Art majors may start out thinking they just want to learn how to make art. When they study with Kim Martinez, they learn a lot more: how to work collaboratively, how to build community, how to secure grant money, and how to invest their art with meaning.
Within the first three years after she joined the faculty at the University of Utah in 2001, Martinez had already begun to stretch the campus boundaries to embrace the whole metropolitan area. First in the city of South Salt Lake, and later with schools, businesses, hospitals, and, most recently, Murray City, she has formed collaborative partnerships to bring art and art students into public places.
You can feel her excitement as she describes the process for producing nine big murals for Murray City schools in 2018. She and students from her murals class at the U of U worked with schoolchildren to design the murals. “We met with fifth- and sixth-graders to develop drawings,” she explains. “We gave them painting prompts: ‘What’s your favorite thing in school?’ ‘Where do you go for safety?’ ‘What do you like to do?’” She and her college students then took these drawings and put them together, adding historical information requested by the city, including the old brick foundry and the big Indian head sculpture in Murray Park. Once the designs were approved by the city and the schools, Martinez and her team set up a painting studio in the historic Murray Mansion ballroom and invited Murray Junior and Senior High School students to paint alongside the college students.
Lori Edmunds, cultural arts manager for Murray City, was impressed with the way Martinez worked with students all the way from kindergarten to graduate school. “She was able to adjust emotionally with them and was able to talk to them on their level. That was really impressive,” she says. The nine murals, all under the theme “We Are Murray,” are connected by a purple path that runs through each. Edmunds says they wanted each mural to depict what is unique about each school, while showing the students, “We’re all connected.”
In addition to helping build community between the University and mural sponsors or collaborators, these projects help students feel like a community among themselves. “We are a commuter school, but I found that students can graduate and not have one friend,” Martinez says. “They get in their cars [after class] and go home.” She understands they are busy, but working in teams to design and create murals provides a space for them to get to know each other and share stories.
The Salt Lake City native started at the U herself as a biology major. To help pay her way, she worked for an ad agency, learning ad illustration on the job. The agency worked a lot with inventors and product developers. “Someone would tell me something they were inventing,” says Martinez, “and I could draw it for them.” This led to designing luggage, sportswear, and other products, including gloves and luggage for the Winter Olympics. These skills came in handy in other ways: as a student with not a lot of money to spare, Martinez managed to convince a furniture store to trade a sofa for her design skills. Though she was doing well as an artist without a degree, she finally decided she wanted to be a painter. She graduated from the U as an art major in 1998.
Martinez’s interest in community-based art emerged in college. She decided to pursue an MFA degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago because she believed it would give her the credentials and credibility she might need when seeking partnerships with government and private organizations. But she still didn’t know exactly what direction this might take her until one day she thought, “I paint big, so I can paint murals.”
Two years after starting as a professor at the University of Utah, Martinez taught her first murals class. She had developed a working relationship with Tim Williams, the Parks and Recreation director for South Salt Lake. Driving around the area, she realized the city was about 70 percent rental units, a “pink ghetto” of single moms. She and Williams thought, “Let’s make murals and make this a community for art. We would drive around in my car and stop at businesses and ask them if they’d let us paint on their buildings,” recalls Martinez. They obtained matching grants from the Utah Transportation Authority (UTA) to fund their project.
Martinez continued to work with South Salt Lake for about 10 years, and then the city took over and started to do its own things. “That’s exactly what my role should be,” she says with satisfaction: a visionary and a catalyst. Today South Salt Lake has a vibrant “Art Factory” and a variety of community-based art projects, much like the vision that began with Martinez and Williams 15 years ago. Travel its streets for very long and you’ll likely run into a mural project she directed, like the magical carousel mural on the side of the Bonwood Bowl or the “Step Into Art” mural near 2700 South where you are invited to step inside a painting by famous artists like Whistler or Munch. Martinez’s mural classes have painted on buildings, in Primary Children’s Hospital, the VOA Youth Resource Center, Esperanza School in West Valley City, and on many other interior and exterior walls all over town. “Wherever we go, we want to build relationships,” says Martinez.
Building relationships is also a big component of a 3-year-old landscape painting residency Martinez leads in Montana each summer. The University’s Humanities Department maintains the Taft-Nicholson Environmental Humanities Education Center in Centennial Valley, a compound that includes living quarters for staff, visitors, and artists-in-residence. Accessed by a 15-mile gravel road that Martinez warns can blow a tire, the property offers students magnificent views for painting, along with moose, bears, egrets, and trumpeter swans. Enrollment in the summer course includes room and board, as well as transportation, at reduced costs, thanks to a generous donor. During their week there, students explore, paint, and attend lectures by environmentalists, astronomers, geologists and others. When they return to Salt Lake City, students create a larger studio painting with references from the experience and learn how to curate an exhibit of the work they produced in Montana for the U of U’s Gittins Gallery.
Martinez admits, “I don’t practice a lot of plein air painting, but I love the process. Some people like to go fishing. I’d rather go painting and see if I can catch something.” Kendyl Schofield had never painted outdoors before signing up for the residency. “It’s so different than painting in the studio,” she says. “Kim was such a great teacher. She’s extremely knowledgeable and can give you all the technical information, but she wants you to really experience where you are, bugs and all.” Schofield has continued to do plein air painting and would sign up for the residency again in a heartbeat if she could. “That’s part of what I’m trying to share with students,” says Martinez. “The love of making things. I’d rather go sit in nature for 10 hours and make a painting; that’s who I am as an artist. I’m definitely a romanticist.”
Martinez didn’t always know she wanted to teach, but teaching seemed a good place to start after leaving graduate school with student loan debt to pay. Today she can’t find the lines between teaching, research/art making, and community service. “They’re all combined,” she says. “I don’t really know which is more important — teaching or studio practice. For me, in my brain, they blend. I’m really invested in my teaching; it’s such a creative process. How do I keep students invested and want to keep going? Because art can be really frustrating,” she says. The elimination of art in high school curriculum has made teaching art at the college level more challenging. “Some of the people coming into the department now may not have had an art class.” Furthermore, cursive writing is no longer taught. “The hand-eye coordination is vulnerable,” she observes. “They have good skills in other ways, but their eye-hand coordination is different, so we have to work more on that with them.” Schofield describes Martinez as “invested” in her students. When she signed up for Martinez’s drawing class, she was warned by other students that Martinez “could be very intense.” Don’t take her class if you can’t handle a lot of homework, they advised. But, says Schofield, “I’ve never had another professor who cares as much as she does.”
Though teaching and administrative duties keep Martinez very busy, she finds time to do her own painting. She works in series and each series may take as long as five years to research, develop and complete. Currently, she is working on one she calls “Tantalus,” after the figure in Greek mythology who is forced to stand in a pool of water below a fruit tree with low lying branches that are always just out of reach. Though still in the early stages, two paintings from this series already debuted in the faculty exhibit at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in the fall of 2018. “The series is a metaphor for how we deal with the land,” says Martinez. “Some people get resources and some people don’t. Seventy percent of people who live in toxic waste areas are people of color, primarily Latinas and blacks. I wanted to understand why. I wanted to feel it and have conversations.”
To research one of her paintings, based on Utah’s West Desert, Martinez drove out to areas around the Morton’s Salt Company mining operation. Though she would normally prefer getting out of the car and walking the area, the site was restricted and she was politely escorted out by guards. So, she decided to hold her camera out the car window and shoot as she went along. “The paintings are not about one particular location,” she says. “It doesn’t actually exist.” But by walking the land or taking pictures where necessary, she gets ideas and feelings. She pulls it all together in a way that makes sense to her. “The work is about me standing and being in a place and trying to feel it with my body, trying to understand it,” says Martinez. “Just like plein air painting, there’s something different that happens when you do that.”
Another series of paintings, “7 Steps Forward, 7 Steps Back,” focuses on migration at the southern border of the United States. In addition to reading about migration, border security, and the politics of border issues, Martinez went there. She walked the desert routes where migrants have traveled for centuries. She was turned away by border patrols with machine guns. She met with a humanitarian group attempting to help migrants through the desert. The imagery she gathered informed her paintings as well as an animated video portion of the work.
It is not easy getting into the head of an artist, to figure out how inspiration finds its way to a painting, a series of paintings, and then to exhibits, but Martinez models that for her students. They see that art making doesn’t have to stop with what they know about themselves, what Martinez calls, “belly button art.” It can also be about what they perceive about community and the world. She is part of an artist collective called “Artnauts,” which was founded in 1996 by Dr. George Rivera at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Artists in the collective use art to comment on social issues, producing exhibits for museums and galleries around the world.
Exposing students to art as social commentary empowers and equips them to develop a broader meaning and context for their own work. “Most students have an idea of something they’re critical of in the world,” Martinez says. “They’re very sensitive. They have something to say. They just don’t know how to say it. They need someone to encourage them and make them feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable. We try to work with students to give them permission to say what’s there.”
If teaching, studio work, and service are seamless in Martinez’s creative life, “Working with community is the most gratifying thing I do in my life,” she says. And she has been recognized for it over and over. In 2003, she received the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Visual Artist Award for her community involvement and contribution to the Utah Department of Corrections, Veterans Administration, Utah Hispanic Women’s Association, First Step House, and Art Access/Art Positive! In 2006, she received the University of Utah, College of Fine Arts, Faculty Excellence Award in Teaching, Research, and Service. She also has received numerous grants for community projects, including The National Endowment for the Arts “Challenge America,” through the Utah Division of Arts and Museums; the Utah Transit Authority; City of South Salt Lake; Salt Lake County; Primary Children’s Medical Center; and the State of Utah Division of the Blind and Visually Impaired. Grants have funded 19 community mural projects as well as 118 student travel scholarships.
For all the energy, caring, and creativity Kim Martinez has invested in the community and her students, the payouts are huge: public art all over town that reflects the character of the community; and a generation of students who not only know how to draw and paint, but how to connect with each other and their communities through art.
This article was originally published in Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists (Vol. II), published in 2019.
You can order a copy at http://artistsofutah.org/15Bytes/index.php/order-utahs-15/
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.