INTERVIEW: CAMERON LEE

Photographed by Morgana Van Peebles

Interviewed by Noa Levy Baron

Introduce yourself. Name, year and what you are studying.

My name is Cameron Lee, and I am junior in CC, majoring in Creative Writing and concentrating in Visual Arts. I am one of the Editors-in-Chief of Quarto Literary Magazine here. I am a visual artist and a writer.

What mediums do you use to create art?

I mostly draw in sketchbooks with markers and graphite. Sometimes I paint with acrylic or watercolor, but I mostly draw. I would say that I use sketchbooks mainly out of convenience and because I like to keep all my art in one place. For a while it was daunting for me to have a whole separate piece of paper laid out that had to become “my drawing.” So it was much easier for me to experiment in sketchbooks and really track my growth. I use graphite because of the ease of being able to make mistakes, of experimenting; erasing and going back. More recently I have been into markers because I always wanted to find a way to incorporate color in my art, and I am a little too impatient for color pencils (laughs). In my experience, it takes a while and you have to work with layers. Whereas markers, for me, tend to be a faster way to add color and make a drawing vibrant.

As you introduced yourself also as a writer, how do you create in this medium?

My writing and my art are not usually directly tied together in the sense that I write prose in my sketchbook alongside a drawing, but occasionally I will illustrate something I’ve written to help bring a character to life in my mind. I almost exclusively write fiction, mostly in the third person, because I love the freedom it gives me to inhabit the minds of my characters while still getting the chance to invoke strong visuals and describe the setting, the characters, the world, etc.

How have your writings influenced your drawing? Have your drawings also influenced your writing?

Definitely. It’s funny because a year or two ago, my mom said she didn’t know whether she sees me as an artist who writes or a writer who draws. I love that she said that, and I think that is true about me. The way I write, the worlds I create and the kind of absurd, strange fantastical nature of my fiction definitely informs the way I draw. Even if it is just a few details, I prefer to give a character a little bit of a strange aspect.

I also think the way I describe people in my fiction is with the intention of making someone see the image or see something. I am a very visual person, just in life in general, so I really try to evoke images that help people see what I am describing and a lot of writers that I love do that so viscerally. I really see what they want me to see.

 Papaya - Cameron Lee

Papaya - Cameron Lee

Are there any particular moments when you prefer to draw?

I think my favorite time to draw is first thing in the morning just because I love when there is a lot of natural light in my room. No one else is awake or moving around so I can just sit there in the silence or listen to music. And I’m more productive in the morning too, so I am really motivated to get stuff done when I first wake up.

How did you learn how to draw ?

I started drawing before I started learning how in school, but I took some level of elementary, middle school, and high school art classes before I came to Columbia. I think most of my early knowledge came from practice, outside of proportions or some other basic things I was taught in high school or before. I was (and still am) always drawing and looking at other people’s art. More recently I have learned a lot from my college classes, artists I’ve found online, museums I’ve had the privilege to visit, and my incredibly talented friends and classmates.

In that regard, would you say there is any difference in the creative process of producing works for classes and for yourself?

Yes, I definitely think so. I do most of my drawings in sketchbooks and they just happen on the fly, so there is not as much thought and planning that goes into those as what I draw for class projects. For example, I was in the Drawing II class last semester and we had a project which was supposed to be an enormous drawing. The professor wanted us to try and meld styles and techniques that we had and had not used before and so that lead me to think differently about the subject matter. Having some form of limitation or guideline definitely changes the way I decide to create. In that case, I did not want to do graphite for an enormous drawing so I used chalk pastel and some color pencil and charcoal - that directly informed the subject matter and the process.

Has your life influenced your work?

I think I can definitely speak to life influencing my work because when I was younger I would always be so freaked out if I made a mistake. I’d be like, “This drawing is ruined, I am going to throw it away.” I was very dramatic and my parents always told me that it was not the end of the world, that I could fix it; but at the time I was using crayons or Crayola markers so it wasn’t easy to erase or to go back. I think through high school my favorite medium was graphite because I could just erase it. My fear of making a mistake that would ruin the drawing drove me to a medium that was easily erasable. I am only realizing now, as I am using markers more, that I was so terrified of messing drawings up in the past I would use almost exclusively graphite and do pretty realistic drawings that took a long time so I could think a lot about my next moves. Now I think I am slowly losing that fear of making a mistake. So I just decided to use markers and let it go where it goes and see what happens. If I make a mistake or if I don’t like the final maybe someone else will like it; and if not it’s not the end of the world. Or so I have to keep reminding myself.

Building off of this, in what ways does your work express your identity?

I almost exclusively draw women, faces and bodies and part of that comes from the fact that I identify as a woman and for some reason it is instinctual for me to draw women. I haven’t thought a lot about why, but I am just really attracted to that area of art and that subject matter. I think I should probably try drawing men more because it might diversify my skill sets. But as of now I definitely think that I gravitate towards those themes because I am a woman and that is such an integral part of my identity.

What are the main themes you highlight? Do you want to communicate something through your drawings?

I think it’s kind of funny because I have been asked this question in the past and in different contexts: what is your art about? What are the themes? Do you mean to say anything with your work? I think the majority of the time, not necessarily. It is exciting if people can read into my art in certain ways, but most of the time it’s just aesthetically pleasing to me and for my own practice to explore different faces and bodies and positions and just learn and grow as an artist.

 Medusa - Cameron Lee

Medusa - Cameron Lee

Why do you focus particularly on faces and bodies?

I started drawing faces initially because that is what you usually first see when you look at a person. You look at their face and you see their body in front of you and it was intrinsic to me to try to represent that and to put that on paper. This is also partly why I enjoy drawing women and figures. It is so fascinating to me to see how we all more or less have the same features on our faces but everyone ends up looking so different. I am really interested in representing the variety of people that exist: the diversity of life and figures, the way faces and bodies can move, and the way bodies and faces can represent different emotions. It is funny that I am saying that actually because all of my figures are making the same expression but that is not intentional; just an unfortunate default of mine. I’m working on it.

Have you ever drawn self-portraits?

I have done a couple. Maybe only once or twice voluntarily, mostly for class assignments. I am interested in doing one huge self-portrait of myself because I did a painting in high school of myself, but it has been a while. And I use pictures of my body and hands as references all the time, so it may be nice to see how well I can draw my face, or how I might draw my face. That’s something I’d like to explore more in the future.

Do you have any specific artists or individuals who inspire you?

I can name a few artists that I have been interacting with and learning about recently and that I find really inspiring. It’s funny because a lot of them are actually painters. One of them is David Hockney, who had an exhibit at the MET last year. I had not heard of him before then but I was so struck by the colors and how he represents his figures. It was one of the best exhibits I have ever been to. A lot of the painters I love inspire me to try my hand at painting more because I love what emotions painting can evoke in me.

I also love Frida Kahlo, because of the subject matter of her art and because of who she was. The rawness with which she painted is always inspiring to me.

Recently, I have also learned about Charles White, who was a mentor of Kerry James Marshall, and I love both of their work. I was at the Charles White retrospective at the MoMA and the way that his portraits moved me was crazy; I did not expect that. That is part of what I want to do in art: just make someone feel something. Then I feel I have succeeded, whether they are chuckling or sad or angry.

Living in New York and being able to go to all of those museums, and see all those paintings, drawings and sculptures in person always inspires me. On Sunday I was at the Wallach Art Gallery, looking at an exhibition called “Posing Modernity” about black figures in art. Just being able to stand there in front of a painting with no glass between us and seeing how the brushstrokes look and what rich colors were used really inspires me to go off and try to emulate or learn from that.

Also funnily enough, a lot of my inspiration does not come from famous artists but just artists that I follow on Instagram: random people that I find through having an art account, or people recommending things to me. I just love the creativity of artists such as @pollynor who draws women and their demons and touches upon sexuality and gender. Also @a.creature and @flesh.png who are not afraid of playing with color, figures or creepy and weird things and just messing around with sketchbooks, forms, and all sorts of techniques that I would love to be able to do one day with my art.

Are you working on any future projects? Do you have any specific goals?

I think future goals of mine would definitely be to further shed my reluctance to try things that make me uncomfortable. I would love to paint more in my free time, and not be afraid to pull out the watercolors or ink even though it might involve more time and effort than something else. I have never done oil so I would love to try oil painting for instance. I would also like to explore the darker side of my art and what it means to be a woman or a demon or both. I have always loved weird things and strange things and the idea that there might be another world. This is why I like imagining things that should exist outside of our world inside our world, marrying the strange with the normal, just to bring a little more fantasy and interest to everyday life. I would love to continue this exploration and broaden my horizons.

As far as future projects go, I would actually love to do a self-portrait. I have been thinking about that for a while and I never managed to do one for myself that I feel really happy about. There are also a couple of unfinished things in my sketchbooks that I need to get back to. I would also like to be more experimental. I do a little bit of digital art and I usually forget that I can do it because it is not at the forefront of my mind but I would love to get back to experimenting with it. Overall, just trying a lot of new things and not being afraid to mess up and not like something.