From the Court to the Canvas: Inside Courtney Lee’s Unique Art Tour in NYC

(Photo by Theodora Johnson)

“Sheez.”

That was Courtney Lee’s reaction when Gardy St. Fleur, an art advisor to pro athletes, told him that a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat could sell for $65 million on May 18 at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction. That would break the current record for a Basquiat at $54 million.

Sitting in the middle row of a black Chevrolet Suburban driving through New York City, Lee had a follow-up question for St. Fleur.

Lee: “If Basquiat took one for $54 million, what’s the most a Picasso would go for?”

St. Fleur: “Like $100, $150 million—up to $179 million, which is the record.”

Lee: “It’s obscene. You’re super breaded up if you’ve got that much to spend on one piece. You put it in a vault.”

And so began the biggest introduction for Lee—a former graphic design major at Western Kentucky who used to sketch cartoon characters, like Bugs Bunny, and create sneakers for them—to the culture and business of the art world. On a sunny, 74-degree day in mid-April, the Knicks’ starting shooting guard ventured into Brooklyn’s rich art scene, to learn about the industry as a more curious collector with wanting to buy pieces for his new house coming in September in Winter Park, Fla. “I’m bringing Miami to Winter Park,” he said.

Accompanied by his agent, James Dunleavy, Lee had the rare opportunity to tour the personal studios of two well-known artists who’ve exhibited worldwide: figurative abstract painter Nathaniel Mary Quinn and surrealist painter Tim Okamura. St. Fleur, who’s worked with Bismack Biyombo, Ronnie Price, Amar’e Stoudemire, P.J. Tucker, Deron Williams and Justise Winslow, arranged the visits with the NBPA.

“My mission is to always get an athlete to be in the same space with the artist to understand why he or she does this type of work,” said St. Fleur, who received a master’s degree in art administration from NYU, and has a background in art history and business. “The focus is not on the object, but on the artist’s process, thinking, research and view on society.”

Afterward, Lee said, “One of the best experiences I’ve had since being in the NBA.”

Here’s an inside look at his unique four-hour journey (with photos by Theodora Johnson):

 

4 p.m., pickup at Madison Square Garden

Lee arrived with two main questions for St. Fleur: how does an up-and-coming artist build a reputation and what is the right price for a piece?

The night before over dinner at Carbone in NYC, Lee was saying that if something catches his eye, he wants it regardless if the artist is famous or not. But a fellow art enthusiast at the table said that’s a “hypebeast mentality.” So the following day, Lee was searching for some answers, which is where St. Fleur has assisted other NBA players who’ve had a heightened interest in art for its fashion and lifestyle connection, social media presence and future sale potential.

“If somebody that’s not known and just doing it as their own hustle, and if he has something that catches my eye, is that piece even something that’s worth getting? Will it be valuable?” Lee asked.

“That’s the tricky part,” St. Fleur responded. “First, you’ve got to love it.”

Starting off their drive to Brooklyn, St. Fleur gave Lee the catalog from the “I Like It Like This S|2 x Drake” NYC art show in 2015 to teach him about established artists.

“See, that’s the thing—I’ve got to get familiar with the artists’ names and their work because right now I’m lacking that,” Lee said.

Courtney Lee and Gardy St. Fleur.

St. Fleur told Lee that there are two types of markets—primary (artists and galleries) and secondary (private sales and auction houses)—and stressed the importance of buying artwork that you enjoy at a comfortable price point for the possibility of a financial gain. That’s why some collectors focus on students from the world’s most prestigious art universities.

“Getting a piece from a student artist for $1,500 makes more sense,” St. Fleur said. “Those are cheaper priced, but the odd of them growing is way more. These artists are not going to school just to get an art degree. I know they’re going to push themselves. The institutions are going to be there to support them as well.”

Lee recognizes the impact of an art investment.

“That’s always a benefit,” he said. “That’s always a plus, like if you get tired of something or if you can sell it.”

Without realizing it, Lee learned that he already has pieces of higher value: five Be@rbricks by the pop artist Kaws that he purchased this year for their color schemes.

“You bought it early,” St. Fleur said. “What you have he’s not making anymore.”

Lee likes Kaws so much that he envisions his four-foot special-edition Be@rbricks—like those depicting The Smurfs and SpongeBob SquarePants—next to the floating staircase in his new house, with an 80″ x 80″ print from the artist behind the toy figurines. He also admires the world-famous Mr. Brainwash. In fact, after his trainer, Gunnar Peterson, gave him his phone number, Lee has been texting with the artist to discuss a personal piece. “But I don’t want to spend $40,000 for one,” he said.

In general, Lee is drawn to abstract art and he mostly uses Instagram to view different pieces. And in his first season in NYC, he discovered Carmelo Anthony’s collection featuring street art from Brazil and photographs of Africa and its native elephants by Nick Brandt. Most of Lee’s pieces are from local artists in Orlando, where he started his NBA career in 2008 and went to a few shows downtown.

Lee also wanted to know who sets the prices for pieces (“Collectors and institutions,” St. Fleur said), how long an artist’s show is typically (“1-3 months”) and how to buy a painting an artist is working on (“Established emerging artists have high demand and there’s a waiting list”).

Hearing all about Lee’s growing appreciation for art, St. Fleur made him aware of where it could lead to one day beyond a big sale: a traveling collection in museums, which is what Grant Hill had across the U.S. In addition, Darrell Walker, Lenny Wilkens and Elliot Perry built standout collections after educating themselves and reading books on the industry.

“I’m trying to become a collector, learning more about it,” Lee said. “You get a couple dope pieces and you put them in your house, and it just changes the element of your house. It becomes a focal point.”

 

5 p.m., Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood

Lee entered the apartment of the first artist, Quinn, tricked by what he saw in his first-floor art studio.

“It’s crazy because it does look like it’s different pieces put on there,” Lee told Quinn, peering at the different paintings.

“Everyone says that—even when they see it in the flesh,” Quinn responded, smiling. “They’re still not convinced on some level.”

So Lee wanted to know, “Are you telling a story?”

Lee and Nathaniel Mary Quinn.

The led to a demonstration from Quinn, showcasing his unique style that explores the complexities of the human identity, which transcends race. “Skin color doesn’t make you impervious to pain,” he said. Growing up in a housing project in the South Side of Chicago, his mother passed away when he was 15 and the following month, he came home one day to an empty apartment and hasn’t seen his family since.

Separation and abandonment issues fueled his artwork, and continuing to live with that feeling of loss creates different images in his head from his upbringing. From photographs he has around his apartment of different human and animal looks and expressions, he draws inspiration to paint individual body parts that lead to a creative depiction of a person—usually someone he knew when he was younger.

But his way of layering the colors together involves painting a body part, covering it with paper so he doesn’t see it again and then painting another body part around it. That pattern makes up his 32″ x 32″ disfigured portraits ($8,000 and up), where each section looks like a photograph pasted on, which Lee initially thought. Instead, Quinn uses top-shelf oil pastels and black charcoal, his main material.

“Of course, no human being looks like this,” Quinn said. “But it’s not about if it looks like you; it represents a part of your personality. Human identity is a combination of moving parts, so you get all these different experiences that’s building your identity. I want to paint the honest, true person.”

Lee also learned that Quinn’s process is similar to how he plays instinctively on the court.

“You’re just in the moment,” said Quinn, whose first solo show in NYC is ongoing at Half Gallery. “And when you’re in that moment, you can make certain moves and decisions without actually being consciously aware of it. My art process is very similar. I just let it happen. I let the work tell me what it is.”

“I was just taking it all in,” Lee said afterward. “That was just unique—watching him just give us an example and doing it on the fly like that. That was my first time actually meeting an artist like that.”

Lee was also curious about how long a piece takes. “Four days, 12 hours a day, with 15-minute breaks,” said Quinn, who works out in the early morning. In fact, he has weights in his art studio. Lee also wanted to know if museums pay, and he found a connection in the artist’s answer.

“Nah, you don’t get paid,” said Quinn, who has commissioned individual pieces for Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams. “The curator is the person who puts the show together. But it all starts initially with the work if people really believe in your work. And then it’s the kind of people who are buying the work, like Beth Rudin DeWoody, who’s on the board of the Whitney Museum [of American Art]. And people see that.”

“It’s like in college if one team may be discussing, ‘This player’s got potential.’ And then the next guy sitting next to him won’t mark him down,” Lee said. “That’s how you blow up or not and you get on these NBA draft boards. It’s the same thing.”

“Same thing,” Quinn said.

From there, the two talented artists in their own right—one with creativity on the court, the other with creativity on the canvas—got into a spirited conversation about Lee’s NBA life and how both of their careers took off unexpectedly. Quinn marveled at Lee mentioning his 40-inch vertical leap, even bringing out a tape measure to see how high that really is off the ground. “Wow!” Quinn said. “That’s insane.”

And Quinn wanted to know, “What was the draft like?”

Lee called it a “crazy feeling,” never thinking he’d be in the NBA when he first set foot at Western Kentucky. He brought the experience back to art, and Quinn had a relatable thought.

“It’s hard to describe, but once you got your piece in that museum and your career took off, it’s like all the hard work, all the suffering, everything, it’s just paying off now,” he said.

“That gives me a lot of joy to think about that—to think I was abandoned,” Quinn said. “Now, I’ll be forever remembered because my works are in the permanent collection of major museums. It’s been exciting to go from a no-name really, just non-existent, to being a surreal dream come true.”

As Lee started riding to the second stop, he looked back at Quinn’s apartment building in awe.

“It’s crazy just looking at the neighborhood, you’d never think that an artist is inside creating masterpieces,” he said. “That was a great experience—his artwork, of course, but his energy, the realness about him.”

 

6 p.m., Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood

Lee had a different thought entering Okamura’s apartment and walking to the back room, where his art studio is located. He was inquisitive about the many portraits of black women, including one of two ladies that was about nine-feet high and took up the center wall of the space.

Okamura explained that growing up in Edmonton, Canada, where his solo show “Begin Transmission” opens on May 25 at the Peter Robertson Gallery, he had a “ragtag crew” of friends from Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and other places. And when he moved to NYC in 1991, while dating some black women, his artwork represented what he was drawn to in his life.

“People would start saying, ‘How can you paint this if you’re not black woman?'” he said. “But the more the work has been seen over the last 10 years or so, that’s become a very conceptual thing for people for me to do a portrait that’s representative of black women in a very positive, uplifting and respectful light, especially in the U.S. with the history of this country.”

Lee and Tim Okamura.

Lee was blown away by the authenticity of the portraits that start at $8,000 each.

“It’s amazing how realistic they look,” he said. “It’s crazy that when you look at the painting from a distance, you don’t really see the texture popping out. The closer you get, it’s real. The attention to detail is crazy.”

Lee then asked, “When you’re working and you’re getting closer to being almost done, is it a feeling?”

“Yeah,” Okamura said. “Sometimes you have an idea in your mind, and something sort of comes up that is more organic, like, ‘Let me just let that be.’ But it’s totally your gut. Sometimes you think you are going to do more, but it’s going to be better to not go that far to leave that sort of raw energy.”

Okamura described to Lee his creative process, where first the models pose in his studio. Most are ones who e-mail him. Then he starts a painting with the face. “It’s an energy to keep going,” he said. His materials feature oil and a little bit of acrylic because it dries fast, and for the hair he’ll add wax to the paint to give it a more realistic look.

Okamura noted the special quality of Lee stopping by his studio.

“It’s great for you to see the work,” he said. “That’s one of the things with Instagram—people never get that part of it. You get a completely different experience when people are life-sized.”

With Lee’s visit in mind, Okamura also discussed the shift of more art into sports and hip-hop. He talked about how rapper Swizz Beatz has been a leader in the field, from first buying Andy Warhol prints as a teenager to now hosting shows at prominent fairs like Miami’s Art Basel. From there, Jay Z got into art, even writing a song called “Picasso Baby,” and with social media playing a big role, more and more musicians and athletes became interested.

“It’s been cool to see,” Okamura said. “I feel like it’s kind of flipped over the last few years.”

L to R: Okamura, James Dunleavy, Lee and St. Fleur.

Being that Lee’s music idol is Tupac Shakur, who he regularly posts on his Instagram account with motivational messages, he had a creative spin on a piece looking at one of Okamura’s.

“Where it says ‘Keep Ya Head Up,’ the first thing that popped in my mind was, like, ‘He could put Tupac’s face on there with the lyrics like that behind it,'” Lee said. “It would be so dope.”

Looking ahead, Okamura will be working on a portrait series of black players in the NHL, with the goal of opening at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, and having a portion of the proceeds go to the Ice Hockey in Harlem non-profit organization.

And one day soon he could also be painting a portrait for Lee—of his daughter.

“It’s dope that when you come in here you see a lot of African-American women,” he said. “I have a 14-month, so when she gets a little older and her face fills up, I’m definitely going to get something done on her.”

Heading back to Manhattan for a dinner at Tao Downtown that evening, Lee was moved by how both artists touched on racism—Quinn saying we all feel pain the same way and Okamura saying race is normal to him and his friends.

“Overall, it was a dope experience. Both stops,” Lee said. “Two different artists, two different styles, but just hearing their explanation of their artwork and why they do it and what motivates them is just dope. You can always translate that into thinking of yourself and what motivates you in your life. I really enjoyed it. That’s one of the coolest things I’ve done since I’ve been in the NBA.”

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