From Moab to magic, mischief and miracle

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Considered by his peers the Norman Rockwell of this generation, Robert T. Barrett, Professor at BYU and accomplished artist, will receive the distinguished Phi Kappa Phi award this August.

On the topmost floor of the Harris Fine Art Center lies the humble studio of visual arts professor Robert T. Barrett. Framed canvases adorning the army green walls, a small sink in the corner covered in paint, figure sketches stacked on hand and hundreds of books indicate the history of this visual storyteller.

Born in Moab to artists in their own right, Barrett recalls growing up with the smell of his mother’s oil paintings wafting from the closet by the front door.

“We were always encouraged to do art,” said Barrett recalling summer camps he attended with his younger brother Bill a Professor of computer science at BYU.

It wasn’t until after his mission that Barrett decided to continue his passion for art. He said he recalls his parents calling for a serious sit down where they asked if he was sure of his choice.

“Because starving artist,” he said “that designation had to come from somewhere.”

Barrett’s first piece was a black and white illustration the Church asked him to do that ended up on the cover of a 1978 New Era.

“I had the conviction that I’d end up working for the church,” he said.

Now Barrett is to receive the Phi Kappa Phi Artist Award from the nation’s oldest, largest and most selective all-discipline honor society. According to their website, Phi Kappa Phi was was founded in 1897, the highest level of academia to “recognize and promote academic excellence in all fields of higher education and to engage the community of scholars in service to others.”

Howard Grey, a professor of therapeutic recreation and former Phi Kappa Phi president at BYU has known Barret for several years and nominated him two years ago for the Artist Award.

“There’s a magic and mischief (in Barrett’s art) that makes you smile and celebrate realism … a miracle when paper and pen makes things come to life,” Grey said. “He has a very contagious personality, something poison control should probably find a cure for because it is so addicting.”

Barrett’s recent textbook publication “Life Drawing” is being used at several universities and has been translated into Japanese and Dutch. Fans in Italy and Norway have expressed their appreciation as well.

Don Mullan, an author and humanitarian in Ireland, asked Barrett’s permission to use his original illustrations from “Silent Night, Holy Night” the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 as part of an exhibit at the Church of St. Nikolas at Messines, France. The exhibit will open in 2014 as a centennial commemoration of the truce. Mullan asked to use Barrett’s illustrations, stating in an email how “deeply moving and evocative” the pieces were.

“Thousands upon thousands of people would come to see them each year and they would add tremendously to creating a sacred space of peace upon our wounded earth,” Mullan said.

Barret was recently featured in the Deseret News, Daily Herald and BYU News for his commission to update the series of Latter-day Saint prophet illustrations located in the Harmon Building with a portrait of President Thomas S. Monson and his illustrations in children’s books about President Obama and his wife Michelle.

The illustrations of Obama and his wife found their way to Robert Neubecker, a children’s book writer and illustrator. Neubecker stated in an email that he awarded the illustrations for “the Norman Rockwell everyday American ordinariness that Barrett captures beautifully.”

Barrett said he looks forward to the other children’s books he is currently involved with, although he never initially considered himself a children’s illustrator. Barrett also alluded to a painting he will eventually create called “Eventide,” a scene between Christ and the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

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