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Release: May 25, 2001

UI Museum of Art will show works by Iowan and Grant Wood protege Lee Allen

IOWA CITY, Iowa – "Lee Allen," a retrospective exhibition of more than 50 artworks, including paintings, water colors, medical illustrations and a bronze relief, will be on display at the University of Iowa Museum of Art Saturday, June 9, through Sunday, July 29.

Allen, who is retired from the UI department of ophthalmology, made his primary career in ophthalmic photography, ophthalmic medical illustration, and ocular prosthetics. However, he began his career in the 1930s working with Grant Wood on Works Progress Administration (WPA) art projects, and his art retains a Regionalist style.

The exhibition at the UI Museum of Art will explore Allen’s achievements in both art and science. It will include his Regionalist work from the 1930s, his pioneering achievements in medical illustration, and work from the past two decades, when he returned to painting following his retirement from the UI.

Born in 1910 in Muscatine, Iowa, Allen had an early interest in art. He received his first set of oil paints at the age of 11, and after graduation from high school in Des Moines, Allen attended summer school and one full year at the Cumming School of Art in Des Moines. He also competed in art competitions at the Iowa State Fair, winning first prizes in 1928 and ‘29. In the fall of 1929 he enrolled at the UI and began attending Grant Wood’s evening sketching classes in Cedar Rapids.

During Allen’s years of study at the UI he continued his relationship with Grant Wood and traveled to Stone City during summer weekends. In 1933 Grant Wood was appointed director of the Midwest District WPA Art Project and invited Allen to work with him. Later Allen briefly studied with Diego Rivera in Mexico, and he received several commissions for murals in the late 1930s.

In 1937, however, Allen decided that his family responsibilities required a steady job. He accepted a position as illustrator in the UI department of ophthalmology. Fearing he would not be successful in two careers, he decided not to exhibit or sell another painting as long as he was in the department.

Except for painting on vacation, the creation of oil portraits of department heads and relief portraits of UI medical school professors, Lee confined his artistic pursuits to medical illustration. He was president of the Association of Medical Illustrators in 1959 and was a founding member and the first president of the Ophthalmic Photographer’s Society in 1969 as well as president of the American Society of Ocularists the same year.

After his retirement from the ophthalmology department in 1976, Allen joined David Bulgarelli in private enterprise making prosthetic eyes from a process Allen had initiated in 1945. He also returned to his original artistic interests and created many paintings and drawings that show his continued interest in the regional subject matter unique to the Iowa rural landscape. He produced many such works before progressive macular degeneration impeded his visual ability. Even then, however, he turned his scientific training inward and produced illustrations displaying for the first time the progression of this devastating disease. His groundbreaking illustrations appear in "The Hole in My Vision: An Artist’s View of His Own Macular Degeneration," published in 2000.

After its closing at the UI Museum of Art, "Lee Allen" will be seen at the Brunnier Art Museum of Iowa State University, Aug. 28 through Nov. 25, 2001.

The UI Museum of Art, located on North Riverside Drive in Iowa City, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. The Museum will be closed to the public July 30-Aug. 30. Admission is free. Public metered parking is available in UI parking lots across from the museum on Riverside Drive and just north of the museum.

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