Visual Arts

“Utah Artist” or Not?

ARTISTIC TEMPERAMENTS (v2) in the May 2008 issue of 15 Bytes focused on Second Life as a virtual world in which artists make and sell digital artworks, and in which galleries and museums duplicate themselves for greater visibility and market share. So I am now turning the telescope around … from the virtual to specific geographic identification. As this forum is about the aspirations of Utah-based artists, within this state and as a part of a larger art world, I have asked three artists to consider the following interrelated questions:

Were you born and raised in Utah or elsewhere?

Were you educated/trained as an artist in Utah or elsewhere?

Taken together, how do you feel those circumstances — and your life in Utah now — affect your art-making and overall sense of aesthetics?

The following are responses by Jen Harmon Allen, Trent Alvey, and Paul Heath.

Jen Harmon Allen
I was born and raised in the woods of Connecticut, where the eternal encroachment of trees opened me to the idea of mystery: a wood blanketed by a canopy of green could well have been an open field not 40 years before. A woodland stream might shelter the remains of a moss-covered water mill. To me it seemed that the unstoppable green made the past more precious while hiding it at the same time, and probably because of it. These stone foundations and stone-wall property lines were not memorialized by signs or even human-made paths. I’ve found that my own installation work often tries to memorialize the forgotten thing, though usually in the form of a dress or fragmented female figure. I’m learning that selfishly I liked it that no marker pointed the way to these secret places. In this way I felt myself a co-conspirator with the forests — they keep great mysteries alive.

In stark contrast, my family traveled across the country every summer to visit our Utah relatives. These yearly pilgrimages felt like coming out of the woods in more ways than one. Traveling westward, the country’s land opened up in a progression, like an opening flower. While the eastern woods trained my artist sensibilities, Utah has opened me artistically. My husband and I have chosen to live in Utah over the east because of this. I completed an MFA at BYU where my formal training drew heavily on art influences outside of Utah, not unlike my earlier training at Wellesley in Massachusetts. The literal openness of space and preponderance of truly wild areas uninhabited by humans has drawn me back (my family and I recently moved back to Utah after a two year stay in Connecticut), seeming to give psychological room for the growth of any idea, including mine. For this reason I do consider myself a Utah artist. I have chosen to be inspired by its geographical openness. Despite all this, I can’t escape the wonder of finding human traces in a seemingly deserted nature, a sensibility I picked up in the woods of Connecticut.

Trent Alvey
I was born in Mt. Pleasant, Sanpete County, Utah. My father, a forest ranger; my mother, a homemaker, horse-breaker, a gardener and a peacemaker. We spent summers in the Mammouth Ranger Station at the Manti Lasal National Forest, and winters in Mt. Pleasant, in our beautiful turn-of-the-century home.

I was educated in Utah, gaining my college experience from Salt Lake Community College and my degrees in art and communications from Westminster College. My decision to do art came in Jr. High, inspired by David Chaplin. I realized that the process of doing art was therapeutic, that art could actually help you navigate the world and figure out your part in it. At Westminster, I studied with Don Doxey (primarily figure drawing) four days a week for almost four years, concurrently while working for the College as their graphic designer. I knew that working so consistently with Don was establishing the basics of drawing and painting, as well as being a great gift.

Yes, I consider myself a Utah artist. And yes, I consider myself an international artist. Art is a matter of channeling archetypal concepts through your personal experience in the world. Art (the verb — to do art) is to examine everything, to see places for yourself and then to ground truth in it. Doing art is processing what you encounter from birth to death.

My worldly encounters have been great in the last twenty years. I have had the opportunity to travel widely and get to know people and places well. My husband started Round River Conservation Studies some years ago. I am on the board of Round River. We have traveled in or setup projects in Belize, Ecuador, Peru, Namibia, Botswana, British Columbia, and Australia. I have also traveled to Korea, Nepal, and China. Cities such as London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco have left me with a richer knowledge of the world: history, geography, landscapes (plants and animals), cultures and, of course, art. These travels have shown me the similarities we all have as people. Simple daily life is juxtaposed with cultural, historical, spiritual and scientific themes. Travel is the opportunity to integrate new experiences with childhood experiences, and to internalize them all into … a life.

My most exciting art encounters recently have been in Hong Kong, where I saw the work of Wenda Gu, working in the medium of hair. Also, in Sydney, Australia, Zhang Huan’s Buddhist work inspired me. I just saw Zhang’s work again in Vancouver, BC. Another exhibit that inspired me was right here, the Salt Lake Art Center’s exhibit of Kazuo Kadanoga in 2002. Finally, local artists have demonstrated this worldly savvy in the June 20 premier of Present Tense: A Post-337 Project (through September 27). It is truly world-class.

Paul Heath
I was born and raised here in Salt Lake City and I have lived here all of my 46 years, with the fortune to occasionally travel abroad. My family home is located near downtown and the city, especially its neon signs, has played a prominent role in my art. Some of my earliest memories are of looking up from the back seat of my parent’s car at the landmark signs like the Dee Burger Clown, The CarpetTowne Trio: Dan, Phil & Andy, The Wonder Bread Girl pedaling on her tricycle toward the oversized loaf of bread … among other favorites. There was always a sense of fun and optimism in these signs, and I believe the Downtown Rising folks could take a cue for how neon color resonated a sense of place and destination when trying to resurrect downtown as a shopping district.

I was also educated and trained as an artist in Utah. I attended Catholic schools and went to the University of Utah for college. I was influenced in high school by an art class called “Understanding Art.” At the “U” my favorite instructors were Sam Wilson, Bob Kleinschmidt & Doug Snow. The U of U has a great art department which I believe gives a very good overview in all the fields of art. I credit the Foundation Program for giving me the background to pursue Public Art, which can involve multimedia, blending design with sculpture, which is a stretch beyond my emphasis in drawing and painting. I remember a visiting professor commenting that the “U” is a good “drawing” school — but because we primarily viewed modern paintings via slides, our work is rather flat, illustrative and not physical. Although this aesthetic holds true for me (as a product of the early 80s art school), I do not think the same could be said of the art of today. While recently traveling to London, I envied the art students who could go to museums for free and view original Master’s work up-close, with none of the work behind glass.

And YES — I do consider myself a “Utah Artist,” more specifically a Salt Lake City Artist whose work touches a collective nerve of nostalgia and what it is like growing up in Salt Lake.

Categories: Visual Arts

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