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BYU art professor paints prophets, illustrates books about the Obamas

Published: Tuesday, April 10 2012 10:11 p.m. MDT

Artist Robert T. Barrett in his home studio.

Mark A. Philbrick

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PROVO — Robert Barrett's office at Brigham Young University looks pretty similar to his studio at home.

The same Army green paint smothers each wall, except for one where windows are uniformly spread facing the north. Though this green is not "glamorous," Barrett said it serves its purpose to catch the right amount of light and illuminate the right things.

But the walls aren't what first catch a visitor's eyes.

The light from the windows reflects on remarkable works of art hung around the room. There are paintings stacked on the center table and counters, sometimes in piles leaning against the walls for support.

Certain faces stand out — a young President Barak Obama, his wife, Michelle, President Gordon B. Hinckley, a past prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and more recently, that of Thomas S. Monson, current president of the LDS Church.

Barrett is an artist, illustrator and professor at BYU in the illustration department. He has more than 1,000 paintings credited to his name, some of which are compiled in children's books.

Which is quite pertinent, because he calls himself a visual storyteller.

He grew up in Moab, where his parents first encouraged his love of the craft. He said the closet by his front door in his childhood home wafted a strong smell of oil paint when the door was opened, and paintings by his parents were stacked inside. This included depictions of works by Shakespeare, painted by his mother.

"We kids, my brothers and I, always thought those things were kind of magical," Barrett said.

He started receiving public recognition from teachers in elementary school, and in high school was art editor for the yearbook. He attended the University of Utah and ended up at the University of Iowa for graduate school, earning a master of arts and master of fine arts.

He enjoyed this experience because he was forced to look at art differently and change certain views he had about art.

"Seeing great art or aligning with certain artists, historic or contemporary, you admire helps you craft your own art," Barrett said. "I think you change and your art changes as your thoughts change."

Later, he received a grant to attend the Berlin University of the Arts in Germany. He said this experience was especially great because he served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints there when he was younger.

Barrett started creating art for the LDS Church after being asked to create a black-and-white illustration for the New Era. The magazine's editors loved it, and it was featured on the cover.

Since then, his work with the church hasn't stopped.

For more than 30 years his work has been published in church magazines, and some of his paintings hang in LDS temples and visitors centers worldwide.

One of his most memorable experiences was when he found himself in front of President Monson to show him a painting Barrett created of him wearing a pair of jeans — not the usual attire for one greeting the prophet.

But President Monson put him right at ease. Barrett said he looked at the painting Barrett had done of him, looked at his secretary, and said, "Well, don't you think this looks like a generous, compassionate, honest individual?" winking all the while.

In addition to the president of the church, Barrett has illustrated books about Obama and his wife, Michelle. He illustrated the story of the "Walnut Tree" about President Hinckley's walnut tree that eventually was crafted into the podium in the LDS Conference Center. He also illustrated "Silent Night, Holy Night," the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Barrett has called BYU's visual arts department home for a while now, calling himself an "older" professor in the department. He has been the illustration program leader for 30 years.

He has imparted his knowledge to countless students, some of whom have gone on to establish prestigious careers at places such as DreamWorks and Disney Features.

For Barrett, making a work of art all starts with visualization.

"The creation part is the great part," Barrett said. "Just hypothesizing what you could come up with."

It was as important to Barrett then as it is now to make sure the figure in the drawing is recognizable, to "diminish the distance between the viewer and the content."

"I think every artist has to be relevant to their time," Barrett said.

And for Barrett, with his lengthy curriculum vitae, long list of clientele and "Distinguished Educator in the Arts" award by the Society of Illustrators, he is certainly enjoying living this philosophy every day.

"I think it's a great life," Barrett said.

Email: tackerman@desnews.com

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