Current Edition | Exhibition Reviews | Featured | Visual Arts

Digging in the Past: Artists Look for Individual Meaning and Collective Connection in Springville’s Roots and Branches

"In the Top of the Mountains: Jon Browning" by Rob Adamson

“In the Top of the Mountains: Jon Browning” by Rob Adamson

The past is becoming an increasingly hot topic in the present as scientific and technological advancements have made DNA analysis relatively simple and cheap, and the amassing of historical documents, journals and photos, easily accessible online. These developments have spurred interest in the individual aspect of the past, rather than the grand historical narratives, creating a trend that is showcased by television shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? and the success of companies like Ancestry.com. It’s no coincidence that the latter is a Utah company, because with the LDS church’s emphasis on journal keeping and genealogical records, Utah has a long tradition of individuals inspired to research and study their past, in hopes of understanding themselves more and feeling connected to a greater whole. The Springville Museum of Art’s most recent exhibition, Roots and Branches, reflects this interest, focusing on how genealogy inspires artists, and connects us not only to our past, but to the future as well. These artists use a variety of methods to evoke this kind of self-discovery, whether it is about connections with their immediate family, or long-forgotten relatives whose stories are yet to be told.

While much of the recent trend in genealogical research is done digitally, focusing on the information we can glean from digitized records about our ancestors, the work in Roots and Branches is much more rooted in the physical. Rob Adamson’s trio of works collectively titled In the Tops of the Mountains brings to life the stories of his pioneer ancestors by realizing the important details of their lives in Utah and Wyoming through paintings. The works combine landscape, portraiture and still life, creating single works out of multiple paintings that include portraits, important landmarks such as homes or churches, personal belongings and the landscapes that surrounded his forebears. This type of collage encapsulates his relatives, and creates easy connections for the viewer to understand at a glance the kind of lives these people led, creating a time capsule of what life was like in the West.

Jason Allred’s Relics of Home Series follows this trend of object-ancestral relation, but rather than focusing on those of the past, his series focuses on his own family- life experiences. Photographing objects in his own home, Allred pursues the idea that everyone has items of meaning they collect to help create a sense of home. He started the project in 2016, but as he states in the exhibition notes, he “quickly realized that each object was connected to a story, and that many of the objects had family-history significance.” This discovery led to a shift from a series of self-reflection, to a series of discovery, as he began looking at other people’s homes, creating a subset within the series that focuses on items once owned by ancestors and the stories associated with them, creating a narrative of how we create lasting connections with the past.

Ancestral Reliquary III- Andrew and Anna Ruohonen

“Ancestral Reliquary III- Andrew and Anna Ruohonen” by Jason Lanegan.

Jason Lanegan’s piece “Ancestral Reliquary III: Andrew & Anna Ruohonen,” goes beyond depiction to embrace the objects themselves as physical evidence of lives lived. His modern take on medieval Christian relics and reliquaries brings new life to the idea of finding a conduit through objects to reach power and understanding. Rather than looking for the power of God, Lanegan’s pieces seek to find connection to and understanding of the ancestors he never knew personally. By collecting the knowledge he does have, as well as using found objects to collage and fill in gaps of knowledge, Lanegan’s relics seek to create an image of who these people might have been, and how he can better understand them. Just as medieval reliquaries created a tangible link to someone important, Lanegan has created a link to those important to him, hoping it will bring further connection and understanding with it.

Creating our own objects and memories for our posterity to connect with is just as important as remembering our past. Brooke Smart’s series Bringing Up Baby strives to do this, as Smart illustrates 100 memories with her daughter. Made in conjunction with the worldwide 100-Day Project in 2017, Smart’s series touches on all of the millions of tiny moments of friendship, joy, sorrow, play, excitement, and pretend we share with each other. By visualizing these moments with her daughter, this series leaves behind memories for Smart’s posterity to look to and connect with, while also re-creating human moments that everyone can empathize with.

Installation view of Brooke Smart's "Bringing Up Baby"

Installation view of Brooke Smart’s “Bringing Up Baby”

Roots and Branches, Springville Museum of Art, Springville, through November 30.

Carly is a recent graduate of Brigham Young University with a BA in Interdisciplinary Humanities and a minor in Art History. During her time at BYU she studied history and museum work in London and Paris and is currently interning at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City.