Renowned painter James Leong, of Seattle, died Friday at Swedish Medical Center from complications of heart failure. He was 81.

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James Leong, an artist and international traveler, felt most comfortable in his former home of 30 years, a 15th-century palace in Rome.

It was in Rome that he drank wine with lifelong friends, bought food on his daily trip to the market and met and married his wife, Dean Leong.

And he did what he most loved — he painted.

Mr. Leong, a resident of the Pioneer Square neighborhood, died Friday at Swedish Medical Center from complications of heart failure. He was 81.

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Although he won the most recognition for his paintings, Mr. Leong had many talents. He spoke five languages, worked as a journalist and even had small roles in “The Last Emperor” and “Godfather III”.

“Jim was a … Renaissance man, a Tang-dynasty man in a way and a 21st-century man all rolled into one,” said his friend Greg Sletteland, referring to an era in Chinese history known for its cultural advances.

His parents wanted him to become a doctor, but Mr. Leong always knew what he wanted to do, his wife said.

Mr. Leong won a full scholarship to California College of the Arts and stayed on to earn a master’s in fine arts, studying art and art education.

When he was 21, he painted a 5 foot by 17 ½ foot mural called “One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in America.” The mural’s seven scenes show men building railroads and fighting in World War II. It now hangs in a Chinese Historical Society of America building in San Francisco.

After school, he traveled to Norway for two years on a Fulbright Scholarship.

“This was the first time he said people accepted him as he was,” Dean Leong said. Instead of being discriminated against as a Chinese-American man, Norwegian colleagues welcomed Mr. Leong as an artist.

A Guggenheim Fellowship drew him to Rome, where he settled into the Palazzo Pio, a 15th-century palace built on the ruins of the Temple of Venus. He transformed the huge building into a haven for artists, displayed their work and held concerts there.

Award-winning composer John Eaton remembers meeting Mr. Leong in Rome in 1959. At one point, Eaton was having a hard time financially and Mr. Leong invited him to stay in Palazzo Pio rent-free.

During this time, much of Mr. Leong’s work was categorized as abstract expressionism, Sletteland said. He used materials such as handmade paper and marble dust to create images such as deconstructed seashells, his wife said.

Mr. Leong and his family settled in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood in the 1990s.

Sletteland would visit Mr. Leong’s studio there nearly every Tuesday night, when they would talk for hours while sipping scotch.

“When I walked into his studio for the first time, I was just stunned by his work,” he said. “What’s unusual about it is the extreme amount of emotion … that it communicates.”

Sletteland said he thinks a lot of that emotion is rooted in Mr. Leong’s difficult childhood.

Born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1929, Mr. Leong suffered not only from the effects of the Great Depression, but also from feeling like “an outsider in his own family” because of his career choices.

“His passion was his art,” his wife said. “As much as he loved everybody, we would always come second.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Leong is survived by his brother, Dr. Tony Leong of Piedmont, Calif.; his sister, Helen Jueng, of San Francisco; his two sons, Kim Leong, of Hercules, Calif., and Bo Leong, of Seattle; his daughter, Mai Ann Cozzupoli, of Rome; his former wife, Karen Paluzzi, of Oakland, Calif.; four grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Details of a Seattle memorial are pending. In lieu of flowers, remembrances may be sent to California College of the Arts, Advancement Office, 5212 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94618.

Brittney Wong: 206-464-3195 or

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