Connie Borup paints quiet images of meditative serenity, even when everything around her is crumbling into chaos. Her newest body of work, dominated by the interplay of water with the trees, leaves and other natural elements that have characterized her paintings for many years, will be on exhibit at Phillips Gallery beginning June 12. Borup’s recent life has been beset by calamities both serious and tedious, but as this exhibit reveals she is a mature and determined artist on a quest to express her personal voice through the graceful lines she finds in nature.
Borup’s most recent works were created in a variety of studios throughout the Rockwood building in Sugarhouse. Borup, who has had a studio at Rockwood for the past nineteen years, was the first artist in the building, back when the street-level space was a furniture store and the rest were office spaces. Over the past year she ended up squatting in various vacant studios after the ceiling in her own began crumbling down around her (a result of the tear-down of the adjacent property, owned by Craig Mecham, now known as the Sugarhouse hole). After months of fleeing falling plaster and winter water gushing through what looked like open wounds in her ceiling, Borup was back in her studio this month, putting a few finishing touches on the paintings for the Phillips show. Except for the abundance of water imagery in them, you won’t find in these works any of the chaos that surrounded their creation.
Over the past two decades, Borup has continued to call forth elements of the landscape in her stylized, symbolic paintings, executing a soft tone with an acute attention to line and design. She is now one of the most sought after artists in the state — something those who knew her when she was young might be surprised to learn. Borup wasn’t “born” an artist. She never even took an art class in High School. She was raised in Kaysville, Utah where her family moved when she was five year old to be close to her father’s job at Clover Club Foods. The town is now just part of an endless series of suburbs stretching along the Wasatch Front, but in the fifties it was still a small town in a rural setting. Growing up in that atmosphere has its advantages, Borup says, but she always wanted “to get out.” Her chance came when she was seventeen and went to Koln, Germany as an exchange student. “That was such an eye opener,” she recalls. “A seventeen year old Mormon girl leaving her town and going to Germany . . .” When an art history teacher at the gymnasium in Koln introduced her to art, Borup’s life was changed. “I made a decision right then — I’m going to be an artist.”
Borup enrolled at the University of Utah, and graduated in 1968 with a major in German and a minor in Art. She returned a few years later to complete a BFA. When she left college she was doing “straightforward landscape painting” with a “Utah painterly touch.” For the next twenty years she taught Art as well as German – first at Brighton High, then Rowland Hall and the University of Utah. In the eighties, she spent time painting with LeConte Stewart, also from Kaysville; she would drive up early in the morning to paint on location with him. She continued to exhibit as a professional artist during this time. She realized a lot of her creative energy was going into teaching, and eventually scaled back her teaching schedule. Looking back now she says she wished she had stopped teaching sooner.
The turning point in Borup’s artistic career happened in the late eighties when she attended a month-long workshop at the Vermont Studio School. She had gone there to study with Wulf Kahn, a painter whose work she admired; but the person who had the decisive influence on her future was actually a color field artist named Fred Thursz. He was a “a ruthless guy” she says, “who told me my work looked like ‘lovely calendar paintings.’ It broke my heart . . . it shook me up — in a really good way.” She decided then to enroll in a graduate program.
Back in school at the University of Utah, she once again found her outlook changed by an art history professor. She claims Bob Olpin had as much influence on her work as anything she did in the studio. At the time no one in the MFA program was teaching landscape painting and it was Olpin who pointed her towards the German and Northern European symbolists that have influenced her work. Her time in Vermont had also pushed her to be more introspective when she returned to school. She wanted to “clarify [her] intentions,” asking herself why she was drawn to the landscape. The answer continues to be the driving force in her work. “I find that natural forms have the most expressive qualities. They say what I want to say.”
Borup is not a realist painter, attempting to portray or record the natural world in her paintings. Her work does not serve to mirror the landscape; the landscape serve to reflect her voice. She says that though her subject matter may change somewhat, her intention remains the same — “to celebrate the quiet and meditative aspects of nature and to seek beauty in places that might be overlooked.” Nature is a lexicon from which she can draw out a visual mantra. She wants her paintings to be a vehicle that can transport the viewer to a “meditative place.”
Borup’s process begins in the field, where she collects source material using a digital camera. She seeks elements in nature that reflect her ideas. She will even “stage them,” taking, for example, “a wonderful branch and placing it in the water.” Back in the studio Borup develops a “pretty accurate drawing” before experimenting with indirect layers of paint, laying down elements she knows will eventually disappear as the painting progresses. She works in the traditional oil painting method, from dark to light, glazing frequently. Though they are built up with multiple layers, in the end her paintings are very smooth — “I’m not including any texture . . . I want them to be really quiet and not show the action of making a painting …“
Borup says that even with her early work, with its painterly touch, she was “interested in shapes, in the design element.” Since graduate school, this emphasis on design has come to characterize her work. Her first paintings in the nineties, though more traditional landscapes, relied on strong horizontal or vertical bands – a clump of trees set against a stormy background, for instance.|1| As the years passed, the trees, now defoliated so Borup could concentrate on their structure, moved closer to the viewer. Their vertical sweep rose up and out of the picture plane.|2-3| In recent years her gaze has zoomed further in, examining individuals branches or clumps of leaves. The strict horizontals and verticals have given way to diagonals and sweeping forms that are frequently set against non-descript fields of color.|4-5|
In an exhibit of works in the fall of 2007, Borup’s gaze suddenly turned downward, focusing on the complex interplay of leaves on the ground or floating on a surface of water.|6-7| The water motif explored in these paintings has occupied her ever since, climaxing in the current show. “Interestingly enough, I looked back at earlier paintings and earlier imagery that I was interested in and water has been a theme for quite some time; for years.”
Just after the opening of her exhibit in 2007 Borup was at the Town Club celebrating with friends when she began having a terrible headache. Luckily one friend recognized what was happening – Borup was having a stroke – and called 911. She was first taken to nearby IHC, and then rushed to the University Hospital and was in surgery within two hours – something she says probably saved her life. In the immediate aftermath of what is now known in her family as “the event,” she says she was too confused to know what was really going on or to reflect on what it might mean for her future. “I was too out of it to be scared,” she says. But, “when I started the healing process I was very intent on getting back to making art.”
All the work in her show this month at Phillips Gallery has been created in the year and a half since her stroke. As these powerfully executed compositions demonstrate, the stroke has had no impact on her physical dexterity. Borup says it hasn’t dramatically altered her spiritual outlook either. “A lot of people have events like [the stroke] and say ‘It changed my life’ . . . but I was already smelling the roses. I practice Buddhism and one of our practices is to practice your death and I felt like I was pretty aware of mortality and our time here.”
That does not mean you won’t find traces of the stroke in Borup’s new paintings. Like the uneven plaster in her patched studio ceiling the evidence is subtle but present. Water is the dominant force in these works, transforming the other natural elements. In a painting like “Soft Reflections,” where red leaves glistening under a warm light appear to hover over the water’s surface, the overall effect is tranquil.|8| But in other, cooler paintings, where trees and weeds stand in pools of water,|9| a sense of threat underlies the luminous surface of the paintings: trees bend and curve, lines of reeds and their reflections verge on a state of confusion.|10| A title like “Watery Vortex” laces the otherwise placid image of a circle of floating leaves with a sense of foreboding.|11| And “Mirrored Tranquility’s” title promises a state of safe resolution, the painting itself will not let you forget that the trees depicted were once threatened to be submerged by spring runoff.|0|
Borup acknowledges that there is something new in these works, possibly “a little brokenness,” but they remain true to her overall intention to develop the meditative spirit. They are, she says, her most complex works to date. “The complexity has been an important part of them. . . organizing complexity and seeing it clearly; doing it without confusion.” If her recent life and the paintings that have resulted from it are any indication, seeing clearly in moments of chaos is one of Borup’s reigning strengths.