15 Bytes | Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Paul Stout: Repackaging the Natural World

 photos by Tami Baum

Walking into Paul Stout’s studio at the University of Utah, where he works as an assistant professor, is almost like walking into a metal shop. His shelves consist of toolboxes full of screws, nuts, bolts and connectors. Colorful electrical wires sit on the ground along with other unrecognizable gadgets that he’s collected over the years. A piece from his “Twenty Blades of Grass” installation sits against the wall, secured in bubble wrap. This latest series of grass-growing machines is his most ambitious project to date and will be featured at Salt Lake’s Rio Gallery for the September Gallery Stroll.


Earlier this year, the Utah Arts Council honored Stout with the prestigious Fellowship Award – a grand prize for someone who not too long ago “sort of” decided that “maybe” art was something he should do.

Stout grew up in Clarement, a suburb in the foothills near Los Angeles, California. Art was a part of his life growing up. “I took a ceramics class in high school, but I was really bad at it. I was more interested in architecture, so I took some drafting courses.” Stout was never very impressed with any of his work, and he actually threw away all his drawings from class. Nevertheless, after high school he moved to Arizona and studied architecture at Arizona State where his dad was working. But six months later, he decided architecture wasn’t what he wanted to do.

“I thought college would be different, but the first year was four classes of technical drawing. I felt it was counter-creative and I just realized this was not something I could do for the next four years.” So he dropped out of school altogether.

From there, Stout took some time off from school and got a job at Home Depot so he could support himself while he decided what he wanted to do. He also found work as a blacksmith’s apprentice. “I’m kind of embarrassed to say I was interested in handmade knives and implements like that.”

Not long after, he learned that his high school drafting teacher in Claremont rescued some of his old drawings that he threw away and entered them in the county fair, where they received an award. “If there was a cash prize I didn’t get anything – maybe that’s something she does to supplement her income.” Stout remains grateful to her, because the simple knowledge of the award gave him confidence and encouragement. “Through all these things, I sort of decided maybe art was something I should do. I started tinkering, got a little studio and worked at Home Depot on the side. The first things I made were really bad, but I kept working at it.”

Now that he had a better sense of direction, Stout decided getting more education would be a good idea, so he enrolled in the local community college to increase his GPA. He studied sculpture and eventually graduated with a BFA.

With a bachelor’s degree and newfound direction, Stout applied to many of the top ten graduate schools. The San Francisco Art Institute accepted him, but he learned he would have to do a three-year program with one year of post back – which meant he would be required to reapply and then become a graduate student. The idea didn’t exactly appeal to him, but he moved out to San Francisco anyway. He visited the Art Institute and decided to work on some things and then reapply. During the next year, he worked as a plastic fabricator and researched some more graduate schools in the area. He learned that the sculpture buildings at the Art Institute were strewn across the city and the school was actually more suited for those doing painting, performance art and video. Stout ended up attending San Francisco State University. One of his most valuable classes was an electronic art class; the skills he gained provided him with more opportunity to pursue different ideas and bring them into a reality.

His MFA show (2000-2001) featured a series of guided missiles to hunt deer, using electronics, remote control devices, physics, plastics, surveillance technology, foam deer targets, video editing and projection. |4| Stout was inspired by the endeavors of backyard inventors and garage scientists, which is “an examination of the confluence of American hunting culture, remote telemetry, deer, high power rocketry, and naive science, tempered with a healthy dose of wonder and repulsion.”

Once Stout started creating more artwork that moved, he began looking at the history of technology and became intrigued about how humans relate to machines. “Everything that’s most common in our culture becomes a way of explaining everything else,” Stout says. “Clocks became the way of describing how people worked. Descartes talked about the machine inside. When steam engines were developed, they produced heat, took in fuel, etc. We think of a computer as a model for how the intellect works.” He explains how we have come to use the words “hardwire” or “program” as metaphors to explain how biology works.

“I’m very interested in the repackaging of the natural world as a display object. My small dome pieces have natural history landscapes in them.” These dome pieces use display conventions from science, museology, taxidermy and projected anthropomorphism to create an installation of a skewed natural history display. Stout uses flowers, road kill pigeons, butterflies, old clock parts, counting devices and programmed computer chips, and assembles them into robotic dioramas of natural ecologies. “This blend interrogates our culture’s cognitive, mechanistic ideas and expectations of the natural.”

The “Twenty Blades of Grass” series is his latest venture. He introduces it as “looking at the world with the preconceived notion that it’s a machine.” These machines have a big spool with a rolled up blade of grass that “grows,” extending several feet into the air.

“Once you’ve seen something happen through technology, time-lapse video, etc. it can become the way you look at the world. I thought I would try and recreate grass growing, but really big so you could walk around it and be underneath it.”

Like any artistic discipline, Stout’s pieces require a lot of study, research, and trial and error. Ideas from years ago rest in his mind until he can explore the feasibility and logistics of how to make them work. “I’m really interested in doing this machine that creates a spider web in a space. Spiders create a new web each day, so the machine would do that as well.”

It’s a fortunate thing when the seemingly insignificant events in one’s life work together in a profound way. Stout’s high school drafting courses, his apprenticeships, his electronic art class in grad school, and perhaps even his work at Home Depot gave him the skills, inspiration and direction he needed to create his way through the profession of an artist.

Paul Stout will be honored in an exhibit along with fellowship recipients Madison Smith, Karen Horne and Steve Larsen at the Utah Arts Council’s Rio Gallery. The show will open September 16th and continue through October 28th 2005.

This article originally appeared in the September 2005 edition of 15 Bytes

Laura Durham works for KUED Channel-7 in the Creative Services Department, curating community engagement projects for both PBS and KUED productions that foster trust and value to the communities in Utah. She also produces Contact with Mary Dickson and Contact in the Community — a digital series featuring arts and culture groups in Utah. Prior to her work at KUED, Laura spent 15 years at the Utah Division of Arts & Museums in the visual arts program and later managing communications, branding, marketing, and public value projects for all arts and museums programming. She has served the Utah community in various capacities with her role as Vice President of the Salt Lake Gallery Association and Program Director for the Salt Lake Gallery Stroll. She lives in Salt Lake City, sings with Utah Chamber Artists, and loves to contribute to 15 Bytes as often as time allows.

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