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Lee-Smith, Hughie 1915–

Hughie Lee-Smith 1915

Artist, educator

At a Glance

Gravitated Toward Artistic Group in 1940s

Painted Murals on African Americans in History for U.S. Navy

Style Evolved From Realism to Surrealism

Brush Captured Racial and Urban Isolation

Selected works

Sources

Like his paintings, artist Hughie Lee-Smith is generally perceived as being somewhat enigmatic. Although his works have been exhibited at museums, schools, and galleries around the United States, have earned him many honors and awards, and have even hung on the set of The Cosby Show on national television, Lee-Smith did not enjoy a major solo exhibition of his work until fifty years after he began painting. His first retrospective exhibitat the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton in 1988 came when he was 73 years old.

Unlike his contemporary, painter Jacob Lawrence, New Jersey-based Lee-Smith didnt get wide notice as a young man. Slowly, however, he gained national recognition while turning out a steady stream of oil paintings. In addition, he has done commissioned murals for the U.S. Navy, as well as an impressive series of lithographic prints. Lee-Smiths works, which often feature the fantastic elements of magical realism and surrealism, are well known for their hard-hitting social commentary. Many critics have observed that his paintings bear a resemblance to the stylings of Italys Giorgio de Chirico and American artist Edward Hopper.

Attention has not come quickly to Lee-Smith for a variety of reasons. First, his paintings often confront viewers with a world where black and white people maintain a cautious or uneasy distance from one another. Second, his work has mainly been shown in African American art exhibits and for many years remained largely unrecognized in mainstream art circles. Third, he chose to paint figuratively at a time when abstract expressionism was at its height.

Despite a lack of acclaim for half a century, Lee-Smiths past credits are impressive. In the 1980s alone he was awarded a day in his honor in Cleveland, Ohio; the key to the city of Hartford, Connecticut; honors from the Maryland Commission on Afro-American History and Culture; and prizes from the National Academy of Design and Audubon Artists. His works are included in the Evans-Tibbs collection in Washington, D.C., and have been displayed in museums such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, as well as in galleries, including New Yorks June Kelly Gallery.

The selected works shown at the New Jersey State Museum retrospective in 1988 ranged from Lee-Smiths depictions of alienated youth in the 1940s through his desolate landscapes of the 1950s and sixties, to later scenes of isolated black and

At a Glance

Born September 20, 1915, in Eustis, FL; son of Luther and Alice (Williams) Lee-Smith; married Mabel Louise Everett, 1940 (divorced, 1953); married Helen Nebraska, 1965 (divorced, 1974); married Patricia Thomas-Ferry, 1978; children: (first marriage) Christina. Education: Graduated from Cleveland Institute of Art, 1938; Wayne State University, B.S., 1953.

Worked for the Ohio Works Progress Administration and the Ford Factory at River Rouge during the 1930s and 1940s; did a series of lithographic prints; painted murals at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois; taught art at Karamu House, Cleveland, late 1930s, the Grosse Pointe War Memorial in Michigan, 1955-56, Princeton Country Day School, NJ, 1963-65, Howard University, Washington, DC, 1969-71, the Art Students League, New York City, 1972-87, and elsewhere. Works shown in museums, schools, galleries, and collections across the U.S., including the American Negro Exposition, Chicago; Southside Community Art Center; Snowden Gallery; Detroit Artists Market; Cleveland Museum of Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; Museum of Modern Art; the June Kelly Gallery, New York City; and the Evans-Tibbs collection, Washington, DC. Council member, National Academy of Design, 1986-89. Had first retrospective show at the New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, 1988. Military service: Served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Selected awards: Bronze Plaque, Maryland Commission on Afro-American History and Culture, 1981; October 19, 1984 declared Hughie Lee-Smith Day, Cleveland, OH; key to Hartford, CT, 1984; awarded the Ralph Fabri, 1982, the Binny & Smith, 1983, the Emily Lowe, 1985, and the Len Everette Memorial, 1986, all from Audubon Artists, Inc.; National Academy of Designs Clarke Prize, 1959, and Ranger Fund Purchase, 1963 and 1977.

Addresses: c/o June Kelly Gallery, 591 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.

white men and women confronting or refusing to confront one another. While allusions to the isolation of African Americans are present, the paintings also portray the universality of human beings inability to make contact with each other.

According to some art critics, what makes Lee-Smith unique is his ability to fuse the black experience in America with his own brand of surrealism. In her essay for the Hughie Lee-Smith Retrospective Exhibition catalogue, Lowery S. Sims, an associate curator in the department of twentieth-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote of the settings and images used in the artists works: Lee-Smiths dramas unfold on desolate beaches, or vacant lots bordering on a lake, or tenement buildings and disengaged, crumbling walls. Balls, balloons, ribbons, wires, poles, antennae, rotten piers, bricks and rocks, labyrinths and, more recently, antique sculpture fragments and mannikins [sic] are the accoutrements that charge these scenes with metaphorical and allegorical content that eludes definitive interpretations.

Elsa Honig Fine, writing in The Afro-American Artist: A Search for Identity, described the artists work as captur[ing] the loneliness and alienation of contemporary urban life through the emotive devices associated with the Surrealists a sharply converging perspective and an ambiguous sense of nearness and distance between figure and background. Lee-Smiths people are alienated from each other and from the space that encloses them. And in American Artist magazine, Carol Wald characterized Lee-Smiths paintings as haunting and memorable, adding, Figures in them move silently across the stage of a barren universe and seem to be teetering on the very edge of another kind of reality. .. perhaps that of sleep. Often the subject is a desolate, dark landscape occupied by one or a few solitary figures related somehow by their proximity but nevertheless adrift in separate worlds of being and action.

Whatever qualities may be attributed to Lee-Smiths paintings, the artist offered his own analysis of his work in American Artist: I think my paintings have to do with an invisible life a reality on a different level. And in an interview with Inga Saffron for the Philadelphia Inquirer, he said that his paintings deal with alienation, which is a fact of life separation of the races and of races coming together.

Lee-Smiths paintings also reflect his childhood experiences. After his birth in Eustis, Florida, on September 20, 1915, his family moved to Atlanta and then to Cleveland. His parents divorced when he was still quite young, and his mother raised him during the Great Depression. I was already aiming at perfection, he told Wald, at being good at whatever I was doing. I drew all the time, and it became a natural thing. I breathed it; I dreamed it. Art was my whole being, and I knew from an early age that it was my mission. Lee-Smiths mother encouraged him in his artistic pursuits and helped him gain admission to a class for gifted children at the Cleveland Museum of Art. From then on he was hooked.

When he was twenty years old, Lee-Smith won a Scholastic magazine competition that enabled him to study on a one-year scholarship at the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts. Later, he taught art at Karamu House in Cleveland and studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art on another scholarship, this time from the Gilpin Players, the resident company of the Karamu Theatre.

In addition to attending the Cleveland Institute of Art, from which he graduated in 1938, Lee-Smith also studied at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he received his bachelors degree in art education in 1953. His early works were shown mostly in Chicago and Detroit, at the Southside Community Art Center, the Snowden Gallery, and the Detroit Artists Market. His work was also displayed at a 1940 exhibit of art at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago.

Gravitated Toward Artistic Group in 1940s

Lee-Smith was still a child during the Harlem Renaissance, a period of heightened literary and artistic activity among blacks centered in New York Citys Harlem during the 1920s. As a young man in the 1940s, however, he gravitated toward an artistic group that met at the Southside Community Art Center in Chicago. It included painter Rex Goreleigh, as well as poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Around the same time, Lee-Smith met artist Joseph Hirsch, who had seen the young painters work in Chicago and later saw to his admission to the prestigious National Academy of Design. Lee-Smith would serve on the academys council over forty years later.

To support himself as an artist during the 1930s and 1940s, Lee-Smith worked for the Ohio Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Ford Factory at River Rouge while turning out a series of lithographic prints. He received an award from the Cleveland Museum for freehand drawing in 1938 and for his lithographs in 1939 and 1940. Commenting on the style of the lithographs, James Porter wrote in Modern Negro Art, Lee-Smith takes huge delight in his expert ability as a draftsman, and for him line and form are the essence of the picture. Into this mold he pours all the exciting experience that his mind can call up sometimes with startling results.

Painted Murals on African Americans in History for U.S. Navy

Lee-Smith continued working on his art while serving as a seaman in the U.S. Navy during World War II. The Works Progress Administration assigned him to paint murals with patriotic subjects at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. They were on the theme of the Negro in U.S. history [and] were intended to build morale with black recruits, he recalled in the Chicago Free Weekly. Having spent his time in the service stationed in the Chicago area, the city served as an inspiration for his early paintings. I have always thought that this part of the midwest affected the character of my palette, he added in the Chicago Free Weekly. The climate, the weatherdark, dreary lugubrious days that darkened the colors. Those years in Chicago also affected the way I see things politically, socially, philosophically.

Style Evolved From Realism to Surrealism

For Lee-Smith, art must reflect common daily life experiences. During the 1930s and 1940s he expressed himself through a kind of social realism, as illustrated by his dark, serious Portrait of a Boy (1938). From there his work became primitivist, as reflected in his painting Girl with Balloon (1949-50), in which the elongated figure of a yearning girl stands in front of a simple shack. By the early 1950s, according to Sims, Lee-Smiths style underwent the change that still remains in his work todaythe use of surrealist devices much like those used by Giorgio de Chirico.

Sims observed that such paintings as The Scientist (1949), Impedimenta (1958), and Woman in Green Sweater (1950s) evoke de Chiricos celebration of the enigma. Elizabeth Ness of the Village Voice reacted to the riddle Lee-Smith presents in The Scientist as follows: A black man wearing sunglasses and a raincoat, stands alone near a coffin-size hole, as if he were the last man on earth; the sky threatens to burst into a storm. Is this man an agent of social change or social control? The artist wants us to consider the alternatives.

From the 1950s through the 1980s, Lee-Smith divided his time between the Midwest and Northeast, teaching art in Michigan, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and New York City. His works were exhibited at various galleries, academic institutions, and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. Meanwhile, he steadily amassed awards, among them several from the National Academy of Design and Audubon Artists.

Brush Captured Racial and Urban Isolation

Before and during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Lee-Smith often painted black figures set against the backdrop of inner cities. Such is the case in Boy with a Tire (1952), The Walls (1952), Slum Song (1962), and Ballplayer (1970). Aside from the more obvious symbols of racial separation in America, his paintings from this period portray subtle psychological tensions between blacks and whites. About one, Man with Balloons (c. 1960), Village Voice contributor Ness observed: A black man holding a bouquet of pastel balloons is being followed by a white man who does not seem friendly, but isnt exactly threatening.

Before 1970 Lee-Smith was known as an elder statesman of black art. He told Douglas Davis of Newsweek, We are concerned with communications, with glorifying our heroes, contributing to black pride. We look upon this as our historical mission. However, Lee-Smith has mixed feelings about art shows that contain only the works of African American artists. There was a time during the 1960s when it was necessary to bring the reality of black artists into the consciousness of the mainstream. But theres a time limit on that sort of thing, he explained to Joy Hakanson Colby of the Detroit News. If youre black, people can see that. But I guess that kind of label is part of the American racial fabric, and I just dont allow it to hinder me in anyway.

Throughout the 1980s, Lee-Smiths works often focused on blacks and whites attempting to relate to each other. In Counterpoise II (1989), a puzzled, angry young black woman is left standing on a stage while a white woman walks away from her and blends in with the set in the background. In End of Act One (1987), a black woman walks away from a white counterpart, leaving her with a headless mannequin. Other paintings from both this phase in Lee-Smiths career and earlier periods highlight the artists ongoing use of solitary figures to depict loneliness and alienation in contemporary life.

While there have been no major changes in Lee-Smiths style since the 1950s, several art critics contend that subtle variations have emerged in his works from the late 1980s and beyond. Vivien Raynor wrote in ARTnews: He seems to stand closer to his subjects, incorporating more foliage and architectural detail; and perhaps there is more menace in his mystery. The color may be colder and harsher, too. But the imagery continues to be beautiful and the mood fatalistic. As for what Lee-Smith thinks about his style, he told Colby, Ive always felt a need to communicate on an emotional level with people. My paintings dont tell stories, they are about expressing emotion by means of form and color.

Selected works

Paintings

Portrait of a Boy, 1938.

The Scientist, 1949.

Girl with Balloon, 1949-50.

Bouquet, 1949.

Boy with a Tire, 1952.

The Walls, 1952.

The Piper, 1953.

Landscape with Black Man, 1953.

Impedimenta, 1958.

Woman in Green Sweater, 1950s.

Interval, 1960.

Man with Balloons, c. 1960.

Slum Song, 1962.

The Juggler #1, c. 1964.

Man Running, 1965.

The Other Side, 1960s.

Man Standing on His Head, 1970.

Ballplayer, 1970.

Trio, 1973.

Hard Hat, 1980.

Industrial Landscape, c. 1980.

Acropolis II, 1984.

Merry Go Round I, 1984.

Desert Elegy, 1987.

End of Act One, 1987.

Waiting, 1987.

Silent Riddle, 1988.

Curtain Call, 1989.

Counterpoise II, 1989.

Crossroads, 1991.

Temptation, 1991.

A Summer Spell, 1992.

Commissioned works

Idyllic Landscape (mosaic tile mural), Prudential and Deansbank Investment Corporation, McPherson Building, Washington, DC; Cityscape (mural painting), New Jersey State Council on the Arts, New Jersey State Commerce Building, Trenton; and Navy Black History (oil painting), U.S. Navy, Washington, DC, 1974.

Sources

Books

African-American Artists 1880-1987: Selections from the Evans-Tibbs Collection, Smithsonian Institution Traveling Service, in association with the University of Washington Press, 1989, pp. 78, 80, 120.

Cederholm, Theresa D., Afro-American Artists: A Bio- Bibliographical Directory, Boston Public Library, 1973, pp. 174-76.

Fine, Elsa Honig, The Afro-American Artist: A search for Identity, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973, pp. 97-98, 142-45, 280.

Hedgepeth, Chester M., Jr., Twentieth-Century African American Writers and Artists, American Library Association, 1991, pp. 193-95.

Locke, Alain, The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and of the Negro Theme in Art, Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1940, pp. 126,135.

Porter, James A., Modern Negro Art, Dryden Press, 1943, pp. 160-64.

Sims, Lowery S., essay in Hughie Lee-Smith Retrospective Exhibition (catalogue), New Jersey State Museum, 1988, pp. 1-35.

Periodicals

American Artist, October 1978, pp. 48-53, 101.

Art in America, February 1990, p. 168.

ARTnews, December 1987, pp. 156, 158; March 1989, pp. 124-31; March 1990, p. 176.

Arts New Jersey, Summer 1987.

Black Enterprise, December 1986, pp. 86, 88, 92.

Chicago Free Weekly, February 24, 1989, sec. 1, p. 6.

Detroit News, October 15, 1989, pp. IM, 4M.

Ebony, May 1986, p. 50.

Emerge, May 1992.

Newsweek, June 22, 1970, pp. 89-90.

New York Times, October 17,1987; December 4,1988; March 12, 1989, p. 34; July 28, 1989.

Philadelphia Inquirer, December 19, 1988, pp. 1E, 4E.

Time Off, January 21, 1987, p. 21; October 3, 1990; October 24, 1990.

Village Voice, June 21, 1988.

Alison Carb Sussman

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Lee-Smith, Hughie 1915–1999

Hughie Lee-Smith 19151999

Artist, educator

At a Glance

Gravitated Toward Artistic Group

Painted Murals for the U.S. Navy

Style Evolved From Realism to Surrealism

Captured Racial and Urban Isolation

Selected works

Sources

Like his paintings, artist Hughie Lee-Smith presented a riddle. Although his works were exhibited at museums, schools, and galleries around the United States, earned him many honors and awards, and were hung on the set of The Cosby Show, Lee-Smith did not enjoy a major solo exhibition of his work until fifty years after he began painting. His first retrospective exhibitat the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton in 1988-occurred when he was 73 years old.

Unlike his contemporary, painter Jacob Lawrence, Lee-Smith didnt receive much attention as a young artist. However, he slowly gained national recognition as he produced a steady stream of oil paintings. He created an impressive series of lithographic prints and was commissioned by the U.S. Navy to paint several murals. LeeSmiths works, which often featured the fantastic elements of magical realism and surrealism, are well known for their hard-hitting social commentary. Many critics have observed that his paintings bear a strong resemblance to the works of Italys Giorgio de Chirico and American artist Edward Hopper.

Lee-Smith did not receive a great deal of attention during his lifetime for a number of reasons. Firstly, his paintings often confronted viewers with a world where African American and white people maintained a cautious or uneasy distance from one another. Secondly, his work was mainly shown in African American art exhibits and for many years remained largely unrecognized in mainstream art circles. Thirdly, he chose to paint figuratively at a time when abstract expressionism was at its height.

Lee-Smiths artistic career did not pass completely unnoticed, however. During the 1980s, he was awarded a day in his honor in Cleveland, Ohio and given the key to the city of Hartford, Connecticut. He also received honors from the Maryland Commission on Afro-American History and Culture, and prizes from the National Academy of Design and Audubon Artists. In 1996, the Lotos Club awarded Lee-Smith with its Medal of Merit and, that same year, he was presented with the Benjamin West Clinedinst Medal from the Artists Fellowship Inc. His works have been included in the Evans-Tibbs collection in Washington, D.C., and were displayed in museums such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, as well as in galleries, including New Yorks

At a Glance

Born September 20, 1915, in Eustis, FL, died in Albuquerque, NM; son of Luther and Alice (Williams) Lee-Smith; married Mabel Louise Everett, 1940 (divorced, 1953); married Helen Nebraska, 1965 (divorced, 1974); married Patricia Thomas-Ferry, 1978; children: Christina. Education: Graduated from Cleveland Institute of Art, 1938; Wayne State University, B. S. 1953,

Career: Worked for the Ohio Works Progress Administration and the Ford factory in River Rouge during the 1930s and 1940s; did a series of lithographic prints; painted murals at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois; taught art at Karamu House, Cleveland, late 1930s, the Grosse Pointe War Memorial in Michigan, 1955-56, Princeton Country Day School, NJ, 1963-65, Howard University, Washington, DC, 1969-71, the Art Students League, New York City, 1972-87, and elsewhere. Works shown in museums, schools, galleries, and collections across the U.S., including the American Negro Exposition, Chicago; Detroit Artists Market; Cleveland Museum of Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; Museum of Modern Art; the June Kelly Gallery, New York City; and the Evans-Tibbs collection, Washington, DC. Military service: Served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Selected awards: Bronze Plaque, Maryland Commission on Afro-American History and Culture, 1981; October 19, 1984 declared Hughie Lee-Smith Day, Cleveland, OH; key to Hartford, CT, 1984; awarded the Ralph Fabri, 1982, the Emily Lowe, 1985, and the Len Everette Memorial, 1986, all from Audubon Artists, Inc.; National Academy of Designs Clarke Prize, 1959, and Ranger Fund Purchase, 1963 and 1977; Lotos Club, Medal of Merit, 1996; Artists Fellowship, Inc., Benjamin West Clinedinst Medal, 1996.

June Kelly Gallery.

In 1988, a retrospective of Lee-Smiths works were shown at the New Jersey State Museum. Works selected for the exhibit included his depictions of alienated youth during the 1940s, his desolate landscapes of the 1950s and 1960s, and his paintings of isolated African American and white people confronting or refusing to confront one another. While allusions to the isolation of African Americans are present, the paintings also portrayed the inability of some human beings to make contact with each other. According to some art critics, what made Lee-Smith unique was his ability to fuse theAfrican American experience with his own brand of surrealism.

In her essay for the Hughie Lee-Smith Retrospective Exhibition catalogue, Lowery S. Sims, an associate curator of twentieth century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote of the settings and images used in the LeeSmiths works:Lee-Smiths dramas unfold on desolate beaches, or vacant lots bordering on a lake, or tenement buildings and disengaged, crumbling walls. Balls, balloons, ribbons, wires, poles, antennae, rotten piers, bricks and rocks, labyrinths and, more recently, antique sculpture fragments and mannikins [sic] are the accouterments that charge these scenes with metaphorical and allegorical content that eludes definitive interpretations.

Elsa Honig Fine, writing in The Afro-American Artist: A Search for Identity, described the Lee-Smiths work ascaptur[ing] the loneliness and alienation of contemporary urban life through the emotive devices associated with the Surrealists-a sharply converging perspective and an ambiguous sense of nearness and distance between figure and background. Lee-Smiths people are alienated from each other and from the space that encloses them. And in American Artist magazine, Carol Wald characterized Lee-Smiths paintings ashaunting andmemorable, adding, Figures in them move silently across the stage of a barren universe and seem to be teetering on the very edge of another kind of reality perhaps that of sleep. Often the subject is a desolate, dark landscape occupied by one or a few solitary figures related somehow by their proximity but nevertheless adrift in separate worlds of being and action.

Whatever qualities may be attributed to Lee-Smiths paintings, the artist offered his own analysis of his work in American Artist, I think my paintings have to do with an invisible life--a reality on a different level. And in an interview with Inga Saffron for the Philadelphia Inquirer, he noted that his paintingsdeal with alienation, which is a fact of life separation of the races and of races coming together.

Lee-Smiths paintings also reflected the psychological uncertainty he experienced as a child. After his birth in Eustis, Florida, on September 20, 1915, his family moved to Atlanta and then to Cleveland. His parents divorced when he was still quite young, and his mother raised him during the Great Depression.I was already aiming at perfection, he told Wald, at being good at whatever I was doing. I drew all the time, and it became a natural thing. I breathed it; I dreamed it. Art was my whole being, and I knew from an early age that it was my mission. Lee-Smiths mother encouraged him in his artistic pursuits and helped him gain admission to a class for gifted children at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

When he was twenty years old, Lee-Smith won a Scholastic magazine competition that enabled him to study on a one-year scholarship at the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts. Later, he taught art at Karamu House in Cleveland and studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art on another scholarship, this time from the Gilpin Players, the resident company of the Karamu Theatre.

In addition to attending the Cleveland Institute of Art, from which hegraduated in 1938, Lee-Smith also studied at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he received his bachelors degree in art education in 1953. His early works were shown mostly in Chicago and Detroit, at the Southside Community Art Center, the Snowden Gallery, and the Detroit Artists Market. His work was also displayed at a 1940 exhibit of art at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago.

Gravitated Toward Artistic Group

Lee-Smith was still a child during the Harlem Renaissance, a period of heightened literary and artistic activity among African Americans centered in New York Citys Harlem during the 1920s. In the 1940s, he gravitated toward an artistic group that met at the Southside Community Art Center in Chicago. It included painter Rex Goreleigh, as well as poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Around the same time, Lee-Smith met artist Joseph Hirsch, who has seen the young painters work in Chicago and later saw to his admission to the prestigious National Academy of Design. Lee-Smith served on the academys council over forty years later.

To support himself as an artist during the 1930s and 1940s, Lee-Smith worked for the Ohio Works Progress Administration (WPA) and at the Ford factory in River Rouge while turning out a series of lithographic prints. He received an award from the Cleveland Museum for freehand drawing in 1938 and for his lithographs in 1939 and 1940. Commenting on the style of the lithographs, James Porter wrote in Modern Negro Art, Lee-Smith takes huge delight in hisexpert ability as a draftsman, and for him line and form are the essence of the picture. Into this mold he pours all the exciting experience that his mind can call up--sometimes with startling results.

Painted Murals for the U.S. Navy

Lee-Smith continued working on his art while serving as a seaman in the U.S. Navy during World War II. The Works Progress Administration assigned him to paint murals with patriotic subjects at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois.They were on the theme of the Negro in U.S. history [and] were intended to build morale with black recruits, he recalled in the Chicago Free Weekly. Having spent his time in the service stationed in the Chicago area, the city served as an inspiration for his early paintings.I have always thought that this part of the Midwest affected the character of my palette, he said in the Chicago Free Weekly.The climate, the weatherdark, dreary lugubrious days that darkened the colors. Those years in Chicago also affected the way I see things politically, socially, philosophically.

Style Evolved From Realism to Surrealism

For Lee-Smith, art reflected common daily life experiences. During the 1930s and 1940s he expressed himself through a kind of social realism, as illustrated by his dark, serious Portrait of a Boy (1938). From there his workbecameprimitivist, as reflected in his painting Girl with Balloon (1949-50), in which the elongated figure of a yearning girl stands in front of a simple shack. By the early 1950s, according to Sims, Lee-Smiths style reflected the use of surrealist devices similar to those used by Giorgio de Chirico. She observed that such paintings as The Scientist ( 1949), Impedimenta ( 1958), and Woman in Green Sweater (1950s)evoke de Chiricos celebration of the enigma.

From the 1950s through the 1980s, Lee-Smith divided his time between the Midwest and Northeast, teaching art in Michigan, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and New York City. His works were exhibited at various galleries, academic institutions, and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. Meanwhile, he steadily amassed awards, among them several from the National Academy of Design and Audubon Artists.

Captured Racial and Urban Isolation

Before and during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Lee-Smith often painted African American figures set against the backdrop of inner cities. Such is the case in Boy with a Tire (1952), The Walls (1952), Slum Song (1962), and Ballplayer (1970). Aside from the more obvious symbols of racial separation in America, his paintings from this period portrayed subtle psychological tensions between blacks and whites.

Before 1970, Lee-Smith was known as an elder statesman of African American art. He told Douglas Davis of Newsweek, We are concerned with communications, with glorifying our heroes, contributing to black pride. We look upon this as our historical mission. However, Lee-Smith had mixed feelings about art shows that contain only the works of African American artists.There was a time during the 1960s when it was necessary to bring the reality of black artists into the consciousness of the mainstream. But theres a time limit on that sort of thing, he explained to Joy Hakanson Colby of the Detroit News.If youre black, people can see that. But I guess that kind of label is part of the American racial fabric, and I just dont allow it to hinder me in any way.

Throughout the 1980s, Lee-Smiths works often focused on African Americans and whites attempting to relate to each other. In Counterpoise II (1989), a puzzled, angry young African American woman is left standing on a stage while a white woman walks away from her and blends in with the set in the background. In End of Act One ( 1987), a African American woman walks away from a white counterpart, leaving her with a headless mannequin. Other paintings from this phase in Lee-Smiths career highlighted the artists ongoing use of solitary figures to depict loneliness and alienation in contemporary life.

While there had been no major changes in Lee-Smiths style after the 1950s, several art critics contended that subtle variations had emerged in his works from the late 1980s. Vivien Raynor wrote in ARTNews: He seems to stand closer to his subjects, incorporating more foliage and architectural detail; and perhaps there is more menace in his mystery. The color may be colder and harsher, too. But the imagery continues to be beautiful and the moodfatalistic. In an interview with the DetroitNews, Lee-Smith commented on his artistic style, Ive always felt a need to communicate on an emotional level with people. My paintings dont tell stories, they are about expressing emotion by means of form and color.

In 1994, the City of New York commissioned Lee-Smith to paint the official portrait of David Dinkins, the former mayor of New York City. The portrait was completed and hung in City Hall. In 1999, Lee-Smith died in Albuquerque, New Mexico after battling cancer.

Selected works

Paintings

Portrait of a Boy, 1938.

The Scientist, 1949.

Girl with Balloon, 1949-50.

Bouquet, 1949.

Boy with a Tire, 1952.

The Walls, 1952.

The Piper, 1953.

Landscape with Black Man, 1953.

Impedimenta, 1958.

Woman in Green Sweater, 1950s.

Interval, 1960.

Man with Balloons, c. 1960.

Slum Song, 1962.

The Juggler #1, c. 1964.

Man Running, 1965.

The Other Side, 1960s.

Man Standing on His Head, 1970.

Ballplayer, 1970.

Trio, 1973.

Hard Hat, 1980.

Industrial Landscape, c. 1980.

Acropolis II, 1984.

Merry Go Round I, 1984.

Desert Elegy, 1987.

End of Act One, 1987.

Waiting, 1987.

Silent Riddle, 1988.

Curtain Call, 1989.

Counterpoise II, 1989.

Crossroads, 1991.

Temptation, 1991.

A Summer Spell, 1992.

Commissioned works

Idyllic Landscape (mosaic tile mural), Prudential and Deansbank Investment Corporation, McPherson Building, Washington, DC; Cityscape (mural painting), New Jersey State Council on the Arts, New Jersey State Commerce Building, Trenton; and Nauy BlackHistory (oil painting), U.S. Navy, Washington, DC, 1974; Portrait of New York City Mayor David Dinkins, 1994.

Sources

Books

African-American Artists 1880-l987: Selections from the Evans-Tibbs Collection, Smithsonian Institution Traveling Service, in association with the University of Washington Press, 1989, pp. 78, 80, 120.

Cederholm, Theresa D., Afro-American Artists: A Bio-Bibliographical Directory, Boston Public Library, 1973, pp. 174-76.

Fine, Elsa Honig, The Afro-American Artist: A Search for Identity, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973, pp. 97-98, 142-45, 280.

Hedgepeth, Chester M., Jr., Twentieth-Century African American Writers and Artists, American Library Association, 1991, pp. 193-95.

Locke, Alain, The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and of the Negro Theme in Art, Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1940, pp. 126, 135.

Porter, James A., Modern Negro Art, Dryden Press, 1943, pp. 160-64.

Sims, Lowery S., essay in Hughie Lee-Smith Retrospective Exhibition (catalogue), New Jersey State Museum, 1988, pp. 1-35.

Periodicals

American Artist, October 1978, pp. 48-53, 101.

Art in America, February 1990, p. 168.

ART news, December 1987, pp. 156, 158; March 1989, pp. 124-31; March 1990, p. 176.

Arts New Jersey, Summer 1987.

Black Enterprise, December 1986, pp. 86, 88, 92.

Chicago Free Weekly, February 24, 1989, sec. 1, p. 6.

Detroit News, October 15, 1989, 1M, 4M.

Ebony, May 1986, p. 50.

Emerge, May 1992.

Jet, March 22, 1999, p. 17.

Newsweek, June 22, 1970, pp. 89-90.

New York Times, October 17, 1987; December 4, 1988; March 12, 1989, p. 34; July 28, 1989.

Philadelphia Inquirer, December 19, 1988, pp. 1E, 4E.

Time Off, January 21, 1987, p. 21; October 3, 1990; October 24, 1990.

Village Voice, June 21, 1988.

Alison Carb Sussman

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"Lee-Smith, Hughie 1915–1999." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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