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 March 2011
Published by Artists of Utah
Page 3    
Watercolor by Patrice Showers Corneli
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Patrice Showers Corneli . . . from page 1

Corneli grew up in rural Illinois with six siblings on five acres they could explore with the goats, cows and birds. “I hung out in an old orchard, dug my toes into silky prairie soil and watched clouds while lying in the itchy, fragrant grass,” she says. Her rural upbringing, where an interest in biology was easily nurtured, was enhanced by more cosmopolitan experiences that fueled her interest in art. Her mother, also an artist, would take the children on an annual visit to the Chicago Institute of Art 100 miles away. At age eight Corneli received a Jon Gnagy learn-to-draw set of charcoals and pastels for Christmas, and remembers using it right away to draw a boat pier in charcoal and a sunset with the pastels. She also recalls doing a free-hand drawing of a map of South America. “It was pretty good, actually.” She still has both drawings.

When it came time for college, Corneli chose to pursue a double major in art and biology at Beloit College, “where mornings in art classes with charcoal, graphite, printer’s ink and oil paints were followed by afternoons in the lab with skulls and microscopes and a drawing pencil.” At Beloit she knew three other students following the same course. While there she met her husband, Howard, a pediatric emergency doctor, and they eventually moved to Utah because he felt the best program for that field was in Salt Lake City. They raised two daughters in a charming old Avenues home, where daughter Katie’s bedroom eventually became Mom’s studio. Katie now works for the University of Utah’s Museum of Fine arts, and is pursuing an education in conservation and restoration. Brooke, the other daughter, is a graduate student of psychology in Oregon, and is very good in photography. Both daughters love their mother’s work and have it hanging in their homes.

Corneli’s current career is in theoretical evolutionary biology. At present, her project is to infer, through DNA sequences, the evolutionary history of animals. She describes both this scientific work and her experimentation in art as flowing from a kind of global curiosity, and as mentioned above, requiring “… the same cerebral contemplation of pattern.” Several of her current and past colleagues at the University of Utah, she says, are both artist and scientist. If you go to her website you will see two images on the main page. At first glance they look like colorful abstract paintings, and the one labeled “Art” is an abstracted landscape in gouache on paper -- but the other, labeled “Biology,” is actually a biogenetic tree, without the labels, charting the comparative speeds of evolution and recombination of insect species. Both images are aesthetically very pleasing – art and science combining very compatibly.

How does Corneli pursue a career in science, which she began as a wildlife biologist, then as biostatistician and now as molecular phylogeneticist , and have the time to make so much good art? She was able to work three-quarter time in earlier years, and now basically works one-quarter time, sometimes teaching two classes in a semester, and doing research and writing papers. Except for teaching, most of the work can be done at home. She never wanted to go the “tenure track” route, preferring to have the flexibility to accommodate “… my very busy husband’s scarce opportunities…” for the recreational activities they both love -- hiking, paddling, camping in the desert -- and for pursuing her artwork.

The right-brained outside of the box thinking comes in handy here, as the level of involvement at the University varies from year to year, so that she can’t have a set routine at home as far as art-making goes. She sees having her studio upstairs as very beneficial – she can come to it at any time she feels inclined. Often she’ll be there working when her husband comes home late from an extra busy night at Primary Children’s Hospital.

Although Corneli was drawing even before she got that John Nagy set for Christmas, she says that she might not have gotten back into art had her husband not been so encouraging. The early years of their marriage were taken up with work and child-rearing, and she says that he never really liked the oil paintings she was doing back in college (one of her favorites from that time, a chiaroscuro self-portrait, now hanging in the studio). However, one day about ten years ago, he discovered her upstairs in their daughter’s former bedroom, making art. He liked what he saw, and has been very supportive of her self-described “emerging artist” endeavors. He, too, pursues interests other than his career – he’s a very good photographer, and has recently begun teaching himself how to play guitar.

Corneli speaks both about other artists and about media as sources of inspiration for her artwork. Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, David Hockney, and Robert Mapplethorpe are her favorite artists. She really likes Utah painter Mark Knudsen’s landscape paintings (up later this month at Phillips Gallery), admiring his ability to capture beauty in his panoramic vistas. She herself prefers to “pick out a detail” in a panorama and get the atmospheric colors of the scenario. What inspires her media-wise is paper. She loves the tactile experience of handling a new piece and feels that the individual qualities of different weights and absorption rates are as important in determining the direction of the work as is pencil or paint. She folds some of her paper into patterns that determine the composition; others she folds, tears, and reassembles. “Handling and manipulating various papers using gouache, graphite, conte crayon and soft pastels …the combinations of these materials result in my textural and naturalistic work.”

In all her artwork Corneli incorporates both the colors, images and textures of the Southwest and the watery atmospheric images of the northern plains and forests of her childhood. She knows that she can do credible landscapes, but prefers not to be representational. “Although some pieces suggest landscape ... I intend them to be regarded as objects in their own right as they evolve from the initial idea to an indefinable end point.” If or when she puts a title with a painting she says it rarely represents the final work, rather it harks back to the initial inspiration for the piece. Thinking in true outside-the-box ways, she is very pleased when viewers attribute disparate but personal feelings and meaning to her work.

For the March Gallery Stroll, at the Utah Arts Festival Gallery, Corneli will be showing many of her current favorite works – torn paper painted and recombined, folded and painted paper abstractions. They are worth close inspection to see how the manipulation of the paper lends an organic feel to the image. Future exhibits include a show at the State Liquor store near 2nd South and 3rd East this summer, and another at the Charley Hafen Gallery on 900 East, in January 2012.

Patrice Corneli, photo by Bill Fulton


Organization Spotlight: South Salt Lake Pioneer Craft House
A Jewel in the Cultural Crown

In a fast-paced technological world where almost everything is mass-produced, there is an intense and simple joy to be found in creating something entirely with one’s own hands. There is room to revel in the potential of raw materials being transformed by an energetic imagination and skillful manipulation -- and one can rejoice in the antithesis of today’s faster bigger stronger mantra because making something by hand is delectably slow.

Pioneer Craft House, located in South Salt Lake City, is undergoing a renaissance and is poised again to become a premier community resource for those interested in high standards of art and craft education, programs and events. Founded in 1947, residents first came to the replica pioneer cabin to learn skills like spinning and weaving that were brought west by early pioneers. In its heyday, Pioneer Craft House boasted an average of 200 students on campus Monday through Saturday learning drawing, sculpture, weaving and other crafts.

Pioneer Craft House suffered a period of decline as the world became busier and people were less interested in making items that could be bought cheaply in stores, but an energetic group of volunteer artists is slowly refurbishing the organization’s buildings and vying to become a “jewel in Salt Lake’s cultural crown” by offering classes in traditional and contemporary arts and crafts. With the aid of ZAP funding, the infrastructure is being upgraded to meet ADA requirements, repairs are being made, and a room is being created to accommodate “wet” arts such as dying, printing and felting. The weaving, pottery and jewelry studios are already among the state’s best equipped, and there is plenty of room for community groups to rent space.

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Jane Grau, a painter and writer, is one of the enthusiastic core volunteers orchestrating the renaissance of Pioneer Craft House.|5| “The walls are dripping with nostalgia and sentiment,” she says in her poetically Southern voice, “but we have exciting plans for moving forward. We don’t churn butter out here, we’re not a reproduction farm, but we do want people to get engaged in a new craft or take a master class if their skills are more advanced.” Grau jokes that the Pioneer Craft House was established in 1947 BC – “Before Cable, when people actually made things” – and she is utterly convinced that people’s lives will be richer if they ward off their intimidation and spend time learning bookbinding, spinning, tatting, Pysanky or any other craft.

Bill Hughes, a master flute maker, is also one of the core volunteer artists.|6| He has crafted over 9,000 wooden flutes and is still reverent about each one. He says he has a conversation with each plank of wood as he contemplates what it can offer him, and how he can cut and plane it correctly to bring out the flute’s tones. “Sometimes I get frustrated,” he says. “One time I held a piece of wood over the dumpster and said, ‘We have to make a deal or you’re going to end up right here in the garbage!’” Grau chimes in to say, “That conversation is like the call and response of a gospel song, and if you do it right, you get heaven.” Which is quickly evident when Hughes offers to play one of his flutes for me and photographer Gerry Johnson. Both of us are transfixed as hauntingly pure notes float from the flute and fill the studio with grace and tranquility.

Mark Bennion, a skilled potter, also evokes the paradise theme when talking about the Craft House.|7| “This is a little bit of heaven out here,” he says, “and it’s going to get even better. We’re past the part where we talk about why the lights or kilns don’t work. We get together now to dream and to figure out how to get the community to recognize what this place can be for them.” As Bennion throws a pot on the wheel, he recounts a recent experience he had watching a master potter throw some clay. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” he says with awe in his voice, “and it was a stellar moment just to sit and watch her hands.”

Pioneer Craft House has also reached out to the refugee community. A group of mixed-age women from Myanmar (formerly Burma) meet each week to practice the craft of backstrap weaving, a method of weaving wherein warp yarn is anchored on one end to a low rail attached to a wall and, on the other end, around the weavers’ backs. The women have the opportunity to pass their skills from one generation to the next while producing bags, rugs, and other goods to sell.

As I concluded my tour and interviews, unbridled passion sped after me and the bravado phrase from Field of Dreams came to mind: If you build it, they will come. As Bennion says enthusiastically, “This place has had some serious glory through the years, and we’re ready to get back to that.”

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