by G.G. Vandagriff
Perhaps best known for his commissioned portraits of the apostles and prophets displayed in the Church Museum, Brother William Whitaker remembers standing in front of the great works in the Louvre as a first and second grader thinking, “I know they don’t paint like that anymore, but maybe if I were really really good, I could paint like that and change people’s minds.”
The son of an artist and studio owner in Chicago, he grew up convinced that the art world had taken a bad wrong turn. He says, “Art was destroyed in the twentieth century and it is a devilish thing.” Cutting edge art since the end of the Victorian era has been designed to shock people. As people have become more and more inured, modern art has gone to great lengths to maintain its shock value. For the most part, the “great artists” of the twentieth century have completely rejected traditional art in favor of an abstract impressionism that is absurd sometimes even to the artists themselves. Now, Brother Whitaker feels there is an undercurrent of discontent and a growing desire among young artists to move back to traditional techniques and themes. His aim is to work with young artists so that within the next twenty to thirty years LDS art will shine as the best and the brightest in the world.
It is his underlying belief that people crave traditional art. They long for something with a spirit that uplifts them when they look at it. As evidenced by a return to and reverence for traditional architecture, the world is hungering for that which was developed painstakingly over hundreds of years and then thrown away.
This missionary zeal to bring the “old ways” back into mainstream art began when Brother Whitaker was a young boy and continues in his crusade to bring back traditional basics. He says that he was always blessed with talent and received excellent instruction as well as the special privilege of learning by watching in his father’s studio.
He received no encouragement from his father who thought the artist’s life was far too difficult for his son. Majoring in business, he was admonished just to look upon his art as a hobby. However, after graduation he descended into a depression for which the only cure seemed to be his art. At this point, his father recognized that his son was indeed an artist and began to help him.
Whitaker in his studio, 2001
Brother Whitaker claims that his subsequent success was built on “lucky breaks.” Instead of feeling like he was born at the wrong time for his art, he began to see that perhaps the Lord had brought him to earth at this time with a purpose. He had many experiences which confirmed to him that he was going in his foreordained direction and that the Lord would see that he succeeded. One of the greatest opportunities he feels he had was to study with Alvin Gittins at the University of Utah. He was his hero. Brother Whitaker considers him to have been the finest living portrait painter at that time.
When asked what was the most difficult thing about being an artist, Brother Whitaker replied, “Motivation. Having something to say.” He said that all great painting was spiritual in nature. The great challenge is to convey the spirit of the subject into the painting. If he doesn’t succeed in doing this, no matter how technically perfect the painting, he feels he has failed. He compares painting with photography by insisting that photography is an exact representation of the physical without the spiritual dimension. In order to be a true artist one must learn to see spiritually as well as physically. He relates the experience of being in the temple one day and seeing four elderly ladies. As they approached the veil, the more he studied them, the more beautiful they became to him. He was actually able to see their beautiful spirits. When you study a thing long enough, you begin to see its spirit and then that thing becomes beautiful to you. It is up to you as an artist to convey that spiritual beauty. It is this artist’s hope that successive generations will be able to look at his work and say “That man had a testimony.”
He illustrates this principle by using the experience he had painting the portraits of the apostles, President Hinckley, and President Hunter. He said that as
he painted each of the brethren, it was as though their spiritual beauty was manifest to him until, in some cases they looked like angels. When painting President Hunter, he was presented with a different challenge. President Hunter was too ill to sit for a portrait, so he was given photographs to work from. He did the best job he could and then took the painting up to Church headquarters, where he was informed that while he was driving from Provo to Salt Lake, President Hunter had died. He took the painting home with him and over the next several days gave it his serious attention. Feeling the Spirit working with him, he was inspired to make small changes that completely altered the feel of the painting. By the time he had finished, he felt that this time, he had actually managed to convey the spirit of President Hunter.
Brother Whitaker feels that the most difficult part of being an artist is “pulling yourself up from one rung to the next rung in order to reach a new plateau.” As in all that is worthwhile in mortality, we spend our lives swimming upstream, striving against the odds to get where we need to go. A true artist must let his art lead him into the areas where he needs to go. Allowing oneself to be led is a lifelong process. One must constantly be progressing in order to be an artist.
William Whitaker feels truly blessed that he can get up each morning and do exactly what he wants to do all day long. Anyone who views his work can read his dedication to his craft and the deep spirituality that he has cultivated. It is very obvious that he has struggled in the deep parts of his soul to attain that ideal he had as a little boy to become “really, really good” and change people’s minds about what is important in art.
William Whitaker’s work can be viewed at his website: www.williamwhitaker.com.
2002Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.