Unabridged Q&A with 2012-14 Phi Kappa Phi Artist Robert T. Barrett

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by Peter Szatmary

When it comes to creativity, consider Robert T. Barrett ambidextrous. On the one hand, the Brigham Young University visual arts professor is a well-known illustrator; on the other hand, he is a sought-after painter. His thousands of works span book covers, portrait commissions, and life drawings, watercolors, editorials, and advertising, and more.

Barrett’s clients run the gamut. They range from major publishing companies such as Random House to mass-market magazines such as Reader’s Digest. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints calls on him to visualize its messages and depict its leaders. And he’s a go-to illustrator for children’s books.

Honors come often. His pieces appear in exhibitions nationwide and are in the permanent collections of regional and university art museums. The Provo (Utah) Arts Council presented him with its National Humanities and Arts Award, the Society of Illustrators with its Distinguished Educator in the Arts citation, and BYU with its Karl G. Maeser Excellence in Teaching Award.

A member of the BYU faculty since 1982 and of the BYU Phi Kappa Phi chapter since 1993, Barrett earned painting degrees from University of Utah (B.F.A.) and University of Iowa (M.A. and M.F.A.).

Compare and contrast illustrating and painting.
The media are often the same. Also, the formal elements of color, value, edges, and composition are similar. However, the intent can be quite different. Illustration needs to communicate to a large, more democratic audience, whereas painting (or fine art) may be much more ambiguous. Illustration is commissioned and the subject or problem to solve stipulated. Fine art may be more concerned with posing questions.

How do you switch gears given the diversity of your projects?
I have a great studio in my home with plenty of space and light, a good stereo system, and many art books. I also find traveling, museums, reading, and other artists’ studios motivational.

Share more thoughts about inspiration.
For me, it comes from a lot of places: sketchbooks, traveling, nature, the construction of the human form, divine intelligence. I recently spent two days on location at a movie shoot and was energized by the sets, costumes, actors, art directors, etc.; I took more than 600 photos for future reference.

What’s the relationship between content and aesthetics?
Because illustration is heavily involved with visual communication, subject matter is very important. However, I believe every successful artist also must deal with the aesthetics of form or shape, texture, lighting, composition, color, etc.

Who are your role models?
I have many and they have changed over time. Golden Age illustrators including N. C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Dean Cornwell, and J. C. Leyendecker. Nineteenth-century artists such as James McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Edwin Austin Abbey, Edgar Degas, and Claude Monet. Contemporary traditional painters like Burton Silverman, Richard Schmid, and Jeremy Lipking.

Do you prefer to be assigned gigs or generate as motivation hits you?
I like both and believe I have found some success in balancing the two. I like being given an assignment by a client who has hired me because of the belief that I have the skill set to solve the problem. I try to go beyond what I perceive the client’s minimum expectations might be. I love to work for art directors who will give me the latitude to solve the problem the best way I can from my perspective versus those who want me to be “the hands” they are not able to be. I also have an idea file I go to when I have the time or inclination to do personal work.

Which of your pieces are you especially satisfied with?
This is a challenging question. I believe all artists have work they feel is more successful than others. However, I like to believe my best work is still ahead of me and look forward to the next creative problem to solve or composition to work out. I’m always trying to get better.

Any work you’d want another crack at?
Probably not. I try to make each piece the best it can be given the constraints of time, budget, format, etc. When I feel it is finished, I am ready to move on. However, there are subjects, such as the human figure or, particularly, dancers, that I will return to again and again. There appears to be an infinite variety of solutions to creative work using the human form.

What haven’t you tackled yet that you hope to?
Well, as an illustrator, there is always another subject to investigate and another problem to solve. I just finished a book cover for Scholastic on the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during WWII. I will then turn my attention to a children’s book on the Westward expansion and paint a portrait of an Iranian woman. I would like to complete another body of work involving dancers as both paintings and drawings and schedule a solo exhibition around that theme.

Your audience varies widely.
Yes, there is a wide variety of audiences and contexts for my work. Because much of my work is aimed at a wider audience, it tends to be more widely accepted and understood than if I were involved in postmodern conceptual art.

You and your wife have 10 children. Any of them creative like you?
Yes. Several have majored in art and design fields. Two of our daughters work as photographers and two are graphic designers. Another daughter majored in art history and is working on her doctorate. And a son studies illustration and is enrolled in two of my classes this fall semester.

What do you like best about Phi Kappa Phi?
That it recognizes the importance of both traditional and creative scholarship for students and faculty. That it supports students with humanitarian study abroad projects. And that it sponsors literacy initiatives.

What does the Phi Kappa Phi Artist award mean to you?
It is humbling to receive recognition at such a high level. I am a bit overwhelmed that my Phi Kappa Phi colleagues at BYU would put forth the effort to nominate me for the award - on two different occasions.

What do you try to teach students?
This is a big question. I would rather teach principles than technique but also believe skill development is critical in building confidence. I would like my students to be able to make the transfer from one area to another when they learn certain principles or processes. They need to assume responsibility for their own education. It is important they understand that perspiration usually precedes inspiration and that they can become as successful as they envision themselves.

Question not asked you want to answer?
What else has been satisfying in my career? It has been very rewarding over the years to see the successes my students have achieved. I find tremendous satisfaction when one of them wins a major award or recognition or lands a great job.

The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi