Robert T. Barrett is perhaps Mormonism’s most accomplished illustrator. He has been a fixture at BYU for 30 years as a professor in the illustration program with much of that time as the department chair or area head. He is prolific with a long list of books, commissions, murals, and sculptures. Barrett has had a number of one-man shows including those at the Society of Illustrators, Springville Art Museum, and the Busam Gallerie in Berlin, Germany. Barrett received a BFA in Painting from the University of Utah in 1973 and an MA and MFA in painting from the University of Iowa in 1975 and 1976. He lives in Utah with his wife and is the father of ten children.
Tell us about your art career these days. I more recently completed a 5′ X 11′ mural for the School of Education at BYU on the theme ‘Children’s Celebration of the Arts’ to celebrate Beverly Sorensen and her support of arts education for young people. It was permanently installed in the McKay Building on campus earlier this year. This experience incentivized me to start doing larger, more substantive work including a few religiously themed paintings.
I love history and traditional art so am often chosen to illustrate stories related to historical events. I am continuing to do editorial illustration assignments including recent stories on Abigail Adams and the Underground Railroad as well as children’s picture books. I continue to find ways to use the human figure in my work including dancers and a Steam Punk figure that was included in the Springville Salon this year. I am traveling to the Kendall School of Art and Hillesdale College later this month to lecture about my work including some drawing and painting demos from live models.
You have been associated with the BYU Illustration program for a long time and it has developed into quite the program with a roster of accomplished graduates. What do you think has set this program apart? Thanks, yes, I noticed you had posted many former students on The Krakens as well as several full and part time faculty members teaching in our program. I think our faculty are excellent and have had a large impact on the success of our students. Many of our adjunct faculty members have received numerous recognitions for their creative work and bring tremendous industry experience into the classroom.
Our program is also very competitive and we accept only the best students who have proved their ability to be successful through class performance and portfolio reviews. They continue to foster a culture of healthy competitiveness. We have also been blessed with endowed funding to assist students with scholarships and internships. We are able to bring several top-notch artists and illustrators to BYU every semester and sponsor annual field trips to LA and NYC as well as study abroad opportunities to Italy, France, and England. Exposure to great art and other successful artists has proven to be very beneficial to our students and faculty in the Illustration Program. We have excellent ties with alumni working in major studios as well as those with successful freelance careers. Next year we will sponsor a high school design camp to attract and recruit promising students.
You have written about the Church’s history with Harry Anderson. Many of his images have become canon within the Church and adorn meetinghouses around the world. How do you feel about balancing our art history with introducing new works into the Church art repertoire? Harry Anderson continues to have an influence on the art and artists in the Church. Two guest lecturers this semester (Fall 2015) referenced his influence on their work. Our guest Steve Rude is a comic book artist but traveled to Connecticut four times during his career to visit Harry and talk about his narrative paintings. At Steve’s request, we went to the visitor’s center on Temple Square to see several originals last month.
I believe the Church will always embrace traditional story-telling art but there seems to also be a culture developing in the Church for art that is more symbolic and personal. I believe there is room for all forms of expression as long as it is appropriate and supports the best parts of our belief system.
What’s next for you? To some extent, continue what I am doing including the completion of more monumental work. A few years ago, I authored and illustrated a book on Life Drawing which has become quite successful and is now published in five different languages. I have begun work on a painting book as well and would love to see that completed and published in the near future. I have become fascinated with sculpture and would like to spend some time doing figurative work in that discipline at some point.