Jacob Lehman


Jacob Lehman was a self-taught Polish émigré artist, whose lyrical late-life drawings speak to his hardscrabble past and man of the people convictions.

Born and raised in the shtetls of the Polish Pale, as a young man Lehman learned woodcarving, one of the few occupations then available to Jews. But intense competition for work, together with the incessant anti-Jewish decrees and waves of pogroms, resulted in a stream of Jewish emigration from the Pale of Settlement to the United States; and on the eve of World War I, Jacob and his siblings joined this exodus, settling in New Jersey, where he found work as a cabinet maker.

A decade later things had changed for the worse: Jacob’s first wife died of illness in 1930, and he worked selling life insurance door to door during the height of the Great Depression.

In 1937 the United Furniture Workers Union formed and Jacob moved to Los Angeles, where he became a union organizer for the radical local 576, which was comprised mainly of Mexican-American workers, blacks, and Jews, and was a militant agitator for social change in an era of heavy-handed and violent tactics by the institutions and bosses it opposed. Local 576 was the first union to break away from the American Federation of Labor, because of racial bias on the part of the AFL.

Jacob worked his way up to become financial secretary for the union, a position he held until his retirement in 1957. Around the corner from Jacob’s modest home on Muirfield Road in west Los Angeles stands the Queen Anne Recreation Center where Jacob’s life as an artist began, attending weekly art classes.