Lee Adams, known around the world for his watercolors of plants and birds, was born in Jacksonville in 1922. As a young child, he suffered from asthma so severe that at age six he was forced to remain in bed for a year. His interest in art began when his mother provided him paints and paper to keep him occupied. Lee’s illness prompted his family to move to the cleaner air of Mandarin, where Lee grew up and his interest in painting continued.
While studying botany, Lee was introduced to David and Marian Fairchild of Coconut Grove, who were to have a profound influence on his life and work. Dr. Fairchild saw in Lee a way to more effectively introduce Americans to tropical fruit. “Here is the man to do for tropical fruits what Audubon did for the birds,” Fairchild predicted. He described Lee as “…one who is able to draw in the Audubon style and make portraits of fruits which talk…living plant pictures such as I have been longing to see for years and never seen.” Dr. Fairchild arranged for Lee to travel to Central America to paint tropical fruits. Lee discovered that including birds in the paintings helped them sell, thereby beginning his lifetime of work combining plant and animal studies in his art.
Lee is also known for his work in murals, including Ribault’s Landing, an 8’x31’ mural completed in 1959 for the new Sears department store downtown. The mural has recently been restored and erected in the Main Library. The State of Florida commissioned Lee to paint a series of eleven murals, each about 10’x12’, for the Florida Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. The murals depicted Florida’s life, culture, and commerce. Four of the restored murals are displayed at the West Riverside Elementary School, which Lee and his children attended.
Altogether, Lee produced about 1500 paintings of birds, flowers and fruits. The Montgomery Collection, twenty paintings of palm trees completed between 1961 and 1966, is owned by the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables. Twenty-nine of his paintings are found in the permanent collections of museums.
In 1948, Lee married Mimi Stockton, who later served as first chairperson of the City’s Air Pollution Board. Lee and Mimi were killed in a tragic car accident in 1971. In their honor, the City established the Lee and Mimi Adams Environmental Awards. Also named in their honor is Adams Park, located at the corner of Edgewood Avenue and Oak Street in historic Avondale.