SALT LAKE CITY — Dr. Rita Wright, director of the Springville Art Museum, said she often hears people from out of state comment on the number of artists from Utah and their high-quality work. She attributes Utah’s art success to artist William “Bill” Whitaker, the “granddaddy of Utah artists,” who she said was at the heart of the growth and mentoring of this generation of artists.
“I really do attribute a large part of the entire art mentality in this state a great deal to Bill Whitaker,” Wright said. “Most of the young and rising figurative artists in this state would at some point or another have been able to sit down with him to reflect on their work and give them critique and guidance,” she said, referring to the way he worked with colleagues and students as “just a magical thing.”
Whitaker died on March 6, 2018, at 74. In a recent tribute, The Springville Museum of Art called him the “grandfather of Utah figurative art” and remembered him as “one of the most respected figurative artists in the country.” Many of his portraits of LDS apostles and prophets are displayed in the Conference Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. He also has large-scale works in the Church History Museum and at Brigham Young University.
A legacy at BYU
BYU professor of illustration Robert Barrett met Whitaker when they were both studying with portrait artist Alvin Gittins at the University of Utah. Whitaker spent a semester in Mexico painting with Gittins and looked up to him as his mentor.
Whitaker served a full-time LDS mission to Germany, where he worked with publications and media. He continued that work when he returned from his mission and did illustrations for the LDS Church and church magazines, Barrett said.
After Whitaker graduated from the U. with a degree in business in 1967, he left for California to study at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and work as an designer for Capitol Records. He then went to BYU to teach in 1971.
“BYU brought him up to teach in those days what was called ‘commercial art.’ I would say it was graphic design and illustration,” Barrett said, who has taught at BYU for 36 years. “That’s what we have these days, so he was sort of a precursor.”
Whitaker stopped teaching in 1981 to pursue art full time. He returned to BYU to do workshops with students and later had a studio in the Harris Fine Arts Center as an artist-in-residence. The department also sought advice from Whitaker about its curriculum and setting up drawing classes, Barrett said.
“I always felt like he was super supportive of me in my role here at BYU and what I was trying to do with the students,” Barrett said. “He’d come over to my house and visit us and comment on my work and tell me what a great job he thought we were doing here at BYU with the students.”
Barrett said Whitaker worked with a total of about 15 BYU students as interns in his studio and was “always generous in terms of offering critique and encouragement.” One of those students was Mary Sauer.
Sauer worked as Whitaker’s apprentice from 2007 to 2009. She is now a professional artist who is represented in two galleries and is a finalist for the Portrait Society of America international competition. She is working on a commission for a painting for the Church History Museum.
“A lot of what I do in my painting goes back to what Bill taught me as an artist,” she said. “Bill always said, ‘You’ll be able to do this. Just follow the Spirit and the Spirit will tell you what to do.’”
Sauer described Whitaker as a man who was truly happy, living and loving his dream. She said Whitaker had a way of emotionally building her up when offering advice and criticism.
“I felt like he was a father to me in a lot of ways. He called me and some of the other students his art babies,” Sauer said.
Michelle Christensen, a former designer for Anthropologie who now runs mylittlebelleville.com, is another “art baby” who benefited from the patient hand of Whitaker. As an illustration major at BYU, she apprenticed with Whitaker for about a year, around the same time as Sauer. Whitaker also helped with portraits for her BFA project.
“His studio was kind of like a refuge,” Christensen said. “You’d go there and it’s almost like you’re stepping into another place. It was always peaceful. It was always clean. He would always say, ‘Be very aware of how you’re feeling with your work.’”
Whitaker taught her to treat her workspace as she would care for herself and how to pay attention to subtle details. He was humble, well-spoken, gentle and kind, had a great sense of humor and even played the banjo for them when he was taking a break, she said.
“He said to not feel frustrated when I saw mistakes in my work,” she added. “He said to rejoice in your mistakes. He said it’s part of your gift that you can see them. That was really profound to me.”
A lifelong mentor
A designated living master by the Art Renewal Center, Whitaker garnered numerous accolades for his work over the course of his career. He was named an AOA Master by Artists of America and garnered a host of awards and medal from other institutions. Outside Utah, his work was displayed in the 1981 American Western Art Exhibition in Beijing, China, and the Museum of Fine Art in St. Petersburg, Florida, according to his biography on the Universtiy of Utah's Utah Artists Project. Whitaker was also featured in the 1982 PBS Television series “Profiles in American Art.”
Wright first worked with Whitaker when she was the curator for the LDS Church History Museum. He was serving as a type of "art missionary,” she said, when they worked on projects and portraits for several of the general authorities. “That’s when I first got his vision and his passion and dedication to art in Utah and the artist’s role in conveying some of those cultural and spiritual values."
Wright continued to work with Whitaker years later when she became director of the Springville Museum of Art. He would come through the museum and look at his students’ work with “fatherly concern and pride.” Whitaker was a juror for the 2017 Spring Salon, and Wright said she will never forget the opportunity she had to spend almost nine hours with him, side by side, as he was going through looking at the various works.
Whitaker was her “master teacher,” she said, who taught her the power of art. “We would have philosophical discussions about how art serves a much different purpose than just an illustration of a subject,” Wright said. “It really engages people in a very different way emotionally, spiritually, even physically.”
Wright also remembers the day Whitaker invited her to his art studio. He was working on a painting of Joseph Smith and had spent time researching the Joseph Smith papers and the clothing and costumes during that time period to make sure his painting was as accurate as possible.
“He wanted this to be not just a painter’s study or portrait, but he wanted to have a real emotional, spiritual sense of the man through his study and his thoughtfulness, and, he would even say, through prayer and contemplation,” Wright said. “He wanted to not just make this a superficial portrait; he wanted to convey some very powerful thoughts and feelings he had.”
This painting of Joseph Smith is currently housed in the permanent exhibition "The Heavens are Opened" in the Church History Museum. Other recent aquisitions from Whitaker include a full-length portrait of Emma Hale for the same exhibit and a portrait of President Dallin H. Oaks which hangs in the Conference Center. Laura Allred Hurtado, global acquisitions art curator for the Church History Museum, said the Church History Museum collection has nearly 70 works by Whitaker.
Whitaker also worked on the Temple Art Evaluation Committee. Barrett said he became a cheerleader to this group of LDS artists, telling them, “We've got to do a better job of the art we’re doing in the temple. Come on, guys, give it your best effort!”
Wright served with Whitaker on this committee and said they spent time before and after meetings talking about ways he could engage artists and help them improve. “It was just his whole nature to mentor, to critique with a patient, thoughtful approach,” she said.
“He had layers of abilities, layers of understanding, layers of warmth and generosity that kept unfolding and unfolding,” Wright said. “We were all fed by him.”
“He was a deeply spiritual, sensitive man and artist of faith and conviction that set an example for all that his profession and faith were never at odds,” she added.
Whitaker is survived by his wife, Sandra, a watercolorist, and three children.
Whitaker's viewing will be held March 15, 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Nelson Mortuary, 4780 N. University Ave, Provo. On March 16, another viewing will be held at 10 a.m. before his 11 a.m. funeral at an LDS chapel, 345 E. 4525 North, Provo, according to the Springville Museum of Art.