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
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
“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
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
“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
“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.”
“Someone told me recently that I have to start talking
about this if I want it to happen,” she takes a deep
“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
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
Well, Marina, the MATC solar project is designed to be
movable… don’t give up on it yet!
Neighbor Spotlight • Marina Lee