Father, daughter join forces for ‘The Secret Garden’Silk painter Lee Zimmerman proceeded cautiously when he was deciding whether or not to help out with “The Secret Garden.”
Duluth artist Lee Zimmerman proceeded cautiously when he was deciding whether or not to help out with “The Secret Garden.”
Why? The Playhouse’s adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 100-year-old tale was originally only going to feature the talents of one Zimmerman: his daughter, Kier. The actress who wowed audiences as a psychopathic child in “Bad Seed” two years ago — if you missed it, News Tribune theater critic Lawrance Bernabo said her “chilling plasticine smile literally brought gasps from the opening night Playhouse audience” — was all set to shine as orphan Mary Lennox when … Dad butted in.
“The director (Julie Ahasey) kept mentioning over and over again how she really wanted the garden to be part of the production, and I have this very unique skill where I do live silk painting,
often as part of orchestra concerts,” Lee explained to the Budgeteer, his daughter sitting right next to the him at the interview table. “… So, I kind of offered that to Julie.”
At this, the New Orleans-born Kier flashed him a look, to which he responded: “After getting permission from my daughter, because it is her play … right?”
Following an affirmative smile from his daughter, Lee continued explaining his particular way of painting, which is good to know, because he may be the only one on the entire planet doing it in such a manner.
“I paint on pieces of silk with dyes, and the unique thing about it is I am behind the silk painting,” he said. “When I paint with the dyes, they show up on the other side, so the audience can see it happening.”
Lee’s singular approach to art, which he has successfully showcased as far away as the United Kingdom, will be put to the test at the Playhouse.
“Normally I work with one painting, but now I’m bringing up five at the same time,” he said of his “Secret Garden” pieces, which will measure 8 feet tall and nearly 5 wide.
Also a challenge? They’re not static works.
“I won’t paint them until the music is going, so, from blank, the audience will see a winter garden, and then it will move to spring and then explode into summer,” said Lee, who called the live “Garden” performances the biggest thing he’s ever attempted to do. “It’s
choreographed so that, at certain points in the piece, what’s happening onstage will tie in with what’s happening in the background. I’m not just out there painting randomly — though it may look like that sometimes. [Laughs]
“I don’t think there’s any production anywhere that has done something like this.”
As smoothly as Lee’s pieces will most likely come together during the “Secret Garden” performances, Kier was kind enough to dish a little behind-the-scenes dirt to the Budgeteer: “You should’ve seen him the first day of practice,” she said with a smile. “He was having a nervous breakdown. It was funny.”
Lee confirmed his daughter’s inner-circle revelations of first-day jitters.
“They started me on Monday, so I was just racing, trying to figure out how to get things and where to go,” he said. “I figured out how to coordinate it, because the trick is making sure the right things come up when they do things on the stage and coordinating my movement so that all of the paintings kind of come up at the same time — without me running back and forth looking like a crazy person.
“From the audience’s point of view, that is, because I am running back and forth like a crazy person.”
Joking aside, Lee said the musical version of “The Secret Garden” really amplifies the message of its source material. If you’re unfamiliar with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s text, it’s about a recently orphaned girl — whom Kier lovingly refers to as “a little brat” — who goes to live with her widow uncle.
“What the story is really about is growth and healing, and the garden is really a metaphor for that,” Lee explained. “So, through the process of the play, not only does the little girl grow but she heals the whole family. … It really has some strong messages. It’s a lot deeper and more reaffirming than a lot of musicals.”
Lee, a former oil painter, said he stumbled upon utilizing silk as a canvas.
“Something about it meshed with the way I think,” he said. “With the silk, you can get really intense colors if you want to, and you can also pull back and get the muted colors. There’s a very wide dynamic range, and the end result has a very sensuous touch. All of those things hit something in me.”
Another extraordinary component of this story is that Lee actually holds a doctorate in electrical engineering. He’s probably one of the last people you’d expect to pioneer such a unique approach to painting.
“I came to it in a weird way — I don’t know if you want to hear the whole story” he began, pausing briefly to address another classic look from Kier: “She’s laughing at me.”
Lee, trying to contain his laughter, continued by saying that his main focus was studying computer vision and trying to build machines that see the way we do.
“As a result, I ended up doing a lot of work in experimental psychology and neurophysiology, trying to understand how we see,” he said. “So I came at it from trying to understand how we see, but I basically [gave up on] trying to understand and now I just try to do the art.”
And, as far as unique distinctions go, it’s paid off in kind for Zimmerman.
“I’m very famous among silk painters in the world,” he said with a laugh. “Among a very small group of people, I’m very famous.
“So, yeah, it’s kind of a weird skill I’ve developed, and it’s sort of getting around.”
To get a better idea of what Zimmerman is capable of, peruse the many video clips uploaded to www.duluthartists.org/zimmerman.html.
NEWS TO USE
“The Secret Garden,” a family musical, will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays (and select Saturdays) through March 7 at the Playhouse. Cost is $23 for adults, $21 for seniors, $15 for youth and students and $19 for groups of 15 or more. Call 733-7555 for tickets.