Stefanie Dykes has a busy fall. She has curated Poesis, a group exhibition of printmakers at Art Access (see our review) timed to coincide with the Rocky Mountain Printmaking Alliance Symposium (Oct. 9 – 12); and her work appears in In Good Company, an exhibition at the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre’s Loge Gallery, through Oct. 20, featuring members of Saltgrass Printmakers (of which Dykes is Executive Director). This profile on the artist appeared in Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists (Vol. II), published earlier this year by Artists of Utah (order a copy here).
With its specialized mental furniture, arcane methods, and secret lore passed down from generation to generation, its cloistered studio precincts, and bestowal of priest-like status, art offers a way of withdrawing from a chaotic world into a more focused, centered way of life. The lure of avoiding distraction by disappearing into a lifetime of technical discipline, where the subjective life of inspiration meets the objective facts of materials, can prove tempting. Yet a life in art can also be an opportunity not only to contemplate, but to encounter the wider world. It’s a dilemma Stefanie Dykes knows only too well, having faced it during the few years granted a prodigy, and especially one who waited until her children were grown to begin.
In 2003, Dykes earned her BFA from the University of Utah. That same year, perhaps consciously seeking little more than a replacement for the fully equipped studio the school had provided, she joined two friends, Sandy and Eric Brunvand, in forming the Saltgrass Printmakers collective in a converted Sugar House bungalow. There she set about dragging the woodcut, its essential character still mired in the 16th century, into her own time. Three years later, she showed student and Saltgrass-era prints at Ephraim’s Central Utah Art Center. In one of my first reviews for 15 Bytes, I wrote that she was “an artist who pushes against every perceived limit of printmaking, including the maximum practical size of paper and press.” Contained in the CUAC show were tantalizing hints to her next wonder, and it was clear that she “was determined to continue creating linked pieces of this puzzle until they coalesced into a cathedral large enough that, standing before it, she could feel herself moving through it.”
In 2008, Dykes covered the big wall at Finch Lane Gallery with probably the largest, most complex handmade print she, or anyone in the Utah arts community, had ever seen. The product not only of two deliberately budgeted years of meticulous hand-carving and printing, but of the years before spent learning and polishing her art, “Cathedral” represented the fulfillment of a remarkably successful career debut. Yet among the studies, trials, and even postage stamps that were part of the exhibit, were two disturbing items. Two small, ornamental wooden boxes, their highly carved exteriors stained with printers ink, were presented as the first of many she was making from the cutup matrices — the wooden printer’s plates — for her cathedral, of which she further revealed she had made only a single impression.
It was a stunning moment. In front of the 20 foot-long final image, identified by her as a visual means of reflection on her life, those boxes became reliquaries of what suddenly looked like one of the shortest careers in woodcut history. In retrospect, of course, it’s possible to see how, contemplating her past, she glimpsed in it the reflection of a future of ever-larger cathedrals in which to wander or labor in solitude. And so she changed course. Never again would she dominate a medium the way she had the woodcut, but never again would a medium take possession of her.
Becoming quit of those intoxicating first five (and more) years was partly a matter of reversal. She gave away her print archive, purged her studio, and returned to school. There she began to pursue a positive replacement: her unknown and, as yet, unknowable alternatives. It’s possible to imagine Dykes there, taking one medium after another and turning it over in her hands, looking for what she could do with it. It was the book that yielded to her first. Fifteen centuries after it swiftly replaced the scroll, and still solidly preeminent despite prophecies regarding the computer and the digital screen, the bound bundle of paper sheets yielded a secret to her it had held for centuries. She sliced whole volumes into narrow strips, each still bound together along one narrow end, and then rolled the resulting leaves individually until she produced something she calls a Querl — an organic, ornamental disc that connects in conscious perception to myriad decorative and functional devices: to plant and animal forms, the behavior of wind and water, a universe as represented and in fact.
The Querl is at once a centrifugal and centripetal figure, one that explodes with energy and yet remains. It’s an icon, perhaps, of an ideal life, and as variable as the library of books, read and discarded, it’s made from. Beyond the many artistic uses she’s found for it, and in a more democratic future — one not so besotted with button pushing and “virtual” reality — it would pass the final test of any art by becoming a splendid craft medium.
The Querl was followed by projects involving millstones, maps, and anamorphosis, a form of drawing using a distorting mechanism such as a curved mirror, to first produce an image with two forms — the one on the paper and the one in the mirror — and then require a would-be viewer to take the same position as the artist. It’s an Enlightenment ploy, a forceful reminder that true communication requires some assumptions in common. But Dykes didn’t want to converse only with the like-minded, or to remain forever in her studio, satisfying as it may be. Her early years shaping Saltgrass had turned her into an unofficial ambassador to the world’s printmaking population, one who welcomed visiting artists and showed their work on its walls, gave classes in its workshop, and listened to often very different ideas about their shared art. In turn, she traveled to attend conferences in cities around the world. Now, she visibly marvels to think how, for most of her life, she never spent more than a day outside Utah’s borders. That eventually changed, and now, “Residencies have become critical to my creative energies, providing the time and space to unplug from my responsibilities here in Salt Lake. I may be gone four weeks or ten weeks, [but] I always return with work completed and many more conceptual threads started.“
Often in today’s international art scene, it’s only in photos that we “see” most of the art we encounter. Such is the case with much of Dykes’ more recent works. There are the group portfolios that now constitute an alternative, underground gallery system for print artists, who each contribute the necessary number of prints so that each member of the group receives a complete set. “When I curate a portfolio, it is usually outside the ‘normal’ parameters of how prints are commonly seen or imagined,” she explains. Then there are the alternatives to traditional prints: she cites a project titled “Right in Front of Your Eyes,” where instead of paper prints, the artists produced large transparencies that could be mounted directly onto windows. “It’s theme was about how we ‘look right through things.’ I asked them to address unsustainable practices that they were concerned about,” she adds. And there are actual signs, with their charming, practical, and conceptual ability to appear anywhere. “Token Gestures,” 24-inch in diameter wood block prints, enlarged versions of what in the past were usually wooden coins, “were created by artists addressing empty promises.”
We’ve long thought that the whole world would one day speak English. Now that seems less likely, but in the face of that failure to unify Earth’s population, the universal language of symbols seems to be making a comeback, and in conferences that have taken place in China, Spain, Poland, and Germany, as well as throughout the English-speaking world, their approach to meaning, emoji-like but perhaps a little less populist, more personal to the message’s maker, continue to stimulate innovative and bold expression.
These conferences are also a place where interests are shared. In attendance not only are artists, but scientists, dramatists, musicians, and writers. Many of today’s themes are troubling: there’s the coming reality of the Anthropocene, amid Capitalism’s abuse of nature, which so uncomfortably parallels what has historically been done to women, the poor, and the so-called minorities that actually make up the human majority, and which problems remain scarcely even addressed by officials in positions to do anything about them, let alone adequately dealt with. How is an artist to remain true to a lifetime of practice while interjecting deep fears into the discipline of art? Art that preaches, that seeks to change minds, has a checkered history, while preaching to the choir looks pointless, no matter how good it feels. The projects that interest her now tend toward collaboration, in which Dykes may be the prime mover, or may enjoy playing a lesser role. In one project that has taken years to come about, Dykes will be helping Amie Tullius make literature available on Amtrak. By bringing together train travel, traditionally a place for reading, and writers seeking new outlets in a time when digital media distract too many potential readers, it takes direct action.
Although her desire to contact and work with artists in other states and even countries can take her far away, Utah remains Dykes’ home and the place where her art mostly happens. In Germany, where buildings with large, wooden floors were being demolished, she encountered a local printmaker who carved enormous images into those floors, then printed them. American tourists will have seen entire buildings in Europe covered with giant pictures of their facades during renovation; such modern techniques and the materials that enable them, like huge sheets of textile paper replacement, have yet to appear on our side of the Atlantic. But Dykes brought his idea home to Saltgrass, and on several Saturdays since, Sugar House has witnessed eager amateurs and professionals alike driving a rented steamroller over smaller, but still ambitious prints.
There are also fellow artists, colleagues, who inspire from afar. She particularly admires Andy Goldsworthy, the British nature sculptor whose work celebrates, and participates in, the natural impermanence of the individual example among the vastness of nature. Goldsworthy sculpted pond ice and rainfall, revealing qualities those everyday materials had not shown before. Dykes curled the pages of obsolete books and brought out a previously overlooked, equally potent visual form. Proof of how far she has come in her thinking about decorative conventions, setting aside elaboration for its own sake in favor of more sophisticated content and direct expression, can be seen through her interest in Hilma af Klint, a painter who lived from 1862 till 1944, and whose as yet relatively difficult art is only now receiving the attention and study it deserves.
Af Klint has been identified by historians as someone whose use of “abstract” and “symbolic” techniques preceded by decades their canonical invention by male artists. Dykes has always been aware of the impact of gender on status, but only when she began to travel did she see a need to address it. In England, in 2012, she wrote, “Mormon history describes men as adventurers and visionaries while rarely mentioning the experiences of the founding women. You have to dig our mothers’ personal histories stored in boxes under the beds of their descendants.” In her contemporary photo installation, “Placing and Replacing,” the artist dresses in her husband’s suit, a nonconfrontational performance that makes the point that attributes like masculinity are appearances, which anyone can assume: especially in art, where the artist is usually only present in the work. Thus her gentle, but firm rebuke upends received ideas and familiar, even mundane acts acquire a revolutionary, emotional power.
Curating grows naturally out of her group projects. As curator, Dykes is more a collaborator than an impresario, as she revealed during Collective Experience, an ambitious group show at the Rio Gallery in April of 2015. Straddling the line between disciplines for her own piece in the show, she invited three other women to join her in a walking performance, making up their own ceremonies using unglazed ceramics and dyes she provided.
Meanwhile, back in her studio, a short walk from the new location of Saltgrass Printmakers on Salt Lake City’s West side, Dykes continues to do what she sometimes playfully calls “sorting and gathering,” but can also described more precisely as “drawing marginalia toward me.” Before it became a synonym for trivial, “marginalia” meant the borders — of texts, where important reminders were written, and of life, where artists like the unsurpassed Dutch genre painters found their most telling subjects. Through the studio passes an unending parade of objects representing her thoughts and values, with which she’s never entirely alone. Dykes calls her companion Psyche, the heroine of Greek myth who makes the journey from innocence to experience, and in so doing transforms and completes herself. “Psyche” has come to signify the subjective experience of individual being: the part of a person that transcends the physical, like the mind, spirit, or true self. Stefanie Dykes admits that when she speaks of Psyche, she sometimes means the persona, and at other times the heroine of the story. Either way, she’s never entirely alone. “Creative communities are essential to me. They support me and challenge my work.”
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.