Tom Lee, a Norman-based artist whose fascination with photography and old houses of worship made him one of the most recognized figures on the local arts scene, died Thursday. He was 53.
"Tom Lee was a fine fellow and a true believer in the arts,” said attorney John L. Belt. "He worked diligently for a number of years in the Paseo area to make it a better place. He also worked to improve the quality of the Paseo Festi-val that we present every year. He will be missed.” A decade ago, Lee ran across an 1842 church for sale while surfing the Internet. The artist was looking for a smaller studio and decided the 1,500-square-foot structure would make an ideal studio. The only problem was that the church was in Halifax, Nova Scotia. "I bought it sight unseen,” Lee said in a 2001 interview with The Oklahoman. "I wasn't really that concerned about the condition of the church. They told me it was in good shape when they took it down. It was something of an act of faith.” Lee had the church moved from Canada to the Paseo in November 2000. He converted the sanctuary into gallery space, added skylights to brighten the area and created an office for himself that featured a custom-made stained glass window with a camera at its center. Lee was born in 1957 in St. Paul, Minn. A car accident left him a quadri-plegic when he was 16. Undeterred, he learned to take pictures and develop film in his darkroom with the use of his mouth. In 1998, Lee and his wife, Mary Katherine Long, bought the former St. Thomas More University Parish in Norman with plans to make it their residence. Built in 1926, the church became known as "the Chouse” after owner Phyllis Dowling converted it into a house in 1981. "The Chouse was such a wonderful gathering place for artists and members of this community,” artist John Brandenburg said.