The Human Element: An Interview With Lee Lee

by Ian MacKenzie Feb 7, 2007

What role does the artist play in approaching such horrors as the genocide in Cambodia and the AIDS epidemic in Africa?

On my own visit to the Toul Sleng prison (now genocide museum) I remember a visitor had scrawled upon the wall “There is no place in art for sunsets and flowers while this goes on. Art must scream for those who cannot.”

I immediately thought of that quote when viewing Lee Lee’s stunning online gallery of oil paintings, and caught up with the artist for an interview.

Brave New Traveler – How would you characterize your style of painting?

Lee Lee: My style shifts to maintain sensitivity to the topics I address. I try not to impose myself but reflect different aspects of this world. In general, I am a figurative oil painter, but also experiment with process and material. Source material gathered abroad tends to reflect the quieter elements of life; moments of contemplation, or rituals practiced with regularity.

What do you try and convey in your work?

My work breaks through the veneer of “exotic” appearances to portray the range of gestures and expressions that all of us hold. Even when a situation seems very foreign, we share common elements that allow people to understand each other when given the opportunity.

It took some time and much travel to recognize beauty in some of the most devastating environments. I manifest difficult situations through process; using a shotgun or blowtorch to violently alter grounds, or letting the work emerge through repetitious drawing and erasure.

The imagery, however, focuses on the resilience of those who persevere despite imposing hardships. Through these oppositions I strive to convey balance.

Your work deals with such issues as AIDS in Africa, genocide in Cambodia, and global warming. Has your work always tended this way?

I started traveling and painting at the same time, so my work has always paralleled my experiences. Art has to be truthful to the seeds planted within the creator.

It took some time and much travel to recognize beauty in some of the most devastating environments.

While I’m aligned with organizations that do constructive work in places that have inspired me, I don’t consider my work “political” because it doesn’t push people to behave a certain way or adopt any belief system.

Instead I see it as reflective. Struggles with war, disease and environment have been present throughout human history and will continue; this timelessness often enters my work. The best we can do is have compassion in our lifetime.

How do you see painters and other artists fitting into the scheme of tackling these issues?

I just curated an exhibit at the Mizel Museum in Denver in regards to genocide. The most rewarding response came from a survivor from the DR Congo who told me that when our culture talks about genocide, it extends the dehumanization he felt as a target.

He felt this body of work conveyed a very human element – these are real people who are essentially very similar to us. The 10 artists involved have created provocative work from their direct experiences in the areas they’ve portrayed; from Darfur to Guatemala and even our own lands.

They focus on the strength of survivors as well as the process of mourning, remembrance and rebuilding their lives in the years after. These themes touch on a sort of quiet in-between space, exploring aspects of genocide that academics rarely acknowledge.

Such a severe subject is all too easy to sensationalize, and I thought it important to explore the subtle nuances in order to build connections to those affected.

What do you hope to provoke with your own work on these issues?

We live in fairly opaque bubbles here in the States. I feel it is vital to communicate what exists outside our borders, often internal borders, in a way that promotes understanding between people and appreciation for our environment.

I strive to let my work cultivate emotional responses to situations that in reality could affect (or be instigated by) any of us. I hope to add perspective to people’s worldview, so they can consider how we are intertwined with those in other places, since the world is only getting smaller.

I like to pay attention to communities often overlooked in the emergence of globalization. These people have expressed appreciation for simply bearing witness.

Any future projects are you working on?

My direction now is exploring how one subject is manifested in various cultures. Weilworks Gallery in Denver is hosting an exhibit in June of work I’m developing in regards to contemporary practices of weaving.

From China, a super industrial mill is being painted in cold colors and repetitive forms that obscure the faces of the women working it. From South Carolina, the burnt out cotton mill my great grandmother worked in sits abandoned for cheap labor in places like China.

The third series depicts a traditional Intha family weaving on hand hewn looms in Myanmar. The figures are buried in the architecture of the looms to reflect how they are cut off from the rest of the world. Still, their faces are warm and the tangle of organic surfaces inviting.

For Lee Lee’s entire works, visit

What do you think of Lee Lee’s paintings? What are some other artists tackling these subjects?

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