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Strokes of Genius

by E. Jane Connell

Historically, American art has evolved in two parallel trends: the absorption of international subjects and styles, and the development of regional forms of expression tailored to mirror the character of the particular land and people to which it is witness. Utah art and artists, significantly fostered by the University of Utah's fine arts department, have cultivated both of these currents. In the hands of some of its finest teachers, Utah art reflects many persuasions—international and regional, cosmopolitan and provincial, modern and conservative. Such diverse, yet generally optimistic, points of view continue to enrich the academic experience of University students and of the state's arts community.

UMFA founded, originally located in the John R. Park Building

Donations of art works by the Richard Hudnut and L. Boyd Hatch families create need for general art museum

E. Frank Sanguinetti appointed first professional director

UMFA's current facility dedicated

Marriner S. Eccles Foundation
makes annual contributions
for major art purchases, creating the Marriner S. Eccles Masterwork Collection

Val A. Browning, industrialist and philanthropist, donates important group of paintings, spanning 500 years of European art

Marcia BA'57 and John BS'56 Price donate $7 million as lead gift for new UMFA building

Groundbreaking for new building, located at 1650 East South Campus Drive

Phyllis Wattis ex'27 makes $5 million gift for the acquisition of 20th-century art

Grand opening of the new UMFA

As the Utah pioneers struggled to establish themselves, the visual arts also sought an immediate stronghold. Within a year of the first Mormon settlement, artists began to create a visual identity for the territory through portraiture, landscape depictions, pioneer genre scenes, and LDS Church commissions—subjects which continued to flourish well into the 20th century. In 1850 the University was founded; by 1888 the visual arts had taken sufficient root for a fine arts department to be formalized, with George Ottinger as its principal professor. Ottinger, with pioneer-bred perseverance, worked diligently to uphold the arts in Utah. He enthusiastically encouraged young, talented students to pursue additional study in established East Coast art centers and abroad, especially in Paris. Two students who were persuaded by Ottinger were future heads of the University's art department—Edwin Evans, who first journeyed to Paris as a "mission painter," subsidized by the LDS Church to master skills for mural painting in the Salt Lake Temple, and James T. Harwood, the first major Utah-born artist to study in Paris and, significantly, to exhibit at the Paris Salon.

Evans, during his 22-year term as department head (1898-1920), was a rigorous taskmaster, a stern but stimulating teacher who required honesty and originality of his students. He encouraged independent thought, believing art to be a lifelong process of growth and expression. Harwood, a landscape, genre, and figure painter of great ability who worked primarily in an impressionist style, was a compelling teacher with a genuine love of art. He advised his students to develop a personal rapport with their subjects, and this ideology, to beautify one's individual world, permeated his teaching style during his years as department head (1923-1931). Harwood's emphasis on figure drawing and craftsmanship as the foundations of fine art has remained fundamental to the University's aesthetic philosophies to the present day.

Harwood and Evans were the major progenitors of the arts in Utah into the 1930s. Their beliefs inspired future generations of artists associated with the University. Lee Greene Richards, for example, perhaps the finest Utah portrait painter of the first half of the 20th century (taught 1938-1947), Alma B. Wright, an able portrait, figure, and landscape painter (succeeded Harwood as chair, 1931-1938), and Jack Sears, graphic designer, illustrator, cartoonist, and film animator (taught 1919-1946), all prospered under Harwood's European-style academic regimen. Independent spirits like Mabel P. Frazer BA'14 (taught 1921-1953) and LeConte Stewart ex'15 (chair, 1938-1956) thrived under Evans' encouragement of disciplined but individual expression. Frazer, a dynamic painter and effective teacher, promoted the experimental urges toward modern art of students like George S. Dibble DPLM'25 (taught 1941-1989), whose weekly art column in The Salt Lake Tribune, beginning in 1953, persuasively explained modern and contemporary art to the general reader and connoisseur alike. Frazer and Dibble influenced artists like Lee Deffebach, one of Utah's foremost abstract painters, who still works in Salt Lake City today.

Continuing the Evans attitude, LeConte Stewart, one of the state's best-loved landscape painters, was steadfastly regional in his vision. He rejected idealized, European-bred imagery and refrained from study abroad to embrace the rural experience at home, "the call of life in the raw," in his words. In his 18 years as chair, he carried forward the University's long-held grounding in the landscape tradition. The Stewart legacy continues in the rural subjects of many former students, as diverse in their approaches to the land as Earl Jones ex'54 (taught 1964-1970) and Denis Phillips BFA'62.

During Stewart's tenure, Utahn Avard T. Fairbanks ex'22, one of the nation's preeminent sculptors, left the faculty of the University of Michigan to become the first dean (1947-1955) of the new School of Fine Arts, which brought together art, architecture, music, drama, and dance. During this time, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts was also established (see sidebar). Fairbanks and Stewart were dominant forces in the Utah art scene in their respective areas of sculpture and landscape. In the period of the 1950s when modern abstraction was gaining a foothold in Utah, the conservative patterns of Stewart and Fairbanks were challenged, giving additional texture to the artistic climate of the University.

British-born Alvin L. Gittins (taught 1947-1981; chair, 1956-1962) led the program into the contemporary arena. An accomplished portraitist who worked in the European grand manner tradition, Gittins was intellectually progressive and capable of dialogue with both the conservatives and modernists. He was instrumental, for example, in bringing talented figurative sculptor Angelo Caravaglia to the staff (taught 1956-1962), breaking Fairbank's arch-conservative stronghold on the sculpture department. The perceptive Gittins joined Fulbright scholar and Cranbrook Academy-trained V. Douglas Snow (taught 1954-1990; chair, 1966-1971), a major proponent of modernist trends, to develop a series of radio programs and lectures on contemporary art. Together they built a broad philosophical base for the art department that strengthened both schools of thought. Edward D. Maryon BFA'52 MFA'56, one of Utah's great watercolorists, continued this spirit of reconciliation between traditional and modern forces during his chairmanship (1962-1966). Snow, who followed Maryon as chair, has been a dominant force in Utah as an advocate of painterly expressive directions. Nationally known for his landscape abstractions, many of his commissioned works grace public spaces in the Salt Lake City area. Snow remains one of Utah's most esteemed painters and one of the finest of the University's teachers. The legacy of his comprehensive aesthetic is carried on by many of his students, including F. Anthony Smith BFA'62 MFA'64, a member of the faculty since 1967.

Through these and many other distinguished artists, the University has developed an enduring rapport, not only with its students, but also with the public at large. The U can cite many outreach efforts that have contributed to the shaping of the fine arts in Utah: Harwood, Evans, and others established statewide arts organizations such as the Utah Art Association, forerunner of the Utah Arts Council; LeConte Stewart and many of the above-mentioned artists held private classes and taught in the public schools in addition to their University obligations; Dibble's Tribune articles made a far-reaching impression; former art students Denis and Bonnie Phillips BS'65 opened the Phillips Gallery, supporting modern developments in Utah art; educator Nathan Winters BFA'63 MS'69 PhD'73 (chair, 1996-1999) co-authored Art is Elementary and Architecture is Elementary, which boast international circulation; and art historian Robert Olpin BS'63 [art department chair; dean, College of Fine Arts, 1986-1996] continues to document the history of Utah art in books, lectures, and a television series. With benchmarks such as these, the University's substantial accomplishments in the visual arts during its first 150 years will be carried forth as it embarks on a new century.

- E. Jane Connell is a writer and art historian.

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