The Family Estate of Hughie Lee-Smith


Oils - Prints - Drawings


I believe it was on a Monday, we had been visiting the art museum at Princeton University. When we arrived home that afternoon we found that Sophie Wessel, Hughie's old and dear artist friend living in South Side Chicago, had telephoned during our absence, leaving a message on our answering machine.

In all the years Hughie and I were married Sophie had never telephoned. This call was so out of the ordinary. Being practical, she and Hughie both preferred to exchange almost weekly letters. Those precious letters shared information and thoughts about the art and political scene taking place in South Side Chicago and wherever Hughie happened to be living between 1944 ad 1992. That correspondence is now preserved in the Archives of American Art in Washington, DC.

As soon as I heard the phone message I asked Hughie to return her call immediately. But, he was engaged in an intriguing television show and wanted to wait until it was over. Curiosity nagged me. I nagged Hughie. He eventually gave in and returned her telephone call.

The following is my understanding of that particular conversation as told to me by an astonished Hughie. Apparently, Elaine, Sophie's daughter was walking near her home when she saw a woman acquaintance by the name of Clara Diamont. After they greeted, Clara told Elaine that she possessed and artist's portfolio, which was given to her for safe keeping many many years earlier, sometime in the mid-forties. It contained the work of a famous black artist by the name of Hughie Lee-Smith. Clara told Elaine that she did not know the artist's whereabouts. And, because of that and the fact that she was moving, she said, she had been thinking of giving the portfolio and it's contents to the DuSable Museum. She continued on, asking Elaine if she had ever heard of Hughie Lee-Smith? Have I heard of him? Elaine exclaimed, why he is one of my mother's best friends! Here, give me the portfolio and I will see that he gets it!

Loaded down with books, backpack and now Hughie's old portfolio, Elaine trudged on home to her parents, Sophie and Morrie Wessel. When she walked through their apartment door and announced what she had just received from Clara Diamont, they responded with much excitement. The portfolio was opened immediately and the treasures inside were viewed with enthusiasm. The family was delighted! It contained Hughie's etching The Kite Flyer and his lithographs Futility, Artists Life #1 and #2, Wasteland, Desolation and Landscape. There were also several drawings!

Upon hearing this amazing story from Sophie, we too were excited. We awaited anxiously to see this mysterious portfolio of which Hughie seemingly had no memory. UPS arrived at our home in East Windsor, New Jersey within a week putting the portfolio in Hughie's hands. I took photographs hoping to catch his expressions as he viewed the contents. It was mid-afternoon and unfortunately, there wasn't enough light so the developed photographs were quite dark. One could just detect the amusement on his face as he saw the work he had created so many years earlier as a young man just beginning his professional career.

We discovered a thoughtfully placed picture of Clara (perhaps placed by Clara Diamont herself) taken c.1945 among the portfolio's contents. We hoped it would help jog Hughie's memory, but sadly, he did not then, or ever, remember whom Clara was, or why he had given the portfolio to her for safekeeping. He didn't even remember the portfolio, or his exhibition about that time, at the South Side Community Arts Center under the direction of Rex Goreleigh, who was to become a dear friend and mentor.

In spite of our disappointment in the quality of the photographs, I sent them on to Sophie who graciously gave a "Found Portfolio Party" for interested friends. In a letter to Sophie dated, 24 December 1989, Hughie wrote "I am honored to have been the subject of the get together at the Wessels's on Sunday, 17 December. On that afternoon, at approximately the same time you were entertaining friends with the photographs of my ceremonial portfolio opening, we were showing the same photographs to two friends whom we had invited to dinner. I repeat the reemergence of that portfolio was one of the most astonishing episodes of my life."

Patricia Lee-Smith

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