Artist Profile: Salt Lake City
Life in the Layers
Brian Snapp exhibits social concern in clay
There are numerous things to consider in ceramic artist Brian Snapp’s work, but one is fundamental: Clay is the medium that’s the message, and centuries of archaeological discovery support this.
“There’s 30,000 plus years of the history of ceramics now,” Snapp says. “They used to talk about 10,000 years, but that was 10,000 years of pottery. We’re finding sculptures that are 30,000 to 60,000 years old: little Venuses, little female icons. So that’s one reason I like to work with clay. It has all of that history that comes with it. It makes it difficult – that’s a lot of baggage to carry.”
At the same time, he says, “there’s this constant of civilization within clay. Without clay there would be no civilization. History is written in clay. We know more about ourselves from little shards and bits and pieces of clay than we do from any other medium.
“Once clay is fired it doesn’t go away,” he maintains. “You can break it up in little tiny pieces but then archeologists go and dig those pieces up and glue them back together and we discover more about our values, our value systems, our interactions with peoples of the world through clay. You can even make that extension now with the digital age and computer chips and silicon. We’re still documenting ourselves and our actions and our likes, dislikes, wants and desires through clay.”
Literary: Artist Profile
Terry Tempest Williams, transforming the world
I lit all the candles to write this piece. On Terry Tempest Williams’ desk there would also be a bowl of water. She smiles and says it’s about evaporation —something actually happening when she sits to work, but if you’ve read Williams’ books or listened to her speak, you know that’s a flip response.
Terry shares with her audience like they’re in the innermost circle, privy to the personal. She carries talismans—turquoise tucked into a boot, sage in her pocket, red colored earth in a suitcase. In Leap she describes sitting with Brooke, her husband, on the shore of the Great Salt Lake as they burned their marriage certificate, readying for new vows in front of a natural witness.
Williams is ardently Mormon and equally unorthodox, treasuring the community at the same time she’s admitted Salt Lake City can make you feel like there’s a hand around your throat. She’s hailed for transparency but can also be as private and impenetrable as the red rock cliffs she loves. Take, for example, the unexplained motives behind her destroyed marriage certificate, her mother’s empty journals, or the blank pages added to When Women Were Birds. Left to imagine the reasons, you generate your own, and so her intimacy ends up revealing you to yourself.
Perhaps this partially explains her reach, how beloved she is by opposing camps, how skilled she is at bridging divides, and why, despite her internationally renowned status as an author, dozens of the people I spoke to think she is most powerful in person.
“I have known Terry off and on for more than 40 years now,” says bookseller Ken Sanders, owner of Ken Sanders’ Rare Books, “and consider her to be a natural and national treasure . . . a magical human being. She acts as an example, a conduit and a catalyst for the way we know that we should behave. She is a force of nature and absolutely must be experienced in person.”
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Return of the Natives
Contemporary context and the landscape of the West
Michael Ryan Handley and Cara Depain, native son and daughter of Utah, returned to the state this month for solo exhibitions at CUAC, in Salt Lake City. Handley has been living in Philadelphia and New York City after finishing an MFA at Yale, and Despain has been working as an artist, writer and curator in Miami. Sometimes distance is necessary to bring home into focus, and both artists have returned with exhibitions that explore the social, political and environmental narratives of the western landscape.
Despain’s exhibit, seeing the stone, lines CUAC’s front space with 23 concrete castings of rocks perched on rods that project from the walls at various heights. Each is titled by the prosaic numbers of a GPS coordinate and an indication of elevation, along with more poetic subtitles (in parentheses) — “bullets to bullions,” “the faith to move mountains,” “Hide to Kolob” — while on a separate wall the locations of the original rocks are indicated by dots on a large-scale map of Utah. This visual display is wrapped in the context of a “field guide,” a document that is available for purchase or as a free PDF online, and which should be seen as an integral rather than supplementary part of the exhibit. In fact, the “field guide” might be seen as the meat of the exhibit, the rocks merely its dressing.
At the beginning of the document, the artist poses a problem: “What can be put indoors in a room of human scale that can say more [about the landscape] than being there.” For many the answer may be nothing, which would go a long way to answering the complaint that Utah lacks a sufficient patron base for the arts: In a state that enjoys an average of 222 sunny days a year and hosts one of the more diverse geographies in the country, it may be no wonder people choose to spend their time out-of-doors rather than in a gallery.
Despain’s answer to the problem is a collection of rocks. Or, not quite. Rather, her answer is in the form of casts of rocks, a “feminist” response to the male-dominated land art movement that often marked and frequently marred the landscape: Despain has taken only castings, left only footprints (though, truth be told, a bit of co2 as well, as she traveled the length of the state visiting some sometimes remote locations — such are the minefields of any attempt to be socially or environmentally conscious these days, but as Al Gore would have it, better to be a hypocrite and effect some change than to do nothing at all). These rocks are “fragments of a much larger, longer story,” Despain writes in the field guide, but the narrative she weaves with her castings is a relatively recent one, a narrative about the settlement of the state of Utah, or at least its “American” settlement, as the narratives of pre-1847 populations, whether Mexican or Native, do not appear.