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Lee Wexler: versatile artist, extraordinary man
Fara Wexler draws one in to the bright and cheerful expanse of her art-filled home with the energy of someone newly in love.
Considering the ardent manner in which she speaks of her late husband, artist Lee Jesse Wexler, one would think the couple were recent newlyweds. They had, in fact, been married almost 59 years before Lee died of Lymphoma in June 2010.
He will be honored next month when “Lee Wexler, A Retrospective” opens Jan. 7 at Brackenwood Gallery in Langley.
In the house that the couple shared in Clinton for 20 years overlooking the water and surrounded by the prolific gardens she planted, Fara described a love-at-first encounter the two artists experienced when she met him at the University of California, Los Angeles in the 1950s.
“Lee and I met as art students. He was a returning GI and I was a 17-year-old overachiever,” she said with a laugh.
Agility in art
Lee Jesse (as Fara often calls him) would go on to receive his master of fine arts degree in design at University of Southern California, and became a fine artist, designer, muralist and later a professor at California State University, Los Angeles for 28 years. He was a professor emeritus there at the time of his death.
The works for sale in the exhibit are culled from his family’s collection and are among the best of Wexler’s watercolor, egg tempera and pastel paintings.
Fara said Lee believed that his work needed to be out in the world after he died.
“He did everything he could with his gifts from teaching about art to designing contemporary things, to murals, portraits, landscape paintings, to designing museums,” Fara Wexler said of her husband. He designed both the Frontier Museum in Temecula, Calif. and the refurbished bunk house of the South Whidbey Historical Museum.
Showing some of Wexler’s early lithographs he had done while they were still young students, Fara was impressed by her husband’s talents all over again.
“His gifts were just incredible. What can I say? Not only did
I think he was the most handsome hunk I’d ever seen, but he was the most talented man,” Fara said.
In the 1960s and ’70s, while continuing to paint and exhibit, Wexler opened a design firm in California and added murals to his list of accomplishments. His murals can be seen in both the Sunkist and the International Paper Co. headquarters in Los Angeles. Wexler was also a signature member of the National Watercolor Society and over the years served as the vice-president and president of the society.
The couple shared a pole building on their property that is split into “his and hers” art studios, his portion still alive with the prolific variety of his work and life.
A poem the artist had written for his wife hangs on the wall near the studio door and champions their lives together working in their studios in concentrated silence, “alone yet together.”
Fara tears up a bit recalling the sentiments.
“I have to be grateful of the time we had and I’m not going to wail and whine,” she said.
“I’m going to honor him with his work and remember all the marvelous things. As Winston Churchill said, ‘Stay calm, and carry on,’” she added, laughing heartily.
Over time Lee’s work became increasingly personal and Fara said that he would not take a commission or paint anything that didn’t mean something to him. He was a very generous spirit, she said, and if anybody asked him for anything, he’d give. His kindness was extensive.
This is evidenced from the long list of letters and notes Fara Wexler received from friends, students and associates of her husband. One former student of Lee’s wrote:
The years I spent learning from Lee were incredible years. I was unsure of myself as an artist since my background was architecture and Lee’s approach truly expanded my horizons as a person as well as an artist. I have patterned much of myself around his approach to people and life. When I teach,
I catch myself thinking of how Lee … would handle the ‘crowd.’
Another one was written to the Wexler’s son, Mark, from a fellow member of the Northwest Watercolor Society:
We were all so saddened to hear of your father’s death. I got to know Lee when he first came to the Northwest Watercolor Society and will never forget the presentation he made at a members’ meeting when he showed his series on the Japanese location camps. What a moving and powerful collection. Lee also was very helpful to me in l997, ‘98 and ‘99 when we were planning the NWWS 60th anniversary which culminated in the exhibition at the Frye Art Museum. I also worked with Lee in getting the NWWS Foundation started. He did such a great job heading up the foundation for many years. We are all indebted to him for his vision and dedication.
Fara Wexler said she heard from many people after Lee’s death and still does so more than a year later.
“Of course, all along the way people and social justice were very important issues and themes for him,” she said, adding that water, too, was an ongoing theme because he was raised on the coast in Venice Beach, Calif.
“My work deals with the human condition. I try to capture that which is deeply personal,” Lee Wexler once wrote of his work.
A good example of such work is the “Manzanar Japanese Relocation Camp” series, a 21-painting series that is part of Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum’s permanent collection and deals with the American internment of the Japanese during World War II.
“He picked things that were interesting to him such as the Japanese internment series and a series of portraits of Holocaust survivors,” Fara said, explaining further that for her husband art was not an intellectual exercise, but an emotional one.
“Lee said, ‘It’s not what you think, it’s what you feel.’”
Also, included in Brackenwood’s retrospective are examples from a variety of series by the artist, including the “Bus Stop,” “Island,” “Survivors” and “Water and Light.”
Her husband, whom she praised also as a “marvelous dancer” and who was an all-star athlete in his younger days, was always busy.
“This was Lee — interested in everything all the time,” Wexler recalled.
“He was very curious and he had the vigor and the energy to follow through. You haven’t even seen the teahouse he built. Oh boy, are you kidding? I called him ‘Flash.’ He was here one second and gone the next,” she said with another hearty laugh.
When the Wexlers visited the Pacific Northwest for the first time, Lee fell in love with the light and beauty of the area.
At that time, Fara Wexler had a busy job as an arts administrator for the 687 schools of the Los Angeles Unified School District and wasn’t sure, at first, that she could leave her important life in the big city.
“My life was very busy. I loved it; it was a marvelous experience,” she said.
“But there was a part of me that I never knew existed and which has come out here because of Lee and the art.”
After the couple decided to move to Whidbey Island in 1992, Lee became well integrated into the Northwest art community and Fara Wexler has blossomed into a professional artist in her own right.
She said her husband truly lived in the moment and that there were so many things he still wanted to do. Cancer took his life within six months of his diagnosis.
“He has always given me so much in my life,” she said.
“I hope that I was able to give something back to him. I just admired him and the work he did.”
An opening reception of “Lee Wexler, A Retrospective” is from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7. The show will continue through Jan. 30.