Lawrence Lee

Lawrence Lee

Interview first published in CreativPaper Issue One.

Beautiful and haunting, those are the first emotions that came to our mind when we laid our eyes on artwork by Lawrence Lee. There’s no denying that Lawrence definitely has an eye and skill that makes him stand out from the crowd. This Tucson native is known for his symbolic Native American images, many of which are a reflection of his own personal battles with depression.

In this interview he talks about his passion for Particle Physics, being a professional artist for over 40 years along with the trials and tribulations that come with it and his hometown Tucson.

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Tell us a bit about your upbringing?

My parents were both educators. My father was a self-proclaimed "street urchin" in a vanishingly small town in Mississippi yet rose to be awarded a PhD and become Superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District. My mother taught reading and was somewhat creative, but neither of them was particularly "arty," in that they didn't go to the symphony or opera or museums or galleries. But my mother was very protective of my creative endeavours and fought hard for me to be able to pursue the creative forces she could see running within me. I received a terrifically good high school education and thought that I most wanted to be a writer, but in college in the 60s, I quickly found my home in the College of Fine Arts. I received a BFA and a Masters in Art Education, and I suspect that my parents were shocked and more than a bit worried when I proclaimed that I wanted to be a professional artist rather than a lifelong teacher. And they were both mightily proud and more than a bit relieved when I began to achieve that aim. I taught and studied my craft for seven years before finally taking the plunge and started making my living entirely from my art in 1979.

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You seem to have a keen interest in Particle Physics, could you draw parallels between it and modern society?

I think I have a fascination with subatomic physics because it is so obscure to me and so much like magic. As we seem to understand it now, there is exquisite order in the subatomic realm, but no one can really tell at this point whether that order is elementally a part of the universe at that scale or whether the apparent order is an emergent property that seems generally coherent even though it is based on randomness and probability. Our attempts to make sense of nonsensical things like Schrodinger's cat and collapsed wave functions are supremely annoying. When I was a young man, I had no problem believing that the power of science and the human mind were infinite and that Asimov's Foundation Trilogy was an obvious end game; if you understand cause and effect and have enough data, even the complexities of human thinking can be understood and even predicted… forecast… with a high degree of certainty. But now I'm not so sure. Even though I know much more now than I did in my seventieth year than I did when in my twenty-seventh, I'm much less certain of anything. But I do now suspect that modern society quite comfortably parallels particle physics in its elementally chaotic nature. Stuff just happens. Most stuff just happens, but so much is going on all the time that we get this foolish idea that there is understandable order underneath everything and that if we are just clever enough, we can win out over invisible social force fields that seem to underlie all the self-serving, shortsighted, stupid and ultimately insane things we do. Perhaps we're all just waiting for Humanity's wave function to collapse. Ha!

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Being a professional artist for over 40 years is quite an achievement, what advice would you give young creatives who might be considering a career in art?

Here again, I once thought I had all the answers and knew just what I was doing and what others should do if they wanted to emulate my success. But the world is a very different place now than it was in the 1970s when I was planning my career. Though most of the specifics of how I invented and promoted and supported my "brand" would simply not be effective today, there are a few general principles that still pertain.

First is recognition of the very difficult to swallow the fact that the majority of anyone's success at anything is due mostly to luck. Sure, hard work and cleverness and preparation and perseverance and all the other things believed to be vital to success are the primary ingredients of a successful career in ANYTHING. And they are all important, but the sad fact is that you don't have to be a good artist to have a very successful career in art if you are lucky. And it only takes one bit of bad luck to end a promising career even if you have the soul of Picasso and the vision of Michelangelo. I take some comfort in believing that to some degree we all create our own luck, but life has a way of happening to us in spite of our best intentions and other plans.

Next is a set of "truisms" that should be self-evident:
    •    Know your craft inside and out and always strive to know it better.
    •    Know your market even better than you know your craft.
    •    Be honest and genuine in your work and your business.
    •    When people tell you they love your work, it's OK to believe them, but don't let the compliments convince you that you're any good.
    •    Take care to develop a unique style.
    •    Learn to know when a work is finished, which is usually when you realise that further work on the piece can make it different—but not necessarily better.
    •    Read widely. One-dimensional people are boring, and one-dimensional artists are the most annoying people of all.
    •    Be generous.
    •    Take "reasonable" risks.
    •    Study other successful artists you admire—their work, their markets and how they promote their work.
    •    Pay attention to money and understand how to leverage it.
    •    Most professional artists do art all day every day. Only if you are producing good work at a pace rapid enough to meet the demand of your current market and to have enough art to break into and fully supply other markets will you stand a chance of developing a relatively consistent income stream?
    •    Finally, understand that for most commercially successful artists to become so, especially if they are not particularly lucky, they have to produce quality work consistently. Remember that you are (artist or not) running a business. So learn about business.

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You are known for your unique representations of shamanistic figures, how did that theme come to fruition?

I was in college in the 60s when the figure was largely out of favour in public art schools. My work at the time was mostly highly abstract and non-objective. But what I wanted to do was to paint people. So when I graduated, that's just what I proceeded to do. My non-objective and abstract work had taught me much about composition and balance and the importance of negative space and the other fundamentals of design, but I had no real training with the figure other than a couple of "life drawing" courses, for one of which I was the TA because I was better at it than the paid TA. And as for painting faces, I had no training at all. So I looked at thousands of portraits and started to practice, relying mostly on what I knew of the figure from a great "Anatomy for the Artist" course I had taken in sculpture.

And I started painting portraits of a few people I knew, but then started painting imaginary people. But I couldn't find a good market for them. Local galleries liked them well enough to hang, but none sold. And the comments I usually got from prospective buyers was "Why should I have a painting of someone I don't know hanging in my home?" Really!? What about the Mona Lisa or Blue Boy or some such? But every argument failed. Then one afternoon I had just returned from a gallery with one such painting and was dispirited and trying to figure out how to proceed when it dawned on me that I lived in the Southwest and that people who came here to live or visit were interested in ethnic things, often as they related to Native Americans. So I looked at this quite competent but unsellable portrait of an imaginary young woman and decided to put a feather in her hair. Suddenly, she was transformed from "Someone I don't know!" into Ethnic Art. I took it back to the gallery days later, and it sold shortly after that. Now, my career was to begin in earnest. I had finally begun to understand my market. And if all it was going to take for me to be able to paint—and make a living from paintings of—imaginary people was adding feathers and beads, well, that would be a small price to pay. Besides, I had roomed with a Hopi from Second Mesa when I was a grad student, and we had made several long trips to the mesas in the magical morning light, and there his wife would tell me stories about her beliefs and culture. And I started to study American Indian photographs and drawings done by famous Western ethnographers. And I drew. And I painted. And I examined beadwork and weaving and bone and quill work and elk tooth and shell ornaments. And I learned about trade in parrot feathers and the clothing and adornments of Native Americans in the Southwest, the Southeast, the Northeast, the Northwest and—above all—the Great Plains from Iowa to southern Canada.

It wasn't long before I just started to make things up, and as I painted and painted, the figures began to evolve into denizens less of the Native Americana and more of the mind and magic. At first, I painted "chiefs" and "Braves," but as time went on, the shamans came and took control. In them, I could almost always find something personally compelling and elementally mysterious. They challenged me to find and paint that power again and again. Their bodies became more fortified against something unseen. The bones in their heads began to shift a little here and there, becoming something that was “almost human”–but not quite. And so it has been for the past three decades or so. There is always another face to explore, and things have continued to transmogrify as now, sometimes, even their facial musculature has begun to shift.

And I have found that many people have an abiding interest in shamanism. This tide must run deep because most societies have at one time looked to shamans for healing and comfort and for answers to the riddles of the world and to the philosophical questions that plague us all. And they find something personal and powerful in the faces I paint, as though answers may be found there. And the funny thing is that the answers ARE there. It's just that the observer brings the answers to the shaman. The figures I paint are just paintings, after all. Right?

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What was the best compliment you were ever given?

I have been complimented many times about my art. Then again, I suspect that there is a much larger number of people who have seen it and thought (or even said aloud if I couldn't hear) "This guy SUCKS! My nephew paints better than that!" Or some such. The point is that it is easy to get compliments if you choose your audience for maximal positive feedback. Facebook specialises in arranging things so that you'll never get a thing but compliments if that's what you want. They'll even do it if it is NOT what you want.

I occasionally hear stories that leave me breathless. The one about the woman who was a little worried about relocating to another country because of how my shamans might react. Or the one about how my painting broke a years-long writer's block. Or the several about the men and women who made clear in their final days their desire to die while looking at a special painting I had painted. Or the one about the woman who brushes her fingers across one each time she passes because it reminds her daily of some important things. These are all, in their very special ways, compliments about my art that help sustain me during those long often lonely hours of battle in my studio. Collectively, these may represent the best compliment I've ever received.

But the question does not specify or even imply that art has any part to play. So the answer that springs to mind now is the same one that has held that position since 1979. I had been teaching at Tucson's Special Projects High School for Advanced Study: AP Art History, AP Studio Art, and a college level introduction to the philosophy of my own design. I had cut my hours to part-time so that I could paint more, and at the end of the fall semester, I decided to take a leave of absence to see whether painting full time could provide me with sustainable living. I could never afford to go back to teaching.

But that was not the "compliment." The compliment rose from the fact that the senior class—even after I had not seen them for some five months—asked me to be their faculty speaker at graduation. Now THAT was a compliment and an honour. I remain in touch with some of those students even today.

There have been others that rise to near the same level, and some are very personal. I know that I have changed lives for the better for more than a few people. And that fact allows me to stamp my own life's parking ticket as "VALIDATED."

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Could you talk us through your book Living with an Imposter?

Ah. This is going to be difficult.

The impostor with whom I lived was my wife—the love of my life, perhaps. She was/is nine years my senior. And we were perfect for each other. It was her job to dream the dreams, and it was my job to make those dreams come true. Happily, she dreamed up some pretty great things, and I always managed to make them come true. Always. That process led us to retire on a Caribbean island when I was only 53. Nice house with two small painting studios, right on the beach. Motorboat. Sailboat. (Both were small but perfect for me.) More money than we needed. Not perfect, this life, but damn close.

And then she was diagnosed with dementia. Alzheimer's or something likes it. She was losing her ability to speak. She could no longer travel alone. She was becoming angry. She wanted to move back to Tucson. So we did. And she continued to fade away, folding all up within herself to the point that the woman I loved was no longer in her body. She had become an impostor. "Who are you?" I wanted to shout. "And what have you done with my wife?" No use. Elder Law attorneys and an education in the finances of dementia followed. To secure her care, we had to divorce. So I arranged it. She could own a half-million-dollar house, so I bought her one. And with the stroke of a pen, I became poor again. And lonely. Still, I did live with her and her younger daughter (now her guardian), and it was during this time that she asked me to kill her. Three times, she asked me. And I had decided that if she asked me again, I would make it so. Because I loved her still. But she forgot to ask that terrible fourth time. And then I ran. Mostly, I was running from myself. I had been diagnosed as severely depressed when I was seventeen and had fought depression to something of a stalemate until my wife's diagnosis. (See? I still refuse to admit to divorcing the woman I loved. I divorced that other thing: that impostor.) But then I still had to live, and the depression now nearly consumed me. And that's pretty much where the book ends.

My life, in spite of everything, did not end with the book, of course. And it is time for me to write an epilogue. I have already redesigned the cover.

What gives Tucson its unique charm? Could you see yourself living anywhere else?

Many people would agree with my assessment that Tucson's unique charm lies in the fact that in spite of its growing larger and larger since it was a small presidio in the faraway West, it has never really grown up. In many ways, it can still feel like a small town. I love it, of course, because I love the sun and hate cloudy and rainy days. And I hate being cold. In those respects, Tucson is near perfect for me. And though Tucson has been my home to return to since my parents moved here in 1957, I can indeed see myself living elsewhere. Once again on an island in the sun, perhaps. Or in the western highlands of Guatemala where I own a little piece of land and have some old friends. Or anywhere. Because I'm old enough to have learned that it doesn't matter where you live; what matters most is who you're with.

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Speaking of Tucson how did your collaboration with Ballet Tucson come along?

I've been a supporter of Ballet Tucson for some years, making donations of artwork to help them raise money, but the real love affair began during the Ballet Tucson 2015 season gala premiere of Jekyll and Hyde—a steampunk reinterpretation of the classic. I felt transported during that ballet to places I had never been before and instantly knew I could reach no other way. There was a physical presence to the production that drew me instantly within, abandoning—if not disbelief—certainly any sense of my own existence outside of what I saw on stage as my brain tried to make sense of things while all its sensory input channels were engaged.

The experience was so intense and unique for me that some weeks later as my mind was abroad on one of its fairly regular quests for new ports and new languages, and new inventions and ideas, I began to think about a painting I had recently done titled "The Long Way Home." Then, just a few degrees south, there seemed to be a cove holding a story about getting old and loving and loss. And a libretto of sorts began to form in my mind, which I wrote down in a fevered rush of hours. It was not very good, really, but seemed to me an authentic call to become more involved with Ballet Tucson, with the thought that one day I might make the story better and perhaps even see it come to life on stage.

I presented my idea to Mary Beth Cabana, Founding Artistic Director of Ballet Tucson, during an energetic meeting at my studio. A few weeks later, I met with Mary Beth and her Assistant Artistic Director and led choreographer, Chieko Imada and was offered the opportunity—not to further explore the libretto I had written—but to collaborate on a new ballet they had been thinking about for their 2016 gala event. They had thought to base it around the traditions of Dia de Los Muertos and title it "Soul Garden." I agreed without hesitation and suggested changing the title to "Spirit Garden." And we were off and running.

I did the first drawings for “Spirit Garden” while vacationing in Puerto Peñasco on February 20th, and work has continued and likely will continue through the world premiere of the ballet on November 18, 2016.

But there was one more event that sealed my love of this company of young dancers and the many volunteers and professionals who work so tirelessly to make it all possible. At the 2015 gala, I won (as part of the great silent auction they mount for each gala) a cameo appearance in the annual performance of The Nutcracker, long a treasured Tucson tradition. That experience so moved me that I wrote the following not long after:

"My appearance on stage in the Ballet Tucson 2015 production of "The Nutcracker" went well, at least as far as I could tell. I had a bad cold and felt awful all day and was unsure whether I'd have the energy to act as though I was in fine fettle for the period required. Then, standing with the dancers in the off right wings, I listened to their chatter and the final announcements being made to the audience, heard the stage manager, softly and confidently say into her mic: "Take house lights to fifty… take house lights to zero… cue music… prepare to fly the main… fly the main… lights…….."
And it began.

I have taught rooms full of rowdy twelve-year-olds. I've been parasailing. I have spoken, alone on stage, to a large audience of strangers. I have driven my car at 140 MPH. I have said, "I do." Twice. I have stood to greet strangers for hour upon hour at one man shows for decades. I have run toward an overturned car dripping gasoline. I have confronted abusive drunks and powerful people. But never has my heart beat as though it were about to explode outward through my ribs as it did that night when positions were taken, the performance had begun, and it was clear that nothing but an extinction event would likely stop what was about to happen from happening. I was going to go out there in spite of everything. So I did.

And, happily for me, our old friend cortisol "cured" my cold for a couple of hours. The flash memory of that moment is now firmly locked in my brain, and I am unlikely to forget it."

Much to my surprise and delight, the Ballet Tucson Executive Committee has offered me a cameo appearance again this year.

I'm IN!

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What makes Lawrence Lee happy?

I love words and often say that they are the only weapon I have mastered. But though I've heard the word for decades and tried each time to figure out what it means, I remain unsuccessful. Oh, I get it that some people apparently experience happiness, if not on a constant, unrelenting basis, at least regularly. But that knowledge has moved me no closer to the truth of the meaning of happiness. I also understand that happiness is much sought after by masses of people all over the world. But for thirty years or more I assessed and reassessed a handful of periods in my own life that I thought might equate with happiness. There were few, and each lasted only a matter of seconds, but I cherished them. Now I can recall but two such times, and I have decided that they were not what most people would consider being happy, but that they may be the closest I'll ever get. For those few moments and for a few others that have happened in later years, I felt, I think, content. I knew where I was and where I planned to go and was comfortable that I knew how to get there. But mostly I was just "at the moment" and content with that. Perhaps this is all I'll ever know as happiness and, for me, that is very much fine.

Give a moment of deep thought to what you consider to be the meaning of happiness. There are no right answers. Happiness is not an a priori given, and no answer can be right or wrong. The question, if considered openly and without self-delusion, could lead you through a warren of rutted tracks back through the mass of your life as it has been lived and self-perceived. It may be a long journey. Beware. But if you seek profit, you will likely find it there. And that one, singular reward, may show you that you are far richer than ever you dreamed.