For the third year in a row, US Bank commissioned artist and Kirkland resident Nolen Lee to create the bank’s Lunar New Year calendar.
The second eldest of six children, Lee enjoyed drawing, coloring, playing with LEGOs, making beads, creating figurines with Sculpey, folding origami creations, painting T-shirts – you name it, he tried it .
His affinity for art continued through his school days, where he drew characters from the video games he played with friends – from Street Fighter, Mega Man and X-Men. In high school, he started thinking about what he wanted to do in life.
“I watched my dad and older brother who were both architects,” Lee said. “I was doing well in math and science and started to pursue studies in civil engineering. I was too scared to submit my art portfolio to art school.
One night halfway through his studies, his mother called him and asked him to turn on the local PBS channel.
“There was a special on Chuck Jones, the creator of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner and the Frog Warner Bros.,” Lee said. His parents had raised him on Looney Tunes and other old cartoons, and the documentary sparked something in him.
“I see this guy who is very working-class in my mind, but creates wacky, fun characters and is an amazing storyteller and designer. The moment I was watching it, I thought, this is what I want to do! I want to get into art and animation.
However, this revelation did not propel him out of his engineering program.
“I had promised my parents that I would finish, and I was already halfway through. I ended up completing a master’s degree in civil engineering.
Armed with this tremendous backup career, Lee jumped into the art.
After drawing a set of panda characters and launching his website, called Punching Pandas, he sold his work at a market in the Wing Luke Museum. The installation was later noticed by an agency that US Bank works with on marketing campaigns.
For this year’s calendar, Lee explored a different art style.
“People looking at the calendar can see random brushstrokes up close, but when you step back and look at the whole picture, you see that those brushstrokes create a vivid image that still retains a lot of details, like the bakery taken with all the buns, or June’s image from the graduation ceremony.
He also used his lived experience to inspire certain images.
“I remember growing up we had a lot of big family dinners,” Lee said.
“While trying to figure out what dishes to put in the February picture, I was inspired by the family dinners we had then, with fish or dumplings on the table.”
“Becoming a dad made me think about the values I had,” Lee said. Her eldest son is 4 years old.
“There is room for silliness, but at the end of the day, I want a clear vision of what I want to use my art for and what I don’t want to use it for. As soon as I became a dad, these thoughts came to mind. It’s strange how immediate it was. When my son was born, it was an instant feeling where everything changed. It’s like trying to describe another flavor of ice cream to someone. You haven’t had it, but it’s amazing – a different flavor of love.
Lee will infuse that sensibility into the next evolution of his Punching Pandas work, which will include a graphic novel and, in line with his PBS inspiration all those years ago, animated shorts.
The calendar is available at US Bank branches across the country and can also be downloaded at usbank.com/lunarnewyear.