Artist Lee Harper brings old Oxford to life with new 3D dioramas.
Written by Lanie Anderson | Photographed by Joe Worthem
Oxford is a seasonal locale for some and a permanent home for others. But whichever category you fall into, chances are you have plenty of attachment to, and stories about, your favorite places here — some of which may no longer be in existence. But never fear. Local artist Lee Harper is bringing “old Oxford” back to life through her 3D dioramas.
Harper contributes artwork every year to the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council’s holiday ornament auction. This past holiday season, she decided to create a small 3D diorama of The Hoka Theater in memory of founder Ron Shapiro, who died in August 2019.
“I always try to donate something really nostalgic,” Harper said. “With Ronzo’s passing, I thought this year it would be really neat to do a miniature Hoka, especially because the building doesn’t exist anymore. It’s so special to people.”
After the auction, Harper received more requests for dioramas of the Hoka and other past and present places in Oxford.
“A lot of Oxford people miss old Oxford,” Harper said. “That’s honestly the beauty of it: people thinking back to old Oxford.”
June Goza saw Harper’s Hoka diorama and knew she wanted one. An Oxford native and Ole Miss alum, Goza remembers going to the Gin, a popular bar and restaurant, in the 1980s. When the Gin closed for the night, she and her friends would head to the nearby Hoka for a late-night snack. The diorama in her home reminds her of the memories she made there in her 20s.
“It just brings me joy,” Goza said. “I look at it and remember being at the Hoka and talking to Ron and hanging out with friends.”
When Oxford resident Rob Church found Harper’s dioramas on Instagram, he requested one of Smitty’s, a diner once located on South Lamar behind Square Books. Breakfast at Smitty’s was a favorite for locals like Church, who frequented the diner with his friends in college. Smitty’s closed its doors in 1999, and Church wanted a tangible reminder of the Oxford Square he knew as a child and then a college student.
“It makes me smile,” Church said. “It takes me back to a time when things were a little simpler and easier and more familiar.”
Harper has a knack for history and storytelling, especially about old buildings, and these mini recreations are a perfect mix of her hobbies. She also enjoys meeting new people and hearing their stories. When she needed a visual of one side of a building long gone, she posted a call for photos on Facebook and found more people who had fond memories to share along with their pictures.
“I have to do a little detective work to find pictures and images of the buildings to be able to get all of the angles,” Harper said. “Obviously, they don’t exist anymore, so that’s half of the fun.”
Harper gets creative with the materials she uses to make her dioramas. A thrift store candlestick supplied a tiny angel bust for a diorama of an old chapel in New Orleans. The roof on the Hoka diorama came from tin coffee cups that once belonged to Oxford Canteen on North Lamar.
“I don’t look at things as what they actually are,” Harper said. “I look at them as what they could be used for.”
Harper will recreate any place a client requests. She recently made a house near the Square for a birthday gift and created a diorama for a couple featuring the old church where they got married.
“Most people ask for these because of the nostalgia and sentimentality behind them,” Harper said. “That is the best to work on. ... something people have really fond memories of.”
Visit Harper’s Instagram profile @leeharperoxford to learn more about Harper’s dioramas and other artwork.