Bette Lee Coburn

Bette Lee Coburn


Bette Lee Coburn, a prominent South Carolina artist and pioneer in Greenville's cultural community, died Sunday, April 21, due to complications of pneumonia. She was several months shy of her 92nd birthday.

Born in Chicago, Bette Lee attended Grinnell College. When World War II began, she was living in Biloxi, Mississippi, and became an instructor of Army Air Force recruits at Keesler Field's Aviation Mechanics School. Later, she returned to Chicago, where she was a women's fashion buyer for The Fair.

After marrying Marvin Coburn and becoming the mother of two children, Bette Lee resumed her studies at the Chicago Art Institute and the Evanston Art Center. An accomplished artist when her husband's career in the textile industry brought her to Greenville in 1956, she volunteered to work on sets at the Little Theatre as a way to meet kindred spirits. When director Robert H. McClaine discovered she could dance, she was given a role in "The Boyfriend."

But painting was her passion and by achieving honors in juried exhibitions, Bette Lee came to the attention of influential members of the region's visual arts community. Columbia Museum of Art director John Richard Craft offered her a one-woman show and became an important early mentor.

One of the 39 artists featured in the tricentennial book, 39 Contemporary Artists of South Carolina, Bette Lee organized displays along Main Street for the 1962 Sidewalk Art Show, during which she invited members of the public to participate in creating a large community painting. Her favorite memento of that event was a photograph of a man in worn overalls peering intently at one of her own abstract oils.

Bette Lee was involved with the Greenville County Museum of Art in its fledgling home at the Gassoway Mansion, and taught painting for many years there as well as at the museum's current location. An active force in the Guild of South Carolina Artists, Bette Lee spurred the development of corporate collections of contemporary paintings and sculpture by state artists.

She sustained an energetic exhibition schedule for many years, accruing numerous prizes and awards. Her work is owned by such public collections as Columbia's South Carolina Arts Commission, the Greenville County Art Museum, and Charlotte's Mint Museum. "Bette Lee Coburn's paintings are lyrical responses to her passions and intuitions," wrote fellow Greenville artist Sharon Campbell. "Subconscious connections, life's contradictions, and her personal myths are the sources."

Her last one-woman show was at Hampton III gallery in 2006. "Each painting has every experience I ever had in the world," she told The Greenville News then. "It's all your life." At the time of her death, Bette Lee's paintings were being exhibited at the Woodlands at Furman, where she lived for the past two years.

She is survived by a son, Mark Coburn, of Greenville; a daughter, Randy Sue Coburn, of Seattle; her sister, Day Ann Weinberg, in Arizona; three grandchildren (Bradley and David Coburn, Page Workman), and two great-grandchildren (Caroline Coburn and Ellis Workman). The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations in her memory be made to the Greenville County Museum of Art.

Published in The Greenville News on Apr. 23, 2013