American Artist Lee AlbanNo compromisesLee Alban began drawing as a child and learned basic art techniques from television programs and library books. Throughout his school years his interest intensified and, though encouraged by teachers, chose not to pursue an art career. It was a life choice based on the limited ability of an artist to support a family and other social considerations. Instead, he followed his love of biology and became a secondary school teacher, married, raised two children and eventually retired at age 52. At that time he entered the Schuler School of Fine Arts in Baltimore, Maryland. The Schuler School is a small traditional atelier that has produced some of the country's premier artists.
Proficient in many styles of painting, Alban fell in love with realism. He also combines realistic subject matter with impressionistic landscape paintings to produce the "Spirits of the American West" series.
His work has garnered numerous awards in every genre, including the prestigious Gold Medal Award from Allied Artists of America and the Excellence in Still Life Award from Oil Painters of America.
He has attained signature memberships in the Oil Painters of America and the National Oil and Acrylic Painters Society. He is also an elected member of the Allied Artists of America and American Artists Professional League.
He is designated as an Assoc. Living Master by the Art Renewal Society. His work has appeared in major art publications, including Artists Magazine (cover), American Art Collector, Western Art Collector, International Artist, Fine Art Connoisseur, and the quarterly journal of the Center for Railroad Photography and Art.
Alban is known for portraits of women "steam" workers and for his narrative paintings of Native American heritage, but he also paints landscapes, diners, railroad scenes, figures, and still life. His work is in found educational institutions, corporations, and private collections throughout the country.
He makes NO COMPROMISES: refusing to follow temporary economic or stylistic trends in exception to the timeless art of contemporary realism.
GETTING THE SIGNALHow Lee Alban discovered railroads in his second career as an artist.LIKE MANY ARTISTS I BEGAN drawing at a very early age—here must be something in our DNA. I had no role models in my family nor acquaintances to have influenced my interest, and I have little memory of my early years. My mother told me that when I was about five years old, I showed her a pencil drawing of a cartoon character and she said, “Where did you get that?” When I told her I drew it while looking at a figure on a jelly glass, she said, “Let me see you do that again.”
I did, and she claims that it looked just like the figure, although she never saved any of my early masterpieces. My earliest recollection of a childhood interest in art came from television, and a program called Winky Dink and You. For fifty cents, viewers (actually their parents) could purchase a kit that included five crayons and a clear sheet of plastic. When the cartoon character, Winky, got in trouble, the viewer could place the plastic on the television screen and draw a solution - for example a bridge over a river - in order to get him out of trouble. Another program at about the same time was Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw.
Gnagy’s goal was to teach children that one could draw anything with four basic shapes: cone, sphere, cube, and cylinder. I remember the feeling of excitement from getting my own Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Kit for Christmas.
In addition, I borrowed every book I could find from the library about how to draw. One day my parents got a phone call from my social studies teacher. I thought I was in trouble for drawing during lessons, but instead, she wanted to tell my parents that they should send me to art school. That was not really an option that we could afford. At college I decided that my job prospects would be better if I earned a degree in science. I majored in biology and taught secondary school for thirty years.
During the summer months I would usually work part-time jobs, but I also taught myself pen-and-ink techniques and produced prints, added watercolor washes, and sold drawings at art fairs. Second career in art After retiring from teaching at age fifty-two, I planned on spending my years working at a golf course and playing golf, but then I learned about an art school that taught the techniques of the Old Masters. They offered a four-year classical studio program, and my wife said, “That’s what you’ve always wanted to do. You should go.” I enrolled at the Schuler School of Fine Arts in Baltimore, a unique atelier, founded by Ann Didusch Schuler and her husband, Hans.
Hans’ father (Hans Schuler, 1874–1951) was a famous sculptor, a Paris salon medal winner and builder of many monuments throughout Baltimore. Hans taught sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and Ann taught painting while assisting Jacques Maroger in his research of paint formulas used by the Old Masters. When MICA embraced abstract and minimalist art at the expense of realism, the Schulers left to start a realism school in Hans’ father’s house and studio, which had been built in 1906.
The Schuler School’s classical curriculum consisted of studio work in sculpture, drawing, watercolor and oil painting, still life, portraiture, and the figure. There were half-day anatomy lectures every Friday, and we had the same schedule every week for four years. Most important was learning to make black oil, mastic varnish, and Maroger medium. The process of making black oil required heating litharge (lead monoxide) and raw linseed oil to high temperatures for five hours. Mastic varnish is produced by dissolving mastic tears in turpentine.
The black oil is mixed with powder pigments to produce paint. It is also combined with equal amounts of mastic varnish to produce Maroger medium, a gel-like substance for thinning paint and glazing. These are the materials that I use for all my paintings. Schuler prepared me to paint anything. If I could see it, I could paint it, and that made me an effective teacher. After graduation I was offered representation in two local galleries.
My wife and I sold our house and moved to a home with studio space and room for group lessons with up to ten students. I produced a lot of small still life paintings as well as some landscapes and portraits. I traveled to Europe and returned with references to paint scenes from Germany, Italy, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Prague in the Czech Republic. My galleries would show anything that I wanted to paint, but in 2008, when the recession caused them to close, I had to redefine myself as an artist. Without gallery representation I focused my attention on other opportunities.
I joined various national art organizations and began entering competitions and applying to juried exhibitions. My success shifted from local sales to national awards and magazine articles. I traveled to shows and attended receptions, where I met other artists, editors and publishers, and gallery owners. I received some excellent advice from one gallery owner. He said, “Your paintings are terrific, but I already have artists doing similar work. If you could do something that is not found in other galleries, I would be interested.” I started using vintage toys as subject matter for still life paintings because their appeal would be more universal, rather than regional.
I decided to add an element that would make my work a little different by searching the internet and finding posters that in some way related to the items in my still life. Sometimes I would show a toy in motion crashing through the poster and try to add a humorous title. For example, I titled a painting of a Popeye pull toy with posters advertising spinach, “Green Energy.” Although my “toy” paintings were often juried into national exhibitions and earned many awards, I decided the idea might not translate into many sales.
I found the subject matter most fitting for a child’s room, and I surmised that most potential purchasers would prefer subjects better suited for living rooms or dining rooms, where more guests could see them. I began to paint other subject matter, including landscapes, vintage diners, figures, and florals.
A gallery owner in Fredericksburg, Texas saw one of my landscapes in American Art Collector magazine and left a message on my answering machine. She was interested in showing my work, and I met with her while attending an an exhibition by the Oil Painters of America in Fredericksburg.
As we talked, she mentioned that she was looking for paintings of the oil industry. Oil production was booming in Texas, and she was confident that successful industry entrepreneurs would want to buy related fine art. In addition to providing her with some western landscape paintings, I produced thirty paintings for an all-new series I called “Black Gold.”
Painting trains.A steam train ride with my wife and granddaugh ters commenced with a short conversation that led to railroads as a new subject to paint. I was taking photographs, as I always did for potential reference material, when the conductor approached and said, “You should have been here last month. Pete Lerro had a photoshoot.” I replied, “Who is Pete Lerro and what’s a photoshoot?” I signed up for the next opportunity to photograph a steam train with Pete Lerro, a Friday-night and all-day-Saturday event in November 2011 with the Delaware River Railroad Excursions.
We photographed the Bel-Del Railroad and steam locomotive 142, which runs on hand-fired coal. It was built in China in 1989 by Tangshan Locomotive Works, the last place in the world to produce steam locomotives. I had no idea what to expect from the experience. On Friday night, the photographers boarded the train and disembarked at a railroad crossing where Pete had set up flood lights to capture the glorious expulsions of steam.
Costumed participants and a vintage truck were present to suggest a story. One of my favorite photographs, which led to a successful painting, shows a green pickup truck waiting while the caboose passes the crossing with a railroad worker onboard waving a lantern. That night I called my wife from my motel room where I waited for the next day’s shoot. “You might be sorry that you let me go on this photoshoot,” I said. “Why?” she asked. “Because I think I like it too much.” More great photo opportunities abounded on the following day.
Vintage automobiles drove alongside the train and posed at different crossing while the train was steamed past. I was also able to photograph the engineer and other workers, providing reference material for future portraiture work. The following year I signed on for a trip with Pete to photograph lighthouses.
At the time a gallery in Cape Cod was selling my toy paintings. The lighthouse trip seemed like a good opportunity to obtain reference photographs to supplement my work in that gallery. Very excited, I came back with some references that I knew would make great paintings. I was surprised when the gallery owner said he was not interested in lighthouses, because they were common in all the nearby galleries.
Soon I was photographing trains again. In February 2013 at Pennsylvania’s Strasburg Rail Road, Pete had tricked out their locomotive no. 90, an ex-Great Western 2-10-0, with paint and lettering as it appeared in the 1960s. While the entire event was packed with great opportunities for great photography, one reference shot became very important in my career. Pete had arranged for a rider on horseback because of the locomotive’s western history from its long career in Colorado.
Eventually I was able to use this shot for a painting that went into an important show, where I met a serious collector. In the spring of 2015, Pete called excitedly about another photoshoot he thought would interest me. He was asking women workers at the Strasburg Rail Road and women reenactors to dress in the style of “Rosie-the-Riveter” and bring props of World War II vintage.
This had the potential for paintings that could reimagine the traditional roles of feminine and masculine in a world of massive machinery. The photo references that I obtained through this shoot gave me the opportunity to create another unique series called “Silk and Steel.” The following year Pete arranged a second “Rosie” photoshoot.
When I posted my “Silk and Steel” paintings on Facebook they attracted a lot of attention, most importantly from a group called “Ladies of Steam,” which has members across the U.S. and in other countries. Through this group, I became acquainted with women from Minnesota who love to restore, maintain, and operate vintage steam-driven tractors from the 1800s. In 2016 I acquired some photographs of these ladies from their friend and photographer, Jeff Henningsgaard.
He regularly attended the huge annual Labor Day event in Rollag, Minnesota, the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion. Jeff became instrumental in providing references that supplemented my railroad subjects in the “Silk and Steel” series. A few years later, my wife and I traveled to Rollag to meet Jeff and many of the ladies who had become figures in my paintings. These women expressed to me how important my paintings were to them. Here is an excerpt from a letter from one of them, Nicole Muhl.
I know you have acquired many additional fans throughout your “Silk and Steel” collection, myself and friends included. I don’t feel I can thank you enough because this series touches an area that is pretty solid within me, and I’m not just saying this. My vision grew and efforts expanded towards “Ladies of Steam” for encouragement of women to feel that it’s okay to have that desire to be involved with this greasy and sooty stuff.
Simply just recognizing them for their desires and efforts spread like wildfire across the globe (over sixty different countries to be technical), probably making positive impacts within the steam communities and likely the future of the hobby. Now, to see this concept go onto a whole new area in the fine arts category is unknown to me.
These other ladies you have painted I not only see their desire for steam but I can feel their passion through your paintings. Really, no artist that I know of has ever done anything like it! When I look at any old or new steam engine artwork I see men operating and if women are present they are in dresses, indirectly involved.
I have nothing against that it’s just you’ve stepped into doing something different that in my eyes makes a true artist, painting where no one has painted before. While working on the “Silk and Steel” series, Ken Featherstone got in touch about a show and sale he was organizing called “Traveling the West.” He had seen my paintings of trains and diners in art magazines, and he asked for a new work. I reached back to my references from my first photo charter on the Strasburg Rail Road.
Built in 1924, Strasburg’s locomotive no. 90 hauled sugar beets on the Great Western Railway in north-central Colorado until 1967. From the Lerro photo charter I had a reference shot of the locomotive that featured a rider on horseback alongside it. For my painting, I replaced the rider with a cowboy and changed the landscape from an eastern meadow to a western prairie.
I needed some additional paintings, and I had a lot of western landscape photographs from my travels to art exhibitions in Arizona, Texas, and other states. My challenge was to add a “travel” element. Living on the East Coast, I had limited access to models who could pose as cowboys or Native Americans on horseback, so I searched for vintage photographs on the Library of Congress website. Nothing I found seemed to fit naturally into my landscape references, but the search gave me an idea.
I would create a painting of a vintage photograph of a Native American, on the surface of a contemporary landscape. My purpose was to “fool” the viewer into thinking someone had taped a real photograph on top of the painting (a technique known as trompe l’oeil). I realized that this idea could lead to another unique series of paintings. I continued to expand my photography library of western landscape references while I searched for more vintage photographs of Native Americans.
That led to more paintings for “Spirits of the American West.” It became a way, at least visually, of returning Native Americans to the lands they once occupied. For additional homage, I researched and titled each painting with a Native American proverb. Currently I devote most of my time to new paintings for “Silk and Steel” and “Spirits of the American West,” as well as additional railroad paintings and anything that galleries request. And I continue to look for Lerro Photography charters--partially for reference material, but also just for the fun of photographing steam trains.
Lee Alban was taking photographs when the steam train conductor approached, and said, “You should have been here last month, Pete Lerro had a photo shoot.” Alban replied, “Who is Pete Lerro and what’s a photo shoot?”
That short conversation changed everything. Alban signed up for the next opportunity to photograph steam trains and began painting scenes of trains, vintage automobiles and actors dressed in period costumes. There were night and daytime locales, bridge crossings, intersections, workshop locations, railroad stations and yards, old trucks, Amish wagons and people in costumes. One day he received a call from Lerro, who said, “I’m putting together a photoshoot that might interest you.”
He was asking women railroad workers and reenactors to dress in Rosie the Riveter style clothing and to bring props of World War II vintage. Alban became as much of a portrait and figure painter as a painter of steam trains, and created a new series he called Silk and Steel. Appearing in American Art Collector, his work drew the attention of event planners, major galleries and collectors.
His paintings won numerous awards, including signature memberships in Oil Painters of America and National Oil & Acrylic Painters’ Society, and Alban was designated an ARC Associate Living Master. As his work garnered more attention, Alban learned of another group of women who worked with steam engines, and not only did they have chapters in the U.S., but also in other countries.
They restored and operated steam tractors and other steam farm equipment and they called themselves “The Ladies of Steam.” The passion and dedication of these women continue to provide inspiration for new paintings. His work now includes the Ladies of Steam, the West, Native Americans, early oil exploration, diners and other stories.