A Brush With Disaster
Oil painting brush
A Lesson from a Master

Ron Taylor, BYH Class of 1957
Ron Taylor, 1957

By Ron S. Taylor
BYH Class of 1957

My goal in life when I first entered the doors at BY High School as a sophomore was to become an artist. That was my primary focus. Everything else was simply secondary.

Art, as far as I knew, was the only possible thing in my life that I could weakly describe as a talent. Therefore, if I didn't take anything else very seriously, I, at least, approached my art classes with great verve.

I began high school, I believe, the same year Alex Darais began his first year as BY High's art teacher. We immediately developed a bond of friendship that I treasured. I listened carefully to every word he spoke. To this day I still remember many of the lessons he taught about life and art.

One lesson, however, stands out as one of the most shocking lessons of my life. It was a lesson he took the time to teach just me. It was personal and it was powerful.

Let me explain. During the course of my sophomore year, Alex Darais introduced a new element to our art class experience. He established what he called the "Little Louvre." Named after the famous Louvre Museum in France, this would be a juried event by professors at the University in which the best student artwork of the year would be entered. The judges would give first, second, and honorable mention awards. The first place entry was made a permanent part of the high school's library art collection.

There were many gifted artists in those art classes, but I set out with great determination to win that first place award.

My sophomore year I did not win first place. As I recall I was awarded an honorable mention.

As a junior I took home a second-place ribbon. The librarian even liked my entry enough that year she bought it for the BYH library collection.

As I approached my senior year I became more focused than ever. I had to win the Little Louvre art show that year. My whole life, I felt, depended on it.

Now, you need to know something about Alex. He is an artist's artist. To Alex, art is life and life is art. He believes art is about expressing one's self. He taught it is about seeing, really seeing. Form, proportion, texture, and contrasting shades of light and dark are critical. He taught us about design and balance.

He taught us, art is not about simply reproducing what a camera can do. Your own interpretation of life and its core meaning is what produces great art.

"Focus on the essentials," he said. "Put something of yourself into every thing you do -- make it uniquely yours."

One day toward the end of the year when, as students, we began to finish our preparations for the art show, I was in class working on a painting. This painting was to be my entry in the contest. I was working on some of the final details before calling it finished and formally entering it in the Little Louvre competition. It was an oil painting -- a portrait of a young man.

As I worked meticulously on the portrait, Alex stood behind me watching, as he often did. After five or ten minutes he asked if he could offer a suggestion.

"Sure," I responded.

Borrowing my palette and brushes, he took my place, sitting in my seat. He took a long look at my artwork before him.

This was not something new. This was how we often learned exactly what it was that he was trying to teach. It was part of being in Alex's classes.

He slowly took a big tube of white paint and extruded a large mound of it on the palette. Then he pulled out a large brush and very carefully began to mix, talking about it as he did so, a little red, then a touch of yellow and blue, adding a few other colors as well, into the white.

The result was a nice warm grey. After carefully creating this thick pool of grey on the palette, he turned again to the painting. He looked at it for some time all the while squinting his eyes and turning his head from side to side.

Then, in a very methodical and precise manner, he took that large brush, filled with grey oil paint, and blotted out one entire eye of the boy in the painting. Then, in the same precise manner, he blotted out the other eye.

Following the same pattern, he enlarged his warm grey patches over much of the boy's head. Then, handing me the palette and the brush, said: "Ron, you're getting too picky, and you're focusing on the wrong details."

That was it. End of lesson.

Our apologies to Norman Rockwell

I just stood there aghast.

I didn't know how to respond to what had just happened. My future died. My hopes vanished. I respected Alex too much to be mad. But I couldn't totally grasp why he had just done this.

I came to class in the days that followed, but I was totally adrift. I had no path to follow -- no internal compass to guide me.

I was awash in a flow of turbulent emotion that left me aimless. I was certainly not producing anything in art class. I was there, but nothing more.

During those next few days, Alex pushed me to get to work on something -- to start a new project. I was hardly in the mood to respond in any meaningful way.

On one of those days, out of frustration and wanting to at least appear to be doing something, I crafted a crude ink pen from a tongue depressor, and began drawing on unused scraps of watercolor paper with my rudimentary pen and a full supply of India ink.

I had recently seen the movie, Giant, with James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson. It had left images in my head of people trying to scratch out a living on a cattle ranch in that barren Texas landscape.

Using those images, I began to draw. I did several simple drawings in each class. It was a good emotional outlet. But at the end of each class, I threw these drawings in the garbage can as I left.

After a week or so of this, Alex invited me into his office. When I walked in I found him sitting behind his desk, and there on the top of his desk were all of these drawings. He had pulled them from the trash each day and kept them in his office. He said he thought they were good, and that I should select the best of them to enter into the Little Louvre exhibit.

I don't remember exactly how I responded. I think I thanked him in some clumsy way for his concern and interest, but politely resisted his suggestion.

Alex didn't lose his enthusiasm. He took his own time to mount and enter these roughly drawn ink drawings into the exhibit in my behalf, but without my help or knowledge.

A few days later, I wandered for the first time through the final Little Louvre exhibit to see who had won the various ribbons. Hanging there, on those pen and ink drawings, was the first-place ribbon. I was dumbfounded. How could it be? What had just happened?

India ink sketch by Ron Taylor, BYH Class of 1957
India ink sketch by Ron Taylor circa 1957

Fifty years later, I still think about that experience. Iím not sure I learned all that Alex was trying to teach me. I did learn that it was important to look for the positive in criticisms.

I donít generally get my feelings hurt when people express feelings contrary to mine. Thatís simply the nature of things. I have found it valuable to listen carefully to others because there is always something new to learn.

And Iíve learned that when you focus too much on the little details of a project, you can lose sight of what it is youíre really trying to do. You should always find the balance.

No, I didnít pursue art as a career.

But every day I have used the insights I gained from those art classes.

After graduating from BYU, Iíve enjoyed a life-long career in advertising and public relations. It has been a career where art is basic to the work, and you need something of a thick skin. I believe I've succeeded in large measure because of the lessons I learned from Alex -- and particularly that one lesson.

Alex and I are still friends. I used to see him more than I do now, but I work with his son, Norm (BYH Class of 1964), just about everyday.

Seven years ago, when Norm and I visited Alex in his home, Alex gave me a book produced by BYU containing some of his finest artwork and poetry. On an inside page near the front of the book, among other things, he wrote: ďPS, you never did complete that last assignment!Ē

I guess I didnít.

But I did learn Alex's lesson of a lifetime, and it has served me well.

Ron S. Taylor, 2007
Ron S. Taylor, 2007

Alex B. Darais, BYH Art Teacher
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Alex Darais