Disaster is rich fodder for artists, from Aflred Sisley, the French Impressionist who painted the 1876 flood of Port-Marly, to Utah’s Lenka Konopasek, of whom Ann Poore wrote, “Konopasek is always blowing things up or burning them down … disaster is her thing.” So when fire first unveiled and then flood transformed an old mining town in their backyard, Helper artists Anna Evans and Jason Huntzinger were intrigued by the artistic possibilities.
In 2021, the Bear Canyon fire unveiled Royal, an early 20th-century mining camp in Price Canyon that since being abandoned had become largely forgotten: it was hidden behind foliage so thick the numerous daily passersby on Route 6 didn’t even know it was there. The fire revealed the bones of a small settlement once devoted to the area’s prime industry: coal mining. Then, when flood caked those bones in mud Evans and Huntzinger felt there would be plenty of material for the individual artistic approaches.
Evans is a local of the Colorado Plateau. She was born and raised in Grand Junction, Colorado and now lives in Helper, Utah — two places that have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of their individual states. She works as a full-time metalsmith/ jewelry designer in her studio and adjacent showroom, called Badlands Goods, on Price’s Main Street. She also creates textile works, for which her wool is locally sourced and her dyes come from plants grown in her own garden or foraged in the surrounding landscape. In 2021, her piece “Twilight to Dawn” was acquired by the State of Utah Alice Merrill Horne Art Collection.
Huntzinger is Evans’ neighbor in Helper, where he prints his photographs in his home studio. He is originally from Pleasant Grove, Utah, but embarked on his artistic career in Minnesota, where he earned a BFA from the University of Minnesota. He became known in Minnesota for his moody imagery of the industrial port town of Duluth. He now teaches photography as an adjunct professor in the the art department at USU Eastern in Price.
The artists took a trip together to Royal and have discussed the site over the last year, but they have been working on their pieces independently. Before the install of their exhibit Tone/Texture at Gallery East, they had not seen each others’ work. “A big piece of the collaboration will be hanging the show in this beautiful space,” Huntzinger says. “I’m looking forward to seeing how this will fall into place organically and fit together as a whole.”
Neither tone nor texture is exclusive to either artist. Tones, for both, are generally muted — grays, pale blues, bleached rust and ochre tones — and the works have been hung to highlight these similarities. The artists arrive at texture in drastically different ways — Evans through her use of three-dimensional, natural materials, and Huntzinger through a two-dimensional representation, but both evoke the dry, rough texture of a desert landscape scored by the natural elements and time.
“This work is a coalition of observing the ruins of human activity within the ghost town, my experience of feeling threatened by fire and flood, and a toilsome year, fraught with uncertainty and change both personally and on a global scale,” Evans says of her work, which ranges from what resembles a traditional quilt, to weavings that serve as backdrops for rocks harvested from the site.
“This project felt like it needed to push beyond traditional photography,” Huntzinger says of his work. Some are fairly straightforward photographs, concentrating on objects and structures as they were found at Royal. But in a more experimental, fluid approach, Huntzinger has layered images to present multiple views and textures in a single image. “Though not a painter, I wanted to imbue some of the qualities of that medium into these photographic processes,” he says.
Like any relationship, collaborations can take many forms, and this pair has managed to create a pleasant, intriguing and unified exhibition working from their separate studios. It is a show that will leave you with a sense of dirt beneath your nails and the whip of wind on your face.
Tone/Texture, Gallery East, USU Easter, Price, through April 21. Evans and Huntzinger will be at Gallery East for a reception and gallery talk on Friday, April 14, from 6-8 p.m.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.