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Photographer, artist weathers storm to emanate beauty

Upon leaving a difficult situation, artist Kristie Lee graduates college with a 4.0, writes children's books, illustrates, and inspires others to flourish

Once Kristie “Lee” Julian made a decision to live the life she had always dreamed, creative expression flowed as freely as the tides of Lake Superior, west to east, in a whole new journey through “God’s Country.”

Lee recognized beauty in the early morning dew that nourishes the land’s vast vegetation, along with an inner desire to capture and share such imagery with the world.

In one hand, she carried a camera to capture everything she saw. In the other, she held the drawing utensils required to put it all on paper. 

Along the many paths and trails Lee walked, she met Ryan and April Cicchelli of Cicchelli Second Chance Rescue & Exotics. 

“He wrote stories,” Lee said, introducing Cicchelli’s “Isabella and Friends” children’s book series. “Ryan came to me with some bullet points. He had ideas, but didn't know what they looked like.”

The main character in “Isabella and Friends” is daughter Isabella Cicchelli, presently growing up in the largest animal rescue Northern Michigan has to offer. Sharing her mother’s love for creatures in need, little Isabella cares for and feeds the animals.

“She is a real-life Bindi Irwin,” Lee said, drawing comparison to the conservationist and zookeeper daughter of the late Steve Irwin, AKA “The Crocodile Hunter."

Cicchelli Second Chance Rescue & Exotics is home to over 100 exotic animals.

In her father’s stories, main character Isabella introduces readers to some of the critters roaming her family’s rescue. 

Pleased with Lee’s unique style, Cicchelli asked her to illustrate two more “Isabella and Friends” books: “Adventures with Darwin” and “Growing Up with Akela.”

“My job is to hear stories,” Lee said. “People often don’t know what they want. I look at photographs and scenery to put it all together. It is exciting for me as an illustrator. I have eight books under my belt, so far.”

Lee worked with author Lyndsi DeVries to create art for “The Magic Fishing Song,” a children’s rhyming, song book about a young girl who goes fishing for the first time. She uses a lollipop, donut, and pickle for bait, while singing a magical fishing song with every cast to draw the fish in. Dad comes to the rescue.

Lee most recently illustrated a children’s book for author Megan Stefanski, called, “Yooperman's Pride: Football Is Family.” The story takes readers on various adventures with a couple of Yooper football lovers and their friends, who travel all over the country to watch the Lions play.

Similarly, Lee’s three kids, Josh, Anna, and Daniel traveled and hiked numerous UP trails with their mother growing up. Sometimes, they found actual "lions." She wrote of her family’s adventures in “Hey Momma, Did You See That?” “Hey Daniel, “Did You See That?” and “Where the Tall Trees Grow.”

In them, Lee combined Upper Peninsula photos with hand-drawn illustrations to present a unique style of her own.

“In the first book, my youngest sees things that aren't there,” Lee said, going on to describe how her son would claim to see camels in the UP. “I used visuals, like the Mackinac Bridge and Sturgeon Bay Dunes."

The second book reads as it sounds, with Lee turning such questions around on her son. The third story was written with her daughter in mind. 

“If there was a rock, root, or anything she was going to trip on it,” Lee said. “She would always be like, ‘I'm hungry.’ One day, she said, ‘Mom, I want to be in a book.’ So, I made her part of a poem I had written.”

Together, mom and daughter go on a hiking adventure to find the outdoor playground the animals used.

Lee's work has not gone unrecognized. She was awarded Emerging Artist of 2018/19 by Crooked Tree Art Gallery, Emerging Artist of 2019 by Jordan Art Council, and SOROPA First Round Winner in 2018. 

That was then, but some memories never fade, especially when written, drawn, and photographed for all of the world to see.

Lee’s eldest child is now 23, and her youngest is 15. The middle child is 18, and life has surely transformed in the midst of it all.

“I have always loved helping people,” she said. “I have done a lot of work with teens and women. I was the state director for the Assembly of God Women's Ministry. I always loved to see others succeed and do well.”

But much like the women Lee was helping through their own rocky paths, she reported feeling like a victim in her own home. Following a 17-year-long marriage to a pastor, she cut the cord. 

“I walked away not knowing what on earth I was going to do,” she said. “Fortunately, I had supportive friends and parents. I spent that whole first year of 2015 as a zombie.”

Parenting, working as a waitress, and coaching sports in her free time, Lee saw through the storm. By 2019, she had graduated from North Central Michigan College in Petoskey with an Associates of General Studies degree, and certificates in business, art, and graphics. Her GPA was a 4.0. Lee has taught herself and others how to self-publish, always willing to extend the knowledge obtained to any willing to listen.

"My own personal story will be published in the upcoming months," Lee said about inspiring and motivating women just like herself by letting it all out for the very first time. "It will be to inspire and encourage other women through abuse and starting life over."

You may find Kristie Lee’s books on Amazon, here. Visit to learn more.