The Eau Claire art community is banding together to raise $15,000 to support local artist Eric Lee, who recently received an invitation to display his work at a prestigious international gallery exhibit that runs in partnership with the Venice Biennale in Italy later this year. Hosted by the European Cultural Center, an organization that promotes the arts through exhibitions and education, the “Personal Structures,” art exhibition complements the world-renowned Biennale by inviting artists from many cultures, styles, ages, and stages in their career to show their creations. During the last show in 2017, about 200 artists from 40 countries were chosen to participate. This year, Lee would likely be the only Midwest artist on a roster that is often flooded with New York City names.
Lee is the first to admit that his paintings, prior to 2016, sucked the life out of a room. They were dark and colorless explorations of his past, attempts to make sense of the struggles of his 20s.“There’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression, a lot of problems,” he said of his work. “It comes to the point where you’ve got to ask, am I expressing this, or am I just feeding it?”
In 2015, feelings of anxiety and depression were weighing on Lee. “I was really struggling at this point and could not see anything positive anywhere, though my beautiful family was right in front of me,” he said. He knew he had to take a more positive approach to art, and to life. With this in mind, Lee began work on the last painting he would make for two years.
It’s a triptych – three canvases intended to be displayed as one cohesive work – featuring a collage of tattered canvass, broken matches and match heads, and various other scraps arranged on top of swirls of oil paint, ink and tiny images of graffiti-touched buildings. With splashes of rust, aqua, and pea-green, it’s a rainbow compared to his older works.
Upon completion of the paintings in 2016, the younger of Lee’s two sons, Vinnie, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Lee stopped painting altogether while his family endured the child’s illness. Six-year-old Vinnie died the day after Easter last year. Lee’s long-brewing paradigm shift snapped into place.
“Needless to say, it changes absolutely everything,” Lee said. “Everything stopped.” Vinnie’s death put things into a perspective Lee could never have imagined. “It may seem weird, but I am a way more positive person than I was before.”
Painting wasn’t as important to Lee from there on out. He used to labor over each piece, perceiving them as direct indicators of his success and status, never finding satisfaction in the finished product. When he began painting again late last year, he took a more playful approach, and a more hopeful one.
Just after he put brush to surface again, the European Cultural Center reached out. One of the event organizers had seen his triptych from two years ago on Instagram, and wanted him to show his work in Venice.
“I thought this was a hoax,” Lee said. “It was an email from someone named ‘Svetlana’ in Russia.” Out of caution, he researched the organizations mentioned in the email, and asked the woman who reached out – Svetlana Eroshina, one of the exhibition organizers – questions about the piece and how she found it to verify that the opportunity was authentic. And it was.
But it comes with a price tag. Participating artists are responsible for transporting their work to the event, which takes place May-November this year. Between the cost of shipping and navigating Venice’s strict laws regarding art, getting just the painting – not Lee himself – to Venice will cost $12,000.
“There was really no question of what to do, because we believe in supporting each other as artists,” fellow artist Jo Ellen Burke, owner of 200 Main Gallery & Wine Bar, said. She set up an online fundraiser Wednesday to help pay Lee’s shipping – and potentially travel – expenses.
“Italy is a mecca for art in the entire world,” Burke said. “We’d really like to see someone like Eric who is really humble, and so focused on his work and family, to give him a chance to attend something like this as well.” She would like to see the community lend enough support to allow Lee’s entire family to go.
“It’s like Justin Vernon making it,” Terry Meyer, another Eau Claire artist, said. “We’re actually going to have a visual artist who is world renowned.”
“If they had picked one of (my older paintings), I would probably have not gone through with it,” Lee said. “I don’t want to put that kind of thing out into the world anymore.”
A few of Lee’s older, gray paintings are currently hung in the Graham Avenue Walking Gallery at the Pablo Center at the Confluence. The pieces, “Verehrung” and “Springtime on Winter Street,” are sobering bookends to a display of works by elementary students: explorations of symphonic music in technicolor.
When Lee received his old pieces back from an art show in New York in late 2018, he wasn’t sure what to do with them. A friend advised him to sell the works, and direct the proceeds to a local charity. Lee chose the Beacon House in Eau Claire, which helps people with housing insecurity transition into permanent living arrangements. Doing something good with his older art is Lee’s way to say goodbye to his old worldview.
Though Lee has painted for more than 10 years, it has always been a private practice. If he is able to send his work to Venice, he hopes the increased exposure will allow him to do more to help others.
“I am completely blown away by the generosity, by the interest people are taking,” Lee said. He was featured on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Spectrum West Thursday morning, and several people and organizations, including UW-Eau Claire and the European Cultural Center itself, have reached out to him with financial support.
“I still don’t understand for the life of me why they’d find me in the first place or choose me, because there are many thousands of artists out there who would love to be a part of this,” Lee said. “I’d be happy to frame the invitation.”
The online fundraiser for Lee can be reached here: www.gofundme.com/support-for-eric-lee
More information about the Venice Biennale is available online at www.labiennale.org. The exhibition Lee has been invited to show in, “Personal Structures,” has an online presence at ecc-italy.eu. Lee will need to raise the funds to ship his work by mid-March.