By Gary Ruegsegger
Special To the New Journal and Guide
Self-taught artist James Lee breaks many of the perceived molds of the art community. Don’t expect to find him under a smock and beret in a studio. He brings life to his art and his art to life.
The Chesapeake painter and sculptor played guard and linebacker on the Norfolk State football team from 1964 to 1968. As a four-time CIAA wrestling champion, the Mount Vernon, New York native never lost a CIAA wrestling match. At 70 years of age, he can still crush walnuts in his bare hands.
Lee brings a lifetime of experience and a refreshing twist to his work. He is a powerful man-both physically and artistically-and works in a variety of mediums including wood, clay, plaster, cardboard, feathers, seashells, pastels and water colors.
The former NSU wrestling coach’s art is currently on display in Chesapeake’s Dr. Clarence Cuffee Library on Border Street.
Sharon Wilson of the Chesapeake Library first saw Lee’s work at Norfolk’s historic First Baptist Church Bute Street Art Show. Earlier Wilson established an art wall at the library to display the work of local artists. She asked Lee to join the wall.
“We’re going to hear much more from Miss Wilson and her artists,” smiled Lee.
Dr. James Edwards III, the retired pastor of Rose of Sharon Missionary Baptist Church, saw Lee’s “Maasai Warrior” mask at the library and contacted the New Journal and Guide. Edwards likes to get the word out.
“I was especially taken by the Maasai warrior mask. Some folks have told me that when I really get going in the pulpit-jumping up and down—I remind them of a Maasai warrior,” chuckled Edwards. “After studying the situation, I really can’t disagree with them.”
According to Lee, the mask is part of the “rite of passage” for the Maasai.
“They only wear the mask until they kill their first lion,” said Lee. “The mask is then retired and replaced with the lion’s mane.”
Much of Lee’s focus is based on his research about the origins of wrestling. He credits legendary African-American wrestling coach Bobby Douglas of Iowa State for his looking to the “cultures of Africa and African art” for inspiration.
But don’t let Lee’s ready smile and warm manner fool you. He is a dedicated and intense man.
“In my forties, I started trying to do some art work off and on. I wanted to bring something new to my life,” said Lee.
“Coaching was always my passion. Now I have changed my passion,” he added. “In wrestling, I paid close attention to technique. My art also focuses on technique.”
Wrestling and art run deep in Lee’s family. As a junior high school student, he used to sneak into the high school practices. He starred in wrestling at Mount Vernon High School and Norfolk State. Lee later coached wrestling in high school and college. His great grandfather made furniture with an artistic twist. Lee has sawdust in his veins and plaster and paint on his hands. Wrestling and art stayed in his heart.
“My oldest sister was an artist and my younger sister is an artist,” he said. “It runs in the family.”
Lee coached four All-American wrestlers at NSU. Combining art and wrestling just seemed natural to the father of three and grandfather of five.
He takes precious little credit for his successes in life and art preferring to give credit to his own mentors including his high school wrestling coach Dr. Littlefield of Mount Vernon High, NSU football coach Bill Archie, his NSU position coach Dick Price and his NSU wrestling coach and future NSU athletic director Dr. Wright.
He described Littlefield as “a giant in stature and as a man.” Lee originally wanted to major in art, but “the character of Coach Bill Archie and his teaching style” changed his mind. The other names all bring a smile to his face. He is a man very comfortable in his own skin.
Lee spoke highly of other friends and teammates including Hank Sawyer, Tim Bonds, Earl Powell and Randy Forrest.
“The Lord has blessed me,” explained Lee.
His 70th birthday, just last week, brought the good wishes of his former wrestlers from around the country. When Lee makes friends, he keeps them. During the interview, his longtime buddy from Mount Vernon Randy Forrest, a two-time CIAA wrestling champion, called.
Lee’s wife Evelyn, an assistant minister at First Baptist, simply described her husband as “humble.”
“I think it’s a gift from God. I’m proud of him and his work is awesome,” she added.
See for yourself, it’s on display at the Dr. Clarence Cuffee Library in Chesapeake.