by David Arnold, Maryland
James Fenimore Cooper created novels about the frontier that became popular in the 1830's. His books, such as The Last of the Mohicans and The Pathfinder, stereotyped inaccuracies. Cooper's books were reinforced by the similarly emotionalize illustrations that went with and were inspired by the books. The stereotypes never died.
The twentieth century saw a resurgence of interest in Daniel Boone, Davy Crocket, and their world. Artists and writers of fiction capitalized on the interest and continued stereotypes that blossomed with the help of Hollywood and the film industry. Frontier art became popularized by men who were often artists first and historians last. Then, years ago in the Appalachian Mountains, a shy, reclusive devotee began to study, then paint and draw the results of his research. Lee Teter had started to paint the Eastern frontier accurately.
Lee Teter and his pretty wife, Barbi, lived in a one-room cabin in the Appalachian Mountains. A newborn daughter, Shawnee, and a quest for the truth and reality of America's Eastern frontier became the focus of their lives. They traveled as far and as often as their few dollars would take them; to museums and friends who had information to share. They borrowed books and hunted down remnants of the frontier in order to know the difference between fact and fiction. Lee Teter lived with the derision many artists knew in an earlier century. Mountain attitudes and comments like lazy, good-for-nothing artist made Lee more reclusive than ever, but he continued his search for the reality of the past. Lee believed that people craved the truth about their past, and slowly but surely Lee's work was collected by a few people. His first drawings sold for $50.00. That was a lot of money to the former farm boy. The work was slow, and sign painting contributed to the family income. Research was difficult. There was no repository of sifted information arranged in proper context, and no other artist was focused on accurately portraying the Eastern frontier. Lee was not alone, however. He had friends who were willing to join him on freezing nights with wool blankets and frozen moccasins in order to separate fact from fiction. Together Lee and friends built a 26-foot dugout canoe, tanned hides and wore out moccasins with mountain miles. All contributed in their own way to the art that slowly emerged from the pencil of the shy artist. The gun collectors and flintlock builders shared knowledge dear to their hearts. People with very focused interests such as powder horns or 18th-century eyeglasses filled Lee's hours and notebooks with tiny details only people with their passion would notice. Lee tried to repay them by making such wealth of detail a part of his art.
Lee's dedication to Eastern frontier art was interrupted only by a painting he created and promoted for Vietnam Veterans in 1987 called Reflections. The now world-famous painting received the same heart and soul as he continues to put into his frontier art. The painting was first unveiled at a black powder shoot in Virginia and support found there helped finance the first printing. The prints were, with the assistance of dedicated veterans, promoted and marketed successfully. The veterans went on to reap several million dollars from the sale of prints from Lee's painting. Nearly ten years later their print continues to sell by the hundreds.
When the veterans were on their feet, Lee continued to study the frontier and travel and study and draw...and study.
Lee traveled to shows related to flintlocks and frontier. He took his art from door to door at many galleries and frame shops and was turned away. No one seemed to understand that the strange figures in Lee's art were the real figures once common on the early American frontier. Magazines refused to print pictures with detailed accuracy that might upset some of their clientele, or that portrayed people they thought their readers would not recognize. Lee found a small West Virginia gallery and another in Western Maryland that sold enough of his work to allow him to continue his drawings and his studies. He never gave up. Full-color prints were costly, and no investors were willing to risk their money on such an alien theme as historical truth. The galleries complained that they needed color in order to sell art. Lee responded by hand painting the black and white prints he could afford to produce. The color, along with the extremely detailed educational dissertations delivered by a shy but excited Lee at gun shows and a few small galleries, began to create a following.
As time passed, people gradually became familiar with Lee's art. Lee was establishing a reputation for cultural accuracy in this new field of art. Interest grew one person at a time, one gun show at a time, one collector at a time. During the ground swell of interest, respected artist Robert Griffing called Lee to inquire about the market for Eastern frontier art. Re-enactors who were curious about depictions of artifacts in Griffing's paintings were referred by that artist to Lee Teter for information on details. Apparently Robert Griffing recognized the excellence of Lee Teter's research and sensed the interest and respect for Lee Teter's art and knowledge.
Study was paramount to Lee, and an opportunity to study was provided by film director Michael Mann of Twentieth Century Fox. The film The Last of the Mohicans was being produced for a 1991 release and Michael appreciated Lee's knowledge and willingness to share it. The grilling questions by various technicians whose job it was to recreate the world Lee held in his mind were answered, but Lee would give only answers that could be documented. He flew to New York and traveled to Canada where he had been studying with Dr. Ted Brasser in order to find answers for difficult questions. The reclusive artist lived with jet planes, bell hops, and limousines for the first time in his life. Lee's focus remained cultural and historical authenticity, and when he found that several prominent inaccuracies of the film were not to be corrected, Lee returned to his home in the mountains so he would not be part of perpetuating stereotypes he was fighting with his art. He realizes that popularity of the film increased interest in the subjects he admires so much and feels that the film served a good purpose in spite of its imperfections. He continues to ridicule the mistakes in the film but admits that there are many things that turned out right for the first time in film history. Michael Mann feels that the influence was important to actors Daniel Day Lewis, Eric Schweig, Russell Means, and Wes Studi, along with costume designers and others. Lee enjoyed the company of the actors he influenced and laughed when he remembered Daniel Day Lewis' grinding the gears in his antique pickup or Wes Studi's (who played Magua), cutting his thumb on the rear sight of Lee's smoothbore as he practiced bringing it up to fire. Lee enjoyed going back home to his art where everything could be represented properly. He left the futile film job to others. Mann's respect for Lee's art is evident and he states that It is Lee's unique power to transcend the present and drop one into another's life in a frozen moment of another time that makes his work such fine art. Mann continued to verify information he was receiving by calling Lee at home. Director Michael Mann and Lee Teter remain friends and mutual admirers.
As time passed the reclusive artist began to find ever growing interest in his work, and his success and popularity reflected that interest. Major art publishers expressed interest in his art, but Lee was hesitant to put artistic control in their hands, and he rejected their offers. He still hand paints each print instead of marketing reproductions, and in each edition commonly only 95 prints will be published. His work is in great demand by galleries across the country, and prints that sold for $200.00 a year ago are bringing up to $3,000.00 at the present. He doesn't consider his art to be historical as much as historical surrealism which was defined by writer Bill Gilbert as being a creation compounded of fragments of fact rearranged in surrealistic patterns. Lee paints the people who never made it into the history books or records, people of his imagination or unnamed people in journals and diaries, and yet who are founded in fact. Fact so well researched that Lee can give you a thread count of the fabric or tell you how thick a silver ornament might be. He feels that the only things that haven't changed with time are the human spirit and human attitudes. Lee puts himself in as nearly the same physical and mental conditions as possible, and then creates a picture that is rooted in the present and the past of those experiences. He dresses those experiences in the accurately detailed material culture that Lee and so many others find fascinating.
Lee loves making new discoveries about an old frontier. He loves sharing those discoveries just as Simon Kenton and Daniel Boone loved showing the frontier to newcomers; and like the Americans before him Lee Teter needs the frontier. He recently moved to Wyoming in order to experience the solitude and vast emptiness and make them part of his soul. That is where his art resides until it makes its way onto paper and canvas. His 37 years in the Appalachian Mountains have given him a love of Eastern history just as his reclusive spirit has given him a need for quiet. I can ride my horse for a week in one direction and not pass a house or electric pole. I need to know how that feels so I can put it in my pictures. This same unrestricted feeling once existed in the East says Lee.
Lee Teter has broken and will continue to break the paths
other artists will surely follow. Watch carefully as a quiet
artist sees the future in our past and pursues it. He will be
hard to keep up with as always, because he will always be beyond
the edge of what is known and comfortable. In this artist is a
heart that refuses to give in, that travels the trails that
others only wonder about. Lee Teter is a pioneer; he is a