Painting chickens came about by sheer happenstance for Ernest Lee of Columbia. The 56-year-old neo-expressionist artist, who is known affectionately as "Chicken Man," was selling his artwork, including his vivid chicken images, last week at the Orangeburg County Fair.
Lee admitted he scoffed at painting chickens when a friend first suggested it would be a good subject for him to paint.
"Well, I had a friend suggest it. His name was Tom Will from Georgia. He just suggested I ought to try to paint a chicken," Lee said.
"I said, 'Ain't nobody gonna buy no chickens.' And now I've sold over 28,000 of 'em. So, you never know."
Lee uses everything from cardboard to wooden doors as his canvases.
"Sometimes you gotta work with what ya got," he said.
Lee's posture is slightly stooped from all his years of painting, and he squints from doing so much of the artwork outdoors. He sells his paintings in countless shops across South Carolina, and his art can be found on walls across the country, even appearing on TV's Food Network as background decorations.
Chicken Man was even honored by former Gov. Nikki Haley.
The artist applies a rainbow of acrylic paints thickly on his canvases without seeming to worry about running out. His chickens are rendered rapidly, scrawled as if the subject and painter were one in the same. Vivid colors and quick brush strokes keep his chickens appearing to float above the wood on which they are painted, as though hallucinatory.
Maybe that's one reason he's popular with so many students.
"Lots of students call me Chicken Man," Lee said. His popularity among University of South Carolina students might also be attributed to his subject matter and how it can be passed off as a gamecock, USC's mascot.
Under Lee’s tent, lying on the grass at the Orangeburg County Fair, was a painting of a tiger, the mascot of USC's in-state rival, Clemson University. The tiger's claws are strangling one of his surreal chickens. When asked if he is a Clemson fan, Chicken Man crowed, "I'm a Carolina fan, but I gotta paint both when I'm making money."
Asked what has kept him creating his art for going on 50 years, Lee said, "Just the love for doing it. The love for people - that keeps me going."
His advice to budding artists: "Just keep on, and some kind of way it'll break for ya. Be encouraged, not discouraged.”
Ernest Lee's original paintings and T-shirts can be found on his website at www.ErnestLeeArt.com.