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James Augustus McLean (1904-1989)

James McLean was born in 1904 in the rural foothills of the North Carolina Mountains. McLean knew early on that he wanted to study art; however there were very few opportunities in North Carolina in those days. In 1923 the young artist answered an ad to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. His submission was accepted and he spent five years studying under noted artists Daniel Garber, Charles Garner and Joseph Pearson. A Cresson Scholarship allowed McLean to further travel and study in Italy, France and Germany.

On completing his education, McLean returned to North Carolina to open the Southern School of the Creative Arts in Raleigh in 1929. This early effort towards art education was short lived with the subsequent stock market crash and the Great Depression; however McLean continued to be active in teaching art throughout the rest of his career.

During the ’30s McLean worked on a number of WPA projects including murals for universities, high schools, and libraries. McLean was the staff artist at WUNC TV for 12 years in the 1950s and 1960s and exhibited at PAFA, The Ogunquit Summer Art Show, the High Museum, and the NC State Art Society annual exhibitions. he also devoted time as a lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State University. McLean was a major contributor and promoter of art in North Carolina. He leaves an impact and a legacy that cannot be measured.

The curator for this exhibition is Mr. Ed Alexander. He was a close friend and collector of McLean’s work for many decades during his lifetime, and after McLean died Alexander was asked by the family to manage the collection. Gallery C is indebted to Mr. Alexander for his knowledge and expertise in selecting the artwork for this Retrospective exhibition. This show consists of paintings, watercolors, drawings, and sculpture that span over sixty years.

Read this artist's biography

James Augustus McLean: Artist

Bio by A. Everette James Jr.

The murals composed by James August McLean in the 1930s for Grimsley High School in Greensboro are entitled “Energy” and “Education.” These might represent a metaphor of this important but unheralded North Carolina artist.

McLean was born in 1904 in Lincolnton, North Carolina. His father who died soon after his birth was a stone cutter and a single mother reared James and his six siblings. While not suffering from abject poverty, the McLeans lived a marginal existence.

James Augustus McLean only wanted to be an artist but, in reality, family financial circumstances almost precluded this vocation. He never relinquished his dream but in 1923 his prospects were dim.

McLean had completed a year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but had returned home to work for his “uncle” Dan Rhyne. Though not truly “kin” Rhyne was a close family friend and a well-known philanthropist. His name was later to be preserved in the local Lenoir-Rhyne College now University.

Without any real hope for success, McLean had casually made application to the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) for entry into the school and indicated the need for a job to produce income for tuition. To his amazement, he was accepted and he was given a job managing a dormitory at the PAFA summer school.

McLean remained at the PAFA for five years and at the completion of the course was offered an instructor’s position as an assistant. At that same time an art group from Raleigh was visiting the PAFA and asked McLean if he would like to found a school for art instruction in the capital city. McLean had the coveted Cresson Traveling Fellowship affording the opportunity to experience the European art seen in Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Germany.

The decision was a difficult one as a position at the Academy carried prestige, opportunities to exhibit at juried shows, an institutional structure for advancement, and convivial surroundings with colleagues and mentors for his personal art career. However, the opportunity to found his own school in his native state was a compelling inducement for James Augustus McLean and he returned to North Carolina and opened the Southern School of Art in the fall of 1929. With the modest beginning, as McLean the only instructor, he soon included dance as part of the program offered to the students at the school.

Members of the State Arts Society, who had made the offer in Philadelphia on their visit, assisted McLean with the funding which was always insufficient for the tasks at hand and their vision of the mission of the endeavor.

McLean hired the young dance instructor, Carrie Ann Simpson, an attractive and talented young woman who was soon to become his wife. Because of this expansion of activities, the numbers at the Art Center but as the Great Depression spread to the South, then funds for the arts in general dwindled and it was specifically diminished for their programs resulting in loss of the students.

While James McLean thought about the PAFA which by that time had been the place of inspiration and refuge for the better known Francis Dobbs Speight of Bertie County and Hobson Pittman of Tarboro (Epworth Community in Edgecomb County). Pittman and Speight remained at the Academy, taught and lived in the Philadelphia area for 20 years. Pittman would visit the well-known families in the Charleston area especially Clare Booth Luce and her husband and the Baruch Plantation. Later a museum in Tarboro would be named for Pittman and the Blount-Bridges House a repository of his estate and the Hobson-Pittman collection.

When he retired from the PAFA, Speight became an artist in residence at East Carolina College in Greenville, which is now East Carolina University of the greater University of North Carolina.

Certainly no less talented than Speight or Pittman, the return to North Carolina, where there was a single annual art exhibit and the time consuming administrative duties, McLean had little opportunity to exhibit his own work as his first responsibility he felt was the operation of the center.

At the same time James and Carrie Ann McLean had their first child, a daughter. Cash funds were not available so McLean paid the attending physician with a portrait. This practice was to be repeated subsequently with the birth of each of the other children until the fourth was born. Then for the first time McLean had enough funds to pay the physician in cash.

The nation was mired in the Great Depression and the Raleigh Art Center was almost without funds. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President and he instituted many public works initiatives to provide jobs for the millions of Americans who were in 1935 unemployed. The truly amazing commitment was, at the height of national poverty and economic concern; he instituted within the Works Projects Administration (WPA) the program specifically for artists, the Federal Arts Program (FAP). Painters and visual artists were funded under this initially controversial program (many felt that art was not an essential need).

McLean not only made application to be a participant but also became a regional and national leader with his broad-based plan for North Carolina. He was a major force in establishing six programs (some references claim nine) of the 67 centers nationally for this activity. This proposal and later plan written by McLean appears to have been adopted nationally.

This artist has an article


By Ed Alexander

I met James McLean when I was sixteen years old. My grandmother asked me to pick up a painting from his studio on Logan Court, off of Hillsborough Street, near the Bell Tower.

The studio was in a garage building behind his 1920’s bungalow dwelling. He had a large work table, a couple of large easels, and I remember all of the paintings covering every wall surface. One was kind of “spooky,” with ghosts hovering over an old Victorian house. I really didn’t like it very much.

Mr. McLean was very friendly, thin, energetic, and about 60 years old at the time. Over the years to come I visited him and his wife, a dance instructor, numerous times. The interior of their house reflected their musical and artistic interests, with the living room dominated by a large grand piano, and as in the studio, every wall surface covered by art. I learned that the couple had been instrumental in the founding of the Raleigh Little Theater. In fact, in 1940 he sculpted the bas relief frieze of the masks of “Comedy and Tragedy” above the main portico of the RLT building. It can be seen today inside of the new lobby, above the bronze plaque naming him as the sculptor.

Not long after my wife and I were married and settled into our first little apartment, our first dinner guests were Mr. McLean and fellow Raleigh artist Miss Mabel Pugh. They entertained us with memories of their training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

When my children were young they loved to visit Mr. McLean, and were especially fascinated with the garden statues he created, some of which had recessed multi-colored lights to play on the modern shapes when illuminated.

James McLean loved art and lived every day to create it, up until the time of his death, well into his eighties. He was always searching for new ideas and experimenting with new mediums. He did oils, watercolors, ink and charcoal drawings, stone sculpture, mosaic sculpture, and even large murals.

In his later years Mr. McLean still cut an artistic figure, with long “hippie” hair and a Mustang convertible. He dined nearly every night at Ballentine’s Cafeteria and was a memorable character.

For the last ten years it has been my privilege to represent the Estate of the Artist, promoting the art of James McLean nationwide. During these years his paintings have come to reside in numerous personal collections and have been presented in prominent galleries in New York City, Charleston, Washington DC, and other venues. Dr. A. Everette James of Chapel Hill has recently donated a fine McLean painting to the Permanent Collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art, another to the Morris Museum of Southern Art in Georgia, and another to the Gregg Museum at NC State University.

Mr. McLean was also a gifted poet and published two volumes of deep-thoughted poetry. I recollect one line in particular which might reflect on his lifelong creative search – “The great Utopia is yet unarrived.”

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