An Artist's Work Is Dynamite (Literally)

by Joe Astrouski
| December 31, 2015

Photo: WPT

As a boy, Eric Lee had a deep love of art. In elementary school, he’d borrow friends’ Transformer toys and try copy the art he found on the toys’ boxes. 

“Drawing, you know, like any kid,” Lee said. “I just never stopped doing it.”

In high school, Lee grew to admire painters of the Northern Renaissance and 20th Century surrealists. After graduation, he discovered another influence when he moved to the industrial city of Superior.

“Superior gave me what I ended up working with in painting for the next ten to 15 years,” Lee remembered. “It seemed like an entirely different place altogether: the grain elevators, the docks.”

Eventually, Lee moved to Eau Claire, where he had gone to high school, and enrolled in an art program at UW Eau Claire. When he married, though, Lee began looking for ways to pursue his art while supporting a growing family.

“It was a struggle for a while,” Eric said. “One thing led to another, and I started making furniture and different things for people.”

Along with furniture, Lee also began building snare drums.

“I started out real basic and made some mistakes … made some drums that sounded just awful and then slowly worked my way up from there,” Lee said. “About a year into it, I made a decent drum.”

Lee named the instruments “Oliver Snare Drums” after his son. Much of the wood he uses is recycled, including some that comes from a familiar source.

“The Superior connection again comes in with the Globe Elevator, which was a place I used to trespass every Sunday and walk around … When I moved back here, I got to know the people who were dismantling the Globe Elevator, wonderful people, and they were selling off the lumber for people to put in their houses and make all sorts of things from,” Lee said. “I managed to get some of the hardwood that was used in the elevator, oak, and started using that in the drums themselves.”

With income from his other work, Lee pursued his passion for painting. Working out of his detached garage, he tried to replicate the patterns of building, decay and rebirth he saw in cities through his paintings.

“I like oil painting, and I do very meticulous, I guess you could call it very highly-representational art, but it’s mixed with … more modern techniques,” Lee said.

Among those techniques: fire and explosives.

“What it ends up looking like is a mixture between abstraction and very sharply-focused representational work,” Eric said. “That’s probably something I’m going to keep doing for the foreseeable future, though it’s taking a new direction now.”

Tags: Eau Claire / Superior / industry / painting with gunpowder / wooden drums / Eric Lee

Joe Astrouski is a reporter for the "Wisconsin Life" project who travels the state, telling the stories of people and their passions. In his spare time, Joe enjoys fishing, hiking and eating his way across the Midwest with his wife, Charity.