Weiss: 25 Years in Wisconsin
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.
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
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
© 1999 Lee Weiss. All rights reserved.
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by Lee Weiss.