“Richard Gunn: Helping Students ‘See’” Ensign, Aug. 1987, 48–49
It was the first big art museum young Richard Gunn had ever visited. Inside, he saw a man sitting on a little canvas stool, looking at a painting. Richard looked at the man and the painting for a few seconds, then went on to see the rest of the exhibits. As he left the museum, he saw the same man, still sitting on the stool and looking at the same painting. “What did I miss?” Richard wondered. “I had seen every piece of art in the museum, and he was still looking at the first picture.”
That experience proved to be an important moment in Richard Gunn’s life. “That man had seen beauty that I had not seen,” he says. Since then, he has learned not only to observe and search for beauty, but, as a teacher of art, graphics, and art history at Brigham Young University, has helped students learn to become better observers as well. He helps whomever he meets to see more clearly.
Richard Gunn was born in 1918 in Salt Lake City. Some of his pioneer ancestors had assisted in the construction of the Salt Lake Tabernacle, and even as a boy he exhibited the same love of good craftsmanship that they put into constructing the Tabernacle. “I remember standing in front of the building and thinking with a certain degree of pride that some of my ancestors had knocked the dowels into place,” he says.
Richard attended the University of Utah, where he met his wife, Jeanne. He soon knew that he wanted to marry her, but she was determined to complete her education. So she finished school, and a long engagement followed while he served a mission and she taught school in Provo. When Brother Gunn returned from his mission, the couple were married.
During World War II he enlisted in the army and was sent to India. After his military service, Brother and Sister Gunn lived in Salt Lake City, where he worked at an advertising agency. A short while later, they returned to Provo so that he could complete his art studies at Brigham Young University. It was there, while he struggled to finish his schooling, that the superintendent of Provo schools asked Richard to teach art at Dixon Junior High. When Richard protested that he didn’t yet have his art degree, the superintendent told him he could work on his degree while teaching.
After one year of teaching, Richard was invited to be the Springville, Utah, Art Gallery curator, a position he held for many years. During those years, the Gunns were also busy raising their family—which would eventually number six children. Brother Gunn received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from BYU, then taught art education there—taking time off long enough to complete a Ph.D. at Stanford University. He then returned to BYU, where he taught commercial art, drawing, and art history. He has been named Professor of the Year and has received the Maeser Award and other teaching awards. “His dedication to teaching is an inspiration,” says Sister Gunn. “He gave up many lucrative job offers to be a teacher.”
One of the things Brother Gunn likes best about teaching is the opportunity not only for his students to learn from him, but for him to learn from them. He recalls one particular experience that occurred while he was teaching at Dixon. He and several students had driven to central Utah to paint. Their car broke down in a small town on the way, and the students took some time to look around the area while he waited for the car to be fixed.
One student excitedly ran up to Brother Gunn, asking him to come with him. Thinking that one of the students had been injured, Brother Gunn went with him immediately. “I chased after him as fast as I could,” he recalls. The boy stopped at an old, fallen tree and said simply, “Look!”
“I looked,” says Brother Gunn, “and there was a beautiful texture in that tree. Time after time, students have opened doors for me to see.”
After thirty-five years of teaching at BYU, Brother Gunn now works for BYU Travel Studies, where he helps students learn to really see the world and appreciate art in such places as the Louvre in Paris. He often stops and poses or acts out a painting or a sculpture for his students to help them realize that the artist has been touched by the beauty of life and is trying to help others to see what he or she has seen.
He feels that as people learn to be sensitive to art and the world around them, they can become more sensitive to the Spirit—and thus grow closer to their fellow human beings and to God. Brother Gunn recalls an example of such sensitivity in Helen Keller, who, during World War II, visited a military hospital where he was hospitalized. The wounded men were frustrated and despairing. But, recalls Brother Gunn, “as this remarkable woman reached out with her words and her radiant being to sculpt new faces on these men, the hard glint in their eyes softened, their faces started to glow, and the bitter lines melted, reflecting the rebirth of spirit.” (Search for Sensitivity and Spirit, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981, pp. 3, 6.)
It is that kind of sensitivity to art and to the Spirit that Brother Gunn feels a need for Church members to cultivate. “Everything I’ve learned in art has made me more sensitive, has made me understand the scriptures better, has helped me understand that there’s got to be a great Designer,” he says.