MSU art alum visits home

Artist and 1989 MSU architecture alumnus Matthew Lee spent three days at his alma mater giving a workshop on plein air painting and giving a lecture on Oct. 26. (Submitted photo)
Staff Writer

A group of Mississippi State University art students received some lessons on painting “en plein air” from a successful MSU art and architecture alumnus.

Matthew Lee, who graduated in 1989 with a degree in architecture returned to campus last week, and gave a workshop on plein air painting at the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge over the week and a lecture Thursday evening. Painting “en plein air” refers to painting out in the open, rather than working from a studio. Plein air artists also paint exactly as they se the scenery in front of them.

“I paint plein air because it joins two things that I love a lot, which are being in nature and painting,” Lee said. “When you’re out painting, if I’m looking at a shadow of a tree, my eyes are going to adjust to the shadow of the tree, but if I took a picture and took it back to the studio, the camera is going to render it flat. It’s going to decide for me what that value is.”

The son of Southern Baptist missionaries to France, Lee spent much of his childhood in Paris and elsewhere in Europe. He came to MSU as an art major, but switched to architecture in his junior year. After 22 years working as an architect, he returned to his painting roots. He has painted across the U.S. as well as in Mexico, France, Greece and other countries.

This was Lee’s first time visiting his alma mater in 28 years.

“The students really picked up a lot quickly, and every student painted two to three paintings,” Lee said. “It was very beautiful. I was talking to one student about her painting today (Oct. 26), and this beautiful gray heron flew across in front of us. That’s the kind of thing you don’t experience working in an art studio.”

W. L. Giles Distinguished Professor of Art Brent Funderburk said it was good for students to be encouraged to paint in the open as the world becomes more visual and digital.

“Images are flat and not alive, and firsthand experience of life, visual, living phenomena, whether inside or outside is something that we often don’t experience, because we’re so connected with our machines,” Funderburk said. He’s woken up the students to a much wider world of sensation and choices in terms of making art.”

Funderburk said in plein air work, there was more thought put into what went into a painting.

“The image is not there for you,” Funderburk said. “You have billions of images, and students learn that they can make good choices and find beauty on their own without something already pre-processing it for them.”

Funderburk also said it was important for art students to hear from artists not involved in their training professors so they can see how artists’ views, techniques and philosophies dovetail with their professors’ views.