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WHEN VALOY EATON was in his early 30s, he was confronted with a decision few people face. Should he pursue a career in art - or become a head coach?

This might seem like a strange decision, especially for someone who attended Brigham Young University on a four-year basketball scholarship. But what many people didn't know was that while Eaton was playing ball, he was also majoring in drawing and painting.After graduating from BYU, Eaton accepted a job teaching art at Brockbank Junior High School in Magna, where he remained two years. He taught eight more years at Cyprus High School. During that time, he also coached basketball, tennis and other sports.

Eaton said, "I was coaching - and having a wonderful time golfing and fishing."

However, his wife, Ellie, had other plans for her husband. She didn't particularly like the direction his life was heading.

"So she encouraged in a strong way for me to start painting again," Eaton said.

That well-timed bit of advice was the catalyst for Eaton to get the ball rolling again with his art. In fact, soon he became so involved in art he often painted from dusk to dawn.

Still unsure of his talent, he needed some positive reinforcement. That came after he mustered enough courage to enter one of his paintings in the Utah State Fair. "And to my surprise, I won best-of-show."

From that point, "it just kind of snowballed." A gallery picked him up; he eventually got to the point where he was making more money painting than teaching.

In 1970 he found himself at the crossroads. Should he continue to teach art? Should he accept a position to become a head coach? Or should he be daring and tackle the challenge of becoming a full-time artist?

Fortunately, he selected the latter. But before painting up a storm, he felt a need for further education. So he returned to BYU to pursue a master's degree in art. He felt that this experience might give him the confidence and expertise needed to plunge into the unpredictable waters of the art world.

"From a financial standpoint, becoming a full-time artist is one of the most insecure things one can do," he said.

Ten years after Eaton's decision to pursue art for a career, Robert S. Olpin published an art book titled "Dictionary of Utah Art." Basically, it contained artists' names and biographical information. Eaton's name was included, but all Olpin wrote about him was: "EATON, Valoy, is a talented Heber, Utah-based painter of landscapes and `Western' subjects."

But what a difference a few years can make. If a similar book were written today, there would be considerably more said about Eaton, since he is considered by many to be one of the best landscape painters in Utah. His oil paintings - and his watercolors - are much in demand.

Probing more deeply into Eaton's life, attributes and philosophy, one soon discovers some of the reasons that have contributed significantly to his success:

- Eaton is a down-to-earth artist who is, plain and simple, in love with nature. "Some of the most profound subjects are found in everyday occurrences when living close to nature," he emphasizes. "John Constable was right when he said, `Nature constantly presents us with compositions of her own, far more beautiful than the happiest arranged by human skill.' "

He said he has always been interested in landscape. "As a small boy (preschooler), I remember standing under a huge mulberry tree by our house and marveling at the beauty of the sunlight flickering through the leaves and branches and hitting the ground below."

Ever since that experience, he has been entranced by sunlight and shadow. And it is that interplay between the two that Eaton captures so effectively on his canvas.

- The painter's style, a highly compatible mix of realism and impressionism, is definitely not superficial; rather, it speaks of truth and integrity.

"My style has changed somewhat over the years," he said. Although he's still painting landscapes, edges of forms became softer. This is partly the result of careful observation of works by his favorite painters in which 80 percent of the imagery has soft edges.

"I prefer suggesting the unessential and putting extreme detail in the essential," he pointed out.

In addition, Eaton said his color sense has improved, and, as he has become more expert in using the brush, his strokes are more brisk and spontaneous.

- The artist is adamant when he says, "The best way to work is on location. Period."

His paintings ring true, partly because he does not work from photographs. He says photographs tell falsehoods about colors, values and aerial perspective. And they "tell anything about edges, subtleties, proportions and reflected light."

He emphasized, "Either paint it from life and finish it that way, or paint small sketches or studies from life, take them back to the studio and use them to finish larger works."

- Do not compromise. Remain true to your style. He confessed that there have been times - just a few - when he compromised to win an award or bend to the wishes of a client. "However, whenever I've compromised, I've ended up with inferior pieces."

When he accepts a commission, he does it on the basis that he can back out of it any time he wants to. "Clients are under no obligation to buy the painting when finished," he says. "I refuse to give up my freedom."

- Much of Eaton's success can be attributed to his wife. "If it weren't for Ellie pushing me, helping me and encouraging me, I would never be what I am today," he said.

Although she doesn't pick up a brush and paint on his canvases, she's varnishing his paintings, packing them to transport to shows - even assuming the role of his business manager.

He lets Ellie handle such things as promotion, reputation, publicity and advertisement - things that, to many people, seem more important than aesthetics in the selling of art.

"But, in the long run, what happens at the easel is all-important," he emphasized.

When Park City's Saguaro Gallery opened its doors last Friday, 23 paintings by Eaton and 29 sculptures by Ed Fraughton were on exhibit. Considering the popularity of these two artists and the quality of work, a trip to the gallery is definitely in order - and the sooner, the better.

Twenty-one of Eaton's paintings in the show are new and range in size from small (51/2 by 9 inches) to large (36 by 48 inches).

Fraughton's "Contemplation" (a bronze head of a young woman) was sculpted specifically for this show. Also available for purchase is his "Last Farewell," one of Fraughton's most popular award-winning sculptures.

"This is one of only three in the edition that has come up for resale since the edition sold out 20 years ago," says David Lott, owner of the Saguaro Gallery.

Eaton's oil paintings and Fraughton's bronzes will remain through Saturday, Oct. 1, at the Saguaro Gallery, 314 Main, Park City, (801) 645-7667. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.