Shifting Shapes at the Ladies Literary Club

Tell people you’re going to be an artist and you’ll get a variety of reactions: enthusiasm, disappointment, skepticism, envy, apathy. One of the more surprising responses, though, will be that successful and concerned relative (generally dressed in well-pressed attire) who will suggest that if you are serious about pursuing a career as an artist you would be well advised to draw up a business plan. “A business plan for art?” you’ll ask. But how can you make a plan for the best, most inspirational part of art: chance.

Artists spend years honing a craft and developing a style. The most interesting ones, though, are always changing, embracing — even searching out — the chance encounter that will ignite a shift in their work.

Ashley Anderson and Mary Sinner met by chance. They struck up a conversation when both were at Finch Lane Gallery as part of Artists of Utah’s 35×35 exhibition waiting for a photographer from the Salt Lake Tribune to show up. That initial encounter led Anderson, a choreographer, to ask Sinner, who works in collage and installation, to collaborate with her when the Utah Heritage Foundation invited her to create a work to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Ladies Literary Club building in Salt Lake City.

Choreographers frequently employ set designers to create a visual experience that will enhance their vision for a dance, but Anderson wanted Sinner to be more than that. She invited her to create something for the space and then she would place a dance in it. In fact, it was Sinner’s own art and her initial ideas for how to use the space at the Ladies Literary Club — where, it turns out, Sinner had had her wedding reception — that inspired Anderson’s choice of dance. “I began thinking about how Mary’s work is layered.” says Anderson, “It was an inspiration to figure out how you similarly layer dance.”

And this is where that suggestion for a business plan runs into another problem: how do you put into your plan the necessary costs for research and development? Because what that proverbial question — “How long did that take you?” — misses about any one artistic piece is the number of hours spent in trial and error searching for a form and method (what a CEO would call R&D). A smart business might stick to what they’ve done before, maybe adding a few tweaks, possiblly some value-added design. A good artist, though, is always trying to reinvent herself.

A good artist also sees challenges as opportunities. To celebrate the Ladies Literary Club’s, Anderson and Sinner decided to engage the 100 year-old space — a decision that poses a number of problems. The stage is quite small, restricting the types of dances that can be set on it. And the walls provide no space to hang works on. What are a choreographer and an artist to do?

With the space itself as their common them, Anderson and Sinner worked separately, developing their own ideas, then adjusting them when they came together to make the final piece.

The “problem” of the space presented Anderson with the answer to her question of how to collage dance. Looking through her archive of works, she found two pieces that could work well together. Both works are sparse — a limited number of dancers move in unison, performing task-like movements — and neither is set to a soundtrack. One piece, choreographed for dancers rolling on the floor (because at the time she created the work Anderson had a broken leg), Anderson decided to place beneath the stage. The other would play out on the stage. Together they would become different layers of a single piece.

The space also spurred Sinner on to a unique solution. She wasn’t allowed to hang work on walls, and even if she were, the dark lighting of the performance space would mean no once could see them. Inspired by French artist Christian Boltanski, Sinner decided to project her collages rather than hang them. Working, as she often does, out of a variety of materials, she collaged cutout images onto Plexiglas, and projected them on to the walls. “It’s something really simple,” she says, “but it can have a big impact.”

Beyond a formal solution, though, Sinner’s work also gets at the history of the building. Without interpreting the idea of a literary club too literally, she began asking herself, “What does literature look like?” “What does The Grapes of Wrath look like?” she says. “I don’t know. It’s different for every person. It’s inside their head.” Searching through a variety of illustrated books, ranging over a 40-year span, she began collaging disparate elements, creating “implied narratives” that appear like the shifting images we create in our mind when we read a book. She says it’s very similar to what is happening in Anderson’s dance.

“There is no story,” Anderson says of her work. “But because of how it’s set up, someone is going to make one up.” The same is true of Sinner’s projections, which help fill the space and also suggest narrative. Layering individual elements, the pair will open up the possibilities for story without spelling out in black and white what the narrative is. “You get to choose why they are doing what they are doing,” Anderson says of her dancers.

Just days before the actual performance, the pair were able to finally access the building and begin working together directly. Basic structural elements had been established but multiple details still needed to be worked out. “It’s like working on a giant moving mural,” Sinner says, not without a hint of frustration. “You change one little thing and that shifts something else. You start one place and then everything evolves.”

Being in the space makes theoretical considerations actual logistical problems. “You have to figure out how little lighting is needed to see the projections,” Anderson says, “but how much is needed to see the dance.” Those issues, though, are just one more opportunity for research and development. “Should the curtains already be closed,” Anderson says of the windows that surround the performance hall, “or should we make that part of the piece?” She has a dancer move to the windows to try it out. Sinner moves one of the curled ducts that serves as her light projection. The process goes on and the pair of artists appear to embrace the challenges and opportunities with grace and gusto.

Categories: Dance

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