The Toronto-based artist attempts to understand herself through her work
The Handbook / People / Ness Lee unfolds

Ness Lee unfolds

The Toronto-based artist attempts to understand herself through her work

Words— Jeremy Freed

On a rapidly gentrifying block of Toronto’s once-gritty east end, in the back of a former 7-11, Ness Lee is getting down to work. Sketches, half-finished canvases and ceramics in various stages of completion cover every available surface. The walls are festooned with colourful artifacts collected from her travels, paper lanterns hang from the ceiling and a giant pillow printed to resemble a baguette drapes across a chair. Amidst all of this sits Ness Lee, whose solo show, “Folding In” opened recently at Toronto’s Patel Gallery. Like most of her work, the show consists of various self-portraits of Lee’s nude body, sad-faced, stretched, folded and contorted across various media—paintings, drawings, ceramic milk pitchers and wooden benches. It’s intimate, heavy work that’s expertly balanced by Lee’s pervasive sense of humour (it’s hard to be too sad when the artist invites you to sit on a stool shaped like her head.) 

Amidst the chaos of her studio and the ongoing show, Lee took a few minutes to talk about her art and her origin story.





I love your baguette pillow.

I know! It’s hard not to sleep on it. I normally nap on that beanbag over there.


Are you a big fan of studio naps?

Oh my gosh yeah. Because I don’t really sleep, so sometimes I’ll just give in and pull out the beanbag. I’m used to not so much sleep… I worked at a hotel serving breakfast for like 10 years, and I never wanted to go to bed before midnight. So I’d go to bed after midnight, wake up and four, serve until two, and then the rest of the day do school and art stuff. So I was getting by on literally no sleep. But it was a good job.


Do you work on your art at night when you’re not sleeping?

Yeah, it’s a bit of a bad habit, but I start at midnight a lot. It’s a focus thing, really. The world is quiet, my mind is clear, and I can work.


This is such a cool space… there’s so much to look at on the walls.

You should see my apartment! [laughs] That’s where all the hoarding is. This being a 7-11 before it’s very cold and sterile, so it was like how to make this not feel like a dungeon. 





How do you pick stuff for the walls?

A lot of it is as I go around, when I travel, if something catches my eye… it’s usually something cheap and cheerful and I’ll take it with me as a token to remind me. A lot of the things are amusing, things that just bring me joy, or things that help me remember to keep it light and not be so sad all the time. You know? Just keep it jokes. I think it’s good around the art I do. 


I love that a lot of your art, like your ceramics and those seats in the new show, is functional, not just meant to be looked at from a distance.

That’s my whole reason why I do everything, but no one wants to use it! I started doing ceramics purely because I wanted to eat off the dishes, but no one wants to do it. I’m like, ‘Just eat off it, please!’


Your style is so distinct. Have you always drawn people like this?

That’s just how I’ve always drawn people, but I was also influenced by shunga, which is Japanese erotica. The lines are just so connected and well-designed. Aside from the strange pornography of it, I just think it’s very beautiful.  



"A lot of it is about me and language. I’m still living it and trying to understand what I’m making."



What kinds of art were you into growing up?

I was into anime and stuff like that, but it wasn’t like I was trying to draw like them. I wasn’t into it in that way. I just liked to draw… and with the practice of illustration and studying at OCAD, the way I draw just kind of happened. If you look at my thesis work it’s totally different.


What was that about?

My thesis was about how I can’t speak Chinese. I think that’s where all my autobiographical work started. My thesis professor encouraged me to speak this truth about not speaking Chinese, and racial tensions and assumptions that I’ve encountered growing up, and kind of being segregated within a segregated community. I grew up in Markham, where there’s a lot of different Asian communities and I naturally fell into the Chinese community, but they would all speak whatever language they spoke and excluded me in that way. I mean, they spoke English, too, but when you’re an immigrant you speak the language you came with. So it was based on that. It was weird to uncover at that time, but quite interesting to realize after the fact.





That sounds really personal.

I think it was a big part of uncovering my identity in a way, because I’m Hakka, and that’s not really an identity that acknowledged in the Chinese community. We’re indigenous to China and we were kicked out… the word Hakka literally translates to “guest people,” so we’re guests in many different countries. My parents are from India, and there’s a little community of Hakka people in India. And then my dad’s side are in Sweden and some people are in Jamaica, and all over.


What’s the idea behind the new show?

It’s called “Folding In” and it’s about kind of surrendering and accepting yourself. A lot of the works are sequential movements of folding in. That’s the premise of a lot of my work, trying to say the same thing in many different ways. It’s a language thing, because of how I grew up not being able to express myself with real language, with this show in particular I found myself trying to express what I mean by “folding in” in different mediums. And it’s trying to see how those different mediums, how differently they convey and express their own meanings. A lot of it is about me and language. I’m still living it and trying to understand what I’m making.


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