BAIA BITS: Hughie Lee-Smith

BAIA BITS

Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art

I think my paintings have to do with an invisible life—a reality on a different level.”

These are the otherworldly sentiments of talented painter, Hughie Lee-Smith. A classically trained artist, Lee-Smith was known for his neo-surrealist take on such serious themes as rejection, isolation, and social and cultural alienation. These themes were highly relevant to his own daily existence given his plight as a Black man coming of age in the first half of 20th century America.

Consistently, Lee-Smith further offered the following: “In my case, aloneness, I think, has stemmed from the fact that I’m black. Unconsciously it has a lot to do with a sense of alienation.”

 

Hughie Lee-Smith, Confrontation, ca. 1970, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design, 2009.27

As a youth, Lee-Smith hyphenated his middle and last name in school as a means of separating himself from other students named Smith. As president of his high school art club, he received a painting scholarship to the Cleveland School of Art before doing a 19-month stint in the Navy as a painter of patriotic scenes. Lee-Smith then earned a bachelor’s degree in art education from Wayne State University on the GI Bill and studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art before  working as an artist for what would become the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal program employing millions of artists and laborers to carry out public works projects. During this period, he sought to use his art as a means of addressing such issues as racial discrimination and other forms of social inequality.

In one of his more famous renderings entitled The Stranger, Lee-Smith employs a vast rural, midwestern setting to evoke such emotions as isolation and loneliness. Given his choice to make the race of his subject ambiguous, the popular work drew mass attention by relating to everyday people in Depression-era America. Drawing from a variety of influences including metaphysics and romantic realism, Lee-Smith captured this universality of human loneliness through his depiction of such silent subjects or mysterious imagery.

 

Hughie Lee-Smith, The Stranger, ca. 1957-1958, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 1994.15

 

As an artist-in-residence at Howard University, Lee-Smith supervised the production of a series of murals celebrating the scientific and artistic achievements of African Americans. And in 1967, he became the first African American to receive full membership to the National Academy of Design since Henry Ossawa Tanner’s induction 40 years prior.

In the 1980s, Bill Cosby purchased three of Lee-Smith’s paintings for the set of The Cosby Show, where they were seen by millions of viewers.

Hughie Lee-Smith passed on to his other world in February 1999. His works can be found at Howard University, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

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