It’s hard to predict what thoughts and experiences will affect an artist’s work, but major life changes — birth, death, marriage, divorce — almost always surface in the work of creative individuals, whether explicitly or implicitly. One such example can be found this month at the Sweet Branch Library in Salt Lake City, where Jared Christensen’s latest exhibit of photographs has emerged out of a painful loss.
Christensen was only a couple of years out of college (a B.F.A. in photography from Westminster) when he lost his mother to cancer last year. He says experiencing the effects of the grief process have been odd. “There is no predictable scenario that will rouse feelings of sadness and separation,” he says. “Helping my father clean out and sell the house I grew up in, where she died, felt unexpectedly removed, while coming across the ticket stub from a concert she and I went to together brought me to tears.”
Artistically, Christensen has found the opportunity to deal with the grief and honor his relationship with his mother in an unlikely series of works: closeup details from Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone had been a continuous draw for Christensen’s family, and he returned there this year with his father and brother. “My mother and I shared a bond over the park that was unique within our family,” he says. “We would marvel together at the bizarre features of the landscape and linger at the hydrothermal wonders of the park long after the rest of our family had moved on.”
Approaching this world for the first time without his mother, and considering it through the lens of a maturing artist, allowed him to see the park in a new way. “There is a strange environment of landscapes within the greater landscape,” he says. “They are the minutiae that call me back to this place time and time again.”
Life-changing events like death frequently alter our focus, and we respond to details — like, say, a ticket stub — in ways that seem out of proportion to their size. These photographs concentrate our gaze in a similar way, taking what is one of the most unique landscapes in our country and ignoring its larger iconic features to concentrate on what Christensen says are “microscopic details that now speak to a macroscopic absence.”
Strange Environment: Photography by Jared William Christensen is at the Sweet Branch Library in Sat Lake City through August 15. A reception will be held Saturday, July 11, 3-5 pm.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.