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Like anyone with a long and rich life, Salt Lake City artist Ted Wassmer was known for many things.
There were his poetic watercolors, which seemed to grace the walls of every gallery and art museum in the state. There was his charm as a raconteur and his ebullient letters, thousands of them, sent regularly to his vast network of friends. And of course, there was his remarkable creative life as a painter, which lasted longer than anyone might have reasonably expected.
Wassmer, a prolific artist who donated hundreds of artworks to Utah museums and kept painting until his final weeks, died Sunday at a Salt Lake City nursing home. He was 96.
"He was truly an artist of the people," said friend and Utah arts activist Linda Hunt. "He was a man of enormous generosity and humanity who made an amazing contribution to the culture of this city."
In recent years Wassmer was generally recognized as Utah's oldest working artist. He produced hundreds of quickly rendered watercolors - mostly abstracts and images of human figures - from his Salt Lake City studio, and until the past few months was still exhibiting new paintings in Utah galleries.
Wassmer also was renowned for his generosity. He gave paintings frequently to his many friends and acquaintances, enclosing them with the letters he wrote daily. When a collector's house burned down, destroying her "wall of Wassmers," the artist sent her new paintings, free of charge. Wassmer and his late wife, artist Judy Farnsworth Lund, also donated more than 1,500 artworks from their personal collection to seven museums around the state.
"He once told me, 'I hope I'm not famous as the person who gave art to all the museums,' " said Vern Swanson, director of the Springville Museum of Art, which will host a Wassmer tribute show early next year. "He was one of the grand old masters. He's given a lot to the Utah artistic community."
Born in 1910 in Salt Lake City, Theodore Milton Wassmer said he was inspired to become an artist at 17 after watching Frank Zimbeaux do a painting of a Salt Lake City theatre. Later he studied art under noted Utah painter Florence Ware and helped her paint backgrounds for the murals inside the University of Utah's Kingsbury Hall.
Wassmer served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. During a furlough in 1944, he toured Mexico and visited Diego Rivera in his studio. In 1945, after a long courtship, Wassmer married Lund in New York City. An accomplished artist in her own right, Lund had been Utah director of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which found Depression-era work for artists on public projects.
While in New York Wassmer studied under noted Japanese-American artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi, whose somber paintings of human figures influenced his work. Wassmer and Lund lived in upstate New York for more than 30 years before returning to Utah in 1985.
Despite his accomplishments, Wassmer at that time was largely unknown in Salt Lake City. Dolores Chase thought the debonair man was a collector when he strolled into her gallery in 1986.
"He invited me to his studio and I was amazed by his body of work," she said. Chase's gallery became the first in Utah to represent Wassmer and sold his paintings for 15 years.
Lund died of a stroke in 1996 at age 84. The couple had no children. But Wassmer kept on painting dancers and other figures in his fluid, spontaneous style.
"He used a lot of chance in his work," said Karen Horne, whose Salt Lake City gallery hosted a solo show of Wassmer's paintings earlier this year. "He was very playful. He'd start something without knowing what it would become."
A social man, the handsome Wassmer hosted frequent gatherings at his condo near the University of Utah, where he'd play the piano and hold forth in his trademark white shirt and silver toupee. Until recently he wrote up to 25 letters each day. He once told a reporter that he received more than 400 Christmas cards and replied to all of them.
Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. proclaimed Feb. 23, 2005 - Wassmer's 95th birthday - as Theodore Wassmer Day in Utah. When Huntsman asked him the secret to his long and healthy life, Wassmer answered, "I look forward to each new day as a gift, with many new discoveries yet to unfold."
Plans are underway for a memorial service for Wassmer this weekend in Salt Lake City.