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Spirit of Imagination

Katie Lee is fully aware that she fits into the common stereotype assigned to many artists. Sometimes she loses track of time during a painting session. In many cases, she realizes after stopping for a break that the lack of light outside her studio window isn’t linked to a recent sundown, but instead, the clock on her phone displaying a time that is well past midnight. She admits that like most artists, she gets lost in her work. She’s painted since she was young, like most artists also say, and, she’s always been drawn to a creative force that seems to pull her mind, eyes, hands and time towards a blank space waiting to be enhanced by some combination of oil paint and her own imagination.

Inside her studio space, blank white canvases are stacked against each other by the dozens. Her walls display works in progress or works recently completed. There is a large table covered by a sheet. The legs of the table are propped up by truck tires and the table top is like a buffet of oil paint splotches, mixes and swatches of every color imaginable. The table is about purpose and function and mixing paint. It has nothing to do with anything else, but in many ways says a lot about everything in Lee's world. It is clear that witnessing Lee in her studio reveals the obvious: she is definitely a painter. Lee has embraced her calling. Talking with her, as we did to gain a glimpse into the multifaceted world of commercial artistry, entrepreneurism, children’s book writing and the experience of participating in a sweat lodge ceremony (all of which Lee is well versed in), also provides an obvious truth about Lee: she is definitely more than any stereotypical painter. And, her journey can act as a pseudo guidepost for many of us to drift towards.

The Artist Turned Writer

It’s hard not to believe in Lee’s mantra of embracing an activity without the worry of an end goal after seeing her rise from artist to writer. After going through a unique experience roughly three years ago, Lee has now become a successful children’s book author and illustrator that is published on, in Barnes and Noble and across the region in various book stores. How it all started is something Lee says she could not have planned.


The Accidental Cover:

Inspired by her fascination with vibrant colors, Lee painted a rainbow image for the cover of her book. At the time, she didn’t realize it was a unique image she’d chosen to emulate in the painting. Upon further examination of her image, Lee learned she had chosen a rare double rainbow image. A double rainbow shows the presence of two realms: the earthly realm and the spiritual realm. Both realms are significant to the story, Lee says, acknowledging that the cover turned out well even if she didn’t intend to provide so much meaning through her color and image choice.


Her journey to become an author started with spiritual encounter a chance that involved the presence of a Native American spirit. During an early morning walk and meditation stop at her father’s ranch in western North Dakota, Lee experienced an unmistakable presence while she stood at an old teepee ring they had previously found. It felt like a buffalo was standing next to her as she stood with her eyes closed. Lee recalls, its breath heavy and its presence was easy to feel. It turns out, Lee discovered, the presence was Iktomi, the great spider spirit best known for being the legend of the dreamcatcher. For most, the encounter may have seemed to be a fluke or unworthy of recounting. But, after talking about her spirit experience with a family friend and learning that such an experience is rare, Lee and the friend were contacted by a Lakota member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Lee was then invited to partake in a sweat lodge ceremony to help her, and others interested, understand how and why as Lee says, “a white girl from Grand Forks had such a spiritual encounter.”

The entire experience inspired Lee to write her first book, “No Matter Your Color, the Great Spirit Will Find You.” According to Lee, she wrote the entire story in roughly two hours. Over the next year and a half, Lee created individual scenes for every section of the book. A University of North Dakota graphic designer helped her formalize the layout. Like always, her kids and husband helped her work through the editing and proofing process on her work. As you’ll read, there are layers and layers of meaning in the story. Although it is considered a children’s book, Lee has already received major orders from unlikely places. A financial advisor from out of state liked the book so much that he ordered 400 copies to give to clients and friends. Lee didn’t know him until the order came through. A teacher in Montana is working to install the story in her coursework. Local support has also been strong.


Painting What She Knows:

Lee insists on following the time-tested painter/writer mantra about subject choice. Lee paints or writes about what she knows. She’s lived in multiple unique places like Seattle or Big Sky, both of which show up in her

portfolio of work.


The story itself, falls in line with Lee’s personal experience. A young girl discovers an ancient Native American medicine wheel on her parents’ ranch (sound familiar?). As Lee writes on the back of the book, “it is a whimsical interpretation meant to awaken its readers, lift spirits and teach children and adults alike that no matter your color or beliefs, we are all the same on the inside.”

We might not all have the same skill at painting or possess the imaginative insight of putting color on canvas like Lee does, but we can see or experience what she has. Oil paint, or words on a page, are just a medium, Lee says. The key to it all starts well before the brush is picked up or the keyboard lights up. “It’s all about embracing what you know,” she says. “You have to embrace your imagination.”

Painting Her Way Through

Lee has never taken formal painting classes, she’s always painted. Others—all over the American West and Midwest—have embraced her painting imagination since she first started selling her work. Lee has sold hundreds of paintings. In the Big Sky, Montana, area where her family spends time throughout the year, Lee has paintings displayed in hotels, restaurants and several other locations. Although she typically sticks to canvas, she is well-known in Montana for painting a full-size, 18-foot teepee replica. In Grand Forks, you’ve probably seen the painted view on the glasses worn by the blue head art installation downtown. Lee painted that.

Out West, she’s well known for her take on the wild, particularly animals like bison. Many of her pieces utilize large canvases displaying sections of an animal (a bison’s broad shoulder humps or a longhorn’s white tips. In her scenes, nearly every piece boasts a color section that seems to burst off the image as if Lee just finished the piece and the color on the image is so fresh and bright, touching it might stain your fingertip.


Going For Gold:

Although Lee paints with oil, she is constantly looking for ways to experiment. She’s painted on huge teepees, brick walls and blue heads. In her latest work, she’s found a use for gold leaf flecks to give a starscape image a unique glint of reflective light.


“I never really wanted to paint an animal or a scene as it really appeared,” Lee says when describing her approach to painting. “I like to embrace my experience with things and try to document them the way I remember them.” For Lee, that often means recapturing an image or scene with vivid colors nearly impossible in reality. It also means emphasizing portions and details of a bison, skyline or starscape that make it clear to the viewer that the beauty of the specific thing they are seeing pop from the painting is the same thing Lee envisioned for her work moments before her brush ever touched the canvas.

However, Lee doesn’t work on a schedule or under the confines of a plan. In fact, she cringes at the thought and believes that if there is anything non-artists can learn from her success, it’s that it is okay to embrace an activity without worrying about how it fits into an end goal or plan. G

// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here

Photos by Russ Hons Photography

From Issue 5, 2019


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