Seat Older man with gray hair with glasses, hand on chin, wearing tan suit
Wayne Thiebaud played a key role in putting UC Davis art on the map. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Wayne Thiebaud’s Profound Impact on UC Davis

When Wayne Thiebaud arrived at UC Davis in 1961, the university had been an independent campus for only two years. The art department was in an embryonic stage. Then in 1962, Thiebaud had a groundbreaking exhibition in New York and, during the decades that followed, his reputation only grew. Along the way he was joined by other art faculty who soon developed national reputations as well, and UC Davis became nearly as well-known for art as for agriculture.

Thiebaud, who died in December at 101, retired in 1991. But he kept teaching for another decade (without pay) and even after that frequently returned to campus to attend lectures and other events. His 60 years of association with UC Davis very much colored how the university and the art department were viewed by the world.

“He was an ambassador for (UC) Davis,” said Matt Bult, Thiebaud’s stepson and president of the Wayne Thiebaud Foundation.

In many ways, Thiebaud put UC Davis on the art world map.

“Professor Thiebaud’s paintings are well-known and admired around the world,” said Estella Atekwana, dean of the UC Davis College of Letters and Science. “He was with us for a century, but his impact will carry on for far longer. “

Connection with UC Davis always clear

When Thiebaud had exhibitions, gave talks and received honors, including the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton, he always made his UC Davis affiliation clear. If someone viewed his art in San Francisco, New York, Bologna, Italy, Wassenaar, Netherlands, or Dubuque, Iowa — all places it has been shown in recent years — they would also learn about UC Davis. Some artists who are university or college faculty downplay their “day jobs;” Thiebaud never did.

“The department’s regional and national reputation was definitely heightened by Wayne’s presence,” said Grace Munakata (M.F.A., art, ’85).

Thiebaud’s lushly painted pies and cakes, renderings of simple bacon and egg breakfasts, stoic figures, and imaginative landscapes and cityscapes were accessible. The subject matter of his art was the commonplace, making it approachable, but the way he painted the everyday was uncommon.

“His work appealed to the masses, but there was also an underlying sophistication to it that artists also were attracted to,” Bult said.

Art is widely accessible

Because of the donations he made to the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento and many others, opportunities to see his art are many. Beyond museums and galleries, Thiebaud’s art has been reproduced in academic and popular books, journals and magazines. His paintings were used a dozen times as cover images for The New Yorker. UC Davis art professor Shiva Ahmadi learned about Thiebaud’s art when she was growing up in Iran. The appealing and often joyful nature of his paintings made Thiebaud’s art a frequent model or source of inspiration for children’s art classes.

“I really can’t think of another artist with that range of influence,” said Michael Tompkins (M.FA., art, ‘81).

With its approachability — coupled with complexity — his work opens the doors to see art and the world freshly.

“He taught students how to see the world, how to really look at something and see it in all its facets,” said Rachel Teagle, founding director of the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art. “That is an essential life skill that enriches lives far beyond the lives of artists. He taught me how art of all kinds has a much broader impact than we ever guessed.”

His legacy for future generations

While Thiebaud was a master of the technical skills of painting and drawing and passing those skills on, he always connected art-making to the larger world of ideas, research and scholarship. He suggested readings that included a heavy dose of art history along with literature and poetry (which he sometimes read aloud during class.)

Teaching has always been very central to what I’m interested in,” Thiebaud said in an interview with City Arts & Lectures in 2009. “I felt privileged to work with young people. It keeps you honest to yourself if you can say ‘I don’t know, but I can give you some tools to try to find the answers.’”

Among the students he taught at UC Davis, some became full-time artists, many taught art at various levels, and others learned how to understand and appreciate art. His lessons already resonate through several generations of artists and art lovers. Those he taught passed on his art lessons and life lessons.

“Wayne was a scholar in his sensibility and loved the whole enterprise of a university,” said Vonn Cummings Sumner (B.A., ’98, M.F.A, ’20, art). “If no one had ever heard of him as an artist, he would still have had a great impact because of his teaching.”

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science


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