Art to Edify: The Work of Avard T. Fairbanks

Art should ennoble the struggles of life, the late Avard Fairbanks believed. In his sculpture, the widely recognized Latter-day Saint sculptor attempted to portray faith and spiritual ideals in material form.

His intent was to be simple and direct, to clarify rather than to mystify with vague images. He believed that art should be understandable to both children and the sophisticated, so that all who saw a work could be uplifted.

Avard Fairbanks believed in immortality. And that belief is evident in his work. He had an eye for and captured what he considered divinely prescribed proportions, whatever the form—a child’s face, a man’s hand, a president’s eyes, a buffalo’s strength, a mother’s bond with her infant child. His sculpture depicts the heroic nature of the soul, the soul valiantly struggling in mortality.

From his earliest works, Brother Fairbanks showed an unusually fine sense of proportion. So devoted was he to rendering an accurately proportioned work of art that in addition to his other training, he obtained a doctoral degree in anatomy. During his distinguished and prolific career, he completed nearly a hundred major works and twice that many smaller pieces, most are on exhibit in various parts of the world.

Avard T. Fairbanks

A portrait of the artist in his studio, amid faces of men he admired. (Photo courtesy of Busath Photography.)

How It Began

Avard Tennyson Fairbanks was born 2 March 1897, the tenth son and eleventh child of Lilly Annetta Huish and John B. Fairbanks. His father, an art teacher at Brigham Young Academy, and his eldest brother, J. Leo, a painter, gave him his first instruction in art.

At age twelve, Avard sculpted his first piece, a little rabbit in clay that won first prize at the 1909 Utah State Fair.

When he was fourteen, he won a scholarship to the Art Students’ League in New York City, where he worked with some of the finest sculptors of the day, notably James Earl Fraser, A. P. Proctor, and Anna V. Hyatt. Each of these artists lent a particular influence and encouragement to Avard. After a year and a half in New York, he returned to Utah with a desire to study abroad, but he had no funds and had to seek financing. This became available when a lion sculpture he did in butter for a creamery exhibit at the Utah State Fair led to commissions.

Avard chose to study in Paris, where, unfortunately, his work at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts and other institutions was cut short by the outbreak of World War I. He caught the last northbound train leaving Paris and returned to Salt Lake City.

In Utah he continued clay modeling and completed high school. Then, in 1915, two important events occurred in his life. He received his first major commission—to work with his brother, J. Leo, sculpting the statuary and friezes on the Hawaii Temple. The second important event was meeting, in Hawaii, Maude Fox, whom he married. Once the temple sculpture was completed, the couple returned to Salt Lake City, where Avard entered the University of Utah in 1918.

The end of World War I brought a commission to do a war memorial for the state of Idaho. The memorial, called Victorious American Doughboy, was a bronze figure of an infantryman wielding a rifle and carrying on his hip two German helmets, souvenirs of victory. This commission led to a teaching appointment at the University of Oregon and to numerous other commissions. These include the Ninety-first Division Monument to World War I soldiers, Ft. Lewis, Washington; a memorial to a Pioneer Family, on the capitol grounds, Bismark, North Dakota; a bust of Albert Woolson, one of the last survivors of the Civil War, overlooking the Gettysburg battlefield (a copy is in Duluth, Minnesota); the Pony Express in bronze, in both Reno, Nevada, and Lake Tahoe, California; four statues (more than any other sculptor) in Statuary Hall, in the capitol building in Washington, D.C.; and four different marble busts of Lincoln at different times in his life, displayed at the Ford’s Theater, where the president was assassinated.

An Insatiable Student

An enthusiastic scholar all his life, Avard Fairbanks loved to learn. He earned a B.F. A. from Yale in 1925 and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study art in Rome and Florence in 1926. A popular sculpture from this period is Nursing Mother; carved in white marble, it has a translucent, lifelike quality. In 1929, Brother Fairbanks joined the faculty at the Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Michigan. During the eighteen years he was resident sculptor there, he obtained an M.F. A. and then a Ph.D. in anatomical science.

In addition to being an insatiable student, Brother Fairbanks was an influential and gifted educator. At the universities of Oregon, Seattle, Michigan, and particularly Utah (where he served as dean of Fine Arts), he taught a generation of artists. Critics credit him with keeping alive the representational tradition at a time when abstraction was dominant. Dr. Fairbanks believed that every person, not just art students, had artistic potential. Thousands of individuals in service clubs, firesides, even elementary schools benefited from the demonstration-lectures he gave. During the course of the lecture, he discussed the history and philosophy of art while sculpting the bust of some famous person.

Rigorous research was an essential element in sculpting. It went along with his accurate sense of proportion. In his research on Abraham Lincoln, Avard gained a strong personal identification with his subject. He read about every aspect of Lincoln’s life and character. Details of Lincoln’s hands and facial features were based on Brother Fairbanks’s studies of life masks taken of the president.

When modeling figures to be cast in bronze, Dr. Fairbanks made a science of art. Rather than simply throwing lumps of clay, he carefully built up the musculature and layers of skin, using anatomical knowledge he had gained from extensive dissections. His understanding of facial structure gave his works a particular freshness and vitality. Dr. Fairbanks’s knowledge and application of anatomy seemed to heighten his reverence for the human body. He believed it was the greatest creation of God and the purest expression of virtue.

Art As Reverence for Life

The spiritual quality in Brother Fairbanks’s life imbues his works, from the selection of subject to the artistic details—expression, posture, and gesture. “The gospel was everything to our father,” his children will tell you. Indeed, his deep commitment to the gospel permeated his life—his enthusiasm for scholarship, his influence as an educator, and his devotion to family and art.

Many of his best-known pieces of sculpture were religious commissions and subjects, including the monuments honoring the Three Witnesses and commemorating the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood; the bas reliefs on the base of the Nauvoo Bell Tower, on Temple Square; the poignant Tragedy of Winter Quarters at Florence, Nebraska; the Angel Moroni on the Jordan River, Washington, Seattle, and Mexico City temples; and Joseph Smith kneeling to receive the First Vision.

Avard’s reverence for life is a legacy he bequeathed to his family. From the beginning, art was a family affair. Each of his children, many of his fifty-four grandchildren, and even some of his forty-four great-grandchildren received instruction and experience from him in modeling and casting. One son, Grant, sculpted the Eagle Gate Monument in Salt Lake City while he was in medical school.

Significantly, all the sons followed their father’s footsteps into art, science, or education. Justin is head of the art department at Eastern Arizona University; Jonathan is a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; Elliot was dean of Development at the College of Eastern Utah; Avard studied engineering; and Eugene, Virgil, David, and Grant are all physicians.

The Fairbanks children maintain that their mother, Maude Fox, was the backbone of the family and their father’s greatest promoter during the nearly seventy years they were married. In many ways, she proved the practical and organized complement to the idealist she had married. A farm girl from Taylorsville, Utah, she tolerated the owl, ducks, chickens, crows, magpies, and even snakes her boys collected. She cut her boys’ and their friends’ hair. She made sure all her boys advanced in Scouting, took music lessons, and participated in a variety of educational activities.

For his part, Avard put Maude on a pedestal, both figuratively and literally. He always treated her with the utmost respect and tenderness, providing for his children an example of a loving husband. Her features often appear in the numerous pieces he did honoring women, especially mothers.

My Mother’s Hands

A marble bust of Brother Fairbanks’s son David, My Mother’s Hands. (Photo by Craig Dimond.)

The boys also served as models for their father’s work. Brother Fairbanks loved children, and the activities of childhood proved a fertile source of inspiration for the sculptor. He once received a commission to sculpt a horse for the Meadowbrook Estate in Michigan. The idea for his Colt Pegasus, a young horse with wings, came as he watched his boys’ Easter chicks emerge from their eggs.

The Fairbanks household, as Jonathan describes it, “lived a variation of the United Order; whoever got to the sock drawer first got the socks.” There were many memorable traditions—the turkey shoot at Thanksgiving when each son had to make his own bow and arrow to “shoot” the cardboard turkey their father had made; the annual family snow sculpture, which was inevitably photographed for the local newspaper; the boys’ obligatory recitation of a favorite passage from the scriptures or Shakespeare after Sunday dinner. When Brother Fairbanks designed the Dodge Ram radiator ornament, the family got a ten-passenger, folding-seat Chrysler in which they “roared” out west at sixty miles per hour to camp and to visit relatives.

During this very busy period in the life of the Fairbanks family, Church activity had top priority. At first they drove nearly fifty miles from Ann Arbor to Detroit in order to attend their meetings. Eventually, a branch was organized in Ann Arbor, and for fourteen years Brother Fairbanks served as president. For a while, if the family was late, there weren’t enough people to give prayers, teach lessons, and pass the sacrament.

Because of the almost legendary generosity of the Fairbanks family, extra people were always part of the household—foster children, art students, missionaries, Church members passing through—anyone in need was welcome. In 1956, however, the family received some permanent additions. Dr. Fairbanks sculpted the Lycurgus statue for the Greek city of Sparta. The mayor was so pleased with the bronze that he commented to Sister Fairbanks that the city should do something great in return. “Well,” she replied in jest, “with eight sons in the family, what we’d really like are some girls.” The mayor took her seriously, and Brother and Sister Fairbanks, then in their late fifties, received and adopted two little Greek sisters, Maria and Georgia.

Imitation of Divine Creation

Avard Fairbanks was a man who loved sculpting—the feel of the rasp or chisel in his hand, the physical exertion involved in the tedious process of carving marble. But although he felt technique was important, he never viewed his art as merely imitating nature. Subject matter for him was subservient to design, and sculpting was more than simply photographing the subject. Rather, he sought for universal patterns of alternating rhythms and symmetry which can create verisimilitude. The artist, he taught, must analyze the designs and patterns of nature and then bring them into a harmonic whole.

Along with his constant emphasis on artistic harmonies, Brother Fairbanks taught that great art must be concerned with great content, meaning, and symbolism. In order to preserve the memory and honor the accomplishments of heroic men and women, Dr. Fairbanks especially enjoyed doing monumental and often very symbolic bronzes.

Monuments to greatness—such as those of Washington and Lincoln, Joseph Smith, Moroni, and the pioneer stalwarts—epitomize the sculptor’s philosophy of enthusiastic optimism and faith. “Art can uplift and bring understanding to the downtrodden,” he often said. “It can recognize the finer qualities of men of all stations of life and cause people to believe their own kind of living is worthwhile.”

[photos] Right: Tragedy at Winter Quarters, 1936, is a larger-than-life bronze portraying a couple at the grave of their child on the trail West. (Photo by Craig Dimond.) Far right: Brother and Sister Fairbanks beneath the fifteen-foot Angel Moroni, which graces the Jordan River, Seattle, and Mexico City temples. His eighteen-foot rendering of Moroni stands atop the Washington Temple.

[photos] Below: First Vision, 1965, in white marble, depicts the boy Joseph Smith kneeling in prayer. (Photo by Grant Fairbanks.) Right: Of the many sculptures of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln the Frontiersman, 1940, is among the best loved. (Photo by John Snyder.)

[photo] The dynamic monument Pony Express, 1963, is at Lake Tahoe, Nevada. (Photo by Craig Dimond.)

Athelia T. Woolley lives in the Holladay Fourth Ward, where she is a visiting teacher; she is also a member of the Church Curriculum Writing Committee.