Betty and Veronica from the Archie Comics may have been the ones to kickstart her love for drawing, but over the years the richness of her culture has kept artist Marissa Yung Lee’s creative juices flowing.
“I’ve been doing art since childhood, drawing comics in primary school. It became an active hobby in my late teens to early 20s and I started zeroing in on it more seriously within the last eight years,” Lee told WMN.
“My Carnival and folklore pieces are part of my passion project and will be my life’s work,” because to her, TT’s culture is the richest in the world, especially around Carnival time.
“I love to travel and see other cultures, which in turn makes me take pride in my own culture that much more.”
Lee said the first time she saw the blue devils, jab jabs and moko jumbies up close, she was enamoured by the depth of their characters.
“There was this great sense of them being in the grip of something much bigger, and I was and still am awestruck” by these “heroes of TT.”
Her love for doing portraits found the perfect partner in these characters – a match made in heaven of sorts.
“Portraits are my favourite things to paint… If I’d been searching for a way to marry my love of portraits with local culture, then I’d found it. I’ve been fortunate to meet some of our performers and the more I get to know them the more dedicated I become to telling their stories in paint.”
Her mission, she said, is to put them on the spotlight as a “thank you” for their dedication to the tradition over the years, “and to portray them the way I see them since that first day – magical, otherworldly, a little scary, magnificent.”
She, too, has done her share in passing on the tradition. She has been teaching her four-year-old nephew, Dante, to paint and about the traditional characters since he was a baby.
“He played kiddies Carnival this year with the Next Level Devils and is growing up steeped in culture. When I ask him what he wants to paint today and he says, ‘a blue devil,’ it really drives home how important it is to carry on tradition.”
Born in San Fernando to a TT mother and South Korean father, Lee said aside from art she also has great passion for jiu jitsu, a type of martial arts.
“I train at Gracie Jiu Jitsu. My South Korean heritage has influenced my love of martial arts, Korean cuisine and a love for Asian culture in general. Some of my art pays homage to that.”
Her middle name, Yung, which most people mistake as part of her surname, also honours her Korean roots.
“Of course this has led to many mix-ups at the passport office and in school roll call etc. But I decided to go by my full name artistically because it’s now part of my own story,” she explained.
Most of her portraits are commissioned and she said although she’s always complimented on her work, one of her biggest regrets is that she never formalised the theoretical aspect of it.
“I favour portraits and figures in an impressionistic sort of realism, and it would have been great if I had taken anatomy and colour theory classes.”
But this just propels her to work harder to improve on what comes natural to her.
“I’ve taken two workshops in the US with (master artists) Susan Lyon and Scott Burdick, who I happened to meet in Charleston, SC when I walked into a gallery and found them in the middle of a joint exhibition. I remember seeing their work and being gobsmacked because that was the first time I saw very clearly that there was a difference between hobbyist painting – which is what I’d been doing – and professional painting. I knew then and there that I wanted to become unstuck from my bubble and really grow with my art. Since then I’ve taken a workshop in India with artists Pramod Kurlekar and Suchitra Bhosle, which was one of the best experiences of my life.”
Lee loves working with oils. She also uses watercolours, and does some charcoal drawing. She recalls how her natural talent went from a hobby to an income generator.
“I used to paint on my friends’ Converse sneakers and started getting requests from people on Facebook to work on their shoes. That’s really when I started making money from art. Since then I’ve gravitated more to fine art.” Painting is now her full time job.
Working with oils, she said, allows her to take her time to think about where and how to place her strokes.
“I prefer painting alla prima, which means placing wet paint on top of wet paint and oils stay wet much longer, and are very luscious in terms of colour and texture.”
She said she sticks to a limited number of mediums because for her each takes years to get a healthy grasp of.
“I’m one of those people who can be good at many things but when I spread myself across all of them, I never become great at any one in particular. Jack of all trades, master of none.”
Although oils have presented the most technical challenges so far, the medium has pushed her to delve into elements such as colour theory and light temperature.
“Acrylics and watercolour never gave me that push because to me they are more forgiving mediums and my mistakes weren’t as obvious.”
Her oil paintings are more dramatic and vibrant, while her watercolours are more soothing and serene.
“Watercolour, when very wet, runs and blots and blurs and you can’t predict exactly what a stroke will look like. This makes me relax and not try too hard to control what happens, and happy to observe the outcome. Oils, on the other hand, is like trying to wrestle an alligator – which is not a bad thing because I quite enjoy wrestling in real life.”
Although the 38-year-old has been working on her oil-painting technique for approximately seven years, she believes she will never get to the end of the road because there is always more to learn.
“It’s still in development, I don’t see an end to that journey in sight. The more I learn the more I realise how much more there is to learn. It’s like playing Candy Crush and every time you get to a new level, you realise there are thousands more. The developers are constantly creating new ones and it’s never going to end.”
Lee described herself as an introvert who gets her inspiration from the unique features of her subjects.
“Painting has allowed me to meet and connect with people I never would have otherwise. Imagine homebody old me, revelling in solitude with my book and my cup of tea, up in Paramin surrounded by blue devils, or down in Couva trying to crack whips with the whipmasters.”
She said a few years ago she could never have imagined her life as it is now. Her entire concept of beauty and intimacy has changed for the better.
“There is also this thing that happens when you’re painting someone’s portrait and you have to stare at their face for over eight hours at a time. It’s very intimate and definitely changes your understanding of beauty. Beauty isn’t what TV taught us; it’s the way light catches each person’s face in a unique way, or the resemblance to your parents that comes through as you get older, or the amount of colour it takes to match a skin tone. I know it may sound cliché but everyone really is beautiful in their own way.”
She said her work has also made her realise that people in general are very kind and can be uplifting.
“People I have never met, reaching out to me to extend encouragement, is something that never fails to amaze me. It’s impossible to be cynical when you see that most people lean toward positivity.”
Most of the magic happens at her studio in St Augustine, and she said social media has been very kind to her as a marketing tool.
“Most of my commissions have come through Facebook and Instagram and sales have been happening there as well. I am also taking part in a four-person show at Horizons Art Gallery on October 6 which should run for a week,” after which she’ll be working on some commissioned work and finding time to do some fun paintings. “Complacency terrifies me.”
And although the covid19 pandemic gave her the perfect opportunity to paint to her heart’s delight, she too was blindsided by the unexpected visitor.
“All the right circumstances to paint just fell into my lap and instead I was almost crippled by the pressure I placed on myself to produce. I hadn’t realised how much I value the freedom to go visit with friends and family, and that left me in a suspended kind of grief. Of course, I’m much better now and I’m managing my expectations in a healthier way.”
Follow Marissa Yung Lee on Facebook, @marissayunglee on Instagram or email firstname.lastname@example.org