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Neighbor Spotlight: Marina Lee

Photo and Story by Janice Christensen

 

“They’re guardians,” Marina Lee explains, referring

to the brightly-colored fiberglass sea monsters,

giraffes and creatures of mystery that inhabit her

back yard and so many Milwaukee playgrounds and

schoolyards. Kids need guardians to watch over them,

and Marina’s sculptures provide them.

She remembers when her daughter, Justice was little.

“I would put her on the back of one of the animals,

and she would sit there for an hour – long enough for

me to paint the other side.”

 

Justice is all grown up now, a beautiful young

woman of twenty, studying Russian at UWM. But

the inspiration of her childhood is in the record of

Marina’s sculptures. There were the magical leaf

chairs because Justice’s birthday came when the

leaves fell down. The rocking horse sculpture had a

fancy circus saddle and headdress, inspired by mom

and daughter’s tradition of walking over to Humboldt

Boulevard to watch the circus wagons moving from

the railroad depot toward downtown.

 

Marina Lee moved to Milwaukee in 1984 to attend

Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. She received

her BFA, then did further study at the Pacific

Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon.

“I could have put down roots there,” Marian recalls,

“but my family called me back to the Midwest.”

So she came back, bought the building on the corner

of Bremen and Burleigh in 1997, and started her

business, Beginning Dreams Forever.

 

Marina’s building is a familiar landmark to most

Riverwesters. The iconic fiberglass planters in purple

metallic gold overflow with lush plants all summer.

An eye for detail catches the brightly-colored crown

molding that tops the classic brick building. And a

peek through the front windows reveals a working

studio full of strange and amazing creatures, stacks of

ceramic tiles, and wall-sized abstract paintings.

You’ll have about thirty seconds to admire the studio

before Marina’s own guardians, two canine bundles

of energy named Spirit and Masey hurtle themselves

at the glass door and put up an ear-splitting racket.

“My doorbell’s been broken for years,” Marina laughs.

“Who needs one with these two? It’s dog city around

here!”

 

Marina is a working artist. She has made her living

selling her artwork at art festivals from Florida to

Colorado and everywhere in between.

“I like the festivals,” she says. “It gives me direct

contact with customers. I can see 10,000 to 50,000

people in a weekend.”

 

It also means she has more control over sales. “When

you’re a single parent and don’t have another income

to tide you over, you can’t put your art in a gallery –

sometimes they sit there forever. Galleries take 40 to

50%, and it only costs me 30% to go on the road, so I

can sell my stuff cheaper and faster.

“When you do sculpture, you’ve got to keep it moving.

It’s got to have a home. You’ve done all you can do for

it. It’s up to the new owner to make the rest of its life

what it will be.”

 

The shows are a good source of quick income, but

Marina’s real passion is public art. Her work in Cass

Street Park on the lower east side, Snails Crossing on

Burleigh and Bremen, and Pierce Street School have

added an unmistakable air of whimsy to our part of

the city.

 

“Public art is my favorite,” she states. “It belongs to

everyone, not just the rich.

“I have some phenomenal patrons; I’ve been

fortunate that way. But dearest to my heart is putting

something out there in a public place and watching

children’s imaginations take off.”

 

Kids are important in another way to Marina, as

well. She has a real talent for getting them involved

in the art. “When you get the kids involved, they are

absolute geniuses,” she says. “The younger they are

the freer their minds are. No one tells them they’re

geniuses, but they are.”

 

Marina’s talent for working with kids has opened up

other professional areas for her. She does a lot of

public art projects and artist-in-residence programs.

Her resume lists almost two hundred projects she has

offered over the years in schools, parks, libraries and

youth centers.

 

Group work is a special category for Marina. “I’m all

about group projects.”

 

She mentions a video she has seen on YouTube, the

Oprah Winfrey show where Black Eyed Peas is doing

an outdoor concert on Michigan Avenue in front of a

crowd of about 21,000 people. As a surprise for Oprah,

about 800 people gathered the day before to learn a

dance to the song. They are scattered throughout

the crowd, and as the song progresses, they begin

to dance, and teach the dance to everyone standing

around them. Soon the entire crowd is dancing in

unison. It’s electrifying.

 

“That kind of energy is what you get in residencies

and community projects,” Marina explains. “You can

start something, but you don’t know how it’s going to

end up. It’s up to the other people to make it happen.”

Is there anything Marina Lee would change about

Riverwest? Yes. She would like to see people change

their attitudes about small businesses.

“I hear a lot of bad talk about businesses. But a small

business is just like a person. What makes a business

happen on a small scale is the business owner who

is constantly job hunting. That’s how you make a

business work.

 

“Corporations are not businesses. Corporations are

abstracted. The guys at the top aren’t looking for jobs.

But small businesses are not like that.

“I just wish that when people talk about businesses

they would talk nicer, and maybe not expect so much.

Businesses are nothing but people looking for jobs.”

So what’s the next job for Marina Lee? She’s got some

ideas.

“I’m going in a new direction. The economy is not

conducive to going on the road with sculptures right

now. I’m working on a new series in a new medium.”

She showed me a painting on fabric – a depiction of

a fantastic column. “I’m using fabric and markers and

dye, stretched with duct tape on insulation board.”

Marina’s always been big on using construction

materials to create interesting objects. “The frame

will have mosaic pieces set in it. This series is going

to be depictions of architectural elements, designs for

my big project.”

Big project?

“Someone told me recently that I have to start talking

about this if I want it to happen,” she takes a deep

breath.

“My dream is: LAND. I’ve given myself a year to find

it. I’m looking for 50 to 100 acres. My new project is

to design greenhouse buildings with fiberglass arches

and concrete bases. There would be lots of growing

things – crops. And there would have to be animals

– horses. How else are people going to get around

to see everything? How else are you gonna get your

fields plowed?”

And where is this artistic animal wonderfarm to be?

“It would be nice to get it in the city somewhere. I was

thinking about the Blue Hole (north of Capitol Drive),

but now I see they have another project in mind for

that.”

Well, Marina, the MATC solar project is designed to be

movable… don’t give up on it yet!

Neighbor Spotlight • Marina Lee