Hughie Lee-Smith

About the Artist

Hughie Lee-Smith, 1915-1999

Hughie Lee-Smith was an American artist and educator whose surreal paintings explore the human condition of isolation and separation.

“I’m not a narrative painter.” he said, “That is to say, I don’t paint stories. What I tried to do was project a feeling, an emotional sense.”

Early Life and Education

Hughie Lee-Smith was born in Eustis, Florida in 1915. His parents divorced shortly after he was born and he was taken to Atlanta to live with his grandmother, while his mother moved to Cleveland to pursue a career in music.

Hughie Lee- Smith
Confrontation, ca. 1970
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Lee-Smith credited the carnivals he attended in Atlanta for inspiring much of the imagery that he later used in his paintings.

When he was ten, he joined his mother in Cleveland. She enrolled him in classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 1938, Lee-Smith graduated with honors from the Cleveland School of Art and worked for the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration.

Lee-Smith did a stint in the Navy during World War ll, where he was one of three African-American artists to paint portraits of the first Black U.S. Naval officers and a mural entitled History of the Negro in the U.S. Navy. 

Hughie Lee-Smith
Contemplating My Future, 1954

In 1953, he received a Bachelor of Science, in Art Education, from Wayne State University in Detroit and a top prize for painting from the Detroit Institute of Arts. ”I was no longer called black artist, Negro artist, colored boy,” Lee-Smith said in a 1995 interview. ”When I won that prize, all of a sudden, there was no longer a racial designation. I thought that was a step forward.”

Career and Personal Life

In 1958, Lee-Smith moved to New York, where he taught at the Art Students League for fifteen years. In 1963 he was elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design in Manhattan, the second black member. He became a full member in 1967.

Lee-Smith was married and divorced twice, before meeting Patricia Thomas-Ferry. The couple married in 1978 and had a daughter, Christina.

His works are part of the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Howard University and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan, In 1994 he was commissioned to paint the official City Hall portrait of former Mayor David N. Dinkins.

Hughie Lee-Smith died in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1999 at age 83.

2021-12-21T12:18:43-05:00 November 26th, 2021|

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