Artist Lee Gibson shares holiday spirit in a series of oil paintings featuring old-fashioned Santas.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem
For Starkville resident Lee Gibson, painting is not a hobby. It’s a profession. Still, it’s a profession the artist loves.
Born in New Jersey and raised in Maryland and Connecticut, Gibson has been happy to be a Mississippian for more than 40 years.
“My then-husband started looking for work and came to West Point to interview with what was then Bryan Foods,” Gibson said. “We were totally taken in by the hospitality.”
The rest really is Gibson’s Southern history. She discovered she has a great-great-grandmother, Mary Gibson, who was born and raised in Laurel.
“I’m going to get down there one day,” she said. “Who knows what I’ll dredge up?”
In her heart, Gibson is a Mississippian, but four decades have done little to erase an accent that clearly is not Southern.
“People always say to me, ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’” she said, smiling.
It’s a fair assessment to suggest Gibson’s painting abilities come from her early surroundings and from later art education.
“I was always exposed to art and painting,” she said. “My dad did art as a hobby, working with pastels. When I was in high school, the public school offered incredible art classes. I attended the University of Arizona and studied architec-ture, thinking that’s what I wanted to do.
“But an aptitude test showed my math skills were not strong. In the ’60s, there were no computers that figured out certain things about the designs. My design skills were great; my math skills — zip.”
Gibson instead attended Radford University in Virginia as an art major. It’s where she discovered her preferred way of putting oils on canvas. Yes, she uses brushes, but she is partial to a palette knife.
“In a painting class, I noticed everything I did seemed muddy,” Gibson said. “I didn’t like the feel. In my mind, I wanted my work to have more definition, a bolder feel. The professor asked if I’d ever used a knife. He told me to try, and if I didn’t like it, I could just scrape off the paint and get rid of it.
“I noticed how wasteful it could be, so I paint on one easel with an extra one beside it. When I scrape the extra paint from one canvas, I put it on the other canvas as an under painting.”
While she’d dabbled in art always, a divorce when she was 58 made her ask herself an important question: Now what do I do? Her answer: No more dabbling; paint as if life depends on it.
Much of her work is landscapes, still lifes and portraits of people and animals. All with amazing colors and, thanks to her knife, unique textures and layers. After she fleshes out an idea for a piece, she creates her color palette and begins work on what will become the next Lee Gibson original.
She’s not afraid to try new things. In fact, about a decade ago, Gibson added a touch of magic and merriment to a number of canvases when she painted a series of Santas. She credits her friend Valeda Carmichael, owner of Culin-Arts in West Point, for the idea.
“She has been a good support system for me through the years,” Gibson said. “She just asked me some years ago, ‘Ever thought of doing any Santas?’”
Gibson told her no, but she’d certainly look into the possibility. And she did.
“My mother used to get these brochures and catalogues from high-end department stores like Gump’s in San Francisco and Horowitz in Connecticut,” Gibson said. “I looked through the catalogues for old-fashioned Santas, and when I found one I flipped for, I knew I could do a little Gibson on that baby.”
Gibson’s Santa Clauses are an amazing creative stretch from the traditional red-robed bearer of Christmas gifts. Her Santas are different sizes and shapes, each possessing enough whimsy to spark some holiday cheer. And, as always, they are in Gibson’s vivid and vibrant colors. Her favorite Santa boasts a pink background.
“It’s whimsical and a bit funky,” she said. “The Santa Clauses are very detail-oriented. They are a lot of work. But as long as folks want them, I will do them.”
In fact, painting her Santas might possibly have helped the artist find a fresh appreciation for Christmas.
“Christmas was always a mixed bag for me,” Gibson said. “When I was a child, Christmas seemed to be a time my parents argued. But painting Santas made me feel Christmassy again. I am all into Christmas now.”
She spends her Christmases in Arizona with her son T. Her daughter Nell lives nearby in Starkville. Gibson is grandmother to three, including grandson Gabe, who died in 2017 at the age of 8. Gabe was diagnosed with epidermolysis bullosa (EB). Gibson continues to host “Art for EB,” an annual fundraiser for the rare genetic disorder.
Her original art may be purchased at galleries including Caron Gallery in Tupelo, T Clifton Art in Memphis, Culin-Arts in West Point and Southern Breeze in Jackson. Learn more about her and her artwork at leegibsonartist.com.