Lee Tunila Thinks the Female Figure Should Be Celebrated … Now More Than Ever

Celebrate the body beautiful.

  • Category
    People
  • Written by
    Tanya Monaghan
  • Photographed by
    Lauren PRessey

Lee Tunila grew up in Georgia on a tiny island outside Savannah. At one time she would describe herself as a “river rat.” Now she acknowledges how magical her childhood truly was. Her “anything-but-normal” family lived together very happily in a 100-year-old house surrounded by oak trees.

Lee’s mother was not a “typical southern woman.” She shares, “My older sister, Jenny, and I were not raised in a ‘yes ma’am, no ma’am, wear your lipstick before you come to dinner’ kind of household.”

Her mother was an artist with a studio in the house, and Lee remembers paint being everywhere. Her first introduction to art happened when she was about 8 years old. Her mom set her dad’s black horn-rimmed glasses in front of her, gave her some paper and charcoal and said, “Draw what you see, not what you know.”

Lee dabbled in art here and there but was never really into it. Instead she excelled in math and science, attending engineering school at Georgia Tech, studying physics, calculus and statistics. She graduated with a business degree.

Years later Lee was working on the East Coast in advertising for pharmaceutical companies when she made a trip to Manhattan Beach to visit her sister for Thanksgiving. It was then that she met her future husband, Randy. They tried a long-distance relationship for nine months, until Lee decided to move to California and start her own company.

While Lee grinded along in her workday, she found herself craving a creative outlet. She registered for some drawing classes through UCLA Extension, and that seed once planted by her mother began to grow. She went from drawing still life to figure drawing and then on to painting. It all just clicked.

Her teacher and mentor Joe Blaustein heavily influenced her as an artist. Both his classes and the students’ work inspired her to find her own unique style. She’s the first to admit it took her a few years to figure that part out—at first drawing in a realistic way. Although this style showed her technical abilities, she always felt that it shouldn’t be ‘perfect.’

“Art should make you feel something,” muses Lee, “but I think sometimes people don’t have a true connection to the art in their own homes.” Many of Lee’s pieces feature nude figures, which make some viewers feel uncomfortable.

“Even though they might like the painting, some people relegate my art to the bathroom because of that,” she laughs. “It’s taken me a really long time to realize that I don’t need everyone to like my art, because then it would be too commercial. I actually want some people to feel a bit uncomfortable. I want them to feel something. It’s only indifference that’s hard to take.”

For Lee, finding art is kind of like falling in love—there doesn’t have to be a rhyme or reason to it, it is just what you feel. “One of my favorite works is a small mono-print piece I scored at a flea market in Savannah,” she shares. “I researched the artist after I brought it home and turns out he was the first African American professor at one of the colleges in Savannah. Knowing that makes the piece even more meaningful to me. The other piece I love is a tiny painting Randy bought for me ages ago that hangs above our king-size bed. I’m sentimental about it because it’s the first piece of art he bought for me.”

Lee confesses she was extremely private about her art while finding her way. Her husband remains a huge support for her and managed to walk the line of respecting her privacy in the beginning of her art journey.

“My father held my mom with an open hand, allowing her to follow her own creative pursuits,” she says. “Randy does just that, he holds me with an open hand.”

Only once she truly honed her abstract style was she ready to face the world and call herself an artist. Though abstract, there is a definite order to her process, and she will not stop until a piece looks balanced.

She starts by creating a figure sketch on a large canvas, adding paint and then turning the canvas, adding more layers and sketches each time. Interestingly her paintings are never just one single sketch, and sometimes you have to search for the human figure within the painting.

They are never “perfect” or exactly proportioned, but they are always balanced. If she isn’t convinced the painting is done and feels there are areas that aren’t settled, she sometimes leaves the canvas for six months to a year before she comes back to it. Each piece is a true labor of love.

She loves the lifestyle of the South Bay but yearns for a closer artist community or place where artists can show their art on a monthly basis, as they do in Laguna Beach. There have been some attempts in Hermosa Beach and El Segundo, but it’s at times proven difficult to get the city’s support or to afford the rising rents.

As a mother to two teenage boys, Lee’s primary focus and priority is her family, so she fits her art into her life when she can. She believes the arts are incredibly important for our children, so she has donated a number of her paintings to Young at Art, a nonprofit organization that brings art into the local elementary schools, and to the LA25 Foundation, which benefits South Bay arts and education.

The first time I saw Lee’s artwork a few years ago at the Holly Socrates Gallery in El Segundo, I just knew I had to have it. Coming from a family of artists and being one myself, most of the pieces I owned had been produced by family members or myself or were gifts from close friends. I had never felt the desire to buy art before.

But Lee’s art stirred something in me, and her artwork was the first original art piece I ever bought from another artist. To Lee, art is born out of pure inspiration. I hope, like they did for me, her pieces also inspire you. Check out her work at leetunila.com.

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