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About Utah: They painted their own paradise

Published: Monday, April 14 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

Joe and Lee Bennion on their wedding day, June 1976.

Glen Killian

SPRING CITY, Sanpete County — Thirty-eight years ago this summer, a couple of star-struck artists named Joe and Lee fell in love, and not just with each other.

They’d met at BYU, where their infatuation turned to marriage plans, which isn’t the first time that’s happened. But their story took on its own distinct hue while they were standing in line greeting people at their wedding reception in the summer of 1976 when an art professor of Lee’s named Gus Clark included a set of keys in his handshake.

“What’s this?” asked Joe.

“The keys to my place in Moroni,” he said. “Have a good time.”

Clark had turned a house in the small farming community of Moroni, 60 miles south of Provo, into an artist’s getaway. He told Joe and Lee Bennion to make it their honeymoon cottage.

So they did, and during their week there, they drove around Sanpete County, a place with more turkeys than people. One of their drives found them even farther off the beaten path in a little town nestled tight against the mountains called Spring City.

They’d been talking about where they wanted to live and raise their family. They fantasized about a small, uncrowded place, something the opposite of their respective hometowns of Merced, Calif., (Lee) and Orem (Joe), both of which they believed had turned into “the world’s longest strip mall.”

They were looking for the little town they wished they’d grown up in.

They circled Spring City. It didn’t take long. They circled it again.

Two weeks later, they were back. They bought a house. They paid $12,000 for it, in cash, half of that coming from Lee’s savings and the rest from the proceeds from selling Joe’s VW Beetle.

Long story, considerably condensed: They’re still there.

Not in the same house, though. They bought a bigger one when their three daughters, Louisa, Zina and Adah, came along. Then they bought a smaller one that they live in, now that the girls are raised and it’s just the two of them again. It’s 1,300 square feet with one bathroom, but that’s only the inside. The outside encompasses three-quarters of a city block, fruit trees, an art studio for Lee that doubles as a stable for her horses and a creek that runs through it.

Joe’s pottery shop — Horseshoe Mountain Pottery — is two blocks away on Main Street.

They’ve never been rich, money-wise. For years Joe commuted back and forth to Provo — 140 miles a day — to make ends meet by teaching ceramic arts to college students. They’ve milked cows, sent out tax notices, driven a school bus — you name it. In 1994, after a “mesmerizing” river trip down the Grand Canyon, they bought their own raft and Joe became a certified Grand Canyon river guide (he’s guided 51 trips so far, and counting). Lee sells a skin salve she makes — Mom’s Stuff — that has turned into something of an Internet sensation (momsstuffsalve.com).

That’s in addition to their art. Joe is a renowned potter. His wares are available at his shop on Main Street and online at horseshoemountainpottery.com. As for Lee, she’s recognized as one of Utah’s top painters. You can see a sampling of her work at David Ericson Fine Art in Salt Lake City, her broker. Currently, she’s part of a three-person show at the LDS Church History Museum in downtown Salt Lake that also features Brian Kershisnik and fellow Spring City artist Kathleen Peterson.

In the 38 years they’ve been in Spring City, Joe and Lee have watched the town become a noted Utah artist enclave. There are a couple of dozen artists in residence now, full- and part-timers, and the Spring City Arts Association is into its 10th year.

They deflect taking credit for the town’s renaissance, either in art or popularity (the population has more than doubled since they moved here, from 400 people to about 1,000).

“But we have watched it all coalesce,” says Lee. “Once that ball started rolling, it took off. There are people moving here because there are artists here.”

None with any more longevity — or passion — than Joe and Lee Bennion

“A lot of artists want to live in New York,” Lee muses. “But Spring City just grabs a lot of people visually. It grabbed us. Living in a beautiful place is important to someone who is visually oriented. It breathes into your soul.”

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com

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