Accolades for Echuca artist’s creative life

Just 15 minutes before chatting to the Bendigo Campus blog on the phone, Krystal Lee arrived home to high-five her husband after quitting her job of 11 years.

“We may be eating beans for a while,” she laughs. “But it’s really exciting. For years uni was my priority and I gave up a lot to do it and now the next stage is to give everything to my creative business.”

It’s an eventful time all-round for the visual arts alumnus, who is about to be recognised for winning the La Trobe DM Myers Medal for her 2015 honours year.

The medal is awarded annually to the top two outstanding honours graduates in each college. Krystal was chosen out of 299 Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce honours students across all La Trobe campuses.

“I was surprised,” she says. “I feel really honoured to have been awarded the medal. It’s pretty amazing.” Then again, results come from hard work, and as Krystal says, she was never going to waste a minute of her time at La Trobe.

The Echuca-based artist returned to tertiary studies in 2012 when she was 30 to find out if her creative hobby could be anything more.

“Up until then I had worked a lot of different jobs, but nothing career-based,” she says. “But I got to the point where I was spending nearly every moment outside of work drawing and creating. Going to university to study art was this crazy idea that kept popping up. It was a big decision, a huge decision.”

Krystal says cutting back work to study came just as she and her husband bought their first home – a 1950s weatherboard cottage just a couple of minutes’ drive from the Murray River.

“We had just bought our house and were planning renovations, so financially it was a big move to change from full time work to full time study. But at the end of the day you need to follow your dreams. And everything has worked out so well, my husband also had a life redirection and decided to return to La Trobe to study, and we managed to get a start on our renovations too!”

Krystal arrived at La Trobe with a folio of exquisite illustrations, believing that’s where her strength lay. “But university made me realise I was much more multi-disciplinary,” she says. “My art matured a lot and I began doing a lot more conceptual work. There was more thought behind it, more storytelling.”

She returned to her first love for her honours year, focusing on the conceptual side of children’s book illustration, how a story is told, and how the genre of children’s illustration could be expanded.

“For me, it was a total passion,” Krystal says. “I adored every minute of it because illustrating children’s books is something I’d love to do.”

Krystal’s fine-lined illustrations of woodland creatures, birds and feathers are still a feature of her practice, but that’s expanded to include one-off fine artworks, portraiture and weavings – the latter being a hark back to the clothing production course she completed at RMIT in her 20s. “Who needs pigeonholing? If I love doing it, why not do it?”

Krystal promotes her business via a beautiful website and social media, which has widened her customers from supportive Echuca art-lovers to those in metro Melbourne and even overseas.

She’s converted the main bedroom of their cottage – the largest room – into a home studio, which is filled with everything that inspires her, including eclectic collections of vintage stationary and local flora. Not to mention pup Rudy Steiner, a four-legged muse never far from Krystal’s side.

Despite this idyllic life by the mighty Murray, Krystal says she still misses the commute to Bendigo to spend days immersed in the creative culture on campus.

“I gave up a lot to go to university, so it really meant a lot to me and I wasn’t going to waste a minute of it” she says.

“I could be an art student for the rest of my life, I absolutely adored it. I’d never seen myself as an academic person but I found I loved the academic side of it. I actually miss it a lot, I was surrounded daily by all these creative people, and my lecturers were amazing, I truly could go back again and again.”

She’ll be welcomed back this week when Vice-Chancellor John Dewar presents Krystal with her DM Myers Medal at a ceremony on campus.

All photographs courtesy of Krystal Lee.

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