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March 2012
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
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Summer Breeze, graphite and watercolor by Steve Larson
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Steven Larson . . . from page 1

A Salt Lake City native, born in 1977, Steven Larson |1| studied painting and drawing at the University of Utah, but he doesn’t confine himself within his degree. “I am not just a painter, that is what I am referred to as, but I play music, I write poetry, I play with language and words… everything I do is some kind of improvisation.”

Larson’s work is unique in being both abstract and figural and is charged with ineffable meaning while having a distinctive visual language. In his work, meticulous line drawings interact with boisterous brush work. Drawing and painting appear to be a form of thought manifested. His landscapes have a visual poetic quality that can be interchangeable with words. “Writing allows for a certain fluidity of expression, brainstorming specific ideas that are challenging to depict without the use of words,” he says. For Larson, words can have the same meaning as the visual;|2| the signifiers are interchangeable and are all a part of the same vocabulary:

place bound but moved too,
not by tractors mashing, scooping,
globs of land mass transferred or traded
breaking branches, bending roots,
for needs figuring taller than the tops
of horizons lining
while workers unwind in a field behind a shed
where an ass draped in plastic is ranked
by a young boy with crutches
thrown down by something else
who thinks earthquakes are imaginative
This “visual poetry” is a means of expression connected to Larson’s drawings that those familiar with his work might recognize. It is an expressive style that functions lyrically the way his unique form of abstract expressionism does visually.

Over the past decade Larson has created a distinctive visual language that has evolved as he has experimented with various approaches and media, including found objects, monoprints, plein air painting, cityscapes, collage, and works on paper. Throughout, his work has demonstrated an interest in architecture and structure, whether he paints weathered buildings in Salt Lake,|3| high rises in New York |4| or Brazilian favelas. This interest manifested itself early. “I drew ghost towns when I was 8 years old, every day. I was obsessed with ghost towns. I just made them up. A whole town or a community.”

That combination of structure and imagination is something that defines the artist’s work. “I’ve been fascinated with structures, shantytowns, ruins; it’s a way to describe humanity without having to render the figure. I don’t think that consciously. It is that, and I don’t try to use it as a symbol, but that is inseparable as we all live inside of a box -- there are all different sizes and shapes of boxes and it’s an extension of our lifestyle, it’s who we are. There is an open connection with classism, economics, and sense of community. Who has it better, suburbia USA or the favelas of Sao Paolo, Brazil? It is not deliberate and one dimensional and how I feel about this part or that part of the world regarding class, I am just looking at my thoughts and recognizing what is there.”

When Larson first came out of school he was painting landscapes and cityscapes. From local scenes he broadened his scope with views of larger cities like New York. In 2006 his work began to evolve, as he incorporated shifted perspectives and collaged elements, like maps.|5| His works also began taking on more overt political themes -- environmentalism, natural disasters and war – and appeared in looser, more improvisational form, as drawings with touches of watercolor that appeared as if the artist were thinking out loud on paper.

“I want to visit impoverished communities abroad,” he says, “to absorb the visuals of shack-like structures, to learn from community members first hand, as I am fascinated with how class shapes living conditions and the contrast between suburbia in the states against the favelas in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Who has the better sense of community, who knows people 50 or 100 yards away from them? What needs for societal, social, and survival vary per given tribe, suburb, town, metropolitan city and are heavily shaped by the format of dwellings or structures and influenced by economics and cultural aspects?” Thus, for Larson, automatic articulation of structures is a way to expressively render his thoughts, a mapping of the world and of his conscious and subconscious humanity. “It’s an interaction; I am both losing and finding myself, being conscious and unconscious about what I do or say.”

In Larson’s “Summer Breeze,” |0| a graphite and watercolor work, one feels a calming sensation in the natural ambiance and a sense of harmony in a surreal state of a melting pot of dwelling environments. A large plateau of favelas reaches far back into the mists while closer to the front is a California style swimming pool with lounge chairs and umbrellas. A junkyard bathtub rests at the foreground left. A mist of air wafts through the palms and the leaves making the whole scene very at ease. There is nothing subversive, didactic or ironic yet the image makes an impression nonetheless and has its own language that is as equally potent.

Larson's panoramic, magnificently rendered and boldly expressive “Untitled” is a testament to his artistic vision.|7-10| In this 90-inch work, an intricate fabric of mapping in miniscule and fluid detail is beautifully and fascinatingly rendered across the picture plane. The thick maze of a metropolis, with its tall skyscrapers and high-rise towers, melts into a sea of shantytowns, from which soars a looping, raised freeway that draws the eye along the plane in leaps and bounds. Hanging suspended in the sky, making the scene even more surreal, are mammoth shards of rock, beneath which the freeway winds its way through clustered favelas until both reach the border of a sea-foam green river that forms a delta. The image continues with a bayou, and towers with twisting trees dripping foliage until the scene empties into space.

Larson -- driven by his automatic rendering of what comes naturally both technically and ideologically -- also demonstrates a strong emotive quality in this work. The branches of the gnarled trees reach unpredictably across the surface. The foam blue water of the sea swirls with a freshness and a pulsating momentum. The cool blue air circulates above in streams, rotating in hypnotic currents, seemingly with a mind of its own. Farther left the atmosphere gets tenser, the blues get darker, and where sky meets land heavy bursts of air and earth feel cold and powerful. What begins as branches becomes a form -- a dark, twisted and bent shape -- that becomes more than just a tree but seems to scream from off the paper like an alien being. Farther left is darkness, an abyss, a void that seems to suck life from the piece.

In his current work Larson continues to work on paper, with drawing and watercolor, as well as small and large-scale oil paintings. He wants to bridge elements from his drawings into the paintings and explore botanical and organic imagery fused with humor and humanitarian themes. This new work, which will be on display at Kayo Gallery later this month, is something most of his audience will not be familiar with, a departure from Larson’s traditional visual language. These works are subtler in concept, yet bolder in execution, bringing forth a greater intensity of expression. In these pieces Larson says he “pushes big strokes across a surface using objects other than brushes, calling upon the automatism of abstract expressionism, while certain areas are treated meticulously, with very small brushes." These paintings are far more abstract, without the familiar iconography, and allow the artist to express himself with a fuller and more profound sensitivity.

“Swamping” is a fine example, a sophisticated rendering of the artist’s expressive, more emotionally charged sensibilities.|11| A metaphorical swamp, where bright colors collide and clash, the painting is full of heavy strokes and formidable shapes, yet all is strangely harmonious, with touches, here and there, of beautifully rendered bright green foliage. Like his drawings, worlds collide, yet the atmosphere is one of harmony. Not using the figural but the figurative, Larson limits himself, as his rendering is so automatic and comfortable. Yet he handles the brush and paint, color and composition masterfully in a result that can truly be felt and understood as a product of the artist’s untamed expressive instinct

“Painting is an old medium but is not tired,” Larson says. “It has places to go and things to do that it has not yet gone or been and I strive to discover new realms, in subject and in paint handling.” His work is dynamic, expressive and complex. His art has many aspects and layers as he as a man has many facets to his persona that make him unique as an artist and as an individual who truly utilizes to his advantage the intrinsic expressive powers of art.



Tracy Aviary . . . from page 1

The building is basically glass covered by a metal skin with cutouts inspired by trees and leaves.|0| It is a wonderful addition to the park and gives the Aviary, the largest of only two in the country, the stature it deserves. The Aviary itself is a revelation, with its Owl Forest, Amazon Adventure and other recently added attractions. Just taking a stroll along the new Boardwalk |1| and pausing to watch the pelicans and ducks in their element is worth the price of admission, but go online and plan your visit. If you time it right, you can toss a fish to a pelican.

Nathan Webster,|2| project architect at ajc Architects, agreed to share some insight on the new building for readers of 15 Bytes.


Nathan Webster on the Tracy Aviary

The Visitors Center’s plan |3| is a gentle ‘Z’ form, weaving building and visitor circulation around art, trees and the Pelican Pond. Two L shaped building wings form this Z, and embrace an Entry Plaza on the north side of the building and an Orientation Plaza to the south. At ground level the west wing of the building encompasses the admissions and gift shop, |4| while the east holds multipurpose space to be used for bird shows, orientation, education and other events. The two wings become one via an exterior entry court and second level bridge that connect office and support spaces above.

The building is visible both from Liberty Park’s central walkway to the west and from 500 East, although the view varies depending on the seasonal state of tree foliage. From the northwest, the building entry experience is extended via a fence that parallels the north edge of the Pelican Pond. The new fence’s transparency barely separates the public sidewalk outside the Aviary from the boardwalk, trees and wildlife inside. This opening significantly improves awareness of the Aviary that had formerly been denied by an overgrowth of shrubs and weed trees and the previous fence itself. The welcome is further enhanced by signage and art installations by Peter Beeton: a steel sculpture with wings that may be moved easily by children, bird footprints in the sidewalk and a collection of bird-in-flight cutouts on the fence draw the visitor toward the entry.|5-6|

The Entry Plaza funnels visitors into the Aviary and provides space for the gathering of visitors and groups. The Aviary entry now opens up and relates directly to the concession, picnic and ride area at the center of Liberty Park. From the plaza, paving and ground treatment guides visitors to the gateway into the Aviary. The building and connecting bridge above frame the view towards the internal Orientation Plaza and the bridge across the stream beyond into the core of the Aviary.

A gracious goose greets visitors to the gift shop below at Tracy Aviary’s new Visitors Center. Photo by Jared Christensen.
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It is here that the first of several design concepts for the project becomes apparent. ajc Architects’ original concept was inspired primarily by the surrounding trees and is paraphrased here:

As one approaches Liberty Park and the Tracy Aviary, whether by foot, bicycle, or automobile, the trees begin to shape this unique space within the city, eventually enveloping the visitor and setting the stage for a memorable experience. The trees manifest the historic origin of Liberty Park, and provide a comfortable habitat for birds, animals and humans alike. The trees offer brief escape from the city beyond their canopy. Transforming with the seasons, the trees offer shade in summer, welcome the sun through their branches in the winter, and blend both sun and shade in spring and autumn.

The building incorporates a patterned metal skin over glass that embodies both the function and aesthetic of trees. Developed in collaboration among ajc Architects, Big D Construction and Noorda Architectural metals, a system of metal panels incorporates an abstract pattern that suggests tree canopy, structure and branches while at the same time evoking an image of movement, of birds in flight or fluttering leaves.

The abstract pattern provided by this metal facade provides a variety of openings to respond to both view and light.|7| In areas where maximum views were imperative, such as the gift shop, the panels are absent. At spaces requiring minimal natural light or security, the panels are more ‘solid.’ In areas where a blend of view and sun-shading for cooling are appropriate, such as the offices, the semi-open panels work in unison with the windows to provide interiors with dappled sunlight and the feeling of being up in the trees.|8|

In places the metal panels are set off of the building structure to present and accentuate the conceptual tree, light and movement phenomena for the public. As visitors move from the Entry Plaza and under the connecting bridge into the “sky court,” several ideas converge. The angled concrete block walls compress the space inwards and narrow the horizon view into the Aviary’s core. At the same time, elements draw the eye and experience upward:|9| the bridge above displays the activity of staff, and makes staff and visitor both viewer and the viewed. Opposite the bridge, the metal skin floats off of the main building structure and casts dynamic shadows on the angled concrete block walls, literally! And beyond, of course, sky, clouds and, perhaps, a passing flock of geese.

The Orientation Plaza opens up to exhibits, to stream, pond and boardwalk, |10| to pathways to the Aviary’s center, to the building’s restrooms, multipurpose space and the observation deck at the southeast end of the building.|11| The highest publicly accessible point in Liberty Park, the observation level, a suggestion of ajc Architects, provides an unforgettable experience of the light and shadow from the patterned metal panels, views of the Aviary, the Park, and the Wasatch Mountains.

The Visitors Center is on track to achieve Gold certification status from the sustainable design certification program LEED. The metal panels contribute in several ways. Over south or west facing windows, the partially open screen shades the building’s glazing and moderates heat gain. Further, the panels are one of several means used to reduce bird death due to impact on the reflective glass. Where there are large expanses of glass that do not have metal panels, a frit pattern has been applied to provide a pattern visible to birds.|12| The pattern itself follows a size and shape recommended for this application, but also is made up of bird silhouettes … bringing it back to the experience for human visitors.|13|

Several other sustainable features are incorporated including:
* Pre-cleansing and retention of roof storm water through the use of retention and detention ponds,
* Using 95 percent Forest Stewardship Council certified woods,
* Using 37 percent less energy than a comparable building,
* Providing 11% of the building’s electrical needs through rooftop photovoltaic panels.
* Diverting nearly 75 percent of construction related waste from landfills for other uses

This project is not the end of the Tracy renovation. The ongoing transformation continues with plans for additional exhibitions, improvements to the already popular bird show and other elements.



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