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Near death experience brought photographer closer to life

  • Landscape photographer Catherine Lee takes pictures at a farm in Hadley that she frequently photographed for her show that is on display at the Sunderland Public Library. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Landscape photographer Catherine Lee takes pictures at a farm in Hadley that she frequently photographed for her show that is on display at the Sunderland Public Library. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Landscape photographer Catherine Lee. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Landscape photographer Catherine Lee takes pictures at a farm in Hadley that she frequently photographed for her show that is on display at the Sunderland Public Library. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Catherine Lee captures most of her photos at dawn or dusk as the sky changes color, including this photo of a barn in Hadley. Contributed photo/Catherine Lee

  • Catherine Lee captures most of her photos at dawn or dusk as the sky changes color, including this photo of a barn in Hadley. Contributed photo/Catherine Lee

  • One of Catherine Lee's favorite photos, of a barn with peeling white paint in Hadley. Contributed photo/Catherine Lee

  • Not all of Catherine Lee's photos highlight barns, including this nature photo taken in Amherst. Contributed photo/Catherine Lee

  • This barn in Hadley is a popular subject of Catherine Lee's photos. Contributed photo/Catherine Lee



Recorder Staff
Thursday, March 29, 2018

For Catherine Lee, her photography is more than art — it is a new lease on life.
Lee, who lives in Amherst, recently held her first art exhibit, showcasing photographs she had taken of barns, sunrises and sunsets in the area. Many of the photographs are beautiful and bucolic, but more importantly, they represent observing the world in a different way — a way that shows appreciation for every day.

Lee has taken to this appreciation after events in 2007 caused her to re-evaluate her experiences in life and how she viewed everything around her.

Before then, Lee had many different roles in her life and the lives of others. She was a mother of four, a wife, and a daughter and sister of artists.

Her father, William Patterson, is a contemporary realist painter who taught art at the University of Massachusetts. Her mother, Linda Stark, was an art teacher, as well as pastry chef and designer. Her brother, Jeremiah Patterson, is a realist watercolor painter and teaches at the Hartford School of Art. And her sister Sarah Nelson, is a costume designer.

You might say art runs in Lee’s blood.

In addition, Lee was a teacher, a painter and an aspiring children’s book author.

But one evening, as she was fulfilling one of her many roles — directing a school play — she had fallen while cleaning up after the show, injuring her leg.

Lee said the injury, which doctors initially diagnosed as a pulled muscle, added to what had become two years of nondescript medical issues that hassled her. Lee said she had been experiencing fatigue and neurological symptoms, though doctors could not pinpoint a diagnosis in spite of various tests.

Unlike other muscle pulls, the injury was not getting better. Instead, Lee said, it was getting worse. Eventually, the pain became unbearable.

“It was so bad I couldn’t do it anymore and went to the emergency room,” she said.

The emergency room doctor, who Lee said was thinking outside the box with the injury, sent her for an MRI, the results of which got her an appointment at Massachusetts General Hospital for a biopsy.

“The doctor came in (after the biopsy) and said I had malignant cancer,” Lee said.

“Then I blanked out.”

Lee was diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma, a rare cancer.

“I had a very aggressive cancer and the prognosis wasn’t good. I think they said somebody in your situation doesn’t survive it,” she said. “But I was more focused on how do I get out of this living.”

Lee endured chemotherapy and radiation to battle the disease, and eventually, through her tenacity and the efforts of her doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, overcame the cancer.

Beauty in every day

After she overcame cancer, Lee said that she became inspired to start to enjoy the beauty around her and to appreciate it every day.

“Cancer made me realize the beauty in things,” Lee said. “I want to see every sunset and sunrise. It represents a new day for me.”

And part of that everyday appreciation included recreating the many sunrises and sunsets she had experienced. Lee would take photographs of the many wonderful sights, intending to use them as a reference for a later painting. But she found that the pictures were already beautiful.

They were already art.

So, Lee felt that she should share this artwork with those around her and “let people see what I see.”

She decided then, to apply to the Sunderland Public Library to host her first art exhibit, showcasing her many photographs of the Pioneer Valley.

It was accepted, and now Lee has her work hanging prominently inside the Lane Family Reading Room at the library. Her pieces will be there until the end of April during the library’s normal business hours. In addition, she has shows coming up at the Amherst Sustainability Fair and also on artandremedy.com, a website that promotes western Massachusetts art and artists.

Telling stories through photos

For much of Lee’s photographs, barns are the subject.

Lee’s pictures show barns in multitudes of light and in different seasons. According to Lee, she chose barns because they are beautiful structures that also tell a tale.

“There are stories there of hard workers. They are architecturally beautiful,” she said. “I think there’s a story to each barn.”

The choice of the subject is one that is rooted roughly 20 years ago, Lee estimated, following a conversation she recalled having while driving through the Pioneer Valley with her husband, Matthew. Matthew Lee died in 2011.

“When my husband was alive, I either took a picture with a barn with a silo or we noticed one with a silo,” she said. “He said, ‘It would be really cool to make a calendar with barns and silos of area.’”

And the barn doesn’t have to be new or impeccable to be the subject of one of Lee’s photos. One of her favorite pictures is of a white barn, with wood warped and paint peeling.

“Beautiful,” she remarked upon examining the picture.

In addition to capturing the beauty of the common New England sight, Lee also pays homage to artists like Claud Monet and Andrew Wyeth through her work. Lee revisits the same sights, photographing them in many different lights, like Monet would do when he would paint.

“Monet obsessed with looking at the same object in different light,” Lee said.

In homage to Wyeth, the colors in her photos are edited to the point that the picture seems to be painted in watercolor.

“I want to make it different, not just take a picture,” she said. “I want to make them my own.”