A Painter’s Life on the Road
Meet Emilie Lee, intrepid artist and wanderlust painter. She has walked away from big city life in New York City to embark on an artful life on the road.
Her van is her mobile studio and the people, places and things she encounters become her painting subjects and impromptu inspirations.
From Hawaii to Montana to California, Costa Rica, New York and Japan, Emilie along with her pooch, Honeycrisp, blazes a trail in the name of painting in the great outdoors. We reached out to her to discover just how she came to live such an (artful) dream … or dream up such an artful life.
How did you come up with this car life, art life concept?
During college, I was an avid rock climber, and I was exposed to the common practice of climbers who live a simplified lifestyle in a van (#vanlife) so they can focus on climbing and save money.
In 2004, I converted a short school bus to run on recycled vegetable oil and spent time parked in Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and other climbing areas across the country. So, I have always been in love with the freedom of this lifestyle, the ability to explore and spend time in nature, unencumbered by the busy schedule of errands and appointments that always seemed to engulf me when I live in a town.
When I moved to New York City to study painting, I constantly daydreamed about returning to my simple life on the road. In April 2017, I sold or gave away almost all my belongings and moved into my Honda Element with my dog Honeycrisp for a two-month road trip, camping and painting my way across the country.
I spent two months living in my car, making my way from Vermont to California. Now I’m semi-permanently settled in Santa Barbara, California, where I share an apartment with my boyfriend, Kristo.
Kristo shares my love for rock climbing and the freedom of life on the road. And we’ve been able to keep our life low-maintenance so that we can pick up and leave for weeks at a time quite often. We just got back from two weeks of backcountry skiing in Japan!
How did you come up with all of your on-the-road hacks for living and art-making?
I’ve been rock climbing for 22 years, so the gypsy life is very second-nature to me. Most climbers have a car they can sleep in, and of course #vanlife is a big trend right now.
There are a lot of resources on the internet if you want to find designs for building a bed in your car. As far as art supply selection, I just learned what I like to bring over many landscape painting trips.
On the road, can you only paint landscapes? Do you fit other genres in and how — or do you even want to?
Sometimes I will paint portraits … if I can find someone who will sit still for me!
How long are you typically on the road? And how often do you travel?
Now that I’m settled in Santa Barbara, my painting trips are anywhere from three days to two weeks. When I’m between trips, I paint on the beaches and in the mountains in the area.
But I also relish the time in the studio after going so long without. I love being able to spend time developing my plein air paintings into larger compositions.
Since you paint quickly and small to capture fleeting moments, how long does it take you to complete a painting from start to finish?
It used to take me four hours to do a painting! Now it takes about one to two hours. But there are plenty of times when I spend longer on a painting, or I come back the next day to finish it during a second session. I do find that I get better results when I take more time.
Tell us a bit about your background as an artist — any education, when did you start, why, etc.?
My mom is an artist. She taught me how to draw as soon as I could hold a pencil, and she mentored me all through high school. I won my first art contest when I was two, and I was very focused on developing my skills throughout childhood.
I went to the Rhode Island School of Design to study illustration. And after that, I worked as a freelance illustrator for about four years before moving to Salt Lake City to study with Kamille Corry, and then NYC to study at the Grand Central Atelier.
I finished GCA in 2012 and then taught there for three years until I moved to Vermont, where I taught anatomy and perspective drawing to video game designers at Champlain College.
Although I’ve been on a very focused path towards my art career, I had a difficult time finding teachers who could offer me anything outside of abstract painting or illustration. It wasn’t until I found Kamille Corry in 2007 that I was exposed to the kind of art education that I had been searching for.
What’s your artistic vision?
I see painting as a lifetime practice that may change over time, but will always reflect what I find along the path of my life’s journey. Right now, painting allows me to travel and experience the peace and beauty of nature for days at a time.
The freedom and excitement I feel in the wild places of this world are reflected in my paintings. I hope they are an uplifting presence in the lives of those who view them.
My paintings are also a reminder of how valuable wilderness is in our lives, and that it is worth making an effort to fight for conservation and preserving.
What is your greatest extravagance as an artistic nomad?
Hmmm, well, I don’t consider any of my art supplies an extravagance. I use them every day, and I use everything I buy.
However, I am a sucker for health food stores. Whenever I’m on a road trip, I always seek out natural foods co-ops in small towns and stock up on snacks to keep me going when I’m painting.
I think it feels like an extravagance because I’ll buy things that I would never buy at home – prepared or packaged foods that are easy to eat on the go.
What optimal state of mind supports art making?
Relaxed, contented, happy, focused. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s totally unproductive to make art when I’m feeling tired, distracted, or self-critical.
I now make an effort to take care of myself first before attempting to paint. Sometimes I roll out of bed and I can’t wait to start painting, so I jump right in.
Other times I like to practice yoga, go on a run or spend time with my dog. Being with Honey is really the most consistent way for me to find that happy, grounded energy.
When I’m painting and she is napping next to me, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be!
What do you wear when making art?
Whatever seems comfortable and appropriate for the weather. In the winter I wear a lot of warm jackets. In the summer I wear sundresses and a hat. When I am on the road, I find myself wearing the same two or three things repeatedly, so I’ve learned to just pack less!
What is the most overrated virtue bestowed on art?
I think the idea of talent is so misunderstood. I don’t even use the word. Artistic skill comes from many years of practice, commitment and hard work.
The way we talk about talent among artists is so unproductive. I often meet people who tell me, “I have zero artistic talent,” and I think that is such a self-defeating statement! I think they just haven’t had the right teacher come along.
Which historical artist do you most identify with?
The biggest influence on my landscape painting has been Frederick Church’s plein air studies, Sanford Gifford and Ivan Shishkin. I’ve copied a lot of their work out of the books I have, and its also inspiring to read about their travels and adventures in unknown wilderness areas. They were rugged dudes!
I’ve also really enjoyed reading Andrew Wyeth’s biography. And now I’m reading about Antonio Lopez Garcia.
To me, it’s been so important to seek out the studies and unfinished work of the artists I love. It helps me see how I can develop my own process. I’ll never forget a show I saw of William Trost Richard’s miniature plein-air sketches, they were so loose!
What or who is your most inspiring subject?
I love painting the places I explore as part of my adventurous lifestyle. It’s like a treasure hunt — finding the perfect spot to paint.
The act of painting is like meditation. I become completely centered in the present moment. The feeling is expansive and peaceful. I can find this in the studio or outdoors, but these days it is mostly outdoors.
What artwork past or present made you happiest?
I had such an incredible adventure painting on the American Prairie Reserve a few years ago. I was still living in NYC at the time, and I spent a month exploring and painting on a 300,000-acre conservation area in North Eastern Montana.
It was an exhilarating feeling to be in such a wide-open place, all by myself, free to focus on painting for so many days on end. I spent some time with researchers and scientists learning about the ecosystem and the conservation issues there, which made me even more inspired to explore and paint in that landscape.
I was so happy and productive painting in the middle of nowhere all by myself. That surprised me. And I realized I didn’t need to live in NYC anymore.
Which artistic talent would you most like to have?
Well, I don’t believe in talent, so that’s my answer! If I could magically learn a skill without putting in the time and practice, it would be music. I’d also love to design and sew my own clothes.
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
If I could only choose only one thing, it would be for humanity and our leaders to address climate change. There is so much more we could be doing to ensure a healthy planet for future generations.
What is your idea of the perfect art form?
I’ve become so much less opinionated since I left New York! I really don’t know how to answer this. … It just doesn’t seem to be a question that matters to me.
Perfection is a loaded word. … I’ve made myself miserable pursuing perfection in my artwork, in my body, in my relationships. Just have fun and enjoy life. The art will be so much better for it!
What is your greatest fear about your work?
I used to be afraid that I would never live up to my full potential as an artist because I felt I was capable of so much more than I was currently doing. … But I realized that my fear was paralyzing me and limiting my ability to enjoy life. … So I’ve let it go.
These days I’ve been learning how to trust and allow the paintings to come. The paintings are always coming, always evolving, and I know I’ll be painting until the day I croak. So I’m just trying to relax, flow and follow the joy I find in painting.
What is your greatest regret?
There have been some times in my life when I didn’t follow my heart because I was afraid of risk and failure, or disappointing others. Looking back my only regrets have been the times I took the “safe” road.
How would you like to be remembered?
My priority is to live a healthy balanced life and have fun doing what I love. It doesn’t matter to me how I’m remembered, but I want to contribute positive energy and love to my communities.
In the past five years I’ve found that my work as a landscape painter has been a great way to raise awareness for wilderness conservation efforts. So I am excited to see where this continues to lead me.
When I have the opportunity to learn about a landscape from scientists and conservation experts, I gain a deeper appreciation for the ecosystem, history and spirit of that place. Approaching landscape painting through an activist’s perspective has added a new level of engagement and purpose for me.
What is the quality you most like in your art?
When I look at all my paintings, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for this amazing, adventurous life I am living. They represent places I’ve been able to explore all over the world, and each one holds the story of good memories with amazing people.
I look at them and I realize that the dreams I had for my life 10 years ago are now the life I am living! When I look at my work I realize that it truly reflects how I am living my best life.