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 .
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 out of 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. “I wanted to paint things that would be worth keeping.”
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 altered by constant changes in technology and culture so every detail had to be rediscovered, understood, recorded, and made to “catch light and cast shadows” again. To find accurate context for long lost technology he studied first-hand sources. Lee 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 the experience of old things. 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 and perched against the tall Appalachian mountains, made the past come to life each day.
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 the 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.”