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Artist Corner: Lee Harper Uses Mini Skeletons to Portray the Darker Side of History

Story contributed by journalism student Allen Brewer

Oxford artist Lee Harper depicts scenes from history with a spooky twist. Instead of using dolls to represent historical figures in her dioramas, she uses miniature skeletons.

One such scene Harper recreated was of the infamous killer clown, John Wayne Gacy. In her diorama, Gacy’s skeleton is getting ready for “work” by painting his face with clown makeup. Photo from historybones.com.

On Wednesday, Harper gave a lecture about her project, History Bones, to students, staff and members of the Oxford community as part of the J.D. Williams Library Special Collection’s fall 2018 Brown Bag Lecture Series.

Harper’s lecture also went along with the Special Collection’s current exhibit, “No Two Alike,” which is in collaboration with the University Museum. This exhibit lasts from July – December and features rare art and items for the library’s archives.

“I was alerted to Lee’s artwork by a friend, and the more I looked the more intrigued I became,” Head of Special Collections, Jennifer Ford said. “Of course it is Halloween, so it is appropriate that we will be showing her work.”

Harper said she got the idea for her project 12 years ago as a Halloween joke for her son. Each day of the week of Halloween, Harper would create scenes with skeletons doing funny things. Four years ago, Harper tried recreating a historic scene and the rest is history.

“My history-nerd self finally met my artistic-self,” Harper said. “I knew I wanted to cover little known historical figures, events and customs—the stuff you don’t really hear about in history classes.”

One such scene Harper recreated was of the infamous killer clown, John Wayne Gacy. In her diorama, Gacy’s skeleton is getting ready for “work” by painting his face with clown makeup. A scale-sized bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a suitcase full of torture devices are also placed in the killer’s room.

Harper’s displays depict both national and local history. Some of the historic scenes she talked about during her lecture included Typhoid Mary, The Cadaver Synod, and sin-eaters. An example of a Mississippi scene she showed was of the Gypsy Queen Grave in Meridian.

History Bones has been an ongoing project for Harper, who gets ideas from her friends and family.

“The list for History Bones subjects is forever long and getting added to all the time,” Harper said. “Even when I’m working on other things, I’ve always got ideas on my list.”

The library also plans to host two more lectures in November.

An upcoming lecture planned for Nov. 7 is titled: “Faulkner’s Native American World: Fiction and Reality.” This lecture will be hosted by Annette Trefzer and Robbie Ethridge who will discuss Faulkner’s Native American literature roots.

Another lecture will feature a screening of the film “The Ballad of Shirley Collins.” Part of the film will follow Shirley Collins, a traditional English folk-song singer, during her 1959 trip through Appalachia into Mississippi. The lecture will be hosted by one of the filmmakers on Nov. 14.

To follow History Bones on Instagram, follow this link. 

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