Annie Frances Lee (3 March 1935 – 24 November 2014) was an American artist. She is known for her depiction of African-American everyday life. Her work is characterized by images without facial features. She used body language to show emotion and expression in her work. Her most popular paintings are Blue Monday and My Cup Runneth Over.
Lee was born in Gadsden, Alabama but grew up in Chicago, Illinois. She began painting as a child and won her first competition at the age of 10 but did not start painting professionally until she was 40. Annie attended Wendell Phillips High School on Chicago's South Side. Her artistic accomplishments led her to receive a scholarship to attend Northwestern University. She declined the scholarship to get married and raise a family but later studied art at Mundelein College and the American Academy of Art. She received her Master of Education from Loyola University.
Between the age of 10, when she showed artistic aptitude, and 40 when she began her career as an artist, she had lost two husbands to cancer, raised a daughter from her first marriage and a son from her second, and lost a son in a tragic accident in 1986. She enrolled in Loop Junior College and completed her undergraduate to work at Mundele in College in Chicago. While working as the chief clerk at Northwestern Railroad, Annie studied art at night for eight years, eventually earning a master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Art Education from Loyola University. Lee’s railroad job inspired one of her most popular paintings, Blue Monday, which depicts a woman struggling to pull herself out of bed on a Monday morning. Her trademarks are the animated emotion of the personalities in the artwork and the faces which are painted without features. At age fifty, Lee had her first gallery show; she allowed prints to be made of four of her original paintings. Using her unique designs, Lee also developed figurines, high fashion dolls, decorative housewares, and kitchen tiles.
Lee’s work reflected her own experiences as well as her observations of those in communities around her. After showing her work in other galleries for a number of years, Lee opened Annie Lee and Friends Gallery in Glenwood, Illinois where she displayed her works as well as the works of other artists. When several of her paintings appeared on the sets of popular television shows such as The Cosby Show and A Different World, the exposure helped popularize her work. Although she regularly received requests for public appearances, Lee preferred to appear at gallery shows; she also enjoyed visiting schools to encourage and inspire students. After many years, Lee left Chicago for the warm weather of the Southwest—Las Vegas. The play “Six No Uptown,” written by L.A. Walker, Terry Horton, and Cassandra Sanders was inspired by Lee’s painting of the same name. The play opened in Las Vegas in 2014 and centers around a Bid Whist card game, Annie Lee’s game of choice.
All characters in Annie's paintings have one common trait; faces which has no features. Why does Annie paint in this manner? Here were Annie's reasons:
- Annie Lee preferred to bring her paintings to life through the movement and body language of the characters. Annie did not want faces to interfere with the story she was painting through the body language of her characters.
- By painting without faces, Annie allowed her customers to project themselves or people that they know into the painting. Although Blue Monday is Annie's only self portrait, Annie didn't paint her face on the painting because she knows everybody can relate to having a Blue Monday, and wanted her customers to be able to picture themselves in the painting.
When Annie started painting commercially she wanted to be unique and different from other artists. Painting without faces became one of Annie's distinct trademarks.
Philanthropy and Foundation
Over the decades, Lee has been a huge supporter of the Tom Joyner Foundation. Without hesitation, she donated her time and artwork to help the Foundation raise money to help keep students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Her Higher Education: A Way to Soar painting celebrates the successes of the students at these HBCUs achieving great heights. Her White Night painting captures the elegance and whimsy of one of the theme nights on board the Fantastic Voyage, an annual week long cruise that is a huge fundraiser for the Foundation, where she was a regular exhibitor.
The Tom Joyner Foundation developed a partnership with Annie Lee in 2000 and the Joyner Foundation lists her “Artist, Humorist, Humanitarian, Icon. “ The honored her and wrote, Annie Lee has established herself internationally not only as an artist, but a respected and business savvy entrepreneur. Her noted ability to convey feelings through the faceless subjects of her paintings has won her a place in history as one of the icons of African American art. Annie is as iconic to the world of African American art as Michael Jordan is to basketball. She has rightfully earned her place among the great artists of our race. Her success is not only based on her skill as a painter, but on her ability to touch us at our core. Her art reflects on our history, our families, our struggles, our joy, our strengths, our weaknesses, our pride, our idiosyncrasies and on the faith that sustains us The Joyner Foundation emphasized, she is “OUR” Annie Lee.