Artists Revisited . . . continued from page 1
Our vacation was in Spain with my wife’s family, and a week in England with my uncle, but on the way -- in a manner of speaking -- I was taking my daughter to Venice for her first birthday. Okay, not exactly. We were actually going to stay with friends in nearby Padova, but, enroute from the Marco Polo airport, we had a convenient fifteen minute wait at the Venice bus stop; so I had just enough time to run past the trinket vendors, buy a gelato, prop my daughter along the canal, cone in hand, and snap (do you say snap with a digital camera?) a photo. Hoping, all along, that she wouldn’t fall in. (Note to travelers: I don’t think that Rick Steve mentions the fact that Venice is not child friendly. There are absolutely no rails along the canals to keep a young child from falling in. Nor, for that matter, a cellphone-talking, suit-clad local who wasn’t paying attention. Serious. Saw it myself. Fell right in. A true Italian, he never stopped talking on the phone. "Can you hear me now?" "Si.") I figured that when my daughter became a teenager and whined that we never take her anywhere (by then the 0% balance transfers that I call a business plan would have have run out), I'd show her the photo and say "Sure we do."
So, obviously, I was a busy man. I wanted to enjoy my time at the beach with my wife and daughter rather than at the internet cafés with zeros and ones. Besides that, I was burned out with 15 Bytes. Three years had worn me out.
When I returned home to the Rocky Mountains, I discovered I wasn’t the only one. We -- by which I mean the unpaid crusaders of the visual arts that create 15 bytes -- were all doing other things. One of us had finally found enough free-lance work to pay off debts and live a normal life; another was busy finally moving out of their parents' house; a third, a confirmed bachelor, had run off and got married.
Autumn’s arrival didn’t help matters. Was it a dark foreboding of post-election blues, or just the fact that no one around here gets paid? Whatever the reason, enthusiasm was low. Yeah, sure, everyone was willing to write if we wanted to do it. But, you know, whatever . . .
Via email there were some glimmers of enthusiasm from you, our readers. “When’s the next issue?” would come to us once in a while. Larry Ogan from the Santa Fe Council for the Arts wrote: “Is June 2004 your last issue or how do you find the most recent issues?” Or there was Lisa Huber from Salt Lake: “What happened to 15 Bytes? Did I get taken off your email list? I know I haven’t paid my dues in a while but . . .” (Dues, now there’s a good idea.)
Laura Durham, a faithful contributor, and, at times, default editor, reminded me I needed to do one last issue. Afterall, she had gotten me the interns who wrote the copy for the studio series (coming next issue). And I had my own nagging guilt. The same month I had published our last edition, I had been given the SLC Mayor’s award in the arts for my work with Artists of Utah. And ingrate that I was I had used the award money to pay for my plane ticket to Europe, missing the awards ceremony completely. "Yeah, that’s right, too busy to pick up the award in person, but, hey, would you mind sending that check?"
But that’s how burned out I felt. Didn’t even want to publish another issue that could include a lengthy article about the Executive Director of Artists of Utah and editor of 15 Bytes winning a prestigious award (though I have managed to mention it twice in this article).
But here it is, another issue in front of you. So, what happened?
I really don’t know. Sometime between the end of October (where, bathed in visions of an American Utopia, I stood in Madison Wisconsin, surrounded by 80,000 Democrats listening to Bruce Springsteen introduce our hopeful candidate for the presidency) and a cold Thanksgiving weekend (where I sat congested, tired, and nauseated --at thirty-three I had no shot at getting a flu shot -- writing this article) I had decided I would give it another try.
There were, of course, the articles I saw slipping by, uncovered. And when I looked back on what had driven me about 15 bytes in the first place -- the artists and the art -- I realized that many of the artists I had written about were still on my mind. They had become friends, colleagues, associates. Their work, whether or not similar to my own, still intrigued me. I was still eager to see where it would go. And eager to help others see as well.
In the coming months, I look forward to discovering or examining new artists in the pages of 15 bytes, but before I do so I wanted to revisit a few who had caught my attention in these first three years.
I first wrote about Brandon Cook’s work on the occasion of a one-man exhibit of his at the Eccles Community Art Center (May 2003). He and I had first become acquainted over an AoU luncheon at Caffe Molise and I had seen a piece or two of his at A Gallery. For my article, I had planned to interview him; write an artist profile on him, his life, his progression as an artist, that sort of thing. But, procrastinator to the end, I found myself only a few days before publication date emailing Brandon for an interview. Only to find he was out of town. He would be back Tuesday. 15 Bytes was due out Wednesday. Too bad. But he really hoped I would see his show.
In the end, I was left with his work. I think the staff of the Eccles probably said hello, but otherwise it was just me and the paintings. They made sense to me from the first acquaintance. There was a vocabulary, a means of working that I instantly recognized and respected. My writing on it was just as immediate (didn't really have much choice, did I). On the way home from Ogden, as I weeded through traffic in my gas-guzzling, unruly-but-immensely-useful-as-art-transporter suburban, I composed lines in my head, sometimes scrawling them on scraps of paper while haphazardly adjusting the steering wheel. At home, I threw it all down on the page -- at the same time that I was piecing together 15 Bytes.
Brandon’s reaction to my writing was as immediate as mine to his work. He felt that, without having ever discussed his work, I had perceived much of what he was trying to accomplish. That mutual understanding created a quick friendship. Since that time I have been to see Brandon’s work a number of times; we’ve had occasions to talk, visit each other's studios, and go to exhibitions together.
When,on a trip to New York, I stumbled across a George Inness exhibit at the School of Design a block north of the Guggenheim, it was because of Brandon's (and Shanna Kunz’s) enthusiasm for the artist that I paid the $8, went into the show and came out wholly pleased. The Inness show made immediate sense when I considered Brandon’s work. Brandon has a bond to Inness but not a tether. He employs many of the techniques and even has some of the sensibility of Inness, but Cook's works are wholly contemporary. His design of the landscape, the curve of a tree or the interaction of the grounds, and his increasing play with the paint make his pieces wholly his own.
When in the fall of 2004, after at least six months, I saw some of Brandon’s new work at SLC’s A Gallery, what immediately struck me was his use of color as a compositional element. I've always been struck by his ability to create a well-composed painting that remains vital, but he had always done so with the structural elements in his paintings -- a tree, a bush, a hill -- and color was mostly used as a highlight in the playing of his paint. But in these most recent works I was struck by his strong wash of blue sky in a relatively dark tonalist painting, fighting for attention against a red tree. The structural elements are still there, but he seems to be exploring the possibilties of color as one of them.
Fellow Inness fan Shanna Kunz shares a studio with Brandon, has been a strong supporter of Artists of Utah, and it was at her own one-person exhibit at the Eccles that we talked about her work and transposed the conversation to the digital pages of our zine. She and I had another conversation recently, sitting on her studio floor, discussing politics, art and family while the hazy dusk outside turned to inky dark and her teenage children began calling about dinner. To her credit, Shanna let a number of rings go by before even answering (and then just to stop the calls) and made them wait even longer before finally going home.
An artist paints pictures. Day in and day out. There is nothing particularly exciting about it. So to write about the artist and their work can at times be a daunting task. Not every artist is an ear-slicing loner, or a drunk, reclusive paint-dripper. Luckily, when I first wrote about Shanna she was at a transformative period, in her career and in her medium.
In our recent conversation, I thought I might find a more life-transforming angle. When I looked at Shanna’s new website, designed by John McCallum, its hip redesign forced me to see her work in a new light. Now I had this vision of her putting on her leather duds and hopping on her Harley, painting tools strapped to her back, leaving her kids to fend for themselves. But when I asked, did she have a motorcycle, she assured me, no.
What strikes me most about Shanna these days is that she seems to be painting paintings now and not exercises or series. When we first talked, she was on the cusp, a one-woman show in her home town, but also breaking free of the medium she had become comfortable in and branching into oils. With the oils she seems to have gained a certain solidity, without losing the textured, ethereal look she was able to achieve with her watercolors.
Her subject matter hasn't changed drastically, but spend enough time with her paintings and you notice the small shifts that result in a new vision. The solid, earthy, weighty pines that seemed to hold her previous series of works in place have given way, both in watercolor and oil, to feathery hardwoods reaching up to the skies like the upraised wings of angels. These forms seem much better adapted to her sense of atmosphere, as the reach of the branches washes into the evening light of her skies.
HOLLY MAE PENDERGAST
Like Shanna, Holly Mae Pendergast was at a crossroads when I wrote about her. We talked over a chicken dinner in her stripped-down, A-frame house above Rockport Resevoir. She was just beginning to come to terms with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, the condition that I would see take over her life for the next couple of years. It would first take away her canvas, then her oils, then her paper, her watercolors, and her colored pencils, until, ultimately, she was reduced to drawing small pencil sketches. At the same time, she was struggling with turning from her landscape art, which had begun to sell well, and pursuing the figure work which called to her and which I can't help but think became the saving grace in her struggles.
With the help of dedicated friends, a wrestle with all elements of her lifestyle, and the support of her partner, Mike, she found the heart to continue to try new solutions in art and life and has continued to progress in both. This summer when I arrived at the A-frame, I thought I had wandered upon an artist colony. Holly was on the balcony painting. In oils! Her sister, Heidi, a puppeteer and photographer was staying with them. Mike was busy working outside with Amos Supuni, a stone sculptor from Zimbabwe who for the past two years has spent months in Salt Lake training willing students in his art. The yard was littered with stone, and large polished sculptures stood upright amongst the sagebrush. My daughter (my continual sidekick and 15 Bytes mascot) quickly warmed to Holly, whose affection for children is evident in her paintings. They played together while we all watched Mike throw the Frisbee to their acrobatic dog, Thistle. The piece on Holly's easel was a group of aspens, for a show in November at the Old Town gallery. But she was also excited because Teresa Flowers, director of the Women’s Art Center in Salt Lake, had invited her to show some figurative work at an exhibit , also in November.
It was a few weeks later at the show that I saw the new figurative work. Once again with my daughter in tow, I showed up early on a gallery stroll night (so many obligations, so little time). A band was setting up; Holly and Heidi were out getting more napkins; Mike greeted me. We talked a bit about his sculpture. Holly had gotten into it as well and a few of her pieces were on display. And then I took a few moments with the work. It is hard to keep my knowledge of Holly’s biography out of my interpretation, but I couldn’t help noticing that the figures seemed to have a new strength to them. They were still introspective and vulnerable, but not quite as fragile as before. What in the height of her crisis became almost see-through works were now giving way to some women more open to the world. Ready to give it a second chance.
Layne Meacham was the one artist I wrote about before I had even met him. After my review of his show at the Forum gallery, he quickly sought me out and became a force to be reckoned with. You do not ignore Layne Mecham. He can roll in like a massive thunderstorm or white-out blizzard that is completely gone the next day.
At the time I was sharing a space at the back of Darryl Erdmann’s Chroma Gallery. I knew that Darryl and Layne were old friends, but I hadn't ever recalled seeing him there. Once we met, it seemed I couldn’t help seeing him. He was always at Sugarhouse coffee, or stacking his large canvases against the wall at Tanner frames. For days, he would be almost unavoidable, but then he would vanish for weeks. Either he had gotten a job with a salary, or had disappeared to his abandoned, likely asbestos-laced studio space along Magna’s old Main Street. At the Sugarhouse Street Festival he would urge me to institute his new program -- the Artists of Utah tithe, where artists would donate a portion of each painting they sold. He offered to be the first and handed me a twenty dollar bill.
I can remember taking digital of photos of him with his hound. For a singles network. Afterall, he explained, women trust dogs. One week he would come in convinced that immigrating to Cuba was the answer (I wasn't always sure what the question was). The next, that we needed an artists' colony in Magna where space was cheap.
His first works I saw were grandiose, large monstrosities (at one point Dolores Chase contacted me looking for space to store the massive murals; she obviously grossly overestimated Artists of Utah’s space in the physical world.) At times they were verbose. They could get all over the place. But they were always fascinating
The works in the last year have coalesced more and more. They have come together. Whether more serene or more morose they are tighter, more interesting work. Floral images appear both in dark pieces -- a divorce happened since I had first met Layne, hence the photos with his dog -- as well as more lighthearted tromps through azure and orange. The texture is still very prominent, but he now no longer knocks over large acreage to create chasms and plateaus. His work seems more about addition than subtraction.They are more unified, more layered.
Most recently I saw his show at the Springville Museum of Art. Much of the work is recent; I had seen it one place or another. But the impression the exhibit gave me was how tactile Layne is. You want to eat his pieces. He returns you to the time of childhood when you enjoyed eating your crayons and pushing your fingers through the clay or paint as much as you enjoyed making a picture with them.
Westminster College will be unveiling a 9X14 foot Mural by Layne Meacham on February 11th at the Eccles/Jewit Center at 1:00-2:00