Richard Lee Retrospective at Featherstone: The Man, The Art, The Life

Island painter Rez Williams at Featherstone's Richard Lee retrospective.
Photo by David Welch

Island painter Rez Williams at Featherstone's Richard Lee retrospective.

The opening party on Sunday, September 15, at Featherstone Center For The Arts, presenting the work of Richard Lee, had everything on display from the man’s world — his paintings and his masks on the walls, his enormous circle of friends and admirers in the rooms and on the deck, and the show’s curators, his wife Claudia Canerdy, and his son, 29-year-old son Hudson Lee, on hand for one of the largest turnouts in the gallery’s history.

Everything was in place but the incandescent Richard Lee himself, who died at the age of 79, in June of 2012.

The incandescence lives on, however, in his work and friends’ memories.

Anna Edey of West Tisbury recalled his non-stop creativity, combined with uncanny attention to the details of his daily life. “He would first serve you some heavenly dessert and invite you into his studio where you’d watch him paint a faux-marble frame for the painting he’d just finished that morning, and from time to time he’d pick up a Hand Vac — everything around him was always scrupulously clean — while he carried on a conversation with you.”

Alan Schweikert of Oak Bluffs said he first met Mr. Lee at the artist’s small studio in Vineyard Haven. “His obsession at that time was painting sneakers.”

Obsessions were his stock-in-trade, running the gamut from collecting puka shells in Hawaii, painting mounted moose heads, crafting furniture and frames, daubing faux-everything facades, to gardening and, when Hudson was a toddler, maintaining a key membership in an otherwise all-mommy baby group.

About this era, Mr. Lee’s friend Joanna Fairchild recalled that he stocked his family home with more stuffed animals than she’d ever observed under a single roof. “It made me see how passionate he was about this new phase in his life — fatherhood.”

I met the artist on Alan and Lucinda Schweikert’s deck in Sengekontacket in the early 1980s. He regaled the gathered folks with a story from the previous night, when he dressed in ceremonial white robes and one of his feathered, scary-demon masks. He trekked from his house off Christiantown Road to the vision pits in the nearby ancient burial grounds where he planned to commune with the spirits of long-ago shamans.

Now, imagine Richard Lee, lanky with long, faded blond hair, gestures disclosing his original career in dance, a voice and affect like an American Peter O’Toole, as he told the group on the Schweikerts’ deck:

“It was close to dark when I got to the little church, but at the same time a car pulled into the lot, and four tourists got out. I knew if they saw me in that lonely place, it would scare the daylights out of them, so I backed up tight against the wall. I stayed very still. When I do that, I become invisible.”

From that moment forward, I became another of Richard Lee’s devoted fans. Whenever I ran into him, I drew near to soak up his imagination, and to bask in his love of life.

Singer and artist Suesan Stovall said Richard Lee was always supportive of her work. On all the many occasions that she visited the cathedral-sized studio built onto the original cozy cabin, Ms. Stovall would find waiting for her two or three rows of ephemera he’d saved for her — both artists packed their work with found treasures. Then they climbed into Richard’s car to hunt for more dribs and drabbles in antique shops and flea markets.

“He cracked me up,” she said. “As we drove, he told me stories, and I laughed and laughed. Richard made me laugh until I spit!”

Ms. Stovall, who sang Peggy Lee’s “Fever” at Richard’s funeral, said, “So many people said Richard made them feel as if they were his best friend.”

One of his multiple social circles was a lucky cohort of son Hudson’s pals, who gathered on a regular basis for games of Hearts and Spades until, at a pivotal moment, the master taught them the fine art of Bridge.

My own son, Charlie, participated in these card nights whenever possible, and he called the artist “awesome.” Like all the other young members of Richard Lee’s fan base, Charlie was heartbroken to learn he’d died.

I once asked Richard how he managed to keep these normally geriatric-averse kids flocking round him on a regular basis.

“It’s all in the snacks,” he explained. “You’ve got to keep the snacks coming.”

First he put out mixed nuts, accompanied by dried fruit. He served fresh grapes in an elegant antique bowl. After midnight, festivities culminated in a luscious dessert, often ice cream sundaes arrayed in the artist’s prized dessert glasses.

Last Sunday, the walls of Featherstone served up another one of Mr. Lee’s sumptuous feasts — his primary art form of reverse painting on glass. His works are recognizable from 50 paces: splashes of primary colors and every hue in between. His subject matter is a mixture of Hieronymus Bosch and Grimm’s fairy tales, with a strong hit of the baroque about it. I once remarked to the artist, as I stood surrounded by his studio paintings, that he’d undoubtedly spent abundant time in Venice.

The painter, who’d once had an art show in Paris, said with a sigh, “I’ve never been to Venice.” He shot me a meaningful look. “I know I would never leave.”

Mr. Lee’s paintings possess another singular quality. At first glance, you believe you’ve entered a light, color-buoyant, happy place like the psychedelic scenes of the Beatles’ short animated film for their song “Strawberry Fields Forever.” But once you gaze closely, you find a subtext of naughtiness: in a field of daisies, cherubs disport in an orgy. Angels, guiltless and guileless, are anatomically complete. And odd events pop up.

An example: in a star position in Featherstone’s main salon, Mr. Lee’s “Mementos of a Taxidermist,” rendered in Munich in 1965, beckons with black and white tiles, a background of butterflies tacked to a vermillion wall flanked by windows open to blue-and-white skies; a work that is, categorically, drop-dead gorgeous. On closer examination, you spy a figure on a slab, a woman’s nude body with a white rabbit’s head. Other images seem to bounce off the canvas, including a naked African celestial being, shocked by a supernatural wind or electrical force, blowing backwards, her legs flung apart.

The artist’s close friend, photographer Bob Gothard said, “He had a great propensity to see beauty in everything and in everyone. To him life should be fun and enjoyed every second of every day. He certainly lived up to that credo.”

As do his creations.

The Richard Lee Retrospective Art Show will run at Featherstone through October 6. To learn more, call 508 693-1850, or visit featherstoneart.org.