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Tragedy and triumph: Blugold alumnus selected to showcase work in prestigious Italian art exhibit

| Judy Berthiaume (story); Jesse Yang (video)

They say one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

Eric Lee, a UW-Eau Claire art graduate, couldn’t agree more.

After all, the Eau Claire-based artist took trash — old cans, bread ties, broken matches and other scraps that he picked up mostly alongside the road — and created a stunning series of paintings that soon will be part of a prestigious international art exhibit in Italy.

“I have a habit of seeing something and keeping it,” Lee says. “There are lots of litterbugs, so I find a lot along the side of the road. Then a day comes, and you just know what to do with it.”

When that day came, Lee “messed around” with his found treasures, first manipulating them in obvious ways, such as crushing or crinkling a can, and then in innovative ways he didn’t initially consider.

Once satisfied, he arranged them on top of swirls of oil paint, ink and tiny images.

“Putting them on the painting was the step that was scariest for me,” Lee says. “I’m a cautious person, so it was scary to essentially put garbage on my paintings.”

He need not have worried.

After seeing the paintings on Instagram, a representative of the European Cultural Centre, an organization that promotes the arts through exhibitions and education, invited Lee to include them in a prestigious six-month exhibit that the organization runs in partnership with the world-renowned Venice Biennale in Italy.

The Biennale features a handful of well-known established artists (think Yoko Ono, Lee says) from many countries.

Various arts organizations, like the ECC, then create satellite exhibits featuring lesser-known emerging artists to run alongside the Biennale.

Lee’s three 12-by-12 paintings — which are exhibited together as a triptych — will be in the ECC’s May-November “Personal Structures” art exhibition.

Past ECC exhibits have included more than 200 artists from many countries. Typically the American artists included are from New York City, so Lee likely will be the only Midwest artist featured in this year’s exhibit.

“‘Personal Structures’ is one of the largest of the satellite shows,” says Lee. “I’m not in the show with the superstars, but I’m right there next to them. As far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t do any better. It’s just unbelievable.”

Just as unbelievable, Lee says, is that he can accept the invitation to be part of the exhibit.

Artists are responsible for shipping their own creations to Italy, and getting his three paintings to Venice will cost more than $12,000, far more than Lee can afford to pay.

After hearing about Lee’s opportunity, members of the UW-Eau Claire campus and Eau Claire communities — many of whom he’s never met — came together to raise the monies he needed to ship his art to Venice.

“This is all real and I don’t for the life of me understand how I got this lucky,” Lee says. “It’s astonishing.”

Finding his passion and a path forward

Lee was a teen when an image on a postcard took his breath away, leaving him captivated by the painting and curious about how it was created.

He taught himself to draw and paint, though he kept his creations mostly to himself.

“I would see things, especially buildings, as portraits,” Lee says. “Each had its own personality, and that got me going in a serious way. Painting was less of a decision, but more of a need or impulse to do something with it. For a long time, my friends didn’t even know I did it.”

At that same time, however, Lee was battling what he later learned was severe anxiety and depression, a mental illness that interfered with every part of his life.

His art became a sometimes hobby as he struggled through his 20s, often living in his van or on friends’ porches as he tried to find a path out of the darkness that filled his world.

Finally, after years of living what he describes as a “very tough life,” Lee came to UW-Eau Claire to study art, earning his degree in 2010.

At UW-Eau Claire he found inspiration and camaraderie with art faculty and other talented students, while also developing a style of painting that he carried with him for several years.

But, even with his degree in hand, Lee struggled to find a career path that felt right to him, and his anxiety and depression continued to create issues in his life. He still painted, but he also put his creative talents to work building wooden snare drums for musicians around Eau Claire and making one-of-a-kind furniture.

Along the way, he got married to a woman he loves and had two sons, Oliver and Vinnie, whom he adores.

Still, even with his family at his side, Lee struggled with his mental illness. His paintings from that era reflect his dark mood, he says, with much of his art feeling chaotic and angry.

Finally, in 2016, he decided he’d had enough. He was determined to change his thinking about the world around him, and to create art that was different from his usual gray and somber paintings.

Tragedy and triumph

With change in mind, in 2016, Lee created three new paintings, each one just a bit brighter than the last.

The first, "Łódź," is named after the Łódź Ghetto in Poland during World War II.

The second, titled “Foundations Near Hughitt Slip,” reflects an empty boat slip in Lake Superior.

In the last of the three paintings, “In Broad Daylight,” Lee plays with color and perspective, offering an energy and hopefulness not reflected in his earlier work.

“These paintings are me trying to change the way I paint,” Lee says. “I was trying to change my point of view, change how I saw things. The paintings are kind of turbulent. There is a sense of fighting with myself and trying to see things in a different light.

“Still they are far more dynamic and playful and open. I used more materials. I got more reckless. It was a time when I was starting to look at things very differently.”

Little did he know that these same paintings would eventually hang in a gallery in Venice.

He also had no way of knowing then that after finishing the last of the three paintings, he wouldn’t pick up a paint brush again for nearly two years.

Lee’s painting — and everything else in his world — stopped in 2016 when his younger son, six-year-old Vinnie, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

“It was crushing,” Lee says of the diagnosis. “Everything just stopped.”

For the next 15 months, everything was about Vinnie.

“I wanted to spend every second with him,” Lee says. “It didn’t occur to me to paint, or really do anything else. The only thing I wanted to do was be with Vinnie.”

Last spring, Vinnie died the day after Easter.

While absolutely devastating, his son’s death unexpectedly shifted his view of the world, Lee says.

Where he once saw darkness, suddenly he was seeing light.

“I don’t understand it,” Lee says. “I almost became a different guy in a certain sense. I see things differently. I realized how important it is to help people. I’m trying to be a better person and not dwell on things.

“Finally, I’m seeing things as they really are instead of only seeing darkness.”

Around Thanksgiving last year, he also began to paint again, this time letting some of his newly discovered light into his creations.

A few weeks later, Lee received the ECC email inviting him to be part of the exhibit in Venice.

The timing of the invitation was incredible, Lee says, noting that the paintings were created two years ago, yet the invitation came just months after his son’s death and shortly after he began painting again.

“I don’t understand any of it,” Lee says of the surprising turn of events. “It never crossed my mind I would have this kind of invitation. When you’re a painter, you look at this stuff, these kinds of shows, but never once think you would ever be picked for something like this show.

“I still can’t quite believe it.”

While thrilled by the invitation, reality quickly set in when Lee realized the cost of shipping his paintings to Italy. So, while thankful for the invitation, he was prepared to turn the opportunity down.

Not quite able to get it out of his mind, he finally shared his news with a friend, who then shared it with his friends in the local art community.

Before Lee knew what was happening, Eau Claire’s art community rallied around him, setting up a GoFundMe site to raise monies to cover the costs of shipping the paintings. The fundraising effort already has surpassed its $15,000 goal, ensuring that Lee’s paintings will be in Italy when the show opens later this spring.

Among those contributing is Zach Halmstad, founder of the Jamf software company, who offered to match donations up to $7,500.

“I was excited to see that an artist from Eau Claire was invited to such a prestigious event,” Halmstad says. “One of Eric’s pieces is in the lobby of the Jamf building in Eau Claire, so he’s been a very visible artist in our community to me.

“He’s had an unimaginably hard few years, and I didn’t want him to miss this opportunity to dive back into the art world.”

The arts are integral to Eau Claire’s community, Halmstad says, noting that “they impact our lives in many more ways than we understand.”

Also, Halmstad says, he always welcomes an opportunity to support a fellow Blugold.

“I’ve had so many Blugolds who have given me opportunities over the years, going all the way back to high school for me,” Halmstad says. "This is one of the ways that I am trying to pay that forward.”

Paying it forward

When his son Vinnie was sick, so many people were so kind to him and his family that it helped him see a goodness in people that he hadn’t appreciated before, Lee says.

That so many people — some friends and some strangers — are now again supporting him, this time through his art, is astonishing and inspiring, he says.

Saying thank you is not nearly enough, Lee says. Even before the invitation came to exhibit his work in Venice, he already had been looking for ways to give something back to the community.

After Vinnie died, Lee didn’t want to keep or even sell his older paintings because they felt so dark.

“I didn’t want them, and I didn’t even want them out there,” Lee says of his earlier creations.

When a friend suggested he sell them but give the monies raised to a charity, Lee agreed because it’s a way to use his art to support something bigger than himself.

Any monies made from the sales of his older paintings will go to the Beacon House in Eau Claire, which helps people with housing insecurity transition into permanent living arrangements.

“In my 20s, I didn’t know I had a mental disorder,” Lee says. “Those were very, very hard times. I sometimes had nowhere to live, but I never thought to go someplace like Beacon House. Doing something to support it is like finding the final piece of the puzzle for me. It feels right.”

His paintings hang in Pablo Center at the Confluence, though they have no labels or prices on them. People can set their own price, with every cent going to the Beacon House.

“I break down a couple times a day thinking about Vinnie,” Lee says. “It’s probably always going to be that way. But I want to show people that you can make something good from something terrible. You can help other people.”

He’s blessed, he says, to have a family and a community that cares about him.

“We had an awful thing happen to us, but instead of being more depressed, I’ve had the opposite thing happen,” Lee says. “It seems strange to say, but some truly great things have happened, and I’m not talking about the art things, but the wonderful support we got with Vinnie.

“I’m a better person now. I’m lucky in that Vinnie’s life made mine so much tremendously better.”