The Natural World of Julie Lee

Artist explores objects’ experiences in October show

Julie Lee’s world is in balance. Natural objects and man-made castoffs combine their experiences to tell their stories, and to create new stories for the willing viewer.

Lee’s constructions will be on display in the exhibition “The Natural World of Julie Lee,” Oct. 5-26, at The Art Studio, Inc. The show opens with a free reception, 7-10 p.m., Oct. 5.

Lee’s constructions form a balance between the industrial and the natural world for which her show is named. The title reflects her personal “natural world.”

“What I do is about the materials, not about any bigger concept or theory, it’s about the materials,” she says. “I think they’re beautiful, and I put them together in a way that is beautiful to me and honors the materials.

“It makes me remember the excitement I felt when I found that thing, when I made recognized it — when I made that connection.”

Lee said she goes to flea markets and sees things other people have bought and thinks, “I want that.”

“But then I have to say, ‘No. If it was meant to be mine, it would be in my buggy,’” she says. “So with that confidence that I am going to find what I am supposed to find, I can relax and let that process happen. Then it is exciting and it’s all the time.”

Julie Lee, pictured in her studio, far left. She shows off a crepe myrtle branch, left, that she interprets as a spine. It is part of her “Branch Taxidermy” series. “Exotic,” above, is a typical example of one her constructions made from found objects.

Lee pulls out a pile of crepe myrtle branches she found on the side of the road while on her way to work. She points out the bends of the wood, likening them to knees.

“These are muscular,” she says. “These are what I call ‘branch taxidermy.’”

She pulls another branch out and says it is a spine. Lee teaches yoga and says she is always preaching the benefits of stretching the vertebrae. That is what she sees in the wood.

“It’s not a straight line — there’s bumps and cracks, but it’s still functional,” she says.

Lee plans to display the “branch taxidermy” in one installation at her show.

Born in Memphis, Tenn., she moved to Southeast Texas when she was one, when her father, a structural steel detailer, was transferred for work.

She says she got her sense of construction from him.

“If we built a dog house it would be the place you would go for shelter in a tornado more so than your house, because it was 5,000 pounds — it was just crazy heavy and solid,” she says. “That’s one thing that, even though I use found materials, it has to be structurally sound. I don’t want anything that’s not going to stay. If it’s a fleeting thing, I might keep it for a little while and enjoy it, but I’m never going to use it.”

“I’m built to last,” she says with a smile.

Married for 35 years to Gerry, she attended Lamar University and got a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1981.

“I had no idea I wanted to do it,” she says. “My last semester at Lamar they held a job fair and all these different government agencies came out and the Texas Department of Health was there. They were interviewing for a job in Tyler, but I told them my husband worked at a refinery and it was a really good job, so we weren’t going to move. I put in my application anyway, and it turned out they transferred the position to Beaumont so I got the job.”

The job involved traveling the 12 counties she oversaw. She worked for the state until Hurricane Rita hit. She said her house had a lot of damage and she didn’t want to travel so much while she and Gerry fixed the house.

She worked briefly for the Southeast Texas Food Bank before taking a job with the health department in Orange County. After three years she moved to her current job as the City of Beaumont’s environmental health manager.

“I’m here in Beaumont to stay now,” she says.

Lee says that she didn’t have a specific career in mind when she worked toward her degree, but when she talks, it is clear that the things she enjoyed about her studies are the same as those that permeate her artwork.

“I just loved biology, I liked the natural sciences, I liked chemistry — I liked mixing things together and ending up with something else,” she says. “I guess I was naïve and just expected something to show up — and it did, so I wasn’t wrong.”

When Lee was a child, her grandmother had a ceramics shop in Memphis, and she would always get to paint things, she says.

“I’ve always been inclined to work with my hands,” she says. “I’ve always been more inclined to do physical things rather than being a bookish person. Instead of being someone who wants to sit at a computer, I would rather spend hours in the yard.”

When she was in seventh grade she won first place in an art show for making flowers out of rocks and coloring them with crayons.

“A big part of my job is observation,” she says. “As I did that work over the years, I developed my observations skills so that I can scan a table, for example, and I can see most everything on that table at a glance. But not everything will catch my eye. It’s what is different that will catch my eye.

“If I’m scanning the ground, for example, there’s grass, grass, grass — wait, there’s a stick. There’s something about that stick and I will pick it up. What is it about that stick? Is it the texture of the bark, is it the absence of the bark, is it a bend in the stick, is it the color? There’s something about that stick that, for want of a better word, I recognize.”

Lee said that recognition gives her a connection to the object. She takes the found object home, where it joins a plethora of detritus, both natural and man-made, in her studio, waiting to reveal its purpose to her.

“I live with my stuff and the older and more banged up it is, the better I like it,” she says. “I am heavily into rust and dust. I like things like that because they are experienced and they bring that experience with them, even though it may be unknown.”

Lee picks up a weather-beaten board from an old bed frame.

“I never slept in that bed, I don’t know anything about the bed, but I know it is probably around 100 years old, it’s put together with pegs and there’s a craftsmanship to that,” she says. “That’s a goal I have for myself. I want to last that long.

“I don’t mind that it’s scratched up, that it’s faded in places — that’s part of its experience. If I had tried to scratch it, it would look like I had done it on purpose. And I’m not interested in that. That’s not an experience, that’s a finish. I don’t want a finish on it, I want it to be itself in all its imperfection — it’s perfect to me.”

Lee has appeared in several group shows over the years, and showed her work at the Mosquito Café in Galveston, but this show is a coming out party, she says.

“I tend to sanctuary build. When you are in my front yard, you might think it is just an average house. But when you go through the gate you are in my sanctuary. My job is stressful, it is a regulatory job and I work a lot of hours — so there’s nothing here to do with work, except my cell phone. It’s a release.”

But Lee said she realized that she tended to keep everything at the house, which was a problem for her as an artist.

“When I do that, I don’t grow,” she says. “That’s why I started entering shows — to get feedback and to challenge myself, to go to the next level with things. I don’t want to make the same thing over and over again — there’s no point to that.”

Lee said that showing the work is part of the experience of the art. The piece has a life of its own once she lets it go.

“To me, the finding, the collecting and the assembling is the art part — putting it in the show is the evidence that it happened,” she says.

It should be no surprise to viewers to learn that she is a fan of Joseph Cornell, who became famous for his constructions. There is also something Victorian about the display boxes she makes, which makes sense when one thinks of her as a picker uncovering the history of the objects.

One of her pieces incorporates an old aquarium, a stick and some beads, which hang like “butterfly eggs underneath a branch.”

“When you put glass over something, it gives it a precious dimension,” she says. “Even an old pine knot. If you put it under glass, everyone thinks, ‘Oh my, that must be the pine knot from Abraham Lincoln’s cabin in Illinois.’ It mystifies it.”

Lee picks up a scrap of a dress with a strip of buttons.

“I couldn’t quit looking at them because of the color — they’re glass, they’re heavy and they’re not chipped or cracked so someone obviously took care of them,” she says. “I kept thinking about them — what do they look like, what do they remind me of? I just kept carrying them around and one day I was out in the yard pulling weeds and I saw, underneath a branch, butterfly eggs — that’s what they are.

“Butterfly eggs have a stem with a little round piece at the end and they’re in a row. They are the most delicate thing you can imagine, but they are there. If you have a thunderstorm and the branches all clash together, and go back out and check after the storm, they are still there.

“And that’s me — still standing.”

Maybe Lee doesn’t see a grand concept in her work, but the pieces themselves serve as an autobiography of sorts. Strength and fragility combine to reveal a person who is comfortable in her own “Natural World” — a world which we get a glimpse of this month.

The Art Studio is located at 720 Franklin in downtown Beaumont.

 Andy Coughlan
ISSUE Editor