Nathan Florence is a man open to options. Florence, whose work was on display at David Ericson Fine Art during the month of December, is a Utah native who studied art in Philadelphia and spent time traveling in Europe before returning to his home state to pursue his career in art. He lives in the Ninth and Ninth area of Salt Lake with his wife and two children and teaches art at the Waterford School in Sandy. He is a dedicated artist who has worked hard and steady at his craft, pursuing his individual vision, a personal style of metaphorical painting; but he has always been open to the possibilities of chance, to multiple interpretations in his work and to accepting Plan B, C or even D in his life.
Florence grew up in the Cottonwood Area of Salt Lake, and though he always enjoyed art, he never considered the visual arts an option as a career. Going to High School, the only artists he knew were his teachers, who did not have a career outside of the school. So, when he applied to colleges, he thought of going into engineering or premed. Florence chose to attend Swarthmore College, a prestigious liberal arts college in Philadelphia, and it was there that Florence’s eyes were opened and he realized he could pursue art as a serious career.
Once he left Utah, he never thought he would return. “I never thought of coming back to Utah,” he says. “I guess it’s pretty common but I thought growing up here that if you’re really successful you go somewhere else, you do something else.” In Philadelphia, Florence met his wife, Marian, a California native and Harvard graduate, who was working as a development agent for a Middle Eastern country.
After graduation, Florence and his wife stayed in Philadelphia debating what to do next. Florence met Robert Storr, a Swarthmore alumnus and then senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and solicited his advice on his career. “Get the hell out of Philadelphia,” Storr told him. “Go to LA, New York, Chicago, or San Francisco.” “So,” Florence recounts with a smile, “you know I took that advice and moved to Salt Lake City.”
Florence’s route back home was not immediate, however, or even planned. After graduation, the Florences decided they wanted to live overseas and so they applied for a number of grants and fellowships. But realizing their hopes for a subsidized trip might be a long shot, and not wanting to be stuck in Philadelphia, they came up with what Florence describes as “Plan D” — scrape together as much money as possible, travel to places where they knew someone who could help them find a place to live, and just go. Which they did, first to Ireland for seven months, then to Scandinavia and eventually to Italy.
When their travels were over, however, they were still left with the problem of deciding where to live. Both natives of the West and tired of the humidity on the East coast, they decided they needed someplace closer to home. “We figured Denver or West, but I didn’t ever think of coming back to Utah,” Florence recounts. Heading away from the humidity, the couple was driving through Utah in mid-spring, the mountains were a bright green and Marian said, “Don’t ever tell anybody this, but it’s really nice here.” “That’s the first time I considered moving here,” says Florence.
Florence seems happy in Utah, a place where he can pursue his art with integrity and without distraction. Of his choice to come to Utah, “It’s different to make it MY city, rather than your parents’ or the place you went to High School.”
Florence currently teaches art at the Waterford School and even this employment was more of a Plan D than a Plan A. He says he “stumbled into it.” After making what he describes as an “annual habit” of turning down a position at the school, Florence took a short time (3 month) position to fill in for a teacher on maternity leave. After the initial period he was offered a full time position, but he was still hesitant, undecided between what he liked and disliked about teaching. His mother, a professional teacher, worked with him on some things — changes in the curriculum, time management, classroom skills — and he eventually found that it was sort of fun. Plus, he says the school provides him with a huge studio where, when the kids aren’t around, he closes the door, cranks up the stereo and gets to work.
Some of this work was on display at David Ericson Fine Art in December. The show, “Stories of Flight,” was dominated by mid-size and large-size paintings with metaphorical content, many of which dealt with the theme of flight. In addition, a number of small to very small landscapes were included. In general, Florence describes the landscapes as studies, a means to keep his eye sharp and his technique spontaneous. He sees them as methods of learning problem solving, elements of which will enter into his larger studio paintings. These larger paintings, the focus of his work, are the figurative, symbolist work, which he realizes can be more difficult for local audiences to appreciate.
Utah audiences are well known for their affinity for the landscape. Scholars have even made the case for a regional school of art based on the landscape. Ericson, in discussing Florence’s work and the exhibition, comments on the difficulties in presenting his patrons with new experiences. “Why people like landscapes so much is we have a shared experience and so as a viewer we can see it on multiple levels which is why its so much easier for us to view regional paintings.” But with work like Florence’s he says, “You have to get people’s minds oriented towards looking for the metaphor. Otherwise they look at it and say ‘That’s a girl with her arms stretched out [referring to Florence’s painting ‘Wingspan’]. Why would someone like that?’”
“The scary thing,” Ericson says, “that happens all the time is someone comes in and they stand in front of a painting and they feel something and they hurry and run away. They don’t want to feel something.”
Florence realizes that his work may be difficult for some people to approach, but he is confident that he will find an audience. He says he has many good responses already.
He is happy for the interaction, for the conversations he has with people when they do not go running away. He enjoys hearing people’s takes on his paintings, and is happy to share with them where he’s coming from in the work, though he admits he doesn’t always have an answer for them as to where he’s going. “I think of my paintings as little chunks of a story where I’m interested in it, there are references in it, but I’m not always sure what the answers are.”
He enjoys working in a method that allows “an element of unpredictability” — a Plan D, if you will– if that is where the painting is going to go. He speaks of this in reference to “Flora,” a painting in which a young couple is kissing, an amusement park in the background. The young man comes into the painting directly from the left, as if in midair. Florence says he wasn’t really sure what the figure was or meant but he liked the formal element. But then through the process of developing the painting he realized that it referenced a work by John William Waterhouse titled “Flora and the Zephyrs.” Waterhouse may be a good road mark for entering Florence’s work, which shares a lot in common with the late nineteenth-century Symbolists. Florence’s paintings, though, are grittier and generally eschew the literary world of myth and legend found in the Symbolists, preferring figures in contemporary settings and clothes.
Florence’s paintings can require a bit of work, whether because of the art historical references or the personal ones. Florence, a father of two, often uses himself and his personal life as elements in his paintings. Life stage developments appear frequently in his work. He won a Board of Directors award at Artists of Utah’s 35 x 35 exhibition in 2002. The piece depicted his wife raising her shirt to reveal her torso. Some viewers commented that it looked pornographic, failing to look closely enough to see that what she was revealing was the scar from a cesarean section. In “Haircut,” the clippings of recently shorn hair cling to the naked shoulders and breasts of the model. In “Self-Doubt” we see the artist, a wedding band on his hand, standing in front of an easel, inspecting a wound in his own side. In “Stories of Flight” one of the most prominent images was of a young girl, arm outstretched, a wing-like form hovering above her hand (“Wingspan”). The painting is a striking metaphor for a young adolescent girl just beginning to come into her own. But as Ericson mentioned about this piece, some people do not take the time to get past the objects in the paintings and understand their essence.
Getting the correct attention at home is not the artist’s only problem. Recently Florence received attention in the press for a large portrait of the rock band U2 that he had painted as an effort to raise money for one of lead singer Bono’s causes, the One Campaign against worldwide AIDS and poverty. Florence hoped to present it to the group when they stopped in Salt Lake on their Vertigo tour. He thought maybe he could get them to sign it and thus raise its fundraising value, or at least meet the band, which he has admired for a number of years.
When a band publicist out of Canada shot down Florence’s attempts (Florence doubts the band ever heard of what he was doing) he took everything in stride. The work sold nonetheless, to a collector from Denver, who flew in to Salt Lake specifically to see the work after reading the article in the Salt Lake Tribune – proving once again that any publicity is good publicity and Plan D may sometimes work out better than Plan A.