Alumnus Sculptor Shares His Talent and Experience with SDSU Students, Community
At a very early age, Christopher Lee’s artistic predilection was clearly apparent, even on trips in the family car.
Sculptor Chrisopher Lee ('78,'81) conducts a metal casting workshop at SDSU's foundry.
"I was always drawing,” he recalls. “I remember as a youngster traveling around the country sitting in the back seat drawing pictures of silos or cows or whatever was passing by on the road. It was the thing I enjoyed most.”
Eventually, that enjoyment of drawing would lead to a talent for sculpting.
"My dad was a tool user,” Lee says. “He was always doing some woodworking project in the basement or the garage and I remember enjoying that with him along with the smell of the wood and the sound of the machines.
“I always liked making stuff - physically doing things with my hands more so than just drawing or painting. It was more of a construction that I liked - the materials - and I think that probably came from my dad."
STIMULATING, EXCITING AND OPTIMISTIC
Wherever the ability came from, it eventually led Lee (’78, ’81) to San Diego State, where, in the 70s, he enrolled in the sculpture program. It was a time of creative exploration and experimentation.
Christopher Lee in his San Diego State student days.
“It was very exciting for me and all the other people I was working with,” Lee remembers. “We were pouring hot metal into molds that we'd made and everything we created was by our hand from dirt or from nothing and it was very cool. The faculty seemed to be close to our age and we had a good relationship with them and it was all very stimulating, exciting and optimistic.
“At the time I was working with glass and I kept pushing all of the instructors to help me explore this and none of them knew anything about it, so I just kind of had to do it on my own. But they were all very supportive and the facilities were good."
After leaving the university with two degrees, he went on to become an accomplished sculptor whose work includes several public art projects in San Diego. Now, almost 30 years since he left with his master’s degree, the 59-year-old Lee has returned to SDSU’s art department to conduct a foundry metal casting workshop teaching the process from beginning to end of casting original artwork in aluminum or bronze. He freely admits that part of the reason for his return was purely selfish.
A Christopher Lee sculpture in South Mission Beach.
“I needed to cast some art work and I didn't have a facility to do it in,” Lee explains. “I knew the (SDSU) foundry wasn't really operating as well as it could and it was run by volunteers to keep it going in exchange for their use of the facility, so I figured out a good way to make it not just worth my while, but worth the Sculpture Co-op's while and the university's while.”
“A REAL PRIZE”
Selfishness aside, Lee is now giving back to a program from which he gained so much. He is engaging students in his workshop, teaching them and helping them achieve their goals.
"We love having Chris around,” says Arthur Ollman, director of the School of Art, Design and Art History at SDSU. "He’s a terrific teacher, a great artist, and somebody who understands this school and the students very well having done his undergraduate and his graduate work here. He’s a real prize for us.
"It's a great opportunity for the students to work with an artist of national stature who works in the community and is doing a project bringing some skills to our students that currently are hard to find on campus. Cutbacks in faculty and part-time faculty and the inability to hire a lot of new people have curtailed some of our programs. This school used to have a very strong sculpture program and a lot of those sculptors have retired, so we try to find people in the community to help us out and to lead workshops like this."
Reuben Foat is one of the 20 or so students and community artists participating in the workshop over three weekends. A master’s student in fine arts in furniture, he is a furniture maker and designer who also hopes to teach. Foat is taking Lee’s workshop to learn more about making his own custom hardware such as pulls, feet, or other sculptural elements he may want to add to his furniture. He believes Lee is making an important contribution to the sculpture program.
(l-r) Master's student, Reuben Foat, and retired SDSU art professor, Jess Dominguez, observe Christopher Lee at work.
“It's great to see someone who values their experience here so much as to give back as a volunteer and teach,” Foat says. “Especially in these times when we have issues with a lack of money for education, it's nice that we have alums who are interested in sharing some of the experience they've gained from being professionals."
Throughout the years, Lee has remained friends with many of his former professors. During the workshop, he is supported by two he most admires, Jerry Dumalo and Jess Dominguez. Their presence makes Lee feel more comfortable.
“I never really did like teaching that much,” he admits. “I taught as a graduate student, but I was nervous and wasn't really comfortable with it. The more I did it, it was easier and everybody seemed to get something out of it, so I'm just kind of going on blind faith and hoping that my background and knowledge will help others."
Sculptor Christopher Lee conducts a demonstration during his metal casting workshop.
It will. That’s something Ollman and other campus administrators want to emphasize to alumni – if you have an interest in helping the university, find a way to reconnect.
“We need people who understand what we're about and most of the people who graduate from our program certainly do,” Ollman says. "It depends, of course, on what their skills are, but if they're bringing in skills we don't have in our current faculty, we're always interested to talk. If, for example, you happen to be the best glass blower in town, come talk to me and we'll try to set up a workshop."
For his part, alumni involvement is something Lee has come to embody and advocate.
“I think any involvement is good,” he says. “Anything that advances students’ desire for knowledge and their desire for improvement is good and if I can be a catalyst to that and help them to realize that to a certain extent, then I have succeeded.
“I may not be the biggest or greatest public artist in San Diego, but I have quite a bit of experience and whatever I can share with students, if it inspires them, then I think I couldn't ask for more."