Alder's Accounts | Historical Artists | Visual Arts

Idealized Realities The Life and Art of J. Leo Fairbanks

Twin Peaks Wasatch by J. Leo Fairbanks, oil on canvas, 20 x 30, courtesy Shane Topham” alt=”Twin Peaks Wasatch by J. Leo Fairbanks, oil on canvas, 20 x 30, courtesy Shane Topham

I once made the statement that John B. Fairbanks’ greatest legacy was not his two years in Paris as an LDS art missionary(1890-92) nor his large body of work (primarily landscapes). His true legacy, I have reasoned, is his progeny of talented children and their offspring. The family tree reads like a who’s who of gifted artists, physicians, and teachers who began their learning at JB’s feet. The most noted of these is Avard, the famous sculptor, whose children have kept alive his legacy. His older brother and artistic mentor, Leo, died childless, and his artistic legacy has been less well documented.

J. Leo, as he called, was born 131 years ago this month (Tuesday, April 30 at 6 a.m. ) to John Boylston and Lillie Huish Fairbanks in Payson, Utah. Leo’s art training began when he was four and his father, who was studying with John Hafen, gave him his first box of watercolors. In 1890, when Leo was thirteen, Hafen recommended JB as one of the five famous art missionaries, sponsored by the LDS Church. Leo had to help his mother care for six younger siblings in his father’s lengthy absence. He also worked part-time to bring in money for the family and began attending classes at Brigham Young Academy. When JB returned to Utah, he worked with the other art missionaries on the murals for the Utah temples, and by 1897 moved his family (which now numbered 7 living children – two had died in childbirth) to Provo to teach art and photography at Brigham Young Academy [predecessor of BYU]. He and Leo opened Fairbanks Art Studio on the Union Block in downtown Provo, where they gave private art classes and operated a commercial photography studio. Avard, the youngest Fairbanks and Leo’s lifelong companion in the arts, was born here. Leo studied at the Academy, developing his talents in painting, sculpting and drawing. It was in the last field that he took a first place prize for students in the Utah County Fair of 1897.

images courtesy Eugene Fairbanks

In the Spring of 1898, Lillie Fairbanks fell down some stairs while carrying young Avard and died from the injuries. That fall, JB took a job as supervisor of drawing for the Ogden city schools and moved his family north. The next year he took a position at the Latter-day Saint College (which gave birth to the McCune School of Music and Art and the LDS Business College) in Salt Lake and settled in Sugarhouse at 1152 Bryan Avenue. The family’s property accommodated an orchard and vegetable garden, mostly used to support the large Fairbanks family.

Leo, now 21, remained in Ogden; he qualified as a grammar school teacher in the Ogden School district, but took a teaching position as art instructor at the Weber Stake Academy, an LDS-sponsored institution that eventually became Weber State University. While in Ogden, Leo boarded with Luke Crawshaw, the head grocer at the local ZCMI, a good friend of John Hafen, and a sculptor of some talent who has since been largely forgotten. In 1924 Fairbanks said that his time spent in Crawshaw’s attic studio was responsible for his own start in art because it was there that he received his “first impressions.” Considering the impressions in painting he would have received from Hafen and his own father, I assume he was speaking about his first impressions with sculpture.

That same year, Leo began to divide his time between Salt Lake and Ogden. In April of 1900 his father was invited to travel to Central America with the famous Benjamin Cluff Expedition, a group that was charged with studying the remnants of the Book of Mormon peoples in that region. JB chronicled the events in sketches and paintings. Leo, now 23, and his sister, Nettie, 21, were left to care for the family. Leo continued his job at Weber Stake Academy and applied for a similar position in the Ogden school district. He was still spending time in Salt Lake, socializing there, and fell in love with a beautiful young girl, Alice Richards, a cousin of Lee Greene Richards and Louise Richards. He showed his work at the State Fair in the fall of that year, and the papers noted him as being one of the promising young artists.

Twin Peaks Wasatch by J. Leo Fairbanks, oil on canvas, 20 x 30, courtesy Shane Topham

After being shot at by revolutionaries and laid up in a sickbed in Columbia, JB returned to Utah in 1902, relieving Leo of his family responsibilities. According to Leo’s nephew, Dr. David Fairbanks, a charming man who resides in Bethesda, MD, JB had insisted that his artist sons spend time studying in Europe so Leo began saving his money. Most of his peers were already in Paris when he arrived there in 1903. He studied at the Academie Julian, the favorite of Utah artists of the time, and later at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-arts. He also became a correspondent for the Desert News, sending back dispatches on the activities of the Utah crowd in Paris. He might have been doing this to pick up a little extra money; his finances were low and he wondered if he would be able to afford his full two years of study, Heber J. Grant, an LDS apostle who was then serving as a mission president in England, told him not to worry. Grant attempted to help find him Salt Lake City buyers and even subsidized Leo with his own money, despite the fact that he was not always pleased with Leo’s “frequent violation of Victorian mood and sensibility” (reference).

When Leo returned to Utah after a full two years of study, he quickly accepted the position of supervisor of Art for the Salt Lake City School District, and served in that position until 1923. He was also appointed to the governing board of the Utah Art Institute. He and his father established studios in the old Social Hall, which they hoped to help preserve, and were joined by Avard, a young rising-star. On the Hall’s stage they had a painting studio and in rooms below the stage a photography studio. The basement was for casting and sculptures.

With a steady job and promising art career, Leo planned to marry Alice Richards but their romance ended tragically when Alice died in June of 1906, after undergoing surgery for kidney problems. Leo’s sorrow was deep. On the intended wedding day – November 21, 1906 – he was “sealed” (or married posthumously by proxy) to Alice in the Salt Lake Temple. Her relative, the LDS prophet, Joseph F. Smith, performed the ceremony.

Fairbanks home at 1228 Bryan Ave.

Leo remained with his father’s family, taking care of the children when JB traveled. He helped teach young Avard and the two developed a life-long friendship and collaboration. In 1908, Leo designed and built a new home for the family at 1228 Bryan Avenue, up the hill from their former house. He designed a lovely colonial revival in sandstone, brick, shingle, and wood that is now on the historical registry and at the time was packed with Fairbanks. Leo lived there with his father and four of his brothers, as well as the family of his sister, Nettie, who had four children of her own.

Leo was a teacher of art his entire life and continued his own education at seminars and workshops across the country. After he returned from Paris, he spent the summers studying at various institutions: the University of Chicago, NYU, Columbia, and BYU. In 1908 left for a summer tour of art centers, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, New York, Boston and Washington. He also planned to stop at Carthage, Illinois and the Hill Cumorah (in New York) — two important places in Mormon history — to paint.

His interest in depicting Mormon history paid off in 1916 when he and Avard were commissioned to work on the Hawaiian Temple for the LDS Church. Leo created four sculpture friezes that included 130 life-size figures. Later he produced an expansive mural in the baptistry of the Mesa, Arizona Temple.

That same year, a decade after the tragic end of his first love, Fairbanks finally married again. He and Pauline Maude White, a fellow school teacher, were wed on Christmas Day, 1916 (His father followed his example the following year and married a 25-year schoolteacher from Springdale). Kathryn Fairbanks Kirk wrote that Pauline was a “devoted wife, a gracious hostess and a continuing source of encouragement and support to Leo and his work.” She had a number of miscarriages and the couple had no children.

Magazine cover by J. Leo Fairbanks

Though his brother Avard would become known as a master sculptor, Leo was more of a jack-of-all trades. He illustrated numerous early lesson manuals and other LDS Church materials and designed book covers. He experimented with stained glass and two of his works are now in the LDS Museum of Art and History.

Later in life he became interested in jewelry and traveled to Washington, New York and California to develop his skills, and wrote about the art in professional journals. He was also interested in landscape architecture and city planning. After studying with Aston Knight and George E. Kessler, the famous American landscape architect and city planner, Leo was instrumental in organizing the Salt Lake City Planning Commission and served as its Vice President. He helped found other organizations, including the Springville Museum of Art and the American Federation of Arts, and was a member of a number of professional and civic organizations.

His broad interests eventually landed him a teaching position at Oregon State University. In 1920, despite not having a college degree, young Avard had secured a teaching position at the University of Oregon. He was later approached about starting an art program at Oregon State College. Avard considered himself principally a sculptor and suggested that his brother, Leo, who was more diversified, would be better suited to start the program. According to Avard, political rivalries had developed in the Salt Lake City school system, and Leo had always wanted to be associated with a college or University, so he took the position. (Avard soon left to study at Yale and later was on the faculty at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor).

Fairbanks home in Oregon

Leo and Pauline settled into life in Oregon. In 1926, they purchased two lots in the Hill Crest neighborhood of Corvallis and there built a Tudor Revival style home. Leo taught at Oregon State for the rest of his career, becoming the chair of the Department of Art and Architecture. He was interested in expressing his ideas about art, putting down in verse the thoughts and inspiration behind his paintings. He was often asked to speak to groups, wrote articles for scholarly and popular journals, and even lectured on art over the radio. He thought art was meant to be practical, asserting “that art has to do with real service – service that tends toward more comfortable and attractive living conditions.” He was skeptical of modern trends, believing they overemphasized individual aspects without consideration of the harmonious or beautiful.

Early in 1943 Leo suffered a mild heart attack and began suffering from kidney problems. These ailments did little to affect his activities, however, and he continued to teach a full load, and worked on a series of 11 murals for the Oregon State College library. He also proposed a commemorative decoration plan for the Salt Lake Tabernacle (to be completed July 24, 1947 for the centennial celebration). On the lower part of the Tabernacle dome he proposed a series of mural paintings depicting sacred historic events alternating with “relief sculpture panels representing the outstanding character of the respective eras.” He said the decorations “offer an opportunity of visualizing our idealism and of glorifying the accomplishments of our people.” His proposal included suggestions for lighting, hiding reflectors in the hand railing around the dome. According to Eugene Fairbanks, Leo painted prototypes for the murals and submitted them to the LDS church and was paid a nominal sum for each but the plan never materialized. Some were reproduced in teaching manuals.

Leo’s hard work over the next three years took a toll on his health and on October 2, 1946, after attending the theatre with his wife, he suffered another heart attack. He died the next day.

Buffalo, 1930, by J. Leo Fairbanks courtesy Springville Museum of Art

David Fairbanks suggests that his uncle Leo was one of the most underrated artists in Utah and that he is more famous in the northwest. David has retained numerous records and journals of Leo and also has two paintings of the old Saltair Pavilion and a composition of the swimmers bobbing in the famous inland sea.

Leo was a talented painter and his love of the outdoors led him to become an accomplished landscape painter. He learned to paint quickly when he was on site. Once while in France, Leo, accompanied by brother Avard, wanted to paint en plein air on a particular farm. The farmer objected, saying that artists take too long and it would be disturbing for him to stay there all day. Avard asserted that his brother was a very fast painter and with that, the farmer agreed. Leo created several fine paintings before sundown.

Leo inherited a bright palette from the Impressionist tradtion, but his art remained fairly realistic. Kathryn Fairbanks Kirk wrote that “he frequently returned to Brighton, Timpanogos, the aspen canyons, or the extravagant rock formations of southern Utah for inspiration.” The 1919 painting of “Mount Olympus and Twin Peaks” |0| is a stunning view from the area around 5600 South and Holladay Blvd., not far from the home of the painting’s owner, Shane Topham, fellow art Nurd, and collector of fine early Utah art (see more landscapes here).

During his trips abroad Leo made copies of old masters “and was chagrined to discover such a ready market for these. He more than once complained that he had more trouble selling an original than a copy.”

Wheatfield, 1915, oil on canvas, by J. Leo Fairbanks courtesy the Utah Arts Council

He was also a talented sculptor and the Springville Museum of Art has a number of his pieces. Later in life he was interested in large public works. Before he died he completed two of the proposed murals for the OSU library, as well as a mural in the LDS chapel in Portland entitled “The Eternal Life,” which protrays Christ teaching to all races of men (if we have any readers in Portland, any chance you could send us a photo?).

Dr. Eugene Fairbanks, another nephew living in Washington, reported that he has some of J. Leo’s original glass plate and nitrate film photography, some of which are very large. They were produced so that some of the family members who were not afforded opportunities to travel abroad could at least see photos of some of the places where their artist kinfolk had visited. Eugene also reported that among numerous paintings and sculptures of J. Leo’s, one of the more famous collaborations was “A Tragedy of Winter Quarters,” located at the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery at Omaha, Nebraska. The work was created by Leo and Avard in Ann Arbor while the latter was a professor at the U of M. Eugene remembers fondly the several weeks that Leo stayed at their family home while the pair labored on the work. Eugene also remembers that since Leo did not have children, he would invite his nephews and nieces into his studio and while he would paint, he would explain his motivation, technique, construction, and impart of other fascinating facts that Eugene explained made Uncle Leo’s art alive. “He was a wonderful teacher and was a prince of a person—very interested in people,” he concluded.

The time for a thesis or dissertation about the Fairbanks family of artists is long past due and should be the endeavor of someone looking for a gold mine of primary documents, oral histories, and the end product of art from this gifted family. J. Leo Fairbanks wrote his creed some years ago which concludes succinctly, “To me, the purpose of art is to visualize ideals, to realize ideals, and to idealize realities.” Many thanks go to David and Eugene Fairbanks for their generous time, choice photos, and for written materials that was in part previously edited by family member Katherine Fairbanks Kirk.


Tom Alder’s next column will cover modernist painter Phillip H. Barkdull. If you have information about this artist or own artwork by him that you we can use for the column, please contact us at:


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  1. I loved reading about the Fairbanks family, especially about J. Leo. My parents bought 5 or 6 oil paintings from J. Leo before he died. I own three of his paintings and they are proudly displayed in our home in Donnelly, ID. My twin brother sold one painting to help fund one of his children’s education. Another painting of aspens, is owned by my sister near Albany, OR. Unfortunately, that work sits in a storage unit. She won’t sell it to me. I keep trying. If I can purchase it, I may just own all of the paintings my parents purchased from J. Leo.

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