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July 2015
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
Page 5    

Patricia Johanson . . . from page 1

Phase One: Echo Canyon

Driving on 1300 East, below 2100 South, on the south side of the tall building identified as The Draw at Westminster College, you can see a flash of Johanson’s work: two vertical columns stand tall, signaling the site and a portion of the narrative that comprises the whole. To truly see her work, one would enter The Draw either by parking in Sugar House Park and walking under 1300 East through the recently constructed pedestrian corridor, or by parking near Hidden Hollow and walking east.

Surrounded by construction workers, Johanson and I walked down The Draw, stopping at the curve in the sidewalk that gave us a view of Hidden Hollow below us and, looking east, a view of Echo Canyon. It was there the tour began, and where I began to learn the history of place. We were standing on Parley’s Trail, which connects the Bonneville Shoreline Trail (east) to the Jordan River Parkway Trail (west). We were also standing on a trail that had flooded a short time after Johanson won her 2003 competition. As part of her initial design, she had planned on creating a berm to handle floodwaters; her plans were then modified to create a dam.

Standing on the spillway for the dam, the complexity of the engineering project was integrated into the beauty of the landscape. Boulders have been placed to direct floodwaters; nearby springs will become populated with frogs and toads and birds will find a new home.

Progressing east along Echo Canyon the redrock-colored canyon wall Johanson has created came alive as she spoke of the inspiration behind the work. Her love of American history, specifically the travels and travails of the pioneers who settled in the Salt Lake Valley, is writ large in the niches and crevasses of the wall. As she began to research the Mormon pioneers, she learned most were from cities, many travelers were from England, yet they upended their lives to cross the country and scale the Wasatch Mountains. As Johanson visited regional research repositories and scoured books, she learned about the environmental concerns the Mormons wrote about and followed.

Along Echo Canyon, Johanson pointed out her re-creation of “Cache Cave,” a place where pioneers would sign their names. As we walked farther east, the wall’s niches became deeper. One striking image on the wall represents the rattlesnake encountered by Erastus Snow in the advance party to move Brigham Young’s pioneers forward into the valley. The undulating wall with niches and a resting bench continue until we arrive at “The Witches,” the five monumental columns partly visible from 1300 East. As many Mormons traveled long hours and arrived during the dark of night, they needed geographic markers to signal resting spots. The weathered rock columns (“hoodoos”) in Echo Canyon were imagined by the Mormons to look like witches with bonnets.

By now, we’re next to the pedestrian passageway under 1300 East. Brigham Young and his team looked for coal along their journey and so the striations in the wall indicate coal seams, which continue under the tunnel. Glancing back at the wall, my imagination takes hold as I see the vision Johanson intends: the north side of the walkway will be tree lined, the wall will be inhabited by microcosms of flora and fauna in this urban environment. Looking east, this is the place where the visible, the first phase of Johanson’s work, dissolves into the invisible as we walk through the tunnel and enter Sugar House Park. This is where the unrealized part of her project, Sego Lily, hopefully will be constructed.

Phase Two: Sego Lily

Johanson’s vision for Sego Lily is as monumental as Echo Canyon, yet different in design and usage. The sego lily is Utah’s state flower, a symbol of the pioneers who, taking the advice of resident American Indians, ate the bulb of the lily to get through tough winters. As the pioneers dammed Parley’s Creek, they created irrigation for their crops. Thus, Johanson’s Sego Lily alludes to the first major control of water established in the Salt Lake Valley in the 1800s.

Sego Lily
’s design includes three petals, designed to fit the scale of existing Sugar House Park, to be built of sculpted shotcrete and plantings so as to act as floodwalls in the event of future flooding. Designed for both people and water diversion, each petal addresses different uses: the north petal will represent Donner Hill, the first view the pioneers had of the Salt Lake Valley; the east petal will include a water feature and will serve agricultural purposes; the south petal incorporates amphitheater seating for school groups and a climbing wall.

The stem of the lily will parallel 1300 East as visitors walk north toward the dam (listed on the Utah Registry of Dams), or south toward the site of the future lily bulb. When standing at the bulb, one can look toward the Wasatch Mountains and see the terrain the pioneers travelled. The dam serves an environmental function, and in the future will divert floodwater from the detention basin in Sugar House Park down the lily’s stem, through its petals, through the pedestrian passage under 1300 East, down The Draw, and into Parley’s Creek in Hidden Hollow.

Completion of Sego Lily is hinged on successful fundraising from the private sector, managed by Parley’s Rails, Trails, and Tunnels (PRATT) Coalition. It is estimated that $2 million needs to be raised by November 2015 to complete the entirety of Johanson’s work. This time frame is crucial: when the grading of the dam was completed, the Utah State Dam Engineer agreed to a two-year time extension to complete a permanent dam for Sugar House Park. PRATT representatives are working to raise funds for Sego Lily so that Johanson’s design, rather than permanent turf reinforcement, will be created in the park. Several publications on Johanson’s work include drawings over the years for this project, notably the exhibition catalog A Field Guide to Patricia Johanson’s Works: Built, Proposed, Collected & Published (2012) and monograph Art and Survival: Patricia Johanson’s Environmental Projects (2006).

Infrastructure; water control; environment; art: there are many successful aspects of Echo Canyon and Sego Lily. The visual draw of pulling from one place to another, transposing specific narratives and geologic and geographic features, is masterful. Johanson’s research into a place where she has never lived, to find the potential in a work of art that mirrors our cultural history to us, is the sign of a consummate artist: the pioneers and settlers who altered the landscape in the 19th  century is skillfully reflected in her site-specific work. This history can be appreciated by all visitors through immersion in the work’s beauty and appreciation of its functionality. Our ability to literally see history embedded into the structures she has created reminds us of the importance of public art: it’s about our embodiment of place.

Art Professional Spotlight: St. George
Engaging with the Land
Montello Foundation's Artist Residency Program

Tucked in the rolling hills north of Montello, Nev., surrounded by sun, stars and sagebrush, stand two simple new structures: a living space and a studio. Miles from any population centers, they are a haven for creatives. A retreat for artists. In artspeak, a residency.

With the remove from everyday life, the promise of seclusion, the possibility of engaging with likeminded people, the lure of residencies is strong: the creative spark that arises through one or more of these situations can lead to enrichment in one’s practice, or a new view sparked by a new muse. Regionally there are a variety of residency programs, each with its own mission statement and desired outcomes for accepted artists. In the West's Basin and Range region, the Montello Foundation Residency joins the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Artist-in-Residence program set within the Bureau of Land Management's Conservation Area in northern Nevada; and The Center for Land Use Interpretation's Wendover Residence Program, which has been in Utah for 20 years.

The brainchild of founder Stefan Hagen, the Montello Foundation accepted their first round of residents this spring while the structures were still being completed. Hagen's extensive background spans commercial photography and independent projects, all of which has taken him literally around the country. His base is in New York City and for a time he worked with staff at Wave Hill, a nature-based public garden and event center, documenting their shows and also participating in exhibitions. Hagen's work at Wave Hill, his interest in photographing ancient art, and cross-country driving trips culminated in a captivation with the West's desert environs. In 2007 he became enchanted with Nevada and formed the foundation soon after, coalescing thoughts that formed an unpublished manifesto of sorts. As the foundation began to take hold, he organized a small exhibition by artist Richard Torchia in a popup gallery in a gritty section of New York City's midtown. Torchia's nature-based work can be seen on Montello Foundation’s website; the installation shots present a salve to passers-by on NYC's streets.

Hagen works with a small collective of people to realize his foundation: he is the sole staff member and has a small board. His time has been spent in building the residency structure, a simple yet beautifully-crafted place inviting solitude, along with the studio, a 20' x 20' space with commanding views of the northern mountains. These buildings sit on 80 acres, more easily accessible from late spring to fall before the graded and dirt roads of northern Nevada become difficult to navigate in tougher weather.

The foundation (from their website) is "dedicated to support artists who foster our understanding of nature, its fragility and our need to project it." To achieve this mission, the two goals are "to preserve a piece of this desert landscape, protecting this delicate system of flora and fauna, but then also, at the same time, to create a place in the sagebrush desert for observation, for contemplation, and for artistic work." Balancing preservation of place while place-making can be tricky and Hagen says awareness as a key component of action is vital to making the two compatible. Minimizing one's impact on the land is always the dilemma ("any human footprint is a footprint"), yet the foundation's idea is to go outward from that space. Artists can raise awareness of the environment, and determine how their awareness can be translated into something that can be understood: "As an artist you can protect that area and project that awareness,” Hagen says.

Hagen's talents fit best with the idea of social impact and gathering people to be able to share a common message. The growing community of residents (11 this season) will become a community of Montello Foundation alumni. Connections are an important part of developing the residency: Hagen met artist and CUAC director Adam Bateman at a conference of emerging residencies and Bateman was a juror for Montello Foundation to narrow down the 45 applications the foundation received this spring to a manageable size. Hagen did not participate as a juror, but advised jurors in advance to look at the full body of the artist’s work to determine what their reach would and could be, both artistically and from the vantage of their social impact.

Lauren Strohacker, a Phoenix artist who recently completed a residency in Montello, says she went to the site not to make physical work(s), but to have the time to think of new Ecological Art projects. She says the residency was “an exercise in self-awareness. Removed from the city and its obligations, I was relieved of typical labels like ‘educator,’ ‘partner,’ ‘citizen,’ etc. and was left only with ‘human’ and ‘artist.’ Each day boiled down to eating, sleeping, cleaning, writing and experiencing the land through hiking and stargazing. In between the everyday activity was a persistent fear; fear of not having good ideas, of injury in the remote desert, of negative events unfolding at home, of death. This was fear at its most basic, usually muffled in the city and amplified in remoteness.  While navigating fear and creative purpose I found an intense clarity that allowed ideas and connections to pour out, into my notebook.  This clarity continues to linger as I readjust back to my Phoenix life.”

Of the artists chosen for residency this season (each of which has approximately two weeks at the site), Hagen found most of them drew their inspiration from the landscape, while the best ones translated that inspiration. The broad range found in these artists, both visually and stylistically, hopefully leads to works that translate beyond the space of the residency’s site.

Inspiration from the landscape includes possible inspiration from Utah’s earthworks, the Spiral Jetty (1970) and Sun Tunnels (1973-76), both located near northeastern Nevada. The foundation’s website includes information on these earthworks and much more, offering both residents and those interested in applying a broad base to understand their mission and the artists’ place at both site, and after.

With information provided on Utah’s earthworks, I was curious if artists could develop work on the site of the foundation. Hagen was cautiously optimistic with his answers, explaining the foundation is actually two pieces of 40-acre properties with a half mile between them. Theoretically a work could be created in situ, but it would have to make sense within both the concept of the foundation and the situation of the land it inhabits. Having spent a considerable amount of time at the site, Hagen has found a lot of lines already evident on the land but no one knows where they're from; not a lot of people can be found in the region, but the lines could just as easily have been made by cattle.

Artists from as close as Denver and as far away as New Zealand will make their way to Montello, Nev., to participate in their own artistic development inspired by the region’s raw and rolling hills. City artists will be displaced in a new environment: Hagen hopes to slow down the rapidly changing “fashions” found in the commercial art world to foster artists who work in the field of environmental awareness, to give them something they can work from to, in turn, influence others. As these artists’ energies are redirected from society to solitude, they may find that creative spark that can sometimes be found by engaging with the land.

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