West Fraser tells Heritage story with different strokes

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comApril 14, 2012 

A homely tartan jacket and a million dollars aren't the only rewards on the line at the Harbour Town Golf Links today.

Something of sublime beauty and immeasurable value is also at stake.

Since 1969, every winner of the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing has been immortalized in an original oil painting by a celebrated artist.

At first they were painted by Coby Whitmore, whose images set a tone for America on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post through the 1940s and '50s.

Today's winner will be the 25th to be captured by West Fraser of Charleston. He grew up on Hilton Head Island and his work is currently in a major exhibition called "Native Son" at the Telfair Academy in Savannah.

The oil paintings of the champions hang in the Harbour Town Clubhouse, the grill, the locker room and the adjacent conference center. They are featured each year on Heritage tickets and daily pairing sheets. This year for the first time, the winner got a piece of the art. Defending champion Brandt Snedeker was presented with a framed print during the opening ceremony.

The works of art don't stand out like the Harbour Town Lighthouse.

But they tell a story important to the founder of the Heritage, West Fraser's uncle, Charles E. Fraser. They tell of slashing irons and cool putts. But they also tell of the yearnings of the human heart.

'ARTISTS ATTRACT PEOPLE'

"Charles was a man before his time," West Fraser says of the days half a century ago when he built Sea Pines from swampland with the help of his brother and West's father, Joseph B. "Joe" Fraser Jr.

"Charles understood the importance of 'the story,' as we call it today," he said.

The tournament was born wrapped in the story of golf's heritage. It came screaming to life with bagpipers leading a parade to the 18th green, where the reigning "gentleman golfer" would hit a ball into Calibogue Sound with a hickory stick at the blast of a cannon.

"The painting of the winner adds to that story," West Fraser said. "It creates a life."

Fraser said his uncle knew the importance of artists when he was trying to develop and sell Harbour Town.

"He knew that artists attract people," he said.

Whitmore came in 1967. Two other great illustrators followed him, Joe DeMers and Joe Bowler.

Bowler is still painting portraits. DeMers had a gallery in the Harbour Town space now occupied by the Hatley kitchen accessories store. Upstairs was Whitmore's studio.

"I could pop in at any time and he would talk to me," Fraser, 55, says of his teenage years. "He always had a twinkle in his eye when he talked about the Cafè des Artistes in New York City when the Charles E. Cooper Studio illustrators were the image-makers for everybody. He was picked up for work in a limousine and people would shout, 'There's Coby Whitmore' and ask for his autograph."

NEW CHAPTERS

On Hilton Head, Whitmore produced the art for the Plantation Club, the early social, golf and dining center for Sea Pines. He painted a portrait of Harbour Town Golf Links designers Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus, which hangs by the clubhouse's front door. That led to him doing portraits of the whole Nicklaus family, said his son, Tom Whitmore.

And it may have led to him painting each Heritage champion in action.

"He loved doing it, but like everything with him, it was a blessing and a curse at the same time," Tom Whitmore said. "He was very, very critical of his own work. But it was a very significant thing for him."

Coby Whitmore is in the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, and he was also known as a race car designer.

Lesser known is how he helped shape the art of a young Lowcountry boy.

When West Fraser was in high school, his mother, the late Becky Fraser, showed Whitmore one of West's paintings and asked if she should get him art lessons.

"Coby said, 'Just buy him all the art supplies he wants and let him do it on his own,' " West Fraser said. "I think that's the best advice I could have ever gotten. "

For Fraser, the portraits of the Heritage winner are different from his air landscapes, city scenes and marine views that occupy art galleries. He said he likes to have fun with the portrait, and he knows how important the tournament is to his father and his late uncle, Charles.

West's brother, Simon Fraser, succeeded their father as chairman of the nonprofit Heritage Classic Foundation, created in 1987 to stage the Heritage, with profits going to charities.

Whitmore's last painting was the 1987 champion, Davis Love III. Love's dad played in the first Heritage, and this is where his boy won his first PGA Tour win, and five Heritage championships.

That painting would be one of Whitmore's last works. He died in 1988.

West Fraser's first Heritage painting was Greg Norman, whose 1988 championship was inspired by a dying boy who followed his hero hole by hole.

"Every year, I think of Coby as I paint," Fraser said. "He was more than my predecessor. He was a very dear friend. My painting of the Heritage champion is always an homage to my friend."

It's their little story within a story.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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