Artist Profiles

Landing Moves: Jared Steffensen

photos by Gerry Johnson

Pause for a moment and reflect on your relationship to the city or town you call home. Remember how you got there and recall some of the feelings you associate with it, good or bad. Are there specific memories of the city that shaped your perspective or maybe had such an impact on you they still affect who you are today? Have you ever left home and then returned to find that your feelings surrounding the place have changed? These themes are addressed by local artist Jared Steffensen as he gears up for his first solo show titled lofty peaks and wide streets which will open on April 15 at Salt Lake’s Nox Contemporary. “When it comes down to it I’m examining what my relationship is to this place. Plain and simple that’s what it is. And it’s a relationship that I would say is neither good nor bad but fluctuates between like and dislike. I think part of it is that I’m understanding more and more is that I’m searching for a relationship to Salt Lake rather than examining my relationship to the city,” Steffensen says.

Steffensen, who manages to be laid back and personal despite showing a palpable intensity for his work, says that if he calls anywhere home it’s Salt Lake City. As a child he bounced around a lot, moving from place to place while he followed his father’s military career. When his dad retired, the family landed in Salt Lake City. It was 1990 and 15-year-old Steffensen found a niche within the local skateboarding community. While he wasn’t aware of it at the time, his skateboarding hobby was priming him for an artistic career that redefines objects and puts them in unexpected contexts. As a young skateboarder he was already looking at things and using them for something other than their intended use. “In skateboarding you’re always trying something new. It also teaches you to respond to your environment and use what’s around you,” Steffensen says. A rail, or something as deceptively simple as concrete stairs, becomes a skateboarding challenge, a playground for hours where he can perfect a myriad of moves.

Steffensen is well-versed in the work of many prominent artists in a variety of disciplines. He observes that a handful of skaters, like Mark Gonzalez and Ed Templeton, have also found success in the artistic community. Often skaters who create art are influenced by graffiti and street art, which has merit, Steffensen says, but he’s more intrigued by art that challenges him on a personal level. Those are works that may not be conventionally beautiful but stay with him and leave questions in his mind long after he views them.

His own aesthetic aims to push people, but he adds that he wants his work to be accessible and straightforward. People can enjoy it on the surface, but it’s worth looking a little deeper because Steffensen consciously adds layers of meaning to his work. “I’m hoping that people realize the objects I’m presenting them with represent more than the object that they are. If they only get to the surface understanding of it I’m ok with that but I would hope they take the time to dig a little deeper,” Steffensen explains.

A new piece for the upcoming show displays the words “east” and “west.”|1| On the surface the art can be enjoyed for its precision and clean lines. Upon closer examination the viewer sees that the word “east” has been constructed out of Totino’s Pizza packaging and the word “west” has been made out of Jeno’s Pizza packaging. This is a deliberate commentary on a trend that Steffensen noticed when he attended Cottonwood High School. Teenagers who lived on the east side of Salt Lake would only eat Totino’s Pizza, while teenagers who lived on the west side were loyal to Jeno’s Pizza. Steffensen’s work is a reflection on that absurd rivalry — he points out that while students thought their pizza selection was a status symbol and a direct rejection of the other, both are made by the same manufacturer, General Mills.

Steffensen’s artistic approach has been honed by years of study and refinement. When it came time to go to college he applied to the University of Utah, familiar skateboarding grounds. At one point his sister asked him to take a drawing class for non-majors with her, and after seeing some of Steffensen’s work, the teacher suggested he look in to the art department. When he did he found himself in 3D Foundation, taught by Kaiti Slater. The class fused his interest in building things with his desire to find a new way to approach material. Less than a month in to the class he was convinced that he had found his calling, and he credits Slater with fostering his talent and helping him to understand the power of objects.

In 2003 Steffensen started graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin so he could study under sculptor Mel Ziegler. After he earned an MFA in Studio Art, he moved to Rhode Island to work as a furniture maker. Then in 2007 he found a teaching position in Utah and prepared to return to his old stomping grounds. When he came to Salt Lake and went on the monthly Gallery Stroll he felt angry with himself for coming back: while he loves teaching, there was very little art that engaged him. “I was disappointed because I didn’t see work that I felt was exciting. I have to stress that I’m not making a value judgment on the work that was here, it was good work, it just wasn’t the type of work I had access to when I lived in Austin and in Providence,” Steffensen says.

Steffensen’s journey of leaving Salt Lake and returning to it has inspired a work titled “The Way You Leave is the Way You Come Back.”|2| It is a video piece that shows traffic camera views of the major freeways that feed in to and out of Salt Lake: I-15 North, I-15 South, I-80 East, and I-80 West. When you live in one place for an extended period of time people come to perceive you a certain way, Steffensen says, but when you leave that place, have new life experiences and grow, you return a changed individual. Yet people interact with you having the expectation that you are the same as when you left. It’s about balancing that expectation with your new sense of self.

Another change that took place when Steffensen returned to Salt Lake was his locale. In high school he lived in Sandy, in a middle class neighborhood. Today he lives on State Street. This change in location has caused him to reflect on the social stratification in Salt Lake. He is in the process of creating a piece made of ladders that form mountain peaks.|3| The tops will have pristine snow with a bit of sparkle and the landscape will be a bit grungier at the bottom. In some ways this is a literal look at how homes increase in size and value the farther up the mountains you go. When you travel down the mountain and reach the valley, the area becomes urban and you’re more likely to come across middle class or lower income homes. The ladders represent the metaphorical climb people make to improve their circumstances.

Some of Steffensen’s work is playful and even nostalgic. For example, an older piece that will be included in the upcoming exhibit shows the hand of Luke Skywalker holding his lightsaber, which is a tree rather than a beam of light.|4| This light-hearted humor permeates a number of his older pieces, many of which can be seen on his website. In the last year or so he has been shifting his aesthetic back to earlier influences like Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt. It’s a minimalist approach that places emphasis on precision.

Steffensen credits the fluid way he transitions from one style to another, or changes to a different medium, to the perspective skateboarding has given him. Even today when he skates, he always tries new venues or has to adapt an old trick in a new way, because while he isn’t particularly old, he can’t skate as aggressively as he did as a teenager.

He also doesn’t have as much time to skate now. In addition to being an Associate Instructor of Art and Art History at the University of Utah Steffensen is also the Preparator at the Salt Lake Art Center.

Throughout his time in Salt Lake City, whether as a young skater or now as a professional artist and teacher, Steffensen has felt constantly at odds with being in this place. He notes how many ideas are contained here; they don’t travel out, and many don’t come in. This is limiting to a person’s perspective. But he does appreciate Salt Lake’s size and its walkability, and is interested in the sense of limbo the city has. He finds intriguing how Salt Lake City seems to want to maintain a small town appeal while at the same time it pushes to be metropolitan. That duality can be seen in many neighborhoods where you find newer contemporary homes built next door to brick bungalows that have been there since the early 1900’s.

Steffensen is also optimistic about the current climate for contemporary art in Salt Lake. In the last four years, he says, a number of venues have been bringing in work that excites him. Among them are GARFO, the Salt Lake Art Center, the work curator Jill Dawsey has brought to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and galleries like Nox Contemporary.

In his relationship with Salt Lake City a consistent thread has been his defense of it, either to himself or to others. He feels very attached to the place, now more than ever because his infant son North was born here. And while there are some things he still contends with, he embraces them as well as the aspects he loves. The process of defining his space in Salt Lake City is ongoing and one he has explored for many years, and has resulted in his upcoming exhibit, which features work completed from 2008 to the present.

Though he never envisioned this solo show, Steffensen says he was always unconsciously working toward it. “I have a bunch of ideas that eventually culminate in a final product, even if it doesn’t actually come together in a space where I show it all together. The work generally has a common thread. It goes back to skateboarding and learning a new trick,” he says, relating it to piecing together the sequence of movements that result in a completed trick. Trying a new and dangerous move, a skateboarder relies on lessons learned from broken bones, and the practice of imagining success, to ultimately nail the trick and become a better skater. Later this month at Nox Contemporary, Steffensen is about to pull off a new and clever move.

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