Skippy, Stinky, Rootie, Panama, and Tulula are just a few of the very colorful characters that inhabit Tim Peterson’s relief prints, on display Jan. 17 – Feb. 18 at the Salt Lake City Main Library. You’ll want to go to the reception on Jan. 22 to learn the backstory of the artist and his characters.
Peterson is quite the colorful character himself. His life has followed a seemingly random path from college student to ski bum, from photographer to pastry chef to printmaker. Aside from teaching students and their teachers the fine art of printmaking at the Eccles Community Art Center in Ogden, Peterson says with determined finality, “I’m retired.”
At least several days a week, he hops aboard the FrontRunner in Ogden, gets off in Salt Lake City, and walks a few blocks to Saltgrass Printmakers where, as a member, he can use the presses to crank out his colorful prints. His mind is working faster than the ink can dry; there’s just so much still to create.
The characters in this exhibit started with the basset hound, Ruby, inspired by a dog he inherited. “That led to Skippy,” says Peterson of the second dog in the series. “And Skippy had to have an owner. My uncle had a friend named Stinky Cunningham. From that, I invented Stinky Thompson. Stinky had to have a family, so Panama Thompson, the father, the riverboat gambler, he came about, on the Virgin River.”
And so it goes. Characters pop into Peterson’s head and onto the pages of his ever-present sketchbook. As he rides FrontRunner back and forth to Ogden, the pages fill with ideas that may become the next chapters in the story of Thompsonville, a town on the Arizona Strip.
Someone from St. George once asked Peterson exactly where Thompsonville is. She said she’d lived in southern Utah a long time and had never heard of it. “That’s because it’s in my head,” Peterson told her.
It might not be real, but Peterson knows the place well. His uncle was a geologist. He took Peterson to southern Utah’s deserts hunting for rocks and gems many times. The colors and images in his work come from real memories. The characters just tumble from his imagination, one after the other.
Stinky, who often appears as 4 or 5 years old, has a sister named Rootie. She wanders the desert planting seeds of indigenous plants. Grandpa Thompson is married to Miss Kitty, a former dancehall performer. Then there’s Wrong Way Thompson, pictured flying a small plane upside down under a bridge. Cousin Heartburn Thompson owns the local diner. And Cousin Smiley Thompson owns the local store, The Good Ship Lollipop.
Peterson uses bright primary colors because he wants his prints to catch the eye as soon as someone walks into a gallery. That’s exactly what happened in Springville, at the Museum of Art, when Peterson’s work was hung immediately in view at the entrance to the gallery. “The museum director bought that piece before the show even opened,” says Peterson.
Peterson uses a combination of reduction printing, carving into soft rubber pads, and stencil printing, which he cuts himself from heavy craft paper reinforced with tape. His editions seldom number more than eight or 12, he says, “Because I have so many ideas. They’re all backed up. I don’t have much time left. I’m in my 70s.”
His work has a simple but elegant charm to it. If the registration isn’t always perfect, that’s fine with Peterson. “It’s the human element,” he says. “It’s not a machine. It gives it so much more…well, each one’s individual.”
Peterson went to college in the ‘60s and was about to graduate when he found out he could draw. Instead of starting over with an art major, he decided to become a ski bum. Perhaps it was in his genes, for his father owned ski shops in Sugar House and at Alta. Then he took up photography for a while. He finally earned his B.F.A. degree at the University of Utah, but found it prepared him for little more than a minimum wage job as a graphic designer. That’s when he opted for work as a pastry chef. But he continued taking printmaking classes and was encouraged by his professors who loved his colorful critters.
When asked if the characters he has created might find their way into a book, Peterson first says, “I may be long gone before I get all the characters.” But then after a moment’s thought, he acknowledges, “Well, these days it’s much easier to publish a book yourself.”
Maybe Peterson’s next library opening will include a book reading.
A Risk Taker, Relief Prints by Tim Peterson, Main Salt Lake City Library, Level 2 Canteena, Jan. 18-Feb. 18, Reception, Jan. 22, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Sue Martin holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.