BEMIDJI-The community lost a gifted yet mostly behind-the-scenes artist Wednesday when John Lembi died unexpectedly at the Bemidji area home he designed and built while spending summers away from his native San Francisco.
Lembi, 67, shied away from the limelight, but along with his wife, Lorie Yourd, made a bold mark on the Bemidji arts community, particularly the Watermark Art Center.
"It's interesting that he never sought the spotlight, preferring to accomplish great things while remaining in the background," said friend Mike Tangen of Bemidji. "There was a creative spirit in all that he did."
Lembi was born in San Francisco and lived there until 2005 when he and Lorie moved into their Bemidji area home. The couple met at a summer art class in Oakland 39 years ago. They sat next to each other, and when Lorie asked to borrow John's pencil sharpener, he declined.
"That should have been my first clue," Lorie said with a fond laugh. "He has always been particular about his tools. I wanted to sharpen a wax pencil and he was using graphite, and he knew that would mess it up. But obviously that didn't get in the way of our romance at all."
That romance blossomed right away. Lorie returned to Minnesota after completing the class, and immediately left for a canoe trip with a friend. When she got home, she discovered that John had left her 17 phone messages.
She called him back, and he asked if she had received the letter he sent. "I said I got a lot of phone calls but no letter," she recalls. John said, "Wait a minute, I have a copy." So he read the letter over the phone.
"It was proposing that I come out to live with him in San Francisco with the intent of getting married if it continued to be as lovely as it was then," Lorie said. So she took a leave of absence from her teaching job, packed up her car and headed back to California.
They were married the next summer at Lake Bemidji State Park.
The couple spent the next 25 years in San Francisco, both pursuing their passion for art. John was considered an emerging artist in the Bay Area, with gallery showings of his work in watercolors, pastels, oils, ceramics, metal and woodworking.
But they never lost touch with Lorie's native hometown, and returned to Bemidji every summer to visit her family. In 1989 they bought the property where their home now stands, and John began designing and building the home, most of its furniture, and eventually an art studio. That led to the official move here 12 years ago. His art has been on display locally at the Watermark, Wild Hare Bistro and First Lutheran Church.
"John knew he loved summers here," Lorie said. "He loved fishing, camping, biking. And the morel mushroom hunt was a big thing he looked forward to. He would have been out there today."
Lorie and John were two of the driving forces behind the Watermark Art Center project. As president of the board, Lorie was instrumental in raising funds. As a board member, John took an active role in design, signage and displays. The day before he died, John hung new price list holders that he built for the exhibit rooms because he was not satisfied with the commercial ones that had been installed.
"The new Watermark building is a testament to the vast knowledge and uncompromising vision John had for the visual arts in our community," said Lori Forshee-Donnay, the center's executive director. "He was an incredibly talented artist and craftsman in his own right. This is a huge loss to the Watermark, the arts community, his family and friends."
Tangen added, "John was a consummate and chivalrous gentleman, yet there was something edgy about his artistry-sometimes flamboyant and sometimes a bit gruff. I think he was too much the gentleman to flaunt those traits socially, so he expressed them artistically. He left behind all that he could. We could not ask for more."
A celebration of life is planned for 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 2 at Cease Funeral Home in Bemidji, followed by a reception at the Watermark.