Saved by the Bell: Lee Carrier on passion and purpose

By Holly Charles Check in at the Bell Tower. Directing me to artist Lee Carrier, the text message filled with dramatic irony floated across my screen.  The art student, turned art instructor, turned working artist, turned CFISD School District Art Coordinator found time in between her jumbled schedule of strict 9 to 5 corporate meetings and unconventional after-hours warehouse art shows to sit down for what started off as an interview but ended as a two-hour testament to her passion and purpose.  The Bell Tower she mentioned, hanging over the front entrance of the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District Instructional Support Center, led me to my muse of many muses.

Coincidentally, bell towers symbolize both the hope and freedom of the people, much like Carrier does for the evolving demographics of Cy Fair ISD.  As the third art coordinator for the entire district, she is, most impressively, the first African American to occupy the position.  While she may not have set out to be a cultural trailblazer or the Bell Tower, so to speak, of Cy Fair’s Art Department, she certainly embodies both.  After 10 years of service as a high school art teacher who coached and guided hardworking students through their first art shows, competitions and even silent auctions, her students’ work became a regular sight displayed on CFISD walls and in citywide art events such as Houston’s Annual Via Colori Festival.  Deserving of her promotion, yet humble about what it means for the diversification of Cy Fair, she does admit that, in her position, “It’s all about knowing your population,” and since she has studied the specific needs and demographics of both students and staff in her district, she recognizes that the art should be reflective of the students’ culture, race, socioeconomic status, etc.

A high school graduate of a Title I Cy Fair school herself, Carrier represents the fabric and future of CFISD.  She has always held CFISD in high regard and speaks passionately about her new opportunity to uphold its integrity while also using her personal network and experiences to expand its reach.  Since art has remained a lifelong passion for Carrier, she knows firsthand about the lack of opportunities, scholarships and encouragement available to aspiring artists.  Once a skeptical art student herself, she had difficulty finding art resources and reasons to continue exploring her own creativity.  Her biggest concern was whether or not she could create a livelihood based on her love of art.  Coming from a lower middle class family, like the many students she aims to help, she had even fewer resources and inspiration for how to use art to make a living.

I am living proof that art can take you places

The determined creative pressed forward, though, focusing more on a faith-based philosophy that her work would provide for itself than the doubtful summations of those around her.   Now, a decade after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Houston and dozens of prestigious collaborative and solo shows later (among her many credits, Carrier has shown at East End Studio Gallery, The Station Museum, The University Museum at Texas Southern, and Art on 5th Street in Austin, to name a few), she has proven that art is valuable to society and in high demand.  Sitting tall in her new office, amid stacks of pedagogical studies, manila file folders, art journals and books for inspiration, she finishes her thoughts concerning her artistic journey appropriately with, “I am living proof [that] art can take you places.”  From time to time, the artist shifts a pile of documents and books aside, apologizing for the overflowing office she is still organizing in her first few weeks at Cy Fair’s ISD.  The “mess,” as she calls it, is actually a charming ode to the creative process and speaks to the complicated mind of a working artist.

Interspersed with the to-do lists of her office are quirky, satirical postcards paying homage to the late Tupac Shakur, haunting self-portraits of Frida Kahlo and corkboard tacked with Houston Chronicle clippings of Carrier proudly displaying her newest artistic achievement, a festive Super Bowl LI helmet designed in anticipation of Houston’s hosting of the game in February 2017.  Carrier was notified of the open call and opportunity for up to 51 artists to take on the historic endeavor, and she was selected after sending in only one sketch of her intended masterpiece.  Since that time, she and her honey-combed, hunter green helmet have been featured on Houston’s ABC 13 News and in the Houston Chronicle, seemingly as the pride of the project.

Instead of altering her aesthetic to suit the typical expectations for athletic gear, Carrier stayed true to her signature Native Lee Style (see by creating a helmet reminiscent of her appropriately titled New Tribe series.  The ever-growing collection began from her own personal desire “to get in touch with [her] own indigenous [[ancestry.”  She found herself scouring the internet and various printed materials and “stumbling across things from other cultures.”  Through extensive research, she found a way to “connect women globally” by depicting the beauty of ethnic femininity and tribal tradition.  What makes her work unique is not only sharing the female form but showing aboriginal women in a way that’s regal, yet subtly in line with current trends and fashion.

…a living, breathing version of her own New Tribe series

Carrier, who has a history of creating self-portraits, is easily a living, breathing version of her own New Tribe series.  Much like the goal of her collection to celebrate fashion and the diversity of women, she’s paired what appears to be a tribal necklace with her more conventional black work attire. Unable to resist, I inquired about the significance of the piece, only to learn that the neon yellow collar was made of bundled bungee cords and was bought from a vintage boutique in Austin, Texas, which lead to two interesting coincidences.  The first coincidence is that she adorns herself with art which resembles her own.  The second coincidence is that, besides her fashionable accessory, Austin has offered her yet another way to gain attention.  This October 8, Carrier has the honor of showing her work as a semifinalist at the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series, in partnership with Hip Hop mogul Russell Simmons and brother Danny Simmons for the RUSH Philanthropic Arts Foundation.

She will finish the month strong, as her New Tribe collection will be showing from October 29-December 17 at the Houston Museum of African American Culture’s (HMAAC) Bert Long Gallery.  Much to the satisfaction of Community Artists’ Collective  Executive Director Michelle Barnes, she has topped off a successful fall season as our featured artist of the month, represented at the Texas Contemporary Art Fair earlier this month.  A longtime mentee of Barnes, Carrier paints a picture (no pun intended) of her as an artistic saint who exudes the love and humanity Carrier herself wishes to portray through her art.  When asked how Barnes became one of her most spiritual inspirations, she speaks softly, saying, “I’ve never seen her any other way than being a light.  I hope to look like her one day.”  Carrier, by virtue and spirit, though, has already begun to emulate her mentor, by letting her spiritual “light” shine through her art.  In all of her years of pursuing and persevering through art, she says, “My faith drives me past the time I’m exhausted or want to quit.”   Carrier’s creative evolution speaks to the importance of choosing not to quit, only pausing as the bell tower sounds.