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In a Pretty Good Place: Kristina Lenzi Embraces Life and Art at Middle Age

Photo by Simon Blundell.

Kristina Lenzi is finding middle age a pretty good place to be. “I’m a private person,” she says as we sit across a table in the Poor Yorick studio she moved into just a couple weeks prior. “I’m horrifically shy. On the other hand, I’m a mature woman who doesn’t have to succumb to being shy. I love music . . . I’m an optimist and I’m a feminist. I’m queer. I’m a teacher, a family person, a friend. I like to think that I have a pretty damned good sense of humor.”

At 51, Lenzi is a longtime adjunct professor at the University of Utah and Weber State University who likes to tell jokes in class, “but I’ve had to back off a bit because a couple years ago I was telling my students a joke that involved Richard Nixon and I realized, oh my god, none of them know who Richard Nixon is — so now I have to let them inform how I create humor.” The music you hear coming out of her studio also places her squarely in Generation X: “I love David Bowie. I love Annie Lennox. I love U2. I love pop ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s music and it keeps me going and I listen to it all the time,” she says.

In addition to the inevitable boom box, the new studio contains a large Kermit frog that came from D.I. and was the subject of a series of abstract work some years back; Yoda lurks atop some shelves covered with pastels and other materials that also hold some technical books on design and perspective. Her favorite quote hangs on a nearby wall:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair. No place for self-pity. No need for silence. No room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. – Toni Morrison

A small round table in a corner boasts a stack of books including the red Lee Deffebach 1993 retrospective catalog, a Tufts University booklet (where Lenzi got her MFA in painting and performance art under Marilyn Arsem), a tome titled Action/Abstraction and Final Light, Frank McEntire’s 2013 collection of essays on Doug Snow from the U of U Press.  While she respects and admires Deffebach’s work, Lenzi says fervently, “If I could paint like Doug Snow and have it be my own way that would be the quintessential painting for me. He’s my favorite painter. He’s my favorite painter.”

It’s a neat and tidy space not because Lenzi just moved there but because she tends to keep things that way, “so that when I come in I’m not overwhelmed with anything.  And I can just start painting. Like my brain. I keep it tidy and I don’t have to worry about being overwhelmed with anything, any chaos when I start painting.” She has shared studio space with Julie Tippets for 11 years now, first at Rockwood, then briefly at Artspace Commons, again at Rockwood and now at Poor Yorick. “It’s nice to have a community of artists, I think,” says Lenzi, who got her BFA with Poor Yorick owner Brad Slaugh at the U. in 1997. There, influential professors were Sam Wilson, Stephen Goldsmith and Maureen O’Hara Ure.

Photo by Simon Blundell.

Oil and performance are her favorite mediums.  “I’ve been doing performance work about being a middle-aged woman,” she says about current works in progress. At 6-foot-1 and with very long hair, she’s used to being noticed, but things have changed as she’s entered middle age. “What’s interesting to me now is that I’m not noticed very much. I could go do unconscionable things in public and not be noticed,” she notes sardonically. She hopes to be a contender for the next UMOCA residency program to develop her ideas.

She has just finished painting (in acrylic, because “oil is expensive when you paint large like I do”) for her show, Alien Matters, opening Nov. 11 at the Gallery at Library Square. The intriguing canvases, in two series, stacked neatly in the studio, are shaped by Abstract Expressionism (or AbEx, as Lenzi persistently terms it), Utah landscapes, and her love of science fiction.

Photo by Simon Blundell.

What she particularly likes in the new show is that she went into the Main Library and asked which two walls she was going to get and made paintings that would fit the length of each. She’s excited to see how it looks once the show is up. “They tell me I’m the first person who has used the space in that way,” Lenzi states.

“Once I’m done with a painting I’m just done. It’s the process that counts to me,” Lenzi observes. “But I’m pretty attached to the conceptual part of this show, or at least I was when I did the work. The idea is to paint in an Abstract Expressionist way what I feel when I go into different Utah landscapes and then to add something to it that’s sort of informed by my love of science fiction.” In many of the works, she explains, dark spheres act as aliens, while others get a turquoise thread of paint, “perhaps water,” and some evidence of alien life. “So I want to impose something otherworldly, or move it from this big joke of everything is AbEx right now, so how do I turn that into something a little more current.”

Her taste in sci-fi is classic, for the most part: all of Asimov’s novels; Philip K. Dick, and especially, she says, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a work from the ‘60s that inspired the Blade Runners’ films (also faves of hers). She currently is reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy and liked Blake Crouch’s recent Dark Matter.

The great- great- granddaughter of noted Utah artist Martin Lenzi (from whom family members say she got her talent) the artist describes herself as a painter who loves performance art. Though her resume is split pretty evenly between both kinds of exhibitions, Lenzi says, “I love paint. I love everything about it. I love how it moves. Every time you do a painting you learn something new.” Her mother told her she was prolific at 3. “It’s in my baby book. I’ve always had to do it,” Lenzi states.

In fifth grade she stopped copying Dennis the Menace and started taking art lessons at her mother’s insistence. “I had to take piano lessons until I was 16 and can’t play a note, but mother recognized that I was doing this other thing that was artistic so I studied under Robert Rumel for a while.  He was having me draw still life from other sources, teaching me realism. As soon as I got into junior high, Marjorie McClure was a big influence, then Doug Allen at Alta High.” She was a Sterling Scholar in Visual Art (though she could have chosen Spanish) and was in the Springville Museum High School Show for several years. Lenzi was a fast-pitch softball pitcher and says that strategy involved the kind of thinking she uses in painting all the time. She has two younger brothers who are both produce managers: “I’m the odd one.”

After working in the mental-health field for a long time as a psychiatric technician and briefly as a case manager after college, Lenzi decided that wasn’t what she wanted to pursue. So, naturally, she went to grad school. “I taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and then moved back here.” Her family is here; her partner of almost 13 years, a legal mediator, is here. “This is home base,” Lenzi says.

Since being in Salt Lake City makes it expensive to travel to see all the performance artists she is interested in, Lenzi decided to bring them to her. Last month, the Salt Lake City Performance Art Festival brought 12 artists from around the world to the Salt Lake City Main Library for two days of performances during its fifth annual event.  “It’s really taken off,” she says of the festival she created, noting that in the United States, Chicago is the only other city with an international performance art festival.

Using the entire downtown library as a stage and frequently involving unsuspecting patrons for an audience, performers like Boston’s Marilyn Arsem might do a piece like “Lost Words,” where, in 2013, armed with a hundred-year-old dictionary, she asked passersby if they had “lost any words?” and then gave them one (such as “pruinose”) to bring back into common circulation.  Also at that festival Lenzi, outfitted appropriately, “fished” for walkers in the atrium below with gummy- worm bait — to critical delight. In 2014, Montreal artist Stephane Gilots had the audience become performers in a piece called “Station Library” by donning his handmade space suit to search the library for a book on the subject of space from a list he had created.

Because she’s so painfully shy, Lenzi says going into a performance is torture. “But you do it because you have this concept and you feel like the message has to be conveyed. Afterwards, it just feels so good that you got through it and you learn so much about yourself just getting through that I think it’s made me less shy,” she observes.

“At heart I’m a painter and when I do performance it’s a lot like painting. The audience is there and I’m the canvas. This last piece I did at the festival at the beginning of October, I threw multicolored rose petals at the audience over the ledges of the library and it just felt like throwing paint at a canvas except I had an audience responding immediately — and that’s the difference. “

Lenzi likes to draw. “I’m good at it. But I think I moved into this more sloppy approach to painting, this kind of abstraction stuff, because drawing tends to be really tight.” On her website you’ll find a series of political drawings of large heads on little bodies. “I can whip those out in a couple hours, but I don’t want to spend hours and hours drawing,” she concedes.  “Now that I’ve moved back into oil painting, I just completed two large tighter works, tighter in that they are not exactly representational so they are still coming out of my imagination but are coming out of a feeling of Utah nature, a feeling of place, and I’m thinking about color and what it feels like and the concept is to try to capture what that place would look like if you just blinked. That’s where I’m headed. They are intellectually really hard because it’s about color theory and memory and sensation. Hopefully, I’ll get better at it. I go to Moab every New Year’s Day and spend a week. I think it was all of those visits and wanting to paint what it felt like and my love of color theory and my respect and admiration and love of Doug Snow [that triggered the new works].”

As exciting as making artwork can be, life has taught Lenzi that its richness can be mined in various ways. She and her partner together have trained a rescue dog named Janey, an Australian Shepherd (“so she’s smarter than I am”), to work as a therapy animal in the burn unit at the U Hospital as well as in the waiting room where people are waiting for loved ones to come out of surgery. “She has compassion you wouldn’t believe. With little kids in the burn unit she would stand there and just let them pet her. She’s a working dog so I bring her into the studio so she doesn’t go nuts staying at home,” says Lenzi.

Her other hobby resulted from the recent acquisition of a turntable: she hunts vinyl at estate and yard sales. She’s gotten the Police, old Talking Heads, the Clash, Dead Kennedys. Even some Barbra she can’t seem to trade with anyone anywhere.  The only rule is she can’t buy any vinyl she already has on CD. “I just got a Peter Frampton,” Lenzi says. “I never would have done that, but it was 25 cents.”

Besides teaching at the U (now in the architecture department) and at Weber, she sometimes fills in here and there by doing “a little substitute teaching or babysitting or house sitting or yard sitting or whatever. It covers expenses but it doesn’t make me rich,” she says. Lenzi even has the occasional paint party, listed on her website, where she puts up a picture for everyone to paint, they drink some wine and have fun. “It’s for people who don’t really care that much about art. They learn a little something and have a good time.  I don’t do a lot of them, but I’ve gotten a couple of students out of those,” she says with more of a giggle than a laugh. She even acknowledges having a pet painting party once in a very great while.  They paint from photographs. “I really do need to update my website,” she says.

Photo by Simon Blundell

Overall, Kristina Lenzi is in a pretty good place these days. “I know enough now not to be worried about the drama of life. I’m out of school; I have a career; I’m pretty confident about what I do as an artist; I have friends. My body’s going to crap, but other than that I think emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, everything is just kind of understood.”

“Alien Matters,” paintings by Kristina Lenzi and “Morning Walk: Sculptures by David N. LeCheminant”, Salt Lake City Main Library, through Jan. 5, opening reception Nov. 11, 4 p.m. -5:30 p.m. http://www.slcpl.org/events/view/7218/

 

Photos by Simon Blundell

A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She also worked for Salt Lake City Weekly and has written for such publications as Utah Business Magazine and Salt Lake Magazine.

2 replies »

  1. Kristina’s work is a highlight in my home and office! I was first inspired by her “Imposter” series, and have since had her do a performance piece at my birthday, and been lucky to pick up a couple others. This was a great article about a great artist. Kudos to you Kristina, I hope you continue to create, and that audiences will continue to grow and appreciate your work as I do!

  2. Thank you for introducing me to Kristina Lenzi. As an intermittent roamer into the world of art, both as a painter and appreciative observer, I had yet to come across her work, yet we are the same age. I am very glad to know of her and look forward to seeing more of her work.

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