born, 1915, Eustis, FL
died 1999, Albuquerque, NM
In 1938, Hughie Lee-Smith graduated with honors from the Cleveland Institute of Art and worked for the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Like many WPA artists, Lee-Smith was concerned about the contribution art could make to the struggle for social justice and racial equality. Joining the Navy for a nineteen-month stint, he was one of three African-American artists commissioned to do “morale-building paintings,” creating a mural entitled History of the Negro in the U.S. Navy and portraits of the first Black naval officers.
Influenced by Cubism, Social realism, and Surrealism, his haunting paintings are characterized by an enigmatic emptiness and sense of isolation. “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,” he stated. However, his exploration of the universality of human loneliness through these eerie but achingly beautiful scenes is always tempered with a cautious optimism.