Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Francis Zimbeaux: Early Years



by Duncan Hilton


Francis Zimbeaux was a storyteller and a mythmaker, whether in his art or in his life. His paintings frequently explored remembered or imagined landscapes, and were shrouded in a mythic mist, filled with reclining nudes, dancing nymphs and pipe-blowing Pans. His own story has been shrouded in a similar mist, created by him or those around him. He was French, the story goes, and spoke French as a child; his parents lived a bohemian lifestyle; he grew up playing in Matisse’s studio; his mother was a famous concert pianist.

In truth, though, while he was born in Paris, Francis’ parents were British and American, and by the time he began to talk, he was living in London. His parents did run in artistic circles — they lived around the block from Gertrude Stein and his mother, Lillian, told of fixing a button for Matisse — but they were also properly wed (in Notre Dame), and the works by his father that garnered attention were religious scenes and portraits of minor aristocrats; and while his mother did perform on the concert stage, the fame of the former governess may have been exaggerated.

One story that is true is that Francis H. Zimbeaux was born on Bastille Day in 1913, while fireworks exploded across the city. His French-sounding name was a recent transformation by his father, a German-American from Pittsburgh who during his successful career as a portrait painter, first in Pittsburgh and then in Paris, went by his given name, Franz Seraph Ignatius Zirnbauer. Increasing hostilities between France and Germany, however, made it wise to adopt a more Gallic surname. When war broke out in 1914, the family was forced to flee and to separate, mother and child to her family in London, and Franz, now Frank, back to the states. They were reunited three years later, in Missouri, where Frank had found a small, shingled cottage in the tiny village of Thomas Hill, about six miles outside the larger city of Carthage, where his sister lived.

In Francis’ young mind, Thomas Hill was a veritable Garden of Eden. It was really only a small gathering of houses, liberally spaced, in the woods of the Ozark Mountains, where there was no store and only a one-room schoolhouse for the dozen or so children that lived there. In the front yard of the family’s tiny cottage there were two giant sycamore trees and just across the road a grove of ancient oaks stood at the edge of the forests of Thomas Hill. In the mornings Francis and his parents would awake to a cacophony of crows in the limbs and high branches of these oaks, all images that would later appear in his work.

From the very beginning he started making a thorough investigation of the wild woods of the Ozark Mountains. Thomas Hill was where Francis first became a naturalist. His days were spent, both alone and with friends, exploring deep into the wilderness surrounding his home. Here, for the first time, he learned the songs of birds and the tracks of wild animals, particularly squirrel, rabbit, possum and skunk. There were grass snakes and fireflies. He found wild blackberry bushes where he and his friends swallowed enough to make them sick.

Though children at first teased him about his strange British accent and his brilliant red hair, Francis spoke of his time in Thomas Hill as idyllic. He and his friends would swim in the nearby millstream. They would turn stones over in the shallows of the water and catch crawdads for bait. They improvised with willow branches to fish for an evening’s meal of either sunfish or perch, which was very appreciated by their parents, the village being an enclave of lower-working-class families. The children found where the stream started and followed it to its end, at the functioning flour mill, called the Mill-Stream Pond, where the summer heat could be forgotten in the cool water.

Most importantly, Francis absorbed the southern landscape like a sponge— the grassy hills and small swimming holes, surrounded by scrub trees and large, twisted oaks where crows would perch and tease the children. There were farm fields and a pasture with a grove of persimmon trees. Later, as an artist, many of his imaginary landscapes would bear an undeniable resemblance to this Southern wilderness which first informed Francis’ lifelong romance with nature. In particular, his drawings of dancing nymphs in glades and his pen and inks of huge, gnarled trees, now coveted by collectors, are extracted from this childhood immersion in the verdant wilds of the South.

The tiny hamlets around Carthage, however, were no place for making art, so when Henri Moser, Frank’s friend from the Paris days, wrote to say he had returned to his ranch in Idaho, Frank decided to join him there for a summer. Soon after, he opened a studio in Salt Lake City where mother and son joined him, just as Francis was entering his teen years.

Francis was a painfully shy teenager and made virtually no friends in the first couple of years he lived in Salt Lake City. He spent a lot of time in the old Regent building, where his father had his studio. Whatever early art education the time there provided, it also gave him a social life: Francis found most of the artists who maintained studios there very hospitable and welcoming.  Also at this time, Francis started frequenting the nearby old Deseret Gym, where he first developed his love of swimming and archery and further expanded his social circle.

By the time he graduated high school, from Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School, the Great Depression was tightening its hold, and Francis’ father was growing more and more troubled by the fact that he could not support his family. Francis had been employed at various odd jobs around town after graduating high school, none of which lasted very long due to the financial climate of the times. When he was 20, Francis entered the Civilian Conservation Corps, which allowed him to send money home to his parents to enable their survival. He was stationed in Utah’s Dixie, where he lived a militaristic life in little tent villages with dozens of other young men, whose job it was to prune the national parks of dead timber, clear trails and build roads. There are many early examples of sketches and drawings made by Francis, while he worked in the CCC camps.

Francis’ earliest known painting is a watercolor painted shortly after, in 1935, the year of his father’s death. It is a picture of tiny, elfin figures with antennae blowing miniature horns and dancing amongst reeds of grass. This painting is the first official appearance of Francis’ well-known nymphs, mythological nature spirits of the wilderness. On the verso of this elfin scene is an unfinished watercolor of a nude woman, another of the artist’s favorite scenes.

There is also an undated oil from this period depicting a bullfight amidst a packed stadium. It is a very advanced composition for someone just learning to paint, thus it was worked and reworked until it was thick and scarred with corrections. Francis saved this painting for over seven decades. In fact, where other artists would eventually cull inferior pieces from their body of work, Francis saved everything, even the most faint, unintelligible sketches and badly damaged works. They were tucked into every nook and cranny of his Wood Avenue home when he passed away.

With the death of his father, Francis became the “man of the house” and returned to Salt Lake City to be with his mother. In the winter of 1937, he took a job at the Deseret Gym, manning the archery shop, where he sold commercially-made bows and arrows and archery equipment.  He was also, occasionally, called upon to fill the position of lifeguard for the gym’s swimming pool. Through the archery shop, he began taking orders from other archers for custom-made bows and arrows, quickly gaining a reputation for his expert craftsmanship.

While manning the archery shop, Francis met Carl Davis, who was impressed by Francis’ extensive knowledge of archery and the fact that he was a burgeoning artist. A Scout Master, Carl enrolled in archery courses with Francis so he could learn the sport and pass it on to his Scout troop. Though Carl was a few years older than Francis, they became fast friends. Carl told his wife, Orthia, about the introverted, yet exceptionally intelligent, young man with brilliant red hair. He told her how he was not only an expert archer but also an artist. An artist as well, Orthia was intrigued.

In his late 20s, Francis became romantically involved with Orthia. She was at a vulnerable point in her life as Carl was dying from heart complications which had plagued him since childhood. When Orthia became pregnant with Francis’ son, they decided to name the boy after Carl, to quell any public embarrassment. Carl Sr. died in the late spring of 1942 and Carl, or Coppy (a family nickname), was born eight months later on February 6, 1943.

The romance between Francis and Orthia would continue for the rest of their lives, though Francis took great pains to keep the fact of their romance and his child a secret from his friends until very late in life. The mothers of both Francis and Orthia were supremely embarrassed by the birth of their illegitimate grandson and Coppy was raised in a precarious situation of secrecy and shame. Orthia, though, was not ashamed and, in fact, tried, unsuccessfully, to have Coppy’s name legally changed to Zimbeaux. As a concession, Orthia gave Coppy the middle name of “Francis,” and later altered his birth certificate to reflect the addition. Coppy did not, in fact, knowingly meet his father until the age of 4.

In the early spring of 1942, Francis took a job through the Ogden Arsenal as part of a geological surveying team who set up camp near the San Rafael River in Emery County. This job fit Francis’ temperament perfectly. He loved being out in the wilderness again and doing work which fascinated his curious mind. Unfortunately, Francis’ job as a geological surveyor only lasted a total of seven months after which, in the autumn of 1942, Francis took another job at the Ogden Arsenal as a mounted patrolman. From there, at the age of 29, and just two months after the birth of his son, Francis was inducted into the United States Army Air Forces in April of 1943.

Despite the fact that Francis already had arranged for his friends in Salt Lake City to check in on his mother regularly, and take her for long drives on a weekly basis, Francis knew that she would still be very lonely while he was away. Being the only son of a widow, he took his role as “man of the house” very seriously. He came upon the brilliant idea that his mother would be able to endure her many hours of solitude if she had a piano of her own.

When he was sent abroad for his two-year tour during the war, he was stationed in the Azores Islands, off the coast of Portugal, where he was far away from the front lines. Here he was elevated to the rank of sergeant and continued much the same life he had lived in the CCC camps. He brought with him the same small journal of poetry he had started while working in the camps. He followed in his maiden aunt’s footsteps (Ethel Wehlisch), writing idealistic, lyrical poems and prose. However, his writings during World War II eventually developed a slightly cynical edge, questioning the worth of humanity and its proclivity to wage war. At the heading of these poems Francis would make small illustrations of exceptional detail. These illustrations were important hints of his immense natural ability in the visual arts.

Unfortunately, even in Francis’ critical poetry, where he questions the reasoning for war, his sentiments are homogenized. In his early poetry he followed the popular practice of lyrical, rhyming verse where, unintentionally, his actual thoughts were masked. Francis would not find a way to fully express his naturally sensitive disposition until after the war, when he began his practice as an artist in earnest. There, his more dominant states of mind would be revealed.

During his two-year immersion in the humble life of the Azores, Francis became enamored of the islands with their dirt roads, small white houses, and the rugged fisherman’s life of the villagers. He was confronted with the broad expanse of ocean, disappearing at the horizon. He would revisit the theme of land and water in countless canvases throughout his career, reveling in the memory of his early romance with the sea.

When he returned from the war, Francis began working on his art in earnest. A couple of Francis’ earliest, successful attempts in oil were painted at this time, with obvious direction from instructors at the Art Barn. He painted a twilight scene with a young maiden in the foreground, bathing under a small waterfall which is pouring into the pond where she stands (in the private collection of Bonnie and Denis Phillips). It is painted more thinly than his mature works, including much glazing and scumbling. Another is a night scene entitled “Mystic Night,” painted in 1948. This piece includes the same technique of glazing and is also painted more thinly than his mature works, using dark greens and umber to define the intimate composition. The scene is of a marshland, including four water birds, three wading in the swamp and one perched on the limb of a dying tree. Higher in the tree is the silhouette of a cat or an owl, a silent witness looking on with glowing, yellow eyes.

Francis’ third known oil painting from this time period is a very mature composition, one of the most complex Francis would ever paint. It was made with the same palette as his two previous oils and with the same method of transparent glazing (he would rarely, if ever, use glazing again in any of his subsequent oils.) He came upon the subject matter for this painting while camping alone in the mountains, in the White Rocks area of eastern Utah, where he had gone seeking refuge from the clamor of the city. He had heard word of a large Indian powwow and where it was planned to take place. Having explored that portion of the Utah wilderness, Francis knew exactly where to go. He hiked to the spot in the early afternoon and found a suitable place to set up camp. He pitched his tent and waited expectantly.

Near where Francis had camped, a tribe of Native Americans began to gather in the late afternoon and early evening. After dark, when they attached a buffalo head high up on the trunk of a tree and began to dance and sing around it, Francis pulled out his sketch pad and started documenting the proceedings. The Native Americans had been friendly, seeming not to mind Francis as a spectator, but when he began sketching the scene they were quick to let him know that the ceremony they were performing was a holy one, the details of which had to remain a sacred mystery. Francis respectfully put away his sketch pad, but he continued to watch, making precise mental notes of what was to him an otherworldly event. The ceremony lasted throughout that night and unceasingly for the next three days. With the loud drum circle and chanted singing, Francis did not sleep a wink during those three days. His great fortune to experience the sacred ritual, to be in the type of mythic space that would become so prevalent in his artwork, became the event of a lifetime.

1 reply »

  1. The Scots are famous for their many gifts to humanity, but none surpasses the Campbell’s clan’s contribution: argyll (for the hopelessly unCeltic, that’s ‘argyle.’ One day we may also need to change the spelling of dour to dure for those poor souls who think it’s ‘dower’)

    Artists are also loved for their contributions to our lives. Francis Zimbeaux enriched our lives with his art, but gazing on the photo of a man I was not privileged to meet in life, I realize he presented another gift to those more fortunate than I:those who met him saw a true artist, all the way down to his argyll sox.

    Long life argyll! Long live Francis Zimbeaux!

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