Gallery on 16th Artist Studio Tour and Interview Featuring: Maria Lee

Maria's sunny corner side studio at the Racine Arts and Business Center

Maria's sunny corner side studio at the Racine Arts and Business Center

Maria’s cheerful bright corner studio was nothing short of paradise. The walls were carefully curated with her own artworks, work from friends, and photographs of sentimental value. I walked down the narrow studio entrance which, in a few steps, opened up into her workspace where I saw her sitting amongst a collage of different materials and utensils, sanding off an old bowl she recently salvaged. Maria was just as bright and cheerful as her studio. I knew walking in I was now in her world and I couldn’t wait to learn more about it. So I started off with some basic questions which soon spun into intriguing conversation about her process and personal views about art and its function in society.

Me: Who are you and what do you do?

Maria: My name is Maria Lee... I’m not sure what my title is. To say I’m an artist seems... I don’t know if it’s a stretch or not. What I do is I work in oil paints predominately, but I took a break from that. I worked in oils for 13 years and now I’m doing collage work with drawing and painting.

Me: Why do you do what you do?

Maria: I do what I do because when you have art in you, you have to do it, you have to get it out. But I didn’t have the opportunity when I was younger. I married early and then just got into the business of living, so I’m a late starter. I didn’t take my first art class, other than what I had in high school, until I was about 52 years old. And it just grew from there basically. I only had one art instructor and learned what I know from him and…

Me: What was his name?

Maria: John Parsons, he taught at Wustum and he was a portrait painter. He was an excellent teacher. He was really a wonderful friend to a lot of us up here [Racine]. When I was going to John’s studio, which was this studio, I’d sit and talk with him a lot. Thats him right there.

(Maria points to photo of John conveniently sitting next to her workspace)

Photo of John Parsons, Maria's teacher, mentor and friend.

Photo of John Parsons, Maria's teacher, mentor and friend.

Me: So how do you work?

Maria: Well as far as how I work. What I really like to do is start in the morning. I’m freshest in the morning. If I start in the afternoon, I just don’t work the same as I do when I start early. A lot of the things that I do come out of not so much looking at other peoples work, nah... I guess maybe looking at other peoples work and things like that. But as I started accumulating ideas and directions to go, then I just get into it, like with the decoupage, it probably took me 2 months to set up. I was looking for pieces for rust that were laying around. Magazines where I pulled pages and categorized them so that I wouldn’t have to waste time when I was looking for something whether it was a face or a background.

Me: What is your background?



Maria: My background is... I went to high school. I spent a year in interior design and then I left for California. I raised kids and I had some horses and I always worked part time. But I think this is really this is where I was meant to be. My mother was wonderful in art and she was commissioned by the Racine Zoo to do illustrations of some of the animals 3 years ago. Back in the day when you didn’t have colored photographs they’d be taken in the sepia or a different undertone and then she would paint over them. Thats kind of the exposure that I got. It was an area that was really easy for me to get an A in at school.

Me: What was your mothers name?

Maria: Olive.

Me: Olive, I love that name. So, in your opinion, what role does the artist play in society?

Maria: You know what I really think? I think besides, recording history, or bringing pleasure to people, or making somebody think. I really think the arts whether its music or writing or anything like that…. it keeps us civil. Theres so many things that go on in the world, so many things that people do at school and it’s [art] important to learn. Music, theres a message in music, and writing, and poetry, and art, and I think it allows people to escape for a while. To some it’s disturbing. So I guess I’m not thinking of that type of art. I personally don’t like that type of art. I see enough disturbing things in the world. I don’t want to be disturbed by the art that I look at.

Me: What has been a seminal experience for you?

Maria trying something new with an antique bowl she recently salvaged

Maria trying something new with an antique bowl she recently salvaged

Maria: A odd as it is. I thought about taking an art class. I just didn’t get around to it. I don’t know if I thought that I just didn’t deserve to take the time for myself. But we picked names at Christmas and my nephew picked my name and he gave me a gift certificate for Wustum Museum and that was my first art class. That’s where I met John. So I do tell my nephew Tom, “you started all of this”. Then I just kept taking

classes from John and eventually ended up here and then met more artists. When I started the truth is, when I went into class the first time - I left. I left and went and sat out in the hall. I was going to quit. I was going to quit because they were talking about all these different artists and all these different paintings and I didn’t know barely any of them. And John came out and said, “why aren’t you painting?” and I said, “you know I think I over shot. This class is above me”. And he gave me some of the best advice that I’ve gotten. I said, “I know everybody is educated here. Everybody has been doing this a long time. I’m such a beginner”. And he said to me, “do you know how you learn to paint?” and I said, “well why don’t you show me?” he said,

“you don’t learn to paint by having a college education. You learn to paint by painting over and over and over again”.

He said, “you come back and talk to me when you stack your paintings up and you have a mile of canvas and then we’ll talk painting”. So he says, “most the time when you’re in school you get a dab of this and a dab of that. You get art history and all of that”. He says, “you can always do that Maria. You can always read what you want and go to museums. You can get that”. But he said, “you got talent and I want you to go back in there and paint”.

Me: Wow, that’s amazing... So you kind of referenced how your art has changed over time through you started with oils, now you’re doing collage. How did that change happen?

A collage by Maria that will going up for auction at the "Art in the Speakeasy" fundraising event . March 11th, 2017.

A collage by Maria that will going up for auction at the "Art in the Speakeasy" fundraising event . March 11th, 2017.

Maria: That change because it burnt out. I bought a collage that I saw up in Madison and I loved it. And that’s what started it. It just motivated me. So I started doing that [collage] and that’s what made me want to paint again because actually one of those [collages] takes longer than a painting. If you don’t do it right, it looks like a bad scrap book.

Me: What work to do you enjoy doing the most?

Maria: Well I kind of had an urge to do another stone with my husband. I really enjoy that process. And I’m new to painting in acrylics. I just worked in oils. It’s a different technique and I’m enjoying learning more about it.

Me: What themes to you most likely to pursue in your art?

Maria: I like the past. I love history. I read a lot of history. I like old architecture. My daughter lives in San Fransisco, so I get to see a lot of that. And when I do things that are architectural, there’s always a question for me, “who lived inside there? What are the stories of that house or that building”? So I’m pretty much a cityscape person. I do some landscape. When I usually do a still-life there is something in there that is sentimental or important to me. I guess it’s just recording a bit of my own history and other peoples history. I think the more you learn about history the more you understand whats going on in the world.

Me: What would be your dream project?

Maria's husband (left) and her two friends, Carlotta and Sarah, stopped by after the interview to chat

Maria's husband (left) and her two friends, Carlotta and Sarah, stopped by after the interview to chat

Maria: Oh wow, my dream project. I don’t think I really thought about that a lot. That’s a tough one... I think I’d like to continue to mature as a painter. As far as anything big, I probably have a couple more stones. I’d like to carve. But I don’t have any big grand plans. I’ve lived a simple life, and this to me is like no different than anybody else... they go bowling, they go to expensive places to eat, and this is my recreation. This is what makes me feel good. And I’ve heard the comment “oh you just go up to your studio and paint a little..?” and the thing is is that the hard work in artwork is solving the problem, so that what’s in here, in your head, shows up on the canvas. It’s like during the olympics, when you see someone figure skating or something, it looks so easy. They appreciate the end yet they don’t understand the process. And the process is what is difficult.

Me: So my last question will be what is your goal professionally?

Professionally, I don’t have one. I never intended to be professional artist. I was able earlier on i was painting a lot because I had to support having a studio and all that. I understand at least in my thinking, that if you’re going to go professional. the money isn’t made in your originals, its made in your prints. you’re going to need a gallery that supports you. you’re going to need an agent, and thats not what I want to do. I didn’t have the time to do it {art} in the past, I just want to do some art. I’m happy. It encourages me. If It sells it makes me want to do more. it affirms what i send my time doing some of the time when I need to hear that. that I’m not just sitting up here making dozes of things. but its like leave me alone, let me be in my own nice studio with the sun shining in. like i said, my husbands the same way. he just wants to get it outside of him. get the artwork out of his head and make it so that other people can see it.

Sunny spot in Maria's studio

Sunny spot in Maria's studio

Maria will have her work for sale and up for auction at “Art in the Speakeasy”, an event being held at the Racine Arts and Business Center, March 11th, 2017. Proceeds go to The Koss Family Foundation, a non-profit charity that helps families maintain quality of life and decrease the daily stressors that a cancer diagnosis creates.

By: Megan Dorsey

Intern at Gallery on 16th