“I had always been a kind of kitchen-table artist,” says Jody Plant in her Salt Lake City studio, where she’s surrounded by a sprawling mass of assemblage sculptures, stacks of old books, tree limbs, shells and rocks. Far too much material for a kitchen table. In her former home in the Avenues, Plant worked small and in spurts, having to put things away before a guest stopped in or the cat got curious. That changed five years ago when she and husband Lou Borgenicht found a new home in the 9th and 9th neighborhood. A modern construction of concrete and glass and rough-hewn wood, it’s nestled in a row of 1920s bungalows. Yet somehow it fits, neither matching its neighbors nor challenging them, but rather, changing the conversation. It’s not unlike Plant’s art, assemblages where the natural and the manufactured worlds blend into poetic dialogue, forming conversations that can be both soft and threatening, melancholy and euphoric. It is a body of work that continues to expand in her new studio, growing larger in scale, branching into new dimensions, evidence both of the artist’s love for the printed word and her deep tie to the natural world. “I love being in my studio,” she says, “asking questions and trying to find the answers.”
For 29 years Plant was a librarian at the Salt Lake City Library, where she began in the equivalent of the proverbial mailroom—shelving—and worked her way up to positions as a manager and an exhibition curator. During that time she raised a daughter as a young single mother, which made it difficult to pursue an art career. “I tried to go to art school and just hated it,” she says of the foundation classes she took at the U before dropping out because of time constraints. She did later go through the book arts program, where she studied with Jean-Marie Tarascio, and learned to make handmade paper and books, a creative exercise that dovetailed well with her experiences in the library. She also tried to study with Don Olsen —“I wanted to be an abstract painter”—but when he became ill the apprenticeship was aborted. But she pressed on. When she wasn’t hauling home stacks of books discovered during her hours at the office, or caring for her daughter, she continued to teach herself to paint on her own, mostly representational works—“I thought I wanted to paint like Andrew Wyeth”—until the fortunate discovery of the works of Joseph Cornell on a trip to New York turned her on to collage.
“Poetry was my first love,” she says, and many of her early collages feature her own poetry. “The words would come first and I would sort of work visuals around them.” Elements from books also found their way into the compositions, until Plant eventually turned to the books themselves as a form of art. “When I was in the library I’d think, there are books around here that have never been opened. They haven’t even been checked out.” She wanted to create a work that would always be an open book, not a closed one, and that’s when she began folding books, transforming them. “It was a way of honoring my profession as a librarian and my love of art and literature and mixed media.” It’s a form she didn’t invent, but as she began adding found objects and mixed media elements she began seeing the work as her own.
Working with the books, collage gave way to assemblage. Books left in the library’s discard bin would join old chairs, pails and tables, found in sundry places, as well as rocks, feathers and branches discovered on her frequent hikes. “There’s a danger being a mixed-media assemblage artist because you can be accused of having a serious hoarder complex,” she jokes as she turns around and motions to the accumulation of materials in her studio.
Though she travels frequently—she speaks of annual trips to Maui, D.C. and Paris (to get an art fix)—she has lived in Salt Lake City all her life — “born and bred, from large Mormon families on both sides”— and remains tied to her home, to the landscape that inspires her art and her life. “Even though I think there are a lot of things about [Utah] that are weird, there’s terrible air and I don’t agree with some of the politics, I think in terms of the landscape it’s very inspiring.” Salt Lake City’s unique setting, a city with the trappings of a metropolitan area but surrounded by mountains and canyons, a majestic landscape teeming with wildlife, has become part of her cultural and artistic DNA. “I was such a tom boy,” she says of her early years. “I just lived in trees . . . and spent a lot of time communing with birds and animals.”
As an adult she’s turned into what she calls a “homespun naturalist.” She taught herself how to track birds after discovering a female great horned owl in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. “I [walked] this big loop when I lived in the Avenues and one day I was listening to iTunes, and there was a game blasting at the U, but still I heard this hoot and I looked and there was this big owl right ahead of me. It stopped me in my tracks. I sat down and watched it and then this amazing thing happened—it flew right over my head.” The moment was seminal and Plant returned to the cemetery repeatedly, searching for the owl (whom she’s named Olive), watching her behavior, taking notes on her nesting, the number of hatchlings each year. “It had a 2-mile radius of territory that I had to cover and I would be out there in snowstorms at night listening for that hoot.”
That sort of behavior earned her a reputation as “the owl lady,” which is why, when workers at the cemetery discovered a young red-tailed hawk on the ground, they turned to her. She rushed over, wrapped the hatchling in a towel and held it at the office. “I thought, man, this is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.” She fought the nagging temptation to keep the bird, even when, as she was turning it over to the people at HawkWatch, the chick gently clasped her with her talons and nestled into her body. Three months later she received a call. The hawk had been rehabilitated, trained by an adult hawk to hunt and fly, and was ready to be released. Would she be interested in reintroducing her into the cemetery? “This may be magical thinking, but I had this sense that she knew me,” she says, when they were reunited. “She was huge now, but she relaxed and kind of leaned in to me.” Following the instructions received from HawkWatch she brought her back to the cemetery, where the hawk flew up high to a conifer, then took flight and caught a thermal. Three other hawks joined her, circling together. “My soul just took flight with her.”
That experience, she says, has been as meaningful as anything she’s done as an artist. She’s been spending her weekends ever since at HawkWatch. “I love the feeling of having these birds on my arm.” She went through a year of initial training, and has to be trained on each bird (she works with a great horned owl, Western screech-owl, two Swainson’s hawks, a red-tailed hawk, American kestrel falcon and a Peregrine falcon). “It’s my life’s work, working with these birds,” she says speaking in hushed, almost reverent tones. “As much as the art is body and soul, and I really have to express myself, there’s something about the work I do with the birds. I say to myself, this is my life’s work, this is what really matters.”
Love has a way of making room, though, and Plant’s heart appears large enough to enfold both the raptors she loves and the art that moves her. They inform each other, and the natural world has come to the fore in her latest work, pieces full of feathers, nests and lightning-formed crystals. In “The Conversation,” which is currently on exhibit at Finch Lane Gallery’s Double Vision, a show Plant has installed with assemblage artist and sculptor Frank McEntire, a compass is encircled first by a bird’s nest and then by a ring of crystals Plant discovered near Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in the Great Salt Lake. They were formed by lightning strikes and are arranged here like a laurel crown. Two old chairs form the base of the piece, and a strand of rusted wire, found in the same location, arches between them. It’s an ode to a locale the artist describes as her “centering,” a place she journeys to for contemplation and rejuvenation.
The title “conversation” could describe many of Plant’s works, gentle juxtapositions where materials, colors and forms rarely collide but more often find their place comfortably in settings that are poetic and potent. In “Papermakers,” a wasp’s nest pierced by a tree branch is held almost lovingly in the folds of a deer antler. Both nest and antler may suggest danger and aggression, but an antler, shed annually, is a symbol of time passing and life rejuvenating, and as Plant points out as she winds her way through the studio from one wasp’s nest to another, the wasp is a potent female totem.
The preponderance of these nests is the type of happy coincidence and meaningful discovery that happen frequently for an assemblage artist. McEntire was visiting the Native American Trading Post when he came across a number of large nests—neither artist had seen them there before or since. He gave four to Plant and when she began working with them, she realized she had been collecting them all along. Sometimes things have to settle, to accrete before they find their potency and meaning. “It’s been a lot of exploration, experimentation,” she says of her process. “I’ve just had to kind of let go of what I know, and allow myself to explore, allow myself to have failure and go beyond academic boundaries.”
Her recent works are strongly informed by life coincidences as well. She speaks of going through the past year as having survived the “tsunami of 2015”: she lost her mother, father and brother, all while dealing with a health crisis of her own. “I had such a paradigm shift in the last year. A friend told me, ‘You don’t really grow up until your parents die,’ and it’s true . . . I look at the world so differently now. I’m untethered. It’s like the roots that I knew, they’re gone. They’re dispersed.”
The roots are finding fertile ground in her new works. “Hearts on Fire” could be considered a recent self-portrait. A girl and her dog, framed by a large fire, stand on top of a red metal fire box placed on a red chair. Beneath, a heart-shaped paper weight holds open a book to a highlighted page on fire-making. It resembles a votive sculpture—Saint Jody of the Burning Heart, if you will—the fire purifying rather than consuming.
The metal fire box was something she found in the garage after her parents died. It turns out, like good assemblage artists her parents were hoarders. “I learned so much about myself because my parents never threw away anything,” she says. Her dad kept every key they ever owned, including an old skeleton key to their grandmother’s house. They’ve found their way onto a work that has been exhibited before in different iterations. The branches sprouting from a chair at one time held curled books, like blossoms, but here, in what seems a more elegant solution, the collection of keys dangle from the delicate branches. The work also features a lock and hinge, embedded into the chair, the whole provoking a general sense of melancholy and mystery, a searching for the right key, to unlock understanding, memory, a grieving heart.
Many of these new works are in the Finch Lane exhibit with McEntire. Both exhibited in a group show of altered books at Finch Lane in 2014 and were encouraged to apply for a show together. They scheduled the current show before Plant’s wave of grief and loss hit. “It was fascinating and crazy because I had to put my grief on hold because of all of the business. It was a paradigm shift and it has influenced this entire body of work.”
The pair chose a theme, working with the four classical elements of earth, wind, fire and water. It’s a collaboration in a loose sense, the artists visiting each others’ studios, talking about the work, making suggestions. “I’ve never really worked quite like this before and I think a lot of it is hanging out with Frank. He has a real knack for finding elements, combining elements, and knowing just how to place them.” One time while visiting Plant’s studio, McEntire noticed one of her works dealing with immigration featuring a rotary phone with Arabic numerals. He picked up the receiver and placed it back, slightly askance. “And I went, oh yeah, of course.”
They did collaborate on one work, a bear sculpture that had been used as target practice and upon which Plant has placed a festive crown. It commemorates the Yellowstone grizzly bear euthanized last year after she killed a hiker. Her two orphaned cubs were shipped to a zoo, Plant notes with frustration.
One thinks of the red-tailed hawk soaring above the Salt Lake City cemetery.
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This profile appeared in the March 2016 edition of 15 Bytes.
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.