Talented twins modernize folk art


Judie Lee and Julie Kessler

Adam Palumbo

While growing up, small-town twin sisters used to color the walls of their upstairs room. Their art looks a lot better now.

Collaborative endeavors in the form of large scale, modern folk art mixed media paintings are popular for them in 2020. Sometimes, they use old car hoods.

Julie Kessler of West Melbourne and her sister Judie Lee of Mount Dora celebrate their small-town roots. They work in several different artistic media, including sculptures, paintings  and recycled artwork. They share similar artistic styles.

Similar to motifs found in traditional folk art, their creations feature bright colors, an abundance of details, portraits, religious visual themes and writing on the canvas. Mixed media are pivotal for many of the pieces.

The pair often create work that visually refers to rural themes from their idyllic childhood in Ohio. Folk art refers to a nostalgic and reverent visual take on country ways and symbols and is increasingly celebrated in fine art circles.

“We grew up in a really small town called Seven Mile — population about 700 — and I think that influences the fact that we do a lot of outdoor artsy stuff,’’ Kessler said. “It was a little dinky town surrounded by cornfields. We went to the creek — rode our bikes every day. There were lots of kids everywhere, and we never locked our doors.’’

Their mother, who raised four girls as a single parent, led by example when it came to art appreciation and encouragement.

“She was very eclectic,’’ Kessler said. “We had the house that, when people walked in, there was hardly any space on the walls that didn’t have something on it. She would fill the walls.’’

Upstairs, according to Lee, was where even more creativity was allowed.

“We painted on the walls,’’ Lee said. “She just kind of let us do what we wanted up there.’’

The passion for art remained, but they were geographically separated for nearly 30 years. Lee lived in Oregon and in Seattle, Washington, while Kessler remained in Ohio before eventually moving to West Melbourne. They remained close and called each other twice a day.

Kessler worked in the medical field for 20 years before picking up art again. She became a stay-at-home parent after the birth of her daughter. Her daughter, now 25, has special needs.

Lee eventually was talked into relocating to Mount Dora, where she has an art studio.

Proximity has helped
bring back the spark of twin-power creativity. This has led to new inspiration, new pieces and future plans to create even more.

“Neither one of us went to college or school for art,’’ Lee said. “So, we are pretty much self-taught. We’ve just been doing it forever, and we like looking at art and being inspired.’’

It was during a collaboration using metal that Kessler found an old car hood at a junkyard. Now, they have painted hundreds of all shapes, including using a van hood as a back for a bench.

“I brought it home and painted it up like the do-no evil monkeys and added an extra monkey,’’ Kessler said. “I did it (to represent) the four sisters. Because of the four, there was always one of us being bad. It just went from there. One of the first car hoods we did was sold to someone in London.’’

They start by drawing the general shapes using chalk. Later, they forge the myriad of details sometimes until the canvas — or car hood — is completely filled. Other patterns are more simple, but all share a similar quality with lines a bit sharper than found in some examples of traditional folk art.

“We took art classes in high school and the art teachers were awesome,’’ Lee said. “We were exposed to almost everything — jewelry, metal, pottery. We got a lot of exposure to different kinds of art.”

It all comes so easy. Often, the twins wonder what it would have been like to start their art careers sooner.

“We really didn’t have people telling us we should go that way as far as a career,’’ Lee said. “When we look back on it, we probably would have gone right to art school.’’