Art and Accessibility, With Barry Lee
Famed Atlanta hypercreative Barry Lee suggests that the beauty of art and self-expression is that the work of another queer artist with a disability will tell a completely different story than theirs. A painter, muralist, writer, illustrator, public speaker, and educator, Barry Lee creates art that is intentionally accessible to everyone. And they prove accessible doesn’t equate to simple, as their work takes on complex meanings that hint to his own personal struggles.
Michelle Khouri 0:00
Art can be as much a tool of entertainment and joy as it is a tool for survival. And that is what we learn today from Barry Lee, who used art to survive his life circumstances when he was younger, and has now evolved into wielding it as his sword for love and education. On this episode of The Cultured Podcast, I can’t wait for you to meet Barry and learn all about his deceptively optimistic art form.
Welcome to The Cultured Podcast. I’m your host, Michelle Khouri. And together we’ll journey into the unknown reaches of the art world.
Hello, my bay-bays! You see how I switched that up on you today? I mean, I still sang, but yeah. Just in a different tone. Whatever. Hi, everybody. Welcome to The Cultured Podcast. I am just so happy, like meeting you guys here every other week, regularly…like, hi, we’re back. It feels good, right? We’re like in our flow again. And this week we have a delicious interview with Barry Lee. He is a phenomenal human being who has embraced this idea of teaching the world around him and sort of being a mirror of emotion and vulnerability for the world around him. And I’ll let him tell you more about that in just a tidbit. But first, let’s talk about what’s inspiring me this week. What’s inspiring me this week is seeing your precious little creative babies come to life before your eyes. You know in our line of work of producing a podcast or two, we have to do a lot of work for months before we see the fruits of our labor. And so when we finally are able to launch a podcast that we’ve been working on for months and months and months, there is actually no better feeling than seeing that come to life and being able to point people to the fact that you’ve been creating something pretty special for months. And often, because that’s the nature of production and media, we’re not really able to talk much about the things that we’re working on until they’re out in the world. So it’s an ego boost, and it is a boost for our creativity. It’s also a much needed break from the ongoing rigor of production and listening to the same voice over and over and over in your head. Although you do end up missing that voice. It’s a weird relationship, admittedly. But anyway, fruits of your labor and seeing these creative projects come to be–there’s not much that’s more inspiring than that. It’s like a thrill in and of itself. It’s like an adrenaline rush. So yeah, we at the time of recording this episode right now, are looking at the launch of Hidden Voices by the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. So by the time you listen to this episode, you’re able to listen to every single episode in Hidden Voices. And you can drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or at frqncy.media, F-R-Q-N-C-Y to tell us what you think of Hidden Voices. We’re super proud of it. Alright, speaking of pride and culture and everything good in this world, even when it’s deceptively optimistic, let’s talk to Barry.
Barry Lee 3:41
Michelle Khouri 3:42
The Barry Lee, ladies and gentlefolk. (laughter) Okay? Hi!
Barry Lee 3:49
Michelle Khouri 3:50
You’re somewhat of a legend in Atlanta.
Barry Lee 3:52
Oh, well, thank you.
Michelle Khouri 3:53
Okay, so before we launch into it, Barry, why don’t you tell the Cultured Crew who you are and what your art form is.
Barry Lee 4:01
Cool. Well, hi, I’m Barry Lee. I’ve lived in Atlanta, probably about 10 years now, so a while. Long story short, I’m an artist. I dabble in a lot of things, murals and painting and illustration. I also have a podcast and also do public speaking. So I do a lot. I like to just say multidisciplinary artist to encapsulate it in a bubble.
Michelle Khouri 4:31
I like to call someone like you a hypercreative.
Barry Lee 4:33
Michelle Khouri 4:33
Because I feel like if we were to go into your brain, we would see synapses firing at all times.
Barry Lee 4:40
Michelle Khouri 4:41
Looking to create, create, create.
Barry Lee 4:42
Michelle Khouri 4:44
So you know, your artforms, particularly your painting, which is what you’re known for here in Atlanta most. It’s like your paintings, your murals, are really joyous on the surface, really meant to uplift.
Barry Lee 4:56
Michelle Khouri 4:56
But very deep and filled with a lot of meaning.
Barry Lee 4:59
Michelle Khouri 4:59
And it makes me feel like maybe that’s your way of processing the world around you and your life of experiences and getting this form of expression out there.
Barry Lee 5:10
Michelle Khouri 5:10
So tell us, when did you start drawing and painting?
Barry Lee 5:15
So I started drawing when I was 3.
Michelle Khouri 5:19
Wow. I knew it was really young.
Barry Lee 5:21
Yeah, so really young. And so I was born with a very rare syndrome called Nager Syndrome, about medically recorded about 90 cases in the world.
Michelle Khouri 5:32
Barry Lee 5:33
Michelle Khouri 5:33
To this day.
Barry Lee 5:34
Medically recorded. So, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s 90 cases, there’s just misdiagnosises and things like that. So I had a lot of surgeries as a kid as a result of that. And through that, I was drawing. And so I would just literally watch Sesame Street and draw what was on there. You know, my parents really nurtured that, which I’m very thankful for. And also, you know, art was a form of sort of self-defense, you know, away from being bullied.
Michelle Khouri 6:08
Hmm. In what way?
Barry Lee 6:09
So if I could be known as an art kid, my own disabilities, my own deafness, my own me having eight fingers, me having a cranial facial difference from other people would be kind of diluted. Now, I mean, I grew up in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, so somebody who has a facial different and who has 8 fingers is already pretty like, boom, very different from anybody else. So I was treated very sympathetically. But I didn’t really know that I was treated sympathetically until I moved away from there.
Michelle Khouri 6:52
Barry Lee 6:52
So you know, when I moved here in Atlanta to attend school and to start my own career I started to recognize the wrongdoings of sympathy. The underlying ignorance of people that isn’t necessarily known in their own psyches sometimes. Sometimes we don’t know that we’re ignorant, we’re just born ignorant.
Michelle Khouri 7:17
Absolutely. And that’s maybe the most dangerous part of it.
Barry Lee 7:23
Michelle Khouri 7:24
Is the lack of awareness.
Barry Lee 7:25
Yes, the lack of awareness for your ignorance. You know, that was something to unpack. So I create things that are very colorful, to talk about accessibility. They are accessible to everyone. But at the end of the day, the more you read into it, you understand that there’s much more to the colors, and much more to the quote unquote, simple designs and happy faces than meets the eye.
Michelle Khouri 7:54
What makes a piece of art accessible versus inaccessible?
Barry Lee 7:58
Yeah. For me, a piece of art that is accessible is easy to digest. It’s in terms of, as simple as, a stop sign, right? You know, a stop sign is red. Red means stop.
Michelle Khouri 8:15
Oh, I love that example.
Barry Lee 8:16
A stop sign doesn’t have, like, a bunch of lines on it. It is just red and type. That’s accessible. So even if you maybe can’t read, you know about the red.
Michelle Khouri 8:28
That’s fascinating because, you know, I immediately, when we started talking about accessible versus inaccessible: in my mind, all art is accessible.
Barry Lee 8:37
Michelle Khouri 8:37
From a fundamental level, right?
Barry Lee 8:39
Michelle Khouri 8:39
It’s self-expression. Somebody else made it. It should be accessible to all. However, the way that we frame art and the art industry in itself right has made so much of art inaccessible.
Barry Lee 8:52
Michelle Khouri 8:52
It’s like sold the story to people that like, “Oh, you won’t get it.”
Barry Lee 8:57
Michelle Khouri 8:57
I’m like, there’s nothing to get.
Barry Lee 8:58
Michelle Khouri 8:59
There’s just feelings to feel.
Barry Lee 9:00
Michelle Khouri 9:01
Right? So it’s interesting because it’s more about breaking down the barriers around what we think is made for us.
Barry Lee 9:06
Yes, absolutely. And I been really thinking lately. It’s like, I’m not only an artist, I’m an educator and being an educator means helping people digest things and take them in small bites and like, step by step by step. And a lot of my work, I do my best to be accessible so that people can have a better understanding of somebody’s life that’s different from them.
Michelle Khouri 9:35
Why is it important for you to focus on that accessibility of art and to be that educator?
Barry Lee 9:43
Because I never grew up with anybody who had my story, especially as a queer person throwing that into the mix. I didn’t get that representation. And now we live in a time where accessibility queerness and all of this stuff is like quote-unquote, popular. But at the end of the day, like, the next fad is going to come and I’m still going to be a queer and I’m still going to be disabled.
Michelle Khouri 10:07
Barry Lee 10:08
And it’s like, I’m going to still be here doing my thing. But we are in a time now which people can share more of their stories. I think there’s room for everyone in the table for that. So I can tell my story as a queer, disabled person and another queer disabled person can tell their story and it’s totally different from mine.
Michelle Khouri 10:25
Barry Lee 10:27
Totally different. It also has allowed me to recognize that I’m not alone in the world. My first mural that I ever did was for a show at a coffee shop in Atlanta called Octane Coffee. And it was a blank wall. And I asked the owner, I was like, “Do you mind if I paint the wall?” I painted the wall to provoke a feeling. So the mural was a bunch of creatures hiding in bushes staring at you, because anytime that I’m getting a coffee there’s a good chance somebody staring at me. I decided to do another show because I was in demand at the time. And it was a show called How Nice, which was over in a DIY space called Murmur on Broad Street, downtown Atlanta. And I told people that it was a photography show but nobody believed me.
Michelle Khouri 11:21
Barry Lee 11:23
Michelle Khouri 11:23
Like, literally, people didn’t believe you?
Barry Lee 11:25
People were like, oh it’s going to be, like, one photo. And so I’d only release two photos from the show. So nobody knew.
Michelle Khouri 11:31
I remember that too.
Barry Lee 11:32
Yeah, nobody knew that it was all photography and all film and all performance, and no, sort of like, painting.
Michelle Khouri 11:39
You salty minx, what!
Barry Lee 11:41
And because of what I wanted was the psychological shot.
Michelle Khouri 11:46
Barry Lee 11:46
Of being taken away from your comfort zone. Because I get taken away from my comfort. I don’t know what I’m going to enter any day of my life. If somebody was going to ask me about my hearing aid, ask me about the way that I look, anything like that. I was like, how can I do that? And the running theme from, you know, that mural at Octane, that first mural and the show that I did, is this provoking a feeling and it’s educating people.
Michelle Khouri 12:14
Barry Lee 12:15
And that’s my goal. And now, you know, I’m very fortunate to be able to have more projects that align with those goals. And, you know, want to take the corporate clients if they align with my own personal beliefs and things like that. But I’m finding more of an audience, you know, around the world more and more. So I’m creating more work that is a little bit more of a bite, you know?
Michelle Khouri 12:42
Barry Lee 12:42
And a little bit more up front.
Michelle Khouri 12:44
Do you think that’s reflective of your own journey and gaining more and more confidence in who you are? how you feel at any given moment? And just giving yourself permission to just be this whole human?
Barry Lee 12:57
Oh, absolutely. I was scared half to death about How Nice because it was my first time really being open about my queer identity.
Michelle Khouri 13:05
And that was the photography.
Barry Lee 13:06
Yes, and that was the photography show. So yeah, once…I mean really, it was a coming out of being disabled and coming out as being a queer. And those two facets colliding.
Michelle Khouri 13:16
Barry Lee 13:17
That was me maturing, you know? Coming into my young adulthood at that time.
Michelle Khouri 13:22
That’s amazing. And it’s exciting to hear. I mean, anytime I’m sitting down with an artist who is feeling more firm and confident in who they are, and thus, you can see those evolutions in their art form that is just exhilarating to me.
Barry Lee 13:38
Michelle Khouri 13:39
I think it’s a joy for any of the fans of your art to witness.
Barry Lee 13:43
Michelle Khouri 13:43
And an honor, right? Like, we get to witness each other’s evolution as humans. And I don’t think we totally are as appreciative as we could be for that.
Barry Lee 13:53
I totally agree. And and I don’t ask my audience, you know, well, what would you you’d like to see? Because I know, there are certain artists who are like, “Well, would you like to see a bag from me? Or would you like to see a T-shirt from me?” I don’t give my audience an option. Because you’re growing with me every human grows. So it’s like, if I’m going to feed you enough, you’re going to eventually get used to it. We might not like broccoli at first. And then we end up buying broccoli.
Michelle Khouri 14:25
I love me some broccoli.
Barry Lee 14:26
Michelle Khouri 14:27
So, art has been a running theme and friend in your life since you were very, very young. So when did you first really start considering yourself an artist?
Barry Lee 14:40
Oh, I mean, I definitely was considered that when I was, like, middle school.
Michelle Khouri 14:44
Barry Lee 14:44
Michelle Khouri 14:45
That’s awesome. Yeah, because like you said, that was that label that you embraced because you’re like this is the identity I can embrace, to mitigate other people.
Barry Lee 14:53
Right. Absolutely. And I definitely own that title more now. Now that I know that it’s not as limiting as maybe I thought it was at the time. Because now I can write and still call myself an artist.
Michelle Khouri 15:08
Barry Lee 15:08
I can, you know, do these certain things and still label myself as an artist. I can teach and still call myself an artist.
Michelle Khouri 15:16
Mmhmm. So what role do you think art initially played in your life versus the role it plays in now? How has that role changed?
Barry Lee 15:27
Yeah, good question. At that time, you know, as a child, I used art as survival. And now, I use it as more of a strength, you know? I think at the time I used it as survival, out of fear, right? And now, using it more out of love. So that’s strength.
Michelle Khouri 15:50
Barry Lee 15:52
And, you know, my therapist told me we either live in love or fear.
Michelle Khouri 15:57
Barry Lee 15:58
And I’ve lived a lot of my life in fear. And I think a lot of people have.
Michelle Khouri 16:03
We all do, yeah.
Barry Lee 16:04
We all do, you know, but it’s like we have to be very conscious about: well, how am I living in love? Right?
Michelle Khouri 16:10
You know, you wouldn’t think you’d have to be conscious about that, but I think because there is so much. There are so many lower base energies that surround us.
Barry Lee 16:19
Michelle Khouri 16:20
That can drag us down. You have to, on a very conscious level every day, I think, like, choose to live from a place of kindness and love.
Barry Lee 16:29
Michelle Khouri 16:30
That’s beautiful. I think you’re just one of those people who, whether through life experience or through that spirit that you carry with you, you’re just more primed to be vulnerable. And I think that’s what makes a powerful artist.
Barry Lee 16:45
Michelle Khouri 16:45
Because I mean, come on, how boring is it to see art that’s not vulnerable? Right?
Barry Lee 16:49
Oh, I agree.
Michelle Khouri 16:50
I mean, it’s called Classical.
Barry Lee 16:54
I mean, we have we have a lot of people who have technical merit.
Michelle Khouri 16:59
Barry Lee 16:59
It’s valid. One of the most prime examples for me is Keith Haring. So you look at his commercial work and, you know, the Radiant Baby, and what amazes me is that he was able to be very commercially successful. But at the same time, he’s created a mural in the LGBTQ Center of New York City in like 1988/1989 with a bunch of men having sex. Full-on genitalia showing and everything. And nobody is rioting about it.
Michelle Khouri 17:38
That’s the beauty of art.
Barry Lee 17:39
Michelle Khouri 17:40
That’s the beauty right there. That’s such a good example.
Barry Lee 17:43
Exactly. Yeah. And, but for me, it’s just how it is.
Michelle Khouri 17:48
Barry Lee 17:48
And people are like, how are you so vulnerable? Well, I was so vulnerable the day I was born and the doctors decided to have operations put on me. You know?
Michelle Khouri 18:01
So describe your artwork for us. Describe, like, your murals. If you want, you can take one big mural that you’ve done recently and just help paint a picture for us of what that looks like.
Barry Lee 18:16
Something like deceitful optimism. So I did a recent mural that is below one of the new beltline trails. It is actually a very abstract send off of that Octane mural of people staring. People definitely see that as a very friendly mural. And it is.
Michelle Khouri 18:37
Why do you think they see it as friendly?
Barry Lee 18:38
Because of the colors.
Michelle Khouri 18:39
What are the colors you use in that one?
Barry Lee 18:41
Oh my god. They’re just, like, orange, pink, blue, yellow, like, the happy, happy-dappy of colors. And people see smiley faces, but they’re laughing at you.
Michelle Khouri 18:52
Oh wow, yeah.
Barry Lee 18:53
You know, and they’re like hiding their little laugh. And they’re towering you. So you know, they’re, like, 20 feet tall these, like, immaculate creatures, like, looking down laughing at you.
Michelle Khouri 19:06
Barry Lee 19:07
It’s all how you frame things.
Michelle Khouri 19:08
Oh, it’s all about perspective.
Barry Lee 19:10
Michelle Khouri 19:10
Barry Lee 19:11
For me, that’s what I want.
Michelle Khouri 19:13
Barry Lee 19:13
I want people to gain perspective. Because, I think, in Atlanta, it is a town that is very primarily based on art that is aesthetic.
Michelle Khouri 19:23
Barry Lee 19:25
And there are some really great artists here who, you know, project their personal voices and their opinions. But there are also artists here that have purely aesthetic work. And people are used to that purely aesthetic work and don’t take the time to recognize that, like, some of the artwork around you means a lot more than what you may think.
Michelle Khouri 19:47
But you know, it’s interesting, because I think we spend a lot of time as art lovers and makers trying to define what art is.
Barry Lee 19:55
Michelle Khouri 19:56
And to me, that’s a moot point.
Barry Lee 19:57
Michelle Khouri 19:57
Because the point is, if you make something and that’s your art form, and that’s your art, then it’s art.
Barry Lee 20:02
Michelle Khouri 20:02
And I who am I to say, what is art or what is not?
Barry Lee 20:06
Michelle Khouri 20:07
And I do think that we’re all walking around with hearts with little sores on them.
Barry Lee 20:14
Yep, we are.
Michelle Khouri 20:14
Right? And so sometimes those sores are big enough to make vulnerable art intimidating because it’s there to trigger us and to be a mirror.
Barry Lee 20:24
Michelle Khouri 20:25
So I think a lot of people–and this is a wild assumption–but who like just purely aesthetic art, it’s because they’re not ready not to be triggered by other stuff.
Barry Lee 20:33
No, they’re not. And that’s valid. You know? I think that’s extremely valid. And if I can be a gateway for people to start to get to there, because what I found is so interesting is that I’ve had people who followed me for years and, you know, they would tell me, like, “Oh, I followed you for the work that you’re doing. And now all these writings and all of that, I’m really loving this. It’s just so much more of a deeper meaning. And I think–and I and I definitely agree with you with the wounds–you know, people will not know what they want until it’s in front of them sometimes.
Michelle Khouri 21:10
Yeah, or they don’t want to admit what they want or need.
Barry Lee 21:13
Michelle Khouri 21:13
Barry Lee 21:14
And sometimes, you know, I think people see that work and it’s a lightbulb maybe to them.
Michelle Khouri 21:22
Yes. So speaking of the different ways you’ve evolved as an artist: in the coming years looking at time as linear, do you have aspirations for different art forms you want to embrace more? Different ways you want to evolve as an artist?
Barry Lee 21:39
I’m on the track. That’s what I can say about that. At the end of the day, I don’t know what’s next.
Michelle Khouri 21:45
Yeah, none of us.
Barry Lee 21:46
None of us do. And I have these certain goals that if folks connect the puzzle, they’ll see what that is. (laughter)
Michelle Khouri 21:56
Barry Lee 21:58
It is and it isn’t. Because some people have already picked up on that. And I have some ideas, and I’m piloting those ideas. And, you know, my main focus right now is to continue to figure out how to use my voice and to continue to figure out how to educate people. The evolution is there.
Michelle Khouri 22:21
The evolution is there. That happens naturally. I think having aspirations is great, but I also admire the way that you just flow. And you’re flowing and you know what? The Cultured Crew is going to flow with you.
Barry Lee 22:35
Michelle Khouri 22:35
We’re going to be over there cheering you on from the sidelines. So if our Cultured Crew wants to find you, where can they find you?
Barry Lee 22:43
Follow me on Instagram @Barryleeart.
Michelle Khouri 22:48
Thank you for being vulnerable with us, for sharing that big piece of your heart with us. I’m very grateful to know you and thanks for coming on the show.
Barry Lee 22:56
You bet. This was fun. Thank you.
Michelle Khouri 23:03
Well, that interview just made my day brighter and I am not deceiving you on that one, y’all. I feel better. I feel brighter. I feel inspired. And until our next journey into the unknown, keep it classy, keep it curious, keep it Cultured.