Organization Spotight: Spring City
An Organic Development
Spring City Arts, Studio Tour, and Plein-air Competition
by Shawn Rossiter
With the number of artists in the small Sanpete County town of Spring City over 30 out of a population of about 800 you’d think this rural town’s reputation as an art destination was planned: by the city council, looking for economic development, or by artists looking to set up an art colony. Talk to some of the “locals” (a title, as more recent transplants will tell you, given only to those whose families have lived here for at least 5 generations) and they’re likely to complain it’s the latter. But talk to most of the artists who have moved here and, it seems, things just sort of happened, organically. An individual artist would decide to move in and a few years later another, until, now, the small rural town is known more for its art than for the wool it once thrived on or the spring that gave it its name.
Spring City owes its present charms to an omission. When Utah route 89 was put down through Sanpete County, it plunged through the main streets of neighboring communities Fairview, Mt. Pleasant, Ephraim, Manti but bypassed Spring City by a mile; which meant that the town was relatively untouched by development for much of the 20th century. Consequently, lots have not been subdivided, large stores have not moved in, and the town retains a number of its original 19th-century buildings.
A few artists in town can claim to be locals. Osral Allred, longtime professor at Snow College, and his artist sons, Scott and Paul, can trace their lineage to the first white settlers, the Allreds, who came in 1852. The rest of the artists in town, however, are much more recent transplants. Joe and Lee Bennion (potter and painter, respectively) came here over thirty years ago. “We hadn’t a clue what we were doing,” Joe says. “We were totally going by our guts.” He says that at the time the decision seemed counterintuitive for a young couple embarking on careers as artists. Both artists, however, wanted a simpler life and were more concerned with having time than money. They have managed to do what they want, have raised their family here and created successful careers for themselves. Their home, children, and animals frequently appear in Lee’s paintings, and though he started out with high-end galleries across the country, Joe says he now sells 99% of his work right out of his shop on Main Street. Though their children are now gone, the Bennions plan on spending the rest of their lives here, under the gaze of Horseshoe Mountain, the local landmark for which Joe’s studio (see page 2) is named.|1|
Lee is currently working on building a studio, a portion of which will be dedicated to a printmaking studio she will share with another local artist, Kathleen Peterson. Peterson came to Spring City with her husband Steve, when Ephraim, their previous home, succumbed to the rural version of urban sprawl Wal-Mart moved in. They have built a light filled home/studio on the eastern edge of town. John and Cassandria Parsons, an artist couple who also have a home in Salt Lake, live nearby, as do Douglas Fryer |2| and his family, who came to Spring City six years ago after living in rural Vermont.
Though the artists in Spring City may share an obvious passion for art, they are as much neighbors and friends as they are fellow artists. Kathleen Peterson and Lee Bennion share a studio but they also love to ride horses together. Fryer can be found hanging out with fellow painters Michael Workman and Brad Overton, but as Workman points out, they're more likely to play tennis together than they are paint together.
In fact, though a number of artists have been here for well over a decade Workman|3| moved here fifteen years ago and Overton has lived in neighboring Moroni for the past thirteen years, the whole while looking for property in Spring City they have been slow to form any formal arts organization. That required the serendipitous arrival of another artist, John Stevens.|4|
Stevens and his wife, a horse trainer, had lived in Draper for a decade before they were squeezed out by urban sprawl. With their children grown, they began looking at various locations, mostly out of the state, where they could relocate. A son-in-law who lives in the Sanpete Valley found a piece of property for them in Spring City and invited them to come take a look. The rural community was a perfect fit for his wife, and because Stevens is an artist and graphic designer, he can work from anywhere. "We had never thought about moving to Spring City. It just sort of happened," he says.
Stevens’ arrival 4 years ago was the catalyst for the formation of Spring City Arts, a non-profit organization that serves artists all over Sanpete County. He says Workman, Joe Bennion, and Susan Gallacher (a Salt Lake City artist who owns a second home in the town where she organizes art workshops) came to him with the idea for an artist organization, and they began work on Spring City Arts.
Stevens had experience running his own design and marketing businesses. “I work with the two halves of my brain more than some of the others,” he jokes about his qualifications. Stevens, the only abstract artist in the group, is unassuming, but also an eager promoter of his fellow artists and their organization. He is excited about what the group has already accomplished and about what they have planned for the future.
Spring City Arts is an artist-based membership non-profit designed to nurture both the artists they serve and the community they are a part of. The group has a gallery space located on Main Street |0| where they show work by all of its forty plus members. They will soon be moving to a building next door, a former garage that will provide even more space for exhibitions, workshops, lectures and classes.
What is striking about the group, funded solely by the members and their fundraising activities, is that the artists who needed it least spurred it. Many of the artists behind Spring City Arts have very successful careers, selling work in galleries across the country. They don't need the gallery to make a living or establish a reputation. But the artists have an obvious commitment to the community they have chosen to live in and they see the formation of the arts organization as an aid to that community.
Stevens feels the organization can help spur activity that will benefit the entire community. He would like to see more cottage industries find a home on Main Street. These would provide more tax revenues for the city and jobs for local residents. Spring City Arts embraces all artists, including folk artists and craftsmen, performing and literary artists as well as fine artists. Stevens says that before the group came into being there were “lots of little combinations [of artists] but now they all get together.” Local knife maker Jerry Johnson, |5| who retired to Spring City ten years ago, says the group has been both fun and profitable. He is currently collaborating with local silversmith Vivian Jepperson on new designs.
In addition to the work it has been doing to build links within the local arts community, Spring City Arts has also developed events to bring people to Spring City and experience the arts here. The Spring City Arts Plein Air Painting Competition and the Spring City Artist Studio Tour and Arts Festival both happen later this month. The plein-air competition, September 17 -20 is an opportunity for artists to paint Spring City, a National Historic District, and the surrounding countryside and vie for over $5000 in cash prizes. The Studio Tour, on the 20th, will allow visitors to visit the studios of over 30 local artists, including painters, sculptors, potters, metal workers, weavers and more.
Remembering Dan Baxter
by Tom Alder
Those of you who have read these pages with any regularity will have noted that this column has typically dedicated itself to reporting on the history and art of early Utah artists. Earlier this summer, however, it occurred to me -- after an extraordinary couple of hours with artist Larry Wade -- that many fledgling artists and art historians don't remember those gifted ones who left us prematurely within the past few decades, let alone those who died over 100 years ago. With this in mind, I've turned my attention for this month's column to a more recently deceased artist, Dan Baxter.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the name Baxter conjured nothing but visions of exquisite landscapes, striking cityscapes, and bravura figurative paintings executed by a pair of talented brothers. Ken Baxter, at age 64, is still covering his canvases with bright hues and loose brush strokes. Unfortunately, Dan, Ken's younger brother by a couple of years, was not with us as long. When Danny (as he was known to friends) passed away on November 13, 1986 at the age of 38, he had already left an impressive oeuvre throughout private and public collections; and friends and patrons alike mourned the promise of more works that would never come to fruition.
Baxter was raised in Rose Park, in Salt Lake City's northwest quadrant and attended West High, where he was a popular cheerleader. Down the street in Baxter's neighborhood lived Elva Malin, one of the most charming and talented painters currently producing landscapes. Baxter had earlier taken art from Frank Ericksen, a former medical illustrator and well regarded palette-knife painter. Soon after high school graduation, Dan served an LDS mission to the Chicago area. He attended the University of Utah on several scholarships (for art, academics and gymnastics) and graduated with a BFA in 1973.
Though he established himself early as a gifted landscapist and still-life artist, Baxter's real gift was as a figurative artist. Bob Olpin in Artists of Utah lauded him as "...one of the most talented figure painters and portraitists to come out of the University of Utah classroom of Alvin Gittins, who was the master of painting in that realm." After a stint teaching at the U, young Baxter was encouraged by Gittins to study in New York at the Art Students League, where he received an outstanding student certificate. Returning to Utah, Baxter received commissions from California patrons that extended his reputation for quality figurative work.
Larry Wade suggests that Baxter, who would have celebrated his 60th birthday last month, was clearly the only artist who could have taken over for Gittins, who predeceased him by a couple of years. Wade was a banker most of his life, and later, after establishing a successful business, dedicated most of his time to painting. He remembers one painting session with Baxter. The two were painting en plein air when Baxter asked, "How are you doing?" "Not well," was the reply. "I'm having a hard time here." Baxter came over and looked at Wade's straight-lined image on the canvas. When Baxter asked him, "Would you like me to fix it?" Wade backed up his stool and invited him to have at it. With a sweeping movement, Baxter picked up the canvas and threw it through the weeds and grass. Wade didn't complain. "It was a terrible painting," he said. "Now go get it," directed Baxter. Wade retrieved the painting and brought it back to Baxter, who held it up and said, "How do you like it now?" "The straight lines had been blurred and my painting took on an entirely new emotion," Wade recalls. "That experience taught me about painterly style and a loose brush stroke that set the standard for my career."
Bonnie Posselli has a similar memory of Baxter's penchant for pushing his students to loosen up. She recalls that he and his brother Ken were teaching at Rose Park Elementary, through the Community Education program. "My mother, May Blair, had been working on two paintings at the time," Posselli recalls. "She felt that one of them was really good and the other one she had thrown in the garbage. Danny came along and seeing her meticulously painted 'good' painting said, 'This is the one that needs to go in the garbgage,' and pulling the discarded one out of the garbage, said, 'This is the one you should keep.' It took quite a bit of "Danny theatrics" for us to see beyond the literal, and begin to paint from the heart."
I asked Wade if Baxter had painted anything other than landscapes and portraits. In the 1970s, Wade recalls, Baxter painted backdrops for rocker Ted Nugent. He also painted the mural behind the Christus at the North Visitors' Center on Temple Square in Salt Lake. Expanding his scenery experience, Baxter followed an earlier Utah artist tradition in painting scenery at Pioneer Memorial Theatre. Baxter's portraiture included prominent government officials such as former Senate President, Warren Pugh. Wade says Baxter painted that portrait seven times in order to make sure he was capturing the Senator in the best light and form. Baxter painted good friends Bonnie Stephens, the long-time director of the Utah Arts Council, and her husband Dean.
As a painter, Baxter enjoyed painting everyday things: kids in the park, Vietnam veterans, and his aged father. Baxter taught a number of contemporary Utah artists, including Kathryn Stats and Bonnie Posselli. Al Rounds, according to Wade, took his training at the U from Baxter and said that he learned more from Dan Baxter than anyone else. David Merrill, of Davis County, used to bring some of his paintings to Baxter "to fix them."
Bonnie Posselli studied with Baxter at his periodic outdoor painting sessions and says his antics always kept the painting sessions lively. "I will always remember one day in particular. It was a shivery cold day at Wheeler Farm, and after a couple of hours of intense problem solving, Danny suddenly announced that we were going to do a warm up exercise. Picture this -- Danny skipping and singing through the fields with half a dozen middle-aged women gleefully skipping along behind him. We laughed at ourselves, which was one of Danny's gifts to us."
All seem to agree that Baxter was a kind-hearted man and a marvelous talent. His legacy not only includes a diverse array of painting subjects (ocean coasts, studio portraiture, caricature, landscapes, and cityscapes) but an impressive list of artists that he influenced and patrons who were dedicated to his talent. Baxter's untimely death causes us to wince at his personal pain, but affords us the opportunity to study and celebrate his memorable artworks.