Capturing Motherhood and Family Life on Canvas

Artist Lee Nowell-Wilson at work in her School 33 Art Center studio. Photos by Mary Braman.

(This “SoBo Made” feature originally appeared in the October-November 2022 print edition of the South Baltimore Peninsula Post.)

Artist Lee Nowell-Wilson is as vibrant as her paintings that adorn the walls of her studio in the School 33 Art Center (1427 Light Street). A Maryland native who lives in Baltimore, Lee has rented a studio at the Art Center since August 2020. Her oil-on-canvas pieces are vivid with bold use of color. But it is really the familiarity of the scenes she creates that draws the viewer in.

Lee dons several hats, including that of a busy mother and the founder and editor of MILKED magazine. I sat down with her in August to talk about her art, what inspires her, the challenges she faces, and her upcoming exhibits.

Lee describes her art as a “chronicle of my life and what I’m experiencing in hopes that it will really connect with somebody else who’s observing it. I’ve always kind of thought about it like an autobiography in painting form.”

Lee felt her calling as an artist very early in life: a first-grader who wanted to be a book illustrator. “I remember driving with my mom and thinking about it. I was like, Mom, I don’t know, I think I want to be an artist,” Lee recalls.

With the support of her mother, who bought her art supplies, and an encouraging teacher, Lee decided she wanted to study art in college. She started at Syracuse University, but it took her only one semester to understand that she wanted to be in a specialized fine arts program. “That’s when I transferred, second semester freshman year, down to MICA,” says Lee.

Two years after graduating from MICA in 2011, Lee and her husband, Christian, moved to Lyon, France, to be a part of a street art residency program where she worked on urban art pieces and murals. Her travels took her to Norway, Chile, and Honduras. Traveling, Lee thinks, had a big impact on how her art evolved. While earlier she had been involved in heavy construction-based art projects, it was the travels that led her to tell stories through her pieces.

“Something just clicked when my husband and I were traveling and ultimately fully solidified after we had our oldest daughter: I need to tell the stories that I’m experiencing,” says Lee. She came back to Baltimore in 2016 and gave birth to her daughter, Esther, a year later.

Lee’s art now is mostly about motherhood and the way she is experiencing it. She now has three children: Esther, Ezra, and Edyth. One-year-old daughter Edyth played with Lee’s brushes as we talked at School 33, underscoring this connection. “It’s become more about our space as a family.”

As she transitioned into motherhood and got involved in the lives of her children, Lee wanted to illustrate their world in her paintings. “I love being a part of their world. I love watching, like what natural observations they make and what they draw,” Lee says. One of the pieces in Lee’s studio was inspired by a drawing in Esther’s sketchbook of a playground.

Home life for Lee has anchored her work. Another eye-catching piece in her studio is called “House Under the Table,” where we see the silhouette of a child playing house as she sits beneath a table. The ornate design of the rug stands out against the interior of a reddish-brown table. Lee draws out the chaos of a mother’s life and makes it her art.

Painting her family’s daily life as she experiences it has helped her create conversations with other stay-at-home moms. This led her to start a magazine, MILKED, in 2019 that explores the maternal experiences of women. The project started with her curiosity about whether others were creating art portraying motherhood. While there were classic artists who focused on motherhood as a subject, she personally was not seeing motherhood depicted much within the contemporary art scene. The magazine “was like a beacon call to see if anybody else out there was making work about motherhood,” Lee says.

As she started curating and publishing the magazine, she found artists who are using art as a processing tool in motherhood and others who are exploring the maternal form. Lee now publishes one issue a year. A call for submissions is currently open for the fifth issue of MILKED, which is due out next year.

Lee talked about the different challenges she faces as an artist. On a personal level, her tendency to compare her work with that of others can be tough. “I’m horrible at comparison, especially now with social media. You see the ‘success of others’ and then see your own failures. You don’t really see too many of other people’s failures on social media.”

Professionally, Lee is a strong believer in the value of having your own space to make art. Getting a dedicated studio space helps artists keep their momentum, something that can easily fall by the wayside if you’re working out of your home or garage. Her advice to young artists: “After you graduate, get a studio in your city immediately.”

The School 33 Art Center has helped her overcome some of these challenges, Lee says. “It is awesome in the way it operates a bit like a local residency.” The center offers benefits beyond studio space, such as exhibitions, mentorship, and connections with the local community at large and other School 33 artists.

Lee is hoping to have her next exhibit in February 2023 in Washington D.C., where some of the pieces that chronicle her experiences with motherhood and her home life will be on display. You can see more of her work online.  – Enakshi Roy

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