Two feisty spirits with plenty in common makes for an interesting friendship, one that can be traced back to when Claudia Sisemore was Trent Alvey’s uber-cool creative writing teacher at Hillside Junior High. Their artwork, though, has less in common, which makes for an interesting show at The Gallery at Library Square. Their colorful works hang well together, the exhibit is well worth seeing and these women are well worth meeting, if you haven’t done so already.
Each is a familiar figure in the Utah arts community, in part because of a large and much-talked-about show, Claudia Sisemore and Friends, that Alvey curated in 2012 at the Rio Gallery. It included work by other former Hillside students (like Layne Meacham) who became visual artists, and also by contemporaries of Sisemore’s like Earl Jones and the late Don Olsen.
The two women began meeting regularly after that for coffee and long talks about art. “We wanted to show somewhere together,” says Alvey. They visited the downtown library; curators there were encouraging, so they applied. “We felt like our work was compatible,” Alvey recalls. “Yeah, we think it talks to each other,” says Sisemore.
Alvey explains that the show’s title, What I did on my Summer Vacation, has many connotations. It’s a metaphor for writing: “I’ve always loved writing because of Claudia,” she says. When she arrived in Salt Lake City from Mount Pleasant in her “Davy Crockett boots with rubber fringe” in the ‘60s, Alvey didn’t fit in at school or anywhere else. Sisemore, she says, helped her “trigger a creative life, make some sense out of things.” Alvey didn’t ever want to be a writer but loved that she could write. She still does. “It’s the same creative process as painting. You don’t know where you’re going with it.” The title is “also a metaphor for your whole life as you look back, you know, what did I do on my summer vacation?” And besides, Sisemore found an essay on the topic written by the 12-year-old Trent. It’s not that she saved all her students’ essays: “It just fell out of a box of crap one day,” she told Alvey. This is how good art shows come about.
Alvey, 69, is described in 15 Bytes’ artist’s directory as creating installations combining sculpture and paintings. “Her work is interactive and investigative bringing together art and science in a new dialogue.” For this exhibition, however, Alvey is showing us What I did on my Summer Vacation. And that was learning to make monotype prints in Santa Fe with noted printmaker Michael McCabe, an acquaintance of artist Hyunmee Lee who recently moved to New Mexico. For 20 years, Alvey had a graphic design business and often prepared work for offset printing. She also saw a show of Degas monotypes a couple years ago, “and they were so loose and exciting!” So she had to do the McCabe workshop. And then decided to create monoprints for this show.
Alvey used enormous rollers to get the results she wanted and learned how difficult it was to do large, flat expanses in monotype. “Abacus” (30” x 22”) was made because she was thinking a lot about math, (so not so far from her usual artistic pursuits) and how “flexible it is.” It consists of side-by-side panels, one of ochre, one of wheat, that are not quite identical. Each has six stacks of single-bar strokes that resemble a primitive counting method. It’s quite lovely. Another large work, “Symbiosis” (30″ x 22″) was the very first she made. Two large shapes (organisms?), one sky blue, one olive green on a deep purple background striped with white are connected by five multicolored bars. It’s a rich, mysterious work. Alvey’s favorite in the show took just an hour; it is her backyard (22” x 15”) done in blue. “I think as time goes on I’ll do more like this. One color, movement, carefree.” Another work, “Opposing Forces,” is both the monoprint and its ghost image. Alvey would like to do more of these, as well, to work more in black and white. “”It allows me to focus on the form and the design, whereas if you get too much color going on . . . that’s why I’m amazed at Claudia, she’s got so much color happening and she has no trouble with it at all.”
Sisemore, 80, is a well-known filmmaker, who has recorded more than 20 essential Utah artists from LeConte Stewart to Connie Borup (as well as Utah’s premier modern dance companies) during her career. She is equally known for her Color Field and Abstract Expressionist paintings and was included in Denis Phillips’ very recent show 45, of artists who helped develop modernism in Utah. A number of works in the library exhibit date back to the ‘70s, while some are more recent and likely were painted in her large kitchen, which is where she works these days, mostly in acrylic. In fact, only one example of the oils that got her into graduate school at the U (in painting in addition to filmmaking) is included at the library: the complex “Still Life with Orange Slash,” (48” x 45”) from the ‘70s that Alvey says has an Old Master quality. Indistinct shapes in aluminum, purple, Kelly green and more float on a dark background of various hues. An orange cylinder seems to hang from a silvery thread. It’s a work of amazing depth, both in painterly and psychological terms. The unique “Tribeca,” (20” x 24”) is a canvas divided: three segments of an excellent Color Field painting divided vertically by two pieces of wood lathe that rise above the surface of the canvas to great effect. This writer has never seen anything quite like it. Nor has Alvey. A work more in keeping with the theme of the show is a recent acrylic, “Taos Evening,” that has the feel of an abstract Mexico landscape with celebratory fiesta colors at the bottom: reds, oranges, purples and green with sandy colors to the right blending into dark ocean and sky at the top. Decidedly what one would want to do on a summer vacation.
“What I did on my Summer Vacation,” Artwork by Trent Alvey and Claudia Sisemore, The Gallery at Library Square, Main Library, 4th Floor, Salt Lake City, March 3-April 13, opening reception March 3, 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m. http://www.slcpl.org/events/view/7781/