In Memoriam | Visual Arts

Nostalgic Notes: On Lee Deffebach


Ann Poore has been a writer, editor and art critic in Utah for many years. She was also a personal friend of Salt Lake City artist Lee Deffebach, who passed away last year. In recognition of the exhibition of Deffebach’s work at Phillips Gallery this month, as well as the ongoing exhibit “Deference to Deffebach” at the Salt Lake Art Center, Poore prepared these notes, originally used for an Art Talk at the Salt Lake Art Center. For more on Deffebach, read our November edition.

Lee once told me that art is whatever you can get away with. I think she meant that art is wherever you can find it. She was excited about those plastic sandwich bags where you press a yellow and blue line together and it turns green when the bag is sealed. Everyday art mattered. I loved her for that.

Deffebach was born in Houston on Dec. 3, 1928. Her mother, who earned her master’s in languages at Rice, told her daughter that her birthday was the best day of the whole year, a theory Lee subscribed to all her life. She had a sister and a much-loved brother, Tex, whose son, also a painter, is Lee’s heir. Lee’s mother read them Coleridge, Shakespeare and Greek myths at bedtime. Lee would name her first important exhibition, at the Kimball in Park City, the Alph series, after the river in Kubla Kahn. She poured paint down 8-foot-high canvases to create rivers of color. The 1977 show was a huge success and so was Lee Deffebach.

The family had moved to the Avenues in Salt Lake City when Lee was 12 or 13. She attended Rowland Hall and the University of Utah where she studied under George Dibble, one of Utah¹s early modernists who had been influenced by Cubism at Columbia University during the 1930s. Though warned by B. F. Larsen at BYU that his work “would lead him into the Communist camp,” Dibble still encouraged “a loose approach,” Deffebach said, “not totally realistic. He showed you different ways of painting. Back then, in the ‘40s, that was far out.”

Like Dibble, after graduation Lee would board a train for New York City and the Art Students League. Because she said she was an artist on her job application, Macy’s put her to work in the “pitcher and mirror” department, a comment Lee made in a humorous but accurate Brooklyn accent.

The portraiture she had intended to study under Robert Brackman (known for his painting in the film “Portrait of Jenny”) swiftly lost out to Abstract Expressionism and classes from Byron Browne, Vaclav Vytlacil and Morris Kantor. Lee remembered that Hans Hofmann, Willam de Kooning and Franz Kline were working in the city and she painted hundreds of paintings on newsprint to learn the Abstract Expressionist style.

She helped found the Contemporary Gallery and School of Art on Post Office Place in Salt Lake City in 1952. Among those exhibiting or teaching there were George Dibble, Gertrude Teutsch, Myra Powell, Irene Fletcher, Harry Taylor and Francis Zimbeaux. “We all felt we were opening the door to modernism in Salt Lake,” Lee recalled.

Deffebach studied briefly in Paris then went on a Fulbright to Italy. “I enjoyed the frescoes and paintings of Masaccio and Piero della Francesca and Simone Martini¹s Annunciation altarpiece. It seemed to me that the artists of the Renaissance made art a personal exploration — as the Abstract Expressionists, who so influenced me in New York, were doing.” Once she found her passion in art Lee never wavered from it.

After returning to Salt Lake City, Lee married Gordon Bailey in the fall of 1956, and lived with him through the winter at a duck club in North Salt Lake where he was caretaker. He introduced her to the old mining town of Tuscarora, Nevada, where they would later reside. First, though, other adventures waited.

The couple spent two years in New York City loft spaces, in the area that would become Soho. While Ben Shahn, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe were having shows on West 37th Street, Lee joined an alternative co-op gallery where she had her first solo show. The Village Voice critic wrote: “The best thing happening on 10th Street now is Lee Deffebach’s work at Camino. The colors are lyric, jazzy, loud. It’s a deep breath of fresh air after the conscious naiveté, the oh-shucks earnestness filling most of the galleries.”

Shortly after the Camino show, Lee and Gordon went to Greece for six months, something she would recall some 40 years later looking at a richly toned picture she had completed. She called it “The Lion Gate” because it reminded her of something she had seen on that trip. Viewing the painting beside a photo of the famed site in Mycenae offers a startling insight into the unconscious mind of an abstractionist. Lee and Gordon went on to Turkey and North Africa before returning to Washington, D.C., where they lived for a year. Sales from a successful show at the Upstairs Gallery funded their return to Tuscarora. They decided to live in the tiny town of about a dozen residents and visit New York a LOT, Lee said.

In 1963, they brought work from Tuscarora to the Art Barn on Finch Lane for a show devoted entirely to abstraction. Larry Elsner’s sculpture was there, as were the remarkable abstract paintings of Don Olsen. He would become Lee’s lifelong friend.

Lee exhibited locally at Max and Joan Smith’s Plumtree Gallery and rented a loft at 9th and 9th for $50 a month. It was located just across the street from where Denis and Bonnie Phillips were opening a gallery and frame shop, and Lee would show her work there and frame pictures on and off for some 15 years. Her exhibitions with Phillips Gallery would last a lifetime.

After divorcing Gordon, Lee bought a market on K Street that had been functioning as a lace-curtain dry cleaners but burned down. Lee put in flooring, doors, windows and a bathroom, doing all the work herself. She married again, to engineer Phil Venceil, and went with him to Malaysia where he worked for an oil company. After two years, they separated in Singapore.

Instead of returning home, Lee stopped off in Laos and stayed for nearly a year. She taught English, traveled to rural mountain villages and volunteered at a hospital. (Lee was ahead of the rest of her generation who were merely protesting the war stateside. And while they were messing around with LSD, Lee was visiting genuine opium dens.) She wanted to remain in this place where she lived in a Minimalist manner. “In Laos, I learned the lasting lesson of economy of means and the elegance of a simple life,” she said. The experience would shape her and her art forever. She dressed in sweats and athletic shoes, bought only used furniture, and ate from lovely but mismatched dishes. Her pets, including her familiar dog and soul mate Alice, came from shelters. She believed every home should have at least two cats and a dog and she always made it a point to.

In 1975, Lee returned to Utah and spent 10 days on retreat at a Vispassana meditation center in Coalville. She told art critic and sculptor Frank McEntire and her good friend, Carolyn Coalson, that a Vispassana mantra she repeated had frequently been of help to her.


Lee spent the grant money she received to work on the Alph series, in part, on an airplane for her companion Bill Freeman. Rumor has it they later separated because he kept taking the plane apart and leaving pieces all over the driveway — which made Lee furious.

She continued to use Tuscarora as her summer studio for 40 years. Her friend Pat Eddington said she found “glee and joy there, swimming every day. She loved it up there. It was a nourishing place for her.” She used found objects in the area — tin cans and scrap wood — to make magical and imaginative art. Some items were painted in bright colors; others got the barest spray of white or were left au naturale. The Tuscarora pieces made it possible for almost anyone (even a journalist) to afford a Deffebach, especially with the Phillips Gallery layaway plan.

During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Lee was teaching at the U, working for Phillips and putting her own exhibitions together. In the late ‘80s, Lee returned to the U after 40 years to complete her master’s degree. Many faculty members wondered what they could possibly teach Lee Deffebach, but she contentedly learned monotype and airbrush techniques from Robert Kleinschmidt, Tony Smith and Sam Wilson and was David Dornan’s teaching assistant. She truly enjoyed long talks about art with Robert Olpin, which they called “independent study.”

More recently, in addition to her longstanding heart problem, Lee became depressed about the war in Iraq and that had a major impact on her ability to work. She sent the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine” to her friend Nel Ivancich twice in one year. Like Lee’s pal Carolyn Coalson, Nel had moved out of Utah and Lee often spoke wistfully of the sense of community artists here once shared. She particularly missed the camaraderie of the 1960s, when artists visited one another’s studios, eager to see what was going on.

In her last letter to Nel Ivancich, July, 2005, Lee talked about her feelings after she sold her Tuscarora home: “It was quite a month spent in Tuscarora. Hard. But I think it a good thing to do, good time to do it. All the good people have moved on or died. I first went there 45 years ago. No regrets. Wonderful place. Good times. Had lots of visitors who helped bring back stuff. Left a lot there.”

Carolyn Coalson related something about Lee’s attitude toward “things.” “We had been talking about objects. She said ‘I could walk away from this in a minute’ meaning all those things in her house. Her studio, tools, canvas, books, trunks filled, paintings she had bought, traded for, her china cabinet stuffed full. [Painted] sticks of wood, mirrors where she painted her self-portraits. Objects of every kind, vertebrae from every part of living in the desert.”

In a letter to Coalson dated June 24, 1999, from Tuscarora, Lee, quoting Brendan Gill from the July 1998 Architectural Digest, wrote “The lares & penates of the ancient Romans were true household gods; guardians of the hearth, who could ward off evil spirits & dangerous occasions. Our household gods in direct descent from these tutelary divinities are our possessions. They cannot guard us; on the contrary, we have to be continuously guarding them…but they provide us with ever-welcome nourishment of the familiar; they are sacred to us as standing for something stronger & longer-lasting than we are… Is it absurd for me – for all of us to care so much for what are but objects. I glance around at—and gradually I feel good magic stealing into me. They will keep me, those little disguised gods, safe against the dark.”

Lee said she liked to just mess around with color, get a feeling and paint an emotion. “You can make a whole story out of that, can’t you?” was the reluctant start to our first interview. She believed the goal of abstraction was continually being in the middle of a process, and that was her mindset even outside the studio. That led some to think of her as shy, but Lee was merely careful to conserve her resources and avoid chitchat. An avid recycler, her environmental footprint was small, but Lee Deffebach was always larger than life.

Categories: In Memoriam | Visual Arts

Tagged as:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.