Inspired by the Muppets and Keith Haring, illustrator Barry Lee uses joyful imagery to spread powerful messages
“I make things that I feel need to be said”: the Atlanta-based artist often uses his exuberant work to platform the experiences of queer and disabled people.
- Jenny Brewer
- 16 September 2021
Illustrator Barry Lee was born with Nager’s Syndrome, which resulted in them having numerous surgeries as a child to improve their mobility; and is deaf, relying on a hearing aid to communicate with others. So, when Barry was young, he says he “used drawing as an escape. Art became a form of healing for me.” They recall starting to draw at the age of three, mainly copying what they saw on TV, for example the Muppets – which still influence Barry’s distinctive characters today, particularly their noses and colourful faces. Growing up, he began to use art to communicate his own personal stories and feelings as a disabled person. “This was extremely cathartic,” Barry tells It’s Nice That. “Art has and always will be a refuge for me.” And while today his practice isn’t always about disability or queer identity – sometimes it’s simply about “flowers, dogs and fun characters for the sake of doing just that” – these themes often nevertheless “sneak in... because these are facets of myself”.
Barry’s work is exuberant, energetic and vivid, featuring his signature faces with enlarged, defined noses, and poignant phrases, as well as multicoloured stars that fill every inch of negative space. They developed their style through play and experimentation – “I took a mesh of things I loved and put them into a blender to create something that was uniquely me,” they describe, citing nature, music, time with loved ones, and “bad movies” as their inspirations. From a young age, Barry also looked to the work of Keith Haring, which he says “awakened me to the notion that art could be openly queer.”.
The combined joyfulness and thought in the work has attracted a huge, loyal and vocal online following, but the artist often uses this sunny feel to draw attention to important messages. “If you look deeper into it, the ‘joy’ is simply an alarm for you to pay more attention and look into the intention of my work,” Barry says. A prime example is I’s on U, a mural he created in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. Depicting a crowd of recognisable characters that reoccur throughout the artist's work – some with multiple eyes – on a surface level, this is a cheery mural but it actually portrays a disgraceful reality. “For me it represents being stared at, as a disabled person, something I navigate regularly being born with a facial disfigurement.” The mural seeks to convey how some people are discreet and others not so much, when “gawking” at others, with some eyes blending in and others standing out; and its size shows that “while some may try to hide their staring or laughing, they are still sensed by the viewer,” Barry says.
While his bread and butter is editorial work and murals, the illustrations on Barry’s social media depend on what the artist feels “called” to share with others. Sometimes it takes the form of an illustrated message, other times an illustration with a corresponding video elaborating on the subject. Largely these focus on disability and accessibility awareness, an attempt to encourage others to be inclusive of disabled people when posting. “Even as a disabled person I’m still learning about new ways to make my work accessible on social media,” they say, including image descriptions in captions, and captioning videos to make sure everyone can digest his work. “Social media is instant but accessibility is not,” Barry states, “which is frustrating, but if we as artists and creators take the time and intention of creating more accessible content, it makes sure we are actually inclusive.”
On his loyal followers, Barry says he is “thankful and amazed” to see how it continually resonates with people. “My work for social media is very rooted in my own intuition, so if I get inklings to say or draw something, I do so. I don’t make things to ‘gain followers’ – I make things that I feel need to be said. If people resonate with it, great! If people don’t and they unfollow me, great! We don’t resonate with everything and there are moments in my own life where I love an artist for a moment but then no longer resonate with their work. There are times, too, where I am so disenchanted by social media, as I think many artists can be; but I have to ground myself with the knowledge that those who need to see the work I create, will see it. I continue to get affirmations of that.”