Comfort Zone

Comfort Zone: Ness Lee

by Sabrina Smelko


Although self-expression is the hallmark of Illustrator/Artist Ness Lee‘s artistic work, it’s also at the heart of her greatest fear. No matter the medium, be it ceramic or pencil on paper, Ness views her process as a way to preserve and commemorate her emotions, but despite her ability to translate feelings into art, getting them across in her relationships and daily life is a worry that follows Ness. Being misunderstood is an unpleasant theme of her life, but also what makes her art so powerful.

As someone who constantly feels burdened with heavy thoughts, home is her greatest relief and energy source. Directly above a burger joint and a Souvlaki restaurant in Toronto’s downtown core, her apartment is a haven of freedom. Located in a hub of constant and overwhelming stimulation from the city below, coming home is often therapeutic for Ness. Her living room becomes more than just a cozy corner — it’s the only space she can think and feel freely in, unwinding and clearing her head. Sharing her thoughts is something Ness comes by naturally, and today, she’s joining us to do just that: chatting more about her artistic process, the perils of modern adulthood, and how she’s combatting her fears with the power of positive thinking. –Sabrina

Photography by Nancy Zhang

Tell us about yourself.

I am an Illustrator/Artist from Toronto who works with a variety of mediums and surfaces. I often create my work using black and white or limited color palettes, often exploring ceramics and the application of illustration: applying in different forms to give it a new use and function of aesthetics. My work often expresses emotions — some serious, some humorous — and inner desires; all of the things I wish I had said; fleeting moments and the desire to relive or recreate them.

I chose my home based on the location and convenience. It is quite central in Toronto and easily accessible to the downtown core. Rent was reasonable and the apartment was quite large! Once I saw this space I knew that it was the one. It took mostly over a year to organize and accumulate the furniture and artwork that I have. More recently, I have purchased newer furniture to accommodate the studio renovations, in turn changing the appearance and orientation of the rest of the apartment. It took a lot of planning to decide on furniture, given the smaller spaces I have in each room, [and] it was beneficial to be more strategic on placement to optimize the use of space in every nook and cranny.


What does home and this space mean to you?

This space, in a strange way, feels like freedom. I am able to feel freely and think freely. As the kind of person [who] is constantly drowning in my thoughts, I find this space rids me from that burden. There is so much stimulation outside in the city that I love and hate at the same time. It is nice to just be alone, unwind and have a clearer mindset.

What makes it so comfortable?

I like to think that my living space is cozy. The bright lighting is something I love. The arrangement of my work on the wall is something I am shy about but enjoy at the same time. I don’t like to see my work or be overly involved with myself in that sense, but I feel like it is a nice reminder of how far I have come with my art — kind of like a scrapbook of my progress.


What makes you uncomfortable? What is your biggest fear?

Being misunderstood is something that haunts me every day. It doesn’t happen very often, but I have an insecurity of not being able to express myself in the way I would like to — oftentimes I find it overwhelming to express feelings into words. It comes and goes in waves. Sometimes (most of the time) I am a chatterbox and in other moments I am a person of few words. I think that is why I love art so much. It is so open to interpretation and says so much without the worry of how it is being said.

Have you ever thrown caution to the wind and departed from your comfort zone? What happened as a result?

A more drastic departure from my comfort would be the craft shows and art shows that I have been doing more often. I find it completely horrifying to [sit at a] table at a venue for such long hours — with my work and seeing so many faces. I have gotten used to it by now, but I still find it extremely nerve-wracking. [It] has definitely made [me] be more of a definitive person. I have grown more confident in selling my work and explaining my intentions. I have also grown a much thicker skin because of it. Doing independent fairs, I find, is such a vulnerable experience. Many people passing by, glancing at your work and giving you immediate first impressions — some good, some bad. It is horrifying, but a great way of getting a feel for how your work is being received.


What would you do if you had a day, a week and a month all to yourself?

My first thought is to travel or to do a residency abroad. I love to immerse myself in different environments. If that isn’t possible, I would love to stay in and create art, or read a book, or watch a movie. Unfortunately, I work a few jobs as well as keep my art practice going, so it is tough to enjoy certain simpler pleasures in life, but I am trying to find that balance!


What have you learned as an adult that you wish you knew when you were younger?

I wish I [had] learned to enjoy more moments that I have experienced. Also to really enjoy the company of others — not that I don’t — but I find as an adult, it is harder to find the time to socialize and find those certain individuals that you connect with on a deeper level. I wish I had done more of that when I was younger, given that I had so much more time to be able to. On that note, I wish I [had] enjoyed certain highlights in my life and really took everything in. A lot of pleasurable moments and memories feel incredibly distant — almost as if I [missed] them.

How do you unplug, recharge and unwind?

Sleep. Sleep whenever I can. Otherwise doing anything and everything near water — ideally a beach. Drawing freely or reading a book — something I find completely relaxing.


Have you ever experienced burnout? How do you get back on your feet and stay inspired?

I experience this more often than I would like to admit. I find that I am someone who takes on a lot of things and at the same time, so I fight to make sure I have a life. Finding balance is so difficult. I am often sad for no reason when I am burnt out. The key is to think positive — I always think that tomorrow is a new day. What’s done is done and the best you can do is show up and try. I’m trying to be more fearless and be more of a risk-taker. I think life is too short to be afraid and hesitant. If it is within my power to do something and explore something out-of-the-box, I will make sure I do. Leave no stone unturned. You will never know how you feel about something until you have tried it, and [once] you have tried it you can then conclude that wonderment — and I love that sort of feeling. It is quite fulfilling.

What do you think the world could use less of, and more of?

I think the world could use less talking and more doing.

What’s one question you wish you had the answer to?

How to find bae?


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  • Ness, you should be very proud of yourself for sharing your thoughts and your home to the world like this. I really like what you make! AND I love that your name is Ness Lee.

  • Dear Ms. Lee,
    Although I don’t usually read the “Comfort Zone” column here, I was irresistibly drawn to your work, which I find powerful, exciting, and beautiful. Then, when I came back here and read the phrases “…constantly drowning in my own thoughts” and “…overwhelming…it comes and goes in waves,” I thought I’d send you a message, for they vividly brought back the deep uncertainties, insecurities, and lengthy bouts of depression I knew in my twenties and thirties. I have a few decades on you, and I can testify from my own life–and experience as an older artist–that it DOES get better, and that you can and WILL find kindred souls, friends and lovers who will understand and enrich you (and you them). Your considerable gift and skill at draftsmanship appear to be therapeutic and instructive for you; that’s a strong, reliable, and invaluable foundation for a good life, both tool and solace for all of your days, and also, I am hoping for you, a pathway to real joy and friendship and deep contentment.

  • Nice! I love Ness Lee’s work and have been wanting to know more about her. That sumo wrestler with the face cutout is so great. Who wouldn’t want that at their event or in their living room?! Now I know what my house has been missing, though–some Ness Lee!

  • Nice article! I really enjoyed the peek into your space–it looks so peaceful and pretty :-) thanks for sharing!!

    (small side note, because the editor in me gets a little twitchy–there’s a typo in the section about departing from the comfort zone: in the sentence “[It] has defiantly made [me] be more of a definitive person. ” –> “defiantly” should probably be “definitely”)

  • Ness,

    Your work is amazing and I am so happy to see that you have grown so much. I have been a follower for a long time of your work. I admit at first I didn’t understand and couldn’t appreciate your work, but it grew on me and seeing you succeed, just proves how talented you are.

    I know there are people who doubted you in the past. They definitely regret it now! No matter what happens, stay true to yourself and do what you love. Keep learning and smiling, you are a truly special and talented artist.

    You will always have people supporting you whether you know it or not =)