"IN THE DEEPEST PARTS OF OUR BRAINS, WE MAY ALL BE ARTISTS."
Lawrence Lee (born in 1947) has been a practicing artist for over forty years and has made his living exclusively from his art since 1979. Born in Arkansas, United States, Lee indicates that he never thought of his parents as being either permissive or strict. They had high expectations of him, and he had high expectations of himself. “My parents,” he says, “supported me in all my important decisions and encouraged me to be the best that I could be no matter which directions I eventually chose to pursue.” His family moved to Tucson, Arizona in 1957, and though he has on occasion lived on a Caribbean Island and in the western highlands of Guatemala, he considers Tucson to be his natural home. “Blue skies and sunshine!” Lee says. “Tucson has them in abundance, and I need them in order not to turn inward and slide into depression.”
“You can find yourself in a work of art, but only if you look—and if you are willing to see.”
Lawrence had his first One Man Show in 1976, and has had so many since then (two or three per year for some three decades) that he long ago lost count. His work is represented in many noted corporate and public collections and in thousands of private collections all around the world. For eleven months in 2016, he continued to produce and sell paintings while collaborating with creatives at Ballet Tucson to imagine, illustrate, design and build imagery, sets, costumes, and other vital elements for “Spirit Garden,” which is a new, contemporary ballet based on the traditions of Dia de Los Muertos, the “Day of the Dead.” “That collaboration was like a gateway drug for me,” he says. “I just had to have more.” And this drive now sees him working on collaborations with The Rogue Theatre and The Invisible Theatre, two of Tucson’s most celebrated professional theatres. “But I still want MORE!” he says.
And how could we blame him? The same way he wants more, so do we! Lawrence simply offers us an elaborate welcoming to the depths of his imagination. His art is filled with a certain softness that is not only observed visually, but almost felt. The warmth that is elicited from his paintings can almost be touched… enwrapping us into this everlasting unapologetic dream where everything is lost in the realm of illusion. And it’s perfectly fine because there is no need to decipher what really is.
“Art is the antithesis of accident.”
Q. As a child, what did you wish to become when you grew up?
A. Initially, I wanted to be a scientist, but by the time I was fourteen or
so, I seriously wanted to be a writer. But when I found a home in the Northern Arizona University art department, the die was cast. And luckily, I was one of the few art graduates who was able to successfully meld business and marketing concepts into a great and long-lasting career.
Q. How and when did you first become seriously interested in art?
A. I really started to be serious about art when I was about ten years old. My parents enrolled me in summer art programs, and by the time I was fourteen, I was starting to think of art as a possible career choice. I started carrying a sketchbook around and was constantly drawing or looking at drawings for the next four years. Thanks to a couple of great teachers, by the time I got to college I could draw well, knew the elements of design, and had hands-on experience with many different kinds of media, from egg tempera to traditional oil painting.
Q. Tell us about your beginnings, how were your first steps in the art world?
A. I still possess one of my very early drawings: “Donald Duck”; crayon on “oatmeal” paper--that unbleached, rough paper used for a child’s creative renderings back in the early 1950s. I was about seven years old when I did it. My mother always encouraged my creative endeavors, even to the point of meeting with any of my teachers who seemed intent on constraining my creativity. I studied art all four years in High School, and went on to receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Masters in Art Education. Then, for the next seven years, I supported myself by teaching while developing my painting skills and portfolio and showing in local galleries. In 1979 I made the transition from teacher to full-time, professional artist. For decades I was the best selling painter at some of the best galleries in the American Southwest. I sold everything I could paint--year after year--until retiring to an island in The Caribbean with the great love of my life, educator and artist Mary Wyant, when I was fifty-three years old. Sadly, only a few years later, Mary was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease and we returned to Tucson. Not long thereafter, I returned to painting.
Q. What have you had to sacrifice for this career?
A. I knew when I decided to do art full time I would have to do it alone. I knew I was going to be taking some huge financial risks that would likely preclude having a family. And now that I’m old and have no children to help care for me. I sometimes wonder whether I made the right choice.
Q. Tell us about your particular style and how you came to it?
A. My work seems to have a style that is continually evolving as I explore new subjects, but there is also clear evidence of commonalities that have flowed within my work throughout my long career. They can be seen in my unerring sense of balance in composition, as well as in stylistic elements that have appeared again
and again throughout my long career--especially circles and spirals.
Q. Who are your biggest influences? Are you inspired by the work of your peers or anyone else in particular?
A. I have had a long list of influences, from Albrecht Durer to Aubrey Beardsley, Ernst Trova to Alberto Giacometti, Leonard Baskin, Fritz Scholder, Paul Pletka, Maxfield Parrish, Claude Monet and others.
Q. What does your art aim to express?
A. My paintings tend to brazenly announce themselves and demand your recognition and attention. Like them or hate them, you have to deal with them. Beyond that, the viewer’s demands take precedence. It has taken 50 years for me to finally understand one basic truth about all art: people get out of art what they bring to it. No matter what an artist is trying to communicate through a work, it will always be perceived through the life-lens of the observer. Everything they have ever seen or done has created a filter through which they now experience life–and art. So, each person experiences a work of art differently, and it is as though some art can create a door where no door had been. If the art resonates through the life-lens of the viewer, that door will open, leading not out to some alien place, but inward: to self. And when a person is fortunate enough to experience a resonant piece of art and to open that amazing door, there is no end to what they can learn about themselves.
Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
A. I am fond of pointing out that art is usually not a team sport, and that serious artists need to be comfortable spending countless hours alone with their thoughts as they battle the beasts of color and line that constantly shift and morph in unanticipated ways. Aloneness is a state of mind, I think. I can be physically alone, but in the virtual company of all the artists who have battled the same demons for centuries. Besides, I entertain myself fairly easily. And if that’s not working, I turn to music or audiobooks or podcasts to fill the silence.
Q. Apart from art, what do you love doing?
A. I have a “love-hate relationship” with poetry. I love it when I
write well, and I’ve had poems published in many national journals and even in a compilation of poems by twenty or so poets from all around the world. But when my Poetry Muse is mumbling or just refuses to show up for work, I can write some of the worst poetry imaginable. And I love learning. Anything. Everything. For the past decade or so, I’ve been trying to develop a basic understanding of subatomic physics. It still eludes me, but I like to think that I’m
gaining on it.
Q. What is your philosophy in matters of art?
A. When asked about my philosophy of art I am both sagacious and taciturn: “Whatever works.”
Q. What does 'success' mean to you?
A. I wrestled with the question of what success would mean early on in my career. I decided I had no interest in entering an endless stream of shows to compete for ribbons or small cash awards, but would instead measure success as my ability to make a living through selling my art.
Q. What personality trait has gotten you in the most trouble?
A. Being a giver. I’ve always seen money as a tool rather than an end in itself or a measure of status. So, I have given away lots of art and lots of time and LOTS of money. Now, in the twilight years of my life, having some of that money back would give me access to important options that are otherwise beyond me. Even so, I have no regrets.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, and by who?
A. Don’t give advice. You’ll get all the blame and none of the credit. And I won’t reveal who gave me this advice; I don’t want to give them the credit.
Q. What advice would you give to the next generation?
A. The next generation will have to fight its own battles. But I will share a quote that has helped me deal with one question most people face more than once during their lives. It was penned by the great Science Fiction author Robert Heinlein (from “Stranger In A Strange Land”): “Love is that condition in which another person’s happiness is essential to your own.”
For the next generation of artists, I say, beware of becoming too closely identified with a certain subject or ‘look,’ even though that is an important part of personal branding. I ended up copying my own “look” for twenty years, painting canvas after canvas of small variations on a simple theme. That episode nearly killed my artistic creativity, and it has taken me another decade to gather sufficient confidence to break out into other genres and styles.
Q. What are the biggest things you've learned in life thus far?
1. Being in love is the best feeling ever.
2. Art is hard.
3. The universe doesn’t care.