East Tech Scarab. Cleveland, Ohio. Thursday, May 3, 1934.

Hughie Lee-Smith won a Scholastic Award in 1934. The talented artist would live through the Great Depression, World War II and the civil rights movement. He taught art, was employed by the WPA, and won a top prize for a painting from the Detroit Institute of Arts. After his move to New York City in 1958, Hughie taught at the Art Students League for 15 years. He was also the second African-American to become an associate member of the National Academy of Design. Retrospectives of his work have been exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the New Jersey State Museum, and his art can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Philadelphia Museum of Art collections, among others.

Hughie passed away in 1999, but his art and passion live on. In the letter below, he dispenses advice to young artists and shares what winning the Scholastic Award meant to him.

Dear Aspirant,

I welcome this opportunity to be your mentor for a little while. Although I cannot prescribe for you a fool-proof formula for success in art, I can share with you a pivotal experience of my early years as an art student in the hope that you will come to understand, as I did, that the inevitable difficulties in life can very often be overcome with hard work and goal-oriented determination.

As a boy I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, at a time of great economic distress known as the “Great Depression.” At that time, due to the severity of the economic crisis, most young people had very little choice as to what to make of their adult lives. Very few families could boast of a steady breadwinner, so the prospects for acquiring a costly post-high school education were slim, indeed. However, throughout my boyhood my greatest pleasure was derived from drawing. And so, by the time I was nearing the end of high school I had firmly made up my mind that I wanted to become a professional artist, despite the hard times. It was at this point that something happened which quite possibly changed the course of my life. For, virtually on the eve of graduation from high school I won a full scholarship to an art school in the Scholastic Magazine’s high school art competition of 1934 in which only eleven such scholarships were awarded nationally.

I relate this to you in order to underline the importance of dedicated study and determination. Clearly, fate had a hand in all this, but without my input of unrelenting effort, nothing could have happened for me. It was that hard work leading to excellence that made the difference between success and failure for an African-American lad in the middle of the most dreadful economic downturn in this nation’s history.

Wishing you much success in your chosen field.


Hughie Lee-Smith

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