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Mabel Pearl Frazer
(West Jordan, UT, 1887 - 1981, Salt Lake City, UT)
Mabel Pearl Frazer is described by Robert S. Olpin as a "mainstay on the University of Utah's Department of Art faculty from 1921 until 1953." Extremely versatile, her teaching responsibilities included no less than nine different subject areas including art history, textile design, sculpture, ceramics, serigraphy, design, painting, landscape painting, and human anatomy.
Frazer was born in West Jordan, Utah, on August 28, 1887, but her family soon moved to the small town of Beaver, Utah. The eldest of four children, she valued her education and strongly resented having to put off starting school so she could help with the housework when her younger sister Leha was born.
Mabel graduated with honors from what was then the Beaver branch of the Brigham Young Academy (later known as the Murdock Academy). A very independent personality, she became devoted to art at a very early age. Her sister described her this way: "Her religion and her art took precedence over everything else in her life, she couldn't be bothered with anyone or anything else."
Frazer had some early childhood experiences that encouraged her later exploration of many forms of art. Her grandfather was a rock mason, and Mabel made a "nuisance" of herself at the family's rock quarry. Her family also owned a printing office, and it was her responsibility to be the type setter. In addition, her father had a blacksmith shop, a carpentry shop, and what she called a "stone sawmill." Working in and being exposed to a variety of art-related jobs were rich experiences for Mabel, the budding artist.
After her graduation from the Academy, she boarded the stage that went to Milford and caught the train to take her to Salt Lake City to attend college. Edwin Evans was her first art professor. She idolized him, and he and his wife became her life-long friends.
Mabel Frazer graduated from the University of Utah in 1914. She took a teaching position at Lewis Junior High School in Ogden, just long enough to finance her life-long dream of studying in New York. She studied in New York at the Art Students League under Frank Vincent Drumond. He was so impressed by her that he asked her to teach some of his classes. While in New York, Mabel also took classes at the School of Industrial Art.
After returning to Utah in 1918, Frazer began teaching at the College of Southern Utah in Cedar City. She then returned to New York to study at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design. One day, while she was making a copy of Rembrandt's Daughter in Law in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the President of the University of Utah, President Widtsoe, saw her working and invited her to join the art faculty.
Mabel Pearl Frazer joined the University of Utah art staff in 1920 and remained there until her retirement 33 years later. She held strong views which she passed on to her students: "An artist must have something to say. Art is just another language and the would-be painter should at least learn the rudiments of the language, color, composition, drawing, etc." She was personally instrumental in expanding the art department to include many new disciplines. She handled many managerial duties but was not appointed to the rank of associate professor until three years before her retirement. At one time, one of her former students, who was not even a college graduate, was appointed over her and was made head of the art department. Frazer believed she was passed over for promotion because she was a woman.
Mabel Frazer has been described by some as "not prolific." When her estate was appraised in 1981, it included over 386 works, but most of those were unfinished oil paintings. Her early style was reminiscent of Birger Sandzen, although less fauvist (her colors were not as bright) and more impressionistic (see Sunrise, North Rim Grand Canyon, 1928). However, in 1930 she went to Europe, spending 14 months in Italy where she was influenced by her studies of the old masters and by various artists. However, she clung tenaciously to her own purpose, not allowing herself to be confused by her exposure to a wide array of styles and art. She returned from Europe ready to "resume the struggle with old problems from a new angle," and to be an "American artist."
Although she maintained that she did not belong to any school (A group of artists espousing a particular approach and philosophy), while in Europe, Frazer did change her style somewhat, her paintings becoming flatter, with more simplified, angular, and skewed shapes (see Venice Canal, 1930).
In an interview published in the November 1933 issue of the Improvement Era (an LDS magazine), she stated her ideology: "The vitality of art is life. All great art must have roots deep in a native soil. It can neither be borrowed nor lent. Things expressed without deep convictions can never be greatly convincing, rarely are they more than bits of superficial pettiness. That briefly, sums up my philosophy of art, and I try to live up to it."
Frazer showed her work in Utah, New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Portland, and Florence, Italy. While studying in Florence, two of her Utah paintings were exhibited in the Uffizi gallery. Among her last shows was a retrospective held in 1980; over 200 people attended to honor this Utah artist. She had a long and active artistic career until her death at age 94.
Information obtained from the following sources:
1. Biography written by the artist's sister; Madeline F. Waldis, collection of the Springville Museum of Art research library.
2. Utah Art, Swanson, Olpin, and Seifrit.
3. 100 Years of Utah Painting, James L. Haseltine.
4. Dictionary of Utah Art, Robert S. Olpin.
5. Improvement Era, Vol. 36, November 1933, p. 773, Salt Lake City, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints