During the Gregg Museum of Art & Design’s annual purchasing party tonight, Arts NC State will unveil its first purchases for the Lecce Collection. James Lecce, who was a professor of animal science at NC State for nearly 40 years, and his wife, Eileen, willed their estate (valued at more than $1 million) to NC State last year to create the James and Eileen Lecce Ethnic Art Endowment. It was the largest arts gift that NC State has received. We spoke with James Lecce last fall for a Q&A that appeared in the Autumn 2009 issue of NC State magazine. It’s reprinted below. We’ve also includes images provided by Arts NC State of some of the items in the Lecce Collection.
A Bridge Between Art and Science
Former biology professor donates largest arts gift in NC State history.
James Lecce spent 39 years studying porcine husbandry in NC State’s Department of Animal Science. Just a few years before his retirement in 1994, he began creating wood, stone and clay sculptures. Now he and his wife, Eileen, have willed their estate, valued at more than $1 million, to NC State’s Gregg Museum of Art & Design to establish an ethnic art collection. It’s the largest arts gift NC State has ever received.
What led you to sculpting?
I was having heart problems. When I woke up after [bypass] surgery [in 1990], I said to myself, “If you’re ever going to do anything, now’s the time to do it.” So I just started sculpting. I had been interested in only science for my whole career. The whole point of science is to project your will on a set of circumstances, measure the results and determine what’s worth investigating. There is none of that in art. You can’t impose your will on a piece of wood. You have to allow the wood to tell you what’s inside, and it’s up to you to figure out how to get it out.
What was your first piece?
A log fell off a truck in front of our house, and I dragged it off the street and left it sitting on the veranda for a couple of weeks. I don’t know what possessed me, but I started carving. When I finished to my satisfaction, it looked like Dwight Armstrong, a junior colleague of mine at the time. So I called it Dwight. Some time later, when [Dwight] came back [to Raleigh], he asked where the statue was. I said, “I’m sorry to tell you that you’re gone. The termites got to you.
Why an ethnic art collection?
There is some commonality to the art of Africa, Asia, Polynesia, parts of Central and South America. People used to call it “primitive art,” but there’s nothing primitive about it. It really comes from the emotions of an untrained artist. It’s beautiful. It’s simple. It comes from the heart. The collection will focus on an agriculture theme because that’s been my life’s work. My dream is to create a panorama of agriculture’s importance in this culture and that culture, and hopefully it will connect with students that agriculture impacts everyone. And students have so few common experiences on campus. I want to provide something that the chemistry students, the engineers, the writers, whoever, can experience. I want them to get a glimpse of other cultures and maybe remember it for the rest of their lives.