James McLean was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina. In April 1923, he began five years of classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Chester Springs Country School. In 1929 McLean was drawn back to North Carolina, where he set up and taught single handedly at The Southern School of Creative Arts in Raleigh. In the mid-1930s, McLean joined the Federal Arts Project (FAP), painting murals and teaching classes to the general public. In addition to this work, McLean supervised the programs for the Art Center in Raleigh, which opened in 1936. McLean used impressionism and more avant-garde methods in his work, experimenting with techniques of decorative patterning while maintaining realism.