Exhibition Spotlight: Salt Lake City
A PARTNERS Retrospective Honors Ruth Lubbers Retirement
The painter leans in until his face is two inches from his painting and the photograph taped beside it. He likes to capture details. Looking from the enlarged photo to the painting, he carefully paints the eyes behind the glasses. The curve of the nose. The mouth in its half smile. It takes a long, long time, but the likeness of the self-portrait to the photograph is remarkable. You’d never know that the artist is legally blind.
Vojko Rizvanovic, a graduate student at the University of Utah won’t talk about his blindness or when and how he lost his sight, except to say that he can’t see the eyes of the person sitting three feet from him.|1| Maybe it happened back in his home country of Yugoslavia, before or after the conflict that ripped his country apart. It doesn’t matter. Just look at the art, please.
He has big ideas, a passion for painting, and the discipline to achieve his goals. These qualities made him a perfect candidate for the Art Access Partners program in 2003, when Art Access Director Ruth Lubbers offered him the chance to apprentice to Sam Wilson, a professional artist and professor at the University of Utah.|2| Their program included 25 hours of mentoring, money for art supplies and framing, and a group exhibition in the Art Access gallery.
Rizvanovic is one of about 50 apprentice artists who have participated in the Partners program since it began in 1995. Apprentices fall into a loosely defined population called “underserved.” Some have disabilities, physical or mental. Some are veterans or refugees. They all have amazing stories of challenge, success and setbacks. But as curious and fascinated as you may be about the back stories, art is the lens through which they want to be seen and understood.
2011 is a pivotal year for the Partners program and something of a nail biter. With an ongoing Congressional battle over spending cuts, which has in part targeted arts education, Lubbers still doesn’t know how much funding Art Access will receive from its national affiliate, VSA, part of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. If that isn’t unsettling enough, this is also the year that Lubbers will retire from Art Access, leaving behind the Partners program that she founded.
Though federal funding for some Art Access programs may be in jeopardy, Lubbers is quick to assure everyone that Partners itself will continue. The program started in 1995, when a man named Neldon Bullock went to Art Access seeking money to buy art supplies. “Back then, we didn’t have extra money or support for something like this. But we scraped together about $300,” says Lubbers.
What was it about Bullock that captured her attention and made her want to help? It was Bullock’s amazing story. His day job as a guard at the state hospital required inoculations, including a shot for hepatitis. After getting the shot, the muscles in his right hand and arm started to go dead. Losing the use of his hand and arm was bad enough. But more important to Bullock, he was unable to pursue his passion for marquetry, the art and craft of carving and inlaying beautiful hardwood designs in tables and other furniture. It wasn’t just a hobby. Bullock had an expertise that won awards in competitive shows. “That was his joy in life,” says Lubbers. “Being a guard in a state hospital was a way to make money but it didn’t feed his soul.”
His Utah County neighbor, artist Larry Christiansen, set Bullock on a new artistic path. “He told Neldon that if he could put together some art supplies he would teach him to oil paint. That’s what led Neldon in to see us,” says Lubbers.
With that small investment of $300, Christiansen and Bullock became mentor and apprentice and set the pattern for what would become the Partners program. Sensing there might be a need for other mentor-apprentice relationships, to pass on knowledge and skills from the more to the less experienced, Lubbers says, “I did what any self-respecting nonprofit manager would do and started a pilot program.”
Sitting in an office filled with art purchased from Partners program participants, Lubbers points to several paintings on one wall, a print over the desk, and a sculpture above the file cabinet. She tells stories of artists who moved from apprentices to working professional artists, thanks to the boost they received in the Partners program.|3| It’s not like going to art school and being in a class with 20 other students all vying for the instructor’s attention. The mentoring is one-on-one, designed specifically for the needs of the apprentice, some of whom have extraordinary needs.
Applicants to the program must have the maturity to set goals and follow through, to show up for mentoring sessions, and to be capable of producing art that is worthy of an exhibit at Art Access gallery. As the program evolved, Lubbers created a contract for apprentices and mentors to sign. “We don’t prick fingers and sign in blood, but it’s a significant commitment,” says Lubbers. The artist comes up with three or four specific goals to accomplish by the end of the program. This helps the mentor know how to guide and assist. And measurable goals help Lubbers get funding – some $14,000 per year for up to eight apprentices and mentors.
Sam Wilson, an art professor at the University of Utah, once joked that Partners was more social work than art. Having mentored four apprentices, he is now a fan of the program and of Ruth Lubbers. He proudly shows his university students a set of drawings produced by his first apprentice, Peter Scott Stone, a young man with autism.
Wilson didn’t have to teach him to draw. “I just gave him paper and pencils and turned him loose,” he says. Stone was very focused and would draw for hours, producing a series of narrative drawings on two themes: a dinosaur named Archango,|4| and a couple named Kate and Ben (read a review here).
Wilson’s next apprentice was Rizvanovic, the blind student who had been in some of Wilson’s classes. For the Partner’s program, his objective was to create a cohesive body of work worthy of exhibition. “He had no worry about a concept or idea,” recalls Wilson. “He was living it. He lived in a building, a fourth floor walk-up, and there were all these stairs. And he’s blind and has a bad leg. So his concept was about all these stairs and the other people who lived there. He did a series of portraits about his neighbors and his blind friends.”
After the Partners exhibition in 2003, Rizvanovic and Wilson applied to do a two-man show at Art Access the following year. Acceptance in the mainstream art community builds confidence. It also proves to the artist that his work has authenticity, says Wilson. That’s where personal style and passion intersect to produce work that is original and compelling. |5|
Partners also produces relationships, which can be as important to an artist's career as any physical skills.|6| It was Lubbers and Wilson who managed to get into Rizvanovic's apartment to rescue his art portfolio and supplies after he was jailed for abducting his own children from a domestic situation he thought was bad for them. It was Lubbers who visited him in a halfway house where he was completing a three-year prison term and supplied him with pencils and paper for drawing.
also on this page: Viva Frida!
Along the walls in Rizvanovic’s small studio on thPAGEe top floor of the university art building are portraits he drew of his fellow inmates. Many are murderers doing multiple life sentences with no chance for parole, he says. Sitting close enough to see their features might seem an invasion of personal space to some. But they sat close enough, still enough, and long enough for Rizvanovic to catch both likeness and expression. Now, with the memories of prison still vivid, he develops the drawings into paintings. He has stories enough to fuel a long series of art works, perhaps even a book.|7|
The 2011 edition of the Partners program culminated this month with an exhibition of work by the eight apprentice-mentor pairs carefully selected by Lubbers and Amanda Finlayson, the Art Access programming director who is being groomed to run the Partners program. The pairing process is an art itself, taking into account the needs of the apprentice, the experience of the mentor, and the personalities involved.
No match could be more perfect than Emmanuel Makonga and BYU professor Kelly Loosli.|8| Makonga, who emigrated to the U.S. from Congo, Africa, eight years ago, has explicit goals: to create a portfolio of work that will help him earn admission to a university like BYU where he can study animation. Loosli is the perfect match since he heads BYU’s animation program and has worked in the animation industry on films like Shrek.
Makonga is soft spoken and gentle, yet there’s an intensity in his eyes and posture that allows no doubt about his determination to succeed as an animation artist.That’s been his dream since the day missionaries came to his small town in Congo and projected an animated film on the cinderblock wall of the community center. Until then, he had never seen television or cartoons. He knew in an instant he would someday make art like that, but his route has been long and circuitous (read more about Makonga in our May 2009 edition).
Since coming to Utah in 2008, Makonga has been taking classes in general education subjects, art, and animation at Salt Lake Community College in preparation for applying to BYU. Getting to BYU, which has one of the best animation programs in the country, seemed elusive until the Partners program hooked him up with Loosli. “Before I met Kelly, I went to BYU three times,” he says. “I tried to see people in the animation program, but they’re really busy.” Now the doors are open to him.
“He’s freakishly talented,” says Loosli of his new apprentice. Loosli’s job is to help Makonga broaden his style. “When you work in animation, you have to adopt the style that has been set for the film,” he explains.
Lubber’s shoes will be undoubtedly tough to fill. Fortunately, for staff, board members, and the loyal clients and patrons of the gallery and its educational programs, Lubbers leaves a legacy of outstanding management. In fact, Finlayson points proudly to the “VSA 2011 Award of Excellence in Organizational Management,” which the group won in March from the national VSA organization. “We’re well prepared for a smooth transition,” she says.
The Art Access 17th Annual Partners exhibit is up through September 10. Opening with the September Gallery Stroll, as a special tribute to Lubbers as she retires, Williams Fine Art will host a retrospective exhibition of works from the 16 years of previous Partners programs. In preparation for the retrospective, Lubbers is sifting through files and promotional materials showing participants from the past. She’s counting the apprentices who have passed – eight to drug overdoses, heart attacks, and other causes that speak of the fragility of some of these special artists. She’s counting those who have gone on to pursue careers as artists – about a third. And she’s recalling the back stories. The things only she and the mentors need to know. For the rest of us, it’s the art that matters.
Exhibition Spotlight: Salt Lake
More connection between Utah and the Artes de Mexico
When you are passionate about something you look for just about any reason to celebrate it. We like good literature, so we justify writing about them in our 15 Bytes blog by finding books with links to artists and the art world. Susan Vogel is passionate about Mexican Art, and to celebrate it here in Utah's she's eager to reveal connections between the beehive state and artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
Last year Vogel published Becoming Pablo O' Higgins, a biography of the Utah boy who joined the Mexican muralist movement (it is a finalist for the Utah book award this year). This month she is joining her fellow aficionados in Artes de México en Utah to celebrate the work of Frida Kahlo, with a five week celebration.
The Viva Frida! celebration centers on an exhibit about the life of world-renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, which will be on display in the Atrium of the Main Library from September 16 to October 20, 2011, with a smaller display that includes images of her most graphic work at Art Access/VSA of Utah.
As the celebration is happy to emphasize, in addition to O'Higgins, Kahlo crossed paths with other Utahns: Tina Misrachi Martin, whose father was Diego Rivera’s art dealer from 1935-45; Joseph Hansen (1910-79), a native of Richfield, Utah, who was the secretary of Leon Trotsky during his exile in Mexico—in part at the Kahlo home—from 1937 to 1940; and Mimi Muray Levitt, daughter of photographer Nickolas Muray, a New York photographer who took the most famous photographs of Kahlo and who was an intimate friend.
Levitt and Martin will be present at several events during Viva Frida!, to discuss their memories of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo, Miguel Covarrubias, and other Mexican artists.
The five-week Viva Frida! celebration includes more than 15 events and activities all of which are open to the public and free with the exception of one that requires a ticket to the Utah State Fair. For more information visit www.vivafrida.org.