“I think about it a lot, how to alter my family narrative for the future. And not just my family narrative, how do we alter our collective narrative of the future, given the state of the planet. I think about that a lot too.” – Mickey Lee

Gerhard Richter once commented that art is the highest form of hope. To embrace this sentiment as truth is to be a seeker like painter Mickey Lee. While her technique is closer to a Francesco Clemente or Bob Thompson we feel her subjects pining for connection with nature, with each other, with themselves. A sailor in a simple row boat heading for open water, a woman sitting backwards on a blue bull. They are vulnerable physically in these circumstances and we sense emotionally as well. Although early in her career, Lee has already drawn the attention of The New York Times at NADA New York last May and Vanity Fair with her very first presentation in Los Angeles just one year ago. She will present a suite of new paintings this summer at Half Gallery in New York City.



BP The critic Roberta Smith says that as an emerging artist you are lucky if you can escape your influences. Have you found it difficult to create a language unique to you?

ML No, if anything that is what has come easiest. If Roberta Smith says it’s a lucky thing, then I am sure it is. However I am almost pained by it too… The history of art is so rich and vast, the painters that came before me, sometimes I don’t want to escape it. I don’t have a choice though, these hands paint what they will.

BP I guess we all carry parts of our past with us whether it’s latent or completely obvious.

ML My dad used to drive a beat-up Ford F 150. It made a lot of noise and smelled like cigarettes. He smoked Marlboro Reds. I was so embarrassed when he’d pick me up from school. Now I drive an old Ford Ranger and smoke Marlboro Lights… things have a way of coming back to you.

BP What are essential tremors for people who don’t know?

ML Essential tremors are a neurological condition where basically something is not computing between my brain and my hands which often shake uncontrollably. I was in college when it first started happening. Some days are better than others. Stress and caffeine exacerbate the tremors. Drinking helps steady them. I don’t drink before painting by the way!

BP So you dropped out of school?

ML No, I ended up getting my degree at Berkeley in Art History. 

BP Do you think some of your anxiety is residue from your unconventional upbringing?

ML Is my anxiety that obvious? The chronic lip and finger biting might have given it away. Anyone can have anxiety, even with a conventional upbringing. You know I didn’t talk until I was 5, right? I wouldn’t say a word. I knew how, I just chose not to. One time I got very sick and because I didn’t talk, my dad didn’t know what was wrong. We went to the doctor and she was very pretty and kind, she got me to open up. It turns out I had watched Twister… the movie about tornadoes… without my dad knowing. I was so scared tornadoes were going to take away our house, I gave myself a stomach ulcer! So, I think I was just made this way. My poor dad…

Lady, cow and rabbit, 2022.
Bucolic sorrow, 2022.
the fishwife and her lover, 2022.
pink woman expecting, 2022.

BP Where did you grow up?

ML I’m from Banks, Oregon, which is like halfway between Portland and the coast. I went to high school in Forest Grove. My dad grew up in the same town. He’s never really left. When I was little we lived in a trailer park, and different apartments. It was just the two of us. We moved around a lot. My dad was a carpenter and rode motorcycles. I bought him this Harley Davidson t-shirt as a gift the last time I went to New York. He loved it.

BP Being raised without your mother around, is that why we see so many pregnant women in your paintings?

ML It’s a stand-in for my mom, sure, but also just the idea of motherhood. Never having a mother figure, I have always dreamed about what that might look like for myself.

BP So where is your mom?

ML My mom’s family is Mexican and she was born on the border of Texas. Her parents were migrant workers. They worked on a dairy farm in Oregon which is how she met my dad. She got pregnant and they tried to keep us all together… it didn’t work out. She ultimately exited the situation so it was just me and my dad after that. He really shielded me from a lot of madness.

BP Your father appears in one painting as a boxer?

ML My dad put up his best fight to keep us afloat. In the picture he is fighting a hare while a pregnant woman looks on. Bunnies are fluffy and ferrite and cuddly creatures versus hares which tend to be ornery and scraggly and actually box in real life. I think the pregnant woman starts off being my mom but as my father gets older I have morphed into a more maternal role. Then the pregnant woman became me too. He got sick, and I became the caretaker for both of us.

BP You are working on a piece now depicting the story of Roman Charity?

ML Roman Charity recounts the plight of Pero and her father Cimon who was sentenced to death by starvation. She would go to visit him in prison once a week and secretly breastfed him to keep her dad alive. It’s about what lengths you would go to save a loved one. There is a depiction of it in a fresco at Pompei and Caravaggio included it in an alter piece. The story resonated with me for obvious reasons. Of course, I like that it’s provocative.



Read the full interview on Muse February Issue 61.




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