Artist Carlyle Wolfe Lee records the changing form and color of the natural world.
Written by Allison Estes | Photographed by Joe Worthem and Thad Lee
In a graduate school art class 20 years ago, students were assigned a drawing project: Take 10 sheets of large Stonehenge paper, and stick with one subject for the whole semester. Carlyle Wolfe Lee chose zinnias.
“I started these quiet, contour line drawings of these flowers,” Lee said. “Contour line drawing is something you learn in beginner drawing, but it’s a great way to just develop your visual sensitivity.”
All that fall, Lee filled up the pages with lightly penciled, graceful petals. She couldn’t say exactly why, but something about the contemplative process captivated her; she felt it was taking her someplace. She describes it as an unfolding.
“I didn’t have a lot of artists in my life,” Lee said. “I’m really thankful for this now — but I didn’t have this sense of, ‘This is where I want to be, what I want to do, what I want to make.’ I just had this sense of, ‘There’s something about this that’s really right for me.’ And I could see the next step, but not the distance.”
The more she drew, the more she discovered. She loved the delicacy and variety of the blooms, and what she calls the balance between specific detail in the landscape and the fluid movements of changing color and light. The young artist had found, in the natural world, a subject area rich with information that so many overlook.
“With the contour line drawing, you are looking at the outline of a shape: the edges of a form,” Lee said. “That doesn’t mean just the silhouette, but you would look at where one petal ends and another starts. Or where a shape kind of turns in space and folds. Its appeal to me wasn’t just that I liked the finished product, but it was more such a discipline of looking. … it really increases your visual sensitivity, and just kind of what you see.”
She began making color studies. One series records, at 10-minute intervals, the changing colors from pre-dawn to sunup outside her bedroom window. Lee now has a “bank” of color studies through time and season: a visit to Monet’s garden at Giverny; rides across Delta farmland in winter; walking through the woods.
Along with the color studies, Lee has been collecting contour line drawings of plants for more than 20 years now. Stem, leaf and petal; myriad shapes and hues: To Lee, they are a visual language of form and color through the seasons — the very soul of her paintings.
“Over time this process developed,” Lee said. “I started cutting out the silhouettes from these shapes (the drawings). I would use those as stencils, but I didn’t even call them stencils at that point because it was just unfolding.”
Lee’s first stencils were paper, cut out by hand. But eventually she realized she needed to find another way, to save her hands. She draws each plant to scale, photographs it, then, using design software, she traces the image with a pen tool.
These days her stencils are laser cut from stainless steel, by Maximum Industries in Fort Worth, Texas. So along with precision parts for the medical and aerospace industries, and bulletproof guards for war vehicles, Maximum Industries now cuts out flowers.
Over the years, Lee’s way of looking at the world has accumulated into thousands of stencils and a whole body of connected work. She describes it in direct relation to the years it takes to establish a garden or an ecosystem.
“I love thinking about my scale and the length of my life and the length of my days in relation to all of these different plants being like they are and what they are as a whole — kind of how endless and vast it is, and the small part of it that I can even hope to touch in my whole life,” she said.
Like gardening, Lee’s process is very much influenced by the seasons. In fair weather, she is outside drawing. When it’s cold, she builds a big fire and cuts stencils.
“There are parts that feel like a harvest, where you’re using what you’ve invested, and parts where you’re investing in the bank where the next body of work will come from,” Lee said.
This year, Lee has returned her focus to the original drawings she made in art school.
“As I approach 20 years with this cumulative body of work, I decided to spend some time with the 10 large drawings of zinnias where the work began,” Lee said. “I decided to trace over the flower drawings with a darker pencil in hopes of using the lines in new ways, but also to reconnect with the long, quiet, thinking, listening, marking time process as I reflect and plan for the future.”
In the garden of Lee’s future, she hopes to develop a new group of sculptures and paintings based upon these lines. Another unfolding.
Caroline Herring is an internationally acclaimed artist. Her album, “Verses” (Continental Records), released in August 2019, is based on ancient scripture texts about wisdom, longing and love. The album is available at carolineherring.com.
“Caroline Herring and I grew up together in Canton, and studied at UM a few years apart. We also both went to Camp DeSoto and both still return as often as possible.
“Even though we don’t see each other very often and our work is very different, through the years we have encouraged each other and enjoyed having a long friendship, sharing the joys and challenges of pursuing creative work.
“A few summers ago, Caroline spent a few weeks at Camp DeSoto and wrote a song based on John 1:16-23 that quickly became a favorite. There is something glorious about 300 girls singing ‘grace upon grace upon grace upon grace from Him.’
“When she contacted me about making album artwork (for ‘Verses’), I was thrilled to help. I chose ‘Summer Garden’ because it is especially like summer at camp, bright and happy.”
— Carlyle Wolfe Lee