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Connie Borup: Painting from the Inside Out

This article was originally published in Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists (Vol. II), published in 2019 (You can order a copy at http://artistsofutah.org/15Bytes/index.php/order-utahs-15/). Connie Borup is currently exhibiting a new body of work at Phillips Gallery in Salt Lake City through August 14.

Connie Borup in her Salt Lake City studio, photo by Simon Blundell

Never underestimate the influence of teachers, wherever you may find them. Connie Borup, now one of Utah’s best-known landscape painters, hadn’t the slightest inclination of becoming an artist until she met an art history teacher in Germany. Borup was raised in Kaysville, Utah, a town that was still a largely rural community dominated by fields in the 1950s. Growing up in that environment has its advantages, but Borup always knew she wanted “to get out.” Which explains why she jumped at the chance to become an exchange student. “That was such an eye-opener,” she recalls. “A 17-year-old Mormon girl leaving her town and going to Germany.” At the gymnasium in Cologne, she met Herr Beppo, who opened her eyes to art. “I made a decision right then — I’m going to be an artist.”

When she returned from Germany, Borup enrolled at the University of Utah, artistically unskilled and unschooled but eager to learn. Working on the fundamentals, however, was not a prevalent pedagogical concern in the university’s art department, so she majored in German, where she knew she could get straight As, and minored in art. After graduating, in 1968, she stayed at home to raise her daughter while continuing to teach herself art
fundamentals. When Rachel began kindergarten, Borup returned to school in 1973 to finish a BFA.

For the next 20 years she taught high school art, as well as German. She began at Layton High, where she was corralled into teaching additional classes like sewing, interior design, and ceramics; then moved to Brighton High, where — she’s proud to report — a number of her students went on to become professors and successful artists; and finished at Rowland Hall, a private school in Salt Lake City.  After she earned her MFA in 1992, she taught at the U, principally the night class for majors, where she mentored a number of Utah artists including Travis Tanner, Cassandria Parsons and Laura Boardman. Boardman remarks that Borup’s teaching approach was “to support each artist in his or her own style, while giving great instruction on an academic level.” Hadley Rampton, a Salt Lake City artist who took Borup’s AP art class at Rowland Hall, echoes Boardman’s thoughts. An early student of art, Rampton was generally disappointed by the instruction she found at school, which felt too rudimentary. “Connie’s classes were different. She delved into the sophisticated, more college-level lessons which kept me engaged and challenged, all the while still patiently working with and guiding those who had not had as much exposure to more advanced art classes.” Janell James, who studied alongside Rampton, says, “Connie’s color contrasts and intimate compositions really drew me in and told stories that reached me
deeply.” Borup taught her to create “from the inside out.”

Borup was able to teach that process because she had learned it in her own practice. In the ‘70s and ‘80s she was painting, in her words, “straightforward landscapes” with a “Utah painterly touch.” To continue her education, she sought out the renowned LeConte Stewart. “I learned a lot from him about looking at the landscape. He was a very spiritual guy.” A turning point in her development occurred in the late ‘80s when she attended a monthlong workshop at the Vermont Studio School. Though she had gone to study with landscape artist Wulf Kahn, it was actually color field artist Fred Matys Thursz who decisively impacted her future. He was a “a ruthless guy who told me my work looked like ‘lovely calendar paintings,’” she says. “It broke my heart … it shook me up — in a really good way.”

It was then that she decided to enroll in the U’s graduate program, propelled by a desire to “clarify my intentions,” to ask herself why she was drawn to the landscape. That search continues to be the driving force in her work. “I find that natural forms have the most
expressive qualities. They say what I want to say.” She notes that during her graduate studies art historian Robert Olpin had as much influence on her work as anything she did in the studio. No one was teaching landscape painting in the MFA program and it was Olpin who pointed her toward the German and Northern European symbolists who continue to influence her work.

Borup is not a realist painter, attempting to portray or record the natural world. Rather than hold her work up as a mirror to the landscape, she uses the landscape to reflect her interior vision: nature becomes a lexicon from which she attempts to draw out a visual mantra.
Her process begins in the field, where she seeks elements in nature that reflect her ideas and captures them with a digital camera. She will even “stage them,” taking, for example, “a wonderful branch and placing it in the water.” Much of this happens in Island Park, Idaho, where she and husband Dennis Borup have a cabin. This stretch of the Rockies’ western flank lacks the grandeur of the nearby Tetons or the otherworldly qualities of neighboring Yellowstone. It’s a mild Western landscape dominated by the Henrys Fork as it settles into the flatlands of the Snake River Plains. Yet it has proven a fruitful hunting ground for her work.

Back in the studio, Borup develops a “pretty accurate drawing” before experimenting with indirect layers of paint, including elements she knows will eventually disappear as the painting progresses. She works in the traditional oil painting method, from dark to light, glazing frequently. Though they are built up with multiple layers, her paintings are very smooth in the end. “I’m not including any texture,” she says. “I want them to be really quiet and not show the action of making a painting.”

Borup attracted an early and devoted group of admirers. While working on her MFA she already was garnering prizes at the Springville Museum of Art’s annual Salon and has continued to do so. She is the recipient of a Utah Division of Arts and Museums visual arts fellowship and a State of Utah’s Governor Awards in the Arts, and continues a regular schedule of exhibitions at her galleries in Salt Lake City and Sun Valley, Idaho.

Like the seasons, Borup’s work has shifted and evolved, but it always has been characterized by a strong sense of design. Her postgraduate works relied on strong horizontal or vertical bands — a clump of trees set in the distance against a stormy background, for example. As the years progressed, the trees were defoliated so Borup could concentrate on the structure of the branches, their vertical sweep rising up and out of the picture. “I thought, wow, those trees are more beautiful without the leaves.” Her gaze continued to zoom in further, examining individuals branches or clumps of leaves as the strict horizontals and verticals gave way to diagonals and sweeping forms, frequently set against nondescript fields of color. At each stage, she was drawn to the increasing complexity of what she could paint. 

In an exhibit of works at Salt Lake City’s Phillips Gallery in the fall of 2007, Borup’s gaze suddenly turned downward, focusing on the complex interplay of leaves lying on the ground or floating on the surface of water. “Interestingly enough, I looked back at earlier paintings and earlier imagery that I was interested in and water has been a theme for quite some time,” she remarked at the time for a 15 Bytes article. The water motif explored in these paintings has occupied her ever since.

“A Secret Place,” oil on linen, 42″ x 42″

While celebrating that successful 2007 exhibition with friends at Salt Lake City’s Town Club, Borup suffered a terrible headache. That a friend recognized she was having a stroke, called 911, and Borup was in surgery at University of Utah Hospital within two hours, probably saved her life. In the immediate aftermath of what is known in her family as “the event,” Borup was too confused to know what was really going on or to reflect on what it might mean for her future. “I was too out of it to be scared. But, when I started the healing process, I was very intent on getting back to making art.”

That process was not made easier by the fact that her studio began tumbling down around her. Borup was the first artist to occupy a space in the Rockwood building, located in the heart of Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood. Named for the furniture store that occupied its street level, the Rockwood’s second story contained a number of office and work spaces, one of which Borup occupied as a freshly minted MFA. More artists followed, the closure of the furniture store made room for additional studios and, at one point, the space was home to more than 30 artists, plus a gallery and frame shop. With the recession of 2008, a gentrification process that had begun demolishing surrounding buildings stalled, leaving the Rockwood vulnerable. As plaster began peeling off her walls and winter water gushed through what looked like open wounds in her ceiling, Borup was forced to squat in various vacant studios as she prepared for her next exhibit.

Borup can paint quiet images of meditative serenity, even when everything around her is crumbling into chaos. As demonstrated by the powerfully executed compositions that appeared at Phillips Gallery in 2009, right on schedule, the stroke had had no impact on her physical dexterity. Water continued to be the dominant theme, transforming the other natural elements that appeared. Trees and weeds stood in pools of water, a sense of threat underlying the luminous surface of the paintings, their reflections moving and breaking across the picture plane.

What Utah art critic Alexandra Karl would say about similar works in 2016 could be glimpsed already: “Borup’s images are often situated at transitional locations, where water meets land and adaptation is required. … the artist’s iconography feeds off expired plant life and the resulting decay: the retreat of leaf color and the draining of pigment. Here, stems and branches become splintered and prickly, yet are swiftly remedied by the healing properties of water as the source of all life. In these instances, the harsher effects of nature are mitigated by the interplay of light and water and its dual role as window and mirror.” In those transitional locations Borup discovered a new source for her work, one full of complex possibilities. “The complexity has been an important part of them,” she said to 15 Bytes at the time. “Organizing complexity and seeing it clearly; doing it without confusion.”

Just as the stroke had little effect on Borup physically, it did little to change her spiritual outlook. “A lot of people have events like [the stroke] and say ‘It changed my life’ . . . but I was already smelling the roses. I practice Buddhism and one of our practices is to practice your death and I felt like I was pretty aware of mortality and our time here.” As Karl wrote in that same review, “At the heart of Borup’s work lies a fascination with natural process and the cycles of nature: the yin and yang of life. Rich with pathetic fallacy, the works show us a world of tumult and repose, brutality and recovery.”

A decade since “the event,” Borup she says that apart from sleeping more than she used to, there are no effects from the stroke and on any given day you’ll find her hard at work in her studio. Though she’s known principally as a painter, Borup has been making prints since her graduate days, and has a press in her studio. She has also experimented with encaustic and photographic sources. Her most recent works are paintings, the palette sometimes reduced to the point of monochromaticism. Apart from the workshops she has taught in Sun Valley for the past 15 years, she’s done with teaching. “I loved teaching, even when I was teaching high school … I loved art so much and

I was passionate. I loved it, so the students loved it,” she says. “However, I’m very glad to be done — because I’m here, in the studio every day and that’s what I’m about.” She might take a break to talk shop on the phone with her oldest of two granddaughters, who is in her second year as an art major; or stop to visit with one of the few artists who remain at Rockwood now that the gentrification process is complete; and she does her part in the art community, serving in recent years on the collection committees for the Salt Lake County and State of Utah collections; but most of the time you’ll find her in front of an easel, brush in hand. Though her medium or subject matter may evolve, her intention remains the same: “to celebrate the quiet and meditative aspects of nature and to seek beauty in places that might be overlooked.”

“Overhanging Branch,” oil on linen, 30″ x 40″

 

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