The floor of a dark room sprouts fifteen narrow white pillars, three rows of five, laid out like an orchard. Each slightly more than waist-high pedestal supports a different object; some are large and protrude into the surrounding space, balanced in defiance of gravity, while others are compact, self-contained, rooted in place. Each, as it turns out, was found during a nature hike, an activity these fragments document and bring home. Some are in their rawest form: a stone, a fragment of plant life. Others testify to human intrusion: a fragment of broken glass, wadded metal wire. Others speak of selection and arrangement: a skull on a stone, a tuft of hair in a weathered cup. All eventually speak of the human intervention that brought them here. They are lessons, lectures, illustrations, demonstrations: a teacher’s tools. They go back to Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci, who filled their notebooks with sketches of nature they drew on for inspiration and insight — like when Leonardo sketched some kittens, then turned a few of them into dragons.
The hiking trails above the Avenues in Salt Lake City are celebrated for their scenic and natural delights. More than one artist has made a habit of walking them, often starting the day, like Sandy Brunvand with her dog, on an inspirational constitutional. During his stint as an artist-in-residence (AIR) at UMOCA, educator and artist Joshua Graham made a year-long commitment to following their inspiration, but not in their footsteps. Instead, he sought out the animal paths that occasionally follow, but more often deviate from the human-made trails they intersect.
Joshua Graham has tasted the range of pedagogical technique, having studied at the Arts Students League in New York, one of those legendary schools where artists teach each other, but also more formally at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah. Anyone who reads the fine print of art will know that each school an artists attends — a word we may forget means “pays attention to” — will leave its own unique traces. Beyond those, however, the path forks, and students have traditionally been expected to leave school behind and settle into a medium, a studio, and a few places to show, all documented in a resumé.
But that’s no longer the only path, if it ever was. An artist like Graham may concentrate on the practice, rather than the commerce, of art. Artist-in-Residence programs typically offer a semester or a year in which to work without having to market the product, in exchange for which the AIRs are expected to interact with students, generously sharing one of the artist’s most precious secrets: their personal approach to making art. Graham recently received a master’s degree in fine arts and community-based art education at U of U, and now is one of their many adjuncts: the portion of the faculty that works most closely with students.
Some innate skill, “talent” by convention, has long been thought necessary for the work of the artist. It was a handy way to sort the population into those who can choose to make art and those who can’t. But the hints were always there that, just as everyone possesses the ability to appreciate art, so everyone who has the right opportunities can make it. This is the premise from which Joshua Graham works, which means that for him, part of a complete education includes the opportunity to interact with artists as well as those practiced in other fields, like math and languages. It’s not as radical an idea as it may at first sound, and after spending time in this record of a specific place, contemplating the thoughtfully chosen and arranged objects at UMOCA, viewers may not only see nature differently, but see that bone or stone or weathered tool, picked up and brought home from a hike or vacation, as something they have in common with Leonardo and Aristotle.
Joshua Graham: Walking in Place, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through May 21.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.