Annie Lee is an artist that describes herself as painting scenes of every day life, saying, “I try to paint things that people can identify with.” Art commentators have called her distinct style “Black Americana.” She paints two-dimensional figures and incorporates elements of humor, satire, and realism in her work. Notably, she does not paint faces on her figures because, she says, “You don’t need to see a face to understand emotion. I try to make the movement of the body express the emotion,” she says.
Lee was born in Alabama where she and her brother grew up being taught to cook, wash, clean, and sew together. She began painting at the age of ten and her talent was immediately apparent: she began winning contests and even secured several free semesters of lessons at an art institute. In high school she continued honing her artistic talent and cheered for her high school football team on the cheerleading squad. She turned down a scholarship to Northwestern so she could marry and have a family, saying, “At the time, it wasn’t a hard decision to make.”
Lee ended up in Chicago and did not return to painting until she was 40 years old, after she had lost two husbands to cancer and had raised two children. While working at a railroad company by day, Lee began to take art classes at night. After eight years, she earned a master’s degree from Loyola University and recalls the experience saying, “The best thing I ever did for myself. It reopened my mind.”
Lee’s passion for painting stayed intense. Because she was painting so much, she developed tendinitis and spinal problems while the acrylic paints she used cause other illness from the fumes. But she never stopped. Instead, in 1986—a year after her successful first gallery show in which her paintings sold out in the first four hours—Lee made the transition from painting’s being hobby to a full-time job. She left the railroad permanently while on leave after her son died in December in an automobile accident. “Now that my son was gone, I didn’t need such financial resources,” she said.
The risk paid off. Lee has since opened her own shop; had her art featured in numerous shows and movies, including Bill Cosby’s “A Different World,” Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America,” and ER; and she has considerably recognition in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, and Japan.
She currently lives in Las Vegas where she continues to paint in the open air where it helps her health.
Lee is just one of many wonderful artists featured in our African American Art Collection.