Trevor Southey’s Oxymoronic Life on Display

“The pursuit of truth in one’s life and art often leads to conflict in one’s self and confrontation with others,” –Robert Flynn Johnson, curator in charge, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Trevor Southey is a man who has lived several lives in one lifetime. Born in Africa, studied in England, converted to the Mormon Church and served a mission, graduated from Brigham Young University, married a woman, sired four children, founded the Mormon Art Movement, developed an artists’ commune in Alpine, came out as a gay man, moved to San Francisco, and through all of it, expressed himself through his art.

“My work reflects my life … Sometimes to an embarrassing degree,” Southey said during a lunch at Café Trio with myself, friend and art collector Jim Dabakis, and fellow Mormon Art Movement artist and curator of Southey’s show at the University of Utah Museum of Fine Arts XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.

Indeed, you can see transformations in Southey’s life as you look at his art. That will become eminently clear during his show a UMFA, which will run from October 21 through February 11.

Titled “Reconciliation,” his show is a “retrospective of [his] life and work,” through “four life passages that have defined Southey’s character and his art: his youth in Rhodesia and education in England; his life as a married, practicing Mormon and his desire for a utopian lifestyle created around family, farming, and art; Southey’s decision to acknowledge his homosexuality in 1982, which coincided with the first major public awareness of the AIDS epidemic; and the reconciliation of his life decisions as expressed in his revised artistic approach to the human form,” according to the UMFA website.

“Reconciliation” is also the title of his book, a nearly 200-page piece of art in itself.

“I was shocked at how autobiographical the book was,” Southey said.

Southey talks of his life in oxymorons.

“My life is like black and white,” he says. “My time in Alpine [Utah] was the most spectacular/heartbreaking/blissful situation. The property was beautiful, the art was transforming. Everything was beautiful on the outside. On the inside there was grief.”

“It was the best of times and the worst of times, as they say,” he continued.

“Coming out was huge to me,” Southey remembers. “I went from the beautiful, large estate in Alpine to a shack on 8th East.”

“I remember sitting among boxes in the middle of the room in November and I started to howl like an animal,” he said. “At the same time it was pain and relief.”

“A lot of people experience this,” he said. “At one time they are surrounded by family and friends … then not.”

He said those days were a tough and wonderful period.


Southey was born in Rhodesia, Africa (now Zimbabwe) in 1940 of European parents. As a child he was timid, skinny and plagued with bouts of rheumatic fever.

He wrote of his childhood in his book:

“There is a photograph of my mother and myself. It is very revealing, though the imperfect skills of the photographer may have contributed to the sense of uncertainty, as the figures lean on the tilted ground. My mother’s feet are placed together, her plain cotton dress buttoned form neck to knee. She smiles in frank confidence of her essential beauty, though her hair is thin and parted with casual style. She is a young woman, evidently of few means but firm conviction.

“I am a skinny boy, perhaps age seven or so. I lean in toward my mother as if regretting ever having left the safety of her womb. I stare out of sunken, dark eye sockets, serious, a deep sense of my peculiarity already clear in my bearing. From the outset I did not fit well into the larger world. My mother and family, especially the women, secured any sense of well being I had at all. My essential timidity and then my illness justified my clinging to her and her powerful, protective certainty. She was a fierce, strong woman.

“My father was off to war, and after that off in his difficult world of survival, a world always challenging to his kind and gentlemanly soul.”

He was forbidden from taking art courses in secondary school, and therefore chose to abandon his schooling before he received a diploma. He was, however, able to take special afternoon classes offered by the school principal’s wife.

He also was able to find a handful of art books at the school library. He was enthralled by classical statuary of male nudes. His parents then gave him two volumes of reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks for his 16th birthday, which greatly inspired his later work.

He went on to study art in Sussex, England at the age of 17 and then the Natal Technical College in South Africa, where he met two Mormon missionaries. Drawn to the structured environment and spiritual system that meshed with the utopian views of his youth, he began a tumultuous relationship with the church. At the time of his conversion in the early 70s, the church denied the priesthood to black members – a fact that mirrored the racism of his home country, where blacks couldn’t vote. He was also aware of the church’s stand on homosexuality, but was suppressing those feelings in himself anyway.

The form of his art had already taken shape before his conversion to Mormonism. He had already begin his life of oxymoron.

He says at the time he entered the Mormon Church, “I was only beginning to sense the terrible paradox of the solitude of the soul in its eternal, excruciating, wonderful dance toward union with another.”

He then moved to the United States, what he called the “promised land.”

He landed in New York City in the heat and humidity of July and was presented at the feet of the Statue of Liberty. He had come to the States to “serve the [LDS] Church and serve the Lord,” he said.

He took in the World’s Fair and came across the Catholic Pavilion with Michelangelo’s  Pieta and the Mormon Pavilion full of “mediocre art” actually painted by Seventh Day Adventists.

“I knew that greater art was possible in the spirit of the restored church,” he wrote in his book. “Perhaps I was to be one vehicle for that new Renaissance.”

“Mormon art,” at the time, he said, was an “oxymoron. The abstract was lost on the general population.”

He and a few other artists began creating artwork in a Mormon theme. As their work grew, Brigham Young University “caught wind” of them and began watching.

In 1969, “We had an exhibition at the library at BYU,” he said. “And what came out of that was the Mormon Festival of Arts.” That led to what would be soon be called the Mormon Art and Belief Movement.

Two years earlier, he had married his wife, Elaine Fish.

“I knew I must find a companion,” he wrote. “Some fine woman who would be with me through all eternity.”

He met Elaine through a woman he had dated while seeking his eternal companion.

“She was earnest and learned and beautiful,” he wrote. “She has a wide and generous face, a smile of perfect teeth with large eyes, clear and certain. We immediately related in a most vital and extraordinary way, sharing ideals and hopes in an openness rare on a first date.”

Their courtship was short and they decided to marry, even though Southey was “haunted by [his] reality.”

They moved to Alpine, in what would eventually be called Eden Farm, and had several children.

“My children were, as babies, and are now, as adults, a consuming passion for me,” he said. “I cannot imagine life without them.”

By the time his last child was born, however, his capacity to “suppress his nature” had reached its end. Doubts of his religion and its condemnation of what he perceived was his “natural way” took its toll on his marriage and his faith.

He and Emily divorced and he moved to Salt Lake City.

Troubles also arose at BYU, where he was an instructor of art. He was commissioned to do a piece of art for a show. As he presented the painting, which included full male frontal nudity, he was told, “Trevor – this is magnificent work, but we can never exhibit it.” He was forced to cover the groin area with gouache.

“You could lick a thumb and wash the gouche off,” Southey laughed.

Eventually, Southey had to leave BYU.

“I didn’t quit BYU,” he said. “They fired me.”

Southey then met Jim Dabakis when he was interviewed by him for KTALK Radio as his painting, Flight Aspiration, was removed from the Salt Lake City International Airport because a woman said it might inspire rape.

Dabakis called the interview a failure because Southey wouldn’t rise to the bait of his art being risqué in any way. Their resulting friendship, however, was anything but a failure. Dabakis has since represented Southey’s work at his gallery in Park City, the Thomas Kearns McCarthy Gallery.

“Jimmy has pushed and pushed my art work,” Southey said. “This [show at the University of Utah Museum of Fine Arts] would have never happened without him.”

Southey was diagnosed with prostate cancer shortly before Christmas in 2002.

Dabakis also negotiated a 4-month-long exhibit of Southey’s work and life at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Starting with an October 21 special event, his exhibition will last through February 13.

The exhibition will follow Southey’s work, and therefore his life, from his time in Africa to his latest project, Warriors

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