Being Dirk Lee

Missoula’s pre-eminent erotic artist gets naked.



Dirk Lee’s tiny apartment isn’t exactly cluttered, but there are so many art materials lying on the floor, hanging on the walls and stocked away in crates that domestic essentials like food and linens seem like they could have been afterthoughts. On his desk lie the woodcuts for which he is probably most well-known. They show women masturbating, men masturbating, partners performing oral sex on each other and men and women in various stages of sexual intercourse.

Paintings lie on the floor in rows, hang on the walls and are propped on top of bookshelves. Almost all of them depict women in various degrees of nakedness (a word Dirk prefers to “nudity”). The largest shows a woman wrapped in a blanket reading; she’s almost totally covered with the exception of the underside of her buttocks and a peek of pubic hair. A square of intricate antique lace hangs from the corner of the canvas waiting for Dirk to copy it onto the painting. Other paintings, small and large, line the walls near the ceiling: one depicts a breast falling from a white tank top; another shows the back of a woman, kneeling with her feet tucked beneath her, between the legs of another woman; on top of the bookshelf on a small easel sits an unfinished portrait of a woman with dark hair and bare breasts amid white sheets; a more recent painting shows the tiny figure of a naked woman with long blonde hair and a distended belly astride the blue tip of a penis, which has somehow been disconnected from its red shaft. The woman, powerful in a superhero kind of way, sews the penis back together.

Another painting, one of his favorites, shows a woman with short blonde hair reclining on her back with her legs spread open against a sharp background of red and black. Though her vagina, painstakingly detailed, is near the center of the canvas, the painting’s focal point is the woman’s intense stare.

“What I love about this one,” Dirk explains, “is that your eyes go automatically to hers. It’s not her vagina you see first, it’s her eyes.”

He takes the moment to describe a project he’s always wanted to exhibit: a series of vulva portraits illustrating how each woman’s vulva is as unique as her face. One such portrait, a blue vulva with yellow and red accents against a brilliant orange background, hides among the stacks near his kitchenette. “I’ve had this fascination with being able to paint these big, huge vulva pictures to show that it wasn’t just this pussy,” he explains, “but something with as much expression as a woman’s face. There’s a whole other person to learn about.”

Over Dirk’s bed hang two of his own oil paintings: a naked woman bent at the waist with her hair flipped over her head and a white teddy bear lying facedown on a table against a black background.

On the bed itself are two worn teddy bears, and they are as much a contrast to his erotic work as the paintings hanging over his bed contrast with each other. The bed itself is a kind of crucible, playing a formative role in his art, serving as the place where his models pose and where his own conceptions of eroticism begin and end. One doesn’t expect to see teddy bears on Dirk Lee’s bed.

An elusive yet familiar figure, Dirk Lee has lived more than 30 years in Missoula, where he is perhaps most recognized as that lanky figure drinking coffee and drawing quietly in a sketchbook at Butterfly Herbs. Within the art community he is valued as one of very few artists who has chosen to stay in Montana and to attempt to make a living exclusively from his work. And for Dirk, as shy as he is intense, the decision to focus primarily on erotic work and the female form has come with difficulties beyond the financial.

“I have to be careful not to be in defensive mode,” Dirk begins carefully. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot, how I’ve felt I’ve been in a position where I’ve had to defend myself for a long, long time. Part of me is now sort of surprised when I come across women who even like what I’m doing, because for a time I was scared to hang anything in public.”

Sitting back in his chair with his hands folded and resting on his belly, Dirk, a 57-year-old grandfather to three children, lifts his glasses to his forehead. With hair that’s more gray than blonde and intense, glassy-blue eyes, he looks a little like a very old man. Later, he’ll sit up and gesture passionately, moving around on a wheeled office-chair to point out this book or that print, and in those motions he’ll look like a very young man.

Dirk Lee remembers his first sexual dream, at the age of eight, a vision he views as a prophetic warning of the difficulties he would encounter later in his career. The dream is also illustrative of the relationship Dirk would have with sexuality, women and his artwork.

In the dream, the eight-year-old third grader rides his bike down his family’s street, an undeveloped block with markers indicating housing lots. As the unaware boy weaves through and around the lots, a group of women watch him from the bushes. Suddenly, the women jump out and knock him off his bicycle. As the boy struggles to get up off the muddy ground, he is dragged toward an old farm shed. Inside the shed, other boys, stripped of their clothing, have been locked into glass cases lining the wall. While the boy stands in the middle of the shed, too shocked to move, the women rip off his clothing. Naked, he is led to the only empty glass case and forced inside. Within the muffled solitude of his case, the boy watches the women commence an official meeting. He sees their lips move as they yell back and forth across the room at each other. He watches as they pull out gavels and pound away. Then, as suddenly as it began, the meeting ends and the women put away their gavels. Standing in a circle on the floor of the shed, the women take off their own clothes. And finally, through specialized chutes, they slide into the glass cases and begin to have sex with the boys.

“I’m not even sure how sexual the dream was,” Dirk explains, “except that I remember how pleasurable it felt to wake up with the images of all these naked women surrounding me. Now when I think about it, it seems almost prophetic. It’s almost kind of like feminism comes along and attacks males with any kind of humanity and puts them in glass cases and [they] have these meetings to decide what they’re going to allow and what they’re not going to allow. They discuss the whole thing, and then when it’s all over, we become human again.” Though the feeling of being judged is one Dirk wears like a weight around his neck, he admits that waking up in the presence of all that nakedness left him with “a perpetual desire ever since.”

When he was a very young boy, Dirk’s mother gave her son a collection of cartoons by William Steig, the famous New Yorker illustrator. The collection, titled The Lonely Ones, offers simple drawings of people who have been cut off from the rest of the world by their private obsessions. Not all the figures are necessarily unhappy; they are, in the words of Wolcott Gibbs’s introduction, “simply not quite like the other girls and boys.” There’s the drawing of the calm yet mad woman with an umbrella and the caption: “Mother loved me, but she died.” There is the armless man with a knife in his back and an arrow through his midsection with the caption: “I want what’s coming to me.” Yet another shows a naked woman with long hair and a broad smile stretching one arm from a pole. Her caption reads: “Public opinion no longer worries me.”

The son of a rebellious physical-education teacher named Robert E. Lee and a mother who, according to Dirk, was so talented and yet so frightened of living in the spotlight that she got pregnant with Dirk in order to avoid participating on the 1948 Olympic Ski Team, Dirk is stubborn and not a little rebellious, yet haltingly shy and sensitive. In his third-grade class in Powell, Wyo., while all the students made Santa Claus projects, the young Dirk defiantly refused to give his Santa anything but gold eyes. “I didn’t want to do brown eyes or blue eyes like everyone else and the teacher gave me a hard time about it, telling me I couldn’t do it that way because gold eyes didn’t exist. I still remember how traumatized I was by that whole experience.”

It wouldn’t be the last time Dirk was surprised to discover that others found his artwork inappropriate, and even sexist. The budding artist began drawing naked women at eight years old, the same year he had his first sex dream. When his mother told him to stop, he couldn’t figure out what he’d done wrong. “I used to fight with her about it,” he remembers, “until she finally gave up and let me do it, as long as I didn’t put in nipples or pubic hair.”

One night, not more than a few years after Dirk began drawing naked women, he created what he considers his first major work. Sitting on his bed, sketching in his notebook, he imagined the figure of a woman looking at her reflection in a pool. The woman had just lost her virginity, and as Dirk began to draw he thought of the confused combination of pleasure and pain the woman must have experienced. “I was only about 12,” Dirk admits, “and don’t imagine I consciously recognized all I was feeling, but I do remember thinking of that image and knowing I had no idea what it was like for a woman to go through that.”

The finished drawing was one he later gave to his high-school girlfriend, the first woman he actually saw naked in a sexual context, not just naked in his mind’s eye. The story of their relationship, and of Dirk’s introduction to sexuality, illustrates both the burgeoning empathy and impotent frustration that would mark much of his career. Having revealed to Dirk that her father had been raping her almost every other morning for several years, his girlfriend confessed to not realizing anything was wrong until her father told her not to tell her mother, who worked as a night nurse. “I was 17 and she was 15 and I remember standing outside her bedroom window at 4:30 in the morning imagining what her father was doing to her and feeling so powerless.” When Dirk himself finally saw her naked, he remembers his shock when, with every nerve-end tingling at the sight of her—she began to cover parts of her body, claiming they were ugly. “I think that’s what got me going,” he says, “just feeling really upset that she spent so much of her life thinking she was ugly. I don’t think I ever saw a woman who I thought was ugly. They feel more ugly than guys ever think they are. When you open your eyes and see the truth, it might not always be pleasant, but it’s always beautiful because it’s true.” That’s why he prefers the term “naked” to the term “nude.” While nudity presents the idealized form, nakedness presents the truth. “And that’s what I try to do,” he says.

It was this distinction that compelled Julie Williams to model for Dirk. Having met him at Butterfly Herbs where she works as a barista, Williams appreciated his artwork as well as the personal friendship the two struck up. During sessions, Dirk would often complete as many as seven sketches and show them to Williams, who afterward felt “empowered.”

“Maybe,” she says, “It’s seeing myself through someone else’s eyes. I think he really does capture beauty in just a few lines.”

After spending most of his childhood and teenage years in Wyoming and central Montana, Dirk was drafted into the military during the early 1970s and served in Europe. When he returned, Dirk began working in earnest with erotic imagery. “I remember getting out of the service,” he says, “and wanting to wash away the whole death, the emptiness, I felt. I wanted to feel life, the aching for life, and part of sex is that creative energy to wash death away.” Studying briefly at the University of Oregon, he began cutting out pictures from pornographic magazines and assembling them into collages. “A lot of it,” he explains, “the intellectual part, was dealing with contrasts and contradictions—black and white and color.” After a time, his instructor took him aside and explained that should anyone walk through the studio and see what he was doing, the department wouldn’t support him or back up his work. Dirk, then 24, refused to take “no” as an answer. “I thought to myself, ‘no?’ There’s no such thing as ‘no.’ If somebody says ‘no,’ you say, ‘yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!’”

In 1974 Dirk moved to Missoula permanently in order to be near the son he’d agreed to father for a friend. Here he would encounter varying degrees of success, as well as much of the same kind of criticism of his erotic work that he’d found in Oregon. It was at that time when he felt most misunderstood, even betrayed by the feminist groups with whom he considered himself allied.

“My first experience with feminism,” Dirk explains, “was that it was a positive, liberating experience for women and I felt my work was actually feminist in its origin.” Still, he felt attacked by the movement. During one critique, slotted as a two-hour session, in a class he attended in early 1980 at the University of Montana, Dirk describes being pinned down for more than twice that long with accusations of male chauvinism. “They had me up against a wall for almost five hours telling me I didn’t have a right as a man to do what I was doing.”

In one response, Dirk rebelliously organized what he remembers as Montana’s first erotic art show in May 1980. As an example of what he describes as “my own version of passive nonresistance,” he held the show next door to a meeting sponsored by a local women’s group. The women were gathering to discuss the implications of pornography. Similarly, he began to paint satirical portraits of teddy bears posing in beds among sheets and underclothes. “I thought, well okay, if I can’t paint naked women, then maybe this is okay,” he says. Working with the teddy bears, though, delivered a surprising kind of comfort. “It became almost like a surrogate mascot for me,” he says.

James Todd, retired chair of the art department at the University of Montana who taught art criticism for many years and served as the thesis director for many women graduate students, contends that “both nationally and in Europe there was a good deal of that kind of backlash from the feminist movement.” And many of the male artists coming out of the 1960s who were in support of the feminist movement were surprised to feel some of that backlash. “Those men,” explains Todd, “felt, in a way, kind of betrayed because they felt—whether fairly or not—that they had been open and supportive of the kind of freedom women wanted. And I think Dirk saw his eroticism as partly that [kind of freedom]. I think that’s where his big feeling of alienation came from.”

Laurie Urfer, a local artist and former model for Dirk, agrees with a laugh and a wave of her hand, “[The feminists] were offended by everything,” she says. “Had it been me doing the same exact work, it would have been fine with them.”

Dirk himself finds the experience difficult to laugh off. Because so many years have passed since his encounters with Missoula’s feminist groups, his recollection of that period can sound a bit exaggerated. Many supporters who remember his difficulties can recall only a handful of conflicts.

To understand Dirk Lee’s art, however, one must take into consideration his own perception of the criticism he’s encountered. James Todd, himself a retired professor from the University where his well-known print series of Montana writers is still exhibited, is mindful that “you’re dealing with artists who are getting older and anyone, artist or not, who gets older, often carries the weight of the past as though it were happening in the present. It’s how we come to terms with the past.”

Even in the present, though, one wonders if Dirk is unjustified in feeling misunderstood. Laurie Urfer points out that “Artwork is very much like your handwriting, and you can’t change your handwriting.” And so, as Dirk gets older and as his subjects remain young women in their 20s, it’s easy to confuse the artist with the cliché of the dirty old man. (While I prepared to interview him, acquaintances cautioned me with nudges, winks and jokes.)

But for Dirk, revealing the intimacy of private sexuality is a goal for which he reaches in erotic art, despite any misconceptions about his work. “Erotic imagery, that is, showing the erotic relationship between two people who really love each other, brings out what people think, what their relationship with life is,” he says. Dirk maintains that while pornography is simply the sexual exploitation of another, erotic artwork is another beast entirely. “It is possible to make great art without having to suck other people dry,” he says. “They can give it to you, you can take what they give to you and it becomes them as well.”

Urfer also points out that “we live in a culture where Victoria’s Secret ads are okay, but because people are so private about their sexuality, they can be uncomfortable with erotic art.” Anna Tucker, a friend and former model of Dirk’s from the late 1970s, firmly believes that much of his work will outlive him. “It’s a shame that people project their own pornographic ideas on real art.”

Manuela Well-Off-Man first saw Dirk’s work when the artist began donating prints to the University’s art auction. Art curator at the University of Montana, Well-Off-Man is currently preparing for Dirk Lee’s upcoming show at the University, perhaps his biggest since the Missoula Art Museum’s 2000 sketchbook exhibit. Titled The Beauty in Her, the show will exhibit some of Dirk’s oil paintings.

“Since Dirk is mostly known for his prints,” Well-Off-Man says, “these oil paintings will give people a rare chance to see Dirk working in a different kind of medium.” What most impresses Well-Off-Man in Dirk’s work is the detail and the brushwork. In one painting, titled “Cakeo at Sleep,” she points out the different shades of green in the blanket draping the woman. “He hasn’t used different shades of green,” Well-Off-Man points out, “he’s just applied several layers of color in different places. That really is painstaking work.”

Another painting shows a naked woman lying facedown on a green futon against a gold background. “I like this one because of its contrast,” Well-Off-Man says. “The figure is flat and almost cartoonish, but the background makes you feel it’s almost an icon.” Despite the cartoon style, Dirk’s tendency toward realistic detail is evident in the dark shading on the bottoms of the figure’s feet, showing that they’re dirty. The tiny detail pushes the contrast between subject and composition even further: despite the iconic background, the figure is revered almost as much for her natural state as for her physical beauty.

“You can always discover new things in his paintings,” asserts Well-Off-Man. “He takes, regular, everyday people and paints them in a beautiful, aesthetic way that still keeps the reality of who they are intact.

The show at the University, which will host an opening and a talk by Dirk, and another opening at Butterfly Herbs scheduled for later this winter, illustrate an emerging interest in his work that has gradually been developing since the 2000 sketchbook exhibit at MAM. For Dirk, the recognition is pleasing, and more than a little confusing.

“I’ve felt demoralized for so long that when I get these public pats on the back I start to jump a little.”

In the eyes of many, though, Dirk has been a respected artist for as long as he’s lived and worked in Missoula.

James Todd, a colleague in the art community and a fellow wood engraver, points out that “Perhaps even more than his eroticism, Dirk took a stand in ways that were more challenging: sticking with specialized techniques at a time when those techniques weren’t very popular. He’s never changed much with what he’s done and so he’s taken a chance on things and it’s made things hard for him, but at the same time it hasn’t made him change, and I’m rather admiring of that.”

MAM’s Stephen Glueckert adds the simple truth that all artists’ careers in Montana are rocky. “There are just a tiny fraction of artists who have been able to survive on just selling their work. [Dirk], as an example of an artist’s single-mindedness, tenacity and discipline, is a role model.”

Despite his evident steadfastness, the University’s upcoming show may mark a turning point in the artist’s career. “I’m kind of in this mid-life thing,” Dirk admits. “I’m at this point where I’m kind of wondering if I need to do [the portraits of naked women] anymore. There’s that whole business where you have a goal and you have a challenge and when you finally reach it, then you wonder if you really need to do it anymore. I want to do what it is I left undone, what I put aside when I was focusing on [erotic work and female nudes].”

He pulls out a portfolio and turns to a page with a drawing from the late 1970s. It shows a crucifix with each of the four points ending in an image of Christ’s face, each pillar of the cross a penis inserted into Christ’s mouth. “This,” Dirk points, “is the kind of work I don’t do anymore.”

Still, one wonders if the artist can, to use Urfer’s phrase, change his “handwriting,” a signature obsession, if not style, that tracks back to his childhood bed.

In that bed he dreamt of women kidnapping him, and imagined how it would feel to be a woman losing her virginity. Sharing the bed with Dirk’s teddy bears, models pose for him, often becoming so comfortable that, as Julie Williams admits, “I’ve fallen asleep.” Another model of recent years, Dawn Larson, described the experience of modeling for Dirk as the feeling “of two kids playing in a tree house.”

It’s also worth knowing what’s not going on in Dirk’s bed.

“My real frustration is in not having a sexual life of my own,” he says. “I’m seen as this dirty guy who’s had sex with all my models,” Dirk admits, “and with everything I hear, I’m almost surprised I don’t have a secret life.”

But for Dirk, painting naked women is as much about exploration as it is about illustration: “There’s this whole world that a male experiences that a female doesn’t and the opposite is true—where there’s a whole world that a female experiences that a male doesn’t. At an early age, I was kind of fascinated in that without the scientific background; I was just always fascinated in what other people saw when they looked at the world. Literally. There’s this moment when we’re all fetuses and then there’s that chromosome that says, okay, you’re going to be a boy and you’re going to be a girl and there’s this whole person you don’t get to be. It’s the human that interests me.”

He grabs a book off the shelf and hands it to me. It’s a book of photography called My Wife wherein the photographer, Petter Hegre, captured his wife in naked and semi-naked photographs. Though he is admiring, Dirk sees the project as ultimately incomplete.

“The only thing left for me is, where are her pictures of him? Why is it always the guy doing the naked girl? Why is it always the men doing the naked women? In a sense that’s what I’ve been looking for my whole life, the woman who will participate with me.”

The Beauty in Her will be on display Oct. 26 through Dec. 21 at the Meloy Gallery in the PAR/TV Building at the University of Montana. A First Friday reception is Nov. 4, 5–7 PM. On Thursday, Dec. 8, at noon, the Meloy Gallery will host a gallery talk with Dirk Lee.

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