As an art professor at Boise State University, Lily Lee teaches sculpture classes, skills like metal fabrication, carving, and mold-making. The Pullman, Washington, native is also a practicing artist whose resume is filled with exhibitions, grants and residencies. But Lee has a calling that connects her to the community in sometimes surprising ways: She uses her skills as a maker of exquisite objects to memorialize unknown crime victims who died without advocates. Two years ago, she became the Idaho and Oregon director for The Doe Network: International Center for Missing and Unidentified Persons, a nonprofit group of volunteers who work with law enforcement to match missing persons cases with John and Jane Doe cases from across the country.
“I want to raise awareness and not let these cases be forgotten,” said Lee.
For her recent body of work, “The Great Basin Murders,” Lee hand-wove symbolic burial shrouds for five unidentified female victims. The women died in a series of unsolved murders that took place across the American West between the 1970s and the mid-1990s.
“I see the particular locations where these victims were found as beautiful, but desolate and forlorn sites along highways outside of cities including Elko, Nevada, Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Ucon, Idaho, to name a few,” said Lee. “To me, they feel like the end of the earth, metaphorically.”
As time passes, family members die. Detectives retire. The likelihood of solving the crimes becomes more remote, and victims become abstract. Lee strives to give them a physical presence once again.
Humanizing crime scene data
Lee, who confesses to being unusually detail-minded, and has an intensity that might have suited her for police work or investigative journalism, researched the Great Basin crimes through the public websites of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), and The Doe Network: International Center for Unidentified and Missing Persons.
She collected crime scene data — victims’ heights, weights, ages, and the GPS coordinates of the sites where women’s bodies were found. She used a weaving software program to translate those numbers into original weaving patterns. The shrouds Lee wove on her floor loom (a four-shaft 45-inch LeClerc Nilus jack style) match the height of the women they memorialize. The density of the weave patterns reflects the state of decomposition of their bodies. When the NamUs and Doe files revealed more humanizing details about victims — what they were wearing, what investigators found near their bodies, distinguishing physical characteristics — Lee found a way to include them.
“The Shroud of Bitter Creek Betty,” for a woman so named because a trucker found her body near Bitter Creek, an Interstate 80 turnout in Wyoming, features an embroidered rose based on Betty’s tattoo. “The Shroud of Shafter Jane Doe,” for the woman whose body was found near the Interstate 80 off-ramp to Shafter, Nevada, includes pink threads because this Jane was wearing pink nail polish when she died. A hunter found Devil’s Gate Jane Doe in the Devil’s Gate area east of Elko, Nevada, in 1972. Police found an acrylic blue sweater near her body. Lee searched local thrift stores to find a blue acrylic sweater that looked right for the era, and wove its fibers into Jane’s shroud.
The shrouds are spare and elegant — woven from cotton tea bag string rejected from the Bigelow Tea Company in Boise that Lee gets for free — and labor intensive. Each is charged with “being a protective covering that the victim didn’t get.” The cloth is a metaphor, too, said Lee, “relating to identity. We speak of the ‘fiber of our beings.’ Each of these shrouds is uniquely connected to a single person.”
Lee serves as secretary of the Handweaver’s Guild of Boise Valley, a group of accomplished artisans established in 1972. She sometimes brings her shrouds to meetings for her fellow weavers to see. They pass them around and study their intricacies in a setting more intimate than a gallery.
“People tell me they feel like the victim is here,” said Lee.
Art meets law enforcement
After relying on the volunteer-run Doe Network website to do her research, Lee became a member of the group. When she saw that Idaho and Oregon did not have a Doe area director, she took a six-week online training course and volunteered for the job. Area directors build relationships with local law enforcement and submit possible matches whenever information about old cases arises.
Jerry Johnson, a detective in the Idaho County Sheriff’s Office in Grangeville, met Lee when she called to ask him about an unidentified skeleton found in Idaho County in 1984. She’d thought she’d found some clues about the skeleton’s identity. Unfortunately, in that case, the details didn’t match up, but Lee and Johnson became allies with a common cause.
“Half the battle with these cases is keeping the spotlight on them,” said Johnson. “The media is interested for a while, but that fades. Lily’s artistic work puts those cases back in the public eye and improves the odds that they might be solved,” he said.
“Lily is willing to dive into these stories. She gets involved with these cases and translates that into her art,” said Johnson. “How could you go to an exhibition of her work and not be moved by it?”
A new chapter on a familiar theme
Lee is headed to Florida in July. She has an artist residency in Miami where she will complete work for the Commuter Biennial, an exhibition of site-specific projects that will be installed throughout Miami-Dade County.
The exhibition aims to highlight “non-sites,” and bring attention to “marginal, yet recognizable places in the suburban landscape,” according to its curator Laura Randall. Lee is working on a new series of sculptural pieces that will memorialize unidentified murder victims found in or near Miami’s network of urban canals. Instead of cotton thread, she’s using plastic table cloths as a medium. She is pleating and smocking them to resemble coffin liners, or the plastic sheets investigators use to protect evidence at crime scenes. She will install the pieces at sites where unidentified murder victims were found.
Lee’s inclusion has “piqued the community,” said Randall. “When I tell them about Lily’s work, people are so excited.”
Randall discovered Lee’s work in a Tacoma exhibition and invited her to participate in the biennial. Lee’s work, Randall said, could hang in any gallery and would touch viewers with its deep materiality and story.
“It’s the way she brings together the high and the low in a way that can be cheeky (Lee’s past work includes a series that glorified mud flaps and tarps as a comment on western character), insightful, and very poignant.”
Lee sees similarities between her Great Basin series and the Florida works. Both series memorialize the unidentified. There are differences as well. The Great Basin Murders took place in the 1970s and 1990s. The cases Lee is focusing on in Miami are more recent, from the mid to late 1990s. All the Great Basin murder victims were women. In Miami, Lee will memorialize male victims as well.
“The biggest difference is in the sites. With the Great Basin cases the women were found dumped in these extremely forlorn and desolate places, removed from civilization. There is an extreme loneliness,” said Lee. “With the Miami cases, there is this paradox that the victims were found in a populous, urban setting full of the daily bustle, and yet, 20 years later, they are still unidentified. At the same time, the sites where the Florida cases occur — nondescript suburban parking lots and highway medians actually become as anonymous and lonely as the Western deserts of the Great Basin Murders.”