A Creative Legacy Lives On: Dresses Donated in Memory of Watkins Alumna Lee Ann Hawkins

the dresses created by Lee Ann
Watkins College of Art

A Creative Legacy Lives On: Dresses Donated in Memory of Watkins Alumna Lee Ann Hawkins

May 21, 2024 | by Haley Charlton

A life well spent creating and chasing beauty

Lee Ann HawkinsIn a cozy sewing room just outside her children's bedrooms, the gentle hum of Lee Ann Hawkins' sewing machine provided the soundtrack to their childhood. It was there, amid spools of thread and scraps of fabric, that the Watkins College of Art alumna nurtured her boundless creativity and keen eye for taking something seemingly ordinary and making it extraordinary.   

"We fell asleep to the hum of her sewing machine. It was the most comforting sound," her daughter Mary recalled fondly. From lavish Halloween costumes to her daughters' formal dresses, Hawkins had an innate talent for breathing new life into cast-off materials. 

But her artistic gifts extended far beyond sewing. “Mom was a rescuer,” said Julia Ann, Lee Ann’s youngest daughter.  

Lee Ann was a master at saving the discarded, be it torn fabric or a worn-down soul, and transforming it into something radiantly beautiful – a metaphor for how she lived her life. "She found beauty in what others would consider trash. She rescued lost things," her daughters explained.  

Lee Ann Hawkins in her studioWell into her 60s, after raising her four children, Hawkins decided to make good on a promise to her mother to finally complete her college education. She enrolled at Watkins College of Art (now part of Belmont), embracing the opportunity to hone her talents while surrounding herself with a community that appreciated her unique perspective.  

“She had this spirit about her,” said her son Bill. “And she told each of us our whole lives that you can do anything you want; you can be anything you want to be. If you fail, that’s the beautiful thing about art. You can fail and fail, and you can still do something amazing. That attitude prevails for all of us.”  

Having learned to sew from her own mother, Lee Ann loved the fashions of the 1950’s and mimicked styles in that era through her creations. After first making a copy of her wedding dress, she came across an exhibit of paper dresses by Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave, and a new obsession was born.  

Using humble materials like newspaper wrappings, bottle caps and even paper from examination tables, Hawkins crafted exquisite, one-of-a-kind dresses. Her time at Watkins encouraged her combination of mediums, and these dresses incorporated many art forms – sewing, printmaking (she printed lace patterns on the paper) and painting. 

Lee Ann Hawkins HeadshotThough brilliantly conceived and executed, Lee Ann’s children said she created things just for the sake of her own love of creativity and expression. “When they were well received and admired, she was a bit taken aback,” laughed her daughter Leslie. 

Lee Ann’s husband of 49 years passed away while she was a student, and her daughters shared that having art and creativity as an outlet was healing during that difficult time in her life.    

“We all noticed that after dad passed away, mother really had a rebirth, and I do believe that Watkins was part of that because it gave her a lot of confidence,” Julia Ann added. “She loved being on campus. She loved the students she was with. She took it very, very seriously. She kept creating for the 18 years after she graduated, and those years were very full. I believe her creativity and her art fueled a lot of that.”  

Her daughters admired how their mom embraced new, different artists and allowed Watkins to broaden her natural talent. “She welcomed the way her classes stretched her understanding of the materials she worked with and challenged her perfectionist tendencies,” explained her daughter Mary.  

One professor even remarked, "Lee Ann, you can only get an A," unable to deter her tireless pursuit of creative growth and perfection in her work.  

Lee Ann Hawkins at the beachLee Ann loved her Watkins professors and fellow students, with her children describing her joy in being there as contagious. The friendships she developed and her class assignments served as a balm to her grief.  

Her son Bill said Lee Ann was likely seen as “part cool older lady, part student, part mom, part grandmother.” She would help her fellow students with gas money, a sandwich for lunch or a new tire if their funds ran out. “So maybe she was seen as a little angel from time to time, too,” he said.

Lee Ann was a rescuer.

Lee Ann's dresses“Her message was to look deeper, seek the beauty and treasure in all things,” explained Julia Ann. “She applied this belief to people, too."  

Finding that many of her fellow students were a bit lost on their paths, Lee Ann tried hard to help them by listening to them, feeding them and caring about them. “In some ways guiding them with her attention and encouragement,” Leslie added. “As a loving mother and wife, Watkins extended her circle of care." 

After graduating magna cum laude with a focus on print making in 2005, the year she turned 70, Lee Ann didn't slow down.  

If anything, she kicked her creative endeavors into an even higher gear with her mixed media dressmaking and vibrant painted capes that told a story. As Bill concluded, “Art was an outlet for her to tell stories. And she had a wonderful life full of them."  

Lee Ann passed away on April 1, 2023. In her memory, her children decided to donate several of her iconic dresses to Belmont, hoping that her inspiring story and creative legacy will continue to impact a new generation of artists and creators.  

more of Lee Ann's dressesMary and Julia Ann shared, "Mom would say never stop learning, keep trying new things, meet new people and stretch yourself. We hope others will enjoy seeing Mom's art and will be inspired to keep creating and experimenting." 

Leslie added, "I feel the dresses will be a wonderful example to other students that a love of art and learning from art is a lifelong pursuit. She created things her whole life. Until her dying day she was a practicing artist."  

Lee Ann’s special creations are now on display in the Lila D. Bunch Library where patrons can glean the same essential truth that Lee Ann manifested through her life and art: in this world, nothing – and no one – is beyond rescue, renewal or redemption. 

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