Arts Festival weekend: Letitia Lee's art shows electric life

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By Jenna McKenna

"There was never a time when I wasn't making art."

Letitia Lee says she's been doing art professionally for five years, but she's been an artist "since my mom first fed me applesauce."

The Hampton, Va. Native says she drew, sketched or painted at every opportunity growing up, using whatever tools were available with her family's limited budget. That method hasn't changed - in fact, Lee says she often lets her mood dictate the medium and theme of her work.

"I'm so random that way," she says. "Sometimes I'll feel really erratic and want to work at a fast pace. Then I'll use pastels and get messy and flaky with them. Other times I'm in a more deliberate mood and want to think things out. Then I'll work with oils or acrylics."

Lee says she still does pencil or charcoal drawings, too, even though they're tougher to frame and show, just because they bring her back to when she was a child and couldn't afford any materials other than pencils.

"I hate the idea of only doing one thing one way," she says. "I just have to be diverse."

Diverse is the perfect word for her catalogue. Lee has lots of different themes, different figures, different textures, all modeled from life but some more representational than others. Her mastery of human faces and figures shows a concentration on expression, exaggerating one feature over others to show emotion or focus.

Many of her works show reactions or interactions between subjects. In "Presentation," a daughter sits in front of her mother on the porch steps as her mother braids her hair. Although the faces of both are merely suggested in the painting, the tension of the girl's head and relaxation of her arms plainly show that the minor discomfort of having hair pulled and twisted is minor compared to the comfort and love she feels from her mother's attention.

Another painting, "First Bouquet," depicts Lee's young niece clutching an enormous bunch of sunflowers. The flowers are equal in scale to the child's own face and head, and the bright gold and brown blooms echo their colors and shapes in the child's beaming face and puffs of hair. At a glance, the girl seems to be a flower herself.

Surrounding the portrait are crackling waves of energy - multicolored lines of heavily textured paint and gel. Lee calls this textured portion "Aititel," her name spelled backwards, and says it is a relatively new fixture in her work that is meant to represent energy and movement.

"I paint very thin, and I was looking for a way to build up more texture," she said. "I have a tendency to put paint on and blend too much. Things get muddy."

She had such a yearning for texture, though, the better to express life force and movement, so she began to look for a way to overcome her tendencies.

"I experimented with different media gels and paints, whipping them to the consistency I wanted and putting them in a plastic bag," she explained. "I cut the corner off the bag and squeeze the paint onto the canvas."

Now, she says, "aititel" finds its way into almost everything she does - sometimes as pure abstract energy, other times as a literal element of the composition. In "Water Gatherer," the "aititel" is the bristling grass on the hillside where the water-carrying woman is walking. In "Fully Extended," it surrounds the tennis player like a nimbus of static electricity.

Lee says her art has been such a treasure in her life. "For me, it's an opportunity to share my experiences - the journey of my life. And I feel so fortunate when my experiences resonate with other people."

A friend once asked her how she would feel if she couldn't do art any more. "Would it be like losing an arm?" she asked.

"No, not like losing an arm," Lee told her. "I could learn how to use my other arm. Art is like oxygen to me. I can't live without it."