SALT LAKE CITY — Trevor Southey, a Utah artist who went from BYU teacher to gay icon, died Tuesday in a Salt Lake City hospice. He was 75.
Southey specialized in the human form, something that was considered old-fashioned the late 20th century, according to Utah Museum of Fine Arts Executive Director Gretchen Dietrich.
“He had a real love of the figure, of the body,” Dietrich told The Salt Lake Tribune. “He loved people, and he loved painting and drawing and sculpting people.”
It was a passion that sometimes put him at odds with the administration of BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He wasn’t allowed to have his students paint from nude models and, once, a painting he submitted to a faculty art show caused quite a stir, according to his longtime friend Utah Sen. Jim Dabakis.
Dabakis said the dean persuaded Southey to paint over the naughty bits of that nude image using latex paint, which students quickly learned to peel off.
He attracted more controversy in 1981, when he painted a flying nude man and woman as part of a mural commissioned by Salt Lake City International Airport. A local anti-porn group protested the mural, which was removed by airport authorities and is now in the permanent collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
“I’ve always expressed my ideals as if I were living and painting in Renaissance Italy, not puritanical heartland America,” Southey told the Tribune in 2010.
In 1982, Southey came out as gay. The matter-of-fact way in which he did so made him an icon for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Utah, said Dabakis.
“When he came out, because of the supreme honesty,” said Dabakis, “I think it threw off a lot of people. . He gave a lot of people the courage to say, ‘If he can tell the truth, why can’t we?’?”
Southey, a descendent of European colonists, was born in 1940 in what is now Zimbabwe. He converted to Mormonism after hearing four missionaries singing in harmony and learning of the religion’s belief in the divinity of man.
He studied art in England before receiving two degrees at BYU. He went on to teach at the Provo school until 1977.
Coming out as gay ended Southey’s marriage. He moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1985, where he was eventually joined by his adult children.