For many children, an interest in comics is merely a leisure activity, one that they may soon outgrow. But for Hong Kong native and artist Cary Chun Lee, a childhood interest in comics segued into a professional art career.
Lee’s introduction to drawing came as a child, when he spent time tracing and redrawing comics. Soon, Lee began experimenting with watercolors and eventually taught himself to paint in various mediums, such as acrylic, which he now favors along with oil painting. Gradually, Lee’s professional concentration shifted from comic characters to animals and people – a transition he says came with age (However, even as an adult, Lee says, he continues to enjoy comics; in fact, he maintains a small comic collection on his studio shelves). The artist’s focus soon evolved into what is now his iconic pop surrealist cats and goldfish.
After moving to New Orleans in the 1980s, the artist spent close to nine years painting and selling in Jackson Square, which he described as both rewarding and challenging. Working as an artist there is competitive, explained Lee. Although city-mandated rules govern operations at the square , artists rarely follow them. An artist’s precise location within Jackson Square, Lee adds, is also tremendously important; a slight locational adjustment could be the difference between a sale and no sale. Moreover, the unpredictable summer weather in NOLA — short showers of rain and oppressive humidity — have often forced the artist to shut down for the day. Despite all of the challenges of being a Jackson Square artist, Lee said that there is a sense of camaraderie and community among the artists there.
After nearly a decade as a Jackson Square artist, Lee has ceased painting outdoors and has moved his work both online and into shops in the French Quarter, where he sells about 50 prints and five original 11×14 acrylic-on-canvas paintings at each store per month.
As for his work, Lee describes his eclectic depictions of animals as pop-surrealism. Although he has devoted a tremendous amount of time animating goldfish on canvas, it is a customer’s words regarding one of his cat prints — proclaiming it his top work — that remains Lee’s most cherished compliment.
Lee says he is able to replicate many shorthaired cats, his artistic expertise, in his work, but uses photo references when depicting cats of different breeds. Despite frequent inquiries, Lee continues to decline requests for pet portraits. His signature style, Lee says, does not lend itself to realistic portraits.
One of Lee’s favorite aspects of New Orleans culture is how hospitable it is for small-time artists, a city where not merely the big art names can make a decent living, and where the arts community is full of budding artisans and art lovers. That’s why, despite the fact that the majority of his family moved to Houston after Hurricane Katrina, Lee decided to stay and push his luck in NOLA And thus far, it has been rewarding.
You can find Lee’s work in the Quarter, at Adorn (610 Royal Street) and at the Great Artists’ Collective (815 Royal Street).