Artist Ortho Fairbanks' last name was already synonymous with sculpting in Utah before he had even rolled his first snake out of clay.
With a grandfather and uncles already celebrated sculptors, some would shy away from sculpting, to escape the long shadows they cast. But Fairbanks passionately took up the family business and became a recognized artist and sculptor in his own right.
"Everyone in the family is very supportive with each other," Fairbanks said. "When all the family would get together, we would talk art. I've always been interested in art. I just seemed to have the desire."
Fairbanks is the featured artist this year for the Days of '47 Fine Art Show, which continues Monday and Tuesday in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in downtown Salt Lake City. He said he has exhibited at the Days of '47 art show for years and is excited about the honor.
From an early age, the stage was set for Fairbanks' artistic education. His grandfather was John B. Fairbanks, one of five early artists sent by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Paris to study so that they could, among other things, paint the murals in the Salt Lake Temple.
Fairbanks remembers the early lessons he received at the easel of his grandfather. "I remember going down to his farm to visit and going into his studio where he'd teach me how to do things like paint a shoe."
His' grandfather also inspired his uncles, John Leo and Avard Fairbanks, who both became accomplished artists. Ortho studied under Avard, and was his assistant for several years. After Avard's death in 1987, Ortho completed many of Avard's works that had yet to be finished.
With such an emphasis on art in his family, Ortho Fairbanks admits that it is hard to distinguish whether his family's talent and love of art are hereditary or environmental.
Fairbank's artistic talents run through a wide variety of mediums, and he plans to exhibit various works for the Days of '47 show, including paintings, busts and sculptures. It is mainly for his bronze sculptures and busts, though, that he has carved out a name for himself. "There's more of a demand for sculptors, because not as many people like to do it. It's kind of a blue-collar job; you get dirty, and a lot of work has to go into it."
Some of Fairbanks' more famous works include busts of Brigham Young, David O. McKay and Ezra Taft Benson, which can be found in the LDS Conference Center, the sculpture of the Christmas Box Hope Angel at the Salt Lake City Cemetery, the statue of Eliza R. Snow at the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers building, the David O. McKay statue at Utah Valley State College and a statue of Hawaii's King Kamehameha found at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Though Fairbanks has done very little for the LDS Church by commission, much of his art reflects his strong religious beliefs, and many of the pieces find their way to LDS Church museums and buildings. Fairbanks has done many busts and sculptures of famous Latter-day Saints throughout his career, because "the church is close to my heart," he said. Fairbanks has done likenesses of Hyrum Smith, Orson Pratt and even Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television.
One special church experience came when Fairbanks was living in Italy and was put in contact with LDS Church member Don Vincent De Francesca. Francesca and Fairbanks wrote letters back and forth, in which Francesca related the story of his conversion to the LDS Church, and Fairbanks requested photos of Francesca to do a sculpture of him. Later, back in Utah, Fairbanks shared the story of Francesca's conversion, and his letters were used to re-create the story for the film "How Rare a Possession."
Fairbanks and his wife, Myrna, recently returned from a trip to Saxony, Germany, where they were on hand for the dedication of the Karl G. Maeser statue at the LDS Dresden Stake Center. The statue was made from the same cast Fairbanks created 50 years earlier for the Maeser statue that is now on the campus of Brigham Young University.
"A lot of people at the ceremony said the statue looked a lot like Ortho, but we tried to explain that when it was made, it was 50 years ago, and Ortho was much younger and didn't have a beard back then," Myrna Fairbanks said.
Ortho Fairbanks said that he tries to tell a story with each sculpture he works on, and the Maeser statue is a good example of that. "With Maeser, there is ivy going up the back of his leg," Fairbanks said. "Halls covered in ivy symbolize higher education. His hand behind his back is characteristic of a European man. The look on his face is him looking to the future and the scriptures in his hand show that he was religious."
For now the Fairbanks family's streak of artists appears to be in good hands Ortho Fairbanks' young grandson, Andrew Farr, hangs around his grandfather's studio to pick up tips on sculpting, although wood is Farr's medium of choice.With so many relatives as artists, Ortho Fairbanks likes the idea of a giant Fairbanks family retrospective show but he says that, to be able to put on that show, "it would take a really large hall."
E-mail: [email protected]