“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
– Pablo Picasso
Vernon Murdock began creating art from the moment he first figured out how to hold a pencil. As a very young child, he loved nature; he loved the mountains and the fields that surrounded his home — so he drew them. He enjoyed looking at and watching cartoons — and sketched those too. Vernon’s curiosity about how things worked was no different — he illustrated all the stationary and moving parts. He adored and loved his family and treasured his ancestor’s stories of the past — and eventually depicted his favorite scenes with pencil in hand. He loved and revered his God and his Savior — and in time, he would create a full-color 230-page piece of art to honor them — a gift for his posterity. It hasn’t been an easy road, but Vernon has done his very best to remain an artist as he grew up.
“The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.”
– Auguste Rodin
Vernon L. Murdock was born in 1928 to Thomas and Millie Murdock of Heber City, Utah. Vernon and his siblings grew up in what he describes as, “a tiny three-room house with a path, not a bath but a path,” he laughs as he shares his fondness for his childhood home. “I was born in the house next door and as kids, we were just children of nature. There wasn’t room in the house for more than one or two people to be comfortable, so us [sic] kids lived outside all the time. But we had a good time and we enjoyed life. We grew up not knowing any better; it’s a good thing, a year after I was born the depression hit, so I’m a child of the great depression — I lived through that. We were raised on nothing and didn’t know the difference.”
Vernon’s childhood was full of trepidation, hard work, loss, hope, joy, love, a little bit of mischief, and of course, art. His voice is soft and reserved as he shares some of his memories. “My father was a minor and mother was an excellent cook. She made do with whatever she had. We didn’t have any land, except this little square that this house sits on, and it scared my father really bad to know how to feed us kids because the mines shut down during the depression. The miners were out of work and so in his attempt to feed us, we plowed up every square inch of ground that was available in this block and planted it with vegetables. That was our job as kids; weeding and watering and taking care of the vegetables while dad was out looking for work.”
“Dad found work with the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was part of the Roosevelt (FDR) administration’s effort to provide work for men. Dad was sent to California to work on parks and other projects. He was paid $30 a month and sent $26 and something home for mom and us kids.”
“There was[sic] seven of us kids. My older brother, who I adored, he was my hero. He contracted polio and died when he was only seven and I was only five. That was tough because we couldn’t have a normal funeral with polio. They put his casket by the window inside the house, so we were all outside. We had the funeral on the lawn. We put boards on logs and those were the seats. We sat on the logs for the funeral and looked into the window and that was …” Vernon’s voice drifts off for a moment deep in thought. In the quiet, I silently empathize with his loss. He continues with a smile, “My siblings, with one exception, are still alive. My older sister died when she was 97, my next older sister is 96, and I’m 93. My brother is 91; he lives next door to me. So, here we are, all long in the tooth and all of us still alive. We’ve been blessed that way. [We] always had a great family relationship with each other. [We] loved our brothers and sisters — always have. [We’ve] always been good to each other, which is a great blessing.”
“Every artist was first an amateur.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Murdock family was blessed and they enjoyed many delightful moments together through the years. Whatever life dished out — good or bad — Vernon was always focused on art. “I was always an artist from the time I was able to hold a pencil and that was just what I was. It was a natural gift, I guess, and so I tried to be an artist, become an artist.” He attended BYU for a few years, taking as many art classes as he could, before serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He spent three years in Argentina and fell in love with the culture, language, and people. While in Argentina the Korean War broke out. When Vernon returned from his mission he joined the Air Force ROTC, graduated from BYU, and received his commission in the Air Force. He went through pilot training and became a pilot. He reminisces, “It was quite an experience flying airplanes and helicopters. My favorite was the F86. It was a premier fighter; it was a Korean War-era fighter. It was a good aircraft, it was the last of the old type airplanes that you had direct control of, there was no electrical or pneumatic interference between you and the airplane — you were part of the aircraft.”
After the war ended Vernon went back to BYU. He had been promised an assistantship to teach art. “I went to BYU and ran up the stairs to the dean’s office and said, ‘Here I am’ and lo and behold there was Pharaoh who knew not Joseph. The Dean said, ‘Who are you’ so that was my big balloon burst and I came floating down and hit the ground. So, I got married,” he chuckles and smiles.
Vernon met Elizabeth Joan Vance while attending BYU, “Elizabeth worked at the BYU health center as a nurse and I met her when I went into the BYU health center. I was working as an electrician for the University putting myself through school. I was there fixing the lights at the health center and in walks this little nurse with her pretty little uniform — in those days they wore a white uniform with a white cap — and I said alright I guess that’ll work.” Vernon ended up dating Elizabeth’s sister and not her. Four years later, after returning from the war, he ran into her again and was like WOW! Part of the attraction Vernon shared was, “Knowing she was from a small town in Northern Mexico was kind of an attractive thing for me. I spoke Spanish and loved the culture and all that stuff so it worked great.” A while after they’d been dating Elizabeth and her dorm mates invited Vernon and his dorm mates over for a home-cooked Mexican supper. Vernon shared, “I went over and got heartburn from the Mexican food and I thought it was love so I proposed to her.” That’s what I call heartburn with a happy ending!
Vernon and Elizabeth were married in 1958 and raised four beautiful children together. Vernon designed and built their house on the ‘square’ plot where he used to weed and tend the family’s garden. He and Elizabeth hauled every stone for the gorgeous floor-to-ceiling fireplace and hearth that warmed their family home and a loft that would eventually become his art studio. For the first part of their life together Vernon worked as an art teacher at Wasatch High and Granger High. After two years at each school, he’d had enough and decided to take a leap of faith and work full-time as a free-lance artist — and the journey began.
“Creativity takes courage.”
– Henri Matisse
Working as a freelancer can be tough but it is also incredibly rewarding. Vernon shared, “It was alright if you don’t mind missing a few meals and if your wife doesn’t divorce you for not being a good provider. I did the best I could. So, now I guess I’m known as an old free-lance artist working up in the garret.” Over the next few decades, Vernon would create thousands of images and hundreds of commissions. He worked for the LDS church illustrating Seminary and Institute manuals, a 16-volume Book of Mormon series on church history, and ten volumes of Bible stories. For the Bible series, Vernon illustrated every page in addition to compiling, layout, and type. Pursuing his love of cartoons Vernon also worked for several of the animation studios in California and discovered something he didn’t expect. “I think that the worst job in the world is animation because there’s no creativity there. You’re putting down what somebody else thought of. I did Smurfs, and the Green Hulk, and Spider-Man, and other stuff. You sit there with an animation disk in front of you that you work on and try to get different angles and stuff like that. It was extremely tedious but I had to make money. Now it doesn’t matter because it’s all on computers, now they do beautiful, marvelous, things with computers. I look at them and I can’t believe the effects that they get. I watch these new things that they come out with and I’m amazed but it’s not the same, the creativity is in the way they manipulate the computer.”
Everything changes. Everything is in a constant state of flux and the world of art is no different. As our communities, lives, jobs, families, and talents transform it is important to remember, honor, and learn from the past. Honoring our heritage is an integral part of the creative process for Vernon. Anyone who has seen his historical illustrations and paintings can attest to his attention to detail and uncanny way of capturing the emotions of days gone by. In 2009 The Way It Was: Greater Wasatch County First Events and Historical Commentary compiled by Raymond Green, M.D. and Illustrated by Vernon LeRoy Murdock was published. It is beautiful. The illustrations and full-color paintings are so realistic that one feels like they could pick them up off the page or walk right into a scene. When asked about his experience creating the book Vernon shared, “I wanted to build a bridge to that time. I didn’t want to describe it with my words, which are lacking, to show how it was. There’s only one way to describe the way it was and that’s through artwork because people can’t identify it otherwise. This is all being lost now. The generations now don’t understand at all the processes and so forth that we used in those days to put up hay or to farm or to mine or dig canals, any of that.”
Teaching the new generation about what it took to make Wasatch County what it is today is something Vernon worries about losing. “This valley was totally different than it is now, just a small square of town, without any outbuildings outside the perimeter of town. When I moved into this house I could look out the east window and there wasn’t a house that I could see anywhere. It’s hard for me to drive around the valley now to see all the buildings that are here it’s not the same. It just changed the complexion of the valley entirely, all the Red Ledges buildings, and multi-million dollar homes that are being built up on the hills. It’s just amazing. You go up there and look and you see whole new towns practically everywhere you go where it used to be a pretty rural town now it’s just a huge bedroom community. The people that are moving in are mostly wonderful people but it’s no more a farming town.” When asked what he would say to the community he responded with, “Well . . . it would just be that in order to really appreciate this valley and what it’s about they need to look into the history. They need to at least try and understand how it [Wasatch County] came about and some of the things that created this place. If they don’t then they are missing out on a lot. If they don’t they can’t really appreciate where they are because this valley has a lot of history and it’s all interesting. It was created by sweat, tears, sacrifice, hard work, and courage.”
Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.” – Leonardo da Vinci
Connecting our community’s past to our future is secondary to Vernon’s true love and passion — his God, his Savior, his children, and posterity. During these past few years, Vernon has worked tirelessly on a book written for his children titled: Because He Loves Us. The book is a history of Christianity from before the earth was created to the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in 1830. In the introduction, Vernon wrote, “I am writing especially to my children and grandchildren with the hope that this view of the history of God’s dealings with his children will give them a better understanding of the true nature of God, which in turn, will give them a better understanding of who they really are, and what they are really worth.” A sentiment I believe we could all benefit from.
Both books are true works of art, inspiration, hard work, and love. “In working on these books I find that if I work hard enough and long enough, I begin to feel some promptings, promptings from heaven — but it doesn’t come easy. It wasn’t meant to be. The lord intended us to do our very very very[sic] best and work our hardest and then he kind of steps in and inspires us sometimes.”
Inspiration doesn’t seem to be something that Vernon lacks. From his illustrations to his historical paintings to the commissions he’s asked to create, Vernon captures the vision and increases it beyond his patron’s imaginations. Michael Moulton, Chairman of the Heber City Historic Preservation Commission, commissioned Vernon to create a painting of the Center Creek Cemetery for the LDS church and shared this about his experience, “I took him there [Center Creek Cemetery] and said this is what I see and a few months later he came back with what I had described enhanced at least 200%! It is the most gorgeous, beautiful, inspiring, painting . . . it stands in the Heber East Stake Center now. As far as I’m concerned he is one of the best historical painters out there. I just love everything that he does . . . they’re all marvelous!”
“The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration.”
– Claude Monet
When asked about his inspiration Vernon shared, “Usually I have an emotional connection to something. I remember it and go, ya, I need to do that, record that. Nature inspires me. Timpanogos inspires me. I made a trip up to the mountains a few days ago just to get back in the hills and you know every time you get up into the mountains, up into the forest, it’s good for the soul. Those are the things I like to paint, stuff that is good for the soul . . . any creating process kind of connects you with the joy that our Father in heaven had of creation. You begin to understand that in creating things you get joy and that doesn’t mean just the visual arts or music or anything like that, it can be creating anything. You know the work of creation is something that everyone needs to experience.”
Vernon has experienced an incredible life over the last 93 years; from being a child of the depression to sneaking peas on the vine from the back of a wagon on its way to the pea cannery, to losing a beloved brother, to learning to cherish family. From schooling to war and flying, to work, marriage, and children, to the fulfilling of dreams and the loss of others, and through it all, Vernon captured his childhood love of art and figured out how to “remain an artist once he grew up.”
“Everyone talks about the creative process but I always start with a pencil first — you’ve got to get it as right as you can. At 93 years of age, everything I do is old fashion [but] I hope my talents are still needed for something.”