“To express myself in that ‘calling moment’ is to give my energy in its purest, most positive form….”
Lee Strasburger is a painter, photographer, and textile artist who has mounted one-person shows in Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Her work has also been featured in group shows all over the globe. A true artistic nomad, she has lived in and drawn inspiration from many places — from her native California to Europe and Africa. She is also one of Broad Street’s most popular contributors, with work featured in several of our issues.
In keeping with our recent theme “Maps & Legends,” we just had to ask this peripatetic artist to tell us about her process and how her life and art intersect …
BROAD STREET: How do you define” truth” in art?
STRASBURGER: Maybe what comes close, to me, is Beauty, in the mythic sense … It’s imperative to be mindful in my creative process. I make artwork only when a deep energy impels me to do so. I have discovered over the years that to just make does not work; without a calling, my artwork lacks real truthfulness, and the insincerity is transparent to me.
Beauty is incapturable, for that is her nature, but I can make efforts to evoke those moments of awe in the power of the life force.
To express myself in that “calling moment” is to give my energy in its purest, most positive form. It’s ephemeral and mercurial, an inner voice from my own parallel universe. I never quite know when it is going to come to me. I can go years without painting, but I am always making something.
“The most perfect piece of art is the object itself; nothing is more beautiful than the flower.”
What would you say inspires you to create a painting?
It’s the feeling that knocks the wind out of me when I’m in my “quiet” zone, or in nature alone or with someone close to me. It can be a piece of algae on wet sand, or a gull sitting on a lone rock looking out to the lowering sun, bathing in warmth, a tree bending to the wind, anything, but I’m surprised by a moment, hyperconscious of it, and I start paying attention. The feeling does not go away; it nags at me until I make something from it. A little inner light turns on, nudging me to go for it.
Much of the work you’ve exhibited (and that’s found on your website) comes in series. What makes you stick with an idea, a style, as subject, to form a series? And how do you know when you’ve come to the end of it?
Let me start with your question regarding shifting styles. I think we all carry different selves inside us. There is my happy, playful self that is filled with whimsy that feels very different from the contemplative, more serious side of me. My empathetic self, though, is present in both.
I’m very interested in the theory of genetic memory and am conscious of it working within my own body and mind. This is particularly evident in my somber images of postwar scenes, such as A Mystic as Soldier, the title of which I borrowed from a poem by Siegfried Sassoon. For another example, the Bhagavad Gita is an allegory for the struggle toward liberating the self from the confines of the human condition.
Both my maternal grandparents actively served in WWI, one as a soldier, one as a nurse, and my parents both served in WWII Europe. Echoes of those wars have imprinted in me and I treat them with reverence and kindness; maybe my works of art are intended testimony for my ancestors and all the poets, animals, and soldiers who died in war, to honor them.
The “other” voice that does not quite feel like my own yet is already in me; it compels me to express that sorrow, so poignantly manifested in the poems of writers such as Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, John Keats, and a multitude of others dating back over the centuries and continents.
I will often read a poem that takes hold in my imagination and go from there. Something speaks to me in a raw, visceral way, and my endeavor is to translate that sorrow and loss into the stillness of a painting. For example, the dead of winter can be very bleak, and yet below the surface new life is regenerating. I look out the window, and the branch of a dark, dead-looking bush against the whiteness or fading light stands out, crying to be painted. I feel insensitive because I had not noticed its beauty until that moment.
The style is always there [once an idea is conceived]. Right at present I’m preparing for a series of drawings of vegetables and flowers on graph paper. I can’t tell you at this moment exactly why I like to make floral and vegetable drawings on graph paper, but maybe I could say it has something to do with a much larger picture of order in chaos and that also relates very strongly to Beauty — that is, a radiating light, not necessarily a well-balanced, tangible form. I know in advance that my drawings will be finely rendered in pencil and I know I will try to do justice to the portrait of a tulip or a ranunculus. But that’s about all I know.
The most perfect piece of art is the object itself; nothing is more beautiful than the flower. I’m looking at the spirit inside the flower. I love John Keats’s writing on “the Egotistical Sublime” during the British Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century, when poetry and politics were inextricably and bizarrely entwined. Competition was rife amongst his colleagues, such as Shelley and Byron and Wordsworth, to [see who could most powerfully] evoke Nature. Keats, to whom I feel deeply attuned, seems by far (to me) the most truthful in his expressiveness. I return to him and this period over and over again in personal research and development.
I do often work in series. Sometimes I don’t want to leave the “zone” I am residing in at that time. A grove of trees never grows weary. Every day the sky is different from morning to night, or a breeze casts a shadow dance in a forest, a reminder of mortality and that nothing stays the same — immortality, in that it is all simply a fluid transformation from one form of energy into another. And then suddenly my thought transforms too, and it takes me elsewhere.
It’s important for me to go with the flow of that river and stay, if it is wise to stay — and then to know when it is time to move on. I have learned over time to identify the voice of the force. When the piece of art lacks the depth I spoke of earlier, I know it’s time to stop.
“If the passion is genuine and you know it, you are already an artist. Hold on to your dreams and imagine them coming true every day of your life.”
You’ve done some illustration, which means collaborating with someone else’s work. How do you manage to meld your own artistic vision with what a client or patron wants?
I’ve found that illustrating from an author who has died works best — though I’m open, of course. My latest endeavor to illustrate a short story failed miserably for the author. My heroine was too old! I would say my work can be illustrative rather than my illustrating, but I would love to do more and take it to another level.
On another, higher plane perhaps, a few years ago I had a solo show of paintings and drawings at the Belmont Town Hall in Massachusetts titled “The Anatomy of Melancholy.” The town was celebrating visual arts in conjunction with fellow resident and friend Tom Perrotta, whose book The Leftovers had just been published. The show worked well as an illustrative example of annihilation on several different levels, both mystical and metaphorical — see, again, A Mystic as Soldier [featured above].
Even when you’re painting or drawing something imaginary, possibly fantastic — like a tiny sailboat setting off to a faraway land — there is a representational connection to the world viewers recognize. How important is that connection to you, and to what degree do you keep it in mind as you work?
Connecting is very important, but it does not always work, and that’s okay. I let go of any expectation that the viewer will necessarily understand what I am speaking about. Some do, some don’t, and then some have a kind of epiphany, and that is what I am striving for.
One friend, another painter, didn’t understand the miniscule lights in one piece and called them dots. As we conversed, I saw that she did not pick up at all on the metaphor for enlightenment, and I did not press it. But others are profoundly moved by those same little lights, and it is gratifying when I know I’ve touched someone. They will often write to me about a memory of a powerful moment when they were looking at a darkening sky on moors or cliffs and feeling the presence of “the other” — an indescribable moment of knowing that is both assuring and disturbing. Its ineffability renders us a moment of deep insight and awe, a connectedness to a universe outside of our control.
When you were starting out as a new artist, what gave you inspiration and kept you going?
Ha! I transferred from what was then called California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts), in Oakland, California, to Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting (now part of the Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design consortium), in London, England. I did not last long there. A professor at Byam Shaw yelled at me and told me to stop making art, predicting that when I was forty I would have no imagination left.
In so many ways I was utterly unconscious and late to mature. I can look back on those days and say I was feeling my own way in the dark. I became involved with the painter Frederic Hundertwasser when I was only eighteen or nineteen. My involvement with him lasted a few years; even I, immature as I was, knew I was too young for the kind of relationship we had. I ended it, but our friendship lasted until his death. His death saddened me deeply; I will always be grateful to him and how he shaped my own observations.
The late sixties and early seventies were packed with political upheaval, yet my work remained as detached as I felt from the pulse of the social world around me. My work was strictly figurative at that time, linear and flat, with threads of Hundertwasser all over it.
After I dropped out of art school, I joined The Red Buddha Theatre, a Japanese dance company that was performing in London at the time. Having run away from my relationship with Hundertwasser, I took up with the love of my life, Goro Kunii, a dancer and musician. For many years, I settled into what came naturally, making images of tender renderings of everyday life through the lens of my wabi-sabi self.
It was only after a long, traumatic illness that my work shifted again into the realm of the dreaming Romantic, in the humanistic sense of Romanticism, and began to fuse that so unique mix of poetry, mysticism, and the forebodings and aftermath of war that has suited me ever since.
What advice would you give to artists who are just finding their way in the medium and the world?
If the passion is genuine and you know it, you are already an artist. Hold on to your dreams and imagine them coming true every day of your life. Pay no mind to critiques that are misunderstanding of you or are disrespectful or patronizing; listen carefully to those that do treat you well and are sources of inspiration. Don’t take anything personally. Stay open, read as much as you can, be true to yourself, meditate before you work, and be respectful and mindful of your art supplies and the space where you make your work. A hog or a sable died to make your paintbrush, a tree was felled to make your pencil and paper, the earth was drilled to make the pigment and graphite you use.
Life is sacred and once you understand and respect that, you will have the opportunity to surprise even yourself with what comes next.
Visit Lee’s website to see more of her work.