Brooke Madsen sees the beginning of each day as a canvas.
”I just start and see where we go,” Madsen said.
Every detail is meticulously placed by this local artist, as Madsen starts from scratch or builds upon what she already knows. Every spot, wrinkle and curve is its own story, whether part of her own, or one she’s helping tell.
After molding familiar faces and bodies for years, she sought a new project.
Madsen, an artist living in Gainesville, wanted to sculpt stories and faces that she had never encountered, ones from across her own community.
As Madsen wandered the streets of Gainesville, one face, in particular, stood out: that of James Marshall Lee.
Lee, accompanied by a walker and a friendly smile, was emotional when Madsen unexpectedly approached him. Her desire to photograph and sculpt him brought him to tears.
“All I did was ask his name and take his picture and have this connection with him, and it meant so much,” Madsen said. “It helped me to want to keep trying and have compassion.”
After a year of carrying his photograph in her back pocket, she finally began her project. Thinking of their interaction with every sketch, it swiftly came together. Lee’s face, his story, was sitting on top of Madsen’s dresser.
“I think we’re all put here for something and there were few things that I got. I feel like I need to give back,” Madsen said. “One of those is the way that I view human beings. I want to share that perspective. I want them to see themselves that way.”
Madsen couldn’t wait to find Lee and show him the piece of clay resembling the fibers of his being.
“I feel like he would just be so honored to see it,” Madsen said. “I haven’t been able to find him since, but it was beautiful. When making it, I felt this tenderness for him.”
This excitement slowly dimmed as months passed, concluding an unsuccessful search for Lee. Madsen’s hope for a reunion seemed impossible.
The entire time she was sculpting him, Madsen didn’t realize she was memorializing him.
James Marshall Lee passed away in July of 2021, according to the Office of the Medical Examiner Florida District Eight.
“I guess I felt a sense of loss in that he never got to see it,” Madsen said.
Madsen also felt a sense of relief, believing that he may be at peace. A piece of Lee will always remain with her in Gainesville.