Art Professional Spotlight | Visual Arts

The Mechanism of Art: Anne Cummings and the Art of Social Action


“I focus on the aspect of art that is the mechanism,” says Anne Cummings. “The mechanism of art can be a transformation, a transcendence, and through that transformative process is healing,” she says. “Through channeling different memories — the process of creating art — there is opportunity to tap into a very deep sense of self and feeling and explore that in a realm that does not require language.”

Cummings has been exploring this process for many years, as an artist, a curator and a gallery-director; and as she finishes up a Masters of Social Work this year, she plans to expand that exploration to include therapeutic practice. That doesn’t mean she has given up her curatorial practice, however, as her Gods, Heroes and Monsters exhibit opening later this month at Studio Elevn will demonstrate.

Originally from the UK, Cummings came to Utah fifteen years ago when her father accepted the Directorship of Education at the Salt Lake Diocese at the Cathedral of the Madeleine.  Her parents have sinced moved on (to Oregon) but Cummings, who earned a bachelor’s in English from the University of Utah, and who has worked for both the Park Record and JES Publishing, decided to stay in her adopted home.

In 2007, along with business partner Heidi Gress, Cummings launched the non-profit yet highly advantageous-for-all-parties-involved institution (a)perture. In addition to a traditional marketing firm, the business has also been home to an exhibition project, whose aim has always been bi-focal — to provide exposure for local emerging artists while doing good in the community.

“Aperture was a nonprofit, rewarding endeavor that rather than commissions through sales, part of the process was identifying with the artist a social cause that spoke to their personal cause and spoke to their work,” Cummings says.  “In lieu of commissions, donations were made to that cause.  It was a fantastic way of creating a dialogue through art for social justice.”

(a)perture gallery originally operated out of a space on 900 East in Sugarhouse, but later evolved into a popup gallery, taking advantage of various spaces and partnerships in the community. “Many up and coming artists need to showcase their work in a space that endorses their productivity, and not necessarily a traditional space,” she says.  What Cummings means by “endorsing their productivity” proves to be the essential aspect of the experience for the artist, and ultimately, for Cummings.  “I gravitate towards artists I liken to a lion, but with a quiet roar.  A tenacity and spirit and passion and presence.  Their voice is perhaps not refined in a manner that allows them to maneuver successfully through the art world.  To see this voice develop is very gratifying.”

These shows, says Cummings, “revolve around idea and concept.  (a)perture provided a conduit to create conceptual exhibits using ideologies and points of departure for exploration.”  Further, and most significantly for her role as a curator, she says, “What I have found, is many of these ideas are draws for artists to explore ideas they may not have had opportunity and ways of addressing certain subjects and concepts.”

An integral aspect to Cummings’ own mechanism as an artist has been realized in a long tradition of film photography.  Again, the subjects that inspire Cummings are those that involve head on collisions with issues of social justice.

One particularly engaging project that surely engaged with Cummings’ personal mechanism was an experience with many candid moments involving Cummings’ ex-husband, recently returned Iraq veteran Sean Anderson. For Cummings, the conceptual drama of “Portrait of a Soldier” is made visible in minimal photographs that draw on the stark figure of a returned soldier and a young child.  This is a young man whose sense of honor propelled him to enlist and commit to serve his country. The core concept of the series is an exploration of how that sense of honor and commitment turns to disillusionment about the very reality of that same country. In each of a series of photographs that captures nuanced dynamics between the soldier and his “inner child,” an item of clothing is removed. This stripping and laying bare references a finding of personal honor and a personal code of truth, a truth that is reality, for the individual, to his or her very core being, with as much integrity as ever, but with a renewed license to look deeper, perhaps within.

This body of work challenged Cummings to focus on very personal and dramatic changes in her life, as well as the lives of those around her. This mechanism of challenge is one that pervades Cummings’ work, as curator and artist.  For any given show, the artist is challenged with a new subject or concept, something they have yet to address but desire to. This challenges them to develop a new mechanism, another non-verbal language, whether it involve form, idea, process, experience, method, meaning, perception. What makes the experience one that is entirely new is the range of sensibilities influenced and stirred within this artist’s being.

In the show that opens this month at Studio Elevn, Cummings asked 20 local artists to depict one of the three avatars of the show’s title: Gods, Heroes, Monsters. The result, Cummings says, ranges from” classical depictions to alternative notions that question the traditional meaning most associated with these terms and thus offers a reinterpretation of traditional meaning.”

The variable aspect of Gods, Heroes and Monsters as conditioned by society but recontextualized by these artists demonstrates the now long since shifted ethnographic realities of contemporary culture, and as far as this show is concerned, the primary focus of artistic impact will be directed towards the ongoing dialectic of queer presence and reality in society as a norm and not a myth as it was once an outsider contingency.

In acrylic, oil, mixed media, metal, letterpress, pen and ink, each artist addresses their own work “that questions and explores various interpretations of both classical and unconventional archetypes that frame human understanding and act as a foundation for applying meaning to life.”  In a sense, each artist’s mechanism will be reconnected and recontextualized as they had never considered.

In keeping with her longstanding curatorial practice of engaging her exhibitions with local organizations, proceeds from sales will benefit Equality Utah and donations will also be accepted at the event. Working for half a decade as a curator, Cummings says, has “solidified my viewpoint of art as a form of advocacy and activism.”

With this in mind, Cummings decision to pursue a degree in Social Work is not so much a career-change as career development. “Life continues to surprise me, however, I suppose it started making sense about 3 years ago when I reevaluated my life and made some major life changing decisions and decided to venture into new territory,” says Cummings.

She recently donned her cap and gown at the University of Utah. “What I envision in the future is working in a private practice that is devoted to the process of art therapy, so, working with individuals on a basis where we are using art as an explorative tool to express deep-seated trauma and throughout this process a creative reconstruction of memory, becomes a very powerful antidote in healing.” In essence she’ll be extending what she has been doing for professional artists to those with little or no training but just as deeply-seated needs for expression. And transcendence.

Gods, Heroes and Monsters is a welcome return for a curator who has definitely had an important impact on many artists and the public at large. Assuredly this show as well as others in Cummings’ future will be a cross interpolation as she continues to explore the inner fabric of the human psychology of art and she begins a bold and promising career where her motivations for social justice will be put to best effect with a pairing of the two understandings.


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