Richard E. Lee

Richard Lee in his studio, in July 2007. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Richard E. Lee, 79, of West Tisbury, an artist whose work displayed great variety, always original and sometimes shocking, died Friday, June 22.

Richard died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack, on a very hot day, after a short dip in Ice House Pond and a breezy convertible ride back home. He certainly didn’t plan on dying that day and had lots of plans for the future.

An Appreciation of Richard Lee, written by Hudson Lee and Susan Klein, appears at this morning.

Richard was born January 15, 1933, in Pullman, Washington, to Brigetta and Raymond Lee. He was educated in Pullman and at the Univeristy of Washington and Bennington College.

Richard’s artistic enthusiasms ran a gamut from dance to elaborate masks, furniture design, and painting. He danced in operas in New York, once as a love slave in Salome, and he worked as a dance therapist in a psychiatric hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He danced on German television, had a show of his art in Paris. He lived in Beverly Hills, California and Los Angeles, working as a painter of stylish faux finishes, but also a candle maker, an interior decorator, and a palm reader.

All the while Richard created his signature visual art, unique reverse paintings on glass of zoomorphic creatures and decorative animals, vegetables, and fruits.

A visit to Mr. Lee’s studio, described by Heather Curtis in an article published August 2, 2007 in the Martha’s Vineyard Times and titled “Richard Lee, through a looking glass,” captured Mr. Lee’s unique vision.

“Most people have never seen pictures like this,” Mr. Lee told Ms. Curtis.

“The studio’s door opens wide to reveal his reverse paintings on glass displayed in antique frames on the room’s pastel walls,” Ms. Curtis wrote. “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.

“Richard Lee paints the details first, then adds background.”

Ms. Curtis wrote that the artist said that “the mixture of animal and human forms come from his observing the animal characteristics that many people have.”

She added, “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.’

“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 do with what he had, painting a card on a piece of glass. The accident became an instant addiction.”

From California, Richard migrated to Kuai, Hawaii, where he participated in the puka shell craze — no one found more shells than Richard, legend has it. After Hawaii, it was Aspen, where he had a small scrimshaw shop and where he met jeweler CB Stark of Vineyard Haven. She persuaded Richard to move to the Vineyard.

Here, variety continued to rule his art. Richard painted, he opened a desert gallery in West Tisbury, next to Alley’s. There, in the summer of 1976, he displayed his most provocative images for the after dinner diners, only a few of whom were shocked.

Richard, restaurateur, dancer, painter, perhaps a mystic, became a retailer, opening “Paint It” and “Face It” in the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven. There, his mask making artistry took hold. Richard moved to New York, then to Spokane, Washington, and on these travels, in pursuit of materials for his wild masks, Richard became a feather gatherer in the Alaskan wilderness, holding down a hospitality job in a fishing lodge to support his mask making.

Richard returned to the Vineyard in 1981, when he met jeweler Claudia Canerdy. They married on New Year’s Eve, 1982. Hudson Lee, their only son, was born in February, 1984. Both his wife and his son survive him; Richard’s younger sister predeceased him.

Richard loved children, and Hudson was his father’s pride and joy. Richard enjoyed entertaining children, and they enjoyed his electric and vigorous personality. He often entertained children lovingly all day while Claudia ran her jewelry store.

Richard was a warm and generous person, always listening and giving his time and his stories. Claudia and Richard had 30 good years, and Hudson enjoyed 28 of them.

Graveside services for Mr. Lee were held on Tuesday, June 26, at the West Tisbury Cemetery.