Hannibal Lee

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Meet Hannibal Lee, a painter living in Nanticoke with a studio in Salisbury.

He was born and raised on his grandmother’s farm near the DuPont family steeple chases around Fair Hill, Maryland. This led him to an early love of animals. His family encouraged him to follow his creative pursuits as a youngster. Hannibal’s father worked for the Curtis Paper Company which specialized in custom high grade papers used for such prestigious projects as the White House’s presidential Christmas cards.

One of his father’s coworkers at the paper plant gave him a tip that let to Hannibal’s having an auspicious teacher. Here is Hannibal Lee:

“One of the fellows there, he was with the shopkeepers there, that repaired the machinery and kept it running. And he said to me, he says, uhm, “Have you heard of Andrew Wyeth?”

“And I said: “Yeah, I guess.” And he says “Oh come on.” He says “Andrew Wyeth in Chads Ford?”

“And I said: “Oh, alright.” And he says: “I understand his sister Carolyn Wyeth is taking students for painting lessons.”

“So I packed up my car with my portfolio, unannounced and uninvited, and went up and knock on Carolyn Wyeth’s door. Well, it was a very rainy morning. And, she had ten dogs: high bred dogs, poodles, and dogs she had rescued from the pound. So she comes out to my new car with all these muddy dogs following behind me. And she’s telling me to get in the g-d car. [laughs] “We’re going up to my father’s studio.”

“So, went up to N.C. Wyeth’s studio which is a beautiful building up on a hillside, and I believe it is open to the public now. SO she looked at my portfolio and she said: “Yes, I will take you as a student.”

“She said: “But, you have some special kind of ability.” So, I became a private student with her. And we became friends; and I went to Port Clyde with her, at ‘Eight Bells Studio’ that her father N.C. had in Maine, and to Chads Ford. So we remained friends with her until she passed away.”

“And when we were in Port Clyde, Maine, she says “Let’s go over and visit Andy.” She said: “I want him to see your work.”

“Well, he went through my oils and water colors, and he said uh, “Yeah, I really like these oils.” He says, “They have a lot of Edward Hopper influence.”

“And I said, “Oh God, I hate his work. I don’t…” [laughs] I said “I don’t like Edward Hopper’s work.”

“He says, “Wait a minute! He’s one of the best American contemporary artists that we have!”

“Well I had opened my foot – I mean my mouth and inserted my foot. [laughs] So, I learned a lesson from that not to be so outspoken. Well, maybe I didn’t learn a lesson.”

After working in oils and water colors for some time a friend offered him a stash of textile remnants in case he wanted to find a creative use for them.

Hannibal Lee:
“He was working for the Schumacher Company, the fabric distribution place out on Route 40. And you know, they do fine, fine, upper grade fabrics. So, he had brought home some discarded fabrics to his wife and they asked if I wanted some. So, on a whim, I made a picture, a side view of a 1920 Rolls Royce with the driver out front, the chauffer with a handle bar mustache wearing a duster. And out of the back window, of the Rolls, I had this lion waiting. Well, it was all whimsical, and put together very primitive with all these fabrics.”

“So this guy had a gallery on the Kennett Pike, and he said “Why don’t we try twenty of these? Make up some whimsical ones.” because, he was selling my oils and watercolors. So, I made up twenty: cat’s in canopy beds, frogs, and praying mantises, and all that kind of things, and peacocks. So, on the second night of the show we had sold sixteen out of the twenty. [laughs]”

“Well, anyway that put me on my way of making pictures with textiles. And then I had people who wanted commissioned pictures made. So I went on to do commissioned pieces for Mrs. Carpenter in Wilmington. You know for Mrs. Lickul. And as I made them I learned how to make them better.”

Hannibal became intrigued with the history of tapestries as an art form and he began to reproduce famous tapestries using his new found medium. He makes drawing maps of his designs and then cuts out each area of color in a corresponding fabric. The result is a combination of fabric collage and bas relief. These elaborate works of art look representational from a distance but up close they are a celebration of hue, texture, and textile patterns. Their three-dimensionality adds another layer of interest for the viewer.

Hannibal Lee:
“It’s like when I make the Great Blue Heron. It’s like I make the actual feathers. With a lot of commissioned pieces, these grasses and artifacts and barks will come from the patron’s property. So, it makes it a very personalized thing. For a while, I did not put them under glass. But people wanted to touch them since they are so intrigued buy them. So I started putting them under glass. And today, they go under museum glass where you don’t get any reflections on your pictures.”

“And then I had a show in Harrisburg with Mary Kay Interiors. And there in Harrisburg she placed eight of my pictures with the Hershey Library. And I am sure they are still on exhibition today. One is of a life sized lion. The picture is maybe three feet tall and eight feet wide, and that kind of thing.”

Hannibal began to call his reproductions “translations” because they translated oils into fabric. But he did not look just to the ancient fiber arts. He began to study in depth the work of Vincent Van Gogh which did not necessarily meet with the approval of his mentor.

Hannibal Lee:
“When Carolyn and I would be in the studio we would have royal four letter battles, that she thought he was worthless and I thought he was great. We would laugh about these things. She was a fabulous, wonderful character.”

“So anyway, you know, my intrigue with Van Gogh continued. And, I had like maybe 65 – 70 books on Van Gogh. I’ve gone to all the art exhibitions, so… And I have read all 600-650 of his letters. Well, what happened along the way, being so enamored or being so involved, and knowing what he did, you know to produce his pictures: he talks about collecting capes, bonnets, jackets. You know he talks about his wood block prints being on like crab or crepe paper, or whatever. All these things…”

“And so along the way, I shifted off, and I thought, “I’m going to start doing his pictures in fabric.” Because the bottom line is how I am saying now is: He translated fabrics into oil paint. And my tribute to him and his genius was to transplant his paintings back into fabrics.”

A major project that Hannibal recently completed was three paintings that Van Gogh wrote about in his letters to his brother Theo Van Gogh, who was an art dealer. The center piece was a portrait called Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle. Vincent had wanted this piece to hang with one of his sunflower paintings on either side. The original portrait still exists. Though many of his sunflower paintings do survive, those he had chosen for this arrangement were destroyed during World War II. After Vincent’s death Theo had sold the works separately. Hannibal talks about translating Vincent’s original vision for the three paintings.

Hannibal Lee:
“With this I want Vincent’s triptych resurrected. Mr. Walter Annenberg who left his collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, owned Madame Roulin. There are five versions of this. I believe he bought the first version. The other four, her hands are reversed in the pictures. And he always wanted this triptych done. You know he did a letter to his brother with this design in, you know, of how he wanted these pictures laid out.”

“Uh, why he painted Madam Roulin’s face in this color was that he wanted it to reflect the sunflower colors in her face. And, he talks about putting orange lathe strips around the sunflowers. Simplified. So, that is why it has an orange border around it. And, he talked about her having ordinary painted red lathe strips. So, this thing has been studied up and down, backward and forward. And, it took six years to make this picture.”

“I want to move on and give him credit for what he has done for the world, and what I want to do for him. It was the 125th anniversary of Vincent Van Gogh’s death last year. These were dedicated to him and what he has given us. And, I just want to repay him.”

Hannibal Lee says that with so many of Van Gogh’s works held in private collections, he hopes his translations will end up in places where everyone can enjoy them. Hannibal recently had a show at the Ocean City Center For the Arts. Once completed he hopes to bring the rest of his Van Gogh series back there.

Find out more: