Artist, formerly LDS, finds serenity in human form
January 7, 2009
Painter Trevor Southey has died of AIDS. Twice.
Never mind that the artist has never contracted the disease.
"I don’t know how those deaths came about," said Southey, amused Monday about two false reports to come out of Utah of his death.
Southey, renowned for his Michelangelo-esque portraiture, is used to trouble. Controversy has swirled around the artist, now in his 70s, for much of his adult life and his oil painting of a nude man and woman floating through the air, called "Flight Aspiration," remains among the state’s most infamous instances of censorship.
Officials hung and then removed the painting from Salt Lake City International Airport in 1982 after a local woman complained that it would incite rape.
that time, Southey, a former convert to the LDS Church, was no stranger to the scolding of state officials and his colleagues at Brigham Young University, where he served on the art faculty until 1977. Five years later, about the time of the airport imbroglio, he divorced his wife, came out of the closet and was ex-communicated.
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Even before Southey’s high-profile scuffle with the LDS Church, his unclad renderings of male figures drew criticism, even as connoisseurs in the art world lauded the work as some of the finest figurative drawing to come out of America in a generation. Church members called his work bawdy, amoral and impious, critiques that struck James Dabakis as hollow.
"When you see his art, you see this spiritual reverence, even though the figures are nude," said Dabakis, a collector and owner of the Thomas Kearns McCarthy Gallery at 444 Main St. The gallery will host a reception for Southey Saturday, Dec. 10, from 3 until 7 p.m. with a presentation from Southey at 4 p.m.
Dabakis met Southey more than 20 years ago, when he worked an interviewer for a radio program in Salt Lake City. "I was all set for a rough-and-tumble interview," he said. "I wanted a screaming match."
Instead, what Dabakis got was a stately conversation on art and spirituality. "It was a terrible interview," he laughed. "Trevor is really apolitical. Carnal sensuality isn’t part of Trevor Southey at all."
The two quickly became friends and, years later, Dabakis jumped at the chance to represent Southey in the Park City gallery. As far as the heated debate over the piety of displaying nude art in public, the fact remains, Dabakis said, that "there are squeamish people all over the country who think there is something inherently wrong with the human body."
Southey was born in 1940 in a British protectorate that later became Zimbabwe, where he said his Pre-Raphaelite instincts were vetted. "Growing up in Africa affected my sensibilities deeply," he said. "We saw human being across a whole spectrum of life, that sense of having another culture all around you."
He studied art in England and South Africa, where he met Mormon missionaries and joined the church. He moved to the United States in 1965 to study at BYU and, later, joined its art faculty. From the beginning, his goals were ambitious: He wanted to add depth and complexity to Mormon art. The simple subject of the figure was most satisfying to him as he delved into the connection between the body and spirit, although, he said, he never set out to work in an explicitly spiritual way. "The reason the human is central to my work is because it’s central to my life," he explained. "I’m a stubborn idealist, a romantic stubborn idealist," he corrected. "I intend to see only the good."
His stubborn idealism explains, at least in part, why he prefers to depict the human form in a state of perfection, some even say grace, in the midst of an imperfect world.
Diagnosed with prostate cancer, Southey lives with his daughter in the San Francisco area and maintains a strong connection to his ex-wife, Elaine, and his three other kids. He describes himself as an "avid family man."
The exhibit at McCarthy Gallery features five large paints from "Warriors," a collection of Russian soldiers begun in 1998, when he and Dabakis visited the country. The full nude figures fixate on the idea of vulnerability, and the anonymity in war. When you take away the uniforms, they’re just boys, Dabakis said.
Southey doesn’t mind working under the moniker "gay artist," but he does bristle at the terminology. "I bristle because people dismiss it," he said. "I hate the word ‘gay’ because it implies frivolousness." He added, "You can’t deny the deep spiritual calling for love."