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Eye spy

Dirk Lee's sketchbooks open a window to Missoula's past



“Since childhood,” reads the exhibit guide at the Art Museum of Missoula, “Dirk Lee has identified himself as an observer.”

Not to say voyeur. Lee explains the difference thusly:

“As an observer, you’re drawing only what appears in front of you. You’re not going after a specific goal, like a voyeur trying to watch certain activities. An observer just draws what goes by,” Lee grins, “and holds still long enough.”

“I still worry about it sometimes, though,” he continues, “like I’m invading people’s privacy or something. Sometimes you sit there drawing and you become so aware of somebody else’s life—even though you don’t know all the details—that you do almost feel like you’re invading their privacy. It’s not like I’m sitting out in anyone’s backyard in the middle of the night, drawing them through their window taking their clothes off. I’m not being a peeper, but it’ll pass through my head sometimes.”

With a few strokes of pen or pencil, Lee has been prying gently into the lives of Missoulians for over 25 years. According to the same exhibit signage, the artist is “probably most often recognized sitting quietly in the back of Missoula’s coffee shops or at the fringe of the Farmer’s Market, sketchbook in hand. Since the 1970s, he has observed the daily life of Missoulians, recording random moments with a simplicity and clarity. The presence of Dirk drawing has enriched these community gatherings.”

Now Lee is turning the tables, sharing some Missoula memories previously confined to those sketchbooks. Over a hundred of them make up a new Dirk Lee exhibit at the Art Museum.

You might even be in one of them, cunningly waylaid next to a fruit stand at the Farmer’s Market, or picked off as you stood in line for a coffee drink. That could be your likeness, captured years ago in a few quick pencil lines as you strolled past Lee’s artistic sniper’s nook. It’s no surprise to learn that Lee thinks sketching in public is a little like hunting.

“Just stalking and waiting,” he muses, “kind of like being a bow hunter or something, waiting for the thing to make its appearance. And when it does, you jump up and try to capture it. I’m not drawing all the time, but I’m looking at things all the time.”

Suppose his prey passes him too quickly at the Farmer’s Market. Will he jump up and reposition himself for a second pass?

“No,” he says firmly. “When it’s out of my sight, it’s gone. So I wait until some other time in the future when they’ll be in a position for me to draw them.”

How about the prey’s awareness? When Lee is drawing, does he imagine his subjects knowing they’re being studied? Does their awareness of him matter, or does he relish a certain sneak factor in drawing people without their knowledge—or permission?

“Actually,” he replies, “I’m always surprised by how aware people are that they’re being looked at. I have an anecdote about drawing somebody at Jacob’s Island Park once, a woman who was sunbathing with her boyfriend. I must have been 150 yards away—and behind her, even—but the minute I looked at her, her head jerked up and she looked around and spotted me.

“It’s hard to know, though, sometimes,” Lee admits. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me they were surprised to learn I’d drawn them, when I just assumed they knew I was drawing them the whole time. People usually just feel eyes on them. But I always tell myself, hey, they’re in a public place.”

In any event, Lee says he considers drawing a far less intrusive means of people-hunting than using a camera. People are more inclined to be flattered by drawings of themselves, while, as Dirk explains, cameras tend to be less indulgent of people’s fragile self-images, because a snapshot captures only a tiny part of the full range of expressions that make up a face. People’s faces in this respect are like animated movies—a kind of illusion made up of many tiny pictures—and seeing just a split-second snippet can be upsetting. On the other hand, if portraiture is anything like photography, it’s more like a long exposure made with an open aperture.

In any event, as the museum exhibit demonstrates, Lee’s Farmer’s Market exchange is not altogether one-sided, with Lee silently tracking his subject and the subject either knowing it or not. The sketchbooks in the exhibit, arranged on shelves around a table topped with two enormous portfolios and a mound of white gloves for browsing, are just as likely to reveal something private about Lee himself as they are to reveal familiar faces and random moments picked out of the teeming mass of humanity of the Farmer’s Market. Just as Lee’s sketches make something oddly private out of people’s public moments, sketches of the artist’s friends and intimates put intensely private moments from his own life on public display.

Some of the sketches are deeply touching for their attention to realistic detail. A drawing of Lee’s son Shane, as a young boy assembling a toy model, emits a sharp emotional resonance for anyone who has ever put a model together—or, for that matter, had a son, whether or not he liked models. Lee never got past roughing in the model in the boy’s hands (although it was a Japanese robot, he says, and he still has it), but what attracts the eye is the plastic frame that the pieces of the robot came attached to, just a short reach away. Suddenly the air seems to fill with the smell of modeling glue and chocolate YooHoo, and my fingers ache with a muscle memory of gripping an Exacto knife and trimming sprue off the model pieces. So vivid is the drawing, I swear, that just looking at it made my old modeling wound open up and start bleeding again.

Other drawings are much more intimate. Lee often draws women with their backs turned to him, or their faces otherwise obscured, which adds a certain frisson of erotic tension to the resulting sketch. Also, he often seems preoccupied by the idea of the drawing itself. Many of the pieces in his sketchbooks are sketches of sketching, with the subjects either working with pencil and paper (seemingly even drawing each other) themselves, or Lee’s own legs and feet drawn into in the picture.

The exhibit comes with a warning that some material in the sketchbooks might not be suitable for all ages. There is nothing in any of them, though—however erotic or personal—that Lee thought twice about including in the show. For starters, he says, a lot of what you see happened a very long time ago.

“I don’t really have that sense of things,” he shrugs when asked about any reservations he might have harbored. “I figure, I’m just a human being. There’s six billion of us. How can I do anything worth hiding when we all have these things going on in our subconscious? In a way I think I used myself as an object, to say ‘If I’m not afraid, why should you be afraid? There’s nothing to be afraid of.’”

Lee, with twice the nudes in his body of work than the average Missoula artist, and very little coyness about drawing the naughty bits, has been criticized in the past for being, to put it bluntly, a kind of dirty old man of the Missoula art scene. It’s one of the reasons he put so much time into sketching, he says—for the longest time it was impossible to get much of his work shown. Does he feel any vindication—or, on the other hand, chagrin—that with this new museum exhibit, suddenly it seems to be okay to draw people naked?

“There’s a little of that, I guess,” he chuckles. “In some ways, I feel smugness, or something like that. All you can do is outlive your enemies, really. A lot of them will want to make you quit—there’s always that tendency, wanting to quit. The thing I like about the sketchbooks is that they show it’s more broad-based than that—that I’m not just focused [on nudity/sexuality], that it’s a part of life rather than everything I do or everything I see. I’m a human being, you know? It’s part of being a human being.”

And of course, he says, the idea of not holding back was part of the time and place (Missoula from the early ’70s onward) from which the early sketchbooks in the exhibit emerged. With everyone sprawled around reading comics and loafing on sunny rocks along the Blackfoot, it does all look pretty groovy.

“That’s what things were about,” Lee recalls. “Revealing emotions and talking about feelings we weren’t able to talk about before. I know I just found myself in paradise, not having to hide anything.”

Lee, who grew up in Billings (where some of his oldest work can be seen in the murals he painted inside Billings Senior High School) arrived in Missoula by way of Oregon after serving in the Army as a graphic designer. Stationed in West Germany, his job consisted of tasks like painting the lettering on a general’s helicopter and designing place cards for officers’ wives’ banquets. After his release, Lee moved to Missoula to be closer to his son, Shane.

Shane is all grown up now, and probably finished playing with models. All the children in Lee’s ’70s sketchbooks would be grown up, all the pets dead, many of the friends and girlfriends long since moved away.

The city itself has also changed, and Lee’s sketchbooks are an important record. As with archival photographs, many of the drawings require the viewer to mentally move tables and walls to make what might or might not have been on a particular city block, say, match up with what may or may not be there now. A work in the exhibit that reflects these changes most poignantly is a sepia drawing of the Milwaukee depot with not just tracks behind it, but an actual train at the station. It’s dated 1978, with a note mentioning that it was drawn during the Milwaukee line’s last month of operations.

But Lee doesn’t get too nostalgic or sentimental about change, even after leafing through his hundred sketchpads before delivering them to the museum. He says he’s conflicted about the idea of trying to sell them whole or piecemeal, though he has considered giving the whole collection to the museum, because he thinks the sketchbooks belong together. It sounds like he might also be sick of hauling them around.

“I’m getting to this age now where I want to go forward,” Lee explains, “and live before I die and not be hung up taking care of all my old stuff and hanging on to the past. I don’t get into nostalgia that much.”

Anyway, he says, it’s kind of fun to look back on all that private history—his own and Missoula’s. Seeing the wheel go round a few times, he maintains, is one of the things that makes living in the same place for 30 years so rewarding.

“It’s kind of fun to go through them now, because I see little kids who are now grown up and coming into Butterfly [Herbs] with their own little kids. The only thing that really makes me sad is not being able to hang out all day naked on the Blackfoot anymore. I hear it’s a $50 fine nowadays, but more than that it’s just the crowds. That sense of freedom is something that I miss. Other than that, it’s just that life changes. And it always does.”

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