Art collector and art school founder Kilo Lee discusses the keys to his success in a field where many have failed — combining artistic talents with astute business sense.
The award-winning Taiwanese painter Kilo Lee is one of Canada’s humble gems. He is an art collector, trader and painter whose sensitive heart and keen eye have contributed to the art world for nearly 60 years. But his greatest legacy may be his most recent. Lee established the Art Point Academy in Vancouver nearly a decade ago to hone talented young adults into world-class artists.
Students are admitted based on two criteria, Lee told Taste of Life. They must have passion and perseverance — the cornerstones of his own success. Nearly all his students are accepted to the art colleges of their choice.
The day we met, he was dressed in a beret, casual cotton shirt with mandarin collar, and a pair of corduroy pants with suspenders. He looked ready to set his easel in a French lavender field. Thanks to his warm nature and open mind, the conversation flowed as freely as if he just had.
An affinity for beauty
Lee began his art training in his native Taiwan at age six. He won his first award at nine years old, at the International Children’s Art Exhibition. When he was 14, Lee dedicated himself to mastering sketching and painting techniques at a school of fine art. At 17, his work “Green Field” was chosen for the Tai-Yang Art Exhibition — Taiwan’s oldest and most prestigious painting exhibition. Lee was the youngest of its artists ever to be selected.
Lee became an art investor that same year. “I noticed a painting of a Confucian temple at an exhibition. It was so beautiful.” But it was priced nearly out of his league. With all his savings and his grandmother’s help, Lee bought the painting.
Later, a painting by Lee’s teacher caught his eye. Although its beauty was arresting, it cost nearly double the price of the first painting. He could not ask for his grandmother’s help again. So he negotiated with the gallery and traded the Confucian temple painting and a small sum of money for his teacher’s work of art. During that transaction, a lifelong passion was sparked.
Eighteen years old and already a multi-hyphenate, Lee was accepted into the Oriental Art Institute in Taiwan. There, he often continued painting after the studios closed at night. His passion and dedication impressed many professors.
“An 80-year-old Art Institute teacher taught me everything he knew,” said Lee. “For example, it’s difficult to achieve the ruddy complexion in classical oil paintings by mixing paints. He taught me how to do it — by layering red under another colour. I would never have come up with that on my own.”
Fortune favours the bold
After his education, Lee sought out communities of artists beyond Taiwan. He discovered that Moscow was a bastion where strict, classical techniques were being preserved and passed on.
“It was rare to see so many masters together at one time, people who have superb
fundamental drawing skills that are often ignored today. Fundamental drawing techniques are very important — otherwise, even if you have creativity and ideas, what you portray is nothing because your skills have not reached that level of perfection.”
Lee’s entrepreneurial skills grew along with his artistic talent, enabling him to sense business opportunities where others overlooked them. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Lee rushed there to buy paintings on behalf of art foundations. “The day before my flight, a plane from the same airline crashed near Moscow, my destination,” Lee said. “And while I was there, tanks circled in the streets near my hotel.” If it were not for his love of classical arts and respect for the artists, Lee said, he would not have risked going there. He feels it was well worth it. “If it hadn’t been for the political climate, they wouldn’t have sold their works of art.”
An investment matures
At the peak of his success, Lee retired and immigrated to Vancouver. But the world of art soon caught up with him again in a different way when his children wanted to study fine art. His friends’ children wanted to do the same, and Lee was hard-pressed to find a good teacher for them.
Lee reminisced, “More than one of my teachers told me, ‘When you become a teacher one day, you should treat your students the way I treat you.’ I didn’t think much of it because I didn’t want to become a teacher — it’s a tough job with relatively low compensation. But the more I taught, the more I discovered the great reward in passing on what I’ve learned.”
Lee laments the fact that nowadays art teachers often emphasize concepts and experimentation more than basic skills. He insists that his students begin by drawing tables of black and white contrast. Sometimes they complain that this is boring.
But Lee explains that these techniques are essential: “If you can represent ten perfect shades by sketching with charcoal, it will be easy for you to paint with colour. Even if you study design, these building blocks are still important. In architecture, for example, you express space and make models. In fashion design, you rely on colours and ergonomics. All these elements are related to sketches.”
Art Point Academy has sent more than a hundred students to major institutes in architecture, design and fine art. The enterprising Lee plans to expand and enroll students from all over the world.
Photography by Milos Tosic