Lee Weiss: 25 Years in Wisconsin

by Bruce W. Pepich, Director, Racine Art Museum (formerly known as Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts), Racine, Wisconsin, 1987. Used by permission. This article accompanied a retrospective showing of Weiss' work.


Although she is not a native of Wisconsin, Lee Weiss has been a resident of Madison for most of the years of her painting career, and Wisconsin is proud to claim her as its own. From the 1960's through the 1980's she has built a national reputation for her adventuresome use of the watercolor medium. Weiss has participated in every major American watercolor competition during this time and her pieces are in numerous museum and corporate collections. She repeatedly wins awards in these competitions for her paintings that capture both the magic and mystery of nature in large scale pieces that depict close-up views of the landscape. With this career-long survey we are celebrating the 25th year of Weiss working in the State of Wisconsin and focusing upon her unique contribution to painting in watercolor. We hope to provide viewers with an opportunity to evaluate a large portion of the artist's work, to outline her themes and subjects of the past 25 years and to explain her methods of working and the technical developments she has contributed to the field.

Lee Weiss was born Elyse Crouse in California in 1928. As a youngster, she had always been involved in art and at 18 attended the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland from 1946-47. At college she studied color theory, design and drawing. She was married to Dr. Wallace John Chapman from 1947-55 and Weiss worked as a successful interior designer in the San Francisco Bay area during this time. They had two daughters. Weiss married Professor Leonard Winchell Weiss, a widower with two young girls in 1956, and renewed her interest in painting. In 1957 she audited several classes at San Jose State College taught by a former classmate from the California College of Arts and Crafts, the late Nels Eric Oback.

Weiss had always enjoyed watercolor painting as a student, and now as a young mother of four children under five years of age, she prized the ease with which the quickness of this medium enabled her to fit painting into her busy schedule. Oback realized that Weiss had already developed a distinctive approach to painting by the time she came to study with him and he determinedly advised her to go home and paint. From this point on Weiss began painting seriously. In 1958 she attended six critiques with Alexander Nepote who set up a different aesthetic problem for his students each month. Nepote claimed that each quadrant of a painting should be interesting on its own and that artworks should entertain the eye and the mind in a combination that appealed to both the sensual and the cerebral. From Oback, Weiss received the confidence and encouragement to follow her own lead. From Nepote she learned problem solving and the process of critiquing one's own work.

Aside from these areas of professional study, the artist is primarily self-taught and by 1959, Weiss was exhibiting in juried shows in the Bay Area, including the San Francisco Museum of Art. By the time her family moved from California to Madison, where Dr. Weiss is a Professor of Economics at the University of Wisconsin, she had won 17 awards, including two Best of Show and ten First Awards. Weiss received a solo exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor just before coming to the Midwest.

Stones and Grass and Winter Landscape, both of 1962, are good examples of her early Madison paintings. Both are painted in the muted earth tones found in the Midwest in November and March. In the first painting, the stones are negative spaces of white unpainted paper suggested by the outlines in brown and gray of shadows underneath. This attention to positive and negative space became a strong interest in Weiss' later compositions and she was already developing a calligraphic quality to her use of the brush. One can feel the artist at work creating the grass, rocks and trees and Weiss was already developing her signature close-up views of nature. These early pieces like Cove, 1963, with its painted areas suggesting the meeting of rocky outcrop and sandy shore with water's edge and Paisaje Mexicano, 1964, where different blocks of watercolor washes suggest the hillsides of a Mexican landscape, exhibit the artist working in an orthodox manner and with traditional subject matter. At this point in time, Weiss became concerned with finding a means by which she could enrich the surface qualities of a watercolor painting while still retaining its transparency and the inner light of the white of the paper. Weiss sought to make the surfaces more interesting without sacrificing content. She wanted to achieve this without overpainting or scraping which would damage the surface of the paper or destroy the transparent quality of the work. Weiss was originally attracted to watercolor for its subtlety and the unexpected and unpredictable qualities it possesses that enabled her to create a wide variety of light and atmosphere conditions. It was just this unpredictable quality of her medium that turned a studio accident in 1965 into the answer she had sought for increased texture in her surfaces.

As she has always limited herself to transparent watercolor, brushes, and water, she thought one solution to her surface interest could be found in her use of papers. While experimenting with a hard-surfaced paper Weiss decided to scrap the painting she had started and turned it face down onto her work table in order to start a painting on the back side of the paper. When the reverse also turned out to be a failure, Weiss peeled up the paper to dispose of it and discovered that the still-wet pigmented surface on the first side had acquired some interesting paint areas from its time spent pressed to the work table.

The artist began a series of trials in which the paper was repeatedly flipped allowing paint from a freshly painted side of the work to become deposited on the surface of the work table. When the paper was turned from side to side, it picked up deposits of pigment as what had been laid onto the table surface transferred onto the paper when they came into contact with each other. Rock Garden, 1965, and Autumn Ridge, 1966, are good examples of Weiss' early explorations into the creation of textures. In both cases, she manages to suggest rocks, earth and flora with line, color and texture. A texture so alive and inviting that it can be felt like the naps and slubs of different kinds of woven fabrics. At the same time, these watercolors still retain their transparency. The discovery of these textural effects became a vehicle to depict Weiss' impressions and also suggested subjects to her that could be treated in this fashion. By the late 1960's Weiss was able to perfect this technique, mastering its monoprinting quality through three years of experimentation.

Weiss coordinates her selection of colors from side to side so that those deposited upon the table will interact with those already on the paper to develop texture and dense areas of color. Initially, she begins with a solid abstract painting and turns the piece back and fourth four or five times. Pigment clings to the hollows of the paper areas and reveals the high points of the paper's surface Her paintings, which often look monochromatic, as in the case of Snow-packed Grasses, 1969; Old Stone, 1971; and Hillside Grasses, 1974, are in fact made up of a wide spectrum of colors. The monoprinting technique assists this by allowing a number of pigment infusions and separations.

Textures develop in the dry areas of the painting and ghost images are created on both sides of the piece. At this point the artist decides which of the two sides will be her primary surface and she begins to paint directly upon this. Weiss' construction of the painting as it develops physically often influences her final choice of subject and details. She approaches each painting first in abstract terms and lets what is happening with the interaction of paint, water and paper suggest subject matter and composition.

Although she is delighted with the texture afforded to her by her monoprinting method, Weiss uses this as only one of her techniques and more than half of her present day pieces are painted directly with a brush. Never one to use chemicals, salt or sponges, the artist delights in the mixing, direct application and lifting out of color on the white paper, all accomplished with the use of a brush.

In the late 1970's Weiss developed a technique that enabled her to layer with a brush instead of being dependent upon layering through monoprinting as a sole source of texture. Layering with a brush has its own difficulties, the main one being that the surface of these paintings must be kept uniformly wet in order to keep the paint workable and alive. It also enables her to produce different effects like falling snow which is created by flicking pure water from a brush onto a wet surface of a painting.

As an example of these combined techniques, Celebration!, 1976, was started by flipping in its early phases but early on Weiss became involved with the direct application of paint and the manipulation of the brush. Several reds were layered and then lifted off in areas with a slightly dry brush to simulate distance and dimension.

Weiss' technical ability is unique. The fact that these works are in watercolor often confounds viewers. They are infused with air, water, earth, light and movement. Although the paintings are masterfully executed it is the spirit within these watercolors that is exhilarating. It is clear that we are not looking at nature but into it through the artist's eyes. Weiss chooses to work in her studio, away from her subject matter. She does not work from sketches or slides. These scenes do not exist and are not observed directly from nature when the painting is created -- they are not on-location pieces. Instead these pieces are created from scenes the artist has observed, distilled and absorbed, storing the details in her memory until she chooses to recall them in the studio. Away from the location of her subject she is forced to consider the painting itself, to abstract from nature what it is she wants to say.

In the history of American art the role of the artist as a chronicler of nature has always been a strong one. Artists from the Old World were initially commissioned to tour with exploring expeditions to paint in detail the people, flora and fauna of the New World as a documentation to take back to Europe. Later as expansion westward began across the continent, groups like the Hudson River School documented the grandeur of America's natural resources and wonders for their fellow countrymen. The work of artists like Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran suggested an excitement with which painter and viewer alike looked, as if for the first time, upon the beauty of the American landscape. There was no suggestion of an historical past, no castles or ruins are present. Instead we see a pure landscape as if America were a paradise created for mankind. Bierstadt and Moran were known especially for the large scale of pieces showing glaciers, thunderstorms, mountains and rushing water with a reverence and a naturalist's sense of observation. Nature is seen here as awesome but not threatening and it is presented in a poetic way more so than as a photographic depiction.

The paintings of Lee Weiss have similarities as well as differences to the work of artists in this School. Her pieces have a feeling of wonderment at nature. Although she paints in large scale, Weiss is not interested in capturing the big picture in the same way as an artist sent to record a grand natural wonder. Her watercolors are beautiful and non-threatening as are the works of the Hudson River School, but they show us the wonders of nature in microcosm. Red Oak, Turning, 1974, shows us a forest and the life cycle of trees all in a painting of one section of an oak tree as it turns color in the fall. Glitter Twigs, 1986, is cold and frosty in choice of color and subject. Here a tangle of naked branches, sheathed in ice, glitters in the early morning sun providing us with the visual information to make us feel the chill in the air and hear the snap of twigs breaking under the weight of their coating of ice.

From the 1960's on, Weiss strove to develop her work from small scale depictions of large landscapes to monumental presentations of landscape details. Although small in size, Quiet Current, 1968, illustrates how Weiss oriented her larger landscapes in her mature work of the 1970's and 1980's by representing a large area of the landscape through its details. Here we see grass at the shore of a pond. Some blades dip into the water, others lift in the wind. We have clues here to help us determine conditions of light, atmosphere, time of day and year, and the condition of water and flow of its current. The viewer comes away from this piece knowing a great deal about this pond without seeing the entire body of water. Hillside Grasses presents us with another landscape as defined by grass. In this case we are on a hillside as evidenced by the slope of the earth. It is summer, the grass is full and waves languorously in the summer breeze. Silence, 1982, presents us with the subject of grass, this time in a large scale painting of large grass-reeds. Falling snow begins to blot out areas of green and we can feel the silence and cold just as we can feel the warmth of summer's light and breeze in Hillside Grasses. Like the rest of Weiss' work there is an Oriental sensibility here in the attention the artist pays toward the selection and presentation of details. Reeds, caught in a snowstorm become monumental, like a redwood forest. Weiss seems to say that we can know all of nature's greatness by paying attention to its smallest component parts.

These paintings are about the essence of nature and the aspects of nature that we take for granted. Many of these scenes could take place at the beach, a neighborhood park or in our own backyards if we took the time to observe, as Weiss does on her walks in the University of Wisconsin Arboretum near her home. With the conviction of a conservationist, her work emphasizes that nature is very fragile and could wither or change before our very eyes.

These spiritual landscapes are created by a woman whose father was raised in China and who raised his daughter on tales of the Orient. Weiss however, is not interested in consciously trying to create pieces with an Oriental sensibility. But her work, with its distillation of details rather than a continuous addition and its ability to see larger segments of nature like mountains in the smaller objects like stones that are part of the larger whole does relate to the millennia of tradition in Oriental Art.

Even Weiss' paintings that depict a larger overall area like View from the Ridge, 1980, with its overhead view of swirling mists and hills, suggest smaller views. There is a similarity here between the mist slipping over a hill and the way in which water, pours over the rocks, in White Water, 1978. The texture here could be ice with cracks or lichens and moss on rocks reminding us of the individual objects that make up these large scenes. Pieces like White Water, and Riverbed, 1987, are symphonies of the textures and rhythms of rock and water, and like the rest of Weiss' work, speak to us with the observation of a poet, a naturalist and a conservationist.

Weiss is a watercolor painter's watercolorist in that her technical mastery of a difficult medium is possibly best understood by those who are familiar with the demands of the medium. She is always pushing herself, stretching in the work to increase the scale and to create more complex areas of color. She tries not to repeat a subject unless she has something more to say about it. Her pieces that are in a series never occur one after the other but are often two, three, four or more years apart from each other in time. For this exhibition we have sought to illustrate how Weiss has returned to some of these recurring subjects over the years by hanging the exhibition, organized by subject matter and chronologically within that organization.

Lee Weiss has developed a way of looking at the world around her and distilling a poetic beauty from her observations of nature. She has also devised the techniques necessary to communicate these expressions in a most effective way.

Since 1962 she has had over 85 solo exhibitions in museums, art centers and commercial galleries across the country. Her work is in 25 major corporate collections, 30 museum and university collections and has been reproduced in over 20 books and national publications. It is because of the level of her accomplishments that we are pleased to continue our series of mid-career surveys of our regional artists with a documentation of the career to date of artist, Lee Weiss.

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