Art : Richard Lee: through a looking glass
It's one of those days when the air hangs heavy with humidity, but in an alley off Main Street in Vineyard Haven, a man as unique as the pictures he paints sits cool and calm in the shade. It is an appropriately quirky first glimpse of artist Richard Lee.
He sits bare-footed beneath the shade provided by the mosquito net that is draped between a wooden fence and his studio, which is behind his wife Claudia's jewelry store on Main Street. Mr. Lee, in a theatrical imitation of his grandmother, repeats what he says he was always being told: "Richie, I don't know where you get all your ideas, but it ain't from any of us."
The studio's door opens wide to reveal his reverse paintings on glass displayed in antique frames on the room's pastel walls. They are vividly colored neon fantasies conveying a satiric humor. Vibrant green frogs wearing neon-colored boots in "Java Jive" dance around merrily while balancing oversized cups of coffee above their heads. In "Fashion Runway" models with human bodies and animal heads strut around in front a crowd of neon blue spectators.
"Most people have never seen pictures like this," Mr. Lee agrees, claiming the mixture of animal and human forms come from his observing the animal characteristics that many people have.
He says the images he paints are zoomorphic, portraying "the realizations of the inner connectedness of all of life." As for the meanings of the paintings - he says that's up to the viewer to figure out. "People don't know how they're supposed to react, as if they're supposed to," Mr. Lee says, taking a long sip from his iced coffee.
An Islander since the 1970s, he discovered the art form by chance, he explains. It was a friend's birthday, and he didn't have any paper to make a card. So he made due with what he had, painting a card on a piece of glass. The accident became an instant addiction.
Reverse paintings on glass reached the peak of their popularity in America in the 1800s, and could be found ornamenting clock faces and mirrors.
"The technique is as old as glass," Mr. Lee says, stretching his legs out as he leans back against an antique wooden chair. "And it's as complex as brain surgery." He adds that for him, the end product is worth the trouble.
When asked how long each painting takes him to create, the 74-year-old artist laughs and says, "It's taken me 74 years to create a painting." He adds it depends on the interruptions of life, confessing that he spent most of last summer on the beach.
Surprisingly, the process begins with his quest to find just the right antique frame from his collection, which includes frames that date back to the 1800s. Each one comes complete with a glass pane, which he uses as his canvas. He painstakingly re-finishes each frame, sanding and painting it until he gets the desired effect. Without distracting from the piece, each frame adds a unique ornamentation that creates his final vision.
"Framing is an integral part of the finished picture," Mr. Lee says, explaining that the work he puts into re-finishing each frame is as unique as the paintings they display, and it has a distinct purpose.
The paintings begin as sketches that are traced on to glass using velum (paper made from cell vinyl) with a special pen with a very fine tip made from a the quill of a crow. Mr. Lee says that step - tracing the drawing onto the glass with the fine tip pen - is the most difficult part of the process.
After the sketch has been traced onto the glass, he is ready to start painting. Using casein paint, a water-soluble paint used since ancient Egyptian times, he mixes the colors on 12 different porcelain pallets. "You can't get this vibrancy in any other medium," he says, running his fingers through his long grey hair.
Unlike conventional painting on canvas, Mr. Lee paints the details first, then turns his attention to the background, painting around the figures rather than over them.
"My goal is to remain a vehicle for paintings to come into form," Mr. Lee explains, adding that he is merely a conduit for the art. And as he waits for inspiration, he closes the doors to his gallery and heads out for a day at the beach.
Heather Curtis is a freelance writer living in Tisbury.