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September 2016
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
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Exhibition Preview: Cedar City
Life in the Inanimate
Andy Nasisse's Sculptures and Photo Manipulations at SUMA

Badlands. The word itself evokes images of dry, barren deserts.  A place where crops wither in the heat, and sculptured sandstone flows from one end of sight to the other.  An inhospitable landscape, with towers of rock balancing precariously, holes carved through them by wind and weather. A place where Andy Nasisse, studio artist and professor of 30 years, now retired, sees life in the stone.

From September 23 to October 31, at the new Southern Utah Museum of Art, Nasisse’s sculpture and photographic manipulations will be presented together to the public for the first time.  The show, Badlands, has been years in the making.  Nasisse’s sculptural work began when he was in graduate school at the University of Colorado. As his career progressed, though he always had an interest in photography, Nasisse found that his work teaching ceramics as a full professor at the University of Georgia took up too much of his time for him to delve deeply into the commitment of photography.  That all changed when he began rock climbing in 1990.  Nasisse found that he “…would be climbing rock faces, and literally climbing rock faces.  I kept seeing all these wonderful figures and faces in the rocks, so I started taking pictures of them just for fun.” Digital photography made it easier for people to see his work, to draw similarities between his photography and his sculptures, and a connection between his sculptural and photographic interests was forged.

After he retired and moved to Utah, Nasisse decided to make the commitment, spend the money to get started, and become serious about photography.  The first step on his journey was to decide what he wanted to pursue through photography. “I had to go back and re-look at a lot of black-and-white photographs and decide… I wanted to reference classical landscape photographers like Ansel Adams… these people who really pioneered black-and- white landscape photography and were known for these full value, rich, beautiful, luscious black-and-white photographs.”  He did not want these inspirations to be the standard to which he held himself, but instead wanted them to be references that he had in his work.

At first glance, Nasisse’s photographs seem to be just that—images of landscapes cast dramatically in black and white, the crevices and curves of the rocks standing out in sharp contrast. To Nasisse, “it is important that you see it as a picture first, and slowly, as you stand in front of it, the other things start to come out.”  Every inch of his photographs has been addressed.  To him, they are no longer simply photographs of landscapes. “With the photography, I do so much manipulating that I don’t really think of them as photographs anymore.  I think of them almost as drawings.  I want people to see them as manipulations.”

It is easy to see why he thinks of his work this way – as you spend more time looking at the images that he has created, you begin to see details, faces, and the figures that Nasisse saw when he first took the photograph.  The images draw you deeper into the landscape, ask for you to search for and discover what has been hidden within them.  These are not simple pictures of rocks, arches, and undulating sandstone.  These are figures with expressions, personalities, and stories.  This is what Nasisse discovers during the two to three days it takes him to shoot the photographs that he will later manipulate.  He always finds “a major image that you can see,” a reason that he took the picture, but upon looking closer, the landscape comes to life.

A significant part of what draws Nasisse to the land is that “anybody who walks through those landscapes experiences the same things.  It could be a 600-year difference, but the landscape hasn’t changed that much in 600 years.  All around are these rocks that look like figures.”  The fact that he could walk through the land and see the same thing that Native Americans had seen long before him proved that there is more to the land than some simple geological formations that might look interesting on camera, and Nasisse manages to capture that in his work.  He drew inspiration from the names that the Natives of each area had given to the places.  One such example is the name that was natively given to Bryce Canyon, before we had known it as such.  The name meant ‘red figures.’  In this way, Nasisse felt connected to the Natives, realizing that they likely saw the same things that he saw when they looked at the land.

In both the improvisational nature of his sculptural work, and the meticulous attention to detail of his photographic manipulations, Nasisse finds the life in the object and brings it to the surface.  He finds that when he works with clay, though he has an idea and often makes sketches of what he wants, “everything changes, and [I’m] responding to what happens in the moment.  It’s improvisational, and spontaneous, and fairly unplanned.”  Though he has never before displayed his photographic work at the same time as his sculpture, he thinks it will create an interesting dialogue because of the similarity of the images on the surfaces of his sculptures to what he creates with his photographs. The twisting lines in the sculpture “Twin Towers” might have been lifted from the surface of the photograph “Howling Hills.” In “Deep Sleep Canyon,” the faces are more overt than they might be in the photographs but both they and the crown above them have the feel of wind-eroded sandstone.

Even the titles of Nasisse’s work reference his belief in the power of objects, and the connection between Native Americans, the land they knew, and how it is the same land that we can see around us.  Some of the titles that he chooses reference specific Native things, such as “Kachina,” which is a deified ancestral spirit of the Pueblo people, or Petroglyph. At the core of his work, however, is his belief “in the everyday object, the presence and life in inanimate objects.”  Every piece that he creates has its own life, and its own story. “In fact, that’s the bottom line with me.  If I buy something or I make something, it has to have life.  You have to feel it and sense that there’s some living energy, some kind of life, some presence.”  This is a concept that is absolutely apparent throughout the work presented in Badlands.  Every piece is alive, the figures interacting and weaving intricate dialogues through the presentation of sculpture and photographic manipulations.  There is no dead space in the show.  In this way, and in many others, Nasisse counteracts the archetypal ideas that the word badlands brings to mind, and instead shows that even in the most barren places, life still hums beneath the surface, waiting to be seen by those who take a moment to look a little closer.

Exhibition Preview: Cedar City
Southern Utah's Little Jerome
Silver Reef celebrates history and culture

September 23-25, the Silver Reef Museum of Leeds, Utah, will host an all-media exhibit by the Southern Utah Watercolor Society, as part of a recent commitment to host a cultural arts event every 4th weekend of the month. Accompanied by a historical lecture September 24th titled Women of the Silver Reef, the show also kicks off a yearlong bonanza of historical exhibits and art shows culminating in next September’s participation in the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street initiative, The Way We Worked.

Though now a part of the township of Leeds, there is a great deal of unique history in the community of Silver Reef, and in the last several years, it has become home to a growing number of artists, studios, and exhibits, suggesting a comparison with another western ghost town-turned-artistic-destination, Jerome, Arizona.

In its mining heyday, Silver Reef was one of the most colorful towns in Utah’s color country.  Springing up out of the sandstone in the 1870s when miners discovered a way to capitalize on the extraordinary geologic occurrence of a sizeable deposit of silver in white sandstone, the settlement, known at first by the inauspicious name “Rockpile,” soon became a bustling mining town with no less than six saloons, five restaurants, two dancehalls, eight dry goods stores, a brewery, and a population of 2,000. Surrounded as it was by Mormon settlements such as Harrisburg and St. George, the town never had a Mormon meetinghouse, though there was a Catholic church building, and Catholic and Protestant cemeteries. Authors Paul Dean Proctor and Morris A. Shirts describe Silver Reef as “an island of gentiles surrounded by a sea of Mormons in this frontier area” in the book Silver, Sinners and Saints: A History of Old Silver Reef. There were outlaws, and notorious gunfights. Ravaged in 1879 by fire, labor strikes, and finally the plunging value of silver, most of the mines closed by 1884, and the townspeople and even most of the buildings eventually relocated, the buildings dismantled for lumber and stone. After another half century of on-and-off mining operations for silver and uranium oxide, a plan for subdividing the land was developed, finalized in 1980.

The discover of silver in sandstone led to the boomtown of Silver Reef in southern Utah.

With the arrival of new blood, interest in preserving the remains of “Old Silver Reef” fueled the restoration of the Wells Fargo Express Stop to a museum and art gallery. Artist Jerry Anderson, whose home lies adjacent to what’s left of the old buildings, has been involved in the restoration process since he moved to Silver Reef from California in the early 1980s.

Thanks to a grant, volunteer labor by local contractors, and tireless efforts by advocate Joy Henderlider, the Museum for Wells Fargo Silver Reef National Monument and Gallery for Jerry Anderson opened in 1986. Gallery sales, including Anderson’s own artwork and that of other artists in the Western genre, paid for the upkeep of the building and staff. Currently, the Silver Reef Museum, as it is now called, occupies the entire Wells Fargo building, with a rebuilt building next door, the old Cosmopolitan Restaurant, serving as a location for lectures and art exhibits, including the upcoming Southern Utah Watercolor Society show.

One of Anderson’s contributions, a large bronze maquette of a Wells Fargo stagecoach, resides in the front entryway of the museum on indefinite loan as a teaching tool for docents. He has the fond hope that he will someday finish the sculpture on a monumental scale. Another contribution, a diorama of the old town, is housed in the powder house behind the Wells Fargo building, simultaneously educating visitors and providing restoration advocates with a visual of old Main Street.

At the gateway to the short road leading from Leeds to Silver Reef lies the newly-opened Zion Artisans gallery and studio, offering a variety of classes in jewelry, silversmithing, metal work and lapidary to a growing number of local artists. A Monday afternoon finds co-owner J. Daniel Mead working at soldering a necklace. “Mostly, I’m here because I want to find people to play with,” Mead jokes. “I really enjoy what I do here, and I want people to come have fun taking a class, or creating their art.”

From across the room, Swanny Tsosie, a jewelry artist with a careful, delicate style of silversmithing, nods in agreement with Mead. Mead enjoys the proximity to Silver Reef, and the history associated with it. He is also planning to participate in next year’s Smithsonian Institute exhibit by creating commemorative rings from silver coins.

Another recent addition to the Silver Reef art community are Erric and Bobbi Wan-Kier. Artist Erric Wan-Kier specializes in large, lightweight foam sculptures while his wife, Bobbi, is an arts advocate and founder of Washington County’s Arts to Zion Studio Tour. She also was recently hired as the Silver Reef Museum’s new manager. Bobbi Wan-Kier’s talent for facilitating collaboration between cultural organizations and maximizing their marketing potential, key in the success of the Studio Tour, could well propel the unique makeup of Silver Reef into the attention of a more national audience, aided by the Smithsonian collaboration. The next chapter in Silver Reef’s history as it plays out over the next year will definitely be one to watch.

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