“To paint light, first you have to understand the dark,” says Lee Wai Yam.
Lee, a Hong Kong-based artist who goes by the name Lee Lee, paints works suffused with a hazy light that seems to surround the viewer, drawing them into a perfect, half-lit moment: a cat staring into space, a blazing sparkler, a lone carousel horse on the side of the road.
You might expect the person behind such paintings herself to be warm and gentle. But when Lee hears people say as much, even with no ill will, “it makes me feel guilty, as though I’m giving someone a false impression,” she says.
The warmth in Lee’s paintings is real, and that makes her feel especially anguished that she’s stubborn or inconsiderate outside the canvas. For a time she lay down her brush and stopped painting, seeking peace from the reproaches of her conscience.
“There was one painting in particular that people described as peaceful and calming. I still remember the sunny afternoon on which I painted it: it was the day my father was diagnosed with cancer. On the way back from the hospital, he went out of his way just to pick up my favorite food. He said nothing when he got home, and I didn’t know how to offer any words of comfort. I turned my back to him and painted. The silence in the room was broken only by the sound of my brush on canvas, humming like cicadas in the summertime. Continuing to work was wrong—it was clearly distressing, even violent.”
Sobering life experiences like these fill Lee’s works: the surface is full of light and warmth, yet the gloom is never far behind, and it sooner or later pays a visit.
After her self-imposed exile from painting, eventually the clouds parted, and Lee became reconciled to herself. “I want to accept my headstrong, immature nature, to accept that there are no fresh starts,” she says. “The road is long, so there’s nothing wrong with taking your time.”