The Chen Lok Lee Legacy Project
- 2021 Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander Artists Support Grant
On December 13, 2020, the Lee-Akiyama family lost their anchor and guide, Chen Lok Lee, pioneering Asian American and local Philadelphia artist and professor, to COVID-19. Lee left his hometown in China in 1951 fleeing for his life from Communist forces. In his daring escape, he swam out from China towards Hong Kong, leaving his family behind, hoping that he would be able to reunite after the uprising settled. This fight for political, cultural, and personal freedom and safety shaped Lee’s life and trajectory. Arriving in New York City in 1959, he immersed himself in his work as a burgeoning artist, learning English and working in the Chinese restaurant business to support himself. His work at the Arts Students League eventually led him to the American Academy in Rome and ultimately to Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. He trained as an MFA printmaker, completing his studies in 1972. His career as an artist and professor spanned three continents and seven decades that he was active, and was a beloved teacher to many having taught at Moore College of Art and Design and the Community College of Philadelphia for over twenty years. Lee also demonstrated his technique and artwork annually at the Penn Museum’s Lunar New Year celebration.
Asian American history is not taught in primary or secondary schools, nor are many Asian Americans included in the contributions and studies of American art. The fact that Asian Americans are erased from history negatively impacts the United States’ ability to accurately honor, recognize and pay tribute to the ancestors who have come before us and contributed to the building of the cultural roots of this country. This lack of representation and diverse voices in the art world, in general, is a loss for our society, and a misrepresentation of reality. In collaboration with her husband, Penn alum Cliff Akiyama, Romana Lee-Akiyama, Lee’s daughter, leads this project to honor his life story, works of art, and contributions to the international conversations of art and democracy so that we can accurately reflect history in America.
Building Bridges, Breaking Barriers, an art exhibit featuring work by Chen Lok Lee, supported by this grant, opened in the Crane Community Center in Philadelphia in September 2021, and is on view through December 2021.