There’s something familiar about this landscape, but it’s not quite right. Yes, the verdant, green foreground and the rounded, purple mountains in the distance speak of an abundance of water because, unlike the hard-edged verticals of the red rock, mesa country of southern Utah deserts, northern Utah took shape under the influence, and often under the waters, of the ancient inland sea more recently styled Lake Bonneville. But how explain the narrow black scar, dotted with a couple of small ponds, that stretches horizontally from edge to edge across the three-square feet of canvas?
Since resuming exhibiting in galleries, artist Pamela Beach has established herself as a painter of portrait figures: people, in other words, and in particular individuals with personalities rather than social prominence. Yet people need a place to live, and the place Beach lives in is in grave peril. In the work she submitted as part of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake’s annual Alfred Lambourne Program, Beach has chosen to feature Promontory, the spine that protrudes into Great Sale Lake, dividing Gunnison Bay from Bear River Bay. It’s the landscape that she sees every day, stretching in front of her house. Lately, though, she’s frightened by what she sees. The eastern arm of the lake has become almost dry. “I have sounded the alarm to anyone I know,” she writes in her statement. “Mostly to be made fun of, or to be told I didn’t have faith.” Alarmed, and exasperated by indifference to her efforts to alert a community too well indoctrinated by stories about alarmists like Chicken Little, she recently chose to document how the proverbial sky is, in fact, falling, in the way she is best able to do. So she spontaneously painted “The view of the vanishing Great Salt Lake, from my porch.”
Another artist took a diagrammatic, bird’s eye approach to capturing the same concerns. Jane DeGroff’s “Great Salt Lake, 1985 and 2022” uses contrasting fiber techniques to distinguish two years in its recent history. She first embroidered a red line marking the extent of the lake less than 40 years ago; then, using Shibori, a Japanese indigo variant of the familiar tie-die process, she bound the area that remained as of last year and dyed that part blue. Among the visceral facts she discloses is that neither Stansbury nor Antelope Islands are actually islands any longer.
Most Utahns rarely see the far side of their great lake. Truth be told, most Utahns rarely see the lake at all, or if they do, it’s likely to be from the heights east of the Wasatch Front, from which the panorama appears little changed. They may also not know that the broad expanse of water they see is celebrated for having an average depth of 45 feet, making it among Earth’s more shallow great bodies of water. In other words, it wouldn’t take much of a drought to dry it up completely.
Not every concerned artist shares the access to Great Salt Lake that Beach has, but others make pilgrimages there instead. Some gather examples of its unique materials for inclusion in their works. Others collect memories, images in the form of photos and videos. Some perform personal rituals that they may record in order to share. Two who felt the need to go beyond likenesses, to replace representations meant to evoke emotional audience responses with the presence of physical evidence, are Jamie Kyle and Frank McEntire. In “My Mother Told Me We Keep Memories In Boxes…,” Kyle places her bits of rock and salt in an old “Covered Wagon” cigar box, along with a hand-colored Saltair postcard. McEntire chose a wooden “Te-Co Belt” display fixture to hold his signature canning jars full of lake water and plant specimens.
Some of the more traditional works similarly present a more objective perspective, as if an additional soupçon, or even a dollop of science would help make the art more convincing, lend it a greater portion of the imperative feelings the artists share. Christopher Woodward’s photographs of salt crystal-encrusted insects, “And the Bees Went Still,” directly addresses the environmental threat through a well known Utah self-image. Ashley Kijowski’s relief sculpture, “Ancient Guardians of the Lake,” introduces viewers to microbialites, a relatively recent discovery that reveals how simplistic is the notion that nothing lives in the lake but brine shrimp, significant as those are. Similarly, Mary Wells’ “Great Salt Lake Aviary,” Caroline Nilsson’s “Seagull Vigil,” and especially the cluster of resting Avocets in Mary Anne Karren’s “Respite” recall the essential role Utah’s wetlands play in the lives of countless birds that must migrate through the arid West. Alison Spencer’s “White-faced Ibis With Skulls” adds the suggestion that they were here long before other inhabitants, while the future falls somewhere between Linda Dalton Walker’s “Great Blue Heron Abstracted” — for her a symbol of hope and renewal — and Caroline Nilsson’s “Colony Collapse,” in which the artist ponders the interaction of choice and fate.
Not all fictions constitute deliberate frauds, like so much of our public affairs do today. Artists still invent paths to underlying truths, a surprising number of which here involve Antelope Island. Among them are Kenny Gough’s “Sastrugi of Antelope,” a cyanotype of the wind-carved waves of snow that typically appear in polar regions, but are oddly found here. Another artist who uses materials gathered at the site, but absorbs them into her medium, is Samantha da Silva, who creates the illusion of having brought the very earth in question into the gallery. And then there’s Justin Diggle’s manipulated print, “A Whale From the Great Salt Lake.” Sparked by the recently revived myth of how whales were introduced to a salty and therefore sea-like lake, Diggle selects parts of an image of the island to represent the animal’s humped back and spout (a tree), while the corrugated underside and wing-like fins take their textures from the recently exposed lakebed. Prints and printmakers conspicuously stand in the forefront of efforts to raise awareness of how the lake is dying.
Unlike more distant areas, neighborhoods like Rose Park, Glendale and Magna, which lie close to Great Salt Lake, are more aware of its presence and proximity. As the sources that supply the lake’s water — primarily drainage from the Wasatch border of the Rocky Mountains — have been reduced due to human exploitation, these areas have been made aware of the risk that harmful and even poisonous chemicals and heavy metals, concentrated naturally and held securely in the lake’s bed, may turn to dust and blow into their homes, schools, and places of work. So it makes sense that it’s to this neighborhood, specifically to the Sorenson Community Campus, a lively and fully-utilized neighborhood center, that the Alfred Lambourne Art Program and FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake came to collaborate on a project to underscore, now that last year’s desperation has passed, that the hazards continue undiminished.
Caring for Great Salt Lake is not a small matter, and the above enumerates a mere fraction of what the Lambourne Program collected to advance the point. Poetry — both printed and performed — music, dance, and song join with performance and film. Many of these lively contributions are available online, with QR codes available in the Community Center, the catalog, and at other sources that will enable the interested to download them and so not miss out. There are other agencies that share these concerns, and of course everyone who wants to help surely should. It just so happens that here, in the Sorenson Community Center, the overwhelming feeling is of cooperation and eager participation. It’s a good place to start and a great opportunity to become more involved.
Alfred Lambourne Arts Program, Sorenson Unity Center, Salt Lake City, through Oct. 30