Remnants to Riches

Professional framer picks up all the pieces

Jesse Lee waits for the lightbulb to go off.
Photo by Colby Rabon

Jesse Lee, a hardworking, self-taught artist who transforms scraps of wood and salvaged metal into fine art, says, “I find inspiration everywhere. In the materials I use, in architecture, in other artwork, and in nature.” 

Lee began his crafting business 25 years ago in Colorado, where he made CD racks and cassette-tape boxes out of wooden paint-stirring sticks he’d buy for a nickel apiece. “I learned to make do with whatever materials were available and cheap,” he recalls — and that lesson helped define his creative process.

Photo by Colby Rabon

In 2000, Lee moved to Asheville, landed a job at a recycling shop, and discovered old-fashioned ceiling tin, which became one of his favorite materials. A friend cleaning out a barn gave him thousands of tobacco-curing sticks. Another friend removed a roof covered in copper shingles, and Lee began to bend the metal and incorporate it into his artwork. He simultaneously launched a career as a professional picture framer and began recycling scraps of wood left over from framing projects to make unique picture frames, mirrors, and other objets d’art. Soon a signature style emerged, which he describes as “recycled rustic refinement.”

“Ceiling tin’s harder to find these days,” says Lee, “so I go down to the scrap yard and get aluminum siding in a myriad of colors and textures. I also buy rolls of 12-inch wide copper, and I hammer it to give it texture.” By turning the hammer sideways, he creates a texture resembling tree bark, which he’ll use on metal that has a black patina. Then he’ll highlight the copper-colored high-relief ridges to create visual depth. When working with a greenish patina, he’ll turn the hammer in a different direction to make a wavelike pattern.

The artist has the most fun with abstracts like these.
Photos by Colby Rabon

“I have four or five different patterns, and can seal the metal or leave it raw so it will oxidize to come up with different colors,” he explains. “Occasionally I’ll experiment where I totally blacken the copper frame, then lay it down and do what I call the Jackson Pollock method.” That involves dripping chemical compounds that transform the metal with a rainbow of colors. 

“Learning to do abstract pieces was the hardest, because I had to figure out how to break the rules. But once I got the hang of it, it’s a lot of fun. With abstracts I don’t have anything in mind except a couple of major pieces of material. Then I work my way around those to find the right textures and colors. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s hard, and I have to step away instead of trying to force it. 

“Then I’ll forget about it and be doing something else, and all of a sudden the lightbulb goes off and I’m back at it.”

Over the past couple of years, Lee has been expanding his repertoire to create larger wall hangings and abstracts. But because his approach is so eclectic, “the pieces I make will go well anywhere, from a log cabin to a contemporary home.”

Jesse Lee’s larger works are sold at BlackBird Frame & Art (365 Merrimon Ave., Asheville, blackbirdframe.com). Mountain Made Art Gallery in Asheville’s Grove Arcade sells some of Lee’s smaller items (mtnmade.com). Reach the artist directly at 828-772-5026.