Nick Lee

Age: 25 • Lives and creates: Akron • Learned: BFA in painting from Kent State University

By Amanda Koehn

The turning point that led Nick Lee to become a painter was a trip to experience modern art in New York City in 2019. At the time, the Kent State University junior was majoring in art education.

But in New York, he saw a show by Amy Sherald soon after she debuted her National Portrait Gallery painting of Michelle Obama. 

“Seeing her work was really life changing, and it allowed me to think of who can do what,” Lee says. “I kind of changed my path in a way.”

He listened to Sherald, known for depicting African American experiences through intimate painted portraits, discuss how she wanted to reflect Black people so they feel represented within art history.

“When you have a reflection, you know you’re not a monster,” Lee explains. “… I think of, what could I add to art history as well? And when I was looking at the portraits, there was a lack of representation for Asian people. It just clicked that that’s something I could do to add to art history.”    

“Introduction to Sir” (2021) by Nick Lee. Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. His profile in the Who’s Next series is on Page 20. Photo courtesy of the artist.

He soon switched his major to painting, graduating in 2021. This year, Lee had his first post-college solo show at Summit Artspace in Akron, and has two more he’s preparing to open.

Known for his vivid portraits that incorporate symbolic and political messages, Lee continues to seek inspiration from art history in conceptualizing his paintings. He often references Japanese culture. For example, he notes wooden bird carvings Japanese Americans created while forced into internment camps during World War II. He’s included them in his paintings as a symbol of Japanese American strength. 

One painting, “Sympathy for the Caged Bird,” shows a boy holding a bird in a cage. It symbolizes “repeating of history,” he says, tying when Japanese Americans were blamed for World War II to when Asian Americans were blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Hate crimes rose and former President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus.” Donald and Melania Trump are in the painting’s background, Lee explains.  

“Sympathy for the Caged Bird” (2021). Oil on canvas, 28 x 38 inches.

A graduate of Green High School, Lee says as a child, he liked drawing people. 

“I’ve always drawn and I’ve always been attracted to art – even though for my family, it’s like foreign to them,” he says.

It wasn’t until college that becoming an artist became a realistic goal, he says. A Kent State painting professor, Charles Basham, taught him how to use bright, saturated colors in his paintings, he adds.

After college, he worked at the Immersive Van Gogh exhibition when it came to Cleveland, and did an artist residency there last year. It was a good experience for working in an artistic environment, he says, and he made and sold his work at the exhibit – giving him exposure to a wide, diverse pool of visitors. Afterward, he took a job at a Lowe’s home improvement store. 

“An Ox outside the China Shop” (2022). Oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches. Photos courtesy of the artist.

So far, the biggest challenge he’s faced in his art career has been the financial aspect, he says. Since the beginning of August, he’s pursued art full time.

Another turning point came when Lee was selected for Summit Artspace’s first funded solo exhibition for Black, Indigenous and People of Color, or BIPOC, artists. His show, “When We Share Our Wounds” – which sought to heighten representation of Japanese Americans in portraiture – was on view from April 8 through June 25.

“It meant a lot to me because it was my first solo show after my degree,” he says, adding he created the work for his senior thesis, but it was shown as part of a KSU group show at the time. “It was nice to have that work secluded from like all the other students’ work.”

Lee’s profile has only grown since. 

“Osaka” (2021). Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches.

His painting of professional tennis player Naomi Osaka was printed to hang in the storefront of Velvet Vintage Boutique in downtown Akron. He also was part of a show at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood earlier this fall.   

This season, he will have a solo show at Negative Space Gallery in Cleveland’s Asiatown starting Nov. 26. The show, six portraits of Asian Americans from the Cleveland area, was developed with support from SPACES’ Urgent Art Fund Cycle 3 – an initiative where the Cleveland gallery offers project-based support to Cuyahoga County artists, supported by Cuyahoga Arts & Culture.

And opening Jan. 13, 2023, he’ll have a solo show at Heights Arts in Cleveland Heights. Lee says that show “fell in my lap,” after he pitched an idea and the gallery quickly agreed.

“I am really passionate about the LGBTQ community, so I wanted to make a show dedicated to them,” he says of the new Heights Arts project. “I’ve sprinkled in queer people throughout my portraits, but I haven’t had a show dedicated to queer people.”   

“Nick’s spring 2022 solo exhibition at Summit Artspace, ‘When We Share Our Wounds,’ facilitated important conversations about who is represented in our media and artwork, and who is missing or systematically erased. The stories his portraits tell are vibrant, complex, compelling, humorous and painful at once. Nick’s work offers so many points of entry, challenging us to reconsider the assumptions we carry about people, culture and race.”

Heather Meeker, executive director, Summit Artspace

On view

•Nick Lee’s show at Negative Space Gallery, 3820 Superior Ave. E., second floor in Cleveland, is on view starting Nov. 26, with an opening reception from 5-7 p.m. The exhibit is on view until Jan. 20, 2023.

•Heights Arts will host a solo show by Nick Lee, on view at 2175 Lee Road in Cleveland Heights from Jan. 13, 2023 through March 12.