Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Susan Kirby, Returned from Mexico, is Full of Surprises

“Cats and Agave,” acrylic, 24 x 24 in.

Susan Kirby loves Mexico — so much so that her last vacation there lasted six years. 

I mean, she bought a house (“a modern one”) in San Miguel de Allende, adopted two Mexican cats, Frida (smile) and Brigit, then settled in and just painted. Well, she took tango lessons and studied Spanish, too, but Kirby always has been a multi-tasker. (She paints, sews, cooks — studied in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu — and typically works a couple of jobs.)

A Salt Lake City native, she hails from artistic stock: her father was a writer, her mother an avid collector and supporter of local artists. People that hung out at her childhood home were Utah artistic royalty – those whose work you still find in area museums: Don Olsen, Lee Deffebach, Ralph Schofield. And they encouraged Kirby to paint. She has delighted local audiences with her naif work, in exhibits at the late Patrick Moore’s Sugar House space and at Phillips Gallery, as well as with murals in places like Market Street Oyster Bar and the Baci Trattoria. But she has always been struck with bouts of wanderlust, the most recent resulting in this six-year time in Mexico.

“Parroquia, Saint Michael and Heart,” acrylic, 30 x 30 in.

The artist was forced to return to Utah in January following emergency open-heart surgery in Mexico. She couldn’t breathe after a tango festival and learned that her mitral valve wasn’t pumping. (Yes, concerned readers, the Mexican cats flew back with her. One in its own ticketed seat, the other curled up beside Kirby in hers.) (Oh, and the artist is thinner than ever but doing much better now.)

The results of her south of the border sojourn will be on display in Phillips downstairs Dibble Gallery starting Friday through Oct. 14th in a show titled Viva la Vida (Long Live Life, Kirby translates) – some 35 paintings and half a dozen of the artist’s charming stuffed and beautifully outfitted Frida Kahlo dolls, all created in Mexico, are included in what we are told will be a surprising exhibition celebrating Kirby’s “full and adventurous life” and past several years residing in San Miguel de Allende.

“Mestizo,” acrylic, 20 x 24 in.

Only one painting will be from her Utah years and that depicts herself, her parents and sisters (with the family cats) in their living room of long ago.

The new paintings, while dreamy and frequently quirky in the way we so admire, are also rich in crisp detail. Kirby has clearly worked these past six years at delivering her unique stories with consistent clarity and a newly sophisticated style combined with manifest virtuosity in handling her brush. Oddly, that doesn’t detract from the simple painterly elegance of her work but rather serves to highlight the beauty found in its carefully thought-out design. These new paintings will make you stop and look — and ponder. Kirby’s work has gone through a metamorphosis; no longer primitive in any sense but theme, it is masterfully, elegantly painted.

“Cats and Agave” is a heartbreaker, it is so perfectly drawn and oozing charm. Two cats (we suspect we know who they are) look out at the viewer as they hunker down before a startlingly beautiful (and enormous) agave plant with a mountain range stretched across the background. A nearly cloudless sky adds to the drama of the desert scene.

“Tango Dancers,” acrylic, 36 x 24 in.

“Tango Dancers” is a wicked-good self-portrait of the artist in a pink-and-black leopard-skin backless frock wearing the highest of heels and longest strands of pearls dancing the tango with a hot partner in a striped black-and-white suit in front of a church (shocking!). You can feel the motion – it’s palpable.

Art this good is well worth dealing with the parking situation at Phillips to see. (200 South is torn up: see notes about parking below.)

Kirby says her heart is still in Mexico. “I left behind the Pyramids and the agave,” she explains. (And a lot of paintings, which she gave to the local library.)

But she brought back the tango. Be sure to ask her to dance at Friday’s opening. She just might surprise you.

Because Susan Kirby is full of surprises.


Susan Kirby, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, Sep. 16 – Oct. 14


Due to the road construction in front of the gallery, Phillips Gallery’s neighbors have kindly granted permission to use two nearby parking ramps:

Alsco 505 E 200 South; access their 2 level lot from 500 East

Midtown Plaza 230 S 500 East; access their multi-level parking ramp on the west side of their building, east of the gallery one driveway over.

Phillips says to ignore the Private Parking signs during Gallery Stroll from 6-9 p.m. tonight, but please respect the neighbors’ generosity by leaving by 9:15 p.m.

9 replies »

  1. What a delight, Ann, to read your story about the pleasure of living in Mexico. Did you know that cathedral’s design was inspired by a postcard of a Gothic cathedral? Once you know that, its complete difference from the baroque wonders found everywhere in Mexico suddenly leaps out. That’s my small contribution to repay you for all the wonderful stories you have shared over the years, including these current ones. I want to see this show, and will do so secure in the knowledge that I can relax and enjoy it, knowing critical justice has already been done it by my friend and colleague, and there’s nothing more needs be said.

  2. Oh, Geoff, of course there is always much more to be said, especially by a critic such as yourself. But I am glad you refrained — for the moment, anyway. You will, indeed, thoroughly enjoy this show. And the artist, too. Please introduce yourself. I am glad to know about the cathedral. One of those precious Wichert factoids.

  3. What a wonderful review of Susan’s inspired and personal art! He work is so reflective of her life and loves…from tango, to cats, to her beautiful SMA! Her signature style, with folk art inspired elements, and a palate with strong and vibrant colors and patterns, is compelling storytelling with paint and brush. Happy to have her back home!

    • Dear Diane, Thank you for your kind and concise review of my show. I am truly appreciative!! The opening went well and coincidentally coincided with Mexican Independence Day. It is great to be back home!

  4. Ann,

    Another fantastic article about one of Salt Lake’s gifted and unique artist, with a lovely background story which contributes so much to understanding her work.

    Thanks for all you do to spread the word about art in Salt Lake!


    • Hey, Tom — Susan is great, huh? Thanks for reading my words. Always appreciate a busy artist taking the time.

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