Words by Tracy Nicholson
Photography by M. Schleif Photography
Logo and behind the scenes photos by Kylee and Christian Creative, Lauren Krysti

In 2016, Fargo native Anna Lee said goodbye to her St. Paul abode and moved back to the area, leaving behind a plethora of accomplishments in her wake. Since her college days at MSUM and NDSU, she had spent 16 years working in the fashion industry in various capacities, ranging from independent start-ups to a major retailer. Beyond the corporate world, she had spearheaded a non-profit which laid the foundation for a thriving independent fashion community and industry in Minneapolis/Saint Paul, and developed her line of hats and accessories. Today, Lee with her company Workerby (pronounced worker-bee), has taken over an 800 square-foot studio near the Red River in Moorhead. This is the space and place that would help her to redefine her artistry and rediscover community. With a renewed purpose that’s taken her back to her roots and ultimately, her love of abstract painting, Lee would find brilliance between the lines with her exhibit “Homecoming”, now on display at Luna in South Fargo.

Lee’s work as an artist and expert in product design and development in fashion and accessories, has allowed her to live a life that has taken her around the world. Both large corporations and independent companies readily embraced her technical skills and ability to blend them with creative vision.

After spending much of her life working amidst the fast pace of fashion and manufacturing, Lee had begun to feel lethargic and less enthused about the role that had once inspired her. Upon reconnecting with an old friend in her hometown of Fargo, it seemed that finding love and planting new roots was just be the inspiration she was missing.

At the Heart of Art
One year before making the decision to return to Fargo-Moorhead, Lee founded her company Workerby, with a vision to remotely continue her work in product design and development. “I knew that I was going to be living here – it’s something that would allow me to maintain my career and grow it in ways that I really wanted to and still be located in the same city as my partner and his kids,” said Lee. “Getting to know them was really important to me, instead of being off in another city. I can create all I want, but without that connection to the people I really care about, it’s a lot more difficult.” Although Lee experienced a fair share of challenges in her transition, she quickly adjusted her perspective and embraced her roots.

Two years after moving back to her hometown, Lee has found her place in life again and rebuilt the community that surrounds and supports her. Working out of her Moorhead studio, she still manages product design for global manufacturing and retail clients, but being able to be near the people she loves has helped her creative energy flourish. She’s also still producing Ruby3, the celebrated brand of hats that she has been handcrafting for nearly two decades.
The Homecoming
“Around the time I started getting ready to move back to Fargo, I started painting again – but it was coming out in these abstract paintings that were unlike anything else I’d ever done; I was painting my emotions,” said Lee. “I was trying to get in touch with my emotions, but I didn’t have words for them. It wasn’t as if I was just angry, it was just a time that I was trying to synthesize a lot of different things.””When I moved to Minneapolis in my 20s, I thought ‘OK, now these are my people’. So many opportunities, so much possibility, so many like-minded people. Now that I have returned home, I realize that these are my people too,” said Lee. “By some miracle, I am painting again after over a decade. I am making prettier pictures than ever, but now I have plenty to say. For the first time in ages, I am creating because I can’t not create. I am back on the soil I was planted in, and here I am being me.”

Pull Quote
“For the first time in ages, I am creating because I can’t not create.”
Anna Lee, Workerby

Collective Creativity
Pointing to a styled photo of a model with an abstract painting backdrop, Lee explained that the piece behind her is from the debut Gray Matter collection. To give it new life, she decided to ‘chop it up’. “The interesting thing about that painting is that the foundation of it was a piece of art that I made 20 years ago,” said Lee. “Something I’ve been doing is going over a lot of my old art and ridding it of any preciousness and turning it into something new.”

With the idea of projecting healing powers into her art, Lee has found solace in developing a series she refers to as “Collective Paintings”. These paintings are created as a whole but are meant to be given or purchased as individual, mini abstracts. “We all have individual contributions to the greater whole. I use my art to make one big statement and everybody pulls a different piece of it for his or her own, something that makes sense to them,” explained Lee. “Recently, I did two larger canvases and gave them to a bride and groom – so it was one painting together, but two separate canvases. They had the paintings up during their reception, then they were able to give prints of the art to the wedding party. I also recently made a painting that I turned into a textile that is being used in a wedding dress. So, the painting itself was a gift to the bride, then the fabric is being used in her dress.”

Art + Fashion
For Lee, bridging the gap between art and fashion meant finding purpose in the middle ground. “Growing up in this area, I kind of had this inherent need for art to be functional so I always had this inner turmoil about just making pretty things,” explained Lee. “Now, as I start to develop more intention with my work and different directions, to me, the beauty of the work is what draws people in and the intention is the function or message of whatever collection I’m putting together.”

Embracing the Middle Ground
Two years ago, Lee ventured to Australia to hone her craft of millinery at a conference where she would learn new techniques in design. While searching social news feeds back home, she would come across a tragic event that would change the course of her craft. This was the week of the Philando Castile shooting and she was watching it unfold from two hemispheres away.As she scrolled through the endless feeds, she was struck with people’s raw emotion response and a backlash that she struggled to understand. “It broke my heart. One thing that was really shocking and frustrating to me was that there was an argument about whether it was a tragedy or not. It just hit me that we are so polarized that there is so little that we can agree on; something that’s clearly a tragedy seems to polarize people even further and that should not be the case,” said Lee. “What’s actually going to bring us together? How do we find the middle ground?”

Gray Matter Series
Focusing on channeling her emotions, Lee withdrew into her work. Trying to perfect her free-form techniques using felt, she began to notice that its design was emulating what she explained as “brain-like” ripples. “It all just came together in this moment of finding the gray in between black and white,” said Lee. “It was turning into this gray matter of a brain – so that’s how my Gray Matter Series collection began. It was created to start a conversation about finding the middle ground – because I knew it was bigger than this event, however tragic it was. I blocked this hat during the same conference and it took just under a year to figure out exactly what to do with it.”

Symbolic Revolution
Last year, she would find its purpose when The Rourke Art Museum held a Midwestern Invitational with a ‘Revolution’ theme. This exhibit was the platform Lee needed to expose the community to the conversation behind the Gray Matter Series of hats. “This was a type of headdress that was worn in pre-revolution Russia that denoted a female’s status. You wouldn’t think it was a revolution piece by looking at it, but the underpainting is basically my rage – I painted over that rage and vulnerable emotion in yellow, which represented her shield,” explained Lee.

After the invitational, Lee would take her collection of hats away from the canvas but carry the billowing, yellow fabric within them as a continuing symbol of the tragedy, her responsive rage and ultimately, her shield. As a self-taught milliner, this would mark her first attempt at marrying her painting and her textile design.

Artistic Collaboration
Representing one of the first Gray Matter Series collaborations before returning to Fargo, Lee’s studio displays 12 Kentucky Derby-inspired fascinators and hats she designed with Kentucky-born illustrator, Allegra Lockstadt. Each hat was created to capture the essence of one of the past Triple Crown Winners, paired with a hand-drawn illustration of the horse and jockey. To complete this project, entitled A Horse of a Different Color: Triple Crown Winners, Lee worked closely with a team of talent, including photographer Lauren Krysti, model Carla Alexandra Rodriguez and stylists Fatima Olive and Catlin Westin.

Dismantling Janteloven
For Lee, the  Gray Matter Series would evolve into a hat collection, a film, and a 50-piece painting inspired by the Law of Jante, a concept that author and performer Kari Tauring had once told her about. “There are ten unspoken rules in the Law of Jante (Janteloven) in Scandinavian communities.” You’re not to think you are anything special. You’re not to think you’re as good as us. You’re not to think you are smarter than us. You’re not to convince yourself you are better than us…and the list goes on.

“It was meant to keep us humble as a community, but instead it keeps us bound by the limitations of our surroundings. This work of art encourages conversation, awareness, and a new thought when it comes to supporting the individual and their unique contributions to a vibrant, inclusive and thriving community.”

In an effort to evolve the dynamic, the following words were painted on the foundation of this painting, made possible by the support of The Arts Partnership:

“We are special. We are all good. We are brilliant and are imagining an inspiring future where all can thrive. We benefit from new ideas an innovations in our communities. We each have important contributions to make. We can find humor in the human experience and in ourselves. We are all cared for and cherished for who we are. We each have knowledge and stories to share. We can be seen for who we are. We can see others for who they are.”

Sense of Place
After the debut collection, Lee would go on to create a more whimsical collection entitled, Sense of Place. The painting and hat collection is inspired by time spent with her sister and niece on Long Island, New York.

Lee’s series of ocean-inspired paintings evolved into a grant from The Arts Partnership to create scarves from her artwork, helping her to build up her textile skills. “I had four prints in four sizes. I sold those along with the hats and two custom lipsticks, Ruby and Rosa, that I developed with the cosmetics company Elixery. Rosa’s the name of my niece.”

Sense of Self
Gathering her observations, Lee struck another note in her Gray Matter Series: Sense of Self. “Sense of Self is about the heroine’s journey or another take on the hero’s journey, a natural story arc for a lot of mythologies, movies and action-adventures,” explained Lee. With this collection, she would analyze the anatomy of her mind, learning to portray humans for what they are – a constant process of deconstruction and reconstruction.

Musical Muses
As Lee dissected the process, she listened to the appropriately titled, Deconstruction by The Eels. This is the song she is working to gain copyright on to use as the backdrop for her four-minute film which she wrote and directed. “I think this process is something that everyone can connect to –  she is trying so hard to pull it together and the chaos is overwhelming,” explained Lee regarding her film. “But it doesn’t have to be if we understand what is happening, and how to seek what we truly need.” For Lee, it’s about falling apart and rebuilding stronger, taking away the stigma of struggle and mental health – reintroducing this chaos as simply part of being human where it’s encouraged to seek help from those around us.

“There’s a natural progression of dismantling all of the things that you think are you, but don’t feel like they are – then consciously rebuilding who you are. My goal for this next project is to start building a conversation around the deconstruction and reconstruction of our lives as a natural process where we can ask for help and support others.”

Purpose + Perfection
Throughout every collection, Lee continues to build on the idea of merging fashion and art as well as product with a purpose. “Color and shape and emotions are what draw people in,” said Lee. “In the past, those are things that I would have tried to use to build a perfect portrait, but now I just want to express an emotion and a feeling and see if people connect with that. Instead of trying to make things perfect, I’m just trying to make things real – finding perfection within that, wherever I can.”

Launching with Luna
Although one collective painting from the latest collection is already on display at Luna in Fargo, her official launch for the Sense of Self film and hat collection will be on September 8 in Minneapolis and September 15 at Luna. The location is meaningful to Lee; the last solo show she created was in 1997, also at Luna. This time, her solo show will be entitled ‘Homecoming’.

Speaking Out
During the artist’s talk, Lee will debut her film and speak regarding the concept of deconstruction and reconstruction, investigating the role of the heroine’s journey, its impact on our mental health and our ability to connect. The film and photographs feature the AW2018 collection of one-of-a-kind Ruby3 hats, two 25-piece “collective” paintings, two digitally printed scarves derived from these paintings, and two custom lipstick colors from the Elixery.

“An artist talk will feature a panel discussion with women in the community who are doing the work to keep us connected, empowered, and engaged with the work that needs to be done to deepen our Sense of Self, while establishing that we are not alone on our respective journeys,” explained Lee.

“September is Suicide Awareness month, so a portion of my sales from the show will go to NAMI Minnesota; the National Alliance for Mental Illness. For me, this is really about using art for a cause, but it’s also my business, so I am selling the work, but I’m doing it in a way that I can keep doing the work,” said Lee.

Meet the Artist: Anna Lee
Whether you want to have an extraordinary culinary experience amongst fine art, learn about Lee’s artistic process, or help donate to a worthy cause – Lee’s show, entitled ‘Homecoming’, is a must-see for those in search of a more beautiful middle ground.

“Homecoming” Exhibit 

Artist Talk and Gray Matter Series Launch: September 15, 2018
1:00 p.m – 3:00 p.m.
Luna Fargo –
1545 South University Drive, Fargo


The Gray Matter Series is concurrent with Lee’s show, “Homecoming” running through September 29 at Luna. The event is free and open to the public. 

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