lockup gate for an exhibit on incarceration, a collaboration with her brother, painter Gregg Stone. She also installed a glass sculpture called COVID Crisis on the front gate of her Laguna home in 2020.
“What’s most important to me is to reach someone on an emotional level—that they have a connection [with the art],” she explains. “… So that they become educated.”
Now, she plans to transition from the large-scale art pieces back to stained glass work—though she used pandemic time at home creating a steel, ceramic and fiberglass mermaid with glass jewel scales on her tail. Davis is also working on another project with her brother, making life-size Mayan and Aztec guardian sculptures, and hopes to find a client for which to create a stained glass window inspired by a colorful slice of an asteroid, which she says would be the peak of her career.
While many opt to study art or science, it’s rare that the two combine as perfectly as with Alia Manetta. Her skill sets range from neuroscience, health care consulting and biotech business administration to painting, design and philanthropy.
“Art is vital to the study of science. And science is vital to further developing impactful and inspiring art,” she says. “I have seen many people assume that the arts and sciences are at odds with one another. I think that is a very damaging concept. … One of my personal missions is to further bridge the gap between empirical sciences and the subjectivity of the human experience.”
Manetta, who was raised in Laguna Beach, would sift through trash cans in Bluebird Canyon on walks with her mother, looking for rubbish to turn into treasure. As a fifth grader at Top of the World Elementary School, she developed “Trash Dressing,” a fashion show with gowns made from garbage that were later purchased by Waste Management for display in the company’s Texas headquarters.
Upon graduating from Laguna Beach High School in 2013, she also earned 11 different scholarships, one of which was granted to her by Festival of Arts for achievement in the visual arts.
But it wasn’t until attending UCLA that Manetta was truly able to explore her two passions. After taking a course called Biotech & Art, she began thinking outside the box. “In my research, I explored how bio-artists used cells, DNA molecules, proteins and living tissues to bring to life ethical, social and aesthetic issues of science,” she explains. “[Ever since,] I have been developing my own bio-art passion projects and research.”
Last year, Manetta created a mixed media piece for the Newport Beach headquarters of OnSite Waste Technologies, a medical waste company known for its innovative disposable bricks. “The goal of the art piece was to capture the company’s incredible spirit and scientific mission, while also bringing more energy, personality and style to the space,” she notes.
Manetta photographed a number of OnSite’s medical bricks, which combine everything from COVID-19 vaccine waste to glass vials and diabetes products, then converted the images into custom stickers in the same size and color scheme as the original brick. She layered the stickers on her canvas, glossed and painted it, then put a protective coating of enamel to finish the piece. The company’s slogan, “Right Here, Right Now,” was added to the middle. From afar, “Koi Pond” resembles a body of water with colored fish swimming throughout; you have to get up close to see the stickers. All proceeds went to the American Cancer Society.
In another display of science within art, Manetta recently designed and painted a mural for a student housing complex near The Claremont Colleges. “The piece includes a range of vibrant colors, abstract scientific symbols, DNA helicases, blood platelets, nature designs from the local surrounding area and many other hidden details highlighting the vivacity, scientific passions and creative spirit of the 2021 graduating class,” she says.
“My generation will continue to encounter new diseases and new natural perils,” Manetta says. “… We need to have faith in the beauty of our scientific institutions, to leverage our empirical toolboxes and not be quick to dismiss the significance of an individual experience. I realize that COVID is on the front of everyone’s mind right now. It is such a complex and multifaceted problem. But I’m hopeful through a combination of science, compassion and creative solutions, we can continue to bring light and awareness to communities globally.”
Two special art-centric auctions are taking place this winter. First, just before the holidays in early December, Laguna Outreach for Community Arts hosted an online fundraiser in support of its annual programming, which includes a number of classes and workshops taught by professional artists as well as special events. But rather than bidding on artwork, LOCA supporters were able to bid on unique experiences, such as a private tour of Laguna Art Museum, a character-drawing session with LCAD animation expert Dan Boulos, a behind-the-scenes look at wildlife sculptor Casey Parlette’s studio and more. In total, the For the Love of Art auction raised $9,280 of its $10,000 goal. In addition, Laguna Art Museum’s California Cool Art Auction starts Feb. 5 with more than 100 pieces crafted by California artists up for bidding on Artsy. Find artwork from Marlo Bartels, Maria Bertrán, Baldemar Fierro, Carolyn Johnson and more, with the auction running from Feb. 5 through March 5. (LOCA: locaarts.org) (Laguna Art Museum: lagunaartmuseum.org) —Ashley Ryan
For nearly 90 years, Festival of Arts has presented stunning pieces of art that help to enrich the community and spread the word about Orange County artists. Over the years, the organization has accumulated a number of priceless pieces for its own artistic assemblage. In December, the assortment was expanded a little further with the addition of two new pieces to the FOA Permanent Art Collection. Tom Swimm’s oil painting “Sunlight in Rockport” features wooden boats tied to a dock floating in rippled ocean water, while Gen Time by woodworker Randy Bader is a one-of-a-kind clock, complete with a clock face, pendulum and swirled base all made from walnut and pecan woods. Both of these Laguna Beach-based artists have been exhibiting at the festival for more than 35 years. (foapom.com) —A.R.
Artist Eye Gallery
Wintertime saw a flurry of new artwork at Artist Eye, including still lifes by Ferial Nassirzadeh and oceanic oil paintings by Susan Leonhard. The gallery is also showcasing new mixed media pieces by Marie Lavallee plus landscape and wildlife paintings crafted by George McGhee. (949-497-5898; artisteyegallerylaguna.com)
A new exhibition recently opened at this Festival of Arts-run gallery. Through April 15, visitors can view “Artifacts and Fiction,” a show dedicated to the acrylic figure paintings of longtime FOA artist Dagmar Chaplin. A reception will also be held March 3 during the monthly First Thursdays Art Walk. (949-497-6582; foapom.com)
Some artists plan their pieces out while others rely on spontaneity when creating. The “Spontaneous Creativity” exhibit—the first of 2022 at Gallery Q at the Laguna Beach Community & Susi Q Senior Center—runs through March 8 and highlights impromptu inspiration in a variety of mediums, which may range from paintings and drawings to sculptures, ceramics, photography and more. (949-715-8106; thesusiq.org)
JoAnne Artman Gallery
The Wild West is on full display for “Yippee-Ki-Yay,” a show—both online and in the gallery—that explores the American frontier through art. Featured pieces include America Martin’s Native American portraits, Greg Miller’s mixed media collages and Billy Schenck’s oil paintings that showcase links between the time period and film, literature and beyond. (949-510-5481; joanneartmangallery.com)
Kush Fine Art Gallery
In December, Vladimir Kush unveiled a new painting called “Cruise of Cinderella” at his Laguna Beach gallery space. Inspired by the princess losing her glass slipper at the prince’s ball, the art piece features a ship on the ocean that resembles a heel, gliding over the water as a shoe glides over a dance floor. (949-376-8017; vladimirkush.com)
Laguna Beach City Hall
Each year in the spring, the city’s Cultural Arts department hosts “Art That’s Small at City Hall,” with tiny pieces on display. Beginning March 7—with a reception tentatively scheduled for 6 p.m. April 7—artists will compete for cash prizes and the pieces will hang at City Hall through mid-April. (949-497-0743; lagunabeachcity.net)
Laguna Beach Community & Susi Q Senior Center
Laguna Outreach for Community Arts will host a class for vaccinated locals at the downtown community and senior center. Led by Lesli Bonanni, the two-day workshop, held Feb. 16 and 23, will teach students how to create dreamy landscapes or seascapes using pastels. The course is open to LOCA members as well as nonmembers. (949-363-4700; locaarts.org)
Las Laguna Art Gallery
“Landscapes or Seascapes” will hang in the gallery, but will also be viewable online, from March 3-31. A variety of geographical scenery will be depicted, with the exhibition calling for anything showcasing mountains, trees, rivers, forests, beaches, lighthouses, oceans and more; scenic abstract pieces may also be featured. (949-505-0950; laslagunaartgallery.com)
Put on by the Entertainment Design bachelor’s degree program, “Syd Mead / Progressions” is a retrospective—on display through March 3—that looks back on more than five decades of work produced by the industrial designer and neofuturist concept artist. Drawings and preliminary pieces accompany finished paintings, all of which touch on everything from interplanetary resort destinations to extraterrestrial vehicles, showcasing concepts of today blended with visions of the future. (949-376-6000; lcad.edu)
The “Best of Plein Air” juried art show returns this March, showcasing some of the most phenomenal pieces painted outdoors by artists that live both locally and beyond Laguna. View the artwork at the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association’s gallery in the northern part of town through April 4, with a gallery reception and awards ceremony on opening night, March 3. (949-376-3635; lpapa.org)