Why this insatiable interest in the work and lives of early Utah artists? Perhaps because my office is now located on the 10th floor of the Zions Bank Tower I am receiving some sort of vibe from its predecessor, the Templeton Building, home to the studios of dozens of early Utah artists. Many of these artists lived and worked in a small area of the Avenues east of Virginia Street on Third Avenue that has come to be called “The Block.” Since my residence is in the same vicinity, perhaps I have been caught in some sort of triangulation of artist vibes. Indeed, my son, Nick, who drank the water in Federal Heights for some years, became an artist and now lives in New York. For whatever reasons, I look forward, beginning with this first column of the new year, to offer profiles of some of the “Block” artists. Not only will I examine the careers of such venerable artists as Lee Greene Richards, Mahonri Young, Waldo Midgely, and Roscoe Grover (remember “Uncle Roscoe” in the early days of KSL TV kiddie shows?), but by slightly expanding “the Block,” I’ll also be able to pull in the habitations of Florence Ware and her architect father, Walter Ware (U Street), the eccentric but talented Mabel Frazer (yes, she really slept in a piano) of University Street, Ranch Kimball and Bill Crawford from the Capitol Hill-City Creek area, Taylor Woolley (a student of Frank Lloyd Wright), John Held, Jr., and Clyde Squires.
One of the many talented of the Block was Alma Brockerman Wright. Known more commonly as A.B. Wright (1875-1952), this brilliant landscapist took his early lessons at the feet of George M. Ottinger (also of City Creek residence) in the 1880s, and later studied under master artist and University of Utah art department chair, J.T. Harwood. Wright received classical academic training, as did many early Utah artists, in Paris at the Academie Julian (favored among Utahans), the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Colarossi, where other artists from Utah including Henri Moser studied. Those, including Wright, who trained in Utah before making the pilgrimage to Paris, became uniquely known as “pioneers in reverse.” Wright exhibited in Paris with his neighborhood chums from the old 20th Ward, Richards and Young, and received suitable honors in the French salons as well as other domestic competitions.
As a talented muralist and landscapist, Wright occupied a time in the mid to late 19th-century when landscape paintings were increasingly popular with patrons. The late Dr. Robert Olpin included Wright in a large group of like artists that he called “The Rocky Mountain School,” whose works were celebrated in Olpin’s last work, Painters of the Wasatch Mountains. Olpin offered that the Rocky Mountain School was “the romantic realist Hudson River School gone west.”
Wright had additional talents — in fencing — and held several intermountain fencing titles beginning in 1897. He was described as a remarkable conversationalist and as a well-groomed, attractive man with a trimmed mustache who projected a gentlemanly manner.
Wright distinguished himself as a muralist with large commissions by the LDS church — in 1915 at the LDS Hawaiian Temple, at the Cardston, Alberta, Canada Temple during the years 1920-24, and shortly thereafter at the Mesa, Arizona Temple. By this time, Wright had abandoned his darker, academic style in favor of the brighter, secondary colors of the fauvist palette, derived, no doubt, from his experiences with his fellow artists in Logan (Moser, in particular) where fauvism had acquired respect in the art curriculum at the Utah Agricultural College (predecessor to Utah State University) and also from his exposure in Paris to the developments of modernism. For the next few years, Wright received further training in Paris, and then returned to his easel in Utah producing exquisite artworks. In 1931 he was appointed as the art department chair at the University of Utah, succeeding his former teacher and mentor, J.T. Harwood. The ensuing years at the U were productive for Wright and his respected faculty, which numbered among them Jack Sears and Mabel Frazer. It would be Frazer in 1937, according to Robert S. Olpin, Utah Art, who would be “instrumental in the departure of Chairman Wright for France — for the rest of his life — after a secret campus investigation of Wright’s conduct around departmental models, and just preceding the appearance on campus of an irate, life-threatening Salt Lake City husband.” Olpin further suggested, “See Myrtle: the Artist’s Model, c. 1937,” an oil on board painting of his fully exposed nude model, Myrtle. You do the math.
Wright traveled to Europe following his forced departure from the respected position at the U,
never to return to Utah. Tragically, the senior painter was captured by the Germans shortly after the occupation of France and spent several years in a prison camp “under deplorable conditions.” Although he was supplied with food, clothes and art materials, Wright endured hardship and was not released until 1945, at war’s end. A.B. Wright died at the age of seventy-seven in Dordogne, France, and although at one time disgraced, left an impressive legacy of artworks, supportive colleagues, and hundreds of Utah students who received from him the equivalent of a French academic education. Anyone who has priced an original A.B. Wright work in recent years will attest to the quality and appeal of such art, as the prices for his work continue to increase.
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.
Categories: Alder's Accounts | Historical Artists | Visual Arts
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