People don’t choose their legacies. Or their obituaries. Lee Harvey, like no one else from Jacksonville, harbored a very real distaste for this place. It was a constant subject for him, finding its way into his art, his conversations, and seemingly everything else. When I bumped into him in Riverside over the years, especially in recent years, he would always ask me what I was still doing here. I wasn’t the only one of whom he asked that question.
I didn’t know him as well as many, and I never made plans to hang out with him, for the same reason I never made plans to get rained on. Lee, who died Nov. 10 after a long battle with mesothelioma, was a force of nature. I saw him as a larger-than-life figure, to be experienced randomly. We’d have two-hour conversations in Laundromats and bars, and that was plenty. Like a chemical peel facial, Lee was restorative, and a little went a long way.
As news of his death spread, artists and scenesters of a certain age — that is to say, over 30 — lamented him on Facebook. The leading cultural lights of the city — everyone from Chip Southworth to dubstep/EDM impresario Vlad the Inhaler — were all touched by him and noted it accordingly. The most compelling treatment of Lee was from someone who’d known him for a long time, Stephen Dare of Metro Jacksonville, who owned the Fusion Café in 5 Points in the early 1990s, right around the time that Lee was sharpening that rapier he used as a paintbrush.
Writing about the Lee Harvey Gallery, Dare described its commitment to redefining the staid, boring, decorative boundaries that characterized so much of Jacksonville’s “official” art scene up until then. Lee’s gallery displayed a painting of Adam and Eve that, in the words of one critic, had “exaggerated genitalia.” The ruckus led to Lee facing pornography charges and to his gallery closing. And ultimately, I believe, this and related incidents cauterized his spirit, sharpening his criticism of “Fat City” or, if you want to go back further, “Jesusville,” the city that made Lee and attempted, in vain, to spit him out, along with his contemporaries.
Lee ended up moving to New York City, where he continued to work — and criticize Jacksonville from afar, on both occasional visits to town and, of course, through social media. He also established a national reputation in the years after 9/11, with stickers and paintings offering a critique of the post-9/11 militarist culture that the Bush/Cheney administration embodied. His critiques did not measurably soften when Obama took office. As an artist, he very much was a social commentator. Whether he was taking to task the federal government or First Baptist Church, he called out poltroons and scoundrels wherever he found them — and he found them pretty much everywhere.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that I’m writing this on Veterans Day, given the sharpness of his critiques. Also ironic: Lee dying in November, the month when JFK was killed by his eponym 51 years ago. Life is full of such ironies. Knowing Lee as I did for a quarter-century, I know he would have appreciated them.
His paintings and work will survive him, of course, though like so much social commentary, they are creatures of the age. When thinking of Lee’s legacy, I don’t necessarily think of other painters and artists. I think instinctively of Alan Justiss, the local writer who hung with Bukowski and ended up writing like Bukowski, looking like death warmed over for years before he departed this mortal coil.
Justiss had an ambivalent relationship with Jacksonville, finding himself essentially homeless for years. Lee was smarter and had money; he was able to monetize his vision even as he wrestled with cancer for years. Both men, however, were instrumental for many writers and artists locally, including me. They taught all of us to open our eyes, see the bullshit around us, and call it for what it is.
Rest in peace, Lee. You’ve earned it. Though you disowned Jacksonville many times over, you were of this place, and it is here that your legacy shall endure.