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Annie Kennedy: Back to Her Roots

Artist Profile: Salt Lake City
Annie Kennedy: Back to Her Roots

by Adam Bateman

One of the most significant movements in contemporary art world-wide is one where artists explore their identities. This exploration of identity is often done on a cultural level, sometimes in the context of gender or sexual orientation, and often about Art Historical identity. The best artists explore their identity on all of these levels. Such is the art of Salt Lake artist, Annie Kennedy.

Kennedy “discovered” art as a senior at West High School where she was a student of local artist Steve Case. As a student of Case, she discovered abstraction for the first time. A daughter of a Salt Lake City lawyer, she had always intended to be a lawyer herself, but had considered landscape painting a form of release. Upon discovering abstraction, she finally changed her course to develop into a significant artist.

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Kennedy spent four years (1997-2001) at Rhode Island School of Design where she received her BFA, graduating with Honors and studying for a year in Italy. After receiving her BFA, she returned to Salt Lake City to work with Art Access and Dolores Chase. During that year in Salt Lake, Kennedy was making representational paintings that were about expressing a personal narrative. With that work, she participated in six exhibitions around Utah. Among others, she was included in Springville Art Museum’s “Spirituality in Art” exhibition. She had a Solo Exhibition at Art Access, and teamed up with her former high school teacher, now friend and colleague, Steve Chase for a two-person show at the Union Station Gallery in Ogden.

In 2002, Kennedy moved to New York City to attend graduate school at Parsons School of Design, where she received a teaching certificate for New York State and her MFA in sculpture. At Parsons, she received a Dean’s Scholarship, and upon graduation, the Graduate Student of Merit Award. She also participated in several student shows such as her MFA Thesis exhibition “Things They Carried,” at the Aronson Gallery. She also participated in group shows at Hotel Chelsea, A.I.R Gallery, and the New School Galleries—all in New York City.

While at Parsons, Kennedy started exploring her roots. She was raised a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She recognized the fact that she had grown up with a unique cultural identity; there, in her own childhood, she found a rich heritage of unique imagery, meaning, and a special kind of art history — one that was independent and parallel to the art and cultural histories of the people surrounding her in New York. In her words: “My artwork is an exploration of this particular visual legacy and an examination of how it interacts with the culture of America and the contemporary art world.”

Since graduate school, Kennedy has been exploring her identity as a Utahn, as someone raised a member of the LDS church, and her identity as a woman. She explores the boundaries between these things, where they overlap, what their relationship is to each other, and she does all of this in a dialogue with contemporary art.

A great example of this is her 72-Hour Kit (2004) |3|. This sculpture is both a quilt and a 72-hour kit. In this piece, Kennedy draws on her own family history as well as the tradition common to many people in the history of Mormon culture. The pattern on her quilt is taken from a traditional style indigenous to Utah quilt-makers. Quilt-making by itself is important to her ancestors as it is to a larger community of Mormons. This sculpture speaks specifically to that tradition, and, at the same time, refers to a larger tradition of craft. In addition to the fact that the sculpture is a quilt, it is made of materials that come from outside the tradition of quilt-making. It is made of vacuum-seal bags used for food storage. Practicing Mormons are urged to keep emergency items on hand, in a neatly packaged, portable bundle, that can be easily accessible in the case of an emergency. This “kit” is designed to keep the owner and his or her family alive and well for 72 hours. Kennedy’s bags are transparent and they contain items one would find in a 72-hour kit. Each bag seals things like flashlights, dried mangos, other dried fruits and foods, batteries, matches, candles, a short wave radio, a Swiss Army Knife, and a small Book of Mormon. The contents of the bags, and the idea of combining two signifiers of Mormon culture into one piece of art brings into question the boundaries one typically draws between doctrinal, cultural, craft, and historical issues.

Another piece that serves as a good example of her work is her Sego Lily Star of David (2004) |4|. This piece is a collage made of pieces of paper on which Kennedy has painted with olive oil and grape juice, then baked in the oven; then cut into the petals of sego lilies, then pasted these onto paper in the image of sego lilies arranged in the shape of the Star of David. This work is a good example of how every level of the piece is defined by the concept she is working with. Each of the materials refers on some level to either art or to Mormon culture. Paper and the processes of collage and painting refer to the art historical tradition. Grape juice and olive oil are both important materials in a religious context for Mormons. |5| There are many references to grape juice in the New Testament such as the changing of water to wine at the wedding party—Jesus’ first miracle. Olive oil was important in the New Testament and it is important to Mormons today. It is currently used by Mormons to administer the sick in religious ceremony. The process of making the work also refers to Utah and Mormon craft traditions. Mormons place a lot of value on homemaking. Baking the paper refers to that. The actual collage process used with the image of wildflowers refers to the typical Utah craft of pressed-flower arrangements. Sego lilies are the official state flower of Utah, so named because the Mormon pioneers survived hard winters by eating sego lily roots. The Star of David is symbolic to identify the House of David—or Judaism, but also is a symbol for Jesus, who was of the House of David. Such a blend of cultural, historical, and religious signifiers present at all levels of process, materials, and image in this piece encourage the viewer to question the relationships those things have with one another. One questions the boundaries between religion and culture, craft and art.

These same practices are common to all of her art. She uses wax to seal things |8|; she makes images of beehives, cans of sardines, and other food storage are common to her work |6|; many works are easily packaged up and portable, like the 72-hour kits or her Portable Baptismal Font |7|. Many refer to Utah and Mormon cultures on a universal level, and many of her works are more personal. She often uses imagery of an old clock that has been handed down as an heirloom from generation to generation. Sometimes the imagery has been taken from the tombstones of her dead ancestors. In one case, in the piece Angel Moroni With Eleven (page1), she explores her personal angst about coming to terms with her personal relationship with her culture and family. In short, all of Kennedy’s work draws on the rich cultural heritage she shares with many Utahns and Mormons. Such exploration, especially done like hers, in a way that isn’t propaganda for or against the LDS church, goes a long way toward exploring this unique culture and its place in art history.

Kennedy will have a solo exhibition of this work at the Central Utah Art Center September 9-October 13 of this year.

This article originally appeared in the May 2005 edition of 15 Bytes

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