Trent Alvey: The Art of Spontaneity
ntry”>In 2013, Trent Alvey was selected by 200 of her peers as one of “Utah’s 15 most influential artists.” The following profile appeared in Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists, published by Artists of Utah in 2014.
Photo by Zoe and Robert Rodriguez.
Every day Trent Alvey walks up the hillside near her home in Emigration Canyon. She thinks of it as her own little Walden where she can reset her focus for the day. “Even if you go the same time every day, the light changes or the season changes,” she explains. “It’s the same and different simultaneously.” For Alvey, this daily ritual invites the spontaneity she requires of herself as an artist.
Spontaneity is something Alvey values because with it she can forget about the past, disregard the future and simply dwell in the present—and as an artist, she believes the present is the moment of creation. She talks about a Fresh Air interview with Tom Waits she heard several years ago. His thoughts about being visited by the Muse stayed with her because she can relate to those fleeting moments of inspiration. She is often bombarded with an onslaught of ideas herself, and the ones she can sort out in the moment are the ones that survive. “They have an expiration date. If you don’t do it, they lose their potency. You might revisit it later, but usually those ideas are fleeting.”
Alvey was born in central Utah and remembers having a lot of time alone in an expansive landscape, which she believes had a profound effect on her love of the land and its ability to inspire her. Her father was a district ranger for the Manti La Sal National Forest. When he retired, her family moved to Salt Lake City. Alvey was in sixth grade at the time, and it was then that she began taking more creative opportunities. She was a thoughtful child and creativity was a way to make sense of the world around her and put things in perspective—a way of processing. As she moved into junior high school, she met two teachers that she would forever hold dear as mentors: Claudia Sisemore and David Chaplin. “Claudia was my creative writing teacher at Hillside Junior High and she gave me an amazing look at how creativity can save your life. It was her first year so she was still really spontaneous about her work and her teaching. She’s a painter, filmmaker and teacher and she’s dedicated her whole life to helping people understand creativity.” David Chaplin was her art teacher. Later in life, Alvey would honor both these individuals by organizing exhibitions for each, celebrating their influence on those who studied under them.
They’re not the only artists for whom she’s devoted her time to organizing an exhibition. When Tom Mulder, one of her fellow artists at Captain Captain Studios in Salt Lake City, passed away, Alvey and some other artists at the studio sorted through his hundreds of paintings to organize an exhibit at the Rio Gallery in an effort to sell his work. “His brother was going to haul his paintings to the DI!” she exclaims. “His brother, who didn’t really get along with Tom, came to the exhibit and said, ‘I didn’t realize Tom was a real artist. This is beautiful.’ Unfortunately he came to that realization after Tom had died, but it was a good thing.”
Alvey doesn’t necessarily like to think of herself as the “social coordinator” when it comes to artists, but many Utah artists have her to thank for bringing them together. Because it took her so long to truly immerse herself as an artist she believes she has had more time to be indulgent, so now she spends a lot of her time making things happen for other artists in addition to herself. She loves the collaboration and she loves bringing artists out into the community. “Artists tend to retreat to their studios or classrooms,” she laughs. “The students learn a lot but the community often misses out.”
Becoming a bona fide “artist” did take her a while. She graduated from Salt Lake Community College with a degree in graphic design. “I wanted to do artwork, but I didn’t think there was a way I could make a living,” she admits. In her late 20s she worked at Westminster College as their graphic designer. She took full advantage of her free tuition benefit and indulged in a double major studying both communications and art. “Four days a week I studied with Don Doxey. He was the master of surfaces. I also took a figure drawing class from him four days a week for four years,” she says. “You have to keep practicing or you lose it.”
Even though she immersed herself in artwork every day, Alvey’s practicality dominated and she ended up starting her own graphic design business. In retrospect, it only seems natural that she would gravitate to working for nonprofit arts organizations. She did design work for the Sundance Film Festival, the Utah Arts Council, and others, all the while continuing her art on the side with maybe an exhibit once or twice a year. One of her first pieces was Toaster Worship, from the “Out of the Land” exhibition that showed at the Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., in 1993. That piece is now part of the permanent collection at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. This dual lifestyle continued until her husband, Dennis Sizemore, had a horrific accident in 2000. She went with him to a trauma hospital in Seattle for a month and by the time they came home her business had fallen apart. It was then she realized what she really cared about was creating art, so in 2002 she dropped graphic design and made artwork her main focus.
Her husband has also had a profound influence on where she directs her artistic energy. His organization, Round River Conservation Studies, has taken her to many underdeveloped countries where they research conservation area design. They’ve traveled to Namibia and Botswana, but it was in 2011 in Uganda that Alvey found her most rewarding project.
“A friend of mine told me about an orphanage that would like me to come do art projects. She suggested we do a mural, but I didn’t want to do a mural.” So Alvey decided to bring cloth to make fetish dolls and then let the children at the orphanage use what they had to finish the dolls. Each doll is very different, but they all worked together, contributed something to each doll. “I realized how much joy the kids had; they had been through horrific circumstances. Each had an astounding story.” Alvey wanted to understand how people endure the horrors of war and genocide. “We have an amazing ability to adapt and get through and move on,” she says. “For me, it was based with the children because they weren’t in denial about the awful things they’ve experienced, but they were able
to have these two dichotomous things going on at once: their horrific memories and their spontaneous joy of being alive.” She wrote an essay about the project that helped her understand a lot about being human. “Sometimes you just discover a joy that’s really fundamental and sometimes we, living in a more developed country, miss it because we’re distracted.
I realized how much more important the children’s joy is given the dictators they are subjected to.” When she got back, she worked with Glenda Bradley at 15th Street Gallery to put on an exhibition with the fetish dolls made by the children. The proceeds from all sales paid for a year’s worth of food and clothing for the orphans. “It all emerged rather spontaneously, ”she says. As it should.
This project would continue to have relevance as she further explored the idea of evil dictators and the dichotomy of horror and happiness. Some might consider this “socially conscious” artwork exhausting; but, because it is born of spontaneity, Alvey finds it invigorating. In fact, much of her work seems to bend toward a social issue, and she often sees her art as a way for her to present information. In 2007, her piece “Creator Destroyer,” that first showed at the Pickle Company for an exhibition called Exposed, investigated the legacy of atmospheric nuclear testing in central Utah in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. It was a way for her to investigate her own background, as she thinks some health problems she’s had can be traced back to the open-air testing when she lived there as a child. The piece showed again at Brigham Young University’s Museum of Art in 2013 for the “Work to Do” exhibition, this time with additional units to make it a room installation.
Alvey often incorporates science and physics into her work. She’s presented information about sacred geometry, synchronicity, frequency, and the science of emergent phenomenon. “I like science because it connects pieces of knowledge. Life feels so sporadic at times, so for me, artwork is the only way I can have an expanse of concepts and distill it down to something digestible.” In addition to installation, Alvey also paints, and she finds one practice informs the other: inspiration visits while she’s working in the other medium, she says, and sometimes she will stop what she’s doing to carry out
the idea brought to her by the Muse. Alvey speaks of Willem de Kooning’s idea of “slipping glimpses,” where an idea doesn’t come to you fully formed—you get a spark, rather, and it grows from there. She does, however, find her installations more rewarding than painting. “It’s fun because when you’re using objects it’s about gathering the pieces that speak to each other, and then if you’re lucky, you can hear a little joyous chant.”
She may not always have an exhibition on the horizon, but Alvey is always working on something, and coincidentally, those things will often meet up. “It’s so delightful to have this be my occupation,” she says. She admits working in a building like Captain Captain, with numerous artists, helps motivate her to keep working. “There’s a fear of being labeled as a hobby artist if you’re out of your studio for more than a month,” she laughs. “So I feel the peer pressure to keep coming in. The other artists are hardworking and very productive. When you do this full time you start to see periods when you’re being productive and when you’re being unproductive.”
Whether she is working toward something or not, Trent Alvey will continue to take the same walk up Emigration Canyon and keep her mind open to see what spontaneous idea comes next. “You can have a lot of ideas, but there are only a few you want to bring into the physical world,” she explains. The ideas may manifest themselves in her own artwork, or perhaps in a collaborative exhibit. Either way, the Muse will serve her well. “Artists are happiest in that present moment of creativity,” she says. “At least I am.”