SOLON, Ohio — Beauty matters to sculptor Charlotte Lees, and her goal is to create lasting images that connect people to their surroundings.
“At this stage of my life, and especially for the past 15 years, it’s the nature and beauty around us that inspire me,” Lees said in an interview at her Solon home, where she has lived for 55 years. “We all need something to cool us down and to be thankful about.”
Many in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood are thankful for the public art sculpture, titled “Our Place,” that Lees created in conjunction with the $1.2 million renovation of Mark Tromba Park. The powder-coated aluminum sculpture, located at the confluence of the park’s walkways, was dedicated Sept. 21 as part of a ribbon-cutting ceremony to commemorate the renovation.
Lees, a lifelong Clevelander who has been a working artist for more than 40 years, said this marked the first time that one of her sculptures has been dedicated at a city park in Cleveland.
Another public art sculpture by Lees, “Side by Side,” is located in a pocket park in the Harrison West neighborhood of Columbus.
“It was very nice that people came up to me and said they really liked (‘Our Place’) and that they felt it was of value to the area,” she says. “The family of Mark Tromba was there during the dedication, and they came up and said how pleased they were with this whole renovation and the artwork.”
Because the sculpture is near a playground in the park, Lees said she wanted it to be symbolic of a place where children come to play.
“I wanted it to be a joyful piece, and it looks very much like sunshine,” she says, noting its yellow-maize color. “It’s very bright and quite a focal point.”
“Our Place” features the words “dream,” “love” and “family” on one side and “pride,” “success” and “unite” on the other. It also includes images of a school, a church and railroad tracks — all of which tie in with the Collinwood neighborhood — as well as children’s activities.
“I did some research, drove around the area, took a lot of photographs, then came home and started creating ideas, and eventually the concept developed,” Lees says.
The sculpture — which stands 7 feet tall, 7 feet wide and 6 feet deep — took about two years to complete, Lees says.
“When I was commissioned, they hadn’t started the renovation of the park,” she says. “But that’s the way you should do it. You should have the artwork planned and included in the architectural design so that it’s an integrated piece.”
LAND (Landscape Arts Neighborhood Development) Studio of Cleveland, a nonprofit organization focusing on Cleveland’s public spaces, facilitated the art project with the City of Cleveland. It was funded by the City of Cleveland Public Art Program.
“My work is a result of state funds to revive the parks,” Lees says.
Lees said she worked with LAND, the city and Platform Contracting, the contractor for the renovation, to coordinate various aspects of the project.
Many of Lees’ freestanding and wall-mounted sculptures are related to and influenced by nature. Since she lives on wooded property, trees have become the perfect material for her images.
“We get a lot of natural wildlife, and the park (South Chagrin Reservation) is right down the street,” she says. “We cut down trees and I’ve had them logged, and then I produce sculptures from those.”
Lees, who grew up in Lyndhurst and is a graduate of Brush High School, started drawing in sixth grade and was trained as a painter and printmaker. She earned a bachelor’s degree in art education and studio art from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree in studio art through a dual program at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Institute of Art.
“I was not trained as a sculptor,” she says. “But I have a broad-based background (in art), which has helped me, because 90 percent of my pieces are painted. I work primarily in wood, but I also do mixed media, so I kind of draw on my foundation.”
Lees taught art for nine years at Bedford High School. She gave up teaching to raise her two daughters, then decided she wanted to try something different.
“I took a woodworking class in Chagrin Falls,” she says. “I knew nothing about carving. But I got some tools, and that was my humble beginning.”
Lees did a lot of stone carving, making figures of “beautiful women.”
“I did so many of those, I kind of burned out of that genre,” she says. “Now I do more about nature and my interpretation of man and his environment.”
Lees’ home studio is a modified room in her house, with skylights and an outside entrance.
“I really like it,” she says. “I have my public art, which is large, outside durable pieces that I work on with other people, and my private art, which I can work on in my studio and do myself.
“I’ve been working in a series, doing things that are kind of similar, maybe five or six of them, and then I move on to something different. I don’t want to repeat myself; I want to move forward.”
In 2017, Lees was the featured artist at then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s residence in Columbus. She was selected as the Ohio Online Visual Artist Registry Juror’s Choice winner in 2014 and 2018.
In April, Lees will have an exhibition of her work at the Western Reserve Land Conservancy in Moreland Hills.
“I plan on dying in my studio,” she says with a laugh. “I’m very goal oriented. I would not be happy if I didn’t have something to do.
“When I don’t have a piece of artwork on the bench, I get very anxious. So I need to have something that I can think about and go to and work on. That’s what I do. I’m an artist, and I work.”
Read more from the Chagrin Solon Sun.