by Kevin O’Donnell
On a gloriously warm day in May 2018, my wife Colleen, and I leisurely strolled through a one man art exhibition at the Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay that featured the work of impressionist painter Lee Radtke. I had admired Radtke’s modern take on the 19th century representational art movement for some time. His mastery of seamlessly blending the dichotomy of soft, glowing light against a backdrop of harsh industrial grit was appealing.
Never was this more superbly defined than in Lee’s unique paintings of Fincantieri Bay Shipyard during winter lay-up. While studying one intricate piece, a voice chirped behind me:
“That’s the Tregurtha. The Paul Tregurtha, largest ship on the Great Lakes. You see here?” An index finger darted close, past my temple.
“Yes, I know. I love it,” I replied, a bit perturbed by his gesture.
I turned around and immediately recognized Lee Radtke, a warm smile washing over his cherubic face. Behind oversized wire-rimmed frames his eyes danced across the painting as if he had just seen it for the first time. He was shorter than I had imagined, and distinguished looking. We exchanged introductions and pleasantries. Like long-lost friends we spoke about art, music, and ore boats for over an hour. I bought a shipyard painting, the first of many of his works.
A week later, Lee called to chat. It was again a bout of mutual admiration. The phone calls became a weekly thing. On his many visits to Door County, Lee always made time to stop by. He eventually would stay with us in Clay Banks whenever he came north for business or painting.
What developed over the next two years, until his tragic death in an auto accident this past December 23, was a friendship that outpaced any I’d experienced. Lee would bemoan the fact that we had not met earlier, since we had so much in common, knew many of the same people, socialized in many of the same circles, and lived for years within a few miles of each other, before Colleen and I settled into Door County retirement. Over some 60 years we never once crossed paths. It was as if we were making up for lost time.
Although Lee had no formal art training, he had taken the most difficult path for a beginning artist, as a plein air painter. He learned to paint quickly, capturing the essence of scenes by creating an impression of what he saw. Lee’s compositions are visually elusive. Avoiding realism, what appears to be very detailed is in fact a few colorful and intuitively placed brush strokes. His goal was to not interfere with the viewer’s imagination.
Many of Lee’s works were selected in juried exhibits, including two prestigious national organizations, the Oil Painters of America (OPA) and American Impressionist Society (API). He attained the rarified status of becoming an elected signature member of the latter. 2020 was going to be Lee’s break-out year. He was hitting his artistic stride, the recipient of growing respect, recognition and consignments. He said it took him 81 years to become an overnight success.
Lee never made friends in passing. He made friends for life, a diverse collection of people who were as loyal to him as he was to them: painters, fishing and army buddies, architects, businessmen, childhood friends from the Chicago of his youth…astonishing, since he had been gone from the city since the early 1970s. They all loved Lee for his honesty, humility, kindness. What unified them was his art, vivid reminders of his talent, love of family, loyalty to friends.