After a third woman she knew was shot and killed in an act of domestic violence, artist Bonnie Lee felt compelled to pick up her paintbrush.

First, Lee's life-long friend Tina Martin was killed in 2006 by her boyfriend. In 2011 her cousin, Dawn Marie Sanquist-Anderson was killed by her estranged husband. When the wife of a cousin of Lee's ex-husband was killed in the fall of 2014, Lee was inspired to paint portraits of women who were killed by an abusive partner with a gun.

"You know, you hold these people in your heart," Lee says. "When Tina died it seemed like the focus was on the event of her death and people forgot that there was a person there - a beautiful life that was lived."

"The Beautiful Life Project" was born on Lee's Facebook page where she announced her intention to honor women who were murdered by painting their portraits.

Living with challenges

Lee was labeled "artistic" early on in her life, as she was always drawing and painting. After high school, she and her friend Tina went to sign-lettering school in Detroit Lakes. A 30-year career in hand-lettered sign painting followed.

Her first job was in a sign shop in Fargo and then eventually she had her own shop, painting "on everything you could imagine," she says. Her skills took her all over Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin, painting full-time for 15 years. But, as times changed and vinyl signs became more common, the call for individually made hand-painted signs lessened. Lee decided to return to school to become a registered nurse - and continued to paint signs in her spare time.

Her nursing career ended in 2003 when she was "profoundly disabled" - says Lee, herself a survivor of domestic violence. She has post-traumatic stress and panic disorder, anxiety and agoraphobia. "I have a cornucopia basket full of anxiety," she says. She feels fortunate to have had a faithful companion for the past four years, Smoochie, a 230-pound Mastiff service dog, who has been trained to recognize and distract when Lee is about to experience anxiety. "Often, he will know before I do," she says. "He's made a major difference, even in my thinking about painting."

Now her painting studio is in the living room of her Red Lake Falls home in northwestern Minnesota.

"When I am painting, I think about how blessed I really am," Lee says. "There was a time when I really didn't think I was going to live." She uses her Facebook page to share her personal story and make connections with others. "I hope that someone else out there will read my writing and say 'I can do that, too. I can get out.'"

Lee believes that people with violent behaviors really don't change. "In my opinion, an abusive person can justify their behavior and they really don't think that they are the problem - so they don't ever change. They can fool you for a long time. The sad part is that you go along and go along until the violence raises its head again. You can never let your guard down."

Lee considers herself a very independent person, but "it took awhile for me to understand what was going on," she says. "I kept blaming myself. And of course, abusive people make you believe you are the problem. I've learned a lot in the course of 18 years."


An artistic message

Since starting "The Beautiful Life Project," Lee has been asked by domestic violence organizations to share her portraits and talk about issues of abuse. She shares the story of Dawn Marie - whose portrait is on this month's Minnesota Women's Press magazine cover - the cousin she always admired and wished to be. How Dawn Marie seemed to have it all, a nice life, a beautiful home. She ran a daycare center in Park Rapids for years. "The whole town loved her," Lee says. "But this is what I want to emphasize - domestic violence and gun violence crosses all boundaries - you just never know." Dawn Marie's estranged husband showed up at her home, shot and killed her, and then killed himself.

Lee started painting the portraits in January 2015, but she wasn't prepared for the emotional side of the work. "I thought I'd clip right along, turn out these portraits, but it didn't work the way I had planned," she says. After painting Dawn Marie's portrait, and a second portrait, she got sick - "a manifestation of anxiety."

Her goal is to have ten portraits finished for a first exhibit. So far she has painted four women. Someday, with other artists involved, she hopes for an exhibit of 100 portraits to honor victims. Her dream is to find one artist from each state to paint two portraits. She has heard from hundreds of people in the United States, Canada and other countries who wish to have their loved ones memorialized.

"The focus is not on me," Lee says, "but on the victims and raising awareness of domestic violence. With other artists involved, it's possible."

FFI: www.facebook.com/TheBeautifulLifeProject