‘Building and Unbuilding The Globe’: Eric Lee’s Fascination with the Transitions of Time

Artists, Bicycle Fine Art, Feature Article

Eric Lee
Building and Unbuilding the Globe, 2009
Oil, ignited gunpowder, concrete, papers and ash on 9 canvases
Dimensions: 48 x 240 in.
*Click on image to enlarge

Experiencing Bicycle Fine Art artist Eric Lee‘s Building and Unbuilding the Globe is like stepping back in time. This epic painting visually unfurls the rich past of the Globe Elevators, a now-decrepit grain elevator located in Superior, Wisconsin. The structure stands as a remembrance of a once commercial American mecca, eroded by the footsteps of workers, surveyors, and land developers, all of whom flocked to the city seeking profit. Suspended in an expansive 20 foot wide breadth, Eric’s depiction of the Globe is emblematic of both a shifting way of life, as well as an exploration of the artist’s own personal history. While discussing Building and Unbuilding the Globe, we uncovered the fascinating story behind this ode to a building.

The structures that appear in Building and Unbuilding the Globe are modeled after a complex of three buildings which housed the pioneering grain facility Globe Elevator Co. built in Wisconsin in 1887. At the time of its construction the Globe was the largest grain elevator in the world. Situated on a thin slip jutting out onto Lake Superior, it had a highly functional system housed within a set of buildings all connected by conveyor belts. The first building, which appears in the three right panels of Eric’s painting, was the head house power plant. The other two structures, viewed sequentially stretching out across the painting’s canvas, functioned as annexes and were built as additions to accommodate the great demand in the grain trade.

The Globe was an epic project, and was constantly undergoing maintenance to combat its own risk.  The buildings were made out of timber, a dangerous and unwieldy material due to its high flammability and heavy weight. Over the course of its lifetime, the building had to be raised multiple times, as the foundation sank deeper into the marshy earth. These “patchwork” overhauls and upkeep, as Eric put it, were what drew him to the Globe years later– the structure’s mechanics, he says, “gave it a complexity that made me want to paint it.”

Partial view of Eric Lee’s Building and Unbuilding the Globe (left 3 panels)

Building and Unbuilding the Globe is segmented into nine panels and three paintings. The imagined buildings’ infrastructure connects all of the frames together, unifying the work, while at the same time each panel displays a slightly shifted setting. In one panel, you see a blue sky peeking through impressionist clouds, while in the next, a dark, gray mass swirls ominously. The building itself appears to float in mid-air, tied to the background by wisps and strokes of color, but otherwise untethered by land or a foundation of any kind. Small demarcations of the structure’s original function, such as the conveyor belt track or the company’s title scrawled on the modeled brick walls, crop up throughout the painting. Only with closer scrutiny does the modern-day creep in, marked by phone lines, cranes, and heavy machinery. However, these details are engulfed by the scale of the work, and only devoted study yields the painting’s mysteries.

There is a sense of turmoil in the piece, almost as if the factory were back up and running, but fuming too chaotically for it to be in practical use. While the central building itself appears in an uproar, the open background lets the whole work breathe. The overall effect of these components is a dynamic movement that compels the eye in a dramatic sweep across all nine panels.

Partial view of Eric Lee’s Building and Unbuilding the Globe (middle 3 panels)

Coined “America’s breadbasket” in its heyday, Wisconsin was once home to many state-of-the-art buildings such as the Globe Elevator. European tourists would come to America just to gawk at the assembly line precision of the commercial “New World,” and today you can even find traces of European influence in the architecture of these otherwise distinctly American towns. With the eyes of the world on them, port towns like Duluth, Minnesota grew into real metropolitan hubs. Now, however, golden age glories like the Globe have fallen into a state of destitution. Although Eric encountered the site as a young man long after the building ceased its original use, as an artist, he was attracted to this historical transition and what these antiquated buildings represent today. About these structures, Eric describes, “This had a lot to do with our cultural geography. This is a landmark of a time, a people, and a culture. It’s a temple to the age.” It was an interest in, as he puts it, the “gulf between then and now” that dictated both the content and form of the work. Referring to his painting and noting the relationship between each of the panels, Eric says, “it’s about the life cycle of this structure. Also, the life cycle of the city and of the entire time. The life cycle of this country too. It stands for what this country was built on.”

Eric was restless in his youth. He travelled all over the Midwest, from Colorado to Minnesota, and around his native Wisconsin. He moved 3 or 4 times a year, working, wandering, and exploring. He had initially decided to travel to the Northern Wisconsin area in order to be near his grandparents, with whom he had spent much of his early childhood. Eric first set up residence in Duluth, Minnesota, a town popular with tourists, and worked odd jobs around town. However, he became increasingly attracted to the town of Superior, Wisconsin, Duluth’s blue-collar, working class neighbor. His initial impression of Superior was that “[…] it was plain, yet intriguing.” He found Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the United States, fascinating. He was equally impressed by the striking ocean-sized ships and webs of train lines, all paired with the decline of the urban landscape. Superior’s character, history, and derelict buildings kept him there for many years, as he discovered the solemn beauty in the commercial wilderness of the town. This wilderness soon became the driving force behind Eric’s industrial paintings.

Detail of Commercial map of Superior, WI
*Noted with the Globe’s original name, the Duluth Elevator Co.

Eric Lee in his Eau Claire, Wisconsin studio, 2017

Eric would explore Superior on foot and at the library. From his initial forays into the town, he was captivated by the street names, the old shop signs, and the rich American history of the place. With a background in mechanical drafting, Eric started volunteering at the local historical society. After spending hours in the library sifting through their archives of newspaper clippings and microfiche film, he would take long walks to abandoned buildings and deserted industrial areas. With this introduction, most of Eric’s first encounters with the town structures were in the form of city plans and blueprints. He became fascinated by two kinds of maps: industrial and commercial. The industrial maps were detailed only in a practical sense. These maps would have the schemata of the streets, the waterfront with docks, and warfs bristling along the water’s edge. Their birdseye view was foreign, mysterious, and captivating. The commercial maps were used to lure tourists and new residents to the city. They advertised and exaggerated the city’s attributes across the country and the world, showcasing Midwestern towns meant to rival metropolises like New York or Chicago. Professional cartographers were hired to fly over the town in hot air balloons and capture long series of photos and quick sketches. They would then create a composite of the photos and sketches and draw in each individual house, going neighborhood to neighborhood to get the proper detailing and names of each of the streets.

These towns took pride in their factories, as they were integral to the livelihood of almost every resident in the area. As a result, the factories were also flaunted in the landscape’s plans, beautifully depicted and wonderfully over-embellished. About the maps, Eric notes, “What interested me was how these plans looked. They were perfect. They looked like fully actualized ideas, like geometry. They looked very idealized to me and I found that kind of charming in a way. I would go to these places [that were illustrated in the documents], find them 120 years later, and see traces of that original plan, that design for a new city, but find the ideas dropped and largely forgotten. There’s a gulf in time, markets, attitudes, ideals, etc. It’s a place with a very strong identity and ties to its past, but one that now lives largely without purpose. I suppose I’m talking about the consequences of obsolescence and what that means for a place and its people.”

Detail of Industrial map of Superior, WI

The Globe, Eric recalls, was drawn as just a few dashes on one of the industrial maps. It was through his study of the early construction photos and hand drawn plans of the area that he became transfixed by the building. He started personally collecting these maps and covering his walls with them, which eventually led him to explore the property on foot. He would locate a point of interest and then go out to see if he could find the spot, taking a camera with him. These snapshots became the basis for his painting, Building and Unbuilding the Globe, although, as one can see from the work, they really served as more of a jumping off point. The piece is really, as Eric says, “seen from a hundred different perspectives but just as one thing when you’re done.”

Judy Peres and David Hozza in front of
Eric Lee’s Building and Unbuilding the Globe

In 2006, when he heard the building had been bought by a non-local company who would be salvaging the Globe for its valuable reclaimed lumber, Eric applied for and received a small grant to research and document the building. He reached out to the company, and eventually became close friends with its two Chicago-based owners, Judy Peres (a former Tribune reporter) and her life partner David Hozza, who gave Eric exclusive access to the space. The pair had purchased the building as an investment, with the hopes of selling off its highly coveted, virtually untouched antique wood. According to Eric, grain elevators built during this time, such as the Globe, were comprised of so much timber that their construction required nearly an entire forest. Using a 35mm camera, Eric took hundreds of snapshots of the interior and exterior of the building. He saw the wooden steps of the interior, built from virgin timber, with footprints worn down in them from all the workers passing through. These impressions, both the intimate close-ups in the space, and his broader understanding of the historical context of the building, laid the germinating seed for what would become Building and Unbuilding The Globe.

Digital photograph by Eric Lee of the Globe, April 2009

What Eric saw in the Globe’s story was the pervasive anxiety in America and the desire for “the new” — what he defines as a “gulf and separation from history.” In comparison to European cities, Eric laments that “we’re in a hurry to get a rid of our history here.” Perhaps this consuming need for the new is the oldest tradition in America. In his opinion, “On one hand it’s considered a freeing thing. You aren’t held by a social structure. On the other hand, what do you have now? You are estranged from history. You are what you are now — It registered to me as a sort of anxiety…It’s like an identity crisis.” Many years later, after the market crashed in 2013, the building changed hands again, and Eric lost track of its transitions.

Building and Unbuilding the Globe was painted in Eric’s one car garage in Eau Claire, the Wisconsin city where he eventually settled down. It was there that the scale of the piece was made possible. Eric would work very close to the canvas, honing all of the details in his small makeshift studio. When he reached a certain point in his painting, he would go outside of the garage to see the effect of the full piece the only way he could — looking through the one window into the space. Through this process he built out the immense perspective of the work while retaining the beautiful, intricate intimacy of the surface. About the scale, Eric says, “What I was really trying for was to have a really big impact at a distance.” The painting, in fact, sprung from his fascination with the scale of the large building, offset by his obsession with the particularities of the siding. The details are the gateway into Eric’s work, allowing imaginative insight to his creative process while captivating the attention of the viewer. It is in the minutia of the piece where we find the history, the “real” story of the building: from the deterioration of the edifice, with its crumbling walls and faded signage, to its dismantling by cranes and modern tools.

Eric Lee’s Building and Unbuilding the Globe
(Painting detail 1 of 2)

From a technical point of view, Eric was drawn to the Globe’s patched corrugated steel and porcelain tiling. When he began his monumental painting, he immediately knew that he wanted to recreate it. Through his daily explorations, “I realized as I went on, the tiling had been patched up over time… and this patchwork really appealed to me, appealed to my sensibility.” While the whole painting is primarily oil-based, the detailing of the building is made from finely processed paper towel. Eric would separate out the tissue plies and gesso them onto the canvas over and over again. The material was meant to disintegrate so as to mimic the texture of the building, to be fibrous and to have surface. Since gesso is a water-based medium, Eric would incorporate an oil-based wood stain with the tissue.  The stain would have two effects: it would give it color as well as create tonal contrast. “I’m an Anselm Kiefer fan,” Eric notes. Drawing inspiration from the three-dimensional quality of Kiefer’s Neo-Expressionist paintings, Eric explains about his own process, “I was trying to find ways of texturing that I liked.” In Building and Unbuilding the Globe, Eric details, “Close up, you can see the little dimples and yet it’s sort of smooth at the same time. That’s just taking that blade and going over the paint while it’s still wet. It almost looks like hairs standing on end.” With the wood stain now absorbed into the tissue, it would act as a sealant for the gessoed plies and set them up for the painting process; Eric singed both the paper and compressed gunpowder, which was also applied to its surface.

Partial view of Eric Lee’s Building and Unbuilding the Globe (right 3 panels)

Eric thinks of the process behind the piece as a “really slow motion improvisation.” He believes that, “Compositionally, it’s a big long statement, not just a quick thing that you jot down. This would be something that you orchestrated… it’s more akin to me to writing a book or a long piece of music.” He relishes the evolving canvas, reworking the piece dynamically, a process that informs the content and style as well. Eric says, “paintings are so static, but I don’t like them that way. I want people to be able to get something from it for a long time to come… to get a feel of movement in time.” Drawing comparisons between his process and the resultant style, you can see this shifting, irresolute ethos emerging from the canvas. Eric expresses, when considering each of the panels, “I look at it as separate movements. I look at these different panels as time. Not necessarily linear time; more of a jumbled patchwork of time.”

Eric Lee’s Building and Unbuilding the Globe
(Painting detail 2 of 2)

From its incredible technical facility to the rich history of the structure it depicts, Eric Lee’s Building and Unbuilding the Globe is unquestionably impressive. The scale of the piece is commanding, while the brilliant details add layers that pull you into the story of the work, leading the viewer to new discoveries and explanations. Through his process, materials, and interest in the passage of time itself, Eric reveals the forgotten stories in America’s upper Mid-west as he highlights the beauty in disrepair. Eric’s constructed narrative serves as a monument to Superior’s once rich industrial history and especially to the Globe Elevator; bringing the decommissioned building back into contemporary consciousness, suspended forever in another time, but acting as something of a bridge to our own.


Written by Mia Wendel-DiLallo

Posted by

Lisa-Thi Beskar, Art Advisor & Curator