Visual Arts

Artist Couples

Brad Slaugh and Tracy Strauss

Maybe there’s something in the linseed oil, but artists seem to be attracted to each other. Last fall the Salt Lake Art Center curated a show around a recently-married couple from Los Angeles, and Utah has a long tradition of artist couples, from the early days when J.T. Harwood married his student Harriet Richards (featured in 15 Bytes’ February 2009 edition) to more recent couples like Denis and Bonnie Phillips. To commemorate this Valentine’s Day, we sat down with half a dozen artist couples, of a variety of ages and backgrounds, who have found rich lives together as individuals and as artists.

Brad Slaugh and Tracy Strauss, of Poor Yorick fame, first met in the parking lot of Finch Lane Gallery, where they both were submitting portfolios for a show. When Tracy rented a studio at Poor Yorick they saw each other more often and realized that they both were pursuing the same artistic style and vision (they reject the idea that either “copies” the other). It seemed logical to join their studios. They have been married almost nine years, and have a 4-year old girl, who appears to be following her parents in the pursuit of art. Brad runs Poor Yorick studios and teaches art at Salt Lake Community College, while Tracy teaches art to youngsters at three different schools in the area. They embrace their common interests.

The youngest of the couples, Nick and Erin Potter, have been married almost six years, and have a 2-year-old boy. They met in college where she was focusing on art and he was pursuing creative writing. When Erin asked Nick if he ever did drawings, he brought out his many sketchbooks from childhood. She thought they were very good and felt that their pursuits were quite compatible. They now collaborate on print-making. At present their studio is set up and struck down in the kitchen, where the printing goes on, while the drawing happens on the bedroom floor. Posters and graphic novels are a passion for both. Like Brad and Tracey, they would love to be able to pursue their art at will, but reality has Nick working full-time and Erin part-time. They are realistic about their future, feeling that financial security will come from continuing to work outside of their art pursuits.

Joe and Lee Bennion are well-respected artists with successful careers, but 35 years ago they weren’t very different from the Potters. Lee, a painter, and Joe Bennion, a potter, met in school. They came to Spring City, Utah, the day after they were married and instantly knew the area was right for them. They struggled to make a living in a small rural town by sharing a full-time job milking cows, driving a school bus, stuffing envelopes – whatever brought some income in to support their growing family (three daughters). Joe taught at Snow College for a while, until Lee encouraged him to go for what he loved (pottery) despite the financial risk. In turn, Joe has encouraged Lee in her painting, and as their family has grown and their careers progressed they have been much freer to concentrate on their art. They still maintain outside sources of income, though. Lee has developed a skin balm called “Mom’s Stuff” and Joe guides river tours. They are quick to say that they don’t recommend emulating their path unless you are willing to live below poverty level for quite a while.

Another way to put that is, “don’t quit your day job,” a feeling Karl Pace and Martha Klein, who have been married 10 years, share. They met in college, when both were majoring in English, but their paths separated soon after. After each had divorced, from non-artist spouses, they reconnected. For 11 years they spent the summers travelling the Art Festival circuit together. They enjoyed it immensely. They loved travelling and meeting and talking with the people who bought their pieces. Usually both were accepted into the same festivals, and they made sure their booths were next to each other. Sales were good. They gained a lot of exposure. They feel that it was a good alternative to being committed to a gallery. They recently gave up the hectic and tiring summers on the road, but continue to make a lot of art. Karl has a studio at Poor Yorick where he creates prints, paintings and 3-D works. Using her love for Japanese textiles and her interest in figurative works, Martha creates prints at home: “It’s small, but it’s got million-dollar light in there.” They would love to have the Bennion’s current lifestyle, but acknowledge the need for financial security. Karl works at a market research agency in Salt Lake City, and Martha teaches English at the University of Utah.

Cassandria and John Parsons also met in college, in Earl Jones’ modern painting class. For Cassandria it was destiny. Though born thousands of miles apart, she and John were born on the same day, same year, and probably the same time. Both work full-time, she as an assistant to an interior designer and he as an X-ray technician in Salt Lake City. They go down to Spring City on the weekends, where they have a second home with a studio for each of them. His is unglamorous by his own admission – it’s in their basement where he creates his ceramic pieces. Hers was especially built atop the garage. Both enjoy painting and ceramics, so their studio-use crosses over, but her primary medium is painting, his is ceramics. They hope to retire in a couple of years and move to Spring City permanently so they can create art whenever the mood strikes.

In Salt Lake City, Mark Knudsen and Leslie Thomas have reached the point the Parsons look forward to. The couple married 10 years ago, the second time for each, and are now retired (he was an illustrator for the Salt Lake Tribune and she was a computer engineer). Meeting Mark spurred Leslie to take up painting again after a long lull and at the beginning of their relationship they painted at Mark’s home. Leslie still considers Mark her teacher (though with his encouragement she has also studied with Paul Davis, David Dornan and Susan Gallacher) and they now spend most of their time in their shared spacious studio at King’s Cottage Gallery. They put in six or more hours of work a day, and have taken up yoga as way to stretch their bodies and enhance their focus. Both paint landscapes, he in acrylics, she in oil, and are very glad that they share the same passion for Utah’s terrain. The same subject matter doesn’t mean their paintings are alike – Mark paints dry landscapes and accentuates horizontal formats, while Leslie works in more traditional dimensions and exploits the juicier nature of oil paint.

All the couples agree that art actually seems to be the cement that held the relationship together, through bad times and good. Karl Pace and Martha Klein told us that they had to learn how “to cooperate and collaborate – it’s all interwoven to make our relationship very very successful.” The artists who had been married before to non-artists say that the union with another artist is beneficial for the relationship. That’s easy to understand: a non-artist partner who is primary provider for the family could view studio expenses and art supplies as unnecessary and wasteful. Jealousy might come into play over how much time the artist partner spends away from family, pursuing his/her creativity. The non-artist might not understand the actual art.

Shared interest is not all it takes to make the relationships work, though. Another form of jealousy, rivalry, could wreck an artistic relationship. Which is why these couples point out that it is important that they believe in each other’s work. Each of the partners seemed to be as eager to draw attention to the other’s work as to their own. Mark Knudsen says of Leslie’s work, “[Her] successes are music to me.” Some acknowledged that it was harder to be that noble early on but that, as Erin Potter puts it …”You just have to deal with it and get over [the jealousy] fast.”

Pursuing the same profession means a lot of together time, not just the weeknights and weekends most couples share. Mark and Leslie spend their days working in the same studio and their evenings discussing art. They are so used to being together that they are lonely when apart. But Leslie says she’s not sure their arrangement would work for younger couples. “It seems to me that sharing a studio and that degree of intimacy could be a kind of a burden on a younger relationship,” she says, and Mark refers to a young artist couple they know who, while in love with each other, can’t share a studio. Too much squabbling over little things, like what music to play. If Joe and Lee Bennion have separate studios it’s because their mediums, not their personalities, are incompatible. There’s too much dust in the pottery endeavour, Joe explains. They do stop by each other’s studios often to check each others’ progress. Cassandria and John know about that, too, but since each also works in the other’s principal medium John will come and paint in her studio, and she will do some ceramic work in his workspace. Due to the collaborative nature of Erin and Nick’s work they share the workspace at home, but understand when the other needs to work alone. Karl Pace and Martha Klein have very fond memories of the time they spent collaborating in a space they shared with encaustic artist Jeff Juhlin years ago. “We’d go down there on weekends and work like crazy, take a break late Sunday to eat and maybe have some beers, then we’d come back and have to clean up the space for Jeff to use during the week.”

No matter the age, level of success or of income, joint or separate studios, former marriages or not, for all the couples a shared love of art was essential. In general, any friction in relationships was always reflected upon philosophically in our conversations. Each couple acknowledged that when disagreeing with the other person’s critique of their work, or disagreeing on what other artists’ work to have in their home, what music to play while working, what the next step should be in a collaborative work, at some point, usually pretty early in the relationship, stepping back and reminding themselves of their respect for the other person both as a human being and an artist is essential. Compromise and cooperation also help. Dealing with the negatives and moving on, acknowledging that these are important facets of the relationship’s dialogue, is crucial.

Sharing a passion for art is no magic solution to the difficulties of a relationship and there are probably some divorced artist couples out there. But since our list of artist couples could have been doubled or even tripled with little brainstorming it’s likely that they are outnumbered by the successful unions.

Categories: Visual Arts

3 replies »

  1. Does the guy-gal uniformity of the love couple artists strike anyone as a bit too Utahn? Are there really no gal-gal or guy-guy artist couples?

    – Peter Briggs

  2. A couple of items for consideration:
    1) Statistically speaking you wouldn’t expect to find a same-sex couple in a sampling of six.
    2) Carol reached out to interview some same-sex couples but didn’t hear anything back.

    – Shawn Rossiter

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