Checking in with Lee Alter


 What were you doing when we called?
I was sitting in front of Greenberry’s reading a book and hanging out with my friends. I was reading The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield, which is a really cool guide to some of the universal teachings of Buddhist psychology. It takes on emotional issues but focuses on the process rather than the product. A lot of what I do in my artwork has to do with that—giving yourself permission to be yourself in the moment.

“The Students of Lee Alter” showed at The Bridge through May. Alter is working on a large mural for a show this fall at Random Row Books.

What are you working on right now?
For the last three or four years I’ve been working on portraits, mostly of musicians. It started with Jim Morrison, when I got really into his poetry. Before that, most of my work had been pretty abstract. Later I got into Red Rattles and did a portrait of Luke Nutting, and I was totally able to feel Luke’s presence, and that kind of energetic reception doesn’t happen with everybody. I’m also working on a really large mural for a fall show at Random Row Books. It features a lot of archetypal images. Everybody has certain personal archetypes that follow them throughout their lives, whether they’re aware of it or not.

Tell us about your day job.
I’ve been independently teaching art classes for kids and adults since 1992, and that takes up a lot of my time. [Last month, there was] a show at The Bridge for all the kids that work with me, and their stuff is all totally awesome. You put it up on the wall but you’re not critiquing it. You’re honoring their vision.

What is your first artistic memory from childhood?
I grew up in a jazz family, so at 14 I’m listening to Django Reinhardt when all the other kids are listening to rock and roll. We were all very artistic, but my mother got me into dancing, which was what I did as a child. So the first incredible artistic experience I had wasn’t until I was 19 years old and living on my own somewhere. I picked up a mirror, put it on my desk and did a self portrait. I can still feel it right now, what it was like to do that piece. That experience is still in my cellular memory. I just remember thinking, “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to do with this life of mine,” and it was profound. Years later, I realized it turned out looking like an Oskar Kokoschka.

Item you’d splurge on?
I buy a lot of music. I’ll buy a CD and listen to it for like three weeks until it’s all memorized. Singing just blows my mind. It’s like the most present thing I’ve ever done. You sing a note, it’s there, it’s out and then it’s gone. I really want to sing and be in a band, to travel around in a big van like Dylan. Sometimes I feel like being a visual artist is too solo, and I want to collaborate.

Which of your works are you most proud of?
I like these new portraits that I’ve been doing. I had a showing called “Time, Space and Connection” at The Bridge about three years ago, and several pieces from that are signature pieces, although it was before I started doing portraits. I did one that looked like a DaVinci when I was 22 years old, and the professor of fine arts thought it was cool, but I looked at it and said, “Why bother? DaVinci already did it.” So I never did another piece like that until just recently, when I started realizing that portraits can be the best way to capture the energy of a performer.

Locally, who would you like to collaborate with?
Some musician friends of mine are going to play at the Random Row show, which is a kind of collaboration. If I’m working on a show and John D’earth is going to play then some of the art will reflect that.

How do you prepare to work on something?
Having to teach as much as I do is a problem. I think being an artist requires a lot of downtime on an emotional level. If you have a vision you need to make friends with it, and take the time to invite it into your life. So sketches, I make a lot of sketches. When I worked on painting Sam Wilson I spent two days on one line on his chin. I mean, who has time for that? You’ve got to make money and pay the bills.