Alabama Artist Andrew Lee Loves the Bond He Creates With Clients

Written by Jennnifer Kornegay / Photography courtesy Craig Godwin of Godwin Photography

No matter what specific works flow from their heart, soul and hands, makers are bound together by a few shared traits: passion, innovation, and creation. But so many never truly pursue the making path simply because they’ve got to pay the bills, and they aren’t sure they can with their art or craft alone. Andrew G. Lee is one of the lucky ones, and he knows it. “It’s such a high honor for someone to enjoy my work and such a joy that I get to do this every day,” he says. 

The Auburn, Alabama, artist uses a range of media to capture the thrill and action of the South’s favorite sporting pursuits and the raw beauty of wildlife. He is best known for his custom portraiture – often of beloved hunting companions and pets. His interest in his subjects shines through every oil or watercolor painting and each pencil or charcoal drawing. “I love to be outside; I love hunting and fishing, and I see so much beauty in those things, so I capture what I enjoy,” he says. 

Lee’s depictions of a covey rise, a duck taking wing or a bird dog sticking its point seem alive. Their pulse and movement are rendered by a meticulous attention to detail that’s most obvious in his smallest subjects, close-ups of fishing flies or a zoomed-in view of the colors and texture in a single turkey feather or oyster shell.

In 2018, being an artist became Lee’s fulltime job. Today, he works mainly on commissions and stays as busy as he can manage. But it wasn’t always so. While Lee has drawn and painted since childhood, once he got into college, he decided an industrial and product design degree was the practical choice. After he got married, his wife Whitney, who’s a jewelry designer, encouraged him to pick his paintbrushes back up. He did, and for years, he painted on the side, doing some shows and slowly gaining confidence as his works garnered acclaim. 

In 2014, at the Southern Makers event in Montgomery, Alabama, he sold every piece he’d brought on the first day and had to stay up most of the night painting more for the next day. That exposure brought more commission work than he could keep up with, but he still wasn’t ready to leave his day job at Auburn University. It wasn’t until his duties shifted in a way that pushed him to paint less and less that he was finally ready to take a leap. “It was time to decide if this was a hobby or not, and I knew if I kept saying no to commission requests, at some point, people would stop asking,” he says.

There’s little chance of that now. Lee’s cluttered but cozy home studio is proof of an always-working artist; he does about 40 commissions each year. Blank canvases are stacked on the floor; a sketch book is open to reveal simple line drawings of a trout in various stages of swimming. A portrait of an inquisitive lab in process rests on an easel, and a computer monitor glows with glittering diamonds of water jumping off a blue marlin suspended between sea and sky, while photographs of Southern nature scenes, empty turtle shells and taxidermized birds look on. 

Lee describes himself as ADD, but it serves him well. In addition to his fine art, he makes and sells stationary, handcrafted leather accessories like coasters and hand-carved and fine-detailed wood products through Andrew Lee Designs. Each item is embellished with some element of his hallmark style – an oyster shell outline burned into wood, a delicate feather stamped in leather, a quail decorating the top of a notecard – and most are made to order.

These goods expand the reach of his work, but a primary motivator in making them was Lee’s practical personality and a voracious appetite for learning. “I wanted to write some thank you notes on signature stationary, so I designed some. I needed a coaster, so I made one. I wanted to figure out how to heat-stamp leather and carve wood. I am basically self-taught all around. I have no formal art training,” he says. “I also learn a lot about anything I paint or draw, the various wildlife and nature. It’s been a fun way for me to increase my knowledge. I’m not a classroom or big book guy, but I will devote myself to studying something I’m going to paint or a tool or material I want to use.”

A lack of extensive art lessons might hinder some, but Lee believes it has broadened his creative scope. “I have my own approach; I don’t do what someone formally trained might do, especially in oil, but that’s okay,” he says. “That’s part of what makes my art mine.”

Lee’s equally confident in his choice to take the commission path over pursuing gallery shows and sales. “An artist friend who went the gallery route told me how the gallery is a wall between you and people who engage with your work,” he says. “I don’t want that because what I love about this work is relationship building.” 

He points to the bond forged with clients who’ve commissioned a dog portrait. “I really get to know these people and what moves them. And then I get the opportunity to create something that reconnects them to a moment or an experience that makes them happy,” he says. “I love that so much.”