Utah artist and writer, Elzy J. Bird, known to his many friends as Bill was born in Salt Lake City, Utah on April 3, 1911, to Joseph Montgomery Bird and Fanny Beutler Bird and spent his boyhood on an 8.5 acre farm in Layton, Utah. When he was 13 his family moved to Salt Lake City where he graduated from West High School and attended the University of Utah. His artistic talent was recognized early and nurtured by teachers James Taylor Harwood, Bessie Alice Bancroft, Cornelius Salisbury, and Jack S. Sears.
Bill worked summers as a construction worker in Salt Lake and as a ranch hand in Idaho (where he learned some of the tall tales he would later write). He found it necessary in the early years of the Depression to end his studies and seek employment full time. In 1932, he married Nan Fugate, his high school sweetheart, and began a marriage and a love that lasted 65 years until Nan's death in 1997. When a local animation job ended because financing failed, the newlyweds headed for Los Angeles where Bill found a job with Walt Disney and studied at the Chouinard Institute. In 1933 Bill returned to Salt Lake where he began teaching art, selling his paintings, and gaining recognition nationally. In 1935 he became a WPA artist, contributing many works to schools and public buildings, and in 1937 he was named Director of the Federal Art Project in Utah where he supervised 85 artists and staff members. Under his direction art centers were developed in Salt Lake, Provo, Helper, and Price, local and traveling exhibitions were organized, contributions were made to the "Index of American Design," and the Utah Symphony had its beginnings. His own paintings were exhibited nationally in museums and in the 1939 World's Fair in New York.
He led an expedition to Barrier Canyon, south of Green River, Utah, to document Indian pictographs and petroglyphs for the Indian Arts and Crafts Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The resulting murals were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art and are wer on display at the Utah Museum of Natural History at the University of Utah and the Prehistoric Museum in Price. This experience created a lifetime interest in Anasazi work, and Bill made many subsequent trips with good friends with similar interests locating, photographing, sketching, and recreating Native American cliff paintings.
In 1942 Bill was drafted into the U.S. Army and served with the Engineering Corps for three 1/2 years. He continued to sketch during his service, both state-side and in Okinawa, and the sketches and his diary formed the basis for his most significant work, "The World War II Journals of E. J. Bird," just published in 2001, shortly before his 90th birthday.
In 1945, when he returned home from the war, Bill was offered a job training ex-servicemen as architectural draftsmen, and for the next 31 years he worked as a draftsman/designer for four different architectural firms, working on projects as diverse as the first tract homes in Salt Lake, churches, banks, the Bullfrog Marina, developments on the East Bench, University stadiums and libraries. After Bill retired he continued to paint and show his work in local galleries. He also wrote and illustrated five children's books as well as the "World War II Journals." In 1998 the Springville Museum of Art honored Bill with a major retrospective exhibition that spanned nearly 70 years of the art that he has contributed to the Utah art scene.
He was an oil and opaque-watercolor painter, printmaker, designer, cartoonist, arts administrator, and architectural draftsman. He studied with Bessie Alice Bancroft (q.v.) at West Junior High, Salt Lake School District; with Cornelius Salisbury (q.v.) at West High School, Salt Lake City; with James T. Harwood (q.v.) and Jack Sears (q.v.) at the University of Utah (1929-31); at Chouinard School of Art, Los Angeles (1933).
He wrote and illustrated children's books, including Ten Tall Tales (1985), and held positions such as animation artist at Walt Disney Studios (1933); artist for several government projects—PWAP/FERA/WPA/FAP—(1933-1942); director for the Utah Federal Art Project (1937-42); member of the U.S. Army Engineers (1942-46); an architectural designer-draftsman for FFKR and other architects in Salt Lake City (1947-78). In 1939, Bird's critically acclaimed watercolor Takin' Five was shown at the New York World's Fair. Then in 1940, Bird's genre piece The Gossips, an admirable example of American scene painting, was exhibited in a show of regionalist painters, with a Thomas Hart Benton on one side and a Grant Wood on the other.