From the day of his birth, Tim Lee’s penchant for the bizarre and creative was foretold: He and his two brothers were all born on the 13th day of the month.
With low brow pop surreal wood paintings, he weaves stories of spectral blues musicians haunting back alleys in the 1920’s. Are they ghosts? Or are they simply lingering memories of a final, fading music note from a time almost forgotten? His art, filled with skull-people and creatures from a vintage oddities circus show, spins tales that make Tim Burton’s “NightApre Before Christmas” mad with envy.
“I just want to make something that’s cool,” Lee explains. “I want to tell a story about this guy in a black suit, and he’s dead, and he’s carrying a guitar, and what his life is all about. I want to give the viewer enough clues and visual metaphors to create their own story, too.”
After attending a proper art school, graduating in fine arts, and spending years as a freelance and corporate digital illustrator, Lee finally started doing art on his own terms.
“I sometimes burn out on assignments and freelance,” he says, summing up the struggle of every artist. “I’ve done hundreds and hundreds over the years. When I switched to doing my own stuff, I can focus on what I love. It doesn’t feel like work.”
“But making art can be expensive,” he says. His day job allows the luxury of affording resins, fancy paint, large canvases, and a 3D printer for some spectacularly macabre figurines.
While, like many artists, Lee dreams of a time when his personal art can become a full-time job, there’s no questioning the success of his freelance illustrations, which have been seen all throughout Raleigh. His work hangs in Father & Son’s, Beehive Gallery, and Amplified.
“Low brow pop surrealist galleries are a small community. There’s not a central location for folk art in Raleigh. Drives me crazy.”
Perhaps most memorably, his art decorated Raleigh’s streets during the World of Bluegrass Festival in 2014. “It was weird,” he recalls, laughing, “seeing my art four stories tall on the convention center.”
Bluegrass, folk music, and jazz cast heavy overtones in Lee’s paintings, who also plays mandolin in a group called The Hey Brothers. “I’ve done five paintings based on old folk songs. It’s mystical, but it’s folklore. There’s some creepy, spooky stuff, but it’s not unhappy. The music doesn’t ever go away.”
Whether on a woodblock, an oil painting, or a resin sculpture, Lee’s work keeps Raleigh’s imagination twirling in his strange worlds. With eerie, yet whimsical, folk-music spirits and odd monsters, he has many stories left to tell.
“I just never stop. ‘Keep climbing my own personal mountain,’ like Neil Gaiman said. I can’t stop doing it.”