Historical Artists | Visual Arts

Around the Block (and Country) with Waldo Midgley

“One evening he told us of a friend who came to him for advice. ‘Brother Lambourne, my son wants to be an artist.’ A pause, then a reply. ‘Oh my God; have you tried to dissuade him?’—’Yes, but he won’t listen.’ Another pause. ‘Then, my friend, take him up on the East Bench and gently, gently mind you, but firmly do away with him!'” Waldo Park Midgley (1888-1986), recounted this story, told to him by Alfred Lambourne, when as a young man Midgley visited the famed Utah artist and poet. Lambourne didn’t say whether or not his advice was followed, but we do know that Midgley took little heed from the anecdote and, undaunted, quickly pursued an art career.

Midgley grew up in the old 20th Ward area at 138 Third Avenue in Salt Lake. His father was a sign painter and must have succeeded since he and his wife, Annie Park, parented eleven children (I wonder if he ever painted a sign that read, “HELP!”). Midgley grew up around other “Block” artists — Mahonri Young, A. B. Wright, Lee Greene Richards, Hal Burrows, and Taylor Woolley.

After some local training and considerable mentoring from his colleagues, Midgley, along with pal, Burrows, boarded an east-bound train, seeking more training in Manhattan. The year was 1907 when the pair, mere teenagers, landed in the Big Apple. A trip to the Art Students League was followed by a visit to Robert Henri’s art school. The wide-eyed boys, who were not impressed by the stuffiness of the League school, discovered the students at Henri’s place were “laughing, talking, arguing, and working!” Midgley and Burrows rubbed elbows with the likes of George Luks, Everett Shinn, William Glackens, John Sloan, Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, and Arthur B. Davies. Midgley recalled that even some of the lockers retained some portraiture by previous students like George Bellows. The heavy influence of the Ash Can School can be seen in a number of canvases created by Midgley, like those that show Park City and Eureka, belching with smoke in an industrial setting. At the same time, Midgley was able to capture the delicate beauty of a greenhouse full of poinsettias.

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The regimen at Henri’s school was serious and “there was no fooling at all,” Midgley recalled in interviews conducted by the late Dr.Bob Olpin. “The two great things for me in the spring of 1983,” Olpin recalled, “were laughing and smoking with Waldo—who, as many have, said, ‘I really should quit smoking before it kills me in the prime of life.’ And the 94 year-old fills the place again with his wonderful laugh.” Midgley recalled that once, “Henri was standing at the wash basin one night early on, and his back was turned toward the new pupil from Salt Lake City. Waldo thought he was Henri of the students, and says “I was just about to flip him on the fanny, when he turned around. I say, ‘Oh boy! I was just about to flip you,’ and he says, ‘Why didn’t you?'”

Midgley gained favor with Henri (who would later take Minerva Teichert under his wing) and after two-plus years, returned to Utah to create paintings. In one painting session in Alpine, Utah, Midgley painted a “stand of hollyhocks,” and later sold the work to a lawyer. When Midgley’s father saw the check, he remarked, “Well, some people have more money than good sense.” (Sound familiar to any of you artists?). Midgley got the last laugh however, because some years later, that attorney sent to the artist a letter and a “good-sized check.” The lawyer had exhibited the painting at the Washington State Fair, where it had taken first place, and so he felt that Midgley was deserving of a higher payment. (Artists, be sure to let me know if any of your patrons ever send you a second check down the road because they feel like they got too good of a deal. That would be a story worthy of the SL Trib, or even 15 Bytes).

Later, in 1910, Midgley returned to New York where he continued to paint with some success and was later invited to join an elect group of talent known as the Whitney Studio Club, an association founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt. Now, anyone who knows anything about art and patrons will readily recognize the iconic names, Whitney and Vanderbilt, as those associated with the powerful forces behind the arts in New York.

While in New York, Midgley took the opportunity to visit a gathering of artists and their works at an event labeled the Armory Show of 1913. The exhibit became immediately famous as a place where any artist could display his or her art without the confining restrictions of other old-line associations. Midgley, who had married by this time, relocated in Chicago where he renewed his friendship with childhood friend, Taylor Woolley. Woolley was at the time working on the Ford estate. For the next decade, Midgley continued to distinguish himself in Chicago and then New York where he secured long-term employment with the Conde Nast publishing giant. Later, he would achieve the position as head designer for the company.

The Midgleys remained in New York until 1933, when at the height of the Great Depression they returned to Utah, where Midgley found himself working for the government under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. Accompanying Midgley on a lofty (no pun intended) assignment to paint the murals for the State Capitol building rotunda were some of his former colleagues, including Lee Richards, and Gordon Cope. It was in December, 1939 that the Midgleys received a Christmas letter from the mother of the arts, Alice Merrill Horne. The kind message of greeting was written on letterhead with a masthead admonition: “Foster the Climbing Artists that Presently They Will Be the Old Masters.” The letter went on to offer supportive statements to 32 Utah artists that Horne considered “…chosen of the Lord and …precious in his sight.” (Wow, I never got a letter like that from my previous two employers).

In 1947, Midgley was invited by his old friend, Mahonri Young, along with Taylor Woolley, to assist with the massive This is the Placemonument project, being constructed for the centennial of the 1847 pioneer entry into the Great Salt Lake Valley. Young, who primarily designed the monument, produced 144 sculptural renderings. Woolley consulted architecturally on the project and also designed the landscaping. Midgley’s role was to carry out all of the lettering from “HOSANNA! to “THIS IS THE PLACE.” The collaboration was a winning success if not straining on the relationships of the three gifted artists.

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Midgley’s restless sojourns back and forth from Salt Lake to New York did not seem to hurt him socially. He became acquainted with Edward Hopper in New York and at a party in 1948, found himself talking with him about age. “Hopper was another Henri School alumnus of course. And Hopper ‘was bellyaching about old age and I yessed him up—said I felt the same way. He looked down at me; he was a big fellow! ‘Hell, you’re only a kid!’ Oh yea? I was born in 1888.’”

Later, the Midgleys became acquainted with a musical artist, Benny Goodman. “I met Benny…in the early 1960s. Later when Benny and I were very good friends, he called me on the telephone, oh this must have been around 1964 -or ‘5…He’d heard I was in the hospital. I was in bed…Could he come over? ‘Sure, but you don’t have to see anybody else. Just take the elevator to the second floor and my room is 235.’ Hung up, and here comes Benny Goodman! And of course that stirred up all the nurses. ‘There’s Benny Goodman!’ Ho, ho. We also spent a winter up at his country residence in Connecticut…” The friendship is manifest in a portrait that Midgley painted of Goodman.

Midgley returned to Utah and on the final page of his remembrances wrote about the move: “We have lived quietly. Now we are moving back to the mountains where it all began—to draw and paint the valleys and streams, people and things, and let the world mind its own business.” Appropriately, Waldo Midgley finished out his days back on “The Block,” residing in the Federal Heights Apartments on South Temple and Virginia Street.

Midgley’s final exhibition of 120 paintings, drawings and prints was celebrated at the UMFA in 1984. Two years later at the age of 98, Midgley passed away leaving his legacy of considerable art and stories.

Robert S. Olpin’s Waldo Midgley: Birds Animals People Things served as an important resource for this column.

Waldo Midgley will be Phillips Gallery’s featured artist this coming August. The show dates will be August 15th – September 12th with an opening on the 15th in conjuntion with the gallery stroll.

Tom Alder, a Salt Lake City native, left a 30-year mortgage banking career in 2009 to open Alderwood Fine Art, specializing in early Utah art. He held an MA in Art History, taught at the University of Utah, and served on various boards in the cultural community. He died in 2018.

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