Ernest Lee grew up in North Carolina, where he learned to love painting as a youth through an art class in high school. He explored many different paints and techniques, but fell in love with painting country houses with oils.
His work caught the eye of his art teacher, Mr. Cherry, who spent time nurturing Ernest’s natural abilities. Mr. Cherry believed in Ernest and encouraged him to study art in college. Mr. Cherry, told Dr. Burchette, then the head of the art department at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, N.C., about Ernest. Mr. Cherry, Dr. Burchette, and Grandma Alice helped Ernest enroll at St. Augustine’s as an art major in 1980.
Ernest studied under Dr. Burchette for two years. The grant program for the department was discontinued after two years and Ernest had to take a job in the electrical field. He took a job with a large lighting company in Florida in 2000.
Ernest’s love for art never subsided. He frequented art stores and museums whenever he could. While in an art store, he learned about the story of the Highwaymen which touched him deeply. The store owner could see the sparkle in his eyes, so she gave him contact information for Highwayman, S.M Wells. Ernest made a friendship with Mr. Wells. Ernest showed Mr. Wells a painting that he completed when he was 15 years old, and Mr. Wells encouraged Ernest to start painting again.
Ernest began painting every day. He has participated in art shows and his work has been exhibited in many galleries throughout the United States. In 2019 he was a winner of the Awards of Merit at the Santa Fe Spring Art Festival. In 2012 and 2013 he received “Honorable Mention” in “The Long Wood Arts Festival”. In 2013, Ernest received “The Stetson Kennedy Foundation Fellowman, Mother Earth Award” as well as “The Award of Excellence at the Old Florida Celebration” in Cedar Key. He was also the art contest winner at the Alachua County, Fla., Matheson Museum Art Show. He was featured on The Pine Castle Art Show Cover in 2014, and has appeared on CBS, PBS and multiple cable television stations. Mr. Lee also volunteered in area public and private schools to share his techniques and art work with students. He was a co-curator of the art show at Oak Hall School in Gainesville, Fla., in 2014, and one of his paintings was featured on the program cover for the show.
Ernest became known as a folk artist and was often called Florida’s Van Gogh because of his robust impasto style with rich and vibrant colors. He always enjoyed painting country scenes from his youth, and taught art and painting to many children and adults during his career.
In 2021 while returning to Gainesville from visiting the Van Gogh exhibit in Atlanta with his wife, Gloria, Ernest suffered a heart attack and died unexpectedly in the ambulance on the way to a hospital in Valdosta, Ga. Gloria continues to display and sell Ernest’s artwork and tell his story, and has donated funds for student art scholarships in Alachua and other Florida counties. Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla., showcased Ernest’s work in a 2022 exhibit titled “The Best is Yet to Come,” and the Cedar Key, Fla., Arts Center exhibited Ernest’s work in a special exhibit later the same year.