Barry Lee’s naive art
One could say Barry Lee is the result of an accidental encounter between Pablo Picasso and the Muppet Show. The Atlanta-based illustrator depicts a surrealistic form of naive folk art with flashy colours, handing out a dose of fun and joy for the rest of the day. Fresh out of art school, Barry has already exhibited in quite a few cultural hotspots in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s with great pleasure that we ask him a few questions today.
Hi, Barry! You’ve only just graduated from art school in Atlanta. Why choose illustration as your means of expression?
It’s now actually been almost three years since I graduated from school, which is surreal. When I was little, I drew a lot of cartoons and weird sort of scenes. Originally, I thought I wanted to delve into the world of comics (though frankly, I didn’t really read any comics as a kid or young adult besides “Peanuts”), then I thought I wanted to work in Animation until I realized I wasn’t going to be able to have more creative control (you know, for selfish reasons). So the thing about Illustration that intrigued me was that I could be able to do a wide variety of projects, whether it be commercial or fine art. I could also hold my own with Illustration. I liked that all these artistic mediums and outlets could be at my disposal while maintaining my sensibility.
You were born with Nager syndrome, a condition that affects the development of the face, hands and arms. How did you manage to turn this into a positive force in your artistic work?
A few years ago, I created a show entitled “Home is Where You Drown” which was displayed at a pretty popular coffee shop in Atlanta. The show addressed the issues of growing up with the syndrome in a small town. When I was younger, I often used art as a coping mechanism and over time, it became a career for me. Each piece was based on a story or series of events that I had dealt with as a child, whether it was people not understanding what my hearing aid was, or the feelings of being different in a pretty non-diverse town, or how people would often stare at me. The syndrome is so rare that many people misinterpret it for what it really is.
Along with the pieces, there were actual written stories next to the works to show what each piece was about – this was a very vulnerable thing to do in such a public space, but I felt that it was important to teach people about my experiences in order to hopefully help others better understand the various differences as well as how to react to them. My syndrome doesn’t define me at all, my work along with my personality does, and once I realized that, life has been a very freeing experience.
We know, and can feel, that you’re profoundly inspired by vintage, the Muppet Show and Picasso. Can you tell us how you manage to mix all these influences together?
Jim Henson and Pablo Picasso both have a very huge influence on me. When I was a child, I would draw “Sesame Street” characters often, so I think the whole separate nose design elements of those characters really stuck with me. People are like “why the off-colored noses?” to which I don’t really have an answer for, it’s a part of my history and habit. I think it’s funny when people read into that.
Your drawings are always full of vivid and funky colours, without putting your characters in grotesque or humorous situations. What emotions do you want your public to feel when looking at your pieces?
I always think in my head “What will make me smile?” or “What would I like to see in my home or another home?” and I think that if I make somebody smile or make their day brighter, then I have done my job as an artist. I want my work to cultivate a joyful experience.
Your illustrations are essentially portraits. Why do you like to draw people?
I love people watching, I always have. I’m kind of a loner I suppose. Sometimes, I like to just be in a space and watch people because they fascinate me to no end. The world has an endless supply of humanity and that kind of amazes me how everyone is different, yet we all have this common connection of being human. I think that’s why I enjoy drawing people. I like to show the diversity (even if it is through purples, blues and neon pinks).
On our TERRONT t-shirt, we recognise the French cyclist of that same name. What did you find interesting about him?
At the time of creating the illustration, I really didn’t have any knowledge of Terront, so I had a lot of fun learning about him. I thought it was interesting he was really one of the first “celebrity” cyclists and I also felt he had a great moustache.
We heard of your collaboration with skateboarding shop Mom’s Sweet Shop in North Carolina. What’s your rapport with skateboarding and street culture?
I grew up in Nags Head, North Carolina, a small beach town that heavily relies on tourists visiting the beach during the summer, and while many kids I grew up with were skateboarding, I was inside drawing pictures. So when “Mom’s” hit me up to do a design for them, they wanted me to draw the older cliental that’d often visit the beach, and put the two older tourist characters on a skateboard. I find irony in these skateboards in a few ways: first of all, I have never been on a skateboard because I have the worst balance imaginable so this wasn’t a thing I ever did as a kid, second, while the characters are shown as these older tourists, they are on skateboards that young locals use, so it’s putting two worlds of the culture I am from together into one product. I thought Derik Wineland, one of the owners of the shop, was pretty smart for having a nod at that with the boards, and those skateboards have since sold out.
You created a series of portraits of legendary film and TV series characters, such as Princesse Leia, Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Gandalf or (more recently) Breaking Bad’s Heisenberg, for The Bookhouse Project. What made you want to connect your art with emblematic cultural figures?
“The Bookhouse Pub” is a bar in Atlanta that my best friends and I regularly go to. I have been going to Bookhouse for five years, and the name is taken from the show “Twin Peaks” though it isn’t a bar based solely on the show – there are many elements in the bar that are a nod to various pop culture things. “Bookhouse” holds a very special place in my heart, I know most of the staff and the owners. They have seen me at my best and worse times. I also think I am the only one who is ordering the chicken sandwich there so I am glad to be keeping that alive.
I was approached by Murphy (the owner) to do a series of portraits for a whole wall next to two big booths in the space. Bookhouse plays all sorts of crazy films on their big television, so based on the movies and references I have already seen at the bar, I made a list of about 30 icons that’d been featured. I wanted these to be characters people would recognize or love. There are a few little homages to the staff as well, including a portrait of one of the bartender’s dogs. The installation of portraits is now a permanent fixture of the space, and every time I go in there it’s always funny to see people trying to figure out who is who.
You portrayed Bill Murray’s character from Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic on our ZISSOU t-shirt. You also drew the young boy scout from Moonrise Kingdom by Anderson as well. What draws you to the film-maker’s crazy world?
I love how Anderson creates films that are homages to other parts of film history, and that his films create worlds you can escape to. His color palettes are always so gorgeous.
Atlanta is seen as very active in the cultural and art worlds. How does the city encourage you with your work?
Atlanta is great! They strive to support local artists, and the artist, in the community also support one another which is encouraging for sure.
You say you’re extremely open to all kinds of collaborations. What are your projects for 2016?
I love collaborating with other companies and artists. I recently completed a show in December where I worked with some great local Atlanta artists to make a show with a nautical theme. While I am constantly making things daily, I do tend to focus on things one day at a time, therefore I am unsure what tomorrow will bring. But I know I’ll gladly welcome whatever tomorrow brings. I do see more murals in my future though.
A big thank to Barry Lee for his answers.