Visual Arts

The Patron, the Paintings and the Place: Changing the community with a public art commission

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It’s all very Michelangelo. You’ve got your patron, your artist and your building in need of a triptych. (It was just one painting to begin with, but the space begged for three and the patron graciously agreed to pay for them.)

The building is the Natural History Museum of Utah where the work goes on display April 16, the artist is Mark Knudsen and the patron is Guilford Funston. As the three come together, the entire community benefits.

The Patron

Guilford Funston became a collector when, following the death of his wife, his friend Darryl Drage, owner of Brushworks Gallery, told him he really needed to get a hobby. He took this seriously and now his Utah art collection, all of small paintings (because he has a small house), is said to be premier.

“Most people think with collecting they have to have something that’s 3 foot by 3 foot. You can get a nice Randall Lake and it’s only 10” by 14,” Funston says. “The first LeConte Stewart I got, it’s just a small little sketch. Most people think, ‘Oh, LeConte Stewart, you have to pay $10,000 or $12,000’ – well, you don’t. If what you’re interested in is who the artists are and you want to put together a collection you can do it very reasonably. Collecting art is very accessible. People get confused about it.”

He encourages talking to the artist. “Some, like [Jeff] Pugh, do big stuff. One of the things I bought was a study for one of his big paintings.” Later, in talking to the artist, he said he had size issues and Pugh replied, “Great, I’ve had something I’ve been thinking about painting and it would look good in that size.” And, Funston says, “It’s a perfect Pugh.”

He has some rules: “You don’t get between the artist and the gallery because that’s not fair to anybody. But dead guys are fair game. You negotiate and play hardball on re-sales of dead guys but when I go into a gallery I don’t negotiate. That’s the price.” (Unless, of course, they want to give him a deal.)

Funston became a patron after his home simply couldn’t hold more art. He determined it was time to give some to the public and commissioned the work from Knudsen. He points out that people have been doing this since the Renaissance: “Look at what the Medicis did and the popes and even the Borgias. In some ways they did it to promote themselves . . . but to put art out there so that the population itself could enjoy it, to be able to say, ‘OK the “David” is there. Everyone on the plaza is going to be able to see that and enjoy it.’ It was appreciated as doing something for everyone.” It is not, he emphasizes, about the person that commissions and donates it, but about the art itself getting out there. “It’s something a civilized society does.” He would like to see several families get together and fund a work for the NHMU or another institution. “Let’s be creative about art and where we can put it — and not just in the City & County Building.”

The Paintings

After a 30-year career as an artist for The Salt Lake Tribune, Mark Knudsen is coming into his own as a painter of the New West: His fourth and most recent show at Phillips Gallery, this one with wife and former student Leslie Thomas, was a near sellout; he was in two shows at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in 2010; and he is regularly included in the Charles M. Russell Invitational Auction in Montana.

But it was two paintings that are hanging in the American ambassador’s residence in Kuwait that got him the NHMU commission. A story, with photographs, about the paintings and how they were selected by the State Department to travel to the Middle East appeared in The Tribuneand caught Funston’s attention. As part of an annual event, members of the Copper Club, the museum’s donor group to which Funston belongs, and NHMU officials went to the Salt Lake City couple’s second home in Moab to see some of Knudsen’s work. Afterward, the idea of a commissioned painting was born. (Funston would later acquire a Knudsen and a Thomas for his personal collection.)

The group could see that Knudsen’s art is singular, linear and literate. He takes a viewer to places no one else goes and includes things in some of his landscapes, like power lines and trucks stopping to gas up, that no one else does. Working from photographs, he makes the West real and irresistible. Sarah George, museum executive director, recalls, “They had some gorgeous work on display, and I already was familiar with Mark’s. One key thing about Mark’s work I’ve loved from the very start is that he almost always includes some evidence of humans in his painting, and that is the way life really is—I felt that this was an important element to include in the work, and told Guil so.” She adds, “Our mission is ‘to illuminate the natural world and the place of humans within it.’ Mark’s work does exactly that!”

After learning landscape en plein air as a youth from Vern Bullough, a student of LeConte Stewart, Knudsen studied under men he calls “giants” at the University of Utah: Doug Snow, Tony Smith, Alvin Gittins, Earl Jones, George Dibble, “these hugely effective artists.” At the time, he says, “they were just the water in which I was swimming. I didn’t realize, as kids seldom realize, how lucky I was to be learning from these people. I doubt if there was a school in the country that would have offered better art training than the U when I attended.”

Knudsen painted small and in oil before a bigger studio and work at the newspaper caused him to make the transition to the large works in acrylics he is known for today. He recently shared a couple of secrets with his framer Travis Tanner: He does his skies by “painting fast as hell. You have to get it all down there before the paint starts to dry. I paint wet into wet to get dark to warmer light as it goes down towards the horizon. I do that on skies. But most of my gradients in paintings are achieved by scumbling. It seems to work pretty well for me.”

For this artist the Great Basin Desert is like Walden without the pond. He not only paints it, he hikes it, writes about it and philosophizes about it. (He is similarly smitten with the Colorado Plateau.) “The western cliffs flash, and thunder moves through the valley like darkness debating the light. . . . A line of homeward pelicans, fluent with purpose, crosses the horizon to the west.”

And birds are also central to each of the 2’ X 7’ paintings in the commissioned triptych. Knudsen checked all his literature to make sure each was in its proper range for the time of year he was portraying and otherwise just used birds he considers “gorgeous.” The peregrine falcon in the first work was taken from a painting he had done for The Tribune in oils many years previously. Of the second painting, the artist says: “Ravens are ubiquitous in Moab and the Arches areas, you can’t look at the sky without seeing a couple and they’re also a very evocative bird and convey some of the edge and danger that is always lurking around the edges of a desert scene.” On the day he shot the cliff face for the third painting from a motel balcony there were magpies flying about and, although the photo he got wasn’t usable (the sky was all wrong) when he did the final work magpies were a natural choice.

The sky is essential to these paintings, in part because they will hang at the back of the canyon in the stairwell just before you enter the Sky Gallery “as a symbolic transition from the land (the galleries lower in the building) to the sky (the highest level of the facility),” according to the NHMU director. George insisted that the sky progress from a sliver in the first painting to full sky in the last – a suggestion Knudsen initially resisted. He had intended for the scanty sky to be a unifying aspect to the triptych and feared “just ending up with three paintings.” But, he says, her idea “actually made me work harder, be more creative and undoubtedly have a stronger triptych than I would have had if I’d followed my own first impulse; the reason being that the unifying principle instead of being static became a dynamic.” The sky grew and the work clearly is even better for it.

Rock formation is a major theme. Marjorie Chan, professor and past chair of the department of Geology & Geophysics at the U suggested that the rock layers in the cliff faces be arranged from earliest to most recent in time, something Knudsen wishes he had thought of himself. The first painting, “The View from Kane Creek Road,” was set along that small tributary to the Colorado River nine or ten miles outside of Moab. “It shows Wingate sandstone with iridescent desert varnish on it,” Knudsen says. The second painting is “Park Avenue North with Ravens” and depicts Entrada sandstone in an area of Arches National Park very near the entrance called, not surprisingly, Park Avenue North. “There’s a hiking trail into it,” the artist observes. The third one, “Cap Rock Ridge at Crescent Junction,” is along I-70, “the Book Cliffs, looking north from 1-70 near Crescent Junction; it’s Mancos shale,” Knudsen says.

A sense of place is something Knudsen hopes his viewers “get” from his paintings and he likes to show the kind of scenery people typically don’t notice when they’re on their way to the redrock country “but that is equally beautiful.” He was delighted when a couple he’d never met, but who had collected several of his works, showed up at his recent Phillips show with maps in hand, demanding that he point out precisely where each of their paintings originated. Knudsen in turn provided the museum with small images of each piece and Google Earth satellite photos of the exact places he painted.

The Place

This isn’t the first art commission for the Natural History Museum of Utah, nor will it be the last. “We made a conscious commitment early in the design phase that art would play a crucial interpretive role in this science museum,” George says. “We felt very strongly that it is important to interpret science and the natural world from many perspectives, including the artist’s perspective. Different visitors learn best using different media, and the art you find throughout the museum contributes to an aesthetic of beauty and immersion that creates in people a sense of excitement and interest. “

She points out that the museum has commissioned painted murals and landscape photos found throughout the facility. “My personal favorite is the Basin and Range photo in the Land Gallery by Adriel Heisey|2| —it is gorgeous, and when you look at it you totally understand the geologic processes that created that landscape.”

The institution used 1% of its state funding to commission the Land and Time pieces by Susan Narduli (which was named to the top 50 public art projects of 2012 by Americans for the Arts)|3| and commissioned the terrazzo floor map of the Great Salt Lake prehistoric shorelines.|4| It also has commissioned a lot of film.

“We commissioned a variety of objects to be made by American Indian artists for our cultural gallery, Native Voices,” the director says. “A few of the many artists we worked with in commissioning materials included Mary Holiday Black |5| and Rios Pacheco |6|. In these cases, we gave them free rein to create whatever they would like, with the only requests being a ‘basket’ and an ‘outfit.’ The pieces they created way exceeded our expectations—they are beautiful and are truly labors of love.”

The four murals in “Past Worlds” were a close collaboration between NHMU paleontologists, exhibits director Becky Menlove, and the artist, Doug Henderson. “Based on fossil evidence, he re-created four ecosystems for the four time periods we focus on in the gallery. The murals were then photographed, blown up, printed on billboard material and put on the walls,” says George.|7|

A showstopper, of course, is the Simon Heijdens (simonheijdens.com) light sculpture “Lightweeds,” the result of a collaboration between the artist and the museum.|8-9| George recalls that she, Menlove and exhibit designer Tim Lee saw the artist’s work at MoMA in 2008. “We loved it and decided to inquire whether he’d be interested in a commission. He was, and we were able to get an NEA grant. With that support, he spent a day in our herbarium looking at plants and talking to our botanist, and then selected four native species [Gambell oak, aspen, two species of ferns] that he subsequently ‘built’ into the interactive light projection.”

Such projects will continue, George says. “When we have an opportunity to add art that contributes to the learning experience in the museum, we will do so. Just like we keep adding new dinosaurs — two since we opened!”|11-13| 

She didn’t say whether these were collaborative efforts.

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Mark Knudsen’s triptych will be installed at the Natural History Museum of Utah on April 16. The museum is located at 301 Wakara Way. They are open daily from 10am to 5pm and on Wednesdays from 10am to 9pm.

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.

Categories: Visual Arts

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