Lee always wanted to paint the way it was done three hundred years before he was born but an education in traditional painting was hard to find in the Appalachian Mountains where he grew up .
It didn’t matter. Even if a traditional art education had been available there was no way to afford it; Lee was poor. A lot of people were. Interest rates were high and companies were laying off employees or moving elsewhere. Culture was changing too; computers were beginning to push skilled laborers from jobs on many fronts, and the future of farming was so questionable that thousands of farmers drove their tractors to Washington D. C. to make a statement and look for answers. Times were hard.
Lee built a tiny cabin way back in the hills, accepted the ridicule of being an artist, and began to rediscover traditional painting on his own. To pay his bills Lee painted signs, lettered doors, pin-striped vehicles, painted illustrations on billboards for Whitehead Outdoor Advertising, and painted portraits for $20 apiece. However, it wasn’t merely painting or being creative that Lee wanted. He wanted to make art.
As Lee began painting on canvas and making fine art drawings “worth keeping” he added more weight to an already heavy load by choosing history as his primary theme. Most of the visual aspects of history that Lee needed for reference were difficult to find. The world had been so profoundly altered by centuries of constant changes in technology and culture. Every detail had to be rediscovered, understood, and made to “catch light and cast shadows” again.
To find accurate context for long lost technology Lee studied first-hand sources. He read tens of thousands of pages of reference material each year and traveled to every museum possible. He visited with old-timers who had lived with horses, wagons, sweat, heat, and cold. He shunned modern technology and preferred to experience old ways. He lived with horse-drawn wagons during America’s bicentennial (1975-77) fervor and rode a horse all over the county to get from place to place. His tiny cabin, heated by a hand built brick fireplace was perched against tall Appalachian mountains that made the past come to life each day. All of his experiences deeply affected the art he made.
As he studied historical context and visual detail, he also taught himself to paint and make drawings. He struggled with composition and color, light and shadow, and experimented with every aspect of traditional art while using only the old masters as a guide. “I had teachers”, says Lee, “The old artists were gone, but their art still talked to me. I tracked brush strokes like a hunter tracks a deer. I learned from their tracks.”
Lee worked without stopping, using up daylight for art, and then reading for historical context far into the night. None the less, his early work was simple. “I didn’t have enough information to make complex pictures,” Lee says, “I just kept studying until I could add depth and detail bit by bit”. It would take 30 years to assemble knowledge and skill needed to make excellent history paintings. Lee tells us, “I wasn’t working for the moment. I was building skill and knowledge that would one day work together to make art that is worth keeping. Now I am getting old enough to know I don’t have many painting years left. It has taken a lifetime to make the pictures I set out to make so many years ago….and I’m not finished yet.”