MIDWAY — It’s been almost two months now, and Valoy Eaton is painting his way through the grief as best he can. For 58 years they were together, inseparable, a dynamic duo, an impenetrable team. She did everything except hold the brush.
So he keeps painting, not least because he knows that’s exactly what she’d want him to do.
He can still remember the day she laid down the law.
He was coaching basketball and teaching art at Cyprus High School in Magna while doing a little painting on the side — emphasis on little. Most of his free time was spent golfing, fishing and playing ball with his coaching buddies.
Finally, Ellie Eaton had had enough.
“I don’t know if I want to be married to someone who has talent and all he wants to do is play!” she announced.
Utah’s famed landscape artist, a man Sen. Orrin Hatch calls “one of the best painters in the world today,” smiles at the memory.
“Without Ellie,” he says, his eyes resting on the $30,000 paintings on the wall that have sold and are waiting for their new owners to come and get them, “it would not have happened.”
But now he’s without Ellie. She died at 77 this past June 26 following complications from a stroke.
She was a year older. She had been student body president — and a cheerleader — at Uintah High School in their hometown of Vernal when he was a junior. She went away to Utah State for her freshman year of college, but when Valoy graduated the next spring he asked her to marry him, she said yes, and they headed off together to BYU, where a basketball scholarship awaited the 6-foot-3 Eaton.
He majored in art but concentrated on basketball, which led to his decision to take the coaching job at Cyprus, which led, eventually, to Ellie lowering the boom.
After he got serious about his paintings, and art lovers got serious about buying them, they agreed that he’d quit being a schoolteacher when he made more money from his art than from the Granite School District.
It wasn’t long before that day came, and over time the partnership they created — basically, Valoy Eaton Inc. — would become a beacon for aspiring starving artists everywhere.
He painted, she organized. He honed his special talent of capturing light on canvas, she made the frames, called the galleries, set up the shows, did the selling.
“She was involved in every painting we ever did,” says Valoy.
Ellie counted them up once and figured they’d sold 2,000 paintings – and that was 10 years ago. At first a Valoy Eaton original didn’t sell for much — in the early days Ellie and Valoy traded them for groceries at Pete Coleman’s store in Midway — but now they routinely sell for thousands. The Springville Art Museum has one that cost $50,000. Private collections are packed with them up and down the Wasatch Front and around the world. No less than 50 hang in LDS temples. Utah has produced few artists more popular or prolific.
“There’s a lot of religion in it for me,” says Valoy. “Painting gives me an extreme appreciation of how the Lord created nature and us. Most everything starts with sunshine hitting something. Everyday situations in life, under the right circumstances, can be as profound as anything you can pick to paint.”
The varied landscape of Utah has provided his lifelong inspiration. That and Ellie. She can be seen in no less than 31 of his paintings.
The crazy thing is, now that he could fish and golf all he wants, he’d rather paint.
“I’m chained to the easel,” he smiles. “It’s ingrained in me. I’ll probably keel over with a brush in my hands. I keep wondering if in the next life they’ll even need a painter.”
Besides, he adds, painting helps him more than ever now that Ellie’s gone.
He’s not alone. All his five children live between Mapleton and Midway, and there are 26 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren with recitals and games to attend. That includes Preston Eaton, a senior basketball star at Southern Virginia University, and Preston’s younger sister Lexi, a star on the BYU women’s basketball team that made it to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament last season.
“I’m now known as Lexi Eaton’s grandfather,” beams Valoy.
But in his artist’s eye he’ll forever be Ellie Eaton’s husband. Without her, he’d have never seen the light.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: [email protected]