Many Asian Americans harbor a dream more than the daily grind of a 9-5 job. Many of us dream of being rappers, singers, actors, or even painters. But when reality sets in, we usually forget about our dreams and pursue reality, especially when family pressures force us to take the “safe” route and become doctors, lawyers, and engineers.
But there’s a new generation of Asian American that’s been stepping outside the boundaries set by our families. A generation that believes that it’s time to follow our own destiny instead of mindlessly doing what our parents tell us to do. It’s in this generation that you find people like Eddy Lee, who quit a well-to-do job to pursue his lifelong desire to become a painter. Along the way, he had to move from Seattle to Los Angeles, divorce his wife, and give up most of the things that we take for granted.
We got a chance to interview this extremely talented artist about the struggles he faces every day in order to make his dream into a reality.
How did your interest in art begin?
I got a fine art degree. I got a bachelor’s in fine arts. But I didn’t do anything with it. I went to the University of Washington. After graduation I worked a string of menial and corporate. I got to that point where I burned out on corporate jobs. When I just got out of college I was pressured to do something practical. I did everything from working on banks to retail, food service. My most recent job was an admissions counselor at a private art college. That was the last job I held and eventually I decided to do painting full-time last June.
When I first moved out here I had a part-time sushi job. I had to build up momentum to where I am now where I can support myself doing painting.
How did you start supporting yourself with solely art?
That’s the part that freaks out so many artists. How in the world do you make money doing this? The good thing is LA is a great place for artists because we have places like Venice beach where you can sell your paintings. That’s one of the reasons I moved here from Seattle. So I just found a spot in Venice beach and started selling my paintings.
But it was very difficult to move my original art. Most of the time people don’t want to pay your asking price for original art. I didn’t want to compromise on my pricing, but I invested in making prints of my art and they were very lowball – $10 a pop and I was able to sell those and make some money. Those prints kept me afloat at the beginning. It was a bonus when my originals sold.
I was out there every day during the summer. I’d bring my portable easels out there and start painting while I was out there selling my paintings. It was a brutal grind – everyday hoping to make sales.
How did you improve your skills?
Well first my art is based off of emotive female portraiture. I started off just painting women’s faces. There’s an allure and seduction with every woman’s gaze and I just loved painting them. I kept on practicing and just painting as many women’s faces as possible. I eventually also added crazy forms to their hair and other parts of their face.
I think one person’s skills are also very based on their tastes. Everything about them, even their taste in music. This determines whether someone can make good art. And to clarify, I mean good art in the sense that it’s commercially viable. I don’t want to say to someone that their art sucks because everyone has different tastes, but in terms of commercial appeal, if they can’t sell it then it sucks in that sense. If no one is into your stuff you have to re-evaluate whether you can make a living off of it. I’m not saying that commercially unviable stuff is bad, but I’m just saying that if you don’t have a mainstream appeal and you can’t make a living, then your work probably is “bad” in the sense that no one likes it.
Tell us about the struggle you had to face going from a stable income to becoming unstable as an artist.
Yeah it was crazy because I was middle class and had a stable income in Seattle. But when I went full-time painting it became so unstable. Every month I would pay rent and then I didn’t know if I could make enough to pay the next month’s rent. But that pressure gave me a lot of drive and pushed me. It’s because you have no choice. You either make this painting or you get on the streets.
In the Winter it got pretty tight. I had to even have the landlord hold the check. But I knew I had to be prepared for it. I cut my life down to the necessities. Rent, cellphone, and internet. I think people don’t realize how much they can cut down on their lives. There’s a lot of mental toughness that is necessary to be an artist. There’s this immense pressure to create. There is nobody policing over you so there’s discipline.
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