Art historians have used various words to describe Hughie Lee-Smith’s art: mystical, metaphysical, romantic realism, surrealist. Placing him in a specific category is challenging, but it is clear that his painting is consistently distinctive.
A native of Eustis, Florida, Lee-Smith lived alternately with both his mother and grandmother as a young child, first in Atlanta and then in Cleveland, Ohio. These years were somewhat solitary, and he turned to drawing and copying reproductions of old masters. When his mother recognized this interest, she enrolled her ten-year-old son in Saturday classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Two years later, he transferred to the Cleveland School of Art (after 1949 known as the Cleveland Institute of Art) for further instruction. As a student at East Technical High, he was involved in the glee club, theatrical performances, and track. It is at this point he hyphenated his name to make it more distinguished.
In 1934, Lee-Smith won a Scholastic Magazine scholarship to study at the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts. Returning home, he continued his education at the Cleveland School of Art, graduating with honors in 1938 and funding for a fifth year of postgraduate study. He also worked on a series of lithographs under the auspices of the Ohio branch of the Works Progress Administration. A year later, he moved to Orangeburg, South Carolina, to chair the art department at Claflin College, a position he held for two years.
The year 1941 saw Lee-Smith back in Detroit and working for the Ford Motor Company on Pratt-Whitney engines for the war effort. He did not neglect his art, however, and won the purchase prize at Atlanta University’s prestigious exhibition of African American art—an event he later called a professional turning point. In 1943, he was drafted into the United States Navy; he served at the Naval Station Great Lakes near Chicago where he was tasked with painting patriotic subjects to lift morale. Following the war, he took up residence again in Detroit; under the G.I. Bill, he resumed his studies—first at the Detroit Society and then in 1953 at Wayne State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in art education.
Inspired by the urban blight he encountered in Detroit, Lee-Smith created compelling scenes of desolation and isolation. Racially ambiguous figures frequently populate his spare cityscapes, which resemble stage sets. Although his enigmatic work garnered critical recognition at group exhibitions and won numerous prizes, he largely supported himself by teaching in a variety of settings. He left the Midwest in 1958 for New York, living in the East Village while teaching in the Princeton, New Jersey school system. From 1969 to 1971, he was artist-in-residence at Howard University, during a period when the Black Arts Movement was in ascendancy, and from 1972 until 1988 he was an instructor at the Art Students League.
In the 1960s, Lee-Smith began to exhibit regularly at the National Academy of Design, earned several awards, and was made a full academician in 1967, becoming only the second African American after Henry O. Tanner to be given this honor. Despite a lengthy list of exhibitions at commercial galleries and museums, it was not until 1988 that Lee-Smith was given a full-fledged retrospective. Lee-Smith’s work is represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Detroit Institute of Art, and Howard University, among others.