Lee, a mother of three who founded the international charity Advocure after her son was diagnosed with NF1, had worked for a decade in medical research and advocacy until her son passed away in his sleep as a result of complications related to an enlarged heart. This took Lee and her family by surprise as it appeared they were winning the battle with the disease.
“My youngest son was diagnosed with two brain tumors, so we got that surgery, and then I spent the next 10 years doing what I could to get them to start developing therapies,” Lee said. “I just studied endlessly and attended conferences and worked as a consumer reviewer for the U.S. Army when they were reviewing research proposals. I did that up until 2009.”
Lee drew inspiration for her latest endeavor from watching the tugboats come in and out of the harbor at her Greenpoint apartment on the Commercial Street.
“I decided that I wanted to make things from found industrial objects and I found these very old industrial whisks in what was sort of like a graveyard of all this old kitchen stuff, and fell in love with the shape of them,” Lee said. “I immediately saw them as lights.”
Lee has found and restored several of the whisks, all of which are unique – and some that are solid brass.
“It’s going to be a very limited project because I only have about 30 of them,” Lee said. “I had a designer that wanted to reproduce them, but I don’t want to do that. Thirty is enough, and I’d like to move on to something else.”
Before her son’s diagnosis, Lee worked as a film editor in her native Australia during the renaissance in Australian film, as an interior designer, a stay-at-home mom and also as a florist. But in all of her previous work, her goals have been outwardly focused on the betterment of others' experiences and creations.
“This is the first time I’ve actually explored my own creativity,” Lee said. “I see this as my time now to take me wherever it takes me.”
As she continues to develop Tugboat, the creative process has been taking her to Newburgh, a city overrun with gangs and violent crime, which Lee sees as a new frontier and an affordably viable option to Greenpoint’s artist community, which is slowly being priced out of the neighborhood.
“I fell in love with the architecture,” Lee said. “It’s the second largest historic site in New York State. I like the grittiness of it.”
But even though she is planning to do much of her creation in her newly purchased Newburgh home, she plans on maintaining her apartment and presence in Greenpoint.
“I will be staying here in Greenpoint and commuting backwards and forwards out there,” Lee said.