A Sense of Place
Lee Weiss Finds Her Art and Her Refuge in Nature

From the Wisconsin State Journal, Madison by John Aehl , September 21, 2000.



© 2000
54 x 40.
Lee Weiss has long been recognized as "one of Wisconsin's more illustrious artists," as a newspaper article once said of her in 1980. That understated the fact then and certainly does now. One cannot write about the watercolors of Elyse "Lee" Weiss- near-abstract nature paintings—without repeating phrases that have been used in newspaper and magazine articles of the last 40 years:

" "One of America's finest and most unusual water colorists.
" " An ethereal quality in the uniquely transparent depictions of water rain, stones, sand, grass and forest - quietly sensual appeals."
" " Mesmerizing"
" " So sensate one can almost hear things, the rustle of texture, the swirl of wind and the hush of mist."

" "A blend of fantasy and photolike images."

All true, except that Weiss will disagree with the "photolike" characterization.

Time for another appreciation of her work.

Weiss will observe her association with the Fanny Garver Gallery, at 230 State St. in Downtown Madison, with an exhibit of more than 20 of her recent paintings.

"Lee Weiss: In Celebration of 30 Years Together" will open Friday at the gallery.

"It was 1963 that we became neighbors on the West Side, and then friends," Fanny Garver recalled.

But It was a little more than 30 years ago that they became business associates. Garver had taken a job with the Jane Haslem Gallery, then in an upstairs location at 638 State St. and Weiss, already with a good artistic reputation, came on as one of the gallery artist in 1969. Then Garver bought the Haslem gallery.

"It worked out so beautifully that I have been with Fanny ever since," Weiss said. "She and I have worked very well together all these years. These days I'm dealing more with John (Garver's son), but it's still Fanny's baby as far as I'm concerned."

"The size of her work is one thing, Garver said, when asked about Weiss's paintings. Several of the watercolors in the show will measure in the 4-by 5-feet range.

"To think that big is, I think, kind of incredible - to have the talent in watercolor, which is especially difficult. It's an unforgiving medium, and you have to have a wonderful technique in order to produce the images. It isn't like oils, where you can paint over. I have always thought that, because her technique is so polished, she was able to work with some paintings that were 6 feet long.

"Plus, the color. I love her color. She can mix red and green and not get gray."

"The ethereal quality has a kind of luminosity to it that is very appealing.

Meticulous in her paintings and in her habits, Weiss, 72, still works in her West Side home, which overlooks, through large windows, a dense array of hillside greenery. On quiet display throughout is an art gallery of paintings, of her own and many by friends or artists whose work she has found interesting or promising. And by a daughter, Jo Weiss Le, an artist,and teacher in Washington, D.C. Weiss has paintings in 33 public collections, including the Elvehjem Museum of Art and the Madison Art Center; the Milwaukee Art Museum; the National Museum of American Art and the National Air and Space Museum, both in the Smithsonian Institution building in Washington: and the Phillips Gallery in Washington.

Her work in in more than 30 corporate collections. She has had countless one-woman shows across across the country, from New York to California. Her work has been shown in seven countries outside of the United States. At one time she was represented in a half-dozen galleries.

And she has kept at it. "Painting is what I do," she once said. She works very hard every week when she is at home, although she travels "quite a lot", as she has for years.

"I strive for a completed painting each week," she said. "This week's painting ended up in the waste basket, but never mind. That's good. I'm painting more for satisfying my own standards now than I ever have been.

"There was a period in my life when I had too many galleries, too much claim on my time. After having had six galleries for a number of years, meaning three major shows a year - it's every other year for a gallery- juggling the paintings, taking care of the shipping and packing and repairs and bookwork, it was overwhelming."

A native Californian, Weiss moved to Madison in 1962 with her husband, Leonard, who was in the economics department at the University of Wisconsin, and their four daughters.

"When I came to this town, there was nobody working in watercolor" she said. "There were no galleries, except for a little studio galley in a basement off of an alley off of Langdon Street."

"That forced me into Chicago and New York and California, places I would never have bothered with. I had it made in California. I was represented by Gump's, and I had a show at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. It was a totally different scene.

"At that time, it was a shock to be in Madison. It was not particularly open to some housewife who paints, nevermind that I had been doing very nicely for several years before.

" It was lonely the first couple of years here, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me because I developed something that was totally my own style."

Part of that style was to expand her work into larger dimensions. She moved form what was then a fairly standard 22-by 30- inch paper size to the sizes that suited her larger vision.

"Nature is my refuge, where I find my inspiration." Weiss said, "It's infinitely variable. I have the great notion that I can grow within while working in the same subject matter. if I just pay attention.

"When I paint something, I see what I did wrong. Then I can see more, like ripples on the water. The first time I ever tried that, it looked like a net cast on the waters. Then I began to see how the waters really moved.

"My hope is not to fall into the trap of repetition without growth. And so I'm always experimenting with new papers, with new techniques."

Weiss paints from memory, which is why she would not agree with that "photolike image" statement. And she interprets, as any good artist does.

I want something that can be discovered: I don't want an illustration. It needs to be something you look at and see ever more in it.

" I start as an abstract., to begin with, warm and cool, light and dark, things that happen on the paper are so evocative of memories that I will then be directed by it. There is a point at which I say, 'OK this is an interesting set of textures, now I will turn it into a painting.' That's what I do."

While she sees a "couple of hot ones" in her recent paintings, she noted that nature as she paints it is largely cool: "It's water and green leaves and all those kind of things, and gray and snow and times of the year when things are gentle and cool. But there's strength too. Rock surfaces interest me very much, and those often are very warm."

Weiss retains great affection for her life in Madison. "I have been treated wonderfully here," she said. "Madison has been extremely good to me. I am extremely grateful."

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