Recently, a nearly mural-sized painting appeared in the front window of the F. Weixler Gallery, on E Street in the Avenues. While it’s true that “Angels Among Us” includes five angels in white gowns, augmented by eleven doves of peace, they are visually peripheral to its more than fifty women, men, children, and one prominent babe in arms, who embrace, interlock hands and arms, grasp each others shoulders, and look with intense interest into each other’s eyes. If nothing else, they present a cumulative answer to the anomie and mutual hostility that seem to occupy so much of the earth’s surface. Fifty is also the number of paintings by the same artist, Kathleen Peterson, that fill the rooms behind this one. While the artist accepts the judgment of her public that she is primarily a religious painter, this exhibition shows that, just as religion is only a part of something much bigger, spirituality, so Peterson’s real theme is, in truth, even larger still.
“Angels Among Us” is so big it’s hard to imagine how it fit into her studio, which is in the living room of her remodeled farm house on the periphery of Spring City. If a wife and mother with a studio in her home sounds a bit like a local cliché, it should be noted that she’s effectively exploited the classic opportunities of the genre. After learning her skills at BYU, only to marry and start a family, she took advantage of her avidly chosen social role to make art on the side: watercolors, batik, whatever caught her interest became eventual parts among her skills.
Then, even as her children became independent, two things followed. She began to paint with oils, a challenging medium that she made uniquely her own, and she founded Ephraim’s Central Utah Art Center, a communal asset which would occupy the old rolling mill on Main Street and come in time to be called “the Quack,” after its initials. It was on seeing them there that her oils first impressed many in her audience. Even after she turned the Center over to a younger generation, in order to focus more fully on her own art, she continued to attend events and support lectures, to the gratitude of at least one wandering arts writer.
The turn of the millennium had found Kathleen and her husband — popular Snow College professor, sometime Dean of Humanities, and one of Utah’s prominent Humanists — Steve, known to his friends as Pete, living in Ephraim’s most architecturally significant home, a prairie-style masterpiece where most walls stopped short of the ceiling, creating a feeling that justified the reference to America’s wide open, western spaces. While it was the perfect home for Snow College’s president, which it eventually became, it wasn’t really suited to a couple with an avocation to live in the country, farm a little, and paint a lot more. Instead, their farm offers spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and countryside. Oddly, though, as inspiring as those views are, they have never been central to Kathleen’s figuratively-based art. While she does often paint the land and its creatures, it’s always with an eye to the mutually nurturing interaction of nature and people.
Two works hung together at Weixler demonstrate this. One has a theme so vital to the artist that two other paintings on exhibit here have the same subject and title: “Our Town,” possibly a nod to Thornton Wilder’s multi-media meditation on small town life. A bird’s eye view — perhaps today we should say “drone shot” — of a rural village shows its people, their domestic animals, and a healthy number of trees left standing in its midst. The other, “East Mountain View,” includes the distant mountains, a woodlot over which numerous birds fly, a rail fence, and in the foreground, a plowed field. The two images work together to argue that such elements can work together for the good of all.
Whether it’s the Holy (Nuclear) Family, or mixed couples on a park bench, just whom Peterson paints is the primary question viewers often must ask. While not unheard of, lone figures are rare. If “Gaia,” whose subject holds a crucial seedling, the foundation of a forest, in the palm of her hand, is recognized as a pair — say, life-force and life — and the various diptychs are properly considered single works, such lone figures as she shows are properly seen as emphasizing necessary connections. Her answer to the distinction attempted above, between angels and “us,” is titled “All Are Angels.”
Clues to her overall theme may be found anywhere here, but particularly in two works in the front room. “Work, Words, and Thoughts” is another of the subjects she reworks from time to time. Here a woman, her dress covered with the names of virtues and a dove perched on her head symbolizing her positive thoughts, extends her hand to offer a gift, seeds of some symbolic or real sort, to a couple facing her. Among the natural ornaments, which include pears on elaborate branches and more doves, an easily overlooked pair of branches supports all three figures. Though it resembles the “family tree” diagram from genealogy, its use here suggests more a family of humanity. Similarly, in “One Faith,” five women, their dresses seemingly made of religious symbols, embrace and dance together. Lest this seem a hopeless fantasy, though, their faces meticulously capture and express some of the anxiety that may characterize such a meeting.
A lone painting cannot truly tell a story, but it can illustrate it by depicting an iconic moment. Peterson is one of a group of artists — Sam Wilson is another, and perhaps Brian Kershisnik, and others — whose works attempt to transcend that limit by the use of a concept from the modern art of story telling. CNF, or creative nonfiction, refers to the use of fictional devices to tell true stories. These painters use scenic devices, like regularly repeated, generic locations, characters, costumes, and ornamental grounds, to create convincing vignettes of an alternate, yet recognizable world: a place viewers come to know on sight and may feel greater loyalty to than the one actually inhabited. Peterson’s art is as “contemporary” as any, by any real standard, and has at its heart a theme she began to celebrate long before its vital importance became so celebrated in its absence.
Her central concern, her subject and theme, which can be found in everything she paints, is harmony. Right now, scientists are studying our nearest relatives, the chimps and bonobos, trying to determine if humanity took a wrong evolutionary turn that prevents us from collaborating to achieve our common goals. In her art, Peterson answers Rodney King’s famous question, “Can’t we just get along,” with a resounding “Yes, we can.” And to seal the deal, she fills her panels with clues as to how it can be accomplished. Humans learn primarily from models, and here are some that might help change a viewer’s life. It’s this positive, emotional conviction that inheres in them, and is felt by willing viewers, that accounts for Kathleen Peterson’s substantial popularity and presence in so many collections and homes. At day’s end, art is not the final answer. But it’s a place to begin.
Kathleen Peterson, F. Weixler & Co., Salt Lake City, through Dec. 10