Painted into a Corner

Phillips 66 Corner, Provo, Utah - 1966 - LHC
The 66 Corner by Larry Christensen

The oil painting shown above is a 1966 view of the Phillips 66 corner just south of the BYH block. University Avenue is on the right. When I found it recently it brought back a flood of pleasant memories.

I took classes from two art excellent teachers at BYH. The first was A. LaMoyne Garside in 1962-63. Mr. Garside was a genius with watercolors and caricatures (see his great summary of the 1962-63 school year). He was a natural teacher who made his instruction appear effortless and fun as he passed on techniques and motivated us at the same time.

Mr. Garside introduced me to linoleum print making. I had drawn a picture of John Boshard sleeping in seminary one day, and Garside suggested it might make an interesting multicolor print. You be the judge:

Montague to Boshard:John, are you praying?

Mr. Garside held his art classes is a basement classroom with large windows that let in lots of light. Unfortunately, Mr. Garside moved to Hawaii after I had taken only one year with him.

LaMoyne Garside's caricatures still appreciated
A. Lamoyne Garside
Student artist Karl Thomas cartoons Laine Raty.
T. Laine Raty

Mr. T. Laine Raty, who took his place, was also an outstanding artist, and his specialty was oil portraiture. But as a teacher he was more of an exacting taskmaster than an inspirational motivator. In other words, he knew how to use fear.

The BYU Art Department vacated their rooms on the top floor of the Education Building in the early 1960s, and Mr. Raty moved the high school art department to an attic studio, which surprisingly didn't have as much natural light as the basement art room. The attic did have a lot more storage space.

I had my own ideas about design and art, and quickly became a pain in the neck to Mr. Raty. For example, he insisted that for every work of art we produced, we had to create a package of related materials that included a detailed preliminary sketch. I hated to draw in gray pencil when I could be painting in brilliant color.

To satisfy Mr. Raty, I secretly produced my preliminary work after I had completed my oil or watercolor painting, at least until he caught on.

After that Mr. Raty insisted that he had to approve my preliminary materials before I could start each new project. Then he always made minor changes in my designs to thwart my after-the-fact preliminary work.

One of his term assignments was to paint a scene directly from nature. In the winter it was too cold to actually paint outdoors, so I came up with the idea of painting the view from an upper window in one of the stairwells. Two stairwells had been added to the Education building, one on each side. In my opinion, the view from the south stairwell made a more interesting painting.

I scribbled my preliminary sketches, finally got one approved by Mr. Raty, and began work on my painting. Although it was winter, there was no snow on the ground. The Phillips 66 service station was colorful and became the central feature of this particular painting.

I was fascinated to work with the specific details involved:

For example, the corner laundromat had a colorful sign that made an interesting design.

A giant evergreen tree on University Avenue had been mutilated at some point, apparently by someone who topped it to obtain a Christmas tree. I decided to keep it the way it was, rather than "improve" it.

I had expected to paint a larger number of buildings, but the view toward downtown Provo was softened by the forest of trees that crossed the horizon.

One day Mr. Raty was checking my progress, and I explained to him that I felt the painting was coming out too flat. He suggested that I paint in the silhouettes of the trees on the campus to give the painting depth. I tried it and liked the result.

Deeper in the same box I found another oil painting that made me laugh when I saw it, in spite of myself. It was one I had created sometime before the 66 Corner painting.

Mr. Raty had assigned us to paint an abstract piece where every element of the painting was a distinct symbol of some thing. I hated the assignment, and couldn't come up with any ideas.

Finally I dashed out this painting -- this was before he required preminary sketches from me -- and I figured I could invent some sort of explanation for Mr. Raty when the time came.

22 in x 15 in - Pride - 1966 - Larry Christensen
Pride by Larry Christensen

The time for explaining came all too soon. One day Mr. Raty informed me that he wanted me to describe my painting to him during class the next day. Although I didn't have the foggiest idea what to tell him yet, I didn't spend much time worrying about it.

But when I walked into Mr. Raty's studio the next morning, I discovered a classroom full of university art students, sitting in rows, listening to other students in our class as they talked about their works. Meg Hayes was just finishing up her presentation. Raty came over to me and said quietly, "You're next."

Panic is a great motivator. I nervously posted my painting on an easel at the front of the class, then listened while Mr. Raty introduced me and explained that I would reveal and name each of the symbols in my painting. I could feel sweat beginning to trickle down my forehead.

"This painting illustrates...Pride," I began, seizing on the first idea that popped into my head. "Pride has an underlying dark side, which is not altogether good or bad." I waved my hand over the purple area.

I pointed to some gold jeweled shapes in the purple patch, and said, "Pride can be based on values -- represented by this gold that is glowing in the darkness. But gold can be bad as well as good."

I began to warm to my subject. "You can see that Pride, which I have represented by the blue sphere, is rising, or swelling. You have heard the term, 'Bursting with pride' -- that is what you are looking at here." I wiped my forehead with my hand.

"These stripes..." I paused, then had an inspiration: "These stripes are like the stripes on a tiger. Tigers and lions live in families called 'prides' and their pride is not a vain pride, but exists naturally in nature."

I was laughing inside now, but I worked hard to keep a straight face.

"These arrows point the way up, but if Pride rises too high, there is a risk of disconnecting it from its roots, and then it can be exposed as 'false pride' ... pride that 'goeth before a fall.' In other words, the arrows can also be boomerangs!"

The college students appeared to be awed, or at least taken aback. They asked a few lame questions, (such as "Why did you choose these particular colors?") and I answered them with the same type of instant fabrications.

I glanced to the side of the room and saw Mr. Raty standing, apparently bursting with pride at my presentation. I was relieved.

But then one more female college student raised her hand, and I pointed to her. "Would you mind if I asked one more question?"

"Not at all -- go ahead," I said confidently.

"Did you plan out all of your symbols first," she asked, "and then design your painting? Or did you build your symbols, one upon another, as your painting evolved? In other words, when did you assign the specific meanings to your symbols?"

This was not good. I looked at Mr. Raty, then at the students, then back at Mr. Raty. I felt a great rush of evil delight surge through my body. I could not stop the words that came out of my mouth next:

"Well, first I finished the painting without assigning any meaning to it. But Mr. Raty insisted that it include lots of specific symbolism -- so actually I made up the explanations just this morning -- while I was making my presentation to you."

I didn't dare look at Mr. Raty's face, but in my mind's eye his expression was awful -- red and contorted. I grabbed my painting from the easel and hastily left the room, with Raty right on my heels. Fortunately, I could run faster than he could, and I escaped.

By the next day he had calmed down somewhat, but I had to sit through a long, quiet tongue-lashing as he explained how I had embarrassed him in front of the entire university art department, and how he didn't appreciate it, and hoped I would mature as an artist and present my works to others with more gravitas in the future.

I left class that day with a tremendous sense of relief -- I had been brave enough, or foolish enough, to tell the truth. I had impulsively placed my head in the mouth of the lion, but pulled it out so quickly that my head had not been ripped off.

Close to being expelled again, but still enrolled -- I had survived yet another crisis. I began to discover that even the most authoritarian BYH faculty members had hearts.
~~by Larry Christensen, Class of 1966

Courage at Hogle Zoo - the Christensen kids.