Green Point, Brooklyn, NYC
Deanna Lee's work draws from a rich scientific visual experience, including electron micrographs and medical images, to create visually intense and engaging line clusters with remarkable precision and depth. I had a chance to visit her studio at Fowler Arts, nestled in a seemingly-defunct, semi-industrial building located a stones throw from the East River in Green Point, and learn more about her work- Deanna also works as a professional copywriter and volunteered to edit this interview... you can thank her for the improved readability from this point forward.
What’s your background—where are you from?
I was born in New York, but I grew up in Massachusetts. I was always involved in creative stuff, but I didn’t start making visual art until relatively late. I began as a musician. I was very much into music throughout elementary school, secondary school, and into college. I was considering becoming a piano major in college, but I decided to switch to studio art. I had done some art classes in high school, but college was actually the first time I was really pursuing art with any directed focus.
I did my undergraduate work at Oberlin College. Oberlin has a major conservatory, so the classical music world there, in particular, is very serious and very professional. It’s an excellent music school. But I wasn’t cut out to do that; I didn’t want to be so focused and didn’t feel like being a performance major was allowing myself enough creative freedom. I think, also, I didn’t jive with the types of people who were in the conservatory, as much as I did with the people in the art classes. It ultimately fit my personality more to pursue art. So anyway, I got into visual art in college and made that my major, and then went to graduate school for painting.
How did you arrive at painting as your medium of choice?
I began with drawing and painting and then experimented with a number of other mediums—sculpture, printmaking—but I liked the immediacy of painting. I’m a little impatient and want results really quickly. I mean, I like process to an extent, but I feel like the other mediums were too removed from getting to the final result.
Did you begin graduate school immediately after undergrad? What prompted that decision?
I took a year off. I had a year of working. I knew that I wanted to get back into school pretty quickly, so I spent a year trying to make as much money as I could, so I could pay for graduate school. I did graduate work at the School at the Art Institute of Chicago. I had some friends in Chicago—that was the draw, and it seemed like a fun place to be. I liked them; I liked being in a city that was large but not too large. I had two internships in New York while I was an undergrad, and I decided I didn’t want to do graduate school here because I would be too distracted. I wanted some place where I could more easily focus on school.
You have a very distinctive style. When did that develop? Graduate school?
No, this body of work, I guess I’d say, is a few years old— probably beginning about 2006 and becoming more focused over the past few years. In graduate school, I was doing very biomorphic or organic-form work, but it wasn’t so hard-edged. It was in oil paint, for one. So it was more mushy, and you’re sort of playing with the material more, and I really loved that. It was much more painterly, in that sort of way. I was mixing in all kinds
of textures, like coffee grounds, spilling things—I was really being a messy painter. After a few years of doing that, I quickly found ways to clean up my process and be more controlled with the material. Also, I wanted to get away from using oil paints for my health: the turpentine and solvents were starting to irritate me. I was using egg tempera for a while, and that really slowed me down, too. That process is really exact and forces you to be really controlled. So anyway, I ended up with acrylic within a few years.
Where does the imagery in the work that you’re doing now draw from?
The germ of it is: I do these line clusters. It’s really based on a very controlled doodling process. It’s drawing; it’s just my hand going. It’s repetitive, and it’s accumulative—they grow into larger forms. For me, the very beginning of it was in thinking about hair. Now it has grown, for me, to evoke different sorts of organic forms, or topographical or geographical features. I grew up looking at electron micrographs and biological imagery because my mother is a scientist and my grandfather was a surgeon. So all that stuff is in the background of my visual experience—now, not so much, but I think it’s all still feeding it. I look at all sorts of design styles and art historical styles, like Art Nouveau and a lot of Asian art, too—particularly Chinese and Japanese paintings, the more decorative styles that are there.
What inspired you to create art professionally?
I don’t know . . . it’s a stupid career, actually. I didn’t come to art thinking I was going to make it a career; I came to it thinking that I just needed to make this stuff. I guess the question really is: What led me to want to be an artist? I just love doing it. At this point, it’s like, what else am I going to do? It certainly doesn’t make any financial sense.
What’s your process like?
I don’t plan any of the compositions. Sometimes I’ll make a very rough gestural drawing, and that will be like the architecture or the framework of it; sometimes that doesn’t happen. Then it’s really this drawing process that I start, and I keep going with it. I stop when I feel it needs to. I’ll also take motifs from different kinds of images, like historical paintings and non-western motifs, and I’ll use them as really rudimentary frameworks to insert into the compositions, but they’re not necessarily present. They’re ways for me to see how one proportion works with another thing. I guess they really generate a part of the process, and I don’t really know what I’m going to end up with. In terms of the color choices, it’s pretty intuitive. I might have an idea of colors I want to experiment with—together, to see how they work—but it can change many times. Everything is done with a brush and by hand. At this point, I’ve developed the control. And I go over the surface multiple times to develop the density of the pigment.
How long do your paintings usually take to complete?
These six paintings took me about three months of working full- time, which for me is pretty fast. These are also the largest works that I’ve done in a while; the previous works were all much smaller . . . So, I guess, about two weeks.
What’s up next?
What I’m thinking of doing next is continuing with larger scale pieces, but maybe explore a little bit more with flexibility, in terms of having them be like multiple parts or being a little less resolved. I kind of want to retain a little bit of the openness that exists in an unfinished piece. I’m also hoping to do some more work that is site-specific. I did a piece that was site-specific at the Drawing Center that was sort of about the environment and the architecture and one’s perception of the space. So that’s sort of another branch of things, but I’m interested to look into it. It opens up a whole new way of working.