Within almost exactly a week, Utah has lost two fabled artists. Each, coincidentally, had a controversial work installed at the Salt Lake City International Airport: Anna Campbell Bliss was able to revise hers to satisfy what she called “the Breast Patrol;” Trevor Southey, a gifted and influential artist who died Tuesday at the age of 75, had his exquisite painting, “Flight Aspiration,” of a nude man and woman flying across a dark, sunset sky, removed from that facility. (The work included a bird and airplane that also were nude, as someone once gleefully pointed out.)
The painting was purchased from the artist by architect M. Ray Kingston, who ultimately gifted it to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. “After it was dumped by the airport due to Joy Beech, director of the American Family Association, Utah chapter, headquartered in Tupelo, Mississippi, I put it in my house and stored it for four or five years,” he says, “because [UMFA founding director] Frank Sanguinetti didn’t want it in the museum.”
Ruth Draper, former executive director of the Utah Arts Council, says, however, that Sanguinetti earlier had helped pick out the Southey artwork for the airport. “Little did he know that Joy was hiding in the woodwork.” Southey’s painting was a fiasco there, she says. Draper recalls being rousted out of bed at 7:30 a.m. to go to airport board meetings (where Beech often had put herself on the agenda) to refute the conservative activist’s notion “that anyone who wasn’t quite normal would see that picture and go out and commit murder and rape.” Eventually, Draper says, “Beech stopped coming and had basically given up. The painting was displayed for a year or a year and a half. Then I got a note that it was in the way for remodeling and that they needed the wall space for passenger information. I half believed them.” That’s when Kingston stepped in.
Draper believes Southey is “one of the finest artists we’ve ever had in Utah. He was honest, forthright, brilliant – just gifted. It was a shame his art was mostly being shown in other places.”
Five years ago, the UMFA held an exhibition of the artist’s works that drew more than a thousand people just to the opening. In the November 2010 edition of 15 Bytes, critic Geoff Wichert wrote:
The 1,100 Utahans who pressed into the UMFA for the opening certainly made it feel like a blockbuster. Even more striking was the way they moved almost reverently through the galleries, talking quietly to friends, but then were suddenly moved so strongly that they spoke to complete strangers with confidence, the way one does in church. This artist was so popular with these people that it was difficult to imagine how his pious and skilled images could actually ever have caused offense in person. Accepting uncritically for a moment the restrained, academic character of the paintings, prints, and sculptures that met the eye, it was possible to say that there is, at present, no artist in Utah—and few beyond—who brings to the work the sheer plastic power that Southey has reveled in for decades. The human figure, in which he excels, is thought a truer test of ability than landscape or nature studies, but because Southey’s figures so often display outward signs of inner suffering, his uncanny talent often shows itself more clearly in subjects that are less open to empathy: dogs, plants, even canned fruit.
Southey, who converted to Mormonism in his native Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), moved to England where he attended school at the Brighton College of Art in Sussex, then came to Utah where he obtained two degrees from BYU, and taught at that campus through 1977. He painted the figure, but was not allowed to have his students paint from nudes – BYU requires models to wear leotards.
In 1967, he married Elaine Fish. They would later divorce. The couple has four children.
His work is included in private collections throughout the world and includes drawings, prints, stained glass, paintings and sculpture. Reconciliation, a lavishly illustrated volume he wrote about his life and work (with K. Mitchell Snow) was published in 1998.
He lived in the Bay Area for some time, after challenging the LDS Church with his avowed homosexuality, returning to Utah a couple of years ago for health reasons: prostate cancer and Parkinson’s. Earlier this month, Southey invited friends to a gathering and sale of his artwork at a daughter’s home. He died in a Salt Lake City hospice where he had lived for about a year.
A memorial service for the well-respected and beloved artist will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8, in the Dumke Auditorium, UMFA, 410 Campus Center Drive, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.
Categories: In Memoriam | Visual Arts
Wonderful article and tribute to an amazing man!
I only knew Trevor Southy from his work, which I admired. This was a wonder article and gave many insights to the artist.
Wonderful words for a wonderful man and artist.
As usual, my friend and colleague Ann Poore has done a craftsman’s job of sorting the facts without obscuring what they can only outline: the life of a wonderful artist and human being. I am especially grateful to her for including me in her recollection of Trevor Southey; no one wants to be omitted when the time comes to share fond memories.
When Trevor returned to Utah five years ago, I felt honored to be able to discuss his life’s work with him. I hope it won’t be forgotten that, while in public he was always impeccable, modest, generous, and forgiving, in smaller groups he shared a wonderfully playful sense of humor, telling (for example) the story of the painted-out ‘naughty bits’ at BYU, while giving all the credit to the students who liberated themselves along with his images. He also displayed deep feelings for his family, meticulously captured in many of his early works, for their home, the farm, and the blessings of family connections. Trevor was far more than a gifted painter of exquisite nudes, and I look forward to seeing a collection of his works that represents the range of his life’s vision and the skill of his brush.
While no one could foresee at his homecoming that he had only five short years left to enjoy his new status as local hero, we should be grateful that he had the chance to come home while he could still enjoy how much so many things had changed, and that those of us who loved him had the chance to show it in person.
Ah, Geoff, I should have interviewed YOU for the tribute to this essential Utah artist and fine and gentle man. I regret that I didn’t, but it seemed time was of the essence in getting out the word of our collective loss. Thank you for your contribution, both to the story and to the commentary.
Well, Ann, you could have done that. But the truth is, I had nothing coherent to say until I read your essay. I can’t do what you do, but you can, and did, and under the pressure that comes with loss. Thank you for stepping up and helping everyone who read your post see Trevor Southey and our loss more clearly.
Ann & All who appreciate the gifts of the gifted: Trevor and his work stood tall. No pretense off life as he lived it and no pretense in his remarkable work. It was always a pleasure to talk and visit with him. The debacle at the airport over “Flight Aspirations’ was a graphic exposure to the pettiness and spineless leadership that pervades Utah’s culture – weak and fearful Airport Management and the instant caving of the Airline company that had helped sponsor the work. Trevor’s work helps adorn my home, with bronze pieces, and wonderful prints. “Flight Aspirations”, I loved, but it needed a larger ‘venue’ and audience, which led to my offering to the UMFA. An aside note: When Maurice Abravanel left his term of years as a member of the Utah Art Counsel, Ruth Draper and I were charged with presenting Utah’s greatest and greatly loved “Maestro” with one of Trevor’s bronzes, titled “My Brother’s Keeper”. Trevor’s prints are like windows in the walls of my home, through which I see his unique and beautiful view of the world. His physical presence and masterful empathy for others are sorely missed, but his spirit lives through his work. Rest well, my friend.