An Unlikely Alliance | BYU’s Maynard Dixon Collection

Mormon Home [1940], oil, 25 1/4 x 30 1/4. painting, southwest art.
Mormon Home [1940], oil, 25 1/4 x 30 1/4.

By Linda Jones Gibbs

The exhibit Escape to Reality: The Western World of Maynard Dixon is on view through November 3 at the Museum of Art, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT. Following is an excerpt from a book accompanying the exhibit.

Brigham Young University owns the largest collection of art by Maynard Dixon in the country. These paintings and drawings, spanning 30 years of Dixon’s career, form an important part of the museum’s holdings. Since the acquisition of these works 63 years ago, many scholars, artists, and others have visited BYU to see the Dixon paintings in storage. These works are also among the most frequently requested to go out on loan from the museum collection.

Museum officials are often asked why the university owns this premier selection of Dixon’s art. Dixon and BYU seem an odd alliance—the irascible, irreverent loner with no specific religious affiliation and the Mormons, whose precise codes of conduct and commitment to communal ideals might appear to be the antithesis of the independent and free-thinking artist. Yet Dixon seemed to have had an abiding respect for these people who forged an important path in western history. His attitudes toward Mormons may have been influenced early in life by his mentor, the writer and publisher Charles Lummis. In his magazine Land of Sunshine, Lummis often gave a forum to unpopular causes, reflecting a progressive trend in America that was open to diversity. In order that Mormonism be better understood, Lummis in 1901 printed a long article about the religion by then-president of the church Lorenzo Snow. Lummis footnoted the article with the comment that “it is always interesting to hear the other side of the story.” By this time Dixon was employed by Lummis as an illustrator and likely saw the article.

Forgotten Man [1934], oil, 40 x 50. painting, southwest art.
Forgotten Man [1934], oil, 40 x 50.

The California-born Dixon spent most of his professional life in San Francisco, making periodic trips throughout the West, including Montana, Idaho, Nevada, and, more frequently, Arizona and New Mexico. However, he did not visit Utah until 1933, when he spent two months exploring Zion National Park with his second wife, Dorothea Lange. Dixon’s trust of Mormons was evidenced by the fact that during this trip he and Lange temporarily boarded their two young sons with a Mormon family in Tocquerville while they went about their work.

Later in his life Dixon lived in southern Utah with his third wife, Edith Hamlin. In 1939 they began constructing a house of stone and pioneer logs in Mt. Carmel. The couple spent their summers in the Mt. Carmel house beginning in 1940 and the winters in their home in Tucson, AZ. Dixon paid his last visit to Utah in the fall of 1945. Struggling with emphysema, he was unable to tolerate the high altitude during this last year of his life.

Round Dance [1931], oil, 15 1/2 x 19 7/8. painting, southwest art.
Round Dance [1931], oil, 15 1/2 x 19 7/8.

Dixon’s periodic visits and residency in Utah near the end of his life do not, however, account for the presence at Brigham Young University of this most significant collection of his art. The acquisition was largely due to the efforts and foresight of Herald R. Clark [1890-1966], dean of the College of Commerce (later the College of Business) at BYU from 1934 to 1951. Clark was personally responsible for the transaction on May 28, 1937, which procured most of the more than 100 Dixon paintings and drawings currently in the museum collection.

Even though Clark came from a background in business, he had a deep love for the fine arts. He desired the students at BYU to have exposure to great artists and thinkers of the time and assisted in bringing world-renowned musicians, conductors, and guest speakers to the campus. Clark directed a lyceum series for 53 years, from 1913 until 1966, during which time such luminaries as Art Buchwald, Pearl S. Buck, Robert Frost, Helen Keller, and Carl Sandburg came to speak. He was also instrumental in bringing eminent performers to BYU, among them Bela Bartok, Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Vienna Choir Boys, the Boston Symphony, and the Berlin Philharmonic. Thus Clark’s attempts to secure the Dixon art collection for BYU were not an isolated effort to enhance the cultural environment of the university.

A view at dusk of the southeast corner of the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. southwest art.
A view at dusk of the southeast corner of the Brigham Young University Museum of Art.

It is not known exactly when Clark first became familiar with Dixon’s work, but he may have seen the California painter’s art on exhibit in Utah. In the winter of 1933, 17 Dixon paintings were shown at a gallery in Salt Lake City. In 1936, the year prior to the acquisition, his work was exhibited at the Art Barn in Ogden, West High School in Salt Lake City, and the annual Salon at the Springville Museum of Art.

What we do know is that in the spring of 1937 Clark traveled to San Francisco to meet with Dixon and discuss the possibility of acquiring some paintings for the university. He apparently arrived at Dixon’s studio unannounced only to find no one there. Clark soon located the artist on Montgomery Street, where he made a proposal to purchase a substantial collection of Dixon’s art for BYU. A purchase agreement was quickly reached that entailed 85 paintings and drawings for a sum of $3,700.

One might assume that Dixon’s works were sought for the BYU collection because of their predominance of western themes and depictions of Utah scenery. And it is true that the body of works at BYU contain striking Utah subjects. But the collection is representative of his entire career and includes illustrations, drawings, and paintings done in Montana, California, Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Remembrance at Tusayan, No. 2 [1923], oil, 20 x 30. painting, southwest art.
Remembrance at Tusayan, No. 2 [1923], oil, 20 x 30.

According to the Clark family, it was actually Dixon’s depictions of the maritime strike in San Francisco and scenes of the Great Depression that first drew the economist’s serious attention. Clark’s trip to San Francisco to meet with Dixon and negotiate a purchase came just two months after he saw an illustrated article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch titled “The Modern Industrial Scene: Four Paintings from the Labor Front by Maynard Dixon, American Artist.”

There is undoubtedly a connection between the fact that Clark met with Dixon at the end of the Great Depression and that his selection of paintings for the university included Dixon’s Maritime Strike paintings and the Forgotten Man series. This latter group depicts the unemployed during the depression, characterized by the unforgettable image that bears the name of the series, a dejected man sitting on a curb.

Prior to the university’s acquisition, the Forgotten Man and Maritime Strike series had certainly not gone without notice, as evidenced by their publication in numerous art reviews. However, finding a buyer was not an easy task for Dixon due to the economic reality of the times and the nature of the subject matter.

Dixon apparently had great affection for Clark, who came to him with not only a business proposition but also an offer of friendship that lasted throughout Dixon’s life. Legend has it that the two men celebrated the purchase agreement in a nearby bar with glasses of milk.

Clark and Dixon stayed in touch after the acquisition took place. Dixon had committed to Clark that he would visit BYU and speak to art department chairman B.F. Larsen’s students after his move to Mt. Carmel in October of 1940. On October 20 he wrote to Larsen: “According to my promise to Clark I should now be in Provo talking to your classes. Well, the sad story is that after returning here my health got so bad that I had to go back to Los Angeles for treatment.” In early November, in the midst of building a studio, he wrote again. “Am still looking forward to speaking words of wisdom to your class—though this depends just now on our building program, the weather, and my wheezy lungs.” There is no evidence that this visit to the campus ever took place. Dixon apparently came to BYU only once, in 1937 to the summer school in Provo Canyon at Aspen Gorge, where 22 of his recently purchased works were on exhibit.

Nine years after the acquisition took place, Dixon succumbed to emphysema at his home in Tucson. His wife, Edith Hamlin, brought his ashes to Utah, where she scattered them atop a sagebrush-covered ridge behind their home in Mt. Carmel. Clark’s affection for the artist was evident in a letter he wrote to Dixon’s widow upon her husband’s death. “It seems to me that his creations were quite like him—they are so genuinely simple, so honest, so frank, and yet so delightfully beautiful,” Clark wrote. “Whoever knew a person who could define simplicity and make it so great as he?”

Photos courtesy the Herald R. Clark Memorial Collection, the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University.

Featured in March 2001