Art Professional Profile: Salt Lake City
On The Road
The Brandon Cook family summer vacation
There are lots of artists for whom summer equals festival circuit. They pack up their van, truck or trailer and ride to one of the festivals in the region, setting up a booth and hauling in paintings, sculptures or craft, only to take it all down after a few days and return home. Few, however, pack up the whole family and leave for a cross-country festival excursion; even fewer with just $800 in the bank. But that's how Ogden artist Brandon Cook and family spent their summer vacation.
This isn't the first time Cook has done festivals. Early in his career, going to places like the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver was a way to establish his reputation and build up a clientele base. After he was picked up by a handful of galleries throughout the country, however, Cook chose to spend his time in the studio, hitting the road to paint or drop off paintings but not to hock his wares. For well over a decade this was a successful strategy for the fulltime artist, but when the economic crises hit, and as the recovery became more protracted, Cook realized he needed to consider other options.
"In 2010 I was left wondering for a nine-month period whether this was just a rough spot or whether I was unemployed with nobody to tell me I was out of a job," he says. "To say things got tight would be an understatement." At one point he was close to losing his house. "I thought about looking for work outside of doing art but looking back it was really never an option. Two things came to mind -- continue the pursuit of making good art and change up the business model."
He wasn't going to give up his galleries (located in Salt Lake, Park City, Jackson, Ketchum, Idaho, Santa Fe and Washington D.C.) but he began reconsidering those early days of doing festivals. And money wasn't the only reason. "Even when the art was bringing in six figures, I began to burn out and felt unsatisfied," he says. "I began to realize that being a hermit in the studio and shipping work out in exchange for a check left me wanting. I wanted to get out and reconnect with people and be reminded as to why I began this career in the first place. I enjoy seeing people be affected by the work."
During more flush times, Cook had purchased a 2005 Fleetwood Mallard, a 20 x 8 foot trailer that sleeps up to seven, and comes with a fridge, oven, microwave, ducted furnace/AC, and a shower. Mostly it was a plaything, something for his family of five to use camping around the west, but for the summer of 2012 he decided to put it to work. He wouldn't forget the play, though. Or the family.
"I wanted to see new places and landscapes to reinvigorate ideas for my work," Cook says about his decision to head across the country. "I love history (Civil War in particular) and wanted to see these places where events took place that have shaped our nation. It was important to me to share this with my children, particularly my oldest boy Ethan."
Hitting the road was no easy decision.|0| He had to adapt the trailer -- creating a storage space for paintings under the double bed |1| -- and prep it for the journey: $700; get his Land Rover ready to haul the thing cross country: $500; and purchase a roof rack for the stuff that wouldn't fit in the vehicles: $1100. Booth and application fees for festivals came to $2500. Add to that the normal hassles any homeowner has to deal with (a water heater had to be replaced just before they left: $900), medical emergencies on the road, and the specter of paying $4 a gallon to haul a 12,000 pound load cross-country for three months, and the decision to hit the road was a financial leap of faith.
Just before leaving, Cook got a call from his gallery in Jackson: a larger work had just sold for $7500. It was a good omen, though Cook knew it would take a month for that money to arrive.
Leaving just after the July 4th holiday, the Cooks headed through Wyoming and South Dakota to the Uptown Art Fair in Minneapolis, visiting Devils Tower and Mount Rushmore|2| along the way. From there they headed to two festivals in Wisconsin. At Sheboygan, on Lake Michigan, they were caught in the first rainstorm of a very dry summer. "It was like sitting underneath a waterfall," he says. The countryside was desperate for the water, but it soaked through everything and Cook had to haul all his equipment out of the trailer to dry.|3| From Wisconsin, they crisscrossed their way through the midwest towards the Atlantic,|4| first to drop off work at his gallery in Alexandria, Virginia and then up to Lancaster, Pennsylvania for a festival.
Except for a two-day respite in August when they stayed with friends of a friend, the Cooks have spent over sixty days on the road. Occasionally they would merely pause at a highway rest stop to get some sleep, but usually they camped -- sometimes in RV parks with water and electricity hookups, sometimes not. Wal-Mart parking lots, they learned, are a favorite stopping off place for travelers: they're big and empty at night, and toilet paper, groceries and other necessities are at hand in the morning.
Along the way they've visited plenty of historical sites (Abraham Lincoln Museum, General Lee's Tomb, Appomattox Court House, Gettysburg, Yorktown, Jamestown, Williamsburg, Valley Forge , Washington D.C.) and have seen thousands of miles of countryside -- plenty of invigoration for Cook's work. "I was out taking photos in this place in Lancaster County," he says, "and looking around I thought, there's fifty paintings just in this one spot."|5|
Cook is still on the road -- this past weekend he was at the Longspark festival in Lancaster|6| -- so he won't yet say how the whole thing has turned out. So far, though, the trip has paid for itself. The vehicles have held up --he's done two tire rotations and two oil changes (another good use of a Wal-Mart parking lot) and during their time-off in Virginia were able to ship in a headlight; and apart from a couple of medical scares -- his wife Petra had to go to the hospital when she began having chest pains, and later had to be treated for Lymes disease prevention when she was bit by a tick -- the family is doing well.
Which is important, Cook says, because the trip was as much about family as finances.|7|
Early in the career, he says, "the relentless pursuit of making the best art I could and the importance of it being all that mattered to me took its toll on my wife. I think it created a distance between us and left her wondering what was most important to me -- the art or the family. Though I wanted the art to provide for my family, it left little else of me to offer her and the kids."
A healing process has been in the works over the last four years, he says, and this trip "has really gelled things."
The trip has also been good for the children, ages 2, 8 and 12. "I wanted a way to get the family involved with my art career," he says. "After all, it is the family business. It's good for the kids to see that this is indeed how I provide for them and they have helped with the set up and interaction with collectors at times," Cook says. "They also know the financial situation and I think this is demonstrating that stepping out with both risk and faith has its rewards."
Culture Conversations: Literary
What We Read On Our Summer Vacation
Book recommendations from our writers
I never go wrong when I choose a King’s English employee’s pick. This time it was Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, not only the best fiction I’ve read this summer, but probably the best in years. In New York City in the early 70’s an event takes place that mesmerizes all who witness it, and has a lasting ripple effect, not only on the viewers but also others who didn’t see it but were in oblique ways affected. Each chapter is an exquisite story in itself with richly developed characters experiencing the aftereffects of the event in very different ways. None of them know each other, but through this author’s craft their stories overlap very cleverly in a wonderfully humane tale.
Of the books I was able to read this summer two stand out, not necessarily because they were the best (though I can recommend both) but because of a curious coincidence that ties the two together: Quim Monzó's Gasoline
and Tommaso Pincio's Zero Star Hotel both open inside Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks." Monzó's novel is really a diptych of two related stories, the first of which opens with a dream sequence wherein the story's protagonist, Hildegarda, finds himself "in an exact reproduction" of the painting, that soon takes on a life of its own. In Pincio's intriguing blend of narration, analysis and memoir, Hopper's painting is the artistic specter that haunts the author's aborted career as a painter: it is the work he wished he had painted. After leaving painting, Pincio became a writer, and his book is an intricately woven mediation, full of wit and insight, on his own life and the writers and artists who have influenced him. Monzó's work, more straightforwardly a narrative (though its narration slips through various registers, including the surreal and the absurd) is a sardonic portrayal of the contemporary art world. It begins with a famous, mid-career artist who on the eve of an important exhibition finds himself incapable of or uninterested in painting; and in the second half follows the hyperactive career of the postmodern wunderkind who takes the former's conjugal and professional place. Though written thirty years ago (but only recently translated into English from the Catalan), Monzó's satire still feels du jour, making the work seem almost prophetic. Zero Star Hotel (Hotel a zero stelle) is as yet unavailable in English, but Pincio's passion for American writers, including Melville, Burroughs, Dick, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, and Foster Wallace, will soon, one hopes, attract an American publisher.
In Rainbow Bridge to Monument Valley: Making the Modern Old West
Tribune reporter Tom Harvey shows how that hedonist Western novelist Zane Grey (his story fascinates), filmmaker John Ford, Navajo inhabitants, trading post owners, 20th-century environmentalists and even scientists have taken the Rainbow Bridge and Monument Valley areas in Utah and Arizona and used them for their own purposes Ė from the earliest creationist myths to the damned dam projects of the 1970s, to Jeep Grand Cherokee advertisements and contemporary tourism. Itís a book that will interest armchair and actual travelers; folks interested in American Indian studies; Western and American history; and even Western film buffs. From the University of Oklahoma Press, out now in both hardcover and paperback, itís a deserving finalist for the Utah Book Award.
Sweet Land of Bigamy by Miah Arnold (daughter of the late Tribune arts writer and dance critic Helen Forsberg), who grew up in a house attached to the Three Legged Dog Saloon in Myton and sets her first novel in rural Utah. The book opens with Helen Motes, shivering and tired from a climb up a cliff to Nuchu's Landing in the Black Elk Mountains, wearing a scarlet sari held together by 17 safety pins, waiting for her wedding to a young (younger than her) Indian poet, Chakor Desai, accompanied by the Hindu pundit who will be performing the ceremony. Problem is, she hasn't told Chakor she is already married to an older man in Texas, currently on a war contract mission in Iraq -- who learned Arabic on a different mission in Egypt, while the LDS Church was still welcome in that country. Quirky characters, arresting imagery, beautifully written.
Based on a handful of Victorian journals and such surviving records as early Baedekerís and similar primitive travel guidebooks, Enid Shomerís The Twelve Rooms of the Nile
imagines what might have happened during simultaneous forays among the antiquities lining the Nile River that were actually undertaken in 1850 by Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert. Where books that hijack fictional characters can change their stories any way they want, these events, early in two of the better-known 19th century lives, face far tighter strictures. The dates and itineraries of both are known, as are some events and details, but while nothing documents their encounter, neither does the record prohibit their having shared an adventure. The challenge for Shomer was to craft a story that fits the known facts and, instead of reconfiguring what these two remarkable figures subsequently achieved, sheds light on how they became who we know them to have been.