In a second-floor classroom of the Honolulu Museum of Art School, instructor Anthony Lee leads a critique of drawings by his students. “Whose is this?” he asks, pointing to one of the still lifes. “It’s wonderful, you can tell what the items are.” No matter what the artist’s skill level is, Lee finds something to single out and praise.
Critiquing the works one by one, he uses them to illustrate drawing basics in engaging ways. Each drawing is an opportunity to talk about negative space, perspective and shading.
“You need to be patient and you need to go slow,” he advises his class in a sonorous voice that is at once gentle and authoritative—he could have had careers as a documentary narrator or therapist. That voice makes you take everything he says as a cardinal rule. So when he remarks, “The moment you feel comfortable, it will come naturally,” you are sure that moment will come.
The students cover a wide range of ages and backgrounds, but many of them do have something in common—they are Lee acolytes. Out of 23 students, 18 have previously taken the class—and most will continue to do so.
“Anthony creates relaxed classes—I just enjoy it,” says Shirley Roper, who has taken class with Lee 16 times. “It’s relaxing and gives me a purpose to paint and a chance to admire the work of other painters.”
This year marks Lee’s 20th anniversary as an Art School instructor—he joined the teaching staff in February 1998, when he got his start leading a Saturday drawing class for high school students.
Lee moved to Hawai‘i from New York in 1997. Though born in Seoul and educated on the East Coast, his family has long ties to the islands, starting when his family made a two-day stop in Honolulu en route to New York City, where his grandfather was head of the Korean Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. Shortly after his arrival in Honolulu, Lee took a class with George Woollard at the Art School. He enjoyed it so much he signed up for an art trip to Italy that Woollard led that summer. “It was absolutely glorious. After years of working in New York City, getting married and divorced, and coming to Hawai‘i, it was a sense of freedom.
Upon his return to Honolulu, Lee, who has a degree in illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design, inquired about teaching his own class at the Art School. Then Art School director Carol Khewhok suggested he start off with the weekend high school class, and he’s been inspiring students ever since.
Lee credits his teachers for his own teaching skills. He was accepted at RISD to study architecture, but after a year he realized it wasn’t a field for him. “Competition is fierce, and I found many of my classmates had a mother, father or grandfather who was an architect, giving them a head start,” says Lee. “Also I realized how important numbers and calculation were to architecture. So after I spent a summer at Oxford studying architectural history, I dropped that major and switched to illustration.”
And that’s where he found his calling. “One of the teachers I had was the wonderful illustrator David Macaulay, who was known for his pen-and-ink drawings of pyramids, how they were made, and how medieval castles were constructed,” says Lee. “He was a brilliant instructor. I also had Richard Merkin who is a wonderful teacher and illustrator as well. He was a friend of Tom Wolfe and like him an impeccable debonair—he had an impact on me. I owe a tremendous amount to those two great instructors. I think we all have that particular teacher whom we respect and revere in our own personal way. These great teachers became my role models.”
Previous life: Ralph Lauren Polo
In his signature khaki shorts and crisp, white button-down shirts (Brooks Brothers is his favorite), Lee is an unmistakable presence at the museum. His sense of style is what led him to become an associate designer of men’s wear at Ralph Lauren, where he got his start as a freelance illustrator.
After eight months of that, the art director in men’s design for Ralph Lauren Polo asked Lee to join the department fulltime as associate art director, and in those pre-Adobe Creative Suite days, that meant a lot of drawing. “I had close to 20 employees and our responsibility was to draw—render all the garments,” says Lee. “How many buttons, what type of collars, short sleeve, long sleeve, all the details. These were drawn according to designers’ specifications. In those days, we were faxing things back and forth with the manufacturers in Asia. Our drawings served as a visual reference for them.”
But simply drawing what others designed wasn’t the end game for Lee. One day he arrived at work dressed for his date at the symphony that evening. And after lunch, he accidentally walked in on a meeting Mr. Lauren himself was having with his design directors. Lee turned around and tiptoed out, but not before he made eye contact with Lauren, who was going over design concepts for the following season.
“Back at my desk I was checking phone messages when I heard someone running to my office,” says Lee. “It was the secretary of the designer of men’s formal wear and she said, ‘Ralph wants to meet you.’ I said, ‘You must be pulling my leg.’ I didn’t believe it until my boss came down and asked, ‘What is taking you so long Anthony? Put your jacket on and follow me.’ So I did. I straightened my tie and went in and made my bow to Mr. Lauren. I realized he is a true gentleman when he stood up and shook my hand.”
That’s not all he did. “He said, ‘I like the way you look, I like the way you dress, and you are going to work with me.’ So I became associate designer on that day,” recalls Lee.
Lauren asked Lee questions about his dress shirt and his opinion on elongated, pointier collars. “I told him that is something that needs to be found out through our sales associates over at the Rhinelander Mansion store on Madison Avenue. Because they are the foot soldiers on the front line and I’m sure they interact with the customers and get lots of feedback. That’s when Mr. Lauren was impressed with my answer.”
In a session of his watercolor class, Lee passes out a photocopy of a vintage image of longline tuna fishermen at work on a boat. “I chose this because there’s nice contrast of fabric folds,” says Lee to his students. Then he goes to his easel and demonstrates how to really see the image, then sketch it, laying a foundation for watercolor.
“How did you deal with his left hand?” asks a student.
“I made it like a fist. Let’s not get too caught up in does he have five fingers? Is he local Japanese?” Everyone erupts with laughter.
He shares a black-and-white watercolor landscape he has done of a figure on a lake dock, preparing to fish. It’s a beautiful work, you feel like you could put your finger to the water’s glassy surface and cause ripples.
When asked what has kept him teaching at the Art School for 20 years, Lee turns philosophical. “I question sometimes what my life would have been without the museum and its school. If this institution were not here, it would be a mundane life I would say,” he reflects. “The museum and school are very important to me. And I’ve enjoyed teaching since 1998, each semester interacting with parents and students in the exhibition each semester. And there is joy, satisfaction and inspiration that comes from the students who excel or do well or ‘get it’ and understand what art is.”
But what Lee does goes beyond art. “It’s not just about art school or classes, it’s also a sense of social interaction,” explains Lee. “I think after a few years, these participants or students become almost a second family. We all become very caring of one another. It is not just art, it’s also about a place where people feel they belong. That is what I am trying to create.”
Do you want to belong? Anthony Lee is teaching three classes this spring semester, which begins Jan. 22: