Elfred Lee: Dialogue With an Adventist Artist in Mexico

Elfred Lee is a well-known illustrator and painter who currently teaches at the University of Montemorelos, a Seventh-day Adventist university in México. He was born in Seoul, Korea, in 1940 to missionary parents. While still a child, he and his family spent three years in Japanese prison camps in the Philippines. Rescued by paratroopers when they were about to be executed, the family returned to Korea, from where they had to escape again in 1950 because of the communist invasion.

After completing his basic studies in Japan and Singapore, Elfred obtained a baccalaureate degree in commercial art at Pacific Union College, in California. While serving in Vietnam, he was shot down in a helicopter on a photography mission. He later obtained a Master of Fine Arts degree at Syracuse University. Lee has taught art at Columbia Union College, Weimar Institute, and Oakwood College, and also served as art director at the Review and Herald Publishing Association.

Though he has experienced the ugly and painful sides of life, Elfred Lee's art stands out for its beauty and serenity. He has chosen to portray the uplifting feeling of peace and joy that characterize the Christian life.

When did you first become interested in art?

In a prison camp in the Philippines, when I was four. There was a Portuguese fellow prisoner named Pedro, who would draw portraits with colored pencils. I also started to draw by imitating him the best I could. I drew pictures of our Japanese guards and of the scenes in the camp. Somehow, this helped me escape the terrible conditions, since we were all barely surviving at the time.

Who helped you develop your artistic talent?

I thank God and my parents who were always supportive and encouraging. As a youngster in Japan, I got into oil painting and water color with a noted painter. Later Vernon Nye, my major professor at Pacific Union College, broadened and guided my development. I also had the privilege of working with Harry Anderson, an outstanding Adventist artist whose work has blessed countless thousands. While serving as art director at the Review and Herald, I worked with him on The Bible Story and was involved in the publication of the book The Man Behind the Paintings, which was a small tribute to this truly great man. Many classical, impressionist and surrealist painters have also influenced my work.

Under what circumstances did you go to Vietnam?

While doing graduate studies in art, I was drafted. The Army trained me in medical illustration and motion picture photography at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. From there I was sent to film and photograph the medical aspects of the Vietnam War. At times we were in very dangerous circumstances, behind enemy lines. Although I saw much death and more than once had blood splattered over my equipment, God protected me. Some of the thousands of slides and many feet of film that I took in Vietnam are used in movies and documentaries about that war.

Did you have other memorable experiences?

In 1969 I was asked to participate as an illustrator and film maker in the search for Noah's ark at Mount Ararat, in Turkey. We climbed the mountain and found ancient hand-tooled wood. Through the years I have remained very involved and interested in that archaeological search, including consultation on many books and movies on the subject.

Your life has been quite adventurous!

True, and in spite of the many changes in location I have always remained an artist. Each experience has enriched me and made me grow. In addition to the joy of working as an illustrator and painter, I've had the satisfaction of fostering the talent of scores of young Adventist artists who now are making their mark in many parts of the world.

Where do you stand in the continuum between commercial art and fine art?

There is a natural tension between these two areas. I feel comfortable in both. While personally moving toward fine art, I find that illustration serves as a bridge between the two. A good illustrator must also be a fine artist with the technical discipline of the commercial artist.

What are your favorite themes in your art?

Although I respect the abstract and other styles, I have always liked realism. God has given me the ability to draw realistic faces and figures, frequently with a natural background. As a free lancer, I have had the opportunity to do portraits of famous people such as the premier of Bermuda--the honorable Sir John Swan--, President Ronald Reagan, and others. At the request of actor Burt Reynolds, I have done his portrait and that of Loni Anderson. Martha, my wife, is my favorite human model, critic, supporter, and inspiration. My children also have modeled often. But the figure I come back to again and again is Jesus. I enjoy painting Him in different settings.

Do you prefer a particular art medium?

I like all of them--pencil, watercolor, oil--but I'm using more acrylic now. It's a good commercial medium that is fast becoming accepted in fine art. Acrylic is a plastic co-polymer and therefore is very flexible, dries fast, and doesn't crack. It is permanent. If the classical artists had had access to acrylic, their paintings would be in much better condition today.

What are the challenges you face as an artist?

Time--having enough time to paint all that I would like to paint. It's frustrating to be in the middle of a moment of inspiration and be interrupted. This highlights the inevitable tension between carrying out your own artistic calling and helping, as a teacher, to further the development of younger artists--though I can't ever consider them an "interruption." At the University I try to combine both activities by having in my office studio paintings in process, so my students can see me at work. That's the way I learned, by observing my teachers doing art and imitating their example from my own perspective.

Of course, I also have to struggle with my own limitations as an artist, and with my personal imperfections as a human being.

What difference does your Christian faith make in your art?

Every painting I do, I pray that it will be a blessing to someone. I feel God gave me a talent that I must develop and use for His glory. It doesn't need to be a religious painting or a pretty portrait of Jesus. A landscape or a figure study can also honor God as the Creator of everything beautiful, pure, and uplifting.

How does God factor in your life?

As I look back, I see God leading me step by step, usually in the direction I would have chosen if I had known the end from the beginning. Under His direction every experience--even the painful ones--has been a stepping stone leading to where I am today as an artist and a Christian.

How do you nurture your spiritual life?

Personal devotions are very important--staying in conversation with God. My wife and I enjoy studying the Bible and Sabbath School lessons together. I also listen to music, classical or gospel, and inspirational tapes while I paint.

Do you have an opportunity to share your religious convictions with your non-Adventist clients?

Yes, but I try to do it in a natural way. For instance, when Burt Reynolds asked me to paint Loni Anderson at their home, I noticed that they had a low cholesterol, basically vegetarian diet. This allowed me to share with them our views on health and also some spiritual insights. Loni is especially sensitive and spiritual. We talked for hours. Art opens doors and hearts that are often closed to preachers and evangelists.

Do you have hobbies?

I enjoy hiking, traveling, and photography. I also like to view sea life underwater. As a teenager I did snorkeling in Singapore. Later, I participated in a diving expedition in the Red Sea looking for archaeological evidences of the crossing of the Israelites during the Exodus. We found Egyptian chariot wheels.

What gives you the most satisfaction as an artist?

A job well done. I suppose this is similar, at the human level, to the satisfaction that God Himself expressed when, after completing His work of creation, said, "It is very good!" Naturally, my work is not always good. Rarely it is what I originally conceived or as good as I would like it to be. But I love to deliver a completed job and see the clients very happy with it. To know that they feel blessed by the painting is much more than money to me.

Do you think that artistic abilities are inherited or learned?

I believe that, like music and singing, the basic capacity to draw and paint well are inherited. Art is not easy. God gives the talents and we have to develop them.

What advice would you give to a young Adventist who has discovered that he or she has an artistic talent?

I would say, Draw, draw, draw! Develop your ability to see and also your eye-hand coordination. And also paint, never forgetting that the basis of all good visual art is drawing. Take classes, study some art books, befriend a good artist. Draw what you see--still lifes, landscapes, human figures. If you can draw the human figure accurately, you can draw anything.

How will you be remembered as an artist?

That's a difficult question. I don't even know if I will be remembered at all! I just hope that I will have done something to make this world a better place. I also hope that through my art, people will be inspired to come closer to God, our Creator and Saviour.

Do you imagine yourself painting in the New Earth?

Definitely. And I'm going to be bold enough to ask Jesus to sit for a portrait!

Interview by Humberto M. Rasi. Humberto M. Rasi is director of the General Conference Education Department and editor of Dialogue.

Elfred Lee's addresses: Universidad de Montemorelos; Apartado 16; Montemorelos, N.L. 67500; Mexico. Or 1101 E. Pecan #120; McAllen, TX 78501; U.S.A.