By all measures, Columbia-based modern American artist Christian Thee has had a spectacular career. He’s painted sets for 25 Broadway shows, and designed 12 more. His mastery of the ancient art of trompe l’oeil — painting that fools the eye — is so well known that Donald Trump hired him to create a Persian mural for his Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City, and Joan Rivers commissioned him to convert the foyer and a ceiling of her New York residence into works of art that transported viewers to another place.
In Connecticut, he turned a lowly elevator into a library with nothing more than a palette, a brush, and his instinctive ability to create depth where there is none, to create light where darkness ruled. Tiffany & Company used Christian’s work as a backdrop for the precious jewels on display in the windows of its legendary 5th Avenue store.
Even the British monarchy has been impressed by his talent: in 1981 Queen Elizabeth asked Christian to paint a portrait of Prince Andrew on his 21st birthday. Along the way he’s had numerous one-man shows and has been featured in Interior Design, House and Garden, Art in America and Town and Country magazines. Oh, and he’s also a magician so talented that David Copperfield performs a trick that he developed.
With such an immense and diverse body of work, it would seem logical to wonder if Christian Thee has a masterpiece. Turns out he does, but you won’t find it hanging on a wall. That’s because it’s his home.
Tucked behind a tangle of foliage, the house sits almost hidden from the street. There’s no view of the backyard from the driveway, no open garage door to offer a glimpse into who lives here. Stepping toward the front door, I even wondered for an instant if I was in the wrong place. But given Thee’s talent as a trompe l’oeil painter, his love of magic, and his playful spirit, I found myself expecting the home to resemble Willy Wonka’s wild Chocolate Factory: where doors led to crazy spaces or to nowhere at all, where windows could be real or imagined, and where innocent-looking light switches, when flicked on, might fill the room with sound.
I couldn’t have been less correct. Like much of Thee’s work, the house unfolds like a perfectly-timed production, sharing its delights only when the time is right.
“The house is an extension of me,” says Thee as he gestures around a great room that glows the shade of a Tuscan sunset. “I looked around and got ideas and went to work.”
That was a few years ago. Thee had just returned to Columbia after more than 35 years in New York and Connecticut, back to design the set for a play that one of his dearest friends, Columbia advertising executive Cynthia Gilliam, was producing. “We’d just been through a winter with 17 snowstorms,” he recalls. “We hadn’t used the front door in months. Then Cynthia called. How could I resist?”
After searching for a house, he found one that, though stodgy on the inside, was on a lot that would allow for the expansion of a studio. Being on a lake didn’t hurt either. “I loved the lake location,” he says. “I knew I could make the house wonderful.”
He has. Each room is a gallery of its own — a treasure-trove of stories and memories, of surprises and delights, that reveals itself layer-by-layer. The great room’s built-in bookcases, for instance, are filled not only with books and bric-a-brac, but with what look like tiny dioramas. On closer inspection, they are actually intricate models of some of the sets that Thee built during his time in New York, complete with tiny actors, props and architectural details that were faithfully recreated when the plays were performed and lighted professionally. These models are captivating.
Light is part of what Thee does best, and in this instance he uses the floor to achieve the look he’s after. Thanks to a soft glow that comes from a coat of wax and a lot of elbow grease, the handcrafted terra cotta tiles give the light a place to dance.
In Thee’s house, even the walls are canvases: the twig motif that borders the walls is a Victorian design that Thee felt would, along with the yellow walls, bring the room alive. Tromp l’oeil surprises, like the vase whose flowers are actually painted onto the surface, bring smiles, as does a tiny bird’s nest set into a corner. A single real twig, perched on a beam, gives depth.
But Thee’s trompe l’oeil work isn’t his only talent that’s on display. In the past year or so, Thee has been working on pieces that represent an Italian art form called arte informale. Characterized by compositions of found objects — think bits of hardware, shells, lids, spools, and other random items that catch the artist’s eye and are then attached to a surface and united with paint — informales test an artist’s eye for composition. In Thee’s capable hands, the pieces have a geometric elegance that belies their humble parts. “It’s a complete departure from what I’ve done in the past,” says Thee. “But it fulfills something in me.” The informale that hangs from the wall in the great room is a case in point. Rich with texture, its pattern of rectangles and repeating circles make it a study in structure. Bronze paint, aged ever so slightly, gives the piece the look of an antique metal door.
Thee could have called the piece ‘finished’ then. But he didn’t. The counterpoint of the rainbow of colors reflected from the strips of holographic Mylar film that Thee wove throughout the informale elevates it from a beautiful composition to a unique — and thoroughly modern — work of art. “Actually, I apply the Mylar before the piece even begins to take shape,” explains Thee. “That way, the light that refracts from it is an integral part of the design.”
Besides giving him the ability to make rooms come alive, one of the benefits of Thee’s training as a set designer is his skill at hiding things that most people just learn to deal with. Take his red room. The shirred fabric that covers the walls is in-and-of itself very attractive, yet it also serves a purpose by hiding the wires that support the many pieces of art, including a ruby-colored informale, that decorate the space. “It makes it really easy to change up the artwork, too,” says Thee. Two easy-chairs and a remote hint at a television, but it’s nowhere to be found, until Thee picks up one of the remotes. One-push of a button and suddenly a television rises out of the top of a lovely painted chest. I hadn’t noticed that the family photos on display were set around the perimeter of the chest — not in the middle where the appliance laid in wait. “There’s nothing pretty about a television, but you need to have one,” says Thee. “This was a perfect solution.”
The house has a number of other ‘perfect solutions’, including four secret doors that provide shortcuts through the sprawling residence, a bed that Thee designed and had constructed to include storage, and a room devoted entirely to Thee’s magic. “It makes it easy to put on magic shows after dinner,” he explains.
As lackluster as the rest of the house was when he bought it, the room that Thee admits he hated the most was the dining room. “It had white enamel panels with green wallpaper inlays,” he recalls. Although the room had no windows, Thee didn’t mind. “That played into my plan to make it look like you’re inside a garden pavilion.” The plan worked. The room is a day that’s perpetually clear and sunny. Monkeys and brightly-plumed birds peer into the room as peacocks strut on the grounds beyond. The sky is such a perfect shade of blue that you can almost smell the emerald-green lawn. At night, the 600 Austrian crystals that Thee placed around the room sparkle enchantingly. “I was accused of gilding the lily,” smiles Thee. “I guess I did.”
Gilded or not, the room, like the house, has become a favorite gathering place for Thee’s friends, family and neighbors. “Christian’s parent’s home was a gathering spot, so it makes sense that this house would be, too,” says Cynthia Gilliam. “I think it signifies that he’s putting roots down here and that he’s here to stay. I hope so, because it’s wonderful to have him back.”