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Lee, Ida Prokop
b. February 22, 1902; d. 1990
Discipline: Metal, Mixed Media, Painting, Sculpture

Ida Prokop Lee was born Ida Bisek to Bohemian parents living in Roberts County, South Dakota. While still a young girl, Lee moved with her family to Lidgerwood, North Dakota.

She became an eclectic artist who dabbled in painting, murals, metal works, feather painting, and lamp making and is probably best known for her sculpted busts of American Indian personas. She was primarily self-taught with the exception of brief stints at the Minneapolis Art Institute and the Ceramics Department at the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks. (In fact, she attended UND in 1953 while living near Valley City. She flew herself back and forth in her own plane.)

She made her living by producing what came to be known as Prairie Pictures: feathers from game birds such as pheasants that were arranged to resemble bouquets of flowers, mounted onto cardboard, and placed behind glass.

At the age of twenty-nine, she married Charles Prokop and moved into his Lidgerwood home. A spacious lawn on the property sparked an interest in sculpture and soon Lee was producing pieces to decorate the garden.

In 1939, the state was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. In recognition of this, Lee produced “Daughters of Dakota,” a bas relief that would become her first notable sculpture. Ruth Seekins and her young daughter Patricia (both neighbors of Lee’s) were used as models for the piece. In a multi-step process, Lee first made a half-lifesize sculpture of the two models using raw clay she found near her home. Plaster was poured over the sculpted clay and, after drying, the clay was chipped off to create a mold. Casting plaster was then poured into the mold, which was chipped away when the casting plaster had set. What remained was the bas relief, which was coated with a gold-bronze paint. The piece was unveiled at the Lidgerwood Federated Club and, after much acclaim, was on its way to Bismarck, where it was installed in the Liberty Memorial Building.

That summer, her Prairie Pictures sold quickly at a Wahpeton gift shop. This led to the product being sold all over North and South Dakota and by 1941, Lee had a bustling business.

Profits from the business allowed Lee to undertake a massive project for which she is probably best known today: sculpted portrait busts of a man and a woman from each of North Dakota’s major Indian tribes. (Those tribes are Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa, Dakotah Sioux, and Chippewa.) She traveled to reservations all over the state to make face masks to use as molds for the finished pieces. The busts are now on permanent display at the Heritage Center on the North Dakota State Capitol Grounds.

However, artistic concerns were not the only thing on Lee’s mind during the production of the busts. She learned that her Prairie Pictures were a violation of a state law that prohibited “the sale or barter of any part thereof of a protected game bird, including the skin with the plumage thereon.” This included the pheasant feathers she was using in her pictures. Fearing arrest and possible incarceration, Lee discussed the problem with then-Governor John Moses while she was making a mold of his face for a bust. He was sympathetic, but there was little he could do. While in Bismarck, she was summoned into the office of the Chief Game Warden for the Game and Fish Department, E.M. Lee. He too was sympathetic, but told her that she could not sell any more pictures until the law was changed.

She soon began to lobby the state legislature to pass a law allowing art created from the feathers of protected game birds. She succeeded and Governor Moses signed the legislation during the 1943 session.

In 1947 (after she was divorced from Charles Prokop), she married E.M. Lee - the game warden she met earlier. They settled in the Sheyenne River valley five miles north of Valley City, where they established a new Prairie Pictures studio.

She died in 1990.

- Ben Nemenoff

Bibliography:

Barr, Paul E. North Dakota Artists. Grand Forks: University of North Dakota Library, 1954.

Rolfsrud, Erling Nicolai. Extraordinary North Dakotans. Alexandria, Minnesota: Lantern Books, 1954.

Taylor, Edwin Mrs. Catalogue of Art Workers Within North Dakota. Bismarck: American Association of University Women (local branch), 1945.

 
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