Creator to Creator: Ness Lee

As we passed by the World AIDS Day mural on King Street, I was trying to explain to a friend about how I first discovered Ness. All I could remember was being at her Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition booth two years ago, and how much I struggled resisting my desire to buy every pin and print while she consoled me (I ultimately chose a “Hurt So Good” and a sumo wrestler pin, if anyone’s curious). Since the exhibition, I found myself continuously stumbling upon Ness’ distinctive black and white figures, as they sprouted around the city, from gallery spaces to building walls. And whenever I had discussions about Toronto’s current arts scene, Ness always came up as one of the key artists illuminating the city’s creative community.

Whether molded with clay, inked on paper, or painted on expansive wall (or ground) space, her figures – rendered alone or in clusters – appear to be expressing and preserving her emotions, engaging in the artist’s personal dialogue. Read below as Ness shares insights into her artistic practice, her recurring figures, and her thoughts on Toronto’s creative scene. And check out our handwritten interview conversation to learn about her “favourite” photographer! -Mirae


Photo Credit: Lulu Wei

Can you tell us about your creative career?

Creatively career-wise I have studied at OCADU for Illustration and started to do a lot of shows- craft shows and art shows since graduating. I was also working part-time as a breakfast waitress which allowed me to fund much of my curiosity and still be able to keep things afloat. From there I think over the years my work has built momentum and recognition in the city, and here I am! Thankful to those who have seen me grow and have been so supportive since, so blessed! 

You’ve done many large-scale art pieces, such as Poussey Washington mural at Church and Dundas – can you tell us about your artistic practice? What is it about mural art that draws you?

I have just recently started doing more murals and I have to say I love it so so much. I have started out earlier in art life making smaller things that were more manageable in production at the time. Going bigger in scale is such a challenge and so amazing to see the works come together in progress! It is really a larger form of expressing myself with lines and my work that I really enjoy. 

Many people, at least in Toronto, can agree that when they see your plump female nudes, they recognize them as distinctly yours. How did these figures develop? I’m also intrigued at how these bodies often express intimate emotions – what do they signify to you?

Before even noticing it myself I found myself treating these figures, their postures and fluid-like positioning as part of a conversation that I was having with myself. I found the more complex or more things I had to say, the more bodies there are. At first, with these figures, I never had size in mind in a literal sense of body image. I just found that the more feeling I had with these figures the more space they took up in the composition. Kind of as if your feelings were to take form into a figure— feeling heavy sadness might be something that takes up the whole canvas. A lot of the time I also don’t focus on the gender of these figures. For the most part I try to keep them androgynous because of what they mean for me in context (as masses of emotion). They do tend to be female however as a reflection of self-expression when I feel like it is more fitting in a autobiographical sense. These figures for the most part have been some of the best and worst conversations I have ever had with myself.

You’re very much involved in the Toronto arts scene, not just participating in exhibitions and fairs, but contributing to the community, such as AGO Youth programs and even Honest Ed’s “Toronto for Everyone.” What do you think makes Toronto a unique creative space?

Specifically speaking on the AGO Youth Programs, I think Toronto’s creative spaces is growing in community, especially with younger and emerging artists. I find there is much more exploration and important conversations that are being had in creative spaces with young artists. Not to say that the same is not being had for more established creative spaces but those are spaces I have not been so exposed to so I don’t have the experience to say. 

I think the spaces in Toronto’s creative scene that are thriving are ones that focus on growing together and learning from each other. Ones that have diverse conversations/ important conversations about if and how their work can make a difference and how it takes up space/allows for space- groups that challenge themselves creatively to not only nurture curiosity and exploration but also to be able to challenge you to reflect on what and why you are doing what you are doing. I think these make the best creative space, no matter where you are making art. 

I can’t fully speak about the Toronto scene simply because I don’t know of them all- there are so so many out there. But it is so great see (some) spaces becoming more inclusive, understanding and considerate of everyone, especially marginalized communities. 

What drives you to create? Where do you find inspiration?

A lot of everything has started off and still is based on sheer curiosity and exploration. If it isn’t about how to make a gusseted tote bag or a inflatable balloon then at chances are it is a self exploration of my thoughts and feelings. 

For the most part it has all begun that way— making things, seeing how my illustrations would translate into something of a different surface and context and how much it evolves and changes from there. Looking back I think I have always had a fascination with conversation without words. How things speak to us and how experiences can unfold differently for others. Much of that is how I became enthralled with art- its the way it moved me to the point I cannot explain, made me feel things I don’t think I can feel from a human being. The more fascinating part of that is how much of those feelings being registered is a reflection of myself. 

For the most part my pieces have been quite autobiographical. As much as I don’t like to really say it outright, it is all about my personal feelings and insecurities. For the longest while I have used these drawings and expressions of figures to express how I feel, and explain everything I wish I have said and done. A lot of them are my desires, and complicated and personal conversations I would have with myself.

What can we look forward to, in your creative career, in the next few months?

Wah! Now a days when I am asked that I completely blank out and the conversation goes awkwardly downhill. Expect more murals, installations, drawings, paintings and definitely more ceramics! I have solo shows in November 🙂 

Lastly, what does your identity mean to you?

That is the question of the century. I have always been confused as to what my identity is, especially culturally. Being Hakka as always been something I stuck with proudly but has also been the most confusing to identify with. To those who aren’t familiar with Hakka, as a taste for context the word literally translates into “Guest People.” Also deciding to come out queer this year has been something that has contributed to the mix of that question of “who am i?” It is an ever-changing, always evolving thought that exists for me- nevertheless a very important one to say the least.  

And side question that I’ve always wanted to ask you – what’s your favourite noodle?

Oh. My. God. Hakka Noodles! I think they are called Red Noodles? (Foong Mee Mein) They are magic, made with molasses – sweet and savoury which I normally don’t like, but they’re amazing! 


Note: Spot my handwriting mistake, but Ness handled my mistake well – thank you.

Note to self: Write neater next time. Another note to self: Review before sending.

Check out James Lai’s portfolio here. And follow Ness on Instagram for updates on her latest works!


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