The art journey of Lee Tetkowski

Note:  Lee Tetkowski, 94, is a retired art teacher. She taught for many years in various schools, including Grand Island High School. I have had the honor of knowing her since 2006, when I wrote an article about the reunion of the first graduating class of Grand Island High School. The high school exists because of the effort of town residents. Previously, all students traveled off of the island to attend high school. Lee was the chairman of the committee that advocated for the establishment of a high school on Grand Island. This is Lee’s story.

Lee at her dining room table
in the house that her husband Clem
designed about 70 years ago. She
designed and wove the vest
that she is wearing

When did you first discover your love for art?
As long as I can remember, I liked to draw. I was a child of the Depression. We didn’t have anything like toys. What I had was a hand-me-down child’s roll top desk that had belonged to my sister and brother. I had a pencil and a notebook with a blue watercolor box with a lousy paintbrush that didn’t produce much color.

I discovered paper dolls in the Sunday newspaper. I made outfits with little tabs.

Lee’s parents.

I lived in Newark, New Jersey. It was all cemented. There were no kids my age in my neighborhood. It encouraged artwork and doing things alone that I liked to do do. When I was six, the kitchen was painted. I saw crocheting supplies that my mother used. There were yellow, orange, and beige cord.”

The stone in Lee’s ring was the
stone in her father’s tie tack.

“Mama, teach me!!!”

She did! When I was a teenager, I asked her to teach me to knit. Mama knitted left handed. I could not work that way. When I was sixteen or seventeen, after I graduated from high school, I had a Saturday job. I saved my money and went to Bamberger’s Department Store. They provided free instruction with a yarn purchase. My first project was a beige button-down short sleeved little sweater.

Years later, when I was in Italy, all of the women and big girls there knitted. It was affordable. My daughter Diane learned to knit the Italian way.

A large piece of fiber that Lee designed and wove

How did you decide to become an art teacher?

Lee and her husband Clem after the war.

I was an outstanding student in math and in art. I was a member of a high school math team. There were only two girls on the team. We competed and won math tournaments. I considered becoming a math teacher. If I were in high school making that decision now, I would consider becoming an engineer.

Lee’s plant corner, with
a tree weaving

One day, I had an important session with my Uncle Meyer in his Packard. I was going on an errand with him. I thought that he was really rich. My papa had just died. I asked him, what should I major in: math education or art education? He said that my math ability is very good but added, “Your art ability is more unique.” He urged me to major in art education. So I majored in art and that’s where I met my future husband.

How did you become a weaver?

How did I get hooked on weaving? In the freshman year of the art education program, I took a little of every art medium, and I loved everything. The first year introduced fabric arts, including batiking and tie dying and a few weeks of learning how to weave. This was the first glimmer of what was to come. The teacher had a whole room of small metal prepared looms already threaded with this white butcher cord. I loved the idea of interlocking threads. I fell in love with fibers. I was the only one who loved it. The other students all hated it. The instructor presented it in a dull way. But I ate a bag lunch and worked on my project alone in the room.

working at the loom

I am really self taught. I bought the first loom with money budgeted for the classroom. I taught myself and I taught my students. I wanted to teach love and appreciation for fiber and for interweaving threads. I taught the basics, unlike my first teacher.

What led you and your husband to Italy and how did Buffalo State College establish the Siena program?

Lee and Clem Tetkowski
in Italy

I married Clem in 1944 during the war. I met him in 1940, when he was a junior and I was a freshman. A year before I met Clem, he hitchhiked all over the United States and in Mexico, where he met Diego Rivera. He had wanderlust. We began to be friends. I wanted to go to Mexico to see the artwork, the textiles, the ceramics, and the jewelry. We married on the weekend that I graduated. It was considered to be a rebellious act because of our different religious backgrounds. After the war, we both worked as art teachers. I ordered three things for our home: a Singer sewing machine, a Studebaker, and a refrigerator. 

another one of Lee’s

We had to wait to get these things until the factories shifted from war production to civilian projection. We saved up the cash to pay for the car. We drove to Mexico. We had put a bed in the car. We got a gas stove, and I made curtains. We lived in the car all summer. We found trailer courts to accept us in Mexico. We were able to use the shower facilities there.

Lee and Clem’s three children, Mira, Diane,
and Neil.

A few years later, Clem got a job at Buffalo State College, in the Art Education Department. He had heard about an older professor who led graduate students to Mexico to study Mexican history. Clem wanted to go with him to teach art. Clem and Dr. Peterson did the program together once. After that, Clem offered a six-week art education program for graduate students during the summer. I went to Mexico, along with the children. We got to love Mexico dearly.

After that, we took a group of undergraduates to learn about the Renaissance in Italy. They were able to see and learn the culture and the language. 

Neil became an sculptor and he created this portrait of his family. He and his two sisters provide the hands that are seen in the center. The hands on either side are his parents and the hands around the edges of the circle are Lee and Clem’s grandchildren.

The Siena semester is the oldest study abroad program at the state college. It materialized in September of 1961. From March to April, Clem told me that it would happen. I listened to records and studied Italian. It changed our lives. I fell in love with everything about Italy: the people, the language, the culture, and the air.

Lee works at her large loom.

The first twenty students in the program raved about it, as did the second twenty. By the third year, we were asked to return with another teacher, who would teach something other than art (education). It became an annual program. The children were eager to go back to Italy. We still have those Italian friends. By 1974, Diane was married, Neil was in school in Alfred State, and Mira was a first year teacher. The college asked Clem and Lee to go back to Italy.

I applied for a sabbatical (from my high school teaching job), and I was refused. We still went to Italy. My golden time was from 1974 until 1976. We had a little Fiat. We spoke the language.

Lee loves her at-home studio

I drew and painted. I met weavers. I had a great and enriching time in my development as an artist. We visited museums and galleries.

A painting that Lee made in Italy.

A big part of our family has been the Italian connection. We went many times, sometimes for a month, sometimes for a couple of weeks.

In 1985, I retired. Clem had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Clem said, “Let’s go to Italy.” We went in October and we came home for Thanksgiving.

Since then, I’ve visited Italy for reunions,  a birthday party in a castle. It was catered by a restaurant. It felt so proper to repay my friends in Italy for so many dinners we got invited to. I said to my family, when I’m 85, I want to go to Siena and have a party. It was done for my 86th birthday.

the shelf in Lee’s studio.

Clem Tetkowski passed away in 1991. Lee continues to weave, using two looms in her home. She also continues to show her work in a variety of venues. Her most recent visit to Siena, Italy, was in the summer of 2015. She is currently working on a project that will celebrate the diversity of people in the United States. 

12 thoughts on “The art journey of Lee Tetkowski”

  1. I have the pleasure of know Lee and being a part of the Siena alumnae program -having gone in 1969. She is a remarkable woman with so much talent and strength. This was a lovely story

    Jackie Martins

  2. I loved this creative journey ,painter weaver and everything beautiful.Lee's journey is inspiring and I love dhow you presented her .It was like she is in the room with me.

  3. Where do you want to go today?

    Hi Alice, thanks for another great article on people doing extraordinary things. Immagine living a long life doing the things you enjoy the most. You can retire from a job but it is hard to give up what you love to do. Blog on!

  4. I really enjoyed your artist's profile of Lee. As a Siena program alumna, I really likd learning more about this talented lady.

  5. Very nicely done. As a friend of the family, I’ve heard some spin yarns with some of these threads before. But now the story is woven together for me so nicely!

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