The Greatest Artist You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
February 4th, 2009

For the past two years, a poster I printed of Kiwi motorcycle racing legend Burt Munro has been posted in the front window of Pat Denner’s art studio on East Broadway in downtown Salt Lake City. The window catches the sun and as a result the posted poster has faded almost to white. No matter—it still catches the eye of passersby and every now and then the result is a sale.

Each time Mr. Denner sells one of my posters, he puts twenty dollars in an envelope. Yesterday when I popped in for a visit, the envelope contained a hundred dollars. Pat handed me the entire hundred, refusing to take a cut for himself—as usual.

Here’s what I think about Pat Denner. He is the kindest, gentlest, sweetest person I’ve ever met—and on top of that, the most versatile artist I know. There is no medium or genre he hasn’t mastered, be it pen-and-ink, oils, watercolor, figure studies, portraits, landscapes, commercial illustration, caricature, cartoons, calendar art, cheesecake. You want a Vargas girl? Denner can do that. You like Picasso? Denner does abstract impressionism—at a mere fraction of what you’d pay in a more upscale gallery.

In addition, Pat Denner has fathered two—maybe three—of the most enduring images in the civilized world. Let’s begin with the neon cowboy known as Vegas Vic.Pat_Denner

The year was 1949. Pat was fresh out of the Navy, newly married and employed by the Young Electric Sign Company, which had just landed a contract from the Pioneer Club. Owners of the Pioneer were looking for something big, something flashy, something with a Western motif. So over the course of a weekend Pat created what in time would become not only a fixture on Fremont Street, but an icon of Las Vegas. Nowadays you would be hard pressed to find anyone unfamiliar with the waving cowboy with the jaunty grin. He shows up everywhere—including in a recent IHOP TV commercial.

No sooner had Vegas Vic been erected than Pat was tapped to design a second giant cowboy to adorn the StateLine Hotel and Casino in Wendover, and for decades to follow the 62-foot-tall metallic colossus waved a friendly greeting to desert wayfarers. Like his country cousin Vic, Will was a chain smoker—but that didn’t stunt his growth or shorten his lifespan. What finally did lay him low was the demise of the StateLine, which was replaced by a new casino and hotel featuring a décor incompatible with a somewhat retro buckaroo with a loopy grin and serious nicotine addiction. For a time, Will lay in state in a storage lot, but was soon resurrected by the booming community of West Wendover. Result: Wendover Will now stands proudly on an even taller pedestal, smack dab in the middle of Wendover Boulevard!Wendover_Will_Night

Nowhere on the bronze plaque affixed to Will’s pedestal will you find the name Pat Denner, now will you find his name on the plaque affixed to a certain Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant on South State Street. The world’s very first KFC franchise dates back to 1952, and—once again—Pat Denner was present at the creation.

“A man had walked into Pete Harmon’s restaurant, said he made the best fried chicken in the world,” Denner recalls. Evidently Pete Harmon agreed. A photographer was summoned to take photographs for the new menu; Denner was dispatched to sketch a caricature of the goateed, bespectacled Harland Sanders. Voila! Another enduring iconic image was born!

Before long, Denner’s caricature of Colonel Sanders was showing up everywhere, not just on menus, but on signs and billboards and even a giant rotating bucket. For several years said bucket served as a South Salt Lake City landmark—until one day during a wind storm it came crashing down, narrowly missing a pedestrian and thus depriving journalism of what surely would rank as the greatest newspaper headline ever: BUCKET KICKS MAN!

On May 21st, Pat will celebrate his 85th birthday, and I’m guessing he’ll spend it quietly, as usual, hunched over his drawing board, working on whatever suits his fancy. If he owned even a small percentage of the timeless images he’s created he’d be stinking rich; however, I suspect that even if he were stinking rich, he’d still be found in his humble studio, hunched over his drawing table—for art isn’t just a job for Pat Denner, it’s a way of life. It’s been that way almost since the day he was dropped off at St. Anne’s Orphanage in Park City at the tender age of one week. It was that way back in the Thirties when he worked on the railroad and couldn’t resist the temptation to decorate box cars.

“I was the original graffiti artist!” he declares.

During the war, Pat was assigned to the Navy Catalog Office, where—in between drawing warships and torpedoes—he sketched caricatures of all his co-workers, including himself..

One face that required no embellishment work was that of his lovely bride Gloria. She and Pat were together for 62 years, and though he lost her last Halloween, she’s never far from his thoughts. Today a framed photograph of Gloria rests atop his drawing board as a constant reminder—as if he needs it—that there are more important things in life than making money.

-Richard Menzies