About Lee Teter
"It's a sad story, are you sure you want to hear it?"
The painting may be on its way to becoming as familiar to living Americans as any painting ever made. It has been quietly and unobtrusively making its way into American lives; it has already made its way into hundreds of thousands of American hearts. It is a simple painting; one of the earliest serious oil paintings made by its reclusive author. The painting is "Reflections", a portrait of the Vietnam Memorial. The artist is Lee Teter.
It is somewhat strange that so famous a painting made over a decade ago and still extremely popular is so silent about the artist that created it. When asked to tell about the painting the artist merely replied, "It's a sad story. Are you sure you want to hear it?" This is the story of a painting and the artist who painted it.
Lee Teter has always been "different". Quietly different he never stood out noticeably but he certainly walked to the beat of a different drummer. He never fit in even within his own family and was teased that his parents had somehow taken the wrong child home at birth. He learned that drawing was his best way to communicate and spent his childhood learning to express himself with pictures. Speaking was never his strong point. Lee went through his youth occasionally trying to fit in with the world he found himself in but always withdrawing when he failed. He came to live in his own world with his own ways.
On his wedding day he insisted that a verse from the book of Matthew be read. With thirty cents in his pocket as he stood by his bride there is no doubt that he believed the words that told him not to worry about possessions. He didn't. He painted and he drew. He painted portraits and T-shirts, cars, signs, even billboards and he drew his pictures. He had talent and was constantly ridiculed for his seeming lack of desire to achieve success. Lee's definition of success didn't match that of most of the world. He took the ridicule and honed his skills while exploring the world of art. He moved with his wife into a small cabin far from the black top. He started drawing and peddling his black and white prints. He was finally becoming an artist. When his daughter had passed her first birthday he moved to Cumberland, Maryland where he bought a very dilapidated house. This would be the place where "Reflections" would be painted. The house had only one redeeming quality; it was big. He stripped the interior and made a studio. He made living quarters that were very neat and efficient (if plain) but he refused to fix the exterior. "It is the inside that counts" he said, referring to more than housing and adding, "We live on the inside".
There in that house time passed and Lee even got a regular job. The job lasted only three months. Lee felt like he was drying up; he didn't have the time it took to create. To Lee Teter, art is not a part time achievement. It was at this time that Lee tackled oil painting. Not knowing anyone who painted the way he wanted to, he taught himself. His favorite subject was Native American and frontier culture. His first few paintings sold immediately and his future began to take direction.
This was not as positive and exciting a time for Lee as it might have been; the tragedy that inspired "Reflections" was born out during this period of his life. Death entered his world. Rick was killed. Lee and his cousin had always been like brothers. Rick was always bigger and more suited to the world than Lee but he had always remained that one true childhood friend. Born only two weeks apart they had learned to walk together. They shot their first squirrels together, wrecked their first car together, and took out their first girls together. Rick was always there and to protect Lee from the rowdy country boys and to spend many hours hunting, working on their cars and just soaking up long summer days and the warmth of hot winter wood stoves. Rick married that first date of his and with a new baby son it seemed that Lee and Rick would live lives like their fathers. Rick and Lee's fathers had been friends from childhood and had raised their children together. It seemed that this tradition would continue with their own children. Rick was killed at age 28 heading home from work.
Cancer had been fighting to take the life of Lee's mother-in-law Dorothy. Lee called her "Grams" and refused to let her die. In his youth Lee attached himself to people easily. He loves people hard. For over a year she fought. Long enough to see her granddaughter born. Long enough to see Lee's first prints written up in the newspaper. This was the woman who seemed most proud of Lee's art. This was the woman he was most proud to have his art please. Lee encouraged her to fight when others had given up on her. He told her that if he could teach her to drive at age 51 he could get her through this thing. The day she died was the first day that he understood they were not to win. Then death took Lee's grandfather.
Jacob Teter was a man small in stature but big in the life of Lee Teter. This was the man who, knowing little of history books and academics, instilled in Lee a love for history. Jacob had lived a full life ranging from the very beginning of the 20th century to near its end. Jake's understanding of history was through his perceptions of how it affected people's lives. Sitting over a box of faded photographs Lee spent untold hours sharing those lives, recorded in sepia, with his grandfather. Even when some of the family no longer visited because "Grandpap" was not always "in his right mind", Lee would sit and listen while Grandpap had a conversation with his brother as they plowed a garden more than a half a century earlier. Others would try to bring Grandpap back to the present; Lee asked questions about the moment in which Grandpap was living. They both enjoyed their journey into the past. They always had. Lee knew Grandpap could not live forever but when he died another friend was gone and Lee's world was much smaller.
Lee's art has never been very far from his soul. He tried to understand the deaths of people he loved and dealt with his shrinking world. He came to his conclusions. Parts of his new understanding were complex. Some were not. One day while visiting the cemetery Lee looked down at the grave stones. It occurred to him that he was not seeing stone and engraved names but faces and events. He wasn't visiting graves; he was visiting the pictures and the memories. He realized that when he himself was gone those gravestones would never have pictures in them again. Not the pictures he saw. It bothered him that someday people might not see the type of wealth Lee valued so highly because they wouldn't see the pictures in the stones. He wondered if there was a way to communicate this to others. The picture "Reflections" was born then. Reflections is about the pictures seen in stone. Reflections is about love transcending death in a way that someday will be reality and not just memory.
Lee felt that such a picture was possibly too powerful to be painted. Not because he couldn't accomplish it but because the subject was too dear to peoples hearts to be brought into the cold light of day. It was perhaps too dear to his own heart to be brought to the attention of those people who would not understand; who would ridicule it or abuse it.
It took a few campfires before Lee decided to paint it. His friend Don Oakly asked him to include his own boyhood friend, Michael "Mickey" Banks, in the painting. Mickey was killed in Vietnam. Another friend, Tom, promised to help with gear that would be needed for modeling. Lee gathered his understanding and put it in a painting. Lee's life was never quite that of the rest of the world though he never felt that he was truly different. With "Reflections", as with most of his art, he had merely brought to consciousness a perception that perhaps remains subconscious in most people. After a design was pulled together and the idea was solid Lee had only one question. What should he do with the picture when it was finished?
Lee's respect for Vietnam veterans extended back to his youth when he was told first hand accounts of the fighting by his cousin's young husband, Bill Custer. Bill who modeled for the painting, was several years older than Lee and spent his time between tours helping the Teter family load hay. It was Bill who taught Lee and his cousins how to land like a paratrooper after jumping from the cherry tree in his grandmothers yard. The veterans in Lee's community were strong men. They handled hard times well. They were the recipients of a great deal of Lee's admiration. During his early days in trying to enter the world of fine art Lee had painted a portrait of a soldier in Vietnam. This was during a period when Vietnam was like a closet secret that few cared to discuss. At a mall art show the painting drew comment from only two people out of the thousands that saw it. One was woman who lost her son in Vietnam and the other was veteran Bill Farrell. After the show Lee tracked down this veteran and made him a gift of the painting. Now, at the time "Reflections" was inspired Lee and his family were barely scraping by. It was a burden to pay the electric bill. This project would take time and expense yet Lee knew that he could never use this picture as a means of achieving wealth. He felt the experience it related was too important to exploit. When he remembered Bill Farrell and the small veterans group he belonged to he decided he would give it to them. And so he did.
The painting took months to finish. Organizing the veteran introduction to print sales and promotion took more months. Lee's finances suffered and bills stacked up but Lee knew that such things were not important compared to the work he was doing. In his living room one evening Lee wrote out a license to reproduce and distribute the prints and gave it as a gift to the organization through members of the "Reflections" committee. Lee was pleased with merely being part of the effort to "do a good thing". He supervised printing and set up a system of distribution. He signed over 23,000 prints. He and his wife Barbi helped the group get the print sales off the ground. His art took a back seat to helping the veterans get started. Though Lee assured them there was no need, the veterans group bought the copyright using money generated by the print. The veterans then had complete control of the image.
Lee withdrew once again from the world. He had received enough money for the copyright to pay off some of the debt incurred while working on the painting and to buy a used car that he desperately needed. He gathered his small family and moved back to the cabin in the hills. There for unknown reasons he put down his paint brushes. He restricted himself to drawing. It would be ten years before he would paint more than an occasional painting. At his home Lee isolated himself more than ever, roaming the "woods" day and night. He continued his intense study of America's frontier years and eventually his frontier related art began its slow climb to popularity. Hollywood called and Lee went to work for the film "Last of the Mohicans", a film based on 18th century frontier America. It was his job to help recreate a world lost to modern America. Lee designed major portions of the film and had a hand in every visual aspect. After the movie his print sales continued to climb. Success made it possible for him to move his family to Wyoming, one of the least populated states in America.
Lee Teter lives simply and quietly in Wyoming. His daughter has started her journey into the world of art by creating and opening a small gallery called "The Little Art Gallery On The Prairie". It will house primarily original paintings and drawing made by her father and bronzes by neighbor Gary Shoop. Lee is happy to "help out with the janitorial type things and water the flowers" but he avoids the public as much as possible and leaves the art business to his daughter, Shawnee Racheal.
Lee Teter had put away his oil paints and focused on drawing for years. Now he has discovered a new found pleasure in painting again. He still isolates himself from the rest of the world and this is probably the reason a painting can be so famous and its author so obscure. Lee has seldom felt ready to be part of the rest of the world. Even his leisure time away from art and creating are spent on the high plains with his horse and mule. Slowly, quietly exploring the landscape or as Lee puts it, "the gift that God made for us", brings Lee pleasure with a deep intensity.
Lee says, "There are two worlds; a real one made by God as a gift to those He loves, and a world of lies and deception made by men. I find wonder in the one and I hide from the other. I don't know any other way to keep my heart intact." For an artist who "paints by feel" keeping his own heart is an important thing. In the end the story of the painting is the story of the artist. Quietly, unobtrusively they make their way through the world.