Becky Lee is not a night person. Early on most evenings, after a full day of drawing and conducting art classes, she puts on her pajamas and relaxes in one of the two overstuffed chairs in the den with her husband, Tom, sitting nearby. Her cats, Hobbes and Smudge, usually are curled up beside her.
Recently, Becky altered her nightly routine for an interview in the living room of her home on Morganton Road. Despite the formal setting, the room was comfortable and inviting. Gas logs in the fireplace emitted a warm glow, and Arty, a rescued golden retriever, soaked up the warmth. Seen on every wall were paintings by Becky and other artists, among them a pastel of the Lees’ son, Jack, flanked by two Airedales.
“Pastels are my favorite,” she said.
Becky always knew art would be part of her life. She had her first art show in the first grade, won her first blue ribbon the following year, and in the sixth grade was an illustrator for the school newspaper. In high school she was voted “most talented” by her classmates. A personal tragedy prevented her from attending art school at East Carolina University as she had planned. Instead, she attended Stratford College in Virginia, where she studied business. She became a secretary and worked for a dean at Duke University, the president of Methodist College (now University), and the president of the Cumberland Hospital System.
She met Tom Lee on a double date in Chapel Hill, where he was a student at the University of North Carolina. They were married in 1971, and five months after their wedding Tom, who by then was in the Army and stationed at Fort Bragg, deployed to Vietnam. After the birth of their son – named after Jackson Lee, his grandfather and a former mayor of Fayetteville – Becky’s career took a different direction.
In 1986, she enrolled at Methodist College as a part-time student and studied art and education.
“Never did I think about teaching,” she said.
But friends encouraged her to give private lessons. Today, Becky is in her eleventh year of teaching. She has 39 private students ranging from third graders, the youngest, to adults.
“Every year we have a showing at Cape Fear Studios,” she said.
There’s a waiting list of people hoping to study with her. She accepts people “who will listen, who will look with their eyes and not their heads,” she said. “I’m very God-centered. God brings students to me for a reason.”
Her energy comes from her passion for art, whether in front of a canvas or behind a camera taking a photograph of a subject for one of her paintings. She also derives inspiration from her faith. “I pray every time before I paint,” she said.
Becky starts early in the morning. From the moment she rises, she throws herself into her art or her teaching. However, a heart condition requires her to stop and rest. Her brush with heart failure has given her a focal point for her art.
“There’s a heart in many of my paintings. They are both subtle and sometimes in your face,” she said.
Becky teaches from September through December and again from February through May. In between she takes time to recharge and paint. “You can’t teach and paint at the same time.”
She wants to reinvigorate the marketing of her work, but because of her hectic schedule she needs an agent to help, she says. Her son is a sound engineer in Chicago and is connecting her with an art gallery there.
“Nine-eleven has done a number on art; three of my major galleries have closed,” she said. “I just haven’t hit the streets. I still have a gallery in Pinehurst, but you have to work galleries, keep them supplied with new pieces.”
She also maintains a gallery at her home; viewing is by appointment only.
In 2000, Becky went on sabbatical to the renowned Vermont Studio Center. A grant from the Arts Council of Fayetteville and Cumberland County allowed her to work in the Vermont countryside for a month. It paid for room, board and a studio. There, she moved away from her mixed media abstract art and learned the nuances of landscape techniques with noted German-born artist Wolf Kahn.
“I decided to take advantage of the Vermont foliage and do scenes and landscapes,” she said. “It was very pivotal in my career. Collectors refer to it as the Vermont series.”
Most of that collection has sold, although one piece, titled “End of Day,” hangs over the fireplace of her home and is not for sale. It took Becky an entire month to get the right shade of gray for the sky.
Becky’s art involves many styles. Currently, she is painting realistic scenes with embellished, vibrant colors. She calls it “realism with a pop.”
“I do a lot of different things. Some see that as a detriment, but you need to do many things well when you teach,” she said. “I’ll never stop learning. Art is like a savings account; if you don’t put anything in, you go bankrupt.”