From Oklahoma to Beverly Hills, Garyk Lee has left a mark on fashion, art and aims to get people to vote
Garyk Lee lives a creative lifestyle that many people could only dream of. He seamlessly flits between painting, animation, fashion design, architecture, interior designs and more.
He comes from a small town in Oklahoma. After dropping out of school only a semester away from graduating with a degree in architecture, he chose to follow his passion and get into the world of high fashion.
He brilliant designs have been celebrated by Mr. Blackwell and many stars of stage and screen.
Garyk Lee spoke with Michelle Tompkins for The Celebrity Cafe about his life, his love of art and fashion, how he gets his inspiration, the beginnings of his Get Out and Vote 2018, what he likes to do for fun and more.
Michelle Tompkins: And where are you from?
Garyk Lee: I am originally from a little oil town of about 25-30,000 in Oklahoma.
Michelle Tompkins: Really?
Garyk Lee: Yeah. I know. Everyone freaks out when they hear that because it's not conducive to couture or any of the areas of appetite that I was drawn to as an artist and designer. It is interesting.
Michele Tompkins: Is there anything you'd like to say about your childhood?
Garyk Lee: Yeah, it's interesting because I grew up in this little town but it was actually was a very sophisticated little town in the middle of nowhere because Conoco oil company basically created the town and discovered oil there. Before it was even called Conoco it was Marland Oil Company. He owned 10 percent of the world's oil resources back in the '20s.
So he built this city and made a lot of pretty homes and brick streets. You would never really know that the main part of the old town was in Oklahoma. As an artist and as a kid I was always intrigued by that and with the nostalgia of the '20s and going forward. He built a huge estate for himself in the '20s. It was just amazing, behind 28, it was on it was on 28 acres and was walled, the 28 acres were walled with limestone that they lined in the city and built a railroad to take over to build the house. He brought in all the artisans from Italy and he fashioned it as an Italian villa in Florence, Italy.
That was up the street from where I grew up. I was in a nice ranch home that was built in the '50s that was on the outer grounds that were part of his estate as the polo fields. So there was a lot of history and that really got me interested as a kid in architecture, but prior to that I always wanted to be a fashion designer. But because it's Oklahoma and it's the '60s, whenever I would say to anyone, I wanted to be a dress designer, I would start seeing their eyes roll because when I was about 12.
I got to realize, ‘This isn't going too well so I guess I'd better switch to architecture’. So then, long story already a long story, I found myself always switching back and forth between the two. Because I loved all of them. I loved doing so many different things and everyone always said, you have to focus in one area and I would halfway listen to them for a while and then I'd get bored with just doing that one thing and I'd have to go do something else. That was my childhood. It was constantly drawing. All summer long I'd sit with the paper and pencil in my lap and just design, and draw, and create while my brother was out playing sports and I was kind of the little black sheep of the family.
Interestingly, when I went off to college at Oklahoma State University, I did major in architecture. And it was now the late '70s and the world was kind of changing a little bit and I noticed that it was acceptable around the late '70s and all for a guy to say he wants to be a fashion designer, because fashion was starting to have kind of an important role in the media and society where it really hadn't before, and disco and all of that and it just all became kind of a lifestyle, and so, I decided I was bored with the engineering of the architecture. I loved designing and drawing the houses, but I didn't like engineering so I quit college at 3-1/2 years into architecture.
Michelle Tompkins: [laughter] I'm sure your parents loved that.
Garyk Lee: Well, you know what? They weren't too crazy about it. My mom was about 46 at the time and really looking the best she had ever looked in her life. She was a very attractive woman. We were on a business trip, my dad was, in Houston, and I joined them down there. This was right after my third year of college, and I called up a modeling agency, cold turkey, and got my mom an appointment with what I thought looked like what would be the best agency because there was certainly no media back then that you could bounce off them. So, I looked them up in the Yellow Pages and it looked like the nicest agency and it was. And I made an appointment for her, and they signed her up and so she started working in Houston that summer and I stayed with her. We got a condo and I stayed with her and I got her to understand that I really loved fashion.
I started working on designing clothes for her to wear into her jobs if by chance people would see what I was doing. It was Dallas Apparel Mart, now, and apparently, it worked, because I convinced them that I needed to just start in fashion. I was sick of school and I knew I could do this. I don't need to be educated about it, because it's an innate gift that I know I have. I know how to make a pattern. I knew I could find sewers, and so I did.
I opened up a little couture salon in Oklahoma City and got myself in a lot of articles on local television. The funny thing is, there was a show in Oklahoma City called Danny's Day, and Mary Hart was the cohost of it. The day that I was on that show was the day that she was interviewing in Los Angeles for PM Magazine. But I just thought that was so funny. Who would ever think that she came from a small operation like that?
So, anyway, I ended up after two years saying, ‘You know, I've had enough Oklahoma,’ and I moved out to Los Angeles. And a couple years after that, after dabbling in a little bit of everything, I opened up, again, my mom helped me open up a couture salon on Robertson Boulevard in Beverly Hills, and I was there for several years, and then I started selling to big stores, like Niemen Marcus was my first order and they ordered for several stores.
I ended up going to New York City and enjoying that for a while, but kind of missing a little more laidback lifestyle. So I ended up in the countryside in Bucks County. In LA I met my partner, and we've been together 32 years, and so we kind of traveled around a lot. We ended up back in California in Palm Springs. We've been here almost 18 years and we really love it.
But all that time I would go back and forth with my fashion, and I would always still do it, but as far as producing on mass quantity, I've done that off and on, but I really like my one-of-a-kind couture clients, and I still do that. I've really gotten into my art, and I think I've really found what I love, which is combining my fashion and my architecture into these art prints that I'm doing. With the mid-century architecture being so popular here in Palm Springs, I've been able to have some good success with that.
I have my prints in several galleries here. So with my style of art, I've just been so involved with paying attention to what's happening since the 2016 Presidential Election. And just really paying close attention, and I was just provoked to see if I could use my art some way and create an encouraging way to get young people out to vote. I was just shocked when I saw that less than half in our country votes. That just blew me away. So that has been my latest endeavor, which is this poster I created.
Garyk Lee on getting everyone to vote
Michelle Tompkins: Tell me a little more about Get Out and Vote 2018.
Garyk Lee: I think what really just pushed me over the edge was seeing parents and children separated. I just couldn't imagine going through that. Thinking back as a kid, I remember my mom getting upset just thinking that her sister wanted me to come to stay with them for a week. We were at a restaurant in a town in Missouri, and we both met halfway and spent a couple of days there in a hotel. And my aunt said, ‘Why don't you let Garyk come to stay with us for a couple of weeks in the summer?’
My mom just got teary-eyed and started crying, saying, ‘Oh, I don't think I could stand my youngest kid away from me.’ I thought of that, I thought of these kids because I would've just gone crazy at that age. And then I thought, ‘Well, you know what? But I'm even feeling that right now just as a gay person in 2018, which I feel more uncomfortable without the future of where I am now than I did 20 years ago.’
That provoked me to draw all types of people caged, and with a polluted background, and just showing the world is going down a rabbit hole fairly quickly on one side. Then it almost back to the paradise that we thought we had in the '50s and '60s but without any judgment on anyone where everyone is equal. And they're all just enjoying life together, and with the tree of life separating the two, and dead on one side and bursting on the other.
Don't be on the wrong side of history. I really do feel like that. We're at a turning point right now. We could go one direction or another. I'm just really heartfelt about it. And I've been happy seeing a lot of the response since it's been released. What people write and say, it really makes me feel good. I just encourage people to do something in whatever form they can from their talent to also trying to get people out, young kids out to vote because they're the ones that are apathetic just due to whatever. I mean, it could just be from the fact that they haven't been properly educated as to how important it is to vote. But I grew up in the '60s and '70s. I graduated high school in '75. And we just got such a great education on history, and I think that is so important. I remember at 18 I was so excited to be able to vote and then I see kids today and what's happening with public education and I just feel like they're almost given up on having a chance.
Michelle Tompkins: And is your goal to have young people vote or that young people turn out and vote the way you want them to vote?
Garyk Lee: I think young people need to vote. Period. I really do. Whatever their conviction is I think they need to vote. I just think it's very important. And that's why I drew that. I know how I felt when I drew that poster. But at the same time, it's in your face and it's not in your face because you can look at it and like, ‘Okay. If you're this type of person, you'll lean towards the left. If you're this type of person, you'll lean towards the right and without actually coming out and saying what I feel.’ It's just through how I feel we're becoming in society if that makes sense to you.
Michelle Tompkins: It does. So tell me about the docudrama about you.
Garyk Lee: It's really funny how things happen. I ran across a box of all my old—that's really aging me, but I already aged myself just by saying I was a high school senior in '75 [laughter]. But yeah. I ran across a box of all my old VHS tapes. And I thought, ‘I got to get these in a contemporary format.’ I took them to Costco, and they put them all in a really great format where I could actually just see them on the computer and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is great.’
I knew the young man that helped me in terms of the computer aspect of my art was in college. He was doing editing, and he was one of the top students in his class. And I said, ‘Do you want to help me do a project? I have all these old tapes that have been now put into a contemporary format and I want to do something with them and I need a reason to do something with them.' And so I created a character, the animated character because I love doing animation and that's the next level. I want to take my art and animate it.
I wrote the script and we did this thing, it was so simple but at the end of the day, I was pleased with the way it came out and I thought it was a great way for someone to learn about my past and the experiences I went through. And then at the end of the day, you don't give up. Life is a big rollercoaster, up and down and up and down.
I actually experienced a lot of that because the times I was launching my fashion on a really big scale is when we would always end up with one of those economic crises that would happen, a really big one. And that happened to me literally three times. And that's why I would always be able to fall back on my art or my one of a kind couture pieces because women that would like the one of a kind special ensembles they always can afford to do that. And so I was always able to fall back on that. And then keep growing it so that's what I've done.
Now, most recently, what I'm doing with my fashion is getting a collection together that are made of bamboo fabric and it's really, really soft and comfortable and it's loungy. So I've got a lot of interest in that. When I do get back into the production of fashion it will be that and it will be pretty soon. So again, I have to just kind of balance all these things and put them out there. I've always felt like you can start a project and you'll get to a point and then if you really listen, you'll know when-- stop forcing and putting energy into it, let the project go sit on a shelf and when it's ready it'll pop off and come right back in your face. And that happens to me all the time. I guess I should say as an artist, having that philosophy has helped me through the rollercoaster.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, where can people find that documentary?
Garyk Lee: It's on YouTube. Garyk Lee is my YouTube page.
Michelle Tompkins: So who are some artists you admire?
Garyk Lee: I'm going to get the book right now, it's in my studio, she's actually one of my favorites. Tamara de Lempicka that Madonna collected, the cubism. She was from the '20s. So her pictures were pretty deco, cubism. I just love those. I thought those were just great. And I always liked a whole different direction, I like Mondrian, just the simplicity of the colors, the architecture, the squares, the color and that style of approach to contrasting color. I really liked.
Michelle Tompkins: Broadway Boogie Woogie.
Garyk Lee: Yeah. Yeah. Right. Right. But are you familiar with this Tamara?
Michelle Tompkins: No. I've never heard of her.
Garyk Lee: She was around in the F. Scott Fitzgerald era, that whole period fascinates me majorly. Madonna collects her art. She does huge paintings. And there was a play—in fact, I designed a gown for Elke Sommer who was playing Tamara in a play in New York at the Park Avenue Armory and it was one of those living plays where you follow the characters around. And it was about Tamara was commissioned to paint a portrait of—I think his name was D'Annunzio, he was the head of fascist Italy in the late '20s. And so it was a weekend at this villa when she was commissioned. And it was a very interesting play. And so I read up on her and first, her art captivated me and then I read about her and so she's always inspired me. She's got those smokey eyes on the girls but it's very cubism, angular lines which I always like. I was always a fan of cubism and angular lines.
Michelle Tompkins: How do you find spaces to show off your work?
Garyk Lee: Actually, I have an art show coming up here in Palm Springs during Modernism Week. I really put my art out during Modernism Week out here because it's very architectural, it's all about houses and then the people within the houses and scenes of parties. So I was approached by local West Elm here in Palm Springs and so that was an easy fix. And then I have a rep that just basically will try and find that right space that my work to fit into and so I'm in another home really lovely home decor place here in town, and then I also sell them on my website and through social media, that really, now that we have that it's amazing how you can get out to your niche market, with social media it's really great. And I've done a lot of television interviews out here in Southern California where they've showcased it. So I've been fortunate that way.
Garyk Lee looks ahead
Michelle Tompkins: What are your goals for yourself in the future?
Garyk Lee: Well I'm actually going to take the little docudramedy and I'm going to turn it into a, probably about a five-minute show and I started working on that actually. I have the script written for the first three and I'm going to be doing basically a kind of a how-to. I will go into some ladies closet here in Palm Springs, and she'll show me a designer dress she bought 10 years ago that she spent $1500 on but it's outdated now and she still wants to wear it, so I'll totally reconstruct it and turn it into something that's timeless because that's always what I loved with fashion was timeless. Or I'll take an old piece of furniture and completely redo it. Anything to do with lifestyle and how-to, and do it on a budget that is sensible for most people is the approach I'm going to be doing with this.
But because I love my animation I'm going to bring that character back that was my muse in the docudramaedy the first script I have it where she is bored with being a muse and she wants to come to work for me, so she becomes my assistant. Again I guess there's a kid in me that never grows up, but I loved Bewitched and I loved I Dream of Jeannie, any of those shows where they had kind of a magical thing happening but no one was supposed to know about it, but it was always accidentally getting seen. So I'm going to be taking that approach with her as my assistant when I'm meeting with a client. I designed a really pretty contemporary glass house that will be where she lives and it's hanging up over my drafting table. It's a rendering of a beautiful home, but because of what we can do with animation I'll be able to have her walking around inside of it and you'll see it hanging over my desk but it'll be her in there walking around. But she'll pop out of it and help me sand a piece of furniture, but she'll always be getting in trouble. So I want to make it funny. I always love humor, so I want to put humor into everything that I do because life is too short, you have to laugh.
Michelle Tompkins: I agree with that. That's what Vicki Lawrence said yesterday in an interview that I had with her.
Garyk Lee: Miss Vicki Lawrence?
Michelle Tompkins: Yes. She just said, ‘Life's too short, you have to laugh.’ She said the same thing.
Garyk Lee: You know what? Okay, this shows you how weird of a kid I was. She was so popular on Carol Burnett in the '70s and that was on Saturday night lineup, and all we had was four networks back then. You're probably too young to ever remember that. But we only had four networks, and so Saturday night lineup was Mary Tyler Moore, and Bob Newhart, and then Carol Burnett, and I would literally stay home when the other kids were out on a Saturday night in high school, I just stayed home to watch that lineup, especially Carol Burnett. I loved Vicki Lawrence as Mama, in that funny skit they would do, Mama's Family.
Michelle Tompkins: Oh, Mama's Family, that was a great show.
Garyk Lee: Yeah. In fact, I'll still, if that's on in reruns, I'll stop and watch it.
Michelle Tompkins: What would you like your legacy to be?
Garyk Lee: Yeah, what? real simple! That I brought beauty to the world, not just physically in doing something that was making something pretty but doing good and helping people because that's very important to me. Helping people, passing it forward, or paying it forward, however you say it. That, and animals. I love animals. And when I'm really old, I hope to just live out on a ranch with a bunch of animals. I totally get Doris Day and people like that who basically say, ‘Okay, I've accomplished what I wanted to and now I just want to hang with these beautiful creatures.’ I so get that.
Garyk Lee on his personal life
Michelle Tompkins: Now, is there anything that you'd like to add about your personal life?
Garyk Lee: Well, I'm happily married for two years, but together for 32 years, to a wonderful New York Italian, Tony Boris, who was in the shmata business, as he would call it, the garment business, for many years. And he's a fabulous chef, an Italian chef. His parents had a restaurant in New York City and Brooklyn back in the '60s and he learned well. And he spoils me with food, and I'll be including some of his great, as he would call them, “Guinea” recipes. Yeah, because of the old peasant dishes that are so good and so healthy and vegetables and beans and, oh, they are just delicious. I'll be including some of those on my How-To show, because it's part of the lifestyle of cooking and setting a cool table, and enjoying your friends and being casual, but still have a sense of elegance, with no matter how casual you are still doing things with a sense of elegance and pride. That's kind of what I want to convey.
Michelle Tompkins: And what do you like to do for fun?
Garyk Lee: Sing and hear great music and sing, and be around just fun people and laugh, and laugh and laugh. I love that.
Michelle Tompkins: What is something you want to do but you haven't done yet?
Garyk Lee: That's a good one. That is a good one. Maybe, I would say, I'm not one of those that's too daring physically, because I value how precious life is and I don't want to physically harm my body. But, I've always wanted to just travel. This is a place I haven't been before, and I've always wanted to go. And peopl8e say, ‘Oh, it's dangerous there,’ but I really want to go. We studied in fifth grade geography class and that's Rio De Janiero. I've always wanted to go there. So, let's just say I want to—that's something I haven't done yet and I wanted to do. And the physical thing I first skied when I was 35 years old, and I was doing pretty good on the bunny slope until I crashed the third attempt in the little kids' learning class. They were all around the instructor, and here I come, this 35-year-old adult and I crashed right in the middle of their class. Because I got off course from my bunny slope [laughter]. And so that was the last time I ever attempted skiing.
Michelle Tompkins: I have a similar experience when I was 21. I retired from skiing. I had only been skiing about three times before. But the thing that's most annoying on the planet is, you're doing okay, and then all of a sudden you're not. And then a six-year-old comes up and does a stop-on-a-dime [laughter]. And said, ‘You okay?’ I said yes, but I wanted to impale the helpful kid on a pole. Which charities do you support?
Garyk Lee: There's a charity that I just think is a really wonderful one that is called Dogs for Our Brave. And it has a really interesting story. The gentleman that started the foundation was at a restaurant and he happened to be seated next to— I don't know know if it was a marine or army soldier who was traveling, leaving, going someplace else. And they started talking and the gentleman said, ‘It's my wife's anniversary, she has everything. I can't buy her another diamond, she's just got everything.’ They're very affluent people. And the soldier said, ‘Well, why don't you get a dog for a wounded vet that's lost his limbs and needs a service dog?’ And he said, ‘Oh my Gosh. That's a great idea.’
So he arranged to surprise his wife and he lures her to wherever the soldier was and set it up at a Marriott or something. So the soldier was there with his friends and family and he'd lost both of his legs and he needed a dog to help him rehabilitate and retrieve things. And so he presented him with a dog and then she loved it so much they turned it into a charity. And they take care of the dog for the life of the dog even if it's retired from it chores of helping the servicemen. They still continue paying for all the vet bills and everything for the life of that dog. They train them and they rescue dogs. So they're all rescue dogs that they train. So they're helping on all ends so to me it's-- and because they're an affluent couple they don't want any money profit off of it. It all goes to the charity. And it's so nice to see. I've really adopted that as one of the main charities that I support. And of course, anything to do with animals I do.
I also support the cancer society too. They're pretty big. Besides money, I'll donate art to them. To me, that's another major and we're seeing too much cancer. And I personally think it has to do with our environment completely and our food. And so I'm an advocate to put the truth out there of what's happening with our environment and food and all of that. So I can't keep my mouth shut sometimes.
Michelle Tompkins: Well, what are your social media handles and websites?
Garyk Lee: Let's see. My Twitter is garyklee1957. And my Instagram is garyklee8. And my website is simply garyklee.com.
Michelle Tompkins: When and where can people see your work next?
Garyk Lee: I'm constantly posting my new work on Facebook and I have a Garyk Lee artist designer page on Facebook. And that's where you see a lot of my new work. And also on my website, if they go to my website. And then it gets tweeted out as well. So pretty much all of those formats they'll be able to see it.
Michelle Tompkins: Is there anything that you want to talk about?
Garyk Lee: Not that I can think of. Other than I have three little rescue dogs [laughter].
Lulu, Crystal, and Sparky. And they're all little Chihuahua blends. And two of them actually found me. Actually came up on to my property. In a warm climate like Southern California, you'll see strays and it's bad but it happens. But I think the word got out that I was a sucker for a good meal [laughter].
Garyk Lee can be found here and don't forget to Get Out and Vote 2018.