FORTY YEARS AGO I met an artist named Doris Lee. Sadly I did not meet her in person. I met her then and kept on meeting her through her work. She showed her Midwestern roots and her sense of humor through a small black-and-white etching called “Country Wedding,” a gift to my sister who had married a guy from Iowa. A few years later the joke was on me as I married my own “farm boy,” also from Iowa.
Since then Doris has kept reintroducing herself to me in unexpected ways–a charming 1950s movie-star head shot of Doris on a Life magazine cover peeking through the stacks of archived issues in the then-perusable stacks at the Library of Congress. Doris had been sent to Mexico, or maybe it was Morocco, and her colorful travel sketches captured the color and design of the local garb. Years later on a trip with my sister to an antique warehouse in Santa Barbara, I spy in their racks an unclaimed, lively still-life painting by Lee looking for a home. Mine.
Doris Emrick Lee, born in Aledo, Illinois, in 1905, died in Clearwater, Florida, in 1983–so I COULD have met her if I had tried–after a long and productive life, much of it spent in the company of other more well-known artists like Milton Avery in Woodstock, New York. Her art is in major museum collections, including the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA).
Her estate–organized by its New York art dealer and Lee champion art dealer D. Wigmore–was rich in art and archives. Boxes of notebooks for sketching, clippings used as source material, letters to and from her galleries and her collaborators all reside safely in the archives of the NMWA Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center. Some have been chosen for sharing in a display case on the fourth floor. The museum’s sole Lee painting–I will let you discover which one but it has to do with fruit–will hang above the display case. A visit to this small informative exhibit should be a nice lunchtime diversion for anyone who works nearby or near a Metro stop. Oh, and another painting by Lee, a late one showing how she kept pace with modernism–this one (untitled but called “The Baby”) hangs in my bedroom and is used as a focal point for my fellow yoga classmates for a steady tree pose. I am pretty sure Doris would have gotten a kick out of that.
“Doris Lee: American Painter and Illustrator” opens Nov. 17 at NMWA and runs through May 8, 2015.
Deba Leach, a former Washington, D.C., art dealer, is set to begin research on American art as a graduate student at the University of Iowa.