Local artist is painting his way out of homelessness
Dressed in an untucked button-up shirt and blue jeans, Lee Wright doesn’t immediately come off as someone who has lived much of his life on the streets. As seen around town, standing in front of his familiar easel, painting colorful renditions of Chico landmarks, the soft-spoken 42-year-old looks like just another local plein-air painter taking advantage of the local color.
However, for 15 years Wright has been homeless—on the streets of Chico for the past two years, and before that up and down the West Coast, from Washington to California, living in his van for 13 years before it was impounded.
But since coming to Chico, the struggling artist has begun to find a niche and a market for his paintings, and the promise of a more secure life.
When he arrived in Chico, Wright went to the Jesus Center looking for a meal, and he was also offered clothes and computer access as well as art supplies and a place to paint during the winter months. While working on paintings at the center, he met Laurie Maloney, a volunteer there for 16 years. After seeing his work, she asked him to do a painting from a photograph she took of the bridge at Sycamore Pool in Bidwell Park, and she was blown away by the finished work.
“I figured a man with that kind of talent should not be sleeping on the street,” she said.
Wright said that it was his painting for Maloney that “kicked it off.” Volunteers in the Jesus Center’s Free Store soon followed suit, commissioning him to do paintings for their homes.
Now, through Facebook and word of mouth and the help of Maloney, he has been busy filling orders for paintings and figuring out how to make duplications. Prints of many of his paintings are now available for purchase at Art Etc. in downtown Chico and at the Jesus Center ($80 for 11-by-14 and $100 for 16-by- 20), and are on display at the Gypsy Rose Salon downtown and will be a part of the Chico Museum’s upcoming I Love Chico exhibit (opening Sept. 8).
The commissioned pieces have mostly been for paintings of iconic Chico landmarks, places in Bidwell Park and even some portraits of children and pets.
“Nothing so inspires like necessity,” Wright says, borrowing a quote he heard on National Public Radio to explain his process for painting the local icons.
“I don’t like to be all clich”, but there are so many iconic places. I could do no wrong if I even came close,” he said. “There’s plenty of ugly to go around; [these places] are some beauty.”
The results—on acrylic renditions of Sycamore Pool and of Bidwell Mansion, for instance—are a wonderful intermingling of the subjects with their natural environment. The point of view of the mansion, for example, is from the opposite side of Big Chico Creek, with the mansion peeking through tree branches.
In his 20s, Wright worked, had his own apartment, went out with friends—"what you would call normal,” he said. He was reluctant to go into too many details about his past, citing only a general restlessness and a series of bad choices as contributing to his becoming homeless.
Wright never had formal art training, but he’s been drawing since he was a kid. He considers himself better at sculpting, and has even done bronzes and cut precious gems in the past, but he says that these days the materials for painting are more readily available, thanks to donations to the Jesus Center.
Art is in our nature, Wright said. “You can make art from anything, and it’s something everyone can relate to.”
He first began making money with his art by doing wood carvings of animals—bears, wolves, turtles and frogs—"your standard chainsaw stuff,” he said.
“I said, ‘I can do that,'” Wright recalled. “If you’re carving a bear, you just carve off all the stuff that isn’t the bear.” He says he’d like to go back to doing more wood carving, when he has more time and more money for the more expensive materials.
And things are looking up. Maloney said that, thanks to his art sales and the kindness of local property owner Dave Purvis (who didn’t require any credit check or co-signer), Wright has just moved from a motel into a small apartment. “It’s on a month-to-month basis and we are hoping and praying he will be able to keep selling enough art to keep a roof over his head,” she said.
Wright admitted he’s overwhelmed by the positive response from the Chico community. “I can’t say enough, but I don’t want to say too much and sound dumb,” he said.
“Chico people love Chico,” Maloney said about the locally themed paintings.
“Lee Wright loves Chico,” Wright added with a laugh.