It’s not that Steven Fawson has been gone. He’s been making art ever since graduating from the painting and drawing program at the University of Utah in 1977. He paints commissions. He enters group shows. But his current exhibition in the fourth floor gallery at the Main Salt Lake City Library is his first major exhibition in 17 years.
Filling two gallery walls are ten 30 x 30-inch portraits of his artist friends, those he sat in with at Alvin Gittins’ classes at the U, and those he has met since. All are about his age, and, despite their varied life experiences, they’re all still making art. Because of Fawson’s accumulated memories and knowledge of these friends, he is able to include personal symbols, or “inside jokes” in some cases, that make these paintings mysterious and intriguing even for viewers who don’t get the symbols.
Though he would normally ask a subject to sit for at least 10 sittings for a commissioned portrait, Fawson worked from photographs for this series. He took five or more shots of each person in their personal workspace, studio, or office. Then he exercised his artistic freedom to change the background to include the symbol or narrative that personalizes the painting even more than the captured likeness.
His best college buddy, John Erickson, now an art professor at the U, was going through the angst of divorce when Fawson photographed him. A somber expression suggests part of the story, while a string with a loose knot dangling from the top left side of the painting tells the rest.
Tim Tollman is painted looking into the distance as a blue ribbon unfurls out of the picture plane. With stormy clouds behind him, his eyes are bright and hopeful. Fawson says this painting “had more reincarnations than a Hindu with bad karma.”
Howard Brough is pictured sitting in a desk chair with a shadow falling over most of his head and chest. Fawson explains that his friend had just recovered from a stroke. When he sat for his photograph and the shadow appeared, it was just the right symbol.
Sam Wilson, also a professor at the U, was photographed in his prop-filled studio. Yet Fawson painted him with a plain, dark background and chose to ignore the “Hawaii” on the chest of his sweatshirt. Instead, he removed the Nike swoosh from it’s usual spot on the sweatshirt and “taped” it on the right of Wilson’s chest with a piece of masking tape. Those who know Wilson’s art will recognize the allusion to his favorite trompe l’oeil effect.
That Fawson studied with Gittins, whose portrait paintings hang all over the University of Utah campus, should come as no surprise. Fawson stayed in school a couple of extra years just to take more classes with Gittins. It shows in Fawson’s painterly, yet realistic, style and beautiful skin tones and shadows.
That this comeback exhibition is at the Main Salt Lake City Library is appropriate. Fawson worked for 30 years in the art collection area of the library, retiring just five years ago. At first he worked just 20 hours a week, in the evening hours, so that he could paint all day in studio in the Guthrie Bicycle building. Then, as his family grew to include three children, he increased his hours to full-time. His portrait of his children hangs just outside the fourth floor gallery, making the circle of friends, family, and work complete.After So Many Years, works by Steve Fawson, is at the Gallery at Library Square through March 9.
Sue Martin holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.