Helen Hortense Lee Deffebach

While Lee Deffebach (1928-2005) is usually identified as a Utah artist, her ties to the former mining town, and now artist’s colony of Tuscarora, Nevada, some fifty miles northwest of Elko, were strong. Deffebach, a three-season resident of Salt Lake City, is considered by many Utah artists and critics to be the first significant female modern artist in the state. Her long time commitment to abstract painting is reflected in the energetic brushwork with which she delivered broad vibrant passages of color to her canvases.   

When a young artist went to New York City in the 1950s, it is almost certain that he or she would be immersed in the dominant art movement of the time—Abstract Expressionism. Such was the case with Lee Deffebach. After graduation from the University of Utah in 1949, Deffebach enrolled at the Arts Students League and accepted the tutelage of figurative abstractionists Byron Brown (1907-1961) and Valclav Vytlacil (1892-1984). During the 1950s, the artist divided her time between New York and Salt Lake City with occasional intervals of study in France and Italy—as the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship. 

Deffebach became attracted to the muted colors and patina of the desert in and around Tuscarora in the mid-fifties. She set up her studio in a weather-beaten and out of kilter house and spent her summers there drawing and painting. For a time, she became intrigued with objects found around town and on the desert floor—tin cans, coffee cups, pottery shards, the detritus of human presence—and created modest-sized assemblages of them. One exhibition at the Allied Arts Council in Las Vegas was titled “Irreplaceable Treasures: in Defense of Tuscarora.” The postcard announcing another of Deffebach’s shows featured a sketchily painted oil of Tuscarora’s “Weed Street,” with two slender brick smokestacks in the distance. The artist seemed to be able to make the transition from landscape to abstraction with relative ease.

The November 1, 2005 issue of the Elko Free Press announced the passing of Lee Deffebach. It quoted her as once saying, “When people tell me there’s nothing going on in Nevada, I say, ‘Good, keep on driving.’ I think you can find more going on in one-foot square of the desert than almost anywhere.”

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