World War II through Artists’ Eyes

Battle of the Spirits in the Piazza Navona, 1953-54, Windsor Utley, American, 1920-1989, oil on Masonite, image 36 x 52 in., Gift of the artist, by exchange, 89.8, © Windsor Utley

Battle of the Spirits in the Piazza Navona, 1953-54, Windsor Utley, American, 1920-1989, oil on Masonite, image 36 x 52 in., Gift of the artist, by exchange, 89.8, © Windsor Utley

As an intern in the Curatorial Department at the Seattle Art Museum, I have spent much of the last year researching and writing about Northwest artists, all of whom experienced World War II in some way.  It has been an interesting project to learn about people who allow me to look at this era from different and very personal points of views.  World War II was a monumental event for the whole world.  It reached into every community and every household, becoming the single most written-about event in history.  The three artists who are highlighted in this post all have connections to the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle Art Museum, and World War II.  While each of them has a distinct story from this time, their shared identities of being artists consumed by war bring them together in a unique way; they each contributed to the wider war effort, both at home and abroad while furthering their artistic talents.

Juanita Vitousek was a mother in Hawai’i when bombs fell on Pearl Harbor in 1941.  A watercolor artist, already known both in Hawai’i and in the continental United States, she had lived in Hawai’i for twenty-four years before the war.  During World War II, Juanita wrote a daily account of life on the Island during and after the attack on Pearl Harbor.[1] She originally kept her wartime journal so she could send it to her children on the mainland when mail was once again able to flow freely without censorship.  She opened her diary with: “We can’t phone, cable or even write you. I want you to know all about us, so I will write a daily account of what has happened. Some day you will see it.”[2] She contributed to the war effort by donating blood and volunteering to make camouflage nets for troops.[3] Her husband, Roy Vitousek Sr, also made history as “the first American plane engaged in combat during World War II.”[4]  An amateur pilot, he was out for a flying lesson with their son, Martin, when the Japanese began to attack Pearl Harbor.  He was able to land the plane amid Japanese fire and hide with his son in nearby bushes.[5]

Windsor Utley was more removed from the action because of his objection to violence and war.  He was classified as a conscientious objector during World War II.  He believed in the Baha’i faith, which continues to spread ideas and practices of peace in the world today.[6]  Utley was one of 12,000 conscientious objectors in the United States, who were required to perform free labor around the country in lieu of serving in the armed forces.[7]  The Civilian Public Service (CPS) program allowed these men to avoid conflict but still contribute to the war effort.  Men in 152 camps worked in soil conservation, forestry, firefighting, agriculture, social services and mental and public health instead of going to war.  Some also served as test subjects for medical experiments.[8]  Originally from California, Utley arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1940s, where he completed his civilian public service duties as a cook at Fort Steilacoom’s Western State Hospital for the mentally ill.[9] Here, Utley painted portraits of the hospital’s patients and staff, among other subjects, which allowed him to practice and refine his painting skills, using the war to turn a part-time hobby into a full-time passion and future career.[10]

Unlike Vitousek and Utley, Jess D. Cauthorn personally took part in combat action.  He was studying as a commercial-art student at Seattle’s Edison Vocational School when he was drafted into the army.  Cauthorn “knew little of combat but quite a bit about art…stocking his pack with pencils, charcoal, brushes, watercolors, and sketch paper.” [11] The army was where his artistic career as an illustrator and watercolor artist began to flourish.  During his spare time, Cauthorn produced small watercolor portraits of his comrades, using whatever materials he could find, often mixing his paints with water from his canteen.[12] He was later commissioned to create illustrations of his wartime experiences while in the South Pacific.[13] His depictions include “quiet moments in camp.  A line of soldiers on the move…the jungle canopy.  Mortar explosions and GIs,” and the liberation of Japanese-occupied Manila.[14] His personal collection of illustrations created during his three years in the army serve as a unique glimpse into the life of an infantryman in the Pacific theater of World War II.  He signed each picture with “Sgt. Jess Cauthorn” and used them as his journal from the war, adding text to the larger sketches to describe the scenes he chose to depict.[15] Cauthorn returned from war after three years with the 146th Infantry Regiment and earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.[16]

Each of these artists has pieces of the work in the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection, none of which indicate their respective histories with the war, but they were all influenced by this major event.  Cauthorn and Utley started their art careers during the war, and all three artists continued on to have nationally recognized careers.

I find these three stories so compelling because they go beyond the history books to show us what life was like at the time.  Windsor Utley’s story is particularly intriguing because he did not go to war.  We do not tend to hear about those who stood by their beliefs and fought for peace, while still contributing to the war effort; they are often a passing thought in history because they were not a part of the action.  His artwork is also incredible to see.  There is no hint of the fact that he was a self-taught artist, someone who only started painting as a hobby.  His artwork is not always clear, favoring a non-objective approach that often excludes reality; but that’s just part of the fun for the viewer.

For more information about these artists, be sure to search the Seattle Art Museum’s online collections for their biographies.


-Annika Firn, Curatorial Intern, 2014


[1] Krauss, Bob.  “Journal Captured Turmoil of Life,” The Honolulu Advertiser, December 5, 2001.

[2] Krauss, 2011.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Fournier, Rasa.  “Family Plane Hit By Zero Fighter,” East Oahu News, December 13, 2006.

[5] Fournier, 2006.

[6] Transcript, Windsor Utley Oral History Interview, March 14, 1985, Laguna Beach, CA, by Barbara Johns, Seattle Art Museum, Northwest Cataloguing Grant, pg. 3.

[7] “CPS Unit Number 021-01,” The Civilian Public Service Story: Living Peace in a Time of War.  2014.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Transcript, Windsor Utley Oral History Interview, March 14, 1985, pg. 2.

[10] “Composer of Paintings Windsor Utley dies at 68.” The Seattle Times, 1989.

[11] Goodnow, Cecilia.  “Through The Eyes of a Soldier,” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 12, 2001.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “News,” The Art Institute of Seattle, August 16, 2010.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Goodnow, 2001.

[16] Ibid.