Marin County teenager James Lee, also known as Jamesey, finds joy in making art. Diagnosed with autism at age two, Lee has been drawing and painting since he was a young child, finding comfort in the colors he works with and in the gestures of painting on large canvases, which often gets him dancing as he paints.
A longtime student at Oak Hill School in San Anselmo, which serves students with autism spectrum disorders and other health impairments, Lee was forced to stay home when the school shut down due to the pandemic in March. So, he turned to art and started painting every day.
Soon after that, in June, the de Young Museum in San Francisco announced an open call for submissions from local artists for “The de Young Open” exhibition. Over 6,000 artists from nine Bay Area counties submitted over 11,000 works, including Lee’s mother, who submitted two works on behalf of her son under the name Jamesey.
Of those works, jurors selected Jamesey’s “Pandemic Blue #1” to display as part of “The de Young Open,” giving Lee his official debut as an exhibiting artist.
For de Young’s open exhibition, the jurors accepted less than 8-percent of all the works submitted, and each piece of art was reviewed anonymously, meaning the jurors had no idea that “Pandemic Blue #1” was the work of a teen with autism when they selected it.
“Pandemic Blue #1” can be seen now at the de Young Museum or on the museum’s website, which shares Lee’s story in the artist statement, writing that though Lee cannot verbally identify colors, he has an instinctive grasp of color theory. Painting a layer at a time, Lee varies his hue and tone, and he is now learning to “self-edit” his art by covering parts of the canvas in plastic, applying layers of paint over them, and removing the plastic to create shapes or structures. This process is repeated over and over until Lee declares that the canvas is “so beautiful.” Finally, he draws over the layered colors in Sharpie, adding symbols of swimming pools and lifesavers that have become his own personal iconography.
In addition to “Pandemic Blue #1,” Lee has over a dozen paintings in his ongoing pandemic series, and his family is generously donating his paintings for a virtual auction to benefit Oak Hill School, which has had to cancel its annual fundraiser that provides scholarships to students in need. To own a Jamesey piece of art and support Oak Hill School, visit the auction site airauctioneer.com/jamesey.