Lee Ellen Fleming arrived at the University from Dallas with a deep interest in politics. She began her academic career majoring in political theory and took an introductory drawing class on a whim, as a way to relieve stress. She soon fell in love with art, not only with the creation of it, but with the ways it shaped her view of the wider world.
Ms. Fleming became a studio art and art history double major. “I didn’t tell my parents for a while,” she admitted. As she became interested in oil painting, she spent many hours in the Fiske Kimball Fine Arts Library and then in the new open studio space in Ruffin Hall. Ms. Fleming said the public critiques of her work made her stronger: “I learned about myself and my views. Engaging in the creative process opened my mind. I came to realize that critique and different perspectives are crucial.”
One of Fleming’s mentors was Megan Marlatt, a professor of studio art, who both nurtured and challenged her. “I think the world of Lee Ellen,” Ms. Marlatt said. “She has a sense of wonderment about life that’s really beautiful.”
Once, while Ms. Fleming was a student, the studio art program brought a visiting artist to the Grounds for a day. “Lee Ellen came to me with an idea,” Ms. Marlatt recalled. “She wanted to bring in artists for longer periods of time, and for them to interact and build relationships with students.”
Ms. Fleming’s inspiration led to a gift of $100,000 to support the new Visiting Painters Series in the McIntire Department of Art’s studio art program. Once a year for the next four years, the department brings in a painter of note for a month-long residency. The artist has the use of a small studio and meets with students once a week for a critique or class. At the end of the month, the artist opens up the studio to share the work he or she has produced while at U.Va.
The first painter in residency was Samira Abbassy, whose work has been acquired by the British Government Art Collection, the Donald Rubin Foundation (Rubin Museum, N.Y.), and the British Museum for its contemporary Islamic collection. She visited for the month of April 2012.
“My goal is to make art for everyone,” Ms. Fleming said. “There is art in everything. Learning to think more broadly and creatively can improve medicine, business and politics.” Despite her decision to major in studio art and art history, Ms. Fleming knew she did not want to be a professional artist. She now works in the State of Alabama Attorney General Office—ending up in politics after all—but she intends to stay directly involved in supporting the arts at U.Va. She recently accepted an invitation to serve on the U.Va. Arts Council and was appointed in July. She is currently its youngest member.
“We need more people who appreciate art for what it is,” Ms. Fleming said. “I love having a passion. Painting, art collecting and visiting museums are hobbies I will pursue for the rest of my life. Being a patron of the arts is one of my callings.”