“Most serious artists have experienced the surprise situation. The artist tries to express an idea, and it just doesn’t jell. He may work for hours, days, weeks. Then, just as he reaches an impasse, the whole thing comes into focus, the work appears on the canvas or paper as though some invisible force was moving his hand. And when it’s finished, he knows it’s right. And good. The best of which he is capable. And there is deep satisfaction in the knowledge.”
Lee Deffebach, in a Salt Lake Tribune article by Robert S. Halliday, 1965.
When Lee Deffebach passed away on Friday, October 21, due to complications following heart surgery, many in the community were surprised at the news. Despite her quiet and private personal manners, Deffebach had been such a pivotal and enduring figure in the Utah art world that it seemed difficult to imagine her absence possible. Just in July of 2003 she had had another in a continuing series of solo shows at Phillips Gallery. Her work was as vibrant and varied as ever. But in the past year Deffebach’s health had declined. She had sold her home of fifty years in Tuscarora, Nevada and a show this year at Phillips had to be cancelled because of her health. By all accounts Deffebach had painted less and less. And painting was what she did.
Deffebach was born in Houston, Texas December 3, 1928, and moved with her family to Utah when she was twelve. She attended the University of Utah, where she graduated in 1949 with a B.A. in Art. As Katherine Nelson wrote for a catalogue on the occasion of a 1993 retrospective on the artist, “Alvin Gittins was her academic master. George Dibble encouraged her freedom in handling technique. LeConte Stewart taught her to arrange the colors on her palette.”
The greatest influence on Deffebach’s artistic vision and direction occurred when, shortly after graduation, she took the train to New York City. Here, where she enrolled at the Art Students League, she found an art scene charged with the explosive energy of the Abstract Expressionist movement. She soon gave up portraiture and began studying with Byron Browne, an abstract painter, as well as Vaclav Vytlacil and Morris Kantor. For the next decade she spent a good deal of her time in New York, visiting Salt Lake for short intervals as well as traveling to France and later to Italy on a Fulbright scholarship. In later years, her life continued to be full of travels, often for extended periods: Greece, Turkey, North Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos.
But Deffebach always returned to the west, to Tuscarora, the Nevada mining town where she kept a summer home from the mid-fifties until just before her death, and to her Salt Lake studio, where, from the mid-sixties on she created the works for one marvelous show after another that astounded the Utah art world and made her one of our most prominent artists of the past fifty years.
Deffebach traveled in her art as well. Though the Abstract Expressionist idiom — which she learned by doing hundreds of studies on newsprint while in New York |4| — might be considered her home, she spent long stays in a variety of media and styles. In the early seventies a number of small landscape paintings of the Nevada countryside revealed her training with LeConte Stewart |5-6|. In the sixties, she created a number of combine sculptures and shaped canvases, |7| works whose engaged enthusiasm and playfulness find their roots in the young, scabby-kneed girl perched on roller-skates we see in an early photograph of the artist. |1| A postcard for a 1989 exhibition at the Gayle Weyher gallery shows a 1988 monoprint of the artist’s cat, McGraw. Deffebach loved to play out her colorfield and expressionist journeys on large canvases, but she was equally comfortable with small watercolor paintings.|7| And a recurring form for the artist through the years was a series of found-art assemblages, constructed from discarded materials found around her Nevada home.|9-10|
When asked about her art, Deffebach would often demure to the works themselves. As early as 1965, on the occasion of an exhibit at the Salt Lake Library, Deffebach said “There is no purpose in these works more than that the act of painting is, of itself, reason enough for a painting.”
But Deffebach’s verbal reticence was by no means due to a lack of talent. As many friends attest, she could become animated and vocal on discussions of politics or religion. On the occasion of a panel discussion on “Regional Art. Does It Exist? If So, Are there Forums” in 1977 Deffebach prepared a 1000 word response on the subject detailing her assessment of the Utah art scene with cogent arguments that, sadly, read as if they could have been written today. In short simple prose she sums up the artist’s life: “Most artists are compelled to paint. They paint because that’s their life. But, their life also consists of eating and having a house to live in, so an artist must paint to make a living also, unless it’s an artist who paints as a supplement to teaching or paints in addition to his job. But regardless of how he actually makes his living he would prefer to make his living painting. In addition to having to make a living the artist also recognizes that painting the painting is only part of creating a work of art. Having the painting seen, having an exchange with the viewer is another part.”
As committed and as excited as Deffebach was about the process of painting and creating her work, she was also very active in her community. In 1952, on a return to Salt Lake she helped to found the Contemporary Gallery and School of Art in Salt Lake. Through the years, she taught at various venues, including the Salt Lake Art Center and the University of Utah, where she returned in the 1980s to earn an MFA.
Her greatest contributions to the community, by far, were her works of art, which she produced tirelessly until this last year of her life. Her works were usually large, packed with energy and color, varying from smooth, layered works as in the Alph series,|11| to blocks of interacting color harking to the push and pull of Hans Hoffman |12|. Every major exhibit of Utah artists over the past forty years has featured her work. She has exhibited widely in Utah and the West as well as in New York and Washington.
Deffebach has often been compared to Helen Frankenthaler, another second-generation abstract expressionist and her exact contemporary. Both artists employ a variety of abstract expressionist techniques, from staining to thickly scraped paint, and each artist’s work evoke landscapes while remaining abstract. One critic has even said that had Deffebach remained in New York she might have been as well or better known an artist than Frankenthaler.
But Deffebach didn’t remain in New York. She returned to the mountains and deserts that were her home and brought the majesty, brilliance, serenity and solitude of these locales to life in her canvasses, prints, drawings and sculptures. And in the process gained the respect of an international community of art collectors and the love and respect of the Utah arts community.
We would like to extend our condoloensces to the friends and family of Lee Deffebach. For our part, we take “deep satisfaction in the knowledge” that she brought so much that is “right” and “good” to our community.
In Memoriam . . . remembering Lee Deffebach
As a Memorial to Lee Deffebach, we invited a few of her friends and colleagues to write a short remembrance of her. In the spirit of Lee’s work, these comments are meant as a catalyst, a starting point, the first brushstrokes in a larger composition. If you have a memory of Lee, or an appreciation for her work that you would like to share, please do so by emailing us. Your words will be included alongside these remembrances. This will be an ongoing project to be catalogued by the Marriott Library and used as “ephemera” for Lee Deffebach in their Utah Artists Project. This material will be made available to future researchers.
I have many fond memories of Lee Deffebach from over the years. Lee and I became friends in 1992 during the time that Retrospective Inc. was preparing a retrospective exhibition for her to be shown at the Salt Lake Art Center. Lee was a quiet and private person, but bit by bit, she opened up and helped us plan this most amazing show. Lila Abersold, Marcia Price and I spent many hours in Lee’s charmingly bohemian living space – drinking tea, looking at transparencies and paintings, and perusing old records and photographs of Lee. We couldn’t get over the fact that Lee, as a child, looked very much as she did in 1992. Even her haircut was the same.
Lee’s faithful dog, Alice, was always part of these informal sessions and her head generally rested on someone’s lap. Not pesky, just there. When Lee was in better health, she and Alice would travel all over the city to visit galleries. Lee was a big supporter of other artists and it was important for her to see their exhibitions. I always knew when Lee was inside, because Alice was greeting gallery-goers outside the gallery door. Years later, my husband and I were in Springville to see the April Salon – and sure enough, there was Alice patiently sitting in the shade outside the museum door.
Others will write about Lee’s place in Utah art history and her vibrant abstract expressionistic canvases. These are integral parts of who Lee is. I prefer to remember her as a gentle friend, private and quiet, who none-the-less, could be pulled into passionate conversations and debates on politics and religion. And, oh yes, that is a Lee Deffebach painting hanging over my mantel!
Long before I had the privilege of knowing Lee, I was in awe of her artwork. Her paintings indicated to me a strength of character and a commitment to expression in a style she believed in – abstract art – a contemporary movement that was exciting and very different from the traditional art styles.
After studying in New York City from 1949 to 1952, she returned to Salt Lake City with a determination to paint abstract art and spent many hours practicing on un-printed newspaper remnants to perfect her style. She succeeded and became a leading figure of abstract art in Utah. As Stephen W. Weil, a former deputy director of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., said of her after seeing a retrospective exhibit of her work, “had Lee stayed in New York City, she would have been equal to Helen Frankenthaler and possibly have become a better known figure in the abstract and modern art world.”
I was able to become friends with Lee when myself, Ruth Lubbers and Marcia Price presented a retrospective exhibition and catalogue of Lee Deffebach at the Salt Lake Art Center in 1993. Working with Lee was exciting and fun. Her small bits of information were like little packages of surprises as you learned something new about her. She was reticent, humorous, warm and encouraging as the friendship grew.
Visits to her home and studio were always an adventure. Her working space and living space were unique with the artist’s stamp of simple yet rich environment. She was concerned about the environment long before we became more aware of our impact on our planet. Her found object sculptures expressed a unique way of recycling products no longer used in their original purpose. Rusted tin cans assembled and painted in bright colors brought beauty and a new perspective to art.
Lee was supportive of artists in our community. She attended artist’s openings and receptions and I always knew when Lee was at an opening because Alice, her dog, was always patiently waiting for her at the door of the gallery. Lee and Alice were my favorite sights as I approached gallery receptions.
What an honor and privilege it has been to know Lee. I shall miss her and always wonder what her artwork would have become.
This article originally appeared in the November 2005 edition of 15 Bytes
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.