Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Guest Post: Dale Kilbourn: “A Gifted Man … Part of the Artistic Heritage of the Church”

Guest Post: Dale Kilbourn: “A Gifted Man … Part of the Artistic Heritage of the Church”

By: Diana Kilbourn Yates - November 15, 2011

“I, Tom Turkey, hope to be cooked by a woman of integrity.” This was the caption below a wonderfully-dressed turkey, sketched shortly before Thanksgiving on the back of a Sacrament meeting program dedicated to the ‘Women of Integrity’ in our ward. Sitting with my father in church was never dull; he generally produced two or three slightly irreverent cartoons per meeting, often featuring the bishopric or other ward members (apologies, brethren). And while his satire was deeply appreciated by those of us in the back row of the Yale Ward chapel, my dad, Dale Kilbourn, is more widely known for producing some of the most enduring and loved images in LDS church art.

Dale (Harold Tyndale) Kilbourn was born in Salt Lake City in 1929. He attended Uintah Elementary, Roosevelt Jr. High, and East High school. His fellow leopards included “Tommy” Monson and other future church dignitaries (who, it turns out, were also goofy teenagers—go figure). He met my mom, Patricia Webb at East, and they dated while both were attending the University of Utah. He studied there under Alvin Gittins (best known to the church for this Joseph Smith portrait) and LeConte Stewart, whose work is currently on display at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Just recently Dad told my brother “LeConte hated my work, and I only graduated because Alvin Gittins did me a favor.” I like to think that Gittins saw something more than someone who needed a favor. Dad graduated with a degree in Fine Art, and he and my mom were married in September of 1950.

Dad went to work as an illustrator for David W. Evans, Inc. He worked on dozens of advertising campaigns, including the Utah Dairy Council, U&I Sugar, and the National Turkey Federation (hence his ability to draw a great turkey on command). As Ardis mentioned, Mr. Evans recommended that Dad be brought in to do the illustrations for the new (1956) “Be Honest With Yourself” campaign the church was developing for the youth. This marked the beginning of Dad’s affiliation with the church, which would last almost 50 years. His body of church art includes three well-known paintings of Joseph Smith, many portraits of general authorities and church presidents (including President Monson), and hundreds of illustrations that have appeared in every church publication and magazine.

In recent years I have met many people who are familiar with my dad’s work. But what most people don’t know is that Dad did not become a member of the church until 1988, some thirty years after the first BHWY card went to press. So how did someone who was not raised in the church, had never read The Book of Mormon or the Testimony of Joseph Smith, create images that radiate the spirit of their subjects? I think it has a lot to do with the character of the artist. Please forgive my self-indulgence here, but I think my dad is one of the most selfless, truehearted people I have ever met, not to mention one of the most gifted.

My parents had seven children, and eventually settled in a house on Salt Lake’s Harvard Avenue, just down the street from where my dad was raised. In my memory there was always a lot of humor and joie de vivre in our house, and a certain disregard for societal “norms”. Dad painted full-wall murals of George Booth cartoons from the New Yorker in our back hallway. He had a fondness for sports cars, and was wont to drive home unannounced with a new one now and then. If a restaurant had paper placemats, he entertained us with sketches of the waitress. Halloween was a blast, complete with world-class jack-o’lanterns and creepy face painting (including his own). And having an artist for a dad was a great advantage when preparing your Valentine box, science project poster or pep club notebook, as long as no one questioned why those Kilbourn kids all seemed to be really great artists (wink, wink)!

With seven faces (eight if you count my mom), Dad had no shortage of models, and we did a lot of posing while he took pictures with his old Polaroid. All seven of us have appeared in ad illustrations; most of the children pictured in the BHWY cards are my older brothers and sisters. The model for “Joseph Smith Seeks Wisdom …” was my oldest brother, Peter, posed in the Lion House in Salt Lake. Sometimes Dad just needed a shot of a particular body part or pose – I remember standing for what seemed like ages pretending to hold up a lantern for a pioneer drawing. On the upside, we got to eat a beautiful turkey dinner once the photos were finished, and my sister and I got to spend an entire afternoon eating ice cream cones during a shoot for Meadow Gold.

So, we were definitely an interesting family, and particularly an interesting part-member family. Both my parents made sure we were at church every Sunday, even though they mostly attended (at least while I was growing up) only when there was a Primary program or missionary farewell. Yet my Dad was good friends with many church authorities, some of whom I’m sure invited him to join over the years. He tells one story of (I think it was) Mark E. Peterson sitting in his office and saying, “Dale, when are you going to sign up?” I guess the timing just had to be right.

In 1971, a year after my youngest brother was born, my mother was diagnosed with advanced stage stomach and pancreatic cancer. The case seemed hopeless, but she underwent a number of surgeries, and miraculously survived. Her health was very poor for the rest of her life, and much of the responsibility for raising the seven of us fell to Dad. It was during these years that I saw, through him, what love, selflessness, and dedication really mean. He was always at my mom’s side when he could be, and he was always there for us. Between him and the wonderful people in the Yale 2nd ward, we made if through many hard times.

My mother died unexpectedly after surgery in 1985. Dad was devastated. He grieved so much for her. I can only guess that maybe that was a turning point for him, a time when everything he had experienced through his association with the church began to take on real meaning, and offer real hope. My brother-in-law was taking the missionary discussions and invited Dad to join him. They were baptized a week apart in 1988. True to form, Dad sent out illustrated invitations to his baptism, which he dubbed “The Kilbourn Dipping”. My little brother baptized him, witnessed by family and many friends.

Dad has since spoken at a few firesides where he has talked about his work for the church. The question always comes up: “Did it feel any different to you when you were painting church subjects, particularly Joseph Smith?” Dad has acknowledged that there was a unique feeling that came to him while working on some of these subjects, but he didn’t really know what it was. People also ask, “Who is your favorite among the church leaders you have painted?” The answer is Brigham Young. To quote my dad (speaking to my Gospel Doctrine class), “Joseph Smith started the church, but Brigham Young saved it.”

Dad is retired from professional work, but still does a few projects for family and friends. He lives with my sister and her family in Salt Lake. He has 15 grandchildren, and recently welcomed his third great-grandchild.

So now you know more about the interesting, funny, and gifted man whose contributions, I believe, will always be a part of the artistic heritage of the church. Thanks to Ardis for letting me toot his horn – think he deserves it! To see more of his work, check out the Dale Kilbourn fan page on Facebook.

Please note: The small image of Joseph Smith in the second paragraph is by Alvin Gittins, not Dale Kilbourn — Diana indicates that in her post, but we want to state that explicitly to be sure there is no confusion.



  1. Fantastic, Diana, what a wonderful biography of not just your dad but your family. I have noticed and enjoyed his artwork in everything from the New Era to the family home evening manuals – I think my favourite, though, is the little cartoon he did for the first edition of “Teaching: No Greater Call” about the Sunday School teacher bringing a lion into the class. And I love the quote about Joseph and Brigham! Thanks for sharing your and his experiences.

    Comment by Alison — November 15, 2011 @ 6:31 am

  2. Thanks for posting. His art work is certainly an integral part of LDS culture. I remember many of the illustrations as part of my own childhood in the Church. I enjoyed your “rest of the story” commentary. Thanks again.

    Comment by Steve C. — November 15, 2011 @ 7:59 am

  3. Thanks for making the effort to record this. I always enjoy learning the story behind the story.

    Comment by The Other Clark — November 15, 2011 @ 10:03 am

  4. Diana, thank you for sharing these stories about your father. I’ve known his work without really knowing anything about him, and this post gives some extra emphasis to those paintings we are all so familiar with. I think it’s funny that your Dad would bring home a sports car on occasions. My Dad’s big adventure was going out to buy a shovel for some yardwork, and returning with a used, 1960 Studebaker, and no shovel. A sports car would have been more fun.

    Comment by kevinf — November 15, 2011 @ 10:05 am

  5. Great memories shared with all are what make Keepa such a great place to visit! Thank you Diana.

    Comment by Cliff — November 15, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

  6. The delightful sense of humor you report, Diana, was a wonderful thing to learn. The Joseph Smith illustrations and other images we know from your father’s work are, I suppose, necessarily sober. The wit behind them is something I’ll long remember.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 15, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

  7. Wonderful. I was also familiar with the art but not the artist, so this is very informative. Thank you for sharing this.

    Comment by Researcher — November 15, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

  8. Love it! Thank you for the wonderful background. I would love to see more public faces put on the many (seemingly) anonymous artists in the Church.

    Comment by ErinAnn — November 15, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

  9. Thanks so much, everyone for your kind comments! My dad will be so tickled to see that people still remember his work, and enjoyed learning more about him!

    Comment by Diana Kilbourn Yates — November 15, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

  10. I loved this post.

    Thank you for sharing! I have great sentimental memories of growing up with your father’s art work. The one of Joseph studying the Bible is a particular favorite of mine. I “Liked” the facebook page!

    Thanks again!

    Comment by andrew h — November 15, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

  11. What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing it.

    Comment by Huston — November 15, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

  12. I have a Dale Kilbourn drawing from the Era on my refrigerator. It shows two large boys praying over their fast food meal of burgers, fries, and ice cream, asking Heavenly Father to “bless this food to give us the nourishment and strength that we need.” I’ve used it in many Church classes about the Word of Wisdom and prayer.

    Comment by Karen T — November 15, 2011 @ 8:23 pm

  13. How wonderful to learn about your dad and his story! Thank you for sharing! Give him a hug from one of his many fans!

    Comment by Sue H — November 16, 2011 @ 8:03 am

  14. Nice story. Dale Kilbourn was one of the artists that made me want to paint Church art. Thanks, Dale

    Comment by Glen Hopkinson — November 16, 2011 @ 10:02 am

  15. Great job Diana!

    Comment by margaret — November 16, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

  16. This is a great biographical write up. The insites are quite moving.

    Comment by John Pack Lambert — November 16, 2011 @ 9:37 pm

  17. I too love knowing the story behind the story-especially when there is a great wit where we would least expect to find one! It adds a necessary spice to flavor the story AND make the people in it real.

    Comment by Diane Peel — November 17, 2011 @ 11:49 am

  18. I Think I knew your family growing up. I went to the Yale 2nd Ward. Is John your younger brother and did he baptize your dad? And I probably grew up with your sister, Margaret.

    Comment by Richard Smith — February 22, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

  19. Hello friends,
    Just thought I’d drop a line to let you know that my dad, Dale Kilbourn passed away quietly at home today. We will miss him terribly, but we are grateful for the legacy of devotion, beauty, and love he left to all of us.

    Comment by Diana Kilbourn Yates — May 7, 2012 @ 11:59 pm

  20. Thank you for sharing the story of your father with us last November, Diana, and condolences now to you and your family. May the Lord be with all of you and bless you with peace and many happy memories of your time together with your delightful and talented father.

    Comment by Amy T — May 8, 2012 @ 5:40 am

  21. Dear Diane and Family: Thank you for this wonderful life sketch of Dale. We Thompsons loved that guy. His and Jerry’s baptisms were one of the highlights of my time as a ward mission leader. Bishop Robert Orton would say the same. The one constant with Dale was his humility. Try as we might, we could not make him to tout his own artistic abilities or achievements. He did a couple of paintings for our family and drew the cover for our Yale Ward Bulletin. During John’s teenage years, he owned a very new, green Jeep that he let John use on one of our jeep trips to Southern Utah. I was very nervous about returning the vehicle with at least one bent, white “spoker” wheels during our “mild” adventure. Yet, he was gracious and understanding. He had a wonderful sense of humor. We will miss him. Our lives were never quite the same after he sold the Harvard house. He left a great legacy–his family and his art. Colleen and I convey our sincere and deepfelt condolences to the family.

    Comment by Roger Thompson — May 8, 2012 @ 6:59 am

  22. This is beautiful Aunt Diana, thanks for writing this, I’m so proud to be apart of the kilbourn family, I loved this man

    Comment by Gracie Kilbourn — May 8, 2012 @ 9:34 pm

  23. Hi Diane, you dad and mom were friends of my parents, Bryant and Betty Hanson when we all lived above 27Ea and about 39th South. My parents were visting at your home one evening and my dad started reading something while sitting in your living room. While he was reading your dad did a sketch of him. Its poster size and my dad is in a very “typical” pose that is familiar to all of his children. This sketch is something that was framed and was in our home while we were all growing up. My parents devoriced about 35yrs ago. I always loved that sketch. Recently while visiting my dad, before I left he brought out the sketch and gave it to me. I can’t begin to tell you how much that ment to me. I am having copies made for my brother and sister and am giving them at Christmas time. I feel so fortunate to have this sketch and will always cherish it.

    Thanks to your family,
    Kathleen Hanson Palmer

    Comment by Kathleen Hanson Palmer — December 3, 2012 @ 11:13 am

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