At the Bethany Baptist Church in Boulder, a painting shows a small black child, screaming—his squinting eyes and upturned palms splattering into negative space. Another shows a ghostly set of eyelids, bordered by the stylized word “faith”. The pieces—one a portrait of Emmett Till, a 14 year old black child murdered in 1955, the second a Good Friday mural depicting the eyes of Jesus, share themes of martyrdom and injustice, as well as a style drawn directly from the urban vernacular. Their humble creator, 22 year-old former college football player Nolan Lee, is a Boulder painter and street artist making a name for himself outside of the gallery system.
Lee’s journey began when a scholarship to play football at Montana State fell through at the list minute. “It was horrible. I had built my life around football and just was very prideful at that point. So to have everything taken away from me like that was just like a slap in the face.” Crushed, he returned to his home-base of Boulder, taking a semester off to do some soul searching. At a low point, he returned to his childhood hobby of painting for reassurance. Having no formal art training, he developed a raw, emotive style. His first opportunities to publicly display his art came at his parent’s suggestion, putting up murals for the First Presbyterian church. Soon, Lee had a road-to-Damascus moment when a friend introduced him to the art of renowned Los Angeles-based street artist David Choe—“I had always had a lot of friends in Hawaii who were street artists, but it had never clicked…I was just like, ‘what? This is incredible!” In the following months, he pored over art from the likes of WK Interact, Armsrock, and others, drawing from the “dirty, real” and populist flavor of street art.
Since this baptism by fire, Lee has received his bachelor's degree from Colorado University, produced a series of civil-rights-inspired murals called “splatter from a strange fruit”, helped create a graffiti Good Friday exhibit, designed bookbags for Case Logic, and even teaches graffiti in a middle school after-school program. His unpretentious perspective and his preference for raw, graffiti-influenced expression over art school methodology imbue his pieces with a communal, refreshing, possibly redemptive power. Despite his work being displayed in churches, Lee says he doesn’t put his faith in institutions, preferring the endless glow of the canvas. “I could hear a thousand sermons, but I see one painting, and it brings it home.” -- Roshan Abraham