One building in downtown Omaha has been given a facelift, and an entire neighborhood a burst of color, thanks to the artistic talents of a Custer County native.
Craig Lee was born in Broken Bow in 1959, to Donald and Roberta Lee of Ansley, long-time owners of Lee's Variety Store on Ansley's Main Street. He is the youngest of four children and attended Ansley Public School, graduating with the class of 1978.
“My parents encouraged my artistic interests, beginning with the piano (my mother was a piano teacher who taught half the town's kids to play), then later drawing and painting,” Lee recalls.
He attended UNL and received his bachelors degree in fine arts in 1982, with a heavy concentration in studio painting and drawing. In 1985, he earned an MFA from Cranbrook Art Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., with an emphasis in studio painting. That same year Lee returned to Nebraska, and has lived in Omaha ever since. “I have had a variety of art-related jobs, including design for a screen printing business, a short tenure as an art instructor, a part-time voiceover artist (commercial jingles mostly), 13 + years as scenic artist at the Omaha Playhouse, and now nearly as long as a self employed freelance artist,” says Lee.
In the last 11 or 12 years, Lee has painted several commercial and residential murals. During this time he has also executed drawings, paintings, graphic and scenic designs, worked in most of the theaters in Omaha and on scenery for movies and television commercials.
He has worked as a custom faux finish painter and plasterer, restored damaged murals, painted huge backdrops and stage floors and photorealistic pencil portraits.
“I currently have three outdoor painting projects pending as a result of the mural on 35th and Center Street in Omaha; Building owners approached me while I was on the scaffolding to ask if I could work on their properties,” he says.
Lee says the 35th Street mural is one he has wanted to do for a long time. He frequently walks past the building, as it is near the neighborhood where he lives. One day he finally approached the owner of the building and asked if he could paint the mural.
He says the owner was a little unsure at first of just what Lee had in mind, but he agreed to look at some of Lee’s design ideas. Once Lee convinced the building owner that he was not soliciting any funding for the project, he became more interested.
The building owner’s daughter became intrigued with the idea, and asked to see the design Lee had in mind. He showed her his drawings, “and she was fully on board,” Lee says. She told him to go ahead of the project.
He began working on the project in late May, repairing the wall and removing all of the loose paint with an angle grinder and power washing. He had to temporarily abandon the project until late June, while the mortar used in the repairs cured.
“The worst part was I was not equipped with good scaffolding,” says Lee. “I had an old scaffold and had to put my step ladder on top of it - and could still barely reach the top of the wall. It was awful.”
Lee actually began painting the mural June 21. He went around the neighborhood taking pictures of some of the old homes he really liked. He says he wanted the mural to represent all of his favorite aspects of summer in the neighborhood.
He worked on one section at a time, first drawing with charcoal to get the right scale. One special section of the wall, the last section he painted, features his dog, Georgia.
“The image of my dog on the wall is sort of an attempt to capture that feeling that’s in the air in Spring. She’s got her nose up in the air and she’s sniffing the breeze.”
The mural, Lee says, evolved into a Spring and Summer mode. He wanted to capture not only visual images, but the smell and sound of summer. That, he says, is why he used a tomato plant - “It just evokes feelings of nostalgia.”
Exactly one month after beginning the painting project, July 21, the approximately 62'x18'6" latex paint mural was finished. The last thing he did was spray a clear coat of a protectant over the entire wall to preserve the paint as much as possible.
“I plan to go back and touch up or repaint any sections that might fade from the direct sunlight. But hopefully that’s a few years from now, and not a few months from now,” Lee laughs.
Lee and his girlfriend, Dot Stovall, live near Field Club Elementary School in Omaha, in an old house they are working on renovating. She, too, has a love of the arts, working as a photo stylist in a photography studio after several years in the film, television and video industry.
They are the proud owners of Georgia, a 10-year-old yellow labrador retriever, and a 10-year-old tuxedo cat, Pete.
When not working, Lee enjoys the theater and movies, riding his bike and walking Georgia..
A friend of Lee’s has created a video documenting the painting of the mural, using photos taken by Lee and Dot. The link to that video: http://youtu.be/J9DJ-p9wVbM .