The Re-Emergence of Lawrence Lee

By Cheri Newton

Known for his shamans, the artist finds peace with landscapes

Lawrence W. Lee says some folks think his career as an artist has run its course. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lee, instead, feels rejuvenated.

“I’m a much better artist,” Lee says.

“I’ve been growing the last 42 years, since my first one-man show, which happened in 1976. The most important thing, really, is I finally caught up with my age and decided I’m old enough to show people what I can do.”

The 70-year-old Lee’s life has been a rollercoaster. He was born in Arkansas, and moved to Tucson in 1957 when he was 10. He bounced around, but settled in Belize with his now ex-wife, Mary. When an Alzheimer’s-like illness took over her mind, the couple sold everything and returned to Tucson.

One day, as his wife’s mind descended into illness, she told him she no longer wanted him there. Devastated, he left the “love of his life” with everything they owned. Lee moved on and created a new life.

“I went from being a millionaire on paper to collecting social security,” says Lee, who has suffered from depression for most of his life.

He moved to a retirement community in Paris, Tennessee, in 2008, but that was fruitless. “Flat, busted broke,” Lee moved to Guatemala for two years. Five years ago, he returned to the Tucson, came out of retirement and opened a studio.

Since then, he has seen an upward career trajectory. He has written several books and has had poetry published in national and international journals.

In 2016, he collaborated with Ballet Tucson to create Spirit Garden, based on the traditions of Dia de Los Muertos. Since returning to studio work after a brief retirement, he started to paint strikingly unique landscapes, abstracts and nonobjective works.

These large paintings are youthful, fresh and Pop Art-like, but each refers to an old master. One playfully references a Diego Velazquez self-portrait, and another contains a rendering of Nicolas Guy Brenet’s Sleeping Endymion.

“I’m painting landscapes again after 30 years of not doing it, and painting highly abstract, nonobjective pieces, which is what I learned in college in the 1960s,” says Lee, a NAU graduate.

“I’m especially gratified that people look forward to my landscapes more than my shamans.”

He’s best known for his shaman paintings, which represent the spirituality he has embraced.

“There is no place in my life for ‘woo-woo,’ though,” Lee says with a laugh. “I’m a very nuts-and-bolts, a scientific method kind of guy.”

Lee is asked whether his iconic shaman portraits allude to his transformation. Lee answers with a twinkle in his eye.

“People say that paintings I do are probably all self-portraits,” he says. “And I think, to a degree, that that is true.”

The shamans in his paintings are without arms.

“Some people think it’s because I can’t do arms or hands,” Lee exclaims incredulously. “When I was in college, I did a lot of sculptures and by and large they didn’t have arms either and there’s a reason for that.

“Some people are afraid of becoming blind or becoming deaf. More than that, what scared me was not having arms, because if you don’t have arms you can’t hold something away or draw anything to you. That means you exist all in here,” Lee says, pointing to his head.

The only contact he would have, then, is through his brain and his eyes.

“It’s the eye windows that have the power in my paintings,” he says. “They don’t have the arms because of that, I suspect.”

Lee enjoys hearing guests try to figure out his thoughts behind his work.

“It’s taken me a lifetime to understand that you get out of art what you bring to it,” he says. “So, it doesn’t matter what I want to say with a painting because somebody else is going to be looking at that painting with a lifetime of different experiences.

“If people connect with a painting or a sculpture, I think it’s because there is some kind of resonance. And now, I’m getting ‘woo woo.’ It’s a relationship. If the person looks at something, and they don’t just see it and glance away – if they give it a chance to interact with them – this resonance can develop. The painting is just a painting. But people can learn about themselves by looking at that. The painting is not doing anything. They’re doing it all.”

Christina Fuoco-Karasinski contributed to this story.