Every face has a story: Local artist memorializes victims of domestic violence by painting their portraits

Artist Bonnie Lee, who has lost loved ones to domestic violence and is a survivor of it herself, paints portraits of its victims to keep their memories alive and raise awareness. These portraits will be on display at a show from 3 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 21, at the Northwest Indian Community Development Center in Bemidji.

The traveling Beautiful Life Portraits exhibit is displayed during a show at the Fargo Brewing Company featuring paintings of women who have died as a result of domestic violence. Eight of local artist Bonnie Lee's painted portraits will be on display in Bemidji from 3 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 21, at the Northwest Indian Community Development Center.
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BEMIDJI — For local artist Bonnie Lee, it felt like losing her loved ones twice.

Both Tina Martin, Lee’s childhood best friend, and her cousin Dawn Sandquist-Anderson were victims of domestic violence. Not only were they murdered by their abusive husbands, but afterward no one wanted to speak about them.

“The first thing I noticed was no one wanted to talk about them around me,” Lee shared. “It’s like I lost them twice. I lost them through murder, then I lost their memory. I wasn’t even allowed to talk about them.”

And since 2015, Lee, a professional artist, has been working to keep their memories alive — along with so many others who have met the same unfortunate fate.

She's doing so through The Beautiful Life Project where she and other artists paint the portraits of domestic violence victims as a way to remember more than just their tragic passing, but the beautiful lives they led.


In this 2015 file photo, local artist Bonnie Lee works on a portrait of her cousin, Dawn Sanquist-Anderson, who was murdered in Park Rapids in 2011.
Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

“I wanted to paint their portraits as a memorial of them, just to somehow solidify that they were in this world. Not in my wildest dreams did I know that it would start this,” Lee said in reference to the reach her art shows now have.

Lee is planning a show in Bemidji showcasing these portraits and raising awareness about domestic violence and the toll it can take on individuals, families and communities.

The show will be from 3 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 21, at the Northwest Indian Community Development Center, and will showcase eight of Lee’s portraits which feature domestic violence victims from around the world that their family members have asked her to paint.

“(For) each and every one of the portraits I do research on their life and I get really emotionally involved,” Lee shared. “I hope that (those who attend) see these people as the individuals that they were and that it really drives home that this was a life that was lost.”

Of all her portraits, painting her friend Tina has been the hardest for Lee to complete.

“I’m in the process of painting Tina, and I really wanted to have that done by this show,” Lee explained, “but underneath it all, I’m addressing something that I’ve gone through and that Tina went through. It’s very emotional for me.”

The traveling Beautiful Life Portraits exhibit is displayed during a Kittson County Literacy Council event in 2018.

Lee remembers how when Tina died after being shot in her Texas home in 2006, coverage of the event sensationalized the moments of her death and the trauma she experienced.

“They played (the 911 call) over and over and over again because it’s very sensational,” Lee said. “What sickened me was I listened to it and my best friend’s most intimate moment, when she was shot and killed, was used to make money.”


Through her portraits, Lee is trying to refocus the conversation on the person’s life — not only their final moments.

“Through doing this, we give a face to the statistic and a voice to a victim that says ‘I was here, I mattered, I had a beautiful life and it was taken from me,’” she explained.

While Tina’s portrait won’t be on display at Bemidji’s show, Lee’s other portraits will be.

“There are seven people here that no one would even be talking about if I hadn't painted their portraits,” she said. “I hope this helps open up a dialogue (about domestic violence).”

'It can visit your house'

Lee herself is also a survivor of domestic violence and emphasized that it can happen to anyone, regardless of their circumstances.

“The proof is in my notebooks, all the people I’ve talked to who want portraits,” she shared. “Domestic violence doesn’t care how much money you make or how little you make, if you’re a drug addict or the president. It doesn’t care. It can visit your house.”

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three women in the U.S. have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner, and the rate is one in four for men. These numbers only include reported cases and also don’t include other forms of abuse, such as emotional and psychological.

A portrait of Debbi Levey painted as part of local artist Bonnie Lee's Beautiful Life Portraits exhibit was chosen for the North Dakota Human Rights Arts Festival in 2020.

“When it was happening to me, I didn’t understand it. I figured that it was all my fault,” Lee said. “What I’ve learned is that abusive people will make you think it’s all your fault and the cycle will continue.”


While some like Lee get out of these situations, too many —some who she has known personally — aren’t as lucky.

“When you’re right in the heat of things, you might not have a lot of resources,” she explained. “Sometimes, you’re your own best resource. You’ve simply got to get out of the house, pretend it’s on fire, whatever you have to do.”

By raising awareness, not only of the victims taken by domestic violence but of the issue as a whole, Lee hopes that more people will know what the warning signs are and be able to make it out if they find themselves in an abusive relationship.

“I hope that things like this (art project) start that thought early on so that people can start recognizing (the warning signs) before they get to where the house is on fire, so they have a plan,” she said. “If we can save one life, it’ll be worth it.”

There are a number of resources available for people experiencing domestic violence, including a national hotline which can be reached by calling (800) 799-7233.

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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