Over the course of his 72 years, artist Calvin Lee has built himself a resume resembling a labyrinth. Each turn delivered him somewhere unexpected: a United States Navy sailor stationed in Japan. A civil rights lawyer in Colorado. A painter in Zambia.

During the upcoming First Friday Art Walk (December 7), Lee will be both an artist and a benefactor. Denverites who venture into his RiNo studio will see a collection inspired by the two weeks Lee spent volunteering in the Moria refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece. He’ll donate 90 percent of each sale to the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, which provides free legal services to immigrants in the United States.

The show is the latest iteration of Lee’s personal mission to end the suffering he encounters. It’s because of that mission that Lee’s resume is such a maze—and though he’s now a respected Denver creative, especially admired for his calligraphy, “artist” is a fairly recent twist.

A picture of the life vest graveyard on the island of Lesvos, which inspired one of Lee’s paintings. Photo courtesy of Calvin Lee

Lee’s artistic dreams were quashed early, when he received a D in a college art class while at the University of Arizona. He’d been studying to be an architect, but convinced he had no eye for design, Lee dropped the major and instead studied Asian cultures.

After earning his degree, it was off to the Navy, which landed Lee in Japan. His service coincided with two years of the Vietnam War, and though he was never stationed in the country, he feels intense guilt about the many who were killed. “I should have protested, sat in prison, gone to Canada, something, besides participating in an immoral war,” he says.

When Lee returned home, he enrolled in law school at Arizona State University, but he wanted to do something to swing the scales back toward morality. As the child of Chinese immigrants, he’d been told how his parents were treated when they arrived to the United States—his father spent three months in barracks at Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay, being interrogated by immigration officials. (This was during the Yellow Peril, when fear of Asian immigrants reached a fever pitch and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was passed). Lee knew what it was like to grow up without privilege; people hurled racial slurs at him as he rode his bike to school. “I’m ethnic, not an Anglo,” he says. “So I’ve experienced discrimination.”

Finding a way to help others facing prejudice was a natural fit for Lee. He worked at a law firm in Phoenix, where he represented members of the LGBTQ community, the developmentally disabled, prisoners, and peace activists, all pro bono. (To pay the bills, he also practiced criminal defense and personal injury law.)

Soon after, Lee took a job at the Colorado Public Defender’s Office for Aspen, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, Meeker, Rangely, and Vail. He started his own practice in 1984, where he worked on divorce and real estate law to supplement more pro bono work for underserved communities. “I should have just stayed in architecture, because I got Cs and Ds in law school as well, and I became a fine lawyer,” Lee says. He would soon become a fine artist, too.

A souvenir ultimately brought art into Lee’s life. On an early ’90s trip to China with his parents, he purchased a small calligraphy set. Calligraphy is more than a written language—it’s considered one of the highest art forms in China. Lee had done some calligraphy in undergrad, and bought books to teach himself more about the technique, which he practiced every few months.

An example of Calvin Lee’s calligraphy. Image courtesy of Calvin Lee

It was mostly a personal project—until a divorce client, who worked in an art gallery and did some framing, owed Lee money. To pay off part of the debt, the man offered to frame some of Lee’s calligraphy. The framer was so impressed that, when he was asked to supply art for a gallery in Park City during the 2002 Olympic Games, he brought some of Lee’s work to display.

From there, Lee’s career as an artist gained momentum. He learned to paint mountain scenes with oil paint for a gallery owner in Telluride (“Mountain art sells well there,” he says), and taught himself how to paint animals and other landscapes, too. Portraits are also a favorite project for Lee, who says he’s always trying to improve his depiction of people. The City of Denver’s Conventions and Visitors Bureau called him an “artist to know and see” during Denver Arts Week in 2016 and 2017.

Calvin Lee’s watercolor depiction of Mt. Sopris in Colorado. Image courtesy of Calvin Lee

And, of course, there’s his political work. Lee isn’t shy about his views—his nine-panel series of portraits called “Picture of a Politician Becoming Dorian Gray,” for example, show President Donald Trump deteriorating into a cracked skull. “I don’t just want to create ‘pretty’ pictures that people would hang in their living room or bank building,” Lee says. “I want to do art that moves people in more ways than just saying ‘oh, that’s so beautiful.’”

To create the impactful work he’s after, Lee gravitates to those in need, just as he did as an attorney. A five-week visit to Zambia in May 2018, where he taught children orphaned by AIDs, inspired many paintings.

So did his time in Lesvos. Lee spent two weeks there in September, teaching refugees English through A Drop In The Ocean, a Norwegian volunteer organization that aids women, children, and families fleeing to Greece from countries like Afghanistan and Syria. With his painting supplies and camera, he documented moments both stunning and solemn, like the “life jacket graveyard,” a pile of thousands of floatation devices on the shore of the Aegean Sea. Some were discarded by migrants who survived the boat ride from Turkey to Lesvos. Others were pulled from the sea by the Greek coast guard, the wearers assumed dead.

According to recent reports from the BBC, approximately 8,000 people are living in Moria, a refugee camp designed for 2,000. A spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees described rising levels of violence and sexual assault, deteriorating sanitation standards, and a desperate need for doctors in the camp.

“The problems and issues in the United States are important and need to be dealt with,” says Lee. “But any problems I face now, it’s no big fucking deal compared to what these refugees are faced with every single minute of their existence in a refugee camp.”

Drowned Syrian Refugee Boy. Image courtesy of Calvin Lee

Friday’s art show will drive home that point. On display will be “Drowned Syrian Refugee Boy 2,” Lee’s version of the infamous photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body was found on a Turkish beach in 2015. Lee’s sculpture made of life vests, shoes, clothing, and teddy bears can also be seen in the studio, along with replicas of the life jacket graveyard painting (he sold the original to a volunteer in Lesvos for a steep discount).

Donating some of the funds he earns to the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network unifies Lee’s legal and artistic sides, but it’s no stopping point. Lee, who still practices law, will continue to take on cases he deems “serious and interesting.” Currently, he’s engaged in pro-bono work for RMIAN, representing those seeking asylum in the United States. In other words, at 72, Lee’s as busy as ever. “It must be in my character to want to do different things. I get bored if I do just one thing,” Lee says. “I like a challenge.”

If you go: Visit Calvin Lee’s art studio at 3040 Blake St. on December 7, from 6 to 9 p.m. For more information, go to calvinleeartist.com.

Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil is a Denver-based journalist and 5280's former digital senior associate editor.