Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Water Rights and Wrongs is Focus of BDAC Plein Air Competition

Painting of a water tower by Frances Geerlings Paxton

It’s quite likely that, when Frances Geerlings Paxton set up her watercolors and acrylics in front of a dilapidated water tower and began to paint, what she primarily had in mind was to capture a bit of Utah’s romantic rural scenery, not unlike what her peer, Jeanie R. Wright, does in “Dust Bowl Barn.” Perhaps, though, Paxton wanted to make a point when she chose to memorialize this particular slice of agricultural history. That suspicion arises because, as anyone who has followed the endless circles-within-circles that comprise our current national conversation on water will have noticed, here in the Southwest the discussion always comes back to a question of water rights. “Original” water rights. While much of this nation started out with plenty of water for settlers to use, and only gradually managed to use it up and fall short, from the beginning there was never a guaranteed supply in what was, even then, largely a desert. The water tank that drew Paxton the artist the way springs and rivers drew farmers, ranchers, and homesteaders, represents the zero point, the home base, of Western history and civilization.

For eight years now, Bountiful Davis Art Center has sponsored an annual plein air competition, on a theme and with a judge chosen for that year. This year’s theme, “Dry Spell,” could hardly be more timely, seeing as how so many (but as viewers will quickly realize, not all) of the local artists have taken one or more of today’s environmental crises to heart. The chosen juror, Annie Farley, has deep roots and a thorough grounding in the region and its arts community, and has chosen a number of the works for special recognition.

Installation view of “Dry Spell” at Bountiful Davis Art Center (courtesy Bountiful Davis Art Center)

Many of the entries draw on the landscape, which in Utah might be expected almost regardless the stated theme. In this case, though, the exceptions make their points with consequent power. Louisa Lorenz submitted three botanical studies of fruit on trees: “Countless Pears,” “La Rae’s Pears,” and “Summer Peaches.” It takes some mental effort to comprehend that a lake is drying up before our eyes or a field was formerly a reservoir … not that those are in any way inadequate responses to the drought. But fruit on a tree speaks directly to a vulnerability that is absolute and palpable. Similarly, Winter Redd’s plate, titled “Kintsugi Drought,” which received an honorable mention from Farley, conjures the actual fact of environmental damage through its use of Kintsugi, a technique whereby the ragged shards of broken pottery are rejoined, typically using a gold adhesive line that calls attention to the breaks. In Redd’s case, they create a portrait of a bare tree on rough ground, a composition that centers on circular finger marks made on the potter’s wheel.

Winter Redd, “Kintsugi Drought”


Hegla Watkins, “Lost Field”

Two works that illustrate contrast within a range of artistic choices share a common theme. Trish Melander’s “Irrigated Magic, Chester Cloud Shadows,” features a town so diffuse most visitors don’t notice it, seeing only a few buildings surrounding a highway crossing. Helga Watkins, on the other hand, offers a “Lost Field” that reveals even less: a dirt track through the desert. Their shared subject is irrigation. The fragile settlements of Sanpete County, wherein lies the precise geographic center of Utah, still display the consequences and benefits of elaborate hydro culture, while the abandoned water pipes Watkins locates in land that has returned to desert suggest a possible future for many such places, should such means fail.

For the longest time, the truth about the changing climate was almost too subtle, easy to willfully overlook. In “That Arsenic Sparkle,” Trish Melander could be making a symbolic point as she contemplates a Western classic — the setting sun — with its implications of an ending. But her keen observation of that sunset shows us something more meaningful in the distant, high-altitude rain that falls, only to evaporate in mid-air without ever reaching the ground. In her “Former Wales Reservoir,” on the other hand, the sky over yet another former body of water shows not a rain cloud in sight.

Trish Melander, “That Arsenic Sparkle”

The first place award from among the works in Dry Spell goes to Samantha daSilva for a work that dispenses with subtlety or delicacy of expression. “The Reservoir” is not the only attempt to capture the cracked mud of a dry lake, but by presenting the desiccation of the soil via the scorching of her painting, she captures the way the dry ground is like the Earth’s skin.

BDAC’s Plein Air invitational is a chance for neighbors to show their work together in a supportive environment. The work is not all of the same technical caliber, not that it needs to be, but it is all demonstrative of the same love of art and of the land. Contemplating these personal visions reminds one that it’s not necessary to show a disaster in order to show that you care about it. A single homestead is vulnerable to drought, but it has always been. There are so many more threats, and here they are properly seen as part of the thread of daily life.

Samantha daSilva, “The Reservoir”

BDAC 8th Annual Plein Air Competition, Dry Spell: Climate & Drought in the American West, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, though Oct. 29.

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