Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
New paintings by Joy Nunn at Art at the Main
The Main Library in downtown Salt Lake City is an intriguing place to people- watch. Just ask Joy Nunn about it. Or better yet, go see her latest show Passers-by at Art at the Main.
As she explains in her artist’s statement, one day Nunn was watching people as they passed by the Urban Room on the ground floor of the library when she decided to take their pictures. She took 152 photos that day. She revisited the shots a year later and began to put them on canvas. This process raised questions about the people she had captured on film. “I began to notice or perhaps superimpose thoughts and feelings as various groupings of people walked by,” she writes. “Why were they there that day? Where were they going? What were they thinking or saying? The quiet, non-engaging act of ‘watching’ and ‘observing’ switched itself into something much more engaging and mysteriously connective.”
Passers-by answers those questions while inviting the viewer to create their own narrative about the 13 paintings on display.|1| Many of the scenes are something the viewer might have witnessed on their way in to the gallery, and, if not, they inspire the viewer to pay more attention when they leave.|2|
Each painting illustrates a split second of every day life and with this collection Nunn has given those moments mood and texture. In a watercolor titled “Passers-by, Joyous” a new mother holds her infant.|3| The palette is bold, energetic yellows and reds. It suggests that because this woman recently had a child the world is a much more beautiful place.
“Passers-by, Best Friends” shows three teenage boys in slouchy pants walking in line.|4| Their expressions are easy, maybe a little cocky. They have a swagger to them like maybe they’re getting away with something. Skipping school perhaps. Each boy wears the unmistakable look of an adolescent who spent hours perfecting an outfit and strategically rumpled hair that says, “I just got out of bed.”
In what might be the strongest piece, “Passers-by, Contemplation,” a dark skinned man wears an introspective expression.|5| Rather than surround him with the steel and glass of the library, Nunn has interpreted his self-reflection through a watery background that has a suggestion of the man’s face in it. She has visually created the fuzzy inner workings of the contemplative mind that holds vague shapes and ideas that have yet to form anything concrete. The mood of the painting expresses melancholy or frustration as if the man is disappointed with the way things are going in his life and he is considering what his life should be.
All of Nunn’s paintings invite the viewer to create stories about the passers-by. But more than that it urges one to look more closely when they people-watch. Leaving the exhibition at Art at the Main it’s possible to observe people who appear to be animated versions of Nunn’s paintings: the glowing new mother, the slouchy teenagers, and the introspective man. We encounter small moments like this every day and most are lost to time. Nunn has preserved them and reminds us that these seemingly insignificant happenings have rich, intriguing stories behind them.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Praising the Fall
Connie Borup's Fall Landscapes at Phillips Gallery
If these lingering autumns -- where the clocks change before the leaves do, children solicit candy sans parka, and the first real snow tarries long enough to come as dressing on the turkey -- if they are the West's new reality, then Connie Borup is the painter to sing the praises of global warming's silver lining.
Fall has always been important to Borup: it's slanted light bathes her works in an ethereal glow and its denuded trees give strong and graceful lines to her minimal compositions. When Borup exhibited a new body of work two years ago, the season helped mark her shift in foucs -- not a shift in locale or subject, but literally a shift in the length and breadth of her gaze. From open shots of lines of trees she moved her vision inward and down, to the leaves at their base and the water at their side. This is the type of artistic shift that frequently goes unnoticed -- the paintings were still immediately recognizable as her work -- but it is the subtle sort of change that can intrigue a mature artist, especially one who realizes the ground they thought they had covered has so much more to offer.
In her current body of work, on display at Phillips Gallery this month, Borup's gaze remains near, like that of a botanist. She raises thistles and dry leaves to the stature of icons, lovingly coating them in paint. In her paintings background plays a servile role, waiting on pattern, line and color: in a work like "Light Touch",|0| the moving water behind the tangle of branches is barely reconizable as such, and the field of color behind the proud form of "Glory" |1| could, for all the detail we're given, represent a studio wall as much as the the fiery outdoors. Many of her subjects are placed indoors, always executed with graceful line and modulated color. Indoors or out, these works remain full of the season they celebrate: you can feel the crisp cut of the air, smell the brittle fabric decaying fibers, and hear the crackle of dessicated leaves.
House of the 7 Crooked Gables
The talented and tragic life of Florence Truelson
One of the compelling factors that keeps me digging into Utah art history, is when I come upon mysterious stories, like that of Florence Truelson. My bible, Artists of Utah, by Olpin, Swanson, and Seifrit, describes her only briefly, as a celebrated artist who was part of the WPA programs in Utah during the [first] Great Depression. The attractive, bright-eyed Truelson appears in Dan E. Burke’s Utah Art of the Depression as an illustrator of early Utah pioneer furniture for inclusion in the Utah Index of American Design, a national project during the WPA period. Elzy Bird, her administrator in the WPA, remarked that she was very talented but remained largely unknown.
One of the extant Truelson paintings easily viewable is owned by Salt Lake County (and is on the 4th floor of the County’s north building). It shows two gypsy-like ladies, dancing on a sandbar in a lake, with a backdrop of the Tetons. Bouquets of roses adorn the foreground with what appears to be a smiling Afghan canine behind the dancers. Truelson was born in 1901 and by 1920, when she lived on Lake Street, was always gaining a reputation and earning rewards. For a time, Truelson maintained a studio on Second South, between Main and State in Salt Lake. During this time -- and you’ll probably have to be older than 50 to remember -- Truelson created the murals in the iconic, Mayflower Café, located for years at 154 South Main. The murals depicted a pilgrim genre that even I remember as a kid. She also participated in retouching some of the Capitol Building murals. When Truelson sold a painting it wasn’t cheap. One painting we know of was sold for $5,000, back east where she apparently enjoyed some notoriety. Using these proceeds, Truelson purchased some land west of Redwood Road, near First South.
Everything sounds fairly normal to this point. Fast forward to March, 1944 when the headline in a Salt Lake newspaper read, “Eccentric SL Woman Artist Disappears From Self-Built ‘House of Seven Crooked Gables.’ According to several news reports, Truelson had constructed a mysterious house out of scraps and used boards, purchased, according to gallery owner David Ericson, from Ketchum’s, a long-time salvager of building materials whose warehouse was located on the west side of town. Fellow Art NURD, Gary Swenson, says that years ago when a friend of his operated a downtown antique business, he reported observing a street lady dragging a wagon with boards and scraps around the downtown area. Her bright white makeup – not unlike a Geisha girl – startled many. Apparently, Truelson would collect discarded building materials and truck them two miles west where, acting as architect, carpenter, and mason, she used them to construct her home. The house became a tourist attraction. She was also known to have “fed” bread and milk to the trees on Main Street. Hmmmm…...
Even though Truelson’s neighbors reported that they very much enjoyed “early morning melodies” played on her antique grand piano -- which she cemented to her dirt floor with iron bolts to keep from being stolen – her habit of wandering about her yard at night with a shotgun in hand, looking for intruders, was less welcome.
When Truelson, who was on relief, didn’t pick up her check for two months, the Salt Lake Police were called in to investigate her disappearance. They approached Truelson’s house and, failing to locate a door, pulled off some boards from a small window and climbed into the dark dwelling using a ladder. There was evidence of wiring in the home but no lights. Only the daylight seeping in from the numerous cracks in the loosely-constructed boards provided enough light for the cops to look around. The support beams, they reported, were tree trunks. The second story had to be entered by a trapdoor and ladder. Lots of litter was found, along with several exquisite paintings. Some were stacked against the wall adjacent to the dirt floor, and several others were located behind the anchored piano. The paintings varied from intense, sinister, deep-blue mountains to white pastel fishermen. No one was located in the house and the police re-boarded the exterior. The article ends in a mystery. The artist/occupant was still missing.
What happened in 1944 remains a mystery. The next we hear of Truelson is in 1959, when several articles reported that the artist, who by then had been committed to the state hospital in Provo, was missing once again. She had wandered off one day and her body was not found for nine months. Skeletal remains found by hikers in Slate Canyon were identified by her dental records. Friends also commented that the black and white apparel, and black and white shoes looked like her trademark attire. Utah County ruled she had died of natural causes as a result of exposure to the elements.
Looking at Truelson’s well-composed painting of the dancers, and reading of her contributions to the WPA programs, it is difficult to believe how such a talented artist could have drifted so far into a desperate world of paranoia and obsession. As a result of this research, I’m seeking further information to understand this strange saga. .
If you notice me questioning any artists’ sanity, you need to understand I was so moved by this story that I don’t want to see anyone ever fall off the med wagon and start on this slippery slope.