“I do art work for people. I feel like I have to be relating to somebody. That’s important to me to be able to be of use, of value.”
Birth: Memphis, Tennessee (1914)
Education: Memphis Technical High School, The Academy of Art in Chicago
Family: 1st wife: Louise Prohaska. Children Merrily, Wendy, and David; 2nd wife: Maud. Children Scott and Dawn
Residences: Memphis, Tennessee; Chicago, Illinois; Westport, Connecticut; Sarasota, Florida
Occupations: Illustrator, Cartographer, Portraitist
Style/Genre: The Chicago Gang of Illustrators, Suburban Americana
A southerner, Thornton Robyn Utz was born in Memphis, Tennessee where his father worked as a craftsman in horse-drawn carriage trimming and later, automobile upholstery. From a very young age, Utz began drawing and illustrating without any professional training. He made his own comic strips to pass out to schoolmates. By high school, Utz had received encouragement from his teachers to pursue a career in the arts. His passion for art and illustration would build into a defining style that heavily influenced advertising and illustration throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Utz’s illustrations were so popular he received steady work before he even graduated from Memphis Technical High School. Utz was quick to make friends throughout his life, and at Memphis Technical, he met a young man by the name of Euclid Shook, who became his artistic partner for several years. The two worked semi-professionally on advertisements and boards for fairs and carnivals across the state. They graduated from high school in 1933 and together enrolled in The Academy of Art in Chicago.
While studying art at the academy, Utz shopped his skills around to various advertising firms and print shops looking for work. His time in Chicago helped form his defining illustrative style. Looking back, Utz believed the time was wasted, saying, “I don’t think I learned much that year–except that I would never learn art in art school.” Much to the artist’s own chagrin, his style was developed mostly in Chicago because of his schooling and the influence of his relationships, the most important of which were with fellow artists and future Post illustrator Coby Whitmore and Ben Stahl. They all later became prominent members of The Chicago Gang of illustrators, friends who worked together to build a synonymous style for minimalist illustration. Utz met his first wife, Louise Prohaska, through Ben Stahl while in Chicago. The two fell in love over the course of a long period, eventually marrying on March 6, 1940.
Utz received his first major illustration contracts designing color page art for Bell Aircobra, which lead to his discovery by The Saturday Evening Post for an illustration and agent signing in 1944. Utz quickly settled his family just outside of New York City in Westport, Connecticut, where he could work for large publications and advertising firms from home while helping to raise two daughters and a son. Utz was fascinated by the Americana style and often chose to depict suburban families living their every day lives. Some of his favorite artistic choices involved objects of technology and movement such as buses, trains, and cars. The idea of mass transportation and its commentary on the speed of the times fascinated the southern boy whose father had to shift from working on horse carriages to automobiles.
By the 1950s, Utz was using the daily interactions in his personal life to reach out to the rest of the country through art. His illustrations of American families going to work, cooking, cleaning, mowing the yard, and completing other chores made for a strong connection to the sensibilities of the time. His depictions of the successes and humors of American stereotypes resonated with the country’s citizens in the booming post-war economy. His work made him one of the most popular illustrators in post-war America, fetching commissions for forty-five covers for The Saturday Evening Post in a decade.
In the mid-1960s, Utz’s wife Louise fell ill and the artist took time off from his work to take care of her at home. The family moved to Sarasota, Florida, for her health, where Utz was able to return to his work as an artist. He founded a cartography business designing maps. After Louise’s death, he eventually remarried and had more children. He sold his business and became a successful portrait artist, completing works for President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Amy, and even commissions for the Princess of Monaco. He died in the year 2000.