Alice Lee: A portrait of the artist as a young scholar
The familiar decor of the Danforth University Center is due for a shake-up. Later this week, senior Alice Lee’s artwork will be displayed at the DUC in the hallway connecting the main dining area with the Career Center. Lee is the first of a number of students whose art will be exhibited as a part of an initiative by Senior Class Council to highlight the achievements of seniors in the Sam Fox School. The Council aims to have a rotation schedule so that a new students’ works will be put up every three weeks.
A Communication Design major with a concentration in Illustration, Lee hails from Orange County, Calif. Born in South Korea, she moved to the U.S. when she was three years old. She is excited this month to finally have her status change from permanent resident to official citizen, which she notes has been a long time coming; the challenges immigrants face in becoming naturalized citizens is one of the issues she is most passionate about. After college, Lee hopes to work on character design and story development for animated TV shows and movies.
Lee discovered her passion for illustration early on in life. She recalls how she would barter with kids in elementary school using her drawings as currency: “At school, the other kids would look at what I was drawing and would say, ‘That’s so cool!’ and we would have little exchanges like, ‘I’ll let you wear my bracelet during recess period if you make me a drawing,’” Lee said. “I really enjoyed that, and I kept drawing from then on, I think, because it’s a thing you can do by yourself. And the more you do it, the better you get at it, so it was always really rewarding.”
Lee recounts Shel Silverstein, Tomie DePaola, as well as Calvin and Hobbes and “a lot of comics,” as some of her biggest artistic inspirations growing up. They made her dream of becoming a children’s book illustrator herself someday—an aspiration she still holds for her life down the line.
As for what makes Lee look up to those illustrators, she points to how none of them talk down to their audiences—which makes the work hold up for her even now.
“They always create very meaningful stories and are clearly passionate about making images that will last,” Lee said. “I feel like kids are so observant and really influenced by what they see, and I feel like that was very influential for me because I realized that even if you’re making content that not everyone will notice, feeling like you did something meaningful and something that will matter to at least one other person is really important.”
Lee’s favorite subjects are the people around her.
“I love drawing people. I almost only draw people because the way I learn about people is by drawing them, observing them—which I know sounds kind of weird, but I think it’s important to see the little things people do when they don’t think anyone is looking at them—like their habits and behaviors. When I draw them, I’m really processing everything, so it never stops being interesting for me,” she said.
The four works Lee chose for the Senior Art Exhibit all depict people, but they have little in common outside of that. One of her paintings, titled “Rebel,” depicts James Dean during a scene from one of his early movies, “Rebel Without a Cause.”
“I took a lot of screenshots from the film and studied them, and this is one I wanted to paint just because the colors were so iconic. The background I made up. This was the one I spent a lot of time on just for the sake of making it; I didn’t make this for a project for anything—and that was the first time I really dedicated a lot of time to a project just for my personal satisfaction, so it felt really nice doing that,” Lee explained.
In another of the pieces that will be exhibited, Alice chose another actor, Oscar Isaac, who shows off his own version of a brooding look. It’s markedly different from “Rebel,” however, in that it is a digital painting—meaning it was made entirely on the computer, using a tablet and Photoshop. Since the world is moving toward digital art, Lee says it’s important for Sam Fox students to be well-versed in those techniques. This piece came out of her desire to push herself using the digital medium, which was new to her at the time.
“Rebirth,” of a woman stitching herself back together as things are spilling of her non-visible form, is one of Lee’s more personal works.
“I submitted this as part of my portfolio for going into college. At the time, I was making a lot of pieces and was rather stressed out and was going through some stuff with a close friend. I was thinking about moments when I wasn’t able to really be honest with other people or vocalize what I really felt. I kept trying to keep this internal conflict under wraps, so I was trying to paint something that would help me express that,” Lee said.
“Of Mind and Body,” also an earlier work for the artist, was similarly produced out of a desire to communicate something not easily said out loud.
“I have problems vocalizing my feelings to people, so I think a lot of my art at the time reflected that,” Lee said. “Art has kind of been a way of speaking. When I was younger, I stuttered a lot, and I was very shy. And then art became this thing where I could speak, and people could actually listen and understand.”
Since Lee mostly does design-related work in her classes, she wanted to show the fine arts side of herself and her work that fewer people might know about.
The rotating Senior Art Exhibit in the DUC, she notes, is a great way to have some of the work Sam Fox students do get recognized outside of the walls of the art school.
“It’s nice to have an exhibit which says that [Washington University] is proud of this person and wishes the best for them as they go off in the world—that’s what it feels like for me, so I hope it’s positive and affirming for other people who will have a chance to get their art exhibited. It’s also a nice way of showing the capabilities we have at our school, the different kinds of people we have,” Lee said.
Visit the DUC later this week to see Lee’s four works on display.