Creative Spaces: Barry Lee

It was a cold and rainy day when I made the trek over to visit my friend Barry at his apartment in Buckhead. From the outside it seems like just another run-of-the-mill cookie cutter apartment, but once inside I realized that this is Barry HQ.

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The living room/studio space walls are lined with artwork, both by Barry and also by his friends. The pieces he’s got are mostly from art swaps, and you can even find a few portraits of Barry himself on the wall near his computer.

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Originally from Nags Head, NC, Barry moved to Atlanta 5 years ago to attend SCAD Atlanta for illustration. Since his graduation in November of 2013 he’s become involved with many local organizations and art shows as a freelancer.

“I would describe my work as very quirky, and my aim is usually to put a smile on people’s faces when they see it. So, I usually have some form of absurdity in terms of how I work and what I do with my work.”

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“I like using really bright colors… I like really bright quirky scenarios. Very fluid movements, I often have separated noses in my characters… borderline cartoon-ish but also could work in illustration and fine art realms,” Barry said of his work.

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I first met Barry as an intern at Mindzai Creative where I worked. Right off the bat his paintings and portraits were a hit at the Mindzai art shows. It was easy to recognize his iconic works among the work of many others, even before I had put a face to the name.

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At the time, Barry was a student at SCAD Atlanta and many of his pieces were portraits of celebrities or movie characters. “It was a nice marriage between my love of pop culture and my personal art style,” he said of that phase. The celebrity portraits were indeed very popular and Barry used that momentum to begin selling and marketing his work to a larger audience.

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Barry’s first solo show was at the Octane Westside, and featured celebrity portraits. They were well received, and sold well, but afterwards he reported feeling that he was burning out on the portraits. It was then that he decided to branch out and experiment with other subject matter for his work.

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“I really wanted to kind of step away from just doing portraits because it was what people expected,” he told me. Recently, Barry was granted the opportunity to again have a show at Octane Westside. This time around, he decided to delve a bit deeper into his own life and story for inspiration.

Barry was born with a condition called Nager Syndrome, a rare congenital anomaly syndrome that has set the tone for his life. In his youth, Barry had experienced a good deal of discrimination from his peers in school because of his condition.

Partially because of Barry’s inherent love for art and partially to curb the bullying from his peers, he started making art for his classmates and bullies. “I wanted not to be known as the different kid but the art kid,” he said, and explained how creating art became his badge of pride and a way to avoid discrimination.

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Barry’s parents have always very much encouraged his artistic drive. “When I was like three years old my parents got me a little easel,” he said, and he was “immediately drawn to it.”

As a child, Barry would watch Muppets and Looney Tunes and draw them on a stack of computer paper in the living room. Those influences are still visible in his work today, and Barry’s affinity for cultural icons is evident in the framed records and homage prints hung around his apartment.

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In this series, called “Home is Where You Drown,” he explores the struggles and of growing up with this condition.

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Photos courtesy Matt McDaniel

“The work that I made a couple of years ago was very surreal, kind of dark, and very angry,” he told me. This time around, however, he created a personal series that was funny, odd, intriguing, and still very bright within the realm of his personal artistic style.

“I wanted to do something out of the box, to take my humor and take the characters I’ve been creating and put them in an environment… I wanted to make them symbolic, and make them tell a story,” Barry said.

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Photos courtesy Matt McDaniel

“Half of my job as an illustrator is to tell stories and I feel like not many people can tell my story. I thought it was a really good opportunity to bring my story to a wider audience, and also to stretch my wings in terms of creating things. You know, to really create new worlds.”

For many followers of Barry’s career, this new body of work came as a bit of a surprise. Not many of his friends really knew about the struggles he has gone through, and so seeing it displayed so proudly evoked some conflicting opinions. Growing up in the digital age, Barry has done an excellent job of marketing himself and his work through social media for many years. This means also that many of his fans may never have met Barry in person, rather having been exposed to his work through Tumblr or Instagram.

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The response to this show was varied though mostly positive, Barry said. “‘I usually love your work- it’s so bright and cheerful, but then when I read these stories it kind of brings me down,'” people told him, “and I’m like- that’s the idea.”

Creating work that is approachable helps Barry to connect with his audience. “It either angers someone or it’s like ‘I get it’… I think a lot of people got it,” he said.

“I think that my work can translate to a lot of different backgrounds, and I think that’s something that I’m very lucky to have. I have people old and people young really responding well to my work,” he explained. “I want to really create work that resonates with everybody.”

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Not only does Barry intend to continue creating digital paintings, but he also aims to broaden his horizons and begin creating in new mediums, such as children’s books.

“I have a good feeling about where I’m heading,” Barry said of his career. “I feel like I’m finally getting into my style and into my groove about what I’m doing with my work.”

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There is no doubt that we will see much more from this artist as he continues to explore the limitations of his imagination and the cultivation of his artistic ideals.

Check out his online portfolio, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram to see more of Barry’s art. The mural from “Home Is Where You Drown” will be on display at Octane Westside for the forseeable future, so next time you’re around that area make sure to stop in and see Barry’s work for yourself!

-Is

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