In Memoriam | Visual Arts

William “Bill” Whitaker: 1943-2018

In a 2002 piece for 15 Bytes, art historian and U of U Dean Bob Olpin wrote that the Springville Museum’s Spring Salon contained “one of the finest Bill Whitaker pretty girl paintings I’ve ever seen.” That was saying a great deal, considering the skill of this artist, whom we lost on March 6 at the age of 74 following open heart surgery. He was known for his figurative work, for painting impeccable shoulders, hands and feet; for his telling portraits of infants, and of old men, for bringing out the spirit of anyone he chose as a subject.

Or of anyone who could choose William Ferrin Whitaker Jr. to paint them: portrait prices started at $12,000. He was quite successful, rendering Utah dignitaries from mayors to then-LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley and many private individuals – with even William Guggenheim III thrown in. His website is detailed and well worth a visit, with entire galleries of fine work to be seen there. It contains a portrait study of the artist in 1967 by his “fabulous teacher” Alvin Gittins “done in about an hour while I stood in his studio in Mexico,” Whitaker wrote. He began studying with Gittins when he was 17 years old.

Born March 5, 1943, in Chicago, the only son of an artist father, Whitaker took advantage of the materials around him and began working in oil and watercolor when he was 6. He says it took him years to overcome the influences from his early years: he was placed in a children’s art appreciation class at the La Jolla Art Center at the age of 7 where he was told, based on a work by Renoir, that every good painting has red in it somewhere. “Well,” he writes, “it took me decades to get over that!”

From 1962-64 he served a mission for the LDS Church in Germany and later graduated from the University of Utah. A first marriage, in 1965, to Jenny M. Lind resulted in two children, Matthew and Caitlin. The family moved to Los Angeles, where he studied at the Otis Art Institute and worked for two years as the art director for Capitol Records until he was recruited to create the illustration department at BYU. He remained there for 12 years. He and Lind later divorced. He retired to paint in his private studio and in 1993 married his “good buddy” Sandra Phillips, an artist and teacher. They lived together in a “pretty good house” on the beach of ancient Lake Bonneville overlooking Utah Valley.

Of their life together he writes: “We have paints, brushes, books, props, easels, crates, paper, canvas, pencils, solvents, costumes, computers and banjos everywhere. We are fixated on art. We are boring company.”

In 2007, Ehren Clark did an in-depth interview with Whitaker for 15 Bytes where they discussed the value of Classical art and techniques, the resurgent interest at that time in classical tradition as reborn interest in 19th-century academic painting and much more. Clark, a highly educated art historian, tremendous writer, thinker and friend who died much too young just last year, was precisely the right person to chat with Whitaker, getting him to discuss things like how he approached painting:

“I let it lead me. I never quite know what idea, approach or technique I will do next. Classical techniques interest me because they are such a challenge,” Whitaker said. “I’m currently concentrating on finish techniques, particularly edge quality.”

“I could draw well,” he recalled, “but when I was very young I was made to feel insecure about my drawing interest by the overwhelming influence of mid-20th-century art movements, none of which valued traditional drawing. The establishment let me know that my interests and talents were obsolete. I was influenced a lot by Abstract Expressionism, for none of us can escape the time in which we live, but I continued to work to improve my traditional drawing and painting skills, too. Everybody in the art world, including me, assumed traditional skills would be easy to master if they chose to put aside what was considered more challenging ideas of self-expression,” he added. “As I attempted to enlarge upon my native capabilities and discovered just how difficult and complex traditional painting was, I gained a healthy respect for my artist predecessors and discovered there was an entire visual universe to be explored in an object bathed in a mere single source of natural light.

“Most of us stay with art because of the never-ending challenge it makes on us. If we aren’t stretching ourselves, most art students eventually lose interest and move on to saner pursuits. I’m still in art because I have so much yet to learn,” Whitaker concluded humbly and wisely, manifestly demonstrating why he was so widely admired as a person and as a painter.

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