Mullen: An Artists Eternal Sunshine

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The home at U Street and First Avenue in Salt Lake City, with its four stories, wide stairways and wooden pocket doors, big attic and dark basement, has always been "a kid's dream -- the kind of place you could play and hide in and explore."

That is how Kisi Clawson Watkins, of Provo, describes the house, built near the end of the 19th century. And Watkins should know. Her parents, Richard and Dorothy Clawson, bought the place at auction from the University of Utah in 1973 "as is." That means the Clawsons got an aging interior to renovate and a tangled, overgrown yard to spruce up. But then they also got a treasure trove tucked into the attic and basement: hundreds of oil paintings, watercolors, pencil sketches and children's book illustrations by Florence Ware -- one of Utah's most prolific and prominent 20th century artists, who died in 1971 at age 80. When not traveling the globe to study and paint, Florence lived her whole life in the home, which was designed by her father, architect Walter Ware. Among other Salt Lake structures, Walter designed the historically significant First Presbyterian and First Christian Science churches.

When Dorothy Clawson died last May, Richard and his children tackled the Ware art collection. The family donated important documents and photographs to the state Historical Society and the U. of U. Special Collections (Walter and Florence were U. of U. graduates and teachers). The Clawson family kept some of the work. The remaining 265 items were appraised and will be sold at Clayton Williams Fine Art, 60 E. South Temple, beginning with an invitation-only opening on March 17.

How to begin describing this woman's contributions to Utah art?

Art historians typically rank Florence Ware's work with that of fellow artists Minerva Tiechert, J.T. Harwood (whom Ware studied under) and LeConte Stewart. She painted hundreds of still lifes, specializing in the brilliant gloss and velvet textures of flowers. She painted portraits -- her friend and Utah artist Ted Wassmer was a frequent model. Ware traveled with Wassmer throughout the '30s to the Teton Mountains, Santa Fe and Taos, N.M., and to Mexico.

"Her love affair with painting the Tetons lasted a lifetime," says Wassmer, who recently celebrated his 94th birthday.

But most Utahns know Ware best from their visits to Kingsbury Hall on the U. of U. campus. In 1936, Ware was commissioned by the Depression-era Works Projects Administration as the lead artist for the hall's north and south murals -- a colorful celebration of art, dance and drama with renditions of Shakespeare, Chinese masks, Greek playwrights and even ventriloquist's dummy Charlie McCarthy. Wassmer posed for 15 of the male figures, and Ware's own idealized face adorns the body of a prima ballerina.

Gallery owner Williams, thrilled by the find, says, "I was shocked when I saw it. I was expecting maybe four or five paintings. Nothing like this."

In the gallery's back room, Williams showed me scores of compositions, ranging from tiny pencil sketches to oil portraits. There is a watercolor series of cabins near Brighton, and dozens of still lifes. Ware studied at the Chicago Art Institute and in Provincetown, Mass., and Laguna Beach, Calif. Work from those periods will hang in the Williams show.

Florence Ware died in Salt Lake. She never married and left no survivors. But to Kisi Clawson Watkins, her influence permeates the old Avenues home. "We have found so many images of her life, I feel like she's family now," Watkins says. "I would do anything I can to honor and value her life."