What He Does: A self-trained artist, El Franco Lee II paints highly narrative scenes that delve into anything from social commentary to superhero fantasies. His work jumps from images of Hurricane Katrina refugees, the dragged-to-death James Byrd, Jr. and prisoner executions, to ones of contemporary sports stars, hip hop legends and comic book characters. Lee balances the clarity of his visual style with a depth of detailed characterization -- it takes several viewings to see all the subtle clues embedded in the work.
Why He Likes It: Comparing art-making to a sport, Lee likes that it's something physical you train for and improve, something you can compete in and share your successes with other people. As he was studying to become an architect, it was the visceral side to painting that quickly lulled him away. "Art is like a sport you don't ever have to retire from," he says.
What Inspires Him: He developed his action-packed sense of composition through his love for comic books and graphic novels, based on their emphasis on storytelling. He also mines historical sources--specifically the 16th-century Mannerist period, which favored formal exaggerations as it moved away from naturalism.
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Lee says he wakes up every morning and gets on the Internet to see what's new and what might strike him as a good painting subject. Conversations with family and friends also inform his work, which focuses on black history and racial injustice.
If Not This, Then What? Lee believes he would've found his calling in painting no matter what. In fact, when asked to choose another profession or path, he bases his choices on how much time he'd have left each day to paint. He admits he would enjoy being a comic book illustrator, which he pursues even now, writing scripts and creating characters in his time off.
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