The late Weber State University professor of art, Doyle Strong, had a powerful impact on generations of Utah artists who came of age during the four decades when he was active as an instructor. Opening this weekend at Ogden’s Universe City, Strong’s Legacy will exhibit the work of Strong as well as a number of the students who came under his tutelage.
Ogden artist LeRoy Jennings formed Universe City along with his wife Carol and son Benjamin. He met Strong in 1964 at Weber State. He remembers him as “a man ahead of his times.” “He was a feminist before we knew the word,” Jennings says. “He taught diversity before it was a university mission. He wasn’t afraid of what others might think. He was sincerely concerned with finding his own personal truth and encouraged his students to do so, too. He frightened plenty of my contemporaries but he was very stimulating to those who could take it!”
Jennings’ work includes waterscapes, landscapes, portraits and still lifes but he has also recently completed a number of abstracts in a very different color palette.|1-2| Showing with Jennings in this exhibition are a number of artists who came under Strong’s influence over the years: Peggy Barker, Bruce Carlson, Ellen Chadwick, Scott Geary, Wayne Geary, Larry Ogan, Dayle Record, Richard Sheppard, Clarence Socwell, and Gerald Wickberg (deceased).|3| The exhibit will include sculpture, prints and paintings by Strong |4 -5|, as well as comments by the artists about their experiences with Strong and the times that still mark them today.
Doyle Strong served as a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot during the last two years of WWII. He finished a degree in art at Brigham Young University in 1945, a teaching certificate at Weber College in 1946, and an M.F.A. from the University of Utah in 1949. He was also a member of the Art Students League of New York. In the postwar years, he and Farrell Collett were the art faculty at Weber College. Clarence P. Socwell, a poet and playwright, was a student there from 1948-50, and remembers those times. “Since the students and instructors spent so much time together, we became ‘one big happy family.’ We were all very familiar with each other’s talents and knowledge, and the experience was one of enjoyable camaraderie both with the other students and the teachers.”
Happy families don’t always last, however. By the sixties and early seventies, when most of the artists in this exhibit knew the professor, Strong had experienced some rough personal times and his artwork had also gone through fundamental changes. He had left behind the traditional work of his mentor, Farrell Collett, and explored more modernist and contemporary forms of art. And he encouraged his students to do the same.
Wayne Geary |6|, an artist and instructor who currently lives in Salt Lake City, met Strong when he was a freshman at Weber. “At first I didn’t know what to make of him. He’d look at my work and kind of grimace and say cryptic things and I was totally mystified. . . And yet, in some Zen-like fashion, things did start to make sense, and being in Doyle’s classes became liberating to the point that I would start to drag in rusty old car doors to class and burn baby dolls and glue them on and smear paint over everything (this was the Vietnam era) . . . He encouraged me to do more and more radical work, until finally Farrell Collett, the department chair, in a fit of outrage took one of my paintings down to the college president’s office. That, I think, was the high point of my year at Weber, at least in terms of being a bad boy. Of course poor Doyle got all kinds of trouble for fostering such rebellion.”
Almost all of the artists in this exhibit speak of Strong’s influence not simply as an art instructor, but as a mentor, a gravitational force they were drawn to who influenced their views on politics, life and art. “Many of us consider him our mentor that shaped our attitudes about how to think about and approach art making,” says Larry Ogan, a painter who studied with Strong in the early seventies. “He also became a political radical during the Vietnam era opposing the war. He almost lost his job when he told an art history class that President Richard Nixon is “a f**king liar.”
Ogan, unsatisfied with the Utah art scene, moved to Santa Fe where he is now Director of the Santa Fe Council for the Arts. Ogan’s wife, Ellen Chadwick, was also one of Strong’s students and is now a professional artist. Ogan’s work currently concentrates on landscapes that focus on light, mass and form |7| while Chadwick’s work are painterly abstracts with strong geometrical elements.|8| Strong’s influence was obviously not dictatorial, encouraging his students to find their own form rather than imitating his.
Most of the artists exhibiting in Strong’s Legacy went on to become professional artists, either in Utah (Geary, Record, a photographer in Salt Lake, and Sheppard |9|, a painter in Ogden) or elsewhere (Ogan, Chadwick and Scott Geary all live in Santa Fe). Others, like Peggy Barker, who has taught at Ogden’s St. Joseph High School for twenty years, became instructors. Socwell devoted his energy to the literary arts (one of his many awards was Utah State Poet in 1977) but has continued to produce art. Bruce Carlson, who retired from the Utah Department of Transportation two years ago, seems to have followed a career the furthest from the arts, but he has continued to paint with watercolor as his principal medium, and has been an active patron of the arts in Utah. He credits Strong with being a “strong” supporter of his eccentric personality as a student and an artist.
Strong retired as Associate Professor in 1982. His early artistic style, social realism, evolved to reflect various abstract and modern styles of the 1960s and 70s. His social concerns continued, however, and were reflected in his politics. A political radical by local standards, he brought to life the contrasting colors of war and peace.
Caril Jennings, cofounder of Universe City and a performing artist by training, remembers being accepted into Strong’s orbit. “I came into Doyle’s gang by way of a three quarter art history series which I took with LeRoy Jennings, whom I would later marry. I was a theatre major at the time but was welcomed into the ‘company of artists’ by everyone, as we all were trying to view ‘art’ in a larger and inclusive context – not just limited to the visual arts. Out of my inclusion in that group, many joint ventures between the visual and performing arts were produced.”
Universe City, the Jennings’ creation, is one such venture, as is their current exhibit Strong’s Legacy. It opens this weekend. To get a glimpse at the effect of one artist’s strong influence and the many paths it can engender, stop in at Ogden’s Universe City for what will turn into a reunion show for many of these artists.
The opening reception will be Friday, April 7, 5-8 p.m., and the artists’ talk and reunion will be April 8, at 6 p.m. The exhibit will run Fridays, April 7, 14, and 21, 5-8 p.m. and Saturdays, April 8, 15, and 22, Noon-8 p.m. Universe City is located at 2556 Washington Blvd.
This article originally appeared in the April 2006 edition of 15 Bytes.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.