It started with cheesecakes.
Lee Madison saw the massive 9-inch, 3.5-pound cheesecakes his friend made he knew he needed to do something. So he became a graphic artist.
“I didn’t have any money and she didn’t have any money either,” he said.
“That meant I had to learn how to build a website and create a Facebook page and advertisements and marketing and stuff. I sat in the office at her house for, God, sometimes 10 to 16 hours straight. I gave it all I got.”
Eventually, that business fizzled out. But Madison’s eye for design stayed strong.
Five years later, he sits in his usual spot in the front of Starbucks in downtown Annapolis. To most, he may look like he’s texting or reading an article on his phone. His gray reading glasses slide down to the tip of his nose. A cup of coffee sits in front of him. You have to look closely to see he’s wearing a few layers of flannel shirts and a vest over his jeans.
He’s actually working on his next masterpiece.
Madison, 51, uses three or four different apps on his iPhone to create trippy scenes from other worlds he can escape to.
Some are underwater with mermaids, dolphins and colorful coral reefs. Some are hidden forests with butterflies, wild horses and waterfalls. Many depict Jesus layered into these scenes, or take on a nautical theme.
He often includes phrases in these worlds that inspire and calm him: “Kindness is power,” “You can be anything in this world (but be kind),” “Great things never come from comfort zones,” “Adulting: some days are easier than others.”
The apps give him a range of tools to work with, but they’re free so he constantly has to get through ads and pop-ups to do his work. He layers stock photos, animations and colored backgrounds on top of each other to create the scenes of his subconscious. Some take an hour and a half to two hours, some pieces he works on for more than a day.
It would be easier to work on a desktop and use higher quality software, but Madison doesn’t have that option. He’s been homeless for the last 12 years and struggled with addiction for at least 30.
Creation gives him a safe escape from reality.
“It’s like a natural human release. It takes me out of me,” he said. “I never normally have a topic. It just goes where it goes.”
Madison said he left home at 13-years-old after his father was killed and he faced other family issues. He stayed with family and friends until he was on his own in his 20s.
“Most of my family members drank and they drank heavily,” he said. “I kind of followed suit with my family. Next thing I know, I crossed over. At first, it was fun… after that, it became a job to feed the addiction. I never thought for one second I would become the person I became, which is a homeless man.”
After spending decades in the world of homelessness and addiction, Madison said attaining a mainstream lifestyle is more difficult than people think.
As he sits in Starbucks at the start of the new year, he is 16 days clean. He’s worked hard for this to be in the county’s winter relief homeless program, giving him regular hot meals and a safe, warm place to sleep. He works odd jobs as a contractor, doing renovations and remodeling around Annapolis, but he’s put work aside to focus on sobriety.
“You get scared from the lifestyle of being on the street and addiction, just the ripping and shredding of people’s lives and your own life,” he said.
“I make attempts to get out and get clean. But when you get clean, automatically responsibilities come. Accountability comes. Participation, motivation and different things that I’m not used to being or doing. It becomes very uncomfortable to try to live like mainstream folk do. That transitioning has been very difficult for me. For some reason, I get to a certain point and something happens. I’m not sure what that is.”
Though Madison has gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback on his work through posts to Annapolis community Facebook groups and his page for addiction recovery, “Bring the body ,, the mind will follow,” he wants to focus on self-care before he thinks about commodifying his work.
People occasionally comment asking where they can buy copies of his work or put it on T-shirts, usually when it features his photos of Annapolis scenes like the Capital building or sailboats on the water.
In Starbucks, he pulls up his edited photo of the Budweiser Clydesdales leading this year’s military bowl parade.
“They really lit that one up,” he says of commenters in the Eastport community group he posted in.
He’s proud, and he knows the world is ready to see his work. He just has to be ready for the world.
“One day I’d like to have some really nice equipment. I could imagine what would happen if I elevated it to that level of quality,” he said. “But I still make it happen.”