Wayne Geary is a big fan of Salt Lake City’s Main Library. He’s a frequent patron, and holds a Friends’ annual membership, which has allowed him to buy hundreds of CDs from the bi-annual library sales a day before most everyone else can. ”That’s when you get the really good stuff,” he says. A year ago, however, the library was the scene of a life-threatening, not to mention career-ending, scare for the Salt Lake City artist: he fell in the underground library garage and broke his neck. Following surgery and a long recovery, though, he’s back in his studio painting, listening to everything from the Stones to Mahler, while anticipating an important exhibit, Topographies, opening at the Gallery at Library Square on January 14.
Geary does representational work, but approaches it more as an abstractionist. “Because I did abstract work for so many years and I think the difference between representation and so-called abstraction is kind of arbitrary. I approach the landscapes more like I would do an abstract painting, but sometimes I will do something that is almost all abstract even though there are fragments of recognizable images in them. They are kind of landscapes, too, in that sometimes there are elements of maps in them and then they are kind of like aerial landscapes too, which fascinates me,” the artist observes.
Born in Ogden, Geary was an Air Force brat, never in one place for more than a year. It’s a tough life for a kid – in third grade he went to three different schools in three different states. “We moved a lot more than most military families and I didn’t know why and my dad couldn’t talk about it because he was involved in Air Force intelligence and this was the height of the Cold War. He was setting up sites for radar installations along the East Coast as part of an early warning system in case the Russians tried a sneak attack,” says Geary.
Like most military kids, he was always the new student in school, making friends he would just leave behind to start the process all over again all too soon somewhere else. “So our family was particularly close,” he recalls. “We fell back on our own resources. I spent a lot of time reading and drawing. I wrote stories and illustrated them. We didn’t have electronic devices. TV wasn’t good back then. I had to find my own way in constantly changing environments.”
When he was 11, he saw “real” art for the first time on a gray, rainy fall day in Wiesbaden, Germany, where his father was then stationed. He had gone to the city museum to escape the weather and encountered the landscape paintings of the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. “While I was dazzled by the technical virtuosity of these paintings, I also experienced their deep spiritual qualities, their sense of metaphysical longing, and intimations of the infinite,” he says. “It is no exaggeration that this experience changed my life, and to this day I still draw power from it.”
Growing up, Geary was “a kid who could draw well,” but he says he found his personal identity as an artist when he was a freshman in college at Weber State. His family was living in rural Ohio, “and I missed Utah terribly. I missed the mountains,” so he got a scholarship to come west, where he took his first painting class from Doyle Strong and started doing assemblages. “I’d go down to the railroad yards in Ogden and pick up weird stuff and drag it up to class and do strange things to it and Strong just loved it.” He recalls that Paul McCarthy, the (in)famous sculptor and performance artist who Geary calls “a very, very strange duck,” was in that class with him. He later said to Geary, “‘I remember you. You were the one who dragged a rusty car door into class and started doing stuff with it . . .You scared me.’”
Geary, now 70, says, “At the time Pop art was just starting to come in and Rauschenberg was just getting big and Vietnam was cranking up and . . . I think that’s the year I found myself as an artist. Even though the work I was doing then was totally different than the work I’m doing now there’s still that sense of ‘I get it, this is what I’m supposed to do, this is my purpose.’”
After that freshman year, Geary transferred to the University of Washington, where he immersed himself in art history. He then went to the U for an MFA, studying primarily under Doug Snow and Tony Smith (he was Smith’s teaching assistant in Foundation classes). He also met Al Payne, who became a friend and collaborator. “Toward the end of my graduate studies I kind of moved away from painting for a while toward more conceptual alternative media kinds of things – we really got into Xerox, making art with Xerox machines. Art and technology,” he recalls with a smile. A smile returned by this writer, who remembers Geary and Payne making artsy Xeroxes of their butts (and other things, of course) in the 70s. “Art-Not Art” was the mantra of the day. I admired them enormously.
After graduation the two got a loft south of Market in San Francisco to check out the art scene. But there was a lot of negative energy in the city at the time, Geary says. Harvey Milk was assassinated and 900 members of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple cult, based in San Francisco, had just died in Guyana after being forced to drink a poisoned beverage. So they moved back to Utah.
Geary seems anchored by the western landscape, drawn to it time and again as a source of inspiration. He began exploring Utah’s canyon country during his student days at the U, and says, “the landscapes of the Southwest became a major source for inspiration in my work.”
His current exhibition examines the landscape, from multiple angles. In his artist statement for the show, Geary writes:
“Topography” is a favorite word of mine. Generally, it refers to a graphic representation of real terrain. It shows the relative positions of landforms and their elevations and depressions. In other words, topography is a representation of the “lay of the land.” Topography can also refer to the actual land forms themselves. Both of these meanings are present in this exhibit of my paintings. . . .”
His interesting abstract works, containing bits of old science fiction and horror comics as well as maps – “perhaps a kind of homage to Cubism” — are expected to be in the library show, which hasn’t yet been hung. He combines collage with oil and acrylic painting, “to get out of artistic ruts, to experiment – and most of all, just to have fun.”
The more representational works are also topographical in nature, but in a more direct way. These works are “realistic” in that they depict real landforms in real places, mostly in southern Utah, though some depict areas of the Greater Yellowstone region.
“I have been fortunate to work for extended periods of time in places with landscapes that are truly inspirational. In 2013, I was selected as the artist-in-residence for the Escalante Canyons Arts Festival, and I spent a month exploring and painting in one of southern Utah’s most beautiful areas. In 2015, I was the artist-in-residence at the University of Utah’s Taft-Nicholson Center in Montana’s Centennial Valley. This experience led to a greater emphasis on light and color in my work, and perhaps to a greater simplicity as well,” Geary says.
These days he has been starting his paintings with a black background –“ If you have a dark surface and put white translucent paint over it, it has a kind of bluish cast to it because of the way the light scattered, for the same reason, I guess, that the sky appears to be blue. Also it probably reflects my mood these days – these were all painted during the election,” he says seriously.
His recent work is also included in a project in Santa Fe by Meow Wolf (“mostly a bunch of artists in their 20s and 30s”) who create “extremely elaborate environments and installations.” George R.R. Martin, who wrote the Game of Thrones books and lives in Santa Fe, bought an enormous bowling alley and loaned them “god knows how many billions of dollars” to build this huge alternate environment that is now one of the top attractions in that city. It’s called “The House of Eternal Return.” Geary was invited by his nephew to make a piece for the installation and he did one based on the 1959 (or so) song “Green Door” (that, Geary points out, later became the title of a porn movie).
New Mexico is where Geary met his wife, artist and therapeutic art teacher Louise Fischman. They met at an artist-in-residence job (the couple did residencies all through the ‘80s, any that they could find). “There were kind of sketchy characters in those valleys. They’ve been there for hundreds of years and were feuding over property or water rights. Some of them were very scary looking with wild hair, swinging rifles as they walked down the road,” Geary remembers.
But the kids they worked with loved doing art. They valued creating a visual appreciation of their culture, Geary said. “It was very, very cold and we had nothing but a wood stove. Still it was kind of romantic. But after a while it was like, ‘OK, let’s get comfortable again.’”
They next spent a few years just south of Colorado on the southern end of the San Juan Mountains and a time in Albuquerque, and then came back to Salt Lake City where they already had jobs lined up and family. “It’s not the most exciting place in the world,” Geary says of Salt Lake, “but it’s close to really beautiful country. The mountains are right next door and southern Utah is just a few hours away. You’re kind of in the middle of the West here.”
After living and working at the old Artspace for years, they found a wonderful home near Liberty Park and did a lot of work on it, converted a garage into studio space for Geary, built a studio next to it for Fischman and had two daughters (who are now in college), not necessarily in that order.
Right now Geary is teaching part time at Rose Park Elementary. “The hours are great and I like working at the school because it is 95% minority — you can imagine the kids’ reaction to the current political situation. It’s designated as a trauma school. There are a lot of refugee kids. For months they could not have a fire drill because too many kids thought it was a bombing raid and it was kids from Irag, Syria, Libya, various places in the Middle East. So I feel like I am really doing something good for other people in addition to supplementing my income. ”
As an example, he says that at Halloween he had second-graders draw basic pumpkins. “I had one refugee child who could not make a coherent image. It would be little fragments scattered almost randomly around this piece of paper and I’ve never seen that before. Everything was just blown to pieces. So I worked with him so he could make a recognizable face. But their take on these images is like outsider art, where you see something that is so strange and so unlikely and so different than anything you could ever think of that it really has this fascination about it. So it’s quite satisfying to work with these kids,” Geary explains.
He plans to devote the rest of the school year to doing murals, something he has done with children for many years. “I’ve transformed the whole art room into an art studio with drop cloths and plastic . . . we got a grant from the Salt Lake Arts Council so I can buy really high-grade brushes and acrylics and Dick Blick is having a 50 percent off acrylics sale so I can buy quarts and pints of acrylics and I’m looking forward to it, it should be really fun,” Geary says enthusiastically. “And by then I’ll have the library show behind me.”
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 was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.