Lee, Annie Frances 1935–
Annie Frances Lee 1935–
Painter and decorative artist, Annie Lee is well known for her realistic and humorous portrayals of contemporary and historical African American family life.“My paintings are of everyday life. I try to paint things that people can identify with,” Lee told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). Identify they did. Since her first gallery show in 1985, during which her paintings sold out in the first four hours of the show, Lee has enjoyed resounding success. In particular, her paintings“Blue Monday” and“Six No Uptown” struck a chord with viewers. They have been consistent best sellers and a spring board to Lee’s wide-ranging artistic endeavors.
Lee was born in Gadsden, Alabama in 1935 and raised in Chicago. She grew up in a family that expected girls and boys alike to learn survival skills, so her mother, a seamstress, taught her and her older brother Tony to cook, wash, clean, and sew. While listening to the popular radio shows of the time, like The Lone Ranger and The Shadow, Annie also learned to knit, crochet, and draw. At age ten, she took up painting. Immediately she demonstrated talent, winning recognition at art contests and several free semesters of lessons at the Art Institute of Chicago.
On Sundays Lee and her family often went to church. They then enjoyed eggnog ice cream at the corner drug store and sometimes a movie matinee. While a high school student, the energetic Lee both honed her artistic skills and urged on the Wendell Phillips High School football team as part of the cheerleading squad. Although she was offered a four-year scholarship to study art at Northwestern University, Lee opted to marry and raise a family.“At the time, it wasn’t a hard decision to make,” Lee told CBB.
Busy with family life, Lee did not resume painting until she was 40 years old. By then she had lost two husbands to cancer and raised a daughter from her first marriage and a son from her second. While working as the chief clerk at Northwestern Railroad, in the department that ensures the safety of the train tracks, Lee decided to study art at night. Although she never intended to teach, after eight years of night classes, she earned a masters degree in interdisciplinary arts education from Loyola University. Lee told CBB,
At a Glance …
Born Annie Frances Lee, March 3, 1935, in Gads den, AL. Married twice. Children: One daughter, one son. Education: Attended Mundelein College, American Academy of Art; Loyola University, M, Ed.
Career: Worked as chief clerk, Enginering Department, Northwestern Railroad, Chicago, 1976-86, Independent artist, 1987-. Owner, Annie Lee and Friends Art Gallery, Glenwood, IL, 199K
Addresses; Home—Las Vegas. Office— Annie Lee and Friends Gallery, 37 East Main St., Glenwwod, IL 60425.
“Getting my masters degree was the best thing I ever did for myself. It reopened my mind.”
Painting at night was Lee’s haven and release from the pressures of everyday life. Her railroad job inspired one of Lee’s most popular paintings, “Blue Monday,” which depicts a woman struggling to pull herself out of bed on a Monday morning. Living in such close proximity to her art caused new challenges for Lee. She developed tendinitis and spinal problems from painting so much. Even worse, the fumes from the acrylic paints she used made her sick. Despite these problems, she continued to paint, having her first gallery show in 1985. The show was so successful that Lee allowed prints to be made of four of the paintings, so that she could meet the demand for her work.
In December of 1986 tragedy befell Lee when her son died in an automobile accident. While on leave from work to grieve, she decided to take a risk: she would give up the financial security of her day job to pursue her dream of painting full-time.“I prayed I could make my living by painting. I felt I was supposed to paint. Now that my son was gone, I didn’t need such financial resources,” Lee remembered to CBB.“God did this through me,” she continued.“I never thought I would leave the railroad, but it was the best thing I ever did. It was hard to leave the security, but you have to take a leap of faith.”
Lee’s risk paid off. In 1990, after showing her work in other galleries, Lee opened her own shop, Annie Lee and Friends Gallery. There she initially displayed 49 original paintings of her own, as well as the works fellow artists. Lee quickly demonstrated her business acumen. Her gallery proved to be a success, so she moved it to a new location in the southeastern suburbs of Chicago in order to have more floor space. When several of her paintings appeared in the sets of popular television shows—on Bill Cosby’s A Different World, for instance—the exposure helped make her work even more popular.
For her use of two-dimensional figures that are set in scenes of everyday life, art commentators dubbed Lee’s style“Black Americana.” For example, “Gimme Dat Gum” shows a mother demanding her children’s bubble gum as they sit in a church pew. In“Max-ed Out” a young woman reclines on a sofa after a clothes shopping trip. In“Al Ain’t Here,” a group of men play cards.“In Control” depicts a man lounging in his favorite chair, with the newspaper on his lap and the television remote control in hand. Ballet dancers, card players, women primping and at a beauty shop, dancing couples, a baby sitter, a girl taking a bubble bath, a boy eating watermelons out of the patch-all flowed from Lee’s paint brush. A hallmark of Lee’s work is that the figures she paints are faceless.“You don’t need to see a face to understand emotion,” Lee explained to CBB.“I try to make the movement of the body express the emotion. And people can use their imaginations.” Using her unique designs, Lee also developed figurines, high fashion dolls, decorative housewares, and kitchen tiles.
After many years, Lee left the Windy City for the Southwest. It was a natural decision, because to protect her health Lee needs to paint outdoors or under an exhaust fan. Although she regularly receives numerous requests for public appearances, Lee prefers to appear at gallery shows. She enjoys chatting one on one and signing prints for buyers. She also likes to visit schools, where, as she told CBB, she encourages students to“concentrate on something you like. You’re going to be working all of your life, so just do what makes you happy! And, if you are able to make others happy while doing what makes you happy, what more could you ask?”
Jet, May 3, 1999, p. 14.
Upscale, April, 1999, pp. 68-69.
Additional information was provided via an interview with
Annie Lee.” May, 1999.
“Wilson Brown Gallery.” http://www.wbgallery.com/catalog/cgi/goto.cgi?FILE=artists/a_lee.html (14April 1999).
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
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Lee, Annie Frances 1935–