Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Stephen Goldsmith: The Ontolotor of Bonneville Basin

Stephen Goldsmith in Salt Lake City, 2014. Photo by Zoe Rodriguez.

“What—exactly—are you?” I ask Stephen Goldsmith as we walk through City Creek Park, past an elegant little flume that Goldsmith created when he was involved in the redesign of the park back in the ‘90s.

Making sense of Stephen Goldsmith’s resume could be a daunting task for someone trying to pin down who he is or what he does exactly. His career doesn’t fall into any of the categories that any other artist’s might. Even the word “artist” feels small in the context of the work he has done. “I like to create,” he says. “And the tools and materials change, but the creative process stays the same.”

Over the years, Goldsmith has asked himself how he would describe what he does. His answer is a word he had to assemble from scratch to describe his work—“ontoloture.” Combining “ontology” with the suffix for action or process — “-ure” — it’s the creative discipline, he explains, “related to one’s sense of existence and being.” What does the career of the ontolotor look like? Kind of like water. Powerful, transformative, and always in motion.

Salt Lake is dotted with Goldsmith’s sculptures, large-scale environmental works and water features, including installations at City Creek, Liberty Park, Salt Lake Community College, and Gallivan Plaza. While he wasn’t formally schooled as an architect or city planner, he’s had an important role in shaping Salt Lake City. He’s perhaps best known around town as the founder of Artspace, which started back in 1980 with the Pierpont Project, long the city’s nexus for galleries and nonprofit organizations, as well as live/work spaces for artists. He served as director of Artspace for 20 years, developing out The Rubber Company, The Bridge Projects, and City Center while at the helm.

After Artspace, Goldsmith served under Mayor Rocky Anderson as Planning Director for Salt Lake City, where he worked to foster an ethical, green, pedestrian urban ecology. He’s now an Associate Professor with the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Utah and serves as the Director of the Center for the Living City.

Words like “architect,” “developer,” and “artist” end up being problematic. “All of these labels really get in the way of the creative imagination,” Goldsmith says. He says that it’s easy when you get caught up in the labels to not venture outside of them. A sculptor might feel reluctant to venture into neighborhood transformation, for example.

Sculpture was where Goldsmith started. He began making art when he was a kid. Furniture mostly, at first, and then sculpture. “One of the first pieces of big sculpture that I ever made—which my mother and father still own,” Goldsmith says, “was the earth. It was a hammered copper globe that took me weeks and weeks and weeks to form.” He was 16, made it by hand, and though of course he didn’t think of it that way at the time, it was almost like a model for the projects he would be engaged in further on in his career. “Here I am, you know, 44 years later,” Goldsmith says, “working on the earth.”

Goldsmith grew up in Utah, and after spending a bit of time with him, it feels like the only place he could have possibly grown up. This is a person deeply rooted in Utah culture and ecology. If you ask him to meet for an interview in his natural habitat, you might think you’re speaking metaphorically, expecting to meet in his office, or studio, but instead you find yourself walking up City Creek Canyon chatting over the sound of the water rushing by.

“This ecotone between the built and natural environment has so much a role in my being here today,” Goldsmith says. “Because I never expected to be back here after high school again. I had such bitterness about my life here, growing up here. Not that I didn’t have great times as well, but I’d had enough of Zion.”

He describes himself as a fourth-generation outsider. His family came to Utah at the turn of the 20th Century from Ukraine to escape the Czar. “I come from a family of poultry farmers in Nephi, Utah, who gradually migrated north, and then had a very prominent role in businesses and cultural and social roles on Main Street. So, I’m from here. I’m definitely from here.” But as for staying here, that wasn’t the original plan. He came home briefly, after graduating from college, for his sister’s high school graduation. He intended for it to be just a weekend visit. But while he was here, he went on some hikes and realized that the landscape of the Bonneville Basin was home. “I’d taken some walks up City Creek,” he says, “and I realized I had sagebrush in my blood. I’m here because I have sagebrush in my blood. I have such a love of the geography.”

And once he committed to Salt Lake, his work kept widening to embrace more and more of Utah. His career is interwoven with the aesthetics of the natural, cultural, political, and ecological landscape of Salt Lake City. Perhaps because of his love of the place, there’s also a kind of fierce kindness to Stephen Goldsmith. Maybe fierce isn’t the right word, maybe it would be more accurate to say something like steadfast commitment, unyielding devotion to his ideals, or an almost spiritual calling to protect the landscape and shape it in a way that’s natural and organic for the land and all of its inhabitants.

When he tells stories of working on projects, you get a sense of how commitment and generosity dovetail in his work. Take the City Creek project as an example again. Prior to the project, City Creek, which connects with the Jordan River, flowed underground after Memory Grove. “Back at the turn of the 19th Century, [the city planners] decided to channelize it, to put it in pipes underneath the ground. Partly because it was being polluted, partly because they thought it was a health hazard,” Goldsmith explains. There had been a movement to daylight the creek since the 1960s. Thirty-five years later, in 1994-95, Goldsmith was chosen to be involved in the redesign of City Creek Park—which would bring up a half-mile of creek connecting Memory Grove and the upper wilderness of City Creek Canyon with the Salt Lake business district through a new urban park.

That elegant flume we walk next to was the result of Goldsmith working to accommodate the neighbors’ concerns. Strangely, many of the residents of the historic neighborhood where City Creek Park now exists were resistant to the project at first. They didn’t want the stretch of water between Ottinger Hall and Memory Grove to go in. They were nervous about having running water flowing through the neighborhood, they thought it would be noisy, they worried that a creek would bring loiterers into their front yards, and they resisted the change, and, perhaps most importantly, resisted having the project imposed on them by the city.

“Because of our deep belief in community-based and participatory processes,” Goldsmith says, “we got the neighbors involved in the design process as quickly as we could.” For the planning meetings, he says, “I would put together models of the ideas with blank clay, and I would say, ‘This is sort of what we’re thinking, how do you feel about this, how do you feel about that?’” And in that way, by involving the residents, they not only got the neighbors on board, they experienced a synergy in their design process. “If we really learn how to listen, and we let empathy be the guide for the kind of design interventions that we make, we can come up with some pretty good things,” Goldsmith says. The neighbors loved the solution of the flume, and for visitors to the park, it’s an unexpected treat.

After Ottinger Hall, the creek disappears under the road and then surfaces again on the other side, where it flows through a pebble-studded concrete channel. It’s a marvel that a city would want to bury their creeks underground. “We have done this to so many of our creeks,” he says. “And I’ve been working with students now, for many, many years on what I refer to as the Seven Canyons Trust. It’s a hundred-year project to daylight all of the creeks from here in the Salt Lake Valley down to the Jordan River and create these beautiful riparian zones that would be pedestrian zones, bicycle zones, maybe have a trolley as well. But they would run in all seven of the canyons—not up the canyon, necessarily, but from the Jordan River to those spots so you have these beautiful ribbons of green. With birds and the water.” They would be places that celebrate the history and ecology of the place. Goldsmith’s fountain at Liberty Park, the Seven Canyons Fountain, comes to mind— it’s a small model of this vision, where kids can splash in the water flowing from the miniature canyons of the Wasatch Front.

Recently, Goldsmith’s work has been not so much the building of physical structures, but in working with the next generation of planners and city builders. He says teaching has been his main creative practice lately; and that it has been some of the richest work he has engaged in. And, of course, he’s helping to re-shape the structures in the institution. “One of the things that we just accomplished with some of my supportive colleagues at the university was changing the urban planning undergraduate degree to ‘Urban Ecology.’”

We walk next to the creek that he brought above ground, chatting over the sound of the water rushing by, stepping over tiles in the path that read “pika,” or “goshawk,” or “yellow bellied sapsucker.” Goldsmith put them there. “There are a hundred and forty-six different species that exist in this nature preserve area,” he says, “so we just brought many of them up so that kids could do rubbings, so that they could discover that they share this space with many other creatures.”

“You know, cities are for people-—they’re not about the buildings, it’s about the people,” Goldsmith says. “And about the birds,” he adds quickly, “And about the other life forms that they contain. If we can create places that celebrate life and are conducive to life, we’re probably going to make much better decisions as a species. When we’re repressed, and when we’re in places that are not conducive to life, it seems we do all kinds of negative things. We can damage them, we litter, we don’t take care of our home – our home can be the place where we literally live, but this is my home.” His gesture takes in City Creek Canyon, the valley beyond, the planet.

Nowadays – it occurs to me – Stephen Goldsmith’s artwork is primarily culture – helping culture to flow in a way that is natural and aesthetically pleasing. Not unlike the work he’s done with water. The structures he builds for culture to flow through are less tangible, but the impact is profound. For a person who has done so much to shape the city, you can find very few actual marks that bear the artist’s signature. Instead, there is an openness, a generous environment to move into, to feel natural in, spaces that celebrate their inhabitants rather than their creator.

In the heart of Salt Lake City, the path and the creek wind through a grassy park filled with giant sycamores and stands of birches. Toward State Street the creek opens up, becomes pond-like, with little islands. Benches and grassy hills surround the water. Lovers lay on the lawn gazing at the sky, the trees. Across the path a big covey of quail bobble and peck under a blue spruce. Beyond that, the creek slips under another bridge, emerges briefly on the other side, and then disappears into the city.


This article originally appeared in the Artists of Utah publication Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists, published in 2014.

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