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July 2012
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
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Illustrations by David Habben - Photo by Anne Cummings-Anderson.
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Day Christensen . . . from page 1

When Christensen talks he is articulate but never pretentious. He engages listeners with his attentive eyes and warm personality. In his living room an entire wall serves as a bookshelf, and most of its occupants are about art. If the conversation warrants it, he will pluck one off the shelf and cheerfully tell you about its contents. Among his collection you’ll find a handful of the fine letterpress books Christensen made earlier in his career.

From an early age, Christensen was drawn to creative pursuits. “Art was something I gravitated to, and also design. I spent most of my youth building tree houses,” he says of his childhood in Walla Walla, Washington. When the time came to go to college he chose Brigham Young University because Utah was familiar ground. Both his parents are from the Beehive State and he frequently visited extended family in the area.

Initially Christensen was tentative about pursuing a career as an artist. “My interest was art,” he says, “but that didn’t seem terribly practical and at that time BYU had a program in design that they were just starting.” He earned a B.A. in Art and Design and true to his practical nature he did it with the intent of continuing on to graduate school for more specific training.

After finishing his undergraduate degree, Christensen spent a year working in a landscape architect’s office in Billings, MT. He was then accepted to Harvard Graduate School of Design where he earned his Master’s in Landscape Architecture. “I really enjoyed the people I met and I liked being on the East Coast,” Christensen says. The open-minded nature of the people he encountered was something he could appreciate. He was lured back to the opposite coast by a corporate job in Portland, but a year later he returned to Utah. “I enjoy the more relaxed pace of the West, and I’m not a fan of humidity.” he says.

Like Portland, the corporate world proved it wasn’t the best fit. “After working in an office for a few years I decided that I would enjoy doing freelance art-related projects,” he says with a telling smile. It’s very clear that art is his passion and he would be unhappy pursuing anything else.

“I was doing whatever projects would come along whether it was design consulting or letter press work. That’s when the competition for the dome came up,” he says. In the early 1980’s, a violent storm tore a hole in the copper dome of the Utah State Capitol Building. It needed to be replaced but the city didn’t want the copper to go to waste so a competition was held for artists to propose what to do with it. Day was a winner in the competition and with the material constructed a large elegant patina wall out of squares.

From that point on Christensen gradually moved in to the arena of public art. Along the way he did some design consulting for Red Butte Press at the University of Utah. Most recently he was a guest curator at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts for a Trevor Southey exhibit. But public art has proven to be an enduring part of his career where he can apply his keen eye for detail with creative strokes. “I like the challenge of having to address practical issues but then still having it be an interesting visual experience for people,” he says.

He’s looking to create a variety of experiences for the public. “My primary interest is that I enjoy the aspect of having each project be different. It’s not like I have one way of doing art and I’m trying to find different places to do that. My interest is looking at specific projects or settings and figuring out what would be most interesting for that specific project. That may mean it’s a more figurative piece or that may mean it’s a more contemporary piece,” he says.

Last year he created “High Water” for Popperton Park.|4| “The challenge there was the scale of the park. What I found interesting was the location, it being high on the bench. There was a question of doing something that would address the scale of the park and its location,” Christensen says. “When you’re up there one of your primary experiences is the sense of the valley going out below you and it’s quite wonderful to realize the entire place was covered with water at one time.” The finished work of 12 stainless steel poles is a poetic reference to the height of ancient Lake Bonneville, which once submerged the entire state.

Christensen’s work often references its surroundings, like his piece “Shovels” that stands along the UTA Frontrunner Commuter Rail in Roy, Utah.|5| “Roy had no water and so the first settlers there had to dig wells by hand. And then they dug a canal from one of the canyons to get water,” Christensen explains. “Then I used some quotes about digging the wells by hand that I found in their histories.” Those quotes are etched on to the shovel blades.

He notes that the historical tributes in his work add a new dimension. “I’m not trying to do history, I’m trying to have interesting, maybe unusual references to it. The idea is to add another layer beyond the visual. It’s for the experience of people as they interact with the work.”

One of Christensen’s favorite pieces is located in Steenblik Park and offers a unique nod to its namesake, Joseph Steenblik. When Christensen bid on the Steenblik Park project one of the requirements was coming up with something that appealed to children. In his research, Christensen discovered that Steenblik, an entrepreneur who helped develop the Rose Park area, owned a dairy farm. “I thought about how if you have a dairy farm, cats are always waiting around to get some milk,” he says. The result is a cluster of cats that stand four-and-a-half feet tall and wear expectant faces as if waiting for the children at the park to bring them saucers of milk.|6|

Much of Christensen’s work has a thoughtful simplicity to it. His current project will be part of a senior citizen center in Draper, Utah. “It’s going to be a series of outdoor metal screens that create a courtyard space near the entrance of the building. They’ll have laser cut leaf designs that reflect the vegetation that’s near the building,” he says.

The model in his studio is precise and shows the clean curvature of the screens.|7| It’s a small detail, but issues of angles and scale are things Christensen is particularly sensitive to. This comes back to the restraint and discipline it takes to execute a simple piece. “I always liked the minimalist movement; and there’s a certain strength to it, that’s what’s personally enjoyable to me. Because something can be so simple and still create a powerful experience,” Christensen says.

Another model in his studio is from a rejected proposal for a skateboard park. It sits in a large workspace among tidy stacks of materials. “I’ve been very fortunate in the number of commissions I’ve done but you have to realize that for every commission you get there’s a huge number of commissions you don’t get. That’s just part of the business and you move on to whatever is next.”

Regardless of what is next for him, Christensen will be looking at the smallest details. From his earliest work to his newer pieces, he is meticulous about accounting for everything. He was a consultant on Salt Lake’s 9th and 9th neighborhood. He created the swirling pavement pattern and the 9th and 9th signage with a typeface that references the distinct lettering on the Tower Theatre. Christensen advised the city on the vibrant color scheme and says, “I wanted twice as many lights as they had initially so there is a certain sense of activity when you arrive at that intersection.” The area is increasingly more desirable to live in and Christensen helped give the neighborhood an identity.|8| His “Sugar Beets” have done something similar for the nearby Sugar House area.|9|

At its best, public art is an invitation for people to engage with their surroundings. It makes us pause and appreciate a space that has defining character. People who enjoy Steenblik Park, Popperton Park, Sugarhouse, 9th and 9th, and other places where Christensen’s work is on display might feel there is an intangible quality to these areas that make them special. That may be true, but part of it is Christensen’s deliberate, attentive eye that brings a distinctive feel to these areas and makes them memorable.

Exhibition Spotlight: Salt Lake City
Gallery Fare at the Festival
Artists to look for inside and outside the galleries

I’m suspicious of anything calling itself an art festival. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s Laguna Beach's world-renowned Pageant of the Masters, with dressed-up volunteers posed in three-dimensional tableaus based on famous paintings, or the local fair, anywhere, at which children get their faces painted while their parents try on various hand-crafted looks for their homes, gardens or themselves. My wife, on the other hand, worked her way through high school and college painting faces at events in Payson. She also patiently indulges my indefensible desire to stroll galleries several times a month, so when she asked if we could go to last week’s Utah Arts Festival, I had to agree. And I’m glad I did.

Organizers of the Arts Festival have done several things that make their event stand out from the usual ‘artsy’ fair. Make that ‘fare,’ because the menu here includes a sufficiently broad range of events to guarantee that no level of taste or experience feels excluded. Wrapping the Festival around and through the City Library, with its strong outreach programs, engaging the City College’s writing program, and getting even the most esoteric arts organizations in town, like UMOCA, to join stalwarts like Art Access in hosting the kids‘ activities were all choices that helped bring art into focus as an actual presence in the event, rather than being just its theme. Further helping to remove the quotation marks from the title ‘Art‘ Festival was the invitation of numerous working artists who regularly show in local galleries. One of the first things serious artists learn is that such events rarely pay back the price of participation; convincing them to participate went a long way towards balancing the familiar with the novel and making the latter seem less intimidating, less disappointing to those hoping to find pleasure in the experimental as well as the entertaining.

At first glance, the realistic paintings of David Estes might have seemed a conventional part of just about any arts festival . . . that is, if the first glance hadn’t included “Secular Saint,” his approximately life-sized depiction of a modern crucifixion on a hospital bed.|1| Along with Eric Benroth’s “Frugal Meal,” Estes’ confrontational image was one of two gut-punches at Utah ’11, the Utah Division of Arts and Museums most recent Statewide Annual Exhibition. Another artist who showed alongside Estes in the Rio Gallery is Dave Borba, whose charming sculpture of a bird, its wing bandaged, but still flying with the help of a steampunk mechanism—helped in turn by viewers turning a crank—proved that a work of art can address nature and real life without rubbing the viewer’s nose in it.|2|

In his booth at the Festival Borba showed a range of painted carvings and unique castings, including his metaphors on the human heart and his witty take-offs on vintage ads brought to three-dimensional life.

Then there’s E. Clark Marshall, a potter sufficiently prolific to be showing with Paul Vincent Bernard at Art Access while filling a booth at the Festival. I’m always intrigued by Bernard, but as I moved from work to work in the gallery, I noticed the platters and pots functioning like 3-D punctuation, articulating Bernard’s weighty painted sentences. The language metaphor turned out to be appropriate, for once past their muscular forms and raku-like splashes of color, they turn out to have come into being as supports for calligraphy the artist found in manuscripts left behind by significant figures in Renaissance art.|0| At a moment in history when art increasingly forces us to choose between beauty and content, these small pleasures sit quietly on a shelf, owning the space around them, content to display but not explain their secrets.

Pottery Vessels by E. Clark Marshall
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Exhibition Review: Salt Lake
Sweetness Sells
Heather Barron's Prescriptive Portraits

According to Phillips Gallery director Meri DeCaria, their current featured artist Heather Barron has been the gallery’s best-seller this past year. What is it, then, about these stylized paintings of flatly rendered female figures that attracts such a large audience?

Barron’s compositions range from lone angelic figures to mother and child scenes to more symbolic narrative compositions. Barron’s paintings, always of female figures, are easily recognizable. Their features are repetitively similar: rounded faces, almond eyes, pursed red lips, and never-ending skin surfaces of creamy yellow. What differentiates one painting from the next is not the individual in the painting, but accents on the model. Every item in a woman’s wardrobe can be found interspersed multiple times, in multiple variations with multiple vivid colors and patterns. This variation is further accented by changes in the color of hair, which can range from angelic blond to more vixonesque dreadlocks of chestnut brown.

Is it these accessories that attract, then, rather than the individual figures, with their vacant stares? It may be a masculine bias, or my personal desire to find profundity in art, but in their cotton-candy hues, these paintings feel far too quaint, feminine, fragile, playful, charming, and whimsical. They are more iconic than they are individualistic: well-articulated, doll-like caricatures ornately garnished.

Barron is not the only one working in this genre. Cassandra Barney, Melissa Peck, and, to a lesser extent, Brian Kershisnik (another best-selling Utah artist) all like to paint heavily decorated, flattened figures coated in varying veneers of sugar.

Perhaps people are drawn to these images because they are indeed visually stimulating. The bright colors, round eyes and heart shaped lips have lucid visual appeal, and when looked at individually, these might seem an ideal piece of wall candy. Seen as a whole, though, they lose their charm, like eating a bag full of candy instead of a single piece.

Phillips Gallery has a long history of putting on strong shows, but this one is too sweet to savor. As decoration Barron’s paintings may serve a good enough purpose, but there is little beyond decoration for an audience to attach themselves to here. Since it is the public that has given these doll-like figures top status, there is reason to fear that in our best-selling art we’ll ever be able to find the type of substance one hopes for.

Keeping the Balance by Heather Barron

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