Feature Stories

Kate Lee’s insights on Mary and Joseph that will change how you see fear forever

Artist Kate Lee in her home studio in Layton, Utah.
Photo by Tell the Birds

I felt like one of the disciples walking along the road to Emmaus. My friend Kate Lee was the other. Like those disciples, we “talked together of all these things which had happened,” specifically a recent heavy loss in my family. And thanks to Kate’s ever-open heart, we, like those disciples, “communed together and reasoned” (Luke 24:14–15). We spoke about my deepest feelings and thoughts, and Kate helped lead me to what I needed most—faith in the Savior’s power to heal.

And all of this happened on busy downtown streets just minutes after a business meeting. I was working in marketing at Deseret Book, and we had been with others discussing upcoming plans for Kate’s art. This was an exciting time for her, but she didn’t hesitate for a second to connect with me. Thanks to that day with Kate, our office had fresh new ideas, and I had a fresh new outlook on my life.

Over the six years that I’ve had the pleasure of calling Kate my friend, I’ve learned that her powerful influence both as a person and as an artist comes from her deep testimony and her vulnerability.

There’s no denying Kate is an incredibly talented artist. When she submitted her art to Deseret Book for the first time in 2018, she chose to pitch her watercolor titled Atonement. It is a simple, beautiful depiction of Christ in the center of the page, kneeling next to a rock while looking at the sky.

Atonement by Kate Lee

“The composition captivated me,” says Dallan Wright, fine art category manager at Deseret Book. “We had showcased very few watercolor paintings—most depictions of Christ are acrylic or oil paintings—but I was excited about this. I emailed her immediately and expressed my appreciation for her work. My pitch [to the larger product team] was a breeze; everyone loved it.”

Kate became the first artist to have their complete line of art licensed by Deseret Book—rather than collaborating on just one or two pieces. More than 40 of Kate’s paintings can now be found at Deseret Book, and there is no plan to stop expanding the collection. Her art has also been turned into beautiful nativity sets, diorama sculptures, calendars, bookmarks, and journals.

Kate paints about her own pains and joys so skillfully in her artwork that many viewers can’t help but be drawn in. For example, a woman named Lisa said of Kate’s painting Peace in Christ, “I feel as though it’s me in this picture.” Another woman, Debbie, said, “Kate Lee’s art has touched every part of my life.”

A collection of original artwork Kate Lee keeps in her home studio.
Photo by Tell the Birds

I have two Kate Lee paintings in my own home. Atonement hangs near our dinner table, where it quietly reminds my family of the Savior’s love and the enabling power of His atoning sacrifice. A Mother’s Faith hangs in my home office. The scene of a woman leading her three young children helps me remember the eternal power that comes with—and the immense gratitude I have for—my personal role as a mother.

Kate has become a master of lovingly sharing what she feels for the Savior in relatable, specific ways, both through her art and the spoken word. And I believe she does it because of how the Savior has changed her life, taking her from a person painted with the dark, heavy hues of self-doubt to a bright, ongoing work of joy and light—a light she now invites others to experience.

That transformation began with a unique invitation from her stake president.

Flaxen Cords

Photo courtesy of Tell the Birds

“Being an artist has always been my dream,” Kate tells me. “Starting in kindergarten, I got in trouble for drawing too much. I just love it! But sharing that talent with those around me really scared me. Because I felt like a failure in every other part of my life, I didn’t want to be a failure at drawing too. So I hid a lot of my drawings and paintings.”

Kate struggled to find confidence in her art and in herself well into her adult life. Her self-doubt grew to the point where she began believing that she had failed at life, that she had failed God, and that Christ’s Atonement wasn’t meant for someone like her. She deeply wanted to feel joy and light again but didn’t know how.

In 2015, she shared her struggles with a wise stake president who challenged Kate to paint a picture based on 2 Nephi 26:22: “Yea, and [the devil] leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever.”

“At first, I didn’t want to, because that meant I would have to step outside of my comfort zone,” Kate admits on an episode of the All In podcast. “But I knew this was an opportunity to find that change that I wanted in my life.”

Kate worked on the painting for nine months, and when she was finished, she realized she could paint what was in her heart and share it without holding back.

“Had I continued to hold onto that belief that I was a failure, and chosen to stay living in the shadows, the growth and understanding that Heavenly Father wanted me to have would not have happened,” she says.

Since that life-changing experience, Kate has been very open about her struggle to feel she had worth. In addition to expressing herself through her art, she has become a powerful public speaker at events across the country. Her words are compassionately vulnerable, without platitudes or clichés.

For example, Kate has openly shared the emotions behind her favorite piece: Through His Light. And since hearing the story, I’ve never looked at the painting in quite the same way.

As part of a national speaking tour for women in 2021, Kate shared that 2016 was one of her hardest years. She had experienced depression in the past, but it felt more intense than ever. “I felt like no matter what I did to find and feel happiness, I wasn’t doing it right,” she said at the time.

One morning in December, she found herself curled up and crying at the top of the stairs in her home. In her hopelessness, she pleaded with God for relief or light. But she felt nothing. She waited for a time and then told herself, “You need to get up. You need to keep going. Your family will be home soon, and they need you.”

A couple of months after that experience, Kate was sitting in a Relief Society class on Sunday still hoping for light and peace, when suddenly an image of Christ sitting with a girl came into her mind.

Through His Light by Kate Lee

“I immediately pulled out my journal and a pencil and drew this image,” she said. “As I was drawing it, the Spirit touched my heart and helped me understand that I had Christ—that He was right there waiting for me to turn to Him and that He would lift this load if I would just give it to Him. I was overcome with peace. That light I had been seeking for so long was right in front of me.”

Kate titled the finished painting Through His Light in honor of her two experiences—first of being lifted out of the darkness of self-doubt and second of receiving the creative inspiration for the piece through the light of God’s love.

“[The woman’s] eyes are focused on her hands,” Kate said. “She is learning who she is through the different experiences of her life. She understands her potential, her worth, her purpose, and her place. Notice Christ’s eyes. He is focused on her. He already knows who she is. He already understands her incredible worth. With His eyes, he is saying to her and to all of us, ‘I am here, and I will be here with you as you grow and as you learn for yourself.’”

Love and Light

Because I personally have been so inspired learning how Kate’s paintings come to fruition, I was thrilled when I heard that she was going to publish a book about her experiences.

Photo courtesy of Tell the Birds

Connecting with Christ features emotional personal stories written by Kate that explain the inspiration for 10 of her paintings. Her piece I Am Enough is paired with her experience as a young missionary serving in England—her first step in understanding that who she was and what she had to offer was enough. The chapter on her painting Peace in Christ includes a story of her frustrating struggle with depression while on a family vacation. And her testimony behind the truths depicted in Receiving Strength from Above came in part after her son’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder. And while the topics are heavy, Kate does a masterful job of infusing them with light and hope.

I think General Young Women President Emily Belle Freeman said it best in her forward to the book: “Kate comes from a place of deep vulnerability as she shares her journey of coming to know Christ. She weaves her feelings of doubt, lack, and greatest need through a framework of peace, light, and healing, creating a beautiful masterpiece of love. As I read her own personal touch points with the Savior, I was able to pause and ponder my own. Her story begins with a struggle we are all familiar with—am I enough?—and ends with the power of grace that comes through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”

One of Kate’s most beloved works to date is her depiction of the nativity, Love’s Pure Light. A nativity set of eight beautiful resin figurines was created in conjunction with Kate’s painting, and each year they feature prominently among the Christmas decor in my home. The characters are familiar, but Kate’s interpretation creates such a stunning and unique take on the nativity scene that each Christmas season I wonder what Kate was thinking as she put the original image on paper. Since it isn’t one of the 10 paintings featured in her new book, I asked my friend if she would give us a bonus chapter of sorts and tell us the story of Love’s Pure Light. And I think you’ll love what she told me.

Kate Lee painting in her home studio.
Photo by Tell the Birds

From Kate:

I love how this painting came to be, completely unexpected and fully directed by the Spirit.

It was September of 2018. I had signed my contract with Deseret Book a few weeks prior and was invited to a meeting to discuss future painting ideas. I was asked if I would be interested in painting a nativity piece. My answer was, “Of course! I would love to create one.”

In their description of what they were hoping for, the words “hunched over” were said, and that was all it took for this entire scene of Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus to come rushing into my mind. I quickly turned to the person sitting next to me and asked for a pencil and paper.

I had to capture this idea in my head.

After the meeting ended, I took that messy sketch home, laid it on my studio floor, pulled out clean sheets of drawing paper, and resketched the idea, adding the wise men and the shepherds to finish the piece.

As I worked on the painting, the Spirit helped me understand how to draw and where to place each person in the painting. He helped me understand what colors to use and how to manipulate the lighting so the focus would be on Christ.

When you look at Love’s Pure Light, you will see that each person’s hands, including Mary’s and Joseph’s, are pointing to the Savior. You’ll notice that the light around them is painted in such a way that it draws the eye straight to baby Jesus. I wanted the viewer to feel the beauty in this pivotal moment for all mankind.

My favorite part of this painting is the love expressed between Mary and Joseph. Together they have been asked to raise the Savior of the world. Notice their tender body language towards each other and how they are looking at one another, as if to say, “Together we can do this.” I love how Mary is looking up at Joseph, full of love and trust for her husband. I love how her hands are gently under Joseph’s, helping him as he holds not only his new baby son but his Savior. I like to imagine the joy that filled Joseph’s body as he realized his role in his Redeemer’s life. I love how Joseph is sweetly hunched over, holding baby Jesus, allowing Mary to rest.

Can you imagine being there, witnessing this beautiful moment? What did they feel? What did they say to each other?

Screenshot 2023-10-31 at 12.18.04 PM.png
Love's Pure Light by Kate Lee

The closest I can get to having a taste of that glorious night of the Savior’s birth is the day my oldest son, Jackson, was born. I will never forget that incredibly tender moment in the hospital when this perfect little human was placed on my chest. His sweet little eyes looked right into mine and I knew God was trusting me with one of His sons. I felt scared at first, and I wondered if I could do this, and then my comfort came with a new understanding that there was a greater purpose here and I needed to place my fear aside. I knew that together with my husband, Mike, things would be OK.

The love I felt for my new son, and the deep connection I felt with both Jackson and Mike, was immediate and powerful. That moment between Jackson, Mike, and I was sacred; it brought us all closer to heaven.

The experience of Joseph and Mary is one I hope we can all relate to in one way or another. One of my favorite scriptures is found in 1 Nephi 17:13, where Christ tells us that He will be our light in the wilderness, and He will prepare a way before us. In this life we will all face times where we feel overwhelmed, out of place, inadequate, unworthy of, scared, and uncomfortable, but all of those times are not meant to beat us down or defeat us, but rather to strengthen us, give us opportunities to grow, learn who we are, and to call on our Father in Heaven and Savior.

This experience between the holy family is a powerful example of pushing past fear, embracing faith, and trusting God’s plan. I hope that this painting can bring peace into your home during the holiday season. I hope as you look at this painting you can feel the love that your Father in Heaven has for you personally, by giving us all a Savior to come unto. I hope your testimony of this meaningful moment in time can be strengthened. And I hope that your love for the Savior can be deepened.

Your Savior was born for you.

My friendship with Kate Lee has allowed her to mourn with me personally, and her willingness to share her inspiring testimony has comforted countless others. I believe that as we learn to lovingly and openly share our experiences with the Savior in relatable, specific ways like Kate does, our lives and our Christmases will undoubtedly shine brighter. Whether it is through art, words, music, or any other medium, we can all use our stories to invite more of love’s pure light into the world.

Love’s Pure Light Nativity Set

Decorate for a Christ-centered Christmas with this beautiful, eight-piece nativity set. Inspired by Kate Lee’s beloved, minimalistic watercolor style in Love’s Pure Light, each figurine is crafted from soft-hued resin. The figurines vary in size, with the tallest measuring 6.5”. This set comes with a depiction of Mary, three shepherds, three wise men, and Joseph holding Jesus. Complete the scene with additional animals and a three-piece angel and star set!

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