Lee recognized by state arts commission

Published 10:02 pm Saturday, August 2, 2008

The woman’s left eye and sly grin follow you; her elongated face is topped by a thin red hat that tilts down over her forehead — like Frank Sinatra.

She looks partially real, but partially fake because, just like much of Salongo Lee’s art, her portrait is a combination of photographic effects and painting.

The portrait, called Red Hat Diva, started as a picture of a friend who was a model, but Lee said that taking the photo was just the beginning.

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Years later, he used Photoshop to stretch the proportions of the face. He twirled it and changed the colors. He painted the red hat and the dark background and finally topped the photo off with a clear coating so that brushstrokes cover the whole piece.

Lee, who moved to Natchez from Los Angeles last year particularly enjoys doing the mixed media pieces to transform his photographs into his artistic visions.

“Photographs depict reality, but whose reality?” Lee said.

His work in mixed media recently won him two grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission, which will help him pay for art supplies and travel expenses.

“If they like what they see, they give you a little financial incentive to do more,” Lee said. “It gives you a chance to experiment. It kind of frees you up a little bit.”

The Abandoned Project, a series inspired by Lee’s time in Natchez, is one the grant will help him finish.

The project involves shooting abandoned houses, vehicles and even grave markers that Lee has seen in the area.

“I usually avoid cemeteries because I know we’re to get there one day, so why rush it,” Lee said.

However, once Lee got into the Natchez Cemetery he noticed the old grave markers, especially the angels and cherubs.

“There’s nobody left to (take care of them),” he said. “Eventually they’re just going to fall away. They’re left to just fall apart.”

Another good thing about the grants, and the low cost of living in Natchez compared to Los Angeles, is that Lee can focus on some of his more political pieces, ones he does not look to sell.

“I realized when I got here that if I never sold another piece of art I could live off what I have and live comfortably,” Lee said. “I’m doing more art now than I did in my studio in L.A., because I don’t have to worry about paying the bills.”

“A lot of my work makes political statements about the world at large and my community,” Lee said.

The works are intended to open the viewer’s mind to the world around them.

“We go through this world and we don’t see what’s going on past our nose.”

Lee’s art has been shown all over the county and in Australia, and he looks for exhibits that showcase eye-opening art.

“I try to find shows I can get into that make statement,” Lee said.

One political piece Lee made was a 6 by 3 foot art book about slavery. Carved into the wood backing of the book was, “400 years of slavery, 160 years of Jim Crowe and we still have one enemy…” The book then opened to a mirror and had photos of violence Lee had seen in South Central Los Angeles.

“I didn’t do it to sell it,” Lee said.

However, he did sell it, and at the request of other viewers made several more like it, but not exactly the same.

This kind of political art is what drives Lee, he said.

“It’s what gets you up in the morning and it’s what makes you not want to got to bed at night because you’ve got things running around in your head.”

Lee sells his art at Main Street Marketplace and at the Art Natchez Gallery, on Commerce Street.