Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Tutored by the Land

“Morning Has Broken” by Gerry Johnson.

Stephen Trimble leads his Tutored by the Land workshop at the University of Utah’s EHEC in Centennial Valley, Montana.

Henry David Thoreau famously said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” The wilderness calls to the imagination, and for many people the outdoors is a refuge from the daily grind. In the West it’s easy to leave the bustle of city life and escape to the outdoors. One of the great pleasures of getting away is to breathe in the crisp fresh air and to absorb beautiful scenery. A 9 to 5 routine clutters a person’s head, but once outside the stillness of nature settles in the mind and people begin to ponder a question that many have asked before and continue to wonder: “What does the land have to teach me?”

In early September, local author and photographer Stephen Trimble pursued that question as he led a writing and photography workshop titled, “Tutored by the Land.”|1| Participants traveled to the University of Utah’s Environmental Humanities Education Center in Centennial Valley, Montana — an ideal place, says workshop participant Laura Chukanov,|2| to escape and contemplate. “The purpose of going to this location is that it’s very serene. It’s a wildlife refuge and completely isolated from anything,” says Chukanov, the administrative program coordinator of the U’s Go Learn Program, which organized the trip. “It’s the perfect place to soak in nature.”

For five days, Trimble led the participants in a series of exercises to help them connect with the land and articulate that experience through writing and photography. One of the writing exercises was simply to take in what participants saw. “I asked them to simply sit and look around for a while, and just listen and absorb. Then I asked them to make a quick sketch, even if they weren’t an artist and do an inventory of their senses.” Trimble says. He asked them to think about what they heard and smelled in their environment. Then he told them to simply write whatever they felt in the moment.

“The other prompt that I thought was quite powerful, was I asked students to think of a photograph they had on their computer or phone but not look at it and write about it as they remember it, a photograph that was important to them in some way. And then after they’d done that for a little while, to pull out the photograph and write about what they saw in it that they hadn’t remembered,” Trimble says. And then the third step is to think about the photograph as somebody else’s, to step outside the photograph and address it from an outsider’s perspective, outside of their own life. That was a great writing prep that also combined people’s interest in photography.”

Gerry Johnson’s “Joy”

Then came the art of articulating their experience through a medium. “We can experience the land, wild places and nature, just for the pure joy of it and the relationship that we have with the land and the people we’re with in that place,” says Trimble. “And then we can try to articulate that joy, that emotional response in some creative way. That can be writing or photography, or drawing, or video, or audio, music, painting, any number of ways. My skills are writing and photography so that’s what I talked about but I really try to get people to pay attention and think about all those different kinds of ways they can respond and then how they can refine that response into something that’s worth sharing with other folks.”

Diane Bradford, who participated in the workshop, says Trimble’s exercises and teaching style created a collaborative work environment that fostered competence and confidence. Fellow participant Gerry Johnson echoes this sentiment and adds that the land itself helped create a collaborative work environment. The quiet and stillness allowed him to collect his thoughts and embrace the feedback of his peers. “Listening to others helped broaden my experience, we all look at things differently,” Johnson says. He added that for him and many others the land offered silence, “It allowed me to become aware of experiences, thoughts and feelings I don’t think I would have recognized. In a busy life, we don’t always see what’s there,” Johnson said.

For Bradford, the place allowed her to respond to the land and produce a work that she feels satisfied with. “I finally have photos that I would be proud to sign and put on display,” she says. Her piece “Sunset on Sheep Mountain” shows pink light filtering through a stormy sky, illuminating a granite peak. It’s a look at the land as she saw it. Throughout the exhibit, all ten participants offer a unique perspective on the same place. Johnson captured playful clouds in his piece titled “Joy” and caught a golden moment at dawn in his photograph “Morning has broken.” Other people gravitated indoors. Jim Dowling photographed an inviting chair next to a wood stove in one of the center’s restored cabins. “Wood-Stove Still Life” is a reflection of what he gravitated toward at Centennial Valley.

Tutored by the Land, the exhibit of works by workshop participants now up in Salt Lake, offers sweeping vistas, crumbling barns, and the open sky for which Montana is justly famous. The recurring theme throughout is the participants’ exploration of the natural, wild surroundings where they were “tutored by the land.” Each person walked away with different lessons, but ones that enriched their lives and enhanced their skills as photographers. To see their work at Artspace Commons is to get a glimpse of how they perceive the land and what they learned from it.

“I think relationship is the key word to describe the kind of work that we were trying to do at Centennial Valley. It has to do with a response to the land. And the kind of photography that has to do with capturing a little bit of the spirit of the place as perceived by people,” Trimble says.

Restored wood cabins at Lakeview, Montana.

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