An inside look at former BYU professor, artist

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Mary Bingham Lee sits in her living room. She sits under a wall decorated with wooden clocks. (Eleanor Lambert)

Since retiring from BYU, former creative writing professor Mary Bingham Lee has explored other artistic mediums and upheld the community spirit in Provo.

Mary’s studio resembles a sort of fairy-tale lair. A creature sewn from what were once maybe socks sits along the wall, overlooking the table packed with paints, a globe, rubber stamps and a bird statue.

Mary has many titles: artist, mother, writer, wedding planner and mentor are just a few of them. However, like the array of objects in her house, her list of titles is inexhaustible.

She flipped through self-portraits she has done daily for almost two years. Watercolors and bright faces drawn with ink reflect different styles and seasons.

Mary plans to do a show of her self portraits. They’re dated so she can arrange them in order. (Eleanor Lambert)

“There are people that try to tell you what art is,” Mary said. “There are gatekeepers everywhere that I rarely feel comfortable with. And so I have to determine what I believe about my own creativity. And I think creativity is next to godliness, that God is a creator.”

On a shelf by her front door is a rodent adorned with a necklace, one she taxidermied herself.

“Courageous or creative is a little too bland a word for Mary,” Mary’s son Theo Lee said.

He described how one time she brought him back a mural from the walls of Paris.

“You need good art and this is good art,” Theo remembered her saying.

Mary repurposes glass balls into terrariums and paleontology museums into wedding reception venues. People come to the Lee house to make movies, borrow prom dresses and participate in masked photoshoots.

Daryl Lee, Mary’s husband, said Mary has drawn hundreds of people — people she’s seen in church or in transit. This is one of the ways she makes the ordinary into the fantastic. 

“It’s this spectacular record of people around her who are in some ways oblivious to her,” Daryl said. “These are just average, everyday neighbors, but she has found them important.”

Mary wills new life into things. She fashioned filing cabinets into planter boxes, a large blow-up football helmet into a Día de los Muertos skull and a large branch into her own Ficus tree with leaves of green paper.

Mary Bingham Lee’s studio. Some current projects decorate the walls. (Eleanor Lambert)

“Every single time, it’s something new and different and she’s great at it. People trust her,” Daryl said.

Theo said Mary has often felt like an outsider in Utah, where the mainstream culture can seem “like a constant river that she pushes against.”

Under the divine mandate to “fill the measure of your creation,” everybody looks different, Mary said.

“You know, Jesus had a first cousin named John the Baptist and John the Baptist wasn’t one of the 12. He lived in the wilderness. He wore skins of animals. He was pretty radical,” Mary said, sitting under a wall decorated with clocks and greenery. “And yet, he’s who baptized the Savior.”

Theo described the things Mary finds as “odd and beautiful, either in the colors, the shape, or the story behind it.”

Mary is found in an array of objects as changeable, natural and peculiar as her. One final title seems the most fitting: Mary Bingham Lee is a rescuer.

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