Renowned Utah artist Lee Deffebach, 76, died Friday, Oct. 21, 2005, at Salt Lake Regional Medical Center from complications following heart surgery.

Ms. Deffebach is credited with being one of the first Utah modern artists, as well as the first female modern artist in the state. Her paintings, which fit "squarely" into the abstract expressionism movement, were well-recognized — often awarded works — that are on display in almost every major art gallery in Utah, said Vern G. Swanson, director of the Springville Museum of Art and author of five books about Utah art.

"She was the most significant female artist in Utah — the female artist laureate," Swanson said.

Born Helen Hortense Lee Deffebach in Houston in 1928, Ms. Deffebach came to Utah to study at the University of Utah, from which she graduated in 1949. From there, she went on to study in New York City and on a Fulbright Scholarship in Florence, Italy, during the 1950s, then returned to Salt Lake City in 1963 to teach at the U.

Swanson said that her colorful, often large, paintings were a stark contrast to the prevailing Utah art scene, which preferred landscape paintings. While her work may have never appealed to the general public, it did appeal to most of the gallery owners, institute directors and art critics.

"Even if 90 percent didn't enjoy her work, 10 percent is still a lot of people, so she never had to swim upstream," he said. She also never "catered" to people, because "she had the integrity to paint what she wanted."

Over the past four decades Ms. Deffebach had more than two dozen solo shows of her work around the Intermountain West. Although galleries in New York and San Francisco expressed interest in her paintings, she never pursued recognition beyond her adopted state of Utah.

During a 2003 interview with the Deseret Morning News, she said that color, especially two colors together, were what triggered the ideas for her work.

"I get very excited about it — in nature, on a table, anywhere," she said. "And one thing leads to another. You put a mark down and then another, and that's what starts it, you know?"

In her painting, she used large canvasses, which could dominate a wall, and she was known to employ unique tools, such as paint rollers. She also used found objects and dabbled in pop art.

Ms. Deffebach was married three times but did not have children, said close friend and artist Bevan Chipman. She split her time between her home/studio in a converted market in Salt Lake City's Avenues neighborhood and a summer home in the practically deserted mining town of Tuscarora, Nev., some 50 miles northwest of Elko, where she sometimes painted landscapes.

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In that same interview with the News, she said she enjoyed the solitude of the Nevada desert, and that she never found it boring.

"When people tell me there's nothing going on in Nevada, I say 'Good, keep on driving,' " she said. "I think you can find more going on in a one-foot square of the desert than almost anywhere."

Services had not yet been planned Saturday.


Contributing: Associated Press

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