Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Mary P. and P. Kent Fairbanks Bring Sanpete County to Light in Capitol Exhibit

Mary Pickett Fairbanks, “Nathalie’s House”

Brigham Young was a visionary and entrepreneur who crossed mountains and found dreams on the other side. His most celebrated find is well known, but not everyone knows about what followed: the opening of the hidden valley that came to be known as Sanpete County. Located at the geographic center of Utah, this Shangri-la, isolated between the bulk of the Rocky Mountains and the narrow Wasatch Front, promised to most perfectly fulfill the dream of Zion, and Brigham, as his followers knew him, built what may have been his dream retreat there, a home just down the street from one of the earliest temples.

The Utopian nature of this undertaking can still be seen, revealed by the large, square blocks, each intended to be a complete farm, the grand homes built on some of the facing corners, and the wide boulevards that were meant to permit a wagon and team to turn around gracefully. These relicts survive largely because the dream did not. What was left, in addition to Young’s home and the Temple, were a splendid Tabernacle and the surrounding mountains and forests, wild and scenic places that charm visitors with their easy access. And then there’s Snow College, which continues to inspire some of those incomers to stay and put down roots. Two of them were Mary P. and P. Kent Fairbanks, whose interlocking dreams came true. As she tells it:

My husband Kent and I acquired a derelict Victorian farmhouse on a whim while studying at Snow College. Kent — the architect — planned to save the little gem’s life and give it another hundred years. I held on to my life-long dreams of having a walled secret garden, a tree house, an orchard, and a barn with a studio on top. All of those plans and dreams were realized!

Mary Pickett Fairbanks, “Sanpete Rocket”

There is, of course, far more to their story, some of which they recount in the joint statement appended to their current show on the fourth floor of the State Capitol. But it’s sufficient here to say that each brings genuine aesthetic feelings to their artistic pursuits — her painting and his photography — and that in 15 paintings and 30 photos they present a view of Sanpete County that should kindle the interest of those who don’t know it and warm the memories of those who do.

Mary Pickett Fairbanks credits her painting to a lifelong interest in daylight, or as she says:

I am thrilled and fascinated by sunbeams. The way the light hits anything is everything to me. A field that looks a bit dry and dreary can be transformed in seconds by shafts of light hitting a crop and turning it to gold, or light filtering through mist, making the mundane mysterious and subtly intriguing. Sheep grazing in a field are more interesting when highlights give them some zing until shadows ground them.

Mary Pickett Fairbanks, “Clouds over Main Street”

In fact, her two large canvases have in common that, while they are titled after what was on the ground where she painted them, “Clouds Over Main Street” and “Very Top Mile Cloud” show only the ecstasy of the skies above. In others works, though, she covers a wide range of settings and interests that match those of her husband. Animals, both agricultural stock and wild birds, appear frequently, as do tractors, bales of hay, and the sort of charming homesteads that drew her to this geographical subject matter to begin with.

One of P. Kent Fairbanks’ early tasks, as an architectural student, was to document historic Utah buildings for the Utah Heritage Foundation and the National Parks Service’s Historic American Building Survey. He subsequently found that:

As a practicing architect for 45 years, I have gained an appreciation for texture, color, lines and forms in art and photography. In a way, many of my photos are “photopaintings” created not to document reality but to express feelings. A successful “photopainting” should allow personal and emotional interpretation of the subject being photographed and the unique beauty and qualities they possess.

P. Kent Fairbanks, “Early Winter, Fairview Canyon”

P. Kent Fairbanks, “Sanpete Farm”

In keeping with this thoughtful approach, both employ titles that document their subjects in a way that reveals their depth and range. These include places (“Pigeon Hollow,” “Spring Lake”), Seasons (“Winter in Indianola,” “Fall in New Canyon”), Subjects (“Farm West of Ephraim in Fall,” “Lone Pine, Aspens”), and events (“Sheep Storm West of Moroni,” “Left Hand Fork”). Both artists combine a documentary quality undoubtedly anchored in their love of place with a sensitivity to environmental mood than cat only be gained by long dwelling in a place. Seeing their work, which conveniently relocates these sights and scenes to the Capitol, does what art can do, which is to abolish time and distance. It takes a couple of hours (each way) to drive to Sanpete County, but it would take a lifetime there to get to know all its moods and scenic virtues the Fairbanks have brought to light.

P. Kent Fairbanks, “Sheep Storm West of Moroni”

Sanpete County in Paintings and Photographs: An Exhibition by Mary P. Fairbanks & P. Kent Fairbanks, Utah State Capitol (4th Floor), through Jan. 5.

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