Unlike most artists, painter Lee often sells her work to temporary decorate homes.
Christina Cook Lee is equally left-brained as she is right-brained.
She paints vibrant contemporary art pieces, but she can also tell you the exact size of the first commercial piece she created several decades ago (48 inches by 80 inches). In fact, as she thumbs through photos of her past work, she can recall the exact size of almost every painting she flips past — and the size of the room it hung in.
Currently, Lee creates artwork used by Realtors and other home-sellers to stage houses. Clients have the option to buy or rent each work, and they can also commission a custom piece for specific walls.
“I think that’s where my niche is — scaling,” she says. “And knowing how to scale art, so it looks natural in pictures, especially for real estate.”
Like many lifelong artists, Lee can’t remember a time when she wasn’t creating. Her earliest memories are sitting at the table drawing, and by second grade, she was designing her own clothes.
In high school, Lee’s teachers could see she had potential. She was granted an independent art study of various mediums — from painting to weaving — and she sold her first large-scale work during her junior year.
These opportunities inspired her to pursue a career in art. But not in the traditional sense. In her 20s, Lee built a plaster casting business focusing on decorative accessories, and then she developed a silkscreen business.
She returned to her love of painting in 2005 when one of her daughters needed a way to fund an upcoming mission trip. Together, they created about 50 works, 22 of which they gave to aquatic engineer Kent Kimes. His new office off State Road 64 needed some color, and Lee was without a place to store the collection, so she loaned it to him indefinitely.
He ended up loving the works so much that he paid her to create eight more pieces for his office just last month.
It wasn’t until March 2017 that Lee got into home-staging pieces. She was photographing and recording video of homes that her friend Doshia Wagner was staging, and one day they came across a particularly challenging place on Anna Maria Island. The entryway was awkwardly laid out, and the home was near the beach but didn’t have a view.
“Art is a problem-solver,” she says while gesturing to a photo of the work she ended up creating for the house. “That’s where it all began, at a property where you couldn’t see the water. … But this [painting] gave the feeling of the water.”
Lee quickly saw a business opportunity. Wagner kept showing her more and more homes with abnormally high ceilings — often around 14 feet — and she realized that sellers can rarely find art to fit that tall of a wall. She decided to make it for them herself.
HOW IT WORKS
Now, Lee primarily works with Realtors or Wagner, and it all starts with a consultation. The pair visits a home, Lee with her trusty notebook in hand. She spends most of the visit observing and jotting down floor plans, dimensions, sketches, measurements and other notes — keeping a detailed record of every room.
From there, if she’s working with Wagner, the two communicate about what furniture will likely be used from her inventory, and Lee largely chooses her color palette based on that. She also considers outside influences, such as the colors she sees when she pulls back the blinds.
Wagner and Lee discuss other design elements beyond color, such as the mood, and after they find a similar vision, they’re off.
“When I walk into a space, I feel the environment,” Lee says. “I can imagine what would really be good for it.”
Lee goes home and typically gets to work right after a consultation. She admits there’s often several ideas rolling around in her head before she starts a project, but coming up with a concrete plan is the most important — and next — step.
“I compose the picture, then I paint the picture,” she says. “I really plan it before I paint it because it’s very important to know you’ve got it right and not have to repaint it, especially when you’re under time pressure.”
That composing stage includes a variety of mediums, from sketching a plan on paper to using computer programs, such as Final Cut Pro and Adobe Illustrator, to play with shapes and imagery and finalize the direction she wants the piece to go in.
When it’s time to create, Lee uses everything from house paint to a yard stick to get the job done, and she often creates her canvases with her husband, combining several preexisting structures or making new ones altogether.
ART WITH A PURPOSE
Lee is well aware that her art serves a different purpose than many of her fellow painters in Sarasota. But she enjoys harnessing the power of her work in the real estate field.
“If somebody is going to look at 100 different homes on the internet before they make an appointment to view a house — and that’s typically what people do these days — you really have to stand out,” she says. “What is going to make a staged home stand out from all the rest? In my opinion, it’s art that has impact.”
Lee says this isn’t just her opinion; it’s backed up by several real estate agents who say the houses they stage with her work almost always sell faster than homes without artwork.
The goal is to make a lasting impression, Lee says, and that impression typically comes in the form of colorful contemporary paintings inspired by nature.
Her works are sometimes impressionistic, sometimes realistic and sometimes even abstract, but that’s exactly why she has kept at it. This job allows her the freedom to paint in a variety of styles that don’t only please buyers and sellers — they’re also personally satisfying as an artist.
SAVED BY ART
Although it’s her main source of income (along with her media production company, Heartbinder Productions Inc.), art is much more than a job to Lee. In her 20s, she struggled with drug and alcohol use, and she largely credits art for saving her.
“If you can send that energy in a different direction, it can be so much more wonderful than doing things that are destructive,” she says.
Her creativity solved her addiction and led her to the career she loves — a career that has come a long way since the early days of creating large art for staging at no cost. Now she not only sells and rents her art for staging, but she also offers high-quality large reproductions of work she has already made and/or sold.
Just like the rest of her career, she’s excited to see what unexpected direction it takes her next.