Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s art. And a rabbit.

This feature is also available at the Karen 19 Gallery in Sydney, Australia 

Bangor-based artist Lee Boyd in County Down, Ireland is no ordinary artist. Energetic, entertaining, conscientious, analytical and with an unknown depth I am trying to get to the bottom of, he is an enigma. Despite his bohemian, relaxed aura, there is an edge of jumpiness about him. Full of life and a true chatterbox, Lee’s honest nature, coy grin, nervous laugh and vulnerability make him instantly likeable. He is a deep thinker; a philosopher and an accomplished artist of an unusual genre in today’s contemporary art world.

Lee is what is known as a therianthropic artist, a type of reverse anthropology, where humans are turned into animals through an art known as shape-shifting. Therianthropes have long existed in mythology, appearing in ancient cave drawings such as les Trois Frères, but more obvious examples include Egypt’s sphinxes. His work actually casts my mind back to an art work in a permanent exhibition at Amsterdams Historisch Museum entitled “Vogels op en bij balustrade”, translating as “Birds around a balustrade”, by 17th Century Dutch painter Melchior de Hondecoeter. Setting the scene, a town hall can be seen in the background, a key location to the piece, because the birds actually represent councillors working in the town hall. Peacocks, pigeons, swallows and an owl form part of the work: the painting is often historically analysed with a strong basis for the theory that it represents the hierarchy of councillors and politicians and their ‘place’ in society. I make this comparison, because de Hondecoeter employs animals here in the metaphorical sense, each species of which represents a different human personality in the world of politics. Parallels can be drawn from this line of thinking with Lee Boyd’s approach as he tackles society’s issues through his drawings, the objectivity and rationalisation of which is further strengthened by transforming society’s human players into animals.

Cross-comparison: “Vogels op en bij balustrade” / “Birds around a balustrade” by 16th Century Dutch painter Melchior de Hondecoeter, who uses a variety of bird species as a metaphor for councillors and politicians at the town hall

Lee calls his collection “Manimal” and explains “These have grown from my studies of wildlife and the observations of human nature.” The half-and-half combination of man and animal does however work both ways. Lee explains “It is about how we have animalised human traits through society, terminology and stereotyping; that, together with the juxtaposition of how we humanise animals, giving them anthropomorphic characteristics. Each piece has a story and a reason for being based on those studies. I am aware of the historical context of this process and that it is far from a new idea. Throughout art history, culture and science, this topic has arisen, so here I am attempting to pay homage to that by creating works that express my thoughts of society around me. There is an element of humour which is not to belittle or poke fun; rather it is to engage people with the works.” Lee continues “Sometimes I use cultural and historical references to evoke a way of thinking, but those references are not needed to enjoy and connect with the work.”

Lee Boyd was born and raised in Middleborough, Northern England. He went on to attend the University of Ulster in Belfast, to study fine craft design, specialising in ceramics. Initially a jewellery designer in Southampton, he returned to Ireland a decade later with the intention of becoming a garden designer. Enrolling on a stone masonry course, Lee realised his niche when he started stone carving. “I realised that my life lay in art. Before long I became aware of a job at the college tutoring ceramics. I ended up applying to it and worked there for 3 years. It was the perfect balance of a job supporting practise.  I did that for the next 3 years until 2009, when I was made redundant. Rather than returning to a life without art, I have taken up other jobs to support my practise and will continue to do so, come what may. Art is my calling rather than my career.”

Lee even featured as ‘artist of the week’ on, part of London’s Saatchi Gallery, the contemporary gallery, popular amongst Damien Hirst-led British artists. Soon after, Lee was contacted by the 19 Karen Gallery in Australia, who specialise in sub-cultural art forms such as surrealism, pop, comic books, illustration art and “provocative genres”. Instantly recognising his talent, the gallery housed four of Lee’s pictures. One was immediately bought by a customer in Switzerland for $1500, around £900.

Lee’s creative versatility stretches to the world of sculpture. Stone, clay, sand and paper are his mediums of choice, from which he sculpts human figures; some solo, others more family-orientated such as parent with child in a piece entitled “Who’s supporting who”. This sculpture series evolves from abstract to more rigid realism. The one constant running theme through all of these pieces, though, is emotion.

Who’s Supporting Who by Lee Boyd

Elaborating on “Who is supporting who”, an endearing sculpture of a boy and a man leaning on each other, Lee explains: “This is a father-and-son piece. A child is raised by a parent who gives support and love of the unconditional kind. When things seem tough, you look into the eyes of your child and smile. That support is reciprocal and unconditional.” On sculpture, Lee explains “We all know what the human form is but how I produce them and the reasoning behind each piece is individual. I make some robust and solid sculptures that are tactile and I encourage people to touch them. The stone carvings and ceramic figures have solitude and a reflective quality. They have touches of humour to them whilst some have a quality that evokes empathy.”

Lee’s talented and humorous personality showed through on BBC 2’s Show Me the Monet art talent show. He tells me of his experience meeting the show’s panel of judges notoriously known as the “Hanging Committee”, pun intended. In his comical account of the experience, Lee bashfully tells me “I literally fell into the room. I pulled the door, but to my horror it didn’t open. Already anxious, I rattled the handle and leaned on the door only to realise as I stumbled forward that I had to push and not pull! I was both nervous and embarrassed by that point.” Once settled, Lee pitched a very personal piece called “Not quite the Black sheep of the family”. It is, surprisingly, an autobiographical piece about Lee himself. It is a drawing of a male figure with a rabbit head. Curious about his therianthropic style, each judge on the show’s panel asked Lee to liken them to an animal. The tongue-in-cheek question got off to a good start when the artist compared art expert David Lee to an owl, experienced and wise. However, this quickly took a rather different turn when he likened contemporary art-author Charlotte Mullins to a duck, before nervously correcting himself and blurting out “Sorry: I should have said swan, shouldn’t I!” This was followed by a lima-comparison for the sophisticated nineteenth Century masters expert and art auctioneer Roy Bolton.

Eager to explore the artistic personality that is Lee Boyd, he agrees to an exclusive interview with me. As we settle down for the discussion, I can’t resist the temptation to ask Lee which animal he would liken me to. He casts his glace at me sharply before studiously squinting his eyes in an eagle-like fashion before replying “I do spend time looking at how people act and behave. Sometimes, it’s a simple thing that leads to an animal. Sometimes it’s how they react in company. You are an industrious and busy journalist. You are an otter.” I take a sip of my tea and a nibble of my biscuit, in an ‘otter’-like fashion of course and get on with the interview in hand.

Likening the Royal College of Art’s curator and art judge Charlotte Mullin to a duck, may not have been the wisest of career moves! Do you think you will ever live that down?

I think it was taken with good grace and I saved myself with the swan comment. It kind of stuck in people’s heads. People remember me for it!

Not Quite the Black Sheep of the Family by Lee Boyd

 “Not quite the Black Sheep of the Family” sold for £525 at the Royal College of Art in London. What is the story behind this autobiographical work?

The black sheep is me in my flat! It represents me soon after having moved in, making a new home for myself in the most economic way possible. The iconic Ikea shelves are from my past, where I worked as a retail manager for 11 years. The traditional ceramics were created by my former University tutor and another piece of contemporary ceramics was created by another student. The black rabbit was chosen to represent the year of silence I spent rebuilding my life as well as my personal outlook on things. Rabbits are quiet and often soundless, yet they listen and watch cautiously, so they can move quickly to avoid danger. Rather than dwelling on a problem, I have tried to create a positive outcome. Back in November I was looking for like-minded individuals with a similar outlook on life. I teamed up with my local council and put a call out for artists in the area: this led to getting a group of 15 people together. We founded a group called Firsty, where artists meet, share information, opportunities, work and create exhibitions.

Not quite the black sheep of the Family” is a cathartic picture that has allowed me to reflect on past events, enabling me to move forward – a lot for a rabbit to do! This may not be understood by a person looking at it but those who meet me see that rabbit in me. It is strange but true. It would also be rather conceited of me to believe that people should understand what I do. I accept people for who they are. I make no judgement on people, good or bad. The guilt and sadness took me a long time to acclimatise to.  The connotation of being a black sheep is someone who is not a nice person; a rogue even, but that’s not me. I have had a rough time of it in my life, but have stayed true to my responsibilities. My father and I have sat down together and talked through it all. Now, our bond is stronger than ever.

I realise I haven’t been alone in how the financial crisis has and can effect a life but the glimmer of light on the horizon is that no matter how bad it seems, life does get better if you do something about it in a positive way. I may not have much but I have peace and that is worth so much more to me. I have found happiness in myself that cannot be bought and this is something I’ll hold onto.

Lost Age of Innocence by Lee Boyd

I rather like the cat in the suit.
That was my Dad. It’s called “Lost age of innocence.” My father was born at the beginning of World War II and it represents him at the end of it, wearing his Sunday finest. He’s had a hard working life and is quite a man in what he has done in his life. I think it’s a way of seeing him grow into the man I know today. It was a tough one to do as it is personal subject matter, rather than a mere observation.

Would you describe yourself as an animal lover?

Yes, I suppose I would. I think I am a fan of both wild and domestic animals. I’m no expert but animals have an inherent quality – honesty. They do what they do without pretence and live very straight forward lives. They have a myriad of ways to cope and survive in their environment.

What inspired your “big sky” project?

The big sky project came from a conversation in a coffee shop with a good friend. I was getting back to my creative phase. I had just started teaching ceramics and was having long conversations about what abstract art and expressionism really are. Starting out as a teacher, I realised there was a gap in technical ability being down-played to a more expressive element. I don’t agree with a sole emphasis on the final image. To me, abstract comes from exploring the subject, deconstructing it and reconstructing it for it to be seen from a different point of view. To do this well takes a huge amount of technical and artistic ability. I started to talk to my friend about this in the way natural objects have an element of abstract nature. My example was clouds. There is no concrete form of their colour or texture. They are in fact an evolving form that perpetually creates shapes. It touches on the expressive nature too so I decided that I would paint real clouds with nothing else on the canvas. It was then that I started to see how the colours evoked feeling, such as dramatic thunderous clouds that returned to being calm and simple. It is a human condition to project how we feel on the environment around us. Some of my studies were focused on colours within an element of a cloud, so in themselves they seem expressive. Some created shapes with a more abstract quality. I did this for two years. I also had friends from around the world send me images of their clouds. I painted them all. The exhibition which was held at the Flowerfield Centre in Northern Island included a biography of each of those artists next to their cloud.

This triggers a thought in me about Yoko Ono’s exhibition at the Baltic Art Gallery in Newcastle. Yoko created a giant jigsaw of an open air scene with fluffy clouds dotted around. All visitors were encouraged to “take a piece of sky” with them, concluding “we are all part of the same sky.”
Yes, we are part of the same sky, but the problem is that some people don’t look up to see it. There is also an element of how a child uses clouds to explore imagination. We have all lain back on the grass as children, imagining what we could see in clouds. I like that process. Some clouds you might like; others not so much. I developed my confidence in painting, which led me to learn and understand the process of painting with oils that in turn took me back to the basics of observation. Having explored that curiosity, it led me to develop my drawing skills also. I started to draw animals so I could explore textural expression and variation of forms whilst trying to remain true to the subject. Ultimately it evolved into manimal drawings where I have become more focused on people and portraiture.

Human Behaviour by Lee Boyd

In “Human Behaviour”, a giraffe, a deer, a bear and a peacock all stand conversing. Tell me about these characters. What are they talking about?

This one was inspired by shoppers slowly grazing at shop windows in Belfast. As you can see, they are walking slowly.  The group sitting on the bench are the local fashionistas posing to be seen by friends, looking cool and hanging out. They are constantly preening and showing off. The bear was an office worker who nearly barged her way through a crown to get to work or go to lunch single-mindedly, determined to be the first to cross a road. The conversations between them show how you would not put these people together in a room, however, in public they blend together to create a snap shot of modern society. Though it is a scene from Belfast, I think it translates to most western towns and cities.

“She had a nose for trouble” is a highly comical work of an ant eater with a protruding giant snout standing next to an owl in a hoodie. What is this one about?

I was watching how some teenagers interacted. There is a maturity with the young ladies that young gentlemen haven’t quite reached in that stage of human development. They seem to have a more observational outlook and an awareness of what is going on around them. They see things more objectively. Young men live in the moment. It is the stereotype of youth. Society criticises them, therefore they group together. It is part of human nature to be part of a pack. They are living life at the time. When people explore their own personality they let go of their inner child but it is also used as a sense of security. The piece aims to put us all in their shoes when we were that age. It is a tougher world since I was that age and I am often impressed by how they tackle life head-on. I always feel caring towards them. It’s like watching a bird trying to fly for the first time. You don’t want them to fall but you know you have no way of helping them. It’s about letting go and experiencing adventure. The book the girl in the picture carries displays Darwin in very faint letters; it is all about survival of the fittest and adaptation to environment.

Which kind of art do you enjoy creating most?

I’d say the element of drawing is a basis for all of my work, whether it’s sculpting or painting. It starts with a sketch or a scribble. The process itself is dictated by what the subject matter is. Some things work better in one medium over another. I keep my options open and that freedom of choice is more creative and flexible as a process.

What are you currently working on?

Another manimal figure, but this time in clay with actual bird wings! I was given the wings by a friend who thought I might like them. They are normally used by fly-fishermen to make flies but as soon as I saw them, I knew they needed to become part of a manimal sculpture. As an object they are melancholy wings as they sit in a plastic packet with no bird attached. They remind me of Icarus and his father Daedalus. The sculpture will be called “Not all angels fly”. I am also working on a commissioned piece for a local bar called the Rabbit Rooms. [Laughter] I know: fate or what?

Lee’s ideas and agenda are jam-packed as always. He is arranging a portrait exhibition called People We Know, set to launch next year, with six other artists, who are each to paint one another. Each artist will produce 8 pieces, consisting of one self portrait, a portrait of each of the other five artists and finally portraits of two of their close friends. Lee will also be headlining Ireland’s urban art event “White Wash” in 2012. Before then, though he is planning a live drawing at a charity auction, set to take place on July 17th 2011, all proceeds of which will go to Treasured Hearts, raising money for defibrillators. Needless to say, Lee is already anticipating which “manimal” pictures will emerge from the event. “The manimal pictures will continue for a long time yet. I am bursting with ideas, gnawing away at me.”

Gnawing like a rabbit?
Yes! I am raring to get started on them.

We have rabbited on for quite a while now, Lee. I have thoroughly enjoyed it, but it’s time for me to hop off!
Then I shall return to my warren and carry on with the drawing.


Visit Lee’s website here:


© The Culture Cave 2011. All rights reserved



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  1. 16 August 11 at 4:27pm

    […] my mind back… To read this article in full and see more of Lee’s art, click here: Tweet Previous Topic: Thought of the […]


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