December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Do you ever wish to go to sleep under a star-filled sky? Create a woodland view in that drab and windowless back room? Or present a unique atmosphere for your office? Craig Lee can and does make wishes come true. He has won praise and clients for his trompe l’oeil murals and paintings that do indeed fool the eye into believing the unbelievable.

Most of his commissions are for home or business interiors. A ceiling may become a field of stars or an elaborate Renaissance-style illusion with figures and architectural features; walls may open onto a view. Faux finishes are a choice for details or an entire surface.

Take time to see his outdoor mural at 35th and Center streets. Lee’s gift to Omaha [he donated his time and materials] is an homage to the Hanscom Park neighborhood, where he lives, and to the sensual delights of spring and summer. You’ll find sweetly perfumed lilacs, wide-porched houses shaded by a great silver maple, butter-yellow lilies, and tantalizing tomatoes. “I want people to be able to hear cicadas when they look at it,” Lee says.

One of Lee's murals at the Hands of Heartland Center in Bellevue.

One of Lee’s murals at the Hands of Heartland Center in Bellevue.

The 18’ x 62’ mural was painted last summer. Preparation of the badly damaged wall required a week of painstaking cleaning and restoration, plus a month to cure the lime-based mortar. Painting the mural took a full month (A video of the process is available here).

Eddith Buis, an artist, educator, and longtime public art advocate, is thrilled with the Center Street mural. “It brings good art to the public,” she says. And per this feature, “As a muralist, he doesn’t have exhibitions, so it’s important that his work be recognized.”

While a graduate student at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art, Lee followed the gestural style of the Abstract Expressionists until an instructor challenged him with the question, “What is your experience?” Lee recalls, “Art got really hard after that because realism involves so many brain cells. I want to leave some room for the viewer to be creative, and not simply reproduce what I see.” To that end, Lee uses line and color to create directional rhythm, highlights, and markers so that viewers can “read” the painting. All the senses are enlisted so one can almost feel the breeze and smell the flowers. By engaging viewers in these ways, their own stories are interwoven into the one depicted.

Sometimes, the narrative requires Lee to work against such realism. Painting scenery for Blue Barn Theatre’s Christmas spoof, Who Killed Santa?, he sought a more limited, generic representation; the kind we’d see in advertising or packaging. Every log in the cabin wall, while recognizable, is similar. “They’re more toy logs than real logs,” he says. “It’s hard to pull back, but the painting is in service to the story.”

A backdrop for Creighton University's production of The Nutcracker created by Lee.

A backdrop for Creighton University’s production of The Nutcracker created by Lee.

Lee’s mural subjects are often larger than life and highly individualized. Three murals at Domina Law Group picture Nebraska history, renowned trials, and the firm’s own key cases. The first is encountered in the reception area, on a curved wall opposite the entry. Large portraits beg identification; soon, we are lured by details and following the ever-modernizing route that winds through the prairie.

Lee began his professional life as a scenic artist at Omaha Community Playhouse. He began to get private commissions for murals as well as other freelance work and formed his own business, Craig Lee Fine Art, about 15 years ago. (One of his early murals, of Downtown Omaha, graces the wall of Omaha Magazine’s conference room, in fact.) “There were some lean years,” he admits, but he felt compelled to paint. “You only get one life, so your work has to have meaning.”

Lee's yellow lab, Georgia, who is inspiration for his mural on Center Street.

Lee’s yellow lab, Georgia, who is inspiration for his mural on Center Street.

Georgia, a yellow lab, looks at him with adoring, melted-chocolate eyes. Her response to his comment is clear. Lee rescued her from a puppy mill where she was a breeder. Slowly, she achieved physical and emotional health, and has a starring role in the Center Street mural. Any of us, however, can find our own imaginary place in the scene, our own private entrance. And with Lee’s painting as medium, the story becomes both personal and plausible.

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