When Beverley Taylor Sorenson was six years old she was chosen to be the May Queen. The celebration included dancing around the maypole with other children. It was her earliest memory of feeling special. As an adult her passion became helping children develop, fostering the arts in schools, and encouraging children’s natural inclinations. “That’s what little children do,” she said. “They sing, they dance, they play, and they create.”
Almost 10 years ago the Sorenson Legacy Foundation began collaboration with the McKay School of Education and donated several million dollars to BYU to integrate arts in the elementary education curriculum. The money has been used to fund the very effective BYU ARTS Partnership, consisting of the McKay School of Education, the College of Fine Arts and Communications, and the BYU–Public School Partnership.
In commemoration of the generous donations to BYU from Beverley and the Sorenson family and in celebration of the arts initiative, a 5-foot by 10-foot mural has been installed in the McKay Building above the west entrance. Robert T. Barrett, a professional artist and professor of illustration in the newly formed Department of Design at BYU, was commissioned to produce the work. Sorenson passed away on May 27, 2013, while the mural was being planned.
Former McKay School dean K. Richard Young, who worked closely with Sorenson, wanted to recognize her contributions in a way that would represent her love for children and for the arts. The mural is a reminder of Sorenson’s wish that every child feel valued and that learning be joyful.
“I grew to have tremendous amounts of love and respect for this woman,” Young said. “I didn’t want her to be forgotten. I didn’t want our faculty and students to forget the importance of the arts. Collectively, we decided a painting was a good way to capture her dream and to place something in the school to help us remember her.”
We asked the artist, Robert Barrett, to answer some questions about the mural and his artistic process in creating it.
McKay Today: How did you become involved in this project?
Barrett: I was contacted by the McKay School during the summer of 2013 to see if I would be interested in the mural project. At that point the McKay School was considering several artists. I was asked if I would submit a drawing of what I would propose, given the guidelines they supplied. I thought the idea was exciting and agreed to do a comprehensive drawing. I was subsequently informed that the school liked my concept and was awarding the mural commission to me.
McKay Today: What did you know about the project before you started? How did it evolve?
Barrett presented his idea for the mural.
A second comprehensive drawing was approved.
Barrett built a support to stretch the canvas and then set it up on two easels.
The drawing was transferred to acetate and projected on the canvas.
An underpainting was applied in burnt-sienna oil paint.
Barrett worked on multiple parts of the painting simultaneously.
Models for the painting included grandchildren and neighbors.
Barrett: I knew the painting was being commissioned to honor Beverley Taylor Sorenson, who had given a substantive endowment to the McKay School to foster children’s education in the arts. She had been Queen of the May when she was a child, so it was decided a maypole would feature prominently in the composition. The exact size of the mural and location of installation were determined, after which I did an additional comprehensive drawing—this time adjusting the original composition to be a bit longer and adding some more figures.
McKay Today: How did you arrive at the idea? What was your inspiration?
Barrett: The concept of children’s education in the arts was a given, but through conversations and preliminary work the idea of a celebration of the arts emerged. It was decided that all art disciplines should be represented: visual arts, music, dance, and theater. Different children were cast into roles of performing different art forms, and the balloons were added as a celebratory note.
McKay Today: Take us through the process of preparing to paint the mural.
Barrett: After the second comprehensive drawing was approved, I took it to a printer and had it transferred to acetate. The drawing was large enough that I had to have two transparencies made. I then gridded them off for projecting onto the finished canvas panel.
I built a support from birch panels and supported it with cross beams on the back. After transporting that to my studio, I rolled out and trimmed the gessoed canvas I had ordered for the project and stretched it on the face of the birch panels. I set it up on two easels and gridded it off to correspond to the transparencies I had had made.
Using an opaque projector I projected the transparencies onto the canvas and transferred the comprehensive drawing to scale, moving the opaque projector along a chalk line on the floor to avoid distortion.
After the drawing was transferred, I completed an underpainting with burnt-sienna oil paint over the drawing. I then painted a warm wash over the entire surface and began painting the different figures. My approach is to work on multiple parts of the painting simultaneously, not finishing any one part at the expense of the other parts. This process keeps all parts of the painting consistent with other parts.
After completing the tonal study, we agreed that a color comprehensive would be the next step, so, following the composition of the drawing, I added my thoughts on color. The color study was approved.
McKay Today: Are there any parts that are particularly meaningful to you?
Barrett: Because I am a visual artist, I decided to feature the visual arts prominently in the foreground of the mural. I was able to add diversity of ethnicity, which is something I respond to, but I was encouraged not to go overboard in trying to include every different race.
I painted three of my grandkids and also used several ward members. One of the girls featured sent over a bouquet of flowers one day with a card that told me my art inspired her. Most of the “characters” in the painting were able to stop by and see themselves emerge as the painting progressed, which was a lot of fun. I was asked by the client to repaint one of the figures and add more motion, which I did, and my model and her mother both liked the second version better—as did the client.
McKay Today: What is your favorite part of the creative process?
Barrett: My favorite part of most paintings is coming up with the idea. Prior to starting this project I had just finished a children’s book with a couple of very tightly rendered technical illustrations, so it was a lot of fun to paint bigger. My wife came to my studio one day and remarked, “I can see you’re having a lot more fun painting bigger.”
McKay Today: How long have you been painting? How did you decide that this was your life’s work?
Barrett: I have been painting my entire life, having grown up with both parents who drew and painted. I started my formal art education at the University of Utah in 1967. I served a mission in Germany for two years before continuing my studies. I graduated with a BFA in August 1973 and started graduate school at the University of Iowa two weeks later. I graduated with an MA in 1975 and an MFA in 1976 and then returned to Berlin as the recipient of a German Academic Exchange Grant. After my experience in Germany I began freelancing and working for an exhibit company as an in-house illustrator. I worked for two additional companies, including LDS Graphics, before joining the faculty at BYU in 1982.
McKay Today: What else would you like those who view the painting to know?
Barrett: While working in exhibition design I painted several large-scale murals. However, I had not done a painting of this scale for several years, so it was a fun and rewarding experience.