Peter “Lee” Brownlee, the notoriously paint-splattered artist from Bolinas whose vibrant landscapes and fantastical stories never ceased to push the boundaries of fact and fiction, died December 1 in Point Reyes Station. He was 91.
Boisterous and brazen, Lee became something of a legend in Bolinas, where he lived for 15 years. He roamed the streets in a large, rusting station wagon, stray dogs lounging on the hood. His home, cluttered with paintings and mounds of rubbish, was a sanctuary for the town’s migrants, vagrants and mentally unsound inhabitants. “It was Bolinas’s real low-cost housing,” said artist Kathleen O’Neil.
Lee’s storytelling was unequaled, and thus leaves much speculation as to what really transpired during his life. According to friends and relatives, he was a prominent furniture designer, a Broadway singer, a friend of Yoko Ono, a member of the mafia, a temporary financier for a New York City gay bar, and the inventor of rice paper window treatments and a specialty fly swatter. He said that once, while shipwrecked in the South Pacific, he was rescued by Jack Kennedy’s boat, PT109.
“Peter used to get so involved with his stories that sometimes he couldn’t afford to get bogged down with facts,” said Wayne Elkin, a friend. “Sometimes they would be so colored and he would drop so many big names that it would be a little hard to believe.”
Lee thrived as both a dissident and an enigma. “I’m a sailor. I’m a cowboy. I don’t know what I am,” he told a film crew in 2009. “A lot of people piss you off—‘Oh, I know about you.’ I say, ‘How can you know about me? I don’t even know about me!’” Yet for all his tales, one thing was certain: Lee could paint with an industrial fervor. “He painted all the time,” Elkin said. “He even painted from his bed, 12 hours a day sometimes.”
Arthur Carroll Brownlee, Jr. was born December 24, 1919, in San Francisco, the middle child of Arthur and Genevieve Brownlee. The family owned a home on California Street, and Lee, who was very close with his mother, often skipped school to lie in bed and paint the day away.
When Lee did show up for class, his mind was known to wander. Recalling a grammar school Spanish course, he said he would stare out the window, awed by the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. “I don’t know how to speak Spanish,” he later told friends, “but I know how to build a bridge. “
The family moved to Hollister when Lee was young, but the boy continued to frequent the Bay Area, often accompanying his grandfather, a lighthouse attendant, on trips to the Marin Headlands and surrounding towns.
At age 17, amid the din of a burgeoning world war, Lee withdrew from art school to join the United States Merchant Marine, a fleet of civilian-owned vessels that transported war supplies and troops. Lee spent the proceeding 15 years crisscrossing the world, an experience that had several lasting impacts. “One thing about Peter,” said his daughter Liz Prael, “was that he spoke so loudly. I used to say, ‘Why do you speak so loudly?’ And he would say, ‘When you’re on a ship you have to speak up.’ And then I would say, ‘Well, you’re not aboard ship anymore, so shut up.’”
It was the Merchant Marine that eventually led Lee to become a designer in New York City. One evening, while working below deck, Lee convinced a black co-worker to accompany him upstairs and was subsequently rebuked for bringing a “colored person” into a restricted area. “So he decided to leave, right there,” said friend StuArt Chapman. “He got off the ship in New York and started creating things.”
It was the 1960s, and the world of contemporary home furnishings was shifting towards modular and ergonomic designs. Lee’s company, Status Steel, which he founded and ran from a large factory in Harlem, capitalized on the trend, and was for a time at the forefront of the local industry. According to friends, he had a slew of celebrity clients, including Ginger Rogers, Liza Minnelli and John Lennon.
As Lee’s business ascended, so too did his personal life. He met and married a woman named Babs Lemon, and became the father of twin girls, Liz and Brey. The family lived in the city and had at least one second home upstate.
But in the mid-1980s, something happened—it’s not clear what—that inspired Lee to renounce corporate life. Wendy, who recently produced and directed a documentary on Lee’s life in Bolinas, described it as an incident involving a co-worker who made a pejorative comment about a secretary—“and he just flipped.” Chapman recounted another story, in which Lee overheard co-workers in an elevator discussing Christmas bonuses and abruptly decided, “Screw this, I’m going to start painting.”
Whatever happened, it wasn’t long before Lee sold his shares of the business and began spending entire days in Central Park with a brush and canvas. It was there, possibly, that he met Yoko Ono, who helped him sell a painting that raised thousands of dollars for the park. Prael remembers Lee and Ono being acquainted, but not necessarily being friends. Chapman said the two liked to smoke pot together.
Lee soon got divorced, left the city and eventually relocated to San Francisco, which wasn’t at all as he remembered it. He moved to Bolinas and threw himself into his art. “I called him Grampa Moses,” Chapman said, referring to the renowned American folk artist known as Grandma Moses, who began her career in her 70s.
Lee painted incessantly, evidenced by his paint-covered clothes and possessions. “You could never wear good clothing [when visiting him],” Wayne recalled. Wet paintings were strewn everywhere. Sheets were covered in paint. Even Lee’s dentures, which sat on a nightstand next to his bed, were covered in blotches of red and yellow.
Chapman described Lee’s style as “primitive,” relying on thick coats—often straight from the tube—of bright colors. He also used vivid images of dogs and trees and American flags. “There is a very nostalgic, naïve or childlike quality to the work,” he said. “Peter painted the way he thought it should be.”
Around town, Lee’s erratic, uninhibited behavior and sailor’s diction received mixed reviews. “Sometimes he would be really gruff and insulting to his friends. It was abusive at times,” Wayne said, adding that Lee particularly disliked anyone who stated the obvious. “He just had that real bravado personality.”
But to those who knew him closely, Lee had a tender heart. “If you really knew who he was and where that was coming from, then you knew that [the gruffness] was like his armor,” Wendy said. “Beneath that, there was a very soft center.” Perhaps it was best demonstrated in Lee’s art, which Chapman said was intended, chiefly, “to make people happy.”
In 2004, Lee met Wendy, a Mill Valley art director who was interested in purchasing several hundred of Lee’s stationery cards, which he had been producing for years using images of his paintings, for a local art benefit. She and her husband, Wayne, took an immediate interest in Lee, and eventually pitched the idea of shooting a full-length documentary. “He was so excited,” Wendy said. “He loved being filmed.” The resulting film, Painting Bolinas, was completed in late 2009 and is currently finding widespread praise. This spring, it is scheduled to air nationally on PBS.
Painting Bolinas documents Lee’s domestic life at a time when his health was deteriorating. For years he had been living off of social security checks and art sales transacted on his downtown front lawn during major holidays. But with rising medical needs, and his increasing immobility, Lee’s lifestyle became untenable. In 2010 he sold his house and moved, first to a friend’s and months later to Walnut Place, in Point Reyes Station. But he continued to paint.
Wayne visited Lee regularly, often trying to bring up topics of life and death, and letting go. “I would try to get him to talk about them, but no, he didn’t want to talk about that at all,” Elkin said. “He just wanted to keep on painting.”
Peter Lee is survived by his daughters, Liz Prael and Brey Brownlee; grandchildren, Katie and Luke; and countless friends. A memorial will be announced in this newspaper. For more information about Peter Lee go to www.paintingbolinas.com.