James McLean was born in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina in 1904. The seventh child of a stonecutter, McLean's interest in art started early, but unfortunately the subject was not offered in North Carolina schools at that time. McLean started college and was offered a job in a cotton mill. But, desperate to study art, McLean answered a magazine ad and submitted a drawing to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He was accepted and spent the next five years studying under artist Daniel Garber, Charles Garner, amongst others. Garber's teachings of impressionism, draftsmanship and composition deeply influenced McLean's future work. In 1926, in fact, McLean won the coveted Cresson Traveling Scholarship which enabled him to study art in Paris, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany.
Upon graduation, in 1923, the Pennsylvania Academy offered McLean a teaching position, but instead he opted to establish the Southern School of Creative Arts in Raleigh, with McLean its only teacher. Unfortunately the Stock Market Crash in 1929 put his plans on hold. When the WPA came to North Carolina in the 1930's, McLean joined the Federal Arts Project, painting murals in libraries and schools in different areas of North Carolina, and teaching classes to the public. McLean also supervised programs for the Art Center in Raleigh which opened in 1936. During this time, McLean was creating his own work, focusing like his mentor Garber, on landscapes surrounding his home in Blowing Rock and Smokey Hollow. McLean vacillated between painting impressionistically and in an avant garde style, but also experimented with cubism and realism.
McLean lived long enough to see art instituted in many educational facilities throughout North Carolina, including North Carolina School of Arts in Winston-Salem, an arts department was started in Chapel Hill and State College in Raleigh started its School of Design. Most important to Mclean, art became a basic course in the public schools of North Carolina.
McLean was honored in several local exhibitions in the early 1960's. He died in Raleigh in 1989.