Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

The Fairbanks Legacy: Shaping Utah’s Artistic Heritage

A bust of David O. McKay by Ortho Fairbanks (right)

There are not a whole lot of Fairbanks in Utah today; at least not in the art world. But for a period in the early 20th century that surname dominated the state’s art community. Both painters and sculptors, the Fairbanks were adept practitioners of that blend of naturalism and impressionism that became the Utah style in the first half of the 20th century. To be surrounded by their works is to return to a Utah of our grandparents’ generation.

John B. Fairbanks is credited with being the first — and here the distinction should be made — Anglo- American artist born in the territory of Utah (Payson, 1855). He became one of the four “art missionaries” sent by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Paris in the 1890s to study art — with the aim of returning to paint murals in LDS temples. He was influenced as much by the impressionists as by the official salon style, though it was the latter that many of his patrons desired: while he pursued his career, he often had to make copies of Old Masters to satisfy the public. He taught in the public school systems, farmed and ran a photography studio, all the while trying to pursue his career as an artist. Though he was never particularly successful in that aim (few Utah artists at the time were) his blend of impressionism and naturalism influenced several artists in the next generation of Utah painters. 

Fairbanks was also a prolific father, siring 16 children with two successive wives. J. Leo Fairbanks followed in his father’s painterly footsteps and became an accomplished painter in the Utah style. His interests varied, and in addition to painting and his duties as a teacher in the local school systems, he tried his hand at photography, stained glass, architecture and city planning. His influence in the state might have been even greater had he not taken his talents to Oregon, where he became a professor of art at Oregon State.

A wall of paintings showing the Utah style of naturalism and impressionism includes works by John B. Fairbanks, J. Leo Fairbanks and Florence Ware.

Leo’s younger brother Avard became even more influential in the state, though principally as a sculptor. Heralded as a talent from a young age — he was at the Art Students League in New York at 13 — he benefited from travel and study with his father. He studied in France and Italy and taught at the University of Michigan. He is best known for his more than 100 public monuments, many of them commissions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After World War II, he helped create the Fine Arts Department at the University of Utah, where as dean from 1948 to 1955 he attempted to hold back the rising tide of modernism.  

There are other Fairbanks artists — Avard’s sons, especially Ortho, were accomplished sculptors in their own right, and descendants of John B. Fairbanks alive today are making art — but it is around these three that Springville Museum of Art’s The Fairbanks Family: An American Art Dynasty is organized. 

The exhibition in the upstairs galleries is a pleasing blend of representational sculpture and pastoral paintings — the taste of early 20th-century Utah. In the paintings, colors are heightened a bit and the brushwork is sometimes loose, and in the sculptures there is a feathery touch to the clay, but nothing gets too out of hand or experimental. Busts of important public figures, like LDS Church president David O. McKay, are framed by idyllic rural landscapes in cheerful colors. This was the school of Utah naturalism championed by Alice Merrill Horne (the proponents of which felt threatened in the post-war years by the experiments of modernism — an exhibition showing these works were in these same galleries last year). If you want to see how influential it is even today, you need only visit Plein Air Painters of Utah: Art on the Highway, also at the Springville museum.

Utah has changed drastically since the Fairbanks were making art here: only a small percentage of the state’s population makes its living off the land or in rural settings; there are five times as many people living here as when Avard was dean at the U, and the pristine valley at the foot of Twin Peaks that John Fairbanks painted in 1924 is now marred by billboards and housing developments. Yet, change is not all bad — our public figures, suitable for sculpting, are not all men, nor all white (though most still are) and a few surnames no longer dominate any pursuit. The Fairbanks Family is no doubt a nostalgic — and even narrow — step back in time. But it is a beautiful journey. While the artistic landscape of Utah has evolved dramatically, with a more diverse array of artists and styles flourishing today, the legacy of artists like the Fairbanks can’t be denied.

The Fairbanks Family: An American Art Dynasty, Springville Museum of Art, Springville, through Dec. 2.

All images are courtesy of the author.

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