As a child Lee-Smith moved to Atlanta to live with his grandmother, where the carnivals he attended would later provide imagery for his art. At age 10 he moved to Cleveland, and attended classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and later the Cleveland Institute of Art and the John Huntington Polytechnic Institute, the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts & Crafts (Center For Creative Studies, College of Art & Design), and received a Bachelor of Arts from Wayne State University in Detroit.
He began to teach art, and performed with an interracial dance company. His early work reflected social concerns inspired by the Great Depression of the 1930s and the work of Works Progress Administration artists of the period. Lee-Smith was employed by the WPA in Ohio, and while in the Navy painted a mural entitled History of the Negro in the U.S. Navy.
Many years after winning a top prize for painting from the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1953, he recalled
I was no longer called black artist, Negro artist, colored boy. In 1958 Lee-Smith moved to New York City, and taught at the Art Students League for 15 years. Later he moved to Cranbury, New Jersey.
His paintings evidenced the influence of Cubism, Social realism, and Surrealism at the service of a personal expression that was poignant and enigmatic. Of his characteristic work, Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times,
Mr. Lee-Smith's paintings usually have spare settings suggestive of theater stages or bleak urban or seaside landscapes.
Walls stretch out under gray skies. Men and women, as lithe as dancers, seem frozen in place. Most are dressed in street clothes.
Some wear exotic masks. Children frequently appear, as do props reminiscent of circuses. The work has an air of mystery associated with the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and Edward Hopper.
In 1994 he was commissioned to paint the official portrait of David Dinkins, former Mayor of New York City, for the New York City Hall. Retrospectives of Lee-Smith's work were mounted by the New Jersey State Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1988, and Ogunquit Museum of American Art in 1997. Lee-Smith's works are included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Art, the Detroit Institute of Art, Howard University, and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan.
Lee-Smith died of cancer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
With United States Navy, 1944-1945. Member Artists Equity Association (board directors), Allied Artists American, Princeton Art Association, Michigan Academy Science, Arts and Letters, National Academy of Design (member county, awards juries), Audubon Artists (president 1980-1982, exhibition coordinator), Artists Fellowship (trustee, vice president 1985-1988), Century Association, Lotos Club (New York City) M C.
Married Mabel Louise Everett, 1940 (divorced 1953). 1 child, Christina; married Helen Nebraska, 1965 (divorced 1974). Married Patricia Thomas-Ferry, 1978.