By Hudson Lee and Susan Klein
In 1933, Richard Eugene Lee was born on January 15 in Pullman, Washington, on a farm. Later his parents moved the family into town and his grandparents helped raise him and his sister, Norma Jean.
His father rode a horse seven miles to school and had received a 4th grade education. Nonetheless, his father could build a house and do all the wiring and plumbing. He was a hunter and fisherman. Richard never liked hunting or carpentry; but, from early on he was interested in dancing and drawing.
His grandmother was a fine cook and Richard worked in her laundry as well as several local restaurants. His interests in drawing and dancing prompted his grandmother to say, “I don’t know where you get your ideas, Richie, but it ain’t from any of us.”
His sister, who was the mother of two daughters, passed away in her mid-twenties from cancer. His mother died within a year from grief.
Around 1950, Richard started college at the University of Washington where he joined a fraternity. He excelled at dancing and housekeeping, but had to cheat his way through his ROTC class, because he could never put the gun back together.
He spent one college summer as a dock worker unloading cargo ships in seaside Oregon. And back at college, someone saw Richard dancing and sponsored him to go to a summer dance program with Martha Graham at Connecticut College. He hopped on a train and headed to the East Coast for the first time.
From there he received a dance scholarship at Bennington College in Vermont. At the time, in the early 1950s, Bennington, a most prestigious girls’ college, needed boys for their dance and theater programs.
He attended for about two years and then headed for New York City. He was painting part time, but made his living dancing in various operas and shows. His claim to N.Y.C. fame at the time was his role as a love slave in the opera, Salomé.
From there, he took a position as a dance therapist in a hospital for the mentally ill in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. And then he headed back to the West Coast around 1960. In California, he worked in a furniture factory in the finishing department, and he got an amazing deal on a house. At that time he was getting more serious about his painting.
The next stop was Hawaii, and he sold his California house in order to fund the trip. Resourceful as always, he stayed on land in the Maui jungle belonging to friends, eventually moving to Waimea Canyon on the west side of Kauai.
Auntie Esther, a hat-maker and beloved mother figure in the local community on Kauai, was his landlady and took him in. Richard would go to the beach and pick up puka shells, which he made into jewelry, and then sold to pay the rent. He gathered enough to make puka shell curtains for his whole house. He also painted and sold paintings while he was there.
Sometime in the mid-1950s, Richard, not having paper to make a birthday card for a friend, had used what he had on hand — glass in a frame and paint. And thus, the enchantment had begun — reverse painting on glass.
Richard is quoted in an MV Times article as saying, “I was immediately taken with it. It’s a process that comes from the inside out. It is the total opposite of traditional painting. You start with the gleam in the eye and then you paint in the black part and the white and so on. It’s quite backwards. You paint the details first, then the background… It’s a wonderful learning curve in patience and foresight — and in the end — acceptance, because you can’t change it.”
Throughout the 1960s, Richard’s work was widely shown. In 1963, he had a one-man show of his reverse paintings on glass at the at the Setay Gallery in Beverly Hills; just two years later (in 1965) they were the subject of a one-man show at Gallerie Carroll in Munich, Germany. And, typically Richard, though he could only count to ten in German, he landed a dance opportunity on German television.
The following year (1966) he had a one-man show at the Garnell Gallerie in Paris. He was accused of stealing his own paintings on the train into France. Luckily his German girlfriend spoke French, and he avoided further complications.
In 1966, he was back at the Setay Gallery in Beverly Hills, and then had one-man shows in 1969 and 1970 at the Fleischer Anhalt Gallery and another at the Back Stage Gallery, all in L. A. In the 1970s, he had one-man shows in Kauia, L.A., and Manhattan, which included his reverse painting on glass as well as line etchings, aqua tints, and drawings.
He was also owner of a scrimshaw shop containing fossil ivories and masks in Aspen, Colo., for a bit. When he met CB Stark at a joiners table in Aspen in 1975, she convinced him to move to Martha’s Vineyard.
1976 found Richard as proprietor of the Dessert Gallerie and Restaurant in West Tisbury. He had a little trouble with the food-server guidelines because he loved being barefoot. He was there for a season, then opened the Dessert Gallerie at the old root beer stand in Vineyard Haven (next to what is now the Stop & Shop) where he served fabulously delicious desserts wearing only a pair of overalls, one strap hanging down, no shirt, no shoes.
The year following, he opened a studio called Paint It in the Mansion House, where he could be found just as easily creating a painting as painting a toaster, a pair of shoes, or a vacuum cleaner, or some other item that sported a fresh personality once Richard got hold of it.
Expanding Paint It into Face It, he began a collaboration with artist Willa Shalit. The mask parlor was a most comfortable setting where many of us had life mask impressions made of our faces, which Richard then painted with his infatuating rendition of the playing card that matched the subject’s birthday according to an arcane system.
In collaboration with Willa Shalit in 1980, he created a mask-making studio on Riverside Drive in New York City, making masks in the salon of Pierre Michel, and on television. Richard also had an exhibit with Bloomingdale’s at Expo ’80.
He once again headed west, and in 1981, he was making masks in Spokane, Wash., on television, and he had them on display in the Bon Marche department store window. He continued his mask-making with members of various western American Indian tribes.
Answering an ad in a publication, his next stop was Alaska where he worked in hospitality in a fishing lodge for a few months. Then he spent three months in the Alaska wilderness collecting feathers and making masks with Eskimo villagers. This culminated in 1981 as a one-man show of his masks at the Museum of Native Americans in Spokane.
And then, as so many do, once they’ve visited the Vineyard, Richard returned. He began dating Claudia Canerdy on New Year’s Eve of 1981, and how we all enjoyed watching that love affair blossom. They were married a year later on New Year’s Eve of 1982.
Richard was gifted at organizing space and so he decorated Claudia’s stores, and out of a forest of sticker bush and poison ivy, he created a magnificent yard.
In 1984, the year he had a One Man Show of his masks, skulls, and painted horns at Limited Editions Gallery in N.Y.C., Claudia and Richard’s baby boy, Hudson, was born.
Richard was a full-time daddy to wee Hudson while Claudia continued with her gems and minerals work. And that’s when we all got to see how magnificently he wore the mantle of husband and father.
Through the ’80s and ’90s Richard’s work was shown at On the Vineyard Gallery, the Gay Head Gallery, the Field Gallery, Craven Gallery, and in Woodstock, Vermont, Harvard University, and Springfield College. They featured his reverse paintings on glass, his masks, and the Angels, Rose Babies, and Sprites collection.
Richard and Simon Hickman began working together in 1990. Chicamoo Gallery was born in Lambert’s Cove from that collaboration, and for several years we basked in the soirées and the comfort of the gallery that felt so much like an extension of our own living rooms.
The gallery and garden that Richard created in the courtyard behind Claudia’s store in Vineyard Haven for a few years (circa 2008-2010) was another place of welcome for all who knew him and for those who were new to his work and completely gob-smacked by his originality and whimsical eye. It gave us easy access to Richard’s gifts and his uncanny talent for providing comfort and wisdom to many different people in the community.
It didn’t matter where we met Richard, the greeting was always warm and welcoming — and never brief. One had to “set a spell” as his conversations were inspiring, thought-provoking, and sometimes electrifying. His humor was ever present. And he was a provocateur of the very best kind.
As Hudson said, he was rather inept at certain tasks like paperwork and dealing with machines or remote controls, but he created more than 600 paintings in his lifetime.
His art, which is now included in many private and public collections, is indistinguishable from the man. He was magic spun from gossamer and sinew.
In closing, let’s just say that Richard Lee was a great gift to us all. He personified “life times life.” His mere presence posed a deep question, and with his passing, that question looms large: Will you indulge yourself in beauty and authenticity, or will you stand by and observe others delight in the exploration of possibilities?