Anna Campbell Bliss: Arc of Light

Some countries experience a brain drain. In the U.S. it’s more a brain redistribution. States like Utah lose their smartest children to the pull of either coast. But through our colleges (and sometimes our slopes), we adopt bright minds reared elsewhere. It was a chairmanship at the University of Utah’s architecture department that brought Robert Bliss, a student of Black Mountain College and MIT, to the Rocky Mountains. His wife, Anna Campbell Bliss, a student of Gyorgy Kepes and Wellesley graduate (who later studied at Harvard and MIT), came along, and together the pair brought the genes of the Bauhaus and modernism to Utah.

Anna, who trained and worked as an architect but eventually became best known for her artistic work, is the subject of a new documentary premiering this week at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. Directed by Cid Collins Walker, a Utah native who now lives in the D.C. area, Arc of Light examines the artist’s biography and artistic pursuits, from her early studies of modernism in the Ivy League to large-scale artistic commissions here in Utah.

A spoiler alert: No, I won’t ruin a surprise ending (that would be Bliss’s battle with blindness, but the film’s promo materials make no secret about it). Rather, I must warn you not to judge the film by its first five minutes. The narration is by itself acceptable, if only barely (it feels too excited and breathy for the measured pacing of the film’s commentary and visuals). Combined in those first five minutes with a score full of tinkling pianos and fluttery woodwinds that seems wholly inappropriate for the story of an interdisciplinary pioneer in the fields of art and technology, it is enough to scare off even an enthusiastic viewer. It did the first writer to whom I offered the DVD for review.

Thankfully, whenever possible Walker lets Bliss and the film’s other subjects do the talking, and as the narrative arc moves from biography to artistic commentary the narration and score fade in importance. In addition to footage of Anna and Robert Bliss, Walker includes commentary by Ric Collier, former director of the Salt Lake Art Center, and Stanley and Judy Hallett, friends and colleagues of the artist who live and work in the D.C. area. Regrettably, more was not done with friends and colleagues in Utah who have known the artist and watched her work for the past fifty years.

During that span Bliss has been the recipient of some of the most prestigious public art commissions in Utah. Her multi-disciplinary interests and experiments with technology have made her a natural fit for projects like Extended Vision, now a permanent installation at the Cowles Mathematics building at the University of Utah, and Windows, at the Utah State Capitol. The film is an insightful examination of the inventive artistic mind that created those works, and a study in the migration of ideas, from Weimer to Salt Lake City.

*corrected since original post

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  1. The correct spelling of the prestigious college that Anna attended is Wellesley, not Wellesly and the above caption is incorrect, as well. Anna is not “in her nineties”, she is 86. While we appreciated receiving this review, we stand by the decisions made in the film regarding our narrator and composer. They are both new artists working very hard for creative solutions in their respective fields. We look most forward to all of our tremendous supporters having the express opportunity to see it. Very truly yours, Cid Collins Walker, Executive Producer & Director, ARC OF LIGHT: A Portrait of Anna Campbell Bliss

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