For the third year running, U.S. Bank has commissioned Kirkland resident and artist Nolen Lee to create the bank’s Lunar New Year calendar.
The second oldest of six children, Lee enjoyed drawing, coloring, playing with LEGOs, bead-making, creating figurines with Sculpey, folding origami creations, painting T-shirts—you name it, he’s tried it.
His affinity for art continued into his school years, where he drew characters from the video games he played with friends—from Street Fighter, Mega Man, and X-Men. In high school, he began thinking about what he wanted to do for a living.
“I looked at my dad and older brother who were both architects,” Lee said. “I was doing well in math and science and started pursuing civil engineering. I was too scared to submit my art portfolio to an art school.”
One night halfway through his studies, his mom called him up and asked him to turn on the local PBS channel.
“There was a special on Chuck Jones—the creator of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner and the Warner Bros. frog,” Lee said. His parents had brought him up on Looney Tunes and other old cartoons, and the documentary sparked something in him.
“I see this guy who’s very blue-collar in my mind, but creates wacky, fun characters and is this amazing storyteller and designer. At the point I was watching it, I thought, that’s what I want to do! I want to get into art and animation.”
However, this revelation didn’t propel him out of his engineering program.
“I’d promised my parents I would finish, and I was already halfway through. I ended up completing a master’s degree in civil engineering.”
Armed with this formidable backup career, Lee took the leap into art.
After drawing a set of panda characters and launching his website, called Punching Pandas, he had his work sold at a market in the Wing Luke Museum. The installation was then noticed by an agency U.S. Bank works with on marketing campaigns.
For this year’s calendar, Lee explored a different artistic style.
“People viewing the calendar might see haphazard brushstrokes up close, but when you step back and look at the whole image, you see those brushstrokes create a lively image that still retains a lot of detail—like the bakery shot with all the buns, or the June image of the graduation ceremony.”
He also used his lived experience to inspire some images.
“I remember growing up, we’d have a lot of big family dinners,” Lee said.
“When trying to figure out what dishes to put in the February image, I drew on the family dinners we had then, with fish or dumplings on the table.”
“Becoming a dad made me think about the values that I had,” Lee said. His oldest child is 4 years old.
“There is room for silliness, but at the end of the day, I want a clear vision of what I want to use my art for, and what I don’t want to use it for. As soon as I became a dad, those thoughts came into my mind. It’s strange how immediate that was. When my son was born, it was an instantaneous feeling where everything changed. It’s like trying to describe to someone a different flavor of ice cream. You haven’t had it, but it’s amazing—a different flavor of love.”
Lee will infuse that sensibility into the next evolution of his Punching Pandas work, which will include a graphic novel and, in line with his PBS inspiration all those years ago, animated shorts.
The calendar is available at U.S. Bank branches across the country and is also downloadable at usbank.com/lunarnewyear.