Those of you who have read these pages with any regularity will have noted that this column has typically dedicated itself to reporting on the history and art of early Utah artists. Earlier this summer, however, it occurred to me — after an extraordinary couple of hours with artist Larry Wade — that many fledgling artists and art historians don’t remember those gifted ones who left us prematurely within the past few decades, let alone those who died over 100 years ago. With this in mind, I’ve turned my attention for this month’s column to a more recently deceased artist, Dan Baxter.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the name Baxter conjured nothing but visions of exquisite landscapes, striking cityscapes, and bravura figurative paintings executed by a pair of talented brothers. Ken Baxter, at age 64, is still covering his canvases with bright hues and loose brush strokes. Unfortunately, Dan, Ken’s younger brother by a couple of years, was not with us as long. When Danny (as he was known to friends) passed away on November 13, 1986 at the age of 38, he had already left an impressive oeuvre throughout private and public collections; and friends and patrons alike mourned the promise of more works that would never come to fruition.
Baxter was raised in Rose Park, in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant and attended West High, where he was a popular cheerleader. Down the street in Baxter’s neighborhood lived Elva Malin, one of the most charming and talented painters currently producing landscapes. Baxter had earlier taken art from Frank Ericksen, a former medical illustrator and well regarded palette-knife painter. Soon after high school graduation, Dan served an LDS mission to the Chicago area. He attended the University of Utah on several scholarships (for art, academics and gymnastics) and graduated with a BFA in 1973.
Though he established himself early as a gifted landscapist and still-life artist, Baxter’s real gift was as a figurative artist. Bob Olpin in Artists of Utah lauded him as ” … one of the most talented figure painters and portraitists to come out of the University of Utah classroom of Alvin Gittins, who was the master of painting in that realm.” After a stint teaching at the U, young Baxter was encouraged by Gittins to study in New York at the Art Students League, where he received an outstanding student certificate. Returning to Utah, Baxter received commissions from California patrons that extended his reputation for quality figurative work.
Larry Wade suggests that Baxter, who would have celebrated his 60th birthday last month, was clearly the only artist who could have taken over for Gittins, who predeceased him by a couple of years. Wade was a banker most of his life, and later, after establishing a successful business, dedicated most of his time to painting. He remembers one painting session with Baxter. The two were painting en plein-air when Baxter asked, “How are you doing?” “Not well,” was the reply. “I’m having a hard time here.” Baxter came over and looked at Wade’s straight-lined image on the canvas. When Baxter asked him, “Would you like me to fix it?” Wade backed up his stool and invited him to have at it. With a sweeping movement, Baxter picked up the canvas and threw it through the weeds and grass. Wade didn’t complain. “It was a terrible painting,” he said. “Now go get it,” directed Baxter. Wade retrieved the painting and brought it back to Baxter, who held it up and said, “How do you like it now?” “The straight lines had been blurred and my painting took on an entirely new emotion,” Wade recalls. “That experience taught me about painterly style and a loose brush stroke that set the standard for my career.”
Bonnie Posselli has a similar memory of Baxter’s penchant for pushing his students to loosen up. She recalls that he and his brother Ken were teaching at Rose Park Elementary, through the Community Education program. “My mother, May Blair, had been working on two paintings at the time,” Posselli recalls. “She felt that one of them was really good and the other one she had thrown in the garbage. Danny came along and seeing her meticulously painted ‘good’ painting said, ‘This is the one that needs to go in the garbage,’ and pulling the discarded one out of the garbage, said, ‘This is the one you should keep.’ It took quite a bit of “Danny theatrics” for us to see beyond the literal, and begin to paint from the heart.”
I asked Wade if Baxter had painted anything other than landscapes and portraits. In the 1970s, Wade recalls, Baxter painted backdrops for rocker Ted Nugent. He also painted the mural behind the Christus at the North Visitors’ Center on Temple Square in Salt Lake. Expanding his scenery experience, Baxter followed an earlier Utah artist tradition in painting scenery at Pioneer Memorial Theatre. Baxter’s portraiture included prominent government officials such as former Senate President, Warren Pugh. Wade says Baxter painted that portrait seven times in order to make sure he was capturing the Senator in the best light and form. Baxter painted good friends Bonnie Stephens, the longtime director of the Utah Arts Council, and her husband Dean.
As a painter, Baxter enjoyed painting everyday things: kids in the park, Vietnam veterans, and his aged father. Baxter taught a number of contemporary Utah artists, including Kathryn Stats and Bonnie Posselli. Al Rounds, according to Wade, took his training at the U from Baxter and said that he learned more from Dan Baxter than anyone else. David Merrill, of Davis County, used to bring some of his paintings to Baxter “to fix them.”
Bonnie Posselli studied with Baxter at his periodic outdoor painting sessions and says his antics always kept the painting sessions lively. “I will always remember one day in particular. It was a shivery cold day at Wheeler Farm, and after a couple of hours of intense problem solving, Danny suddenly announced that we were going to do a warm up exercise. Picture this — Danny skipping and singing through the fields with half a dozen middle-aged women gleefully skipping along behind him. We laughed at ourselves, which was one of Danny’s gifts to us.”
All seem to agree that Baxter was a kindhearted man and a marvelous talent. His legacy not only includes a diverse array of painting subjects (ocean coasts, studio portraiture, caricature, landscapes, and cityscapes) but an impressive list of artists that he influenced and patrons who were dedicated to his talent. Baxter’s untimely death causes us to wince at his personal pain, but affords us the opportunity to study and celebrate his memorable artworks.
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.