Leslie Thomas . . . from page 1
By the time she was 35, Thomas found herself back in Salt Lake as a single mother with no degree. “And that’s when I finally listened to my father’s advice,” she says ruefully. “He said there were only two areas that would allow me to make money immediately after graduation: accounting and computer engineering. I chose engineering so I would have a career that could pay for my children’s braces.”
Thomas secured a job in the development department at the University of Utah and immediately began using her reduced tuition benefits to shore up her math skills. She was later accepted into the computer engineering program, one of 60 students chosen from a pool of 1,400. “Engineering is about as far from the art world as you can get,” she laughs, “but the great benefit of the American school system is that you get second chances.”
After graduation Thomas worked in robotics across three states. She smiles as she remembers her first job designing brains for little robots that scooted around the factory floor, “taking things out and putting them away, taking things out and putting them away. It was like having little dwarves running around,” she chuckles. “The job was hard, but it was glamorous. They called it AI (artificial intelligence) back then, and that was the hippest place to be in engineering.”
In 1997, Thomas moved back to Salt Lake and worked in the telecommunications industry. She met her future husband the next year. “An old friend of Mark’s saw me at a gallery stroll,” she recalls, “and set us up. On our first date we saw the worst movie ever made, but we had a really good dinner.”|1| They continued to date over the next several years and finally tied the knot in 2004, after a literal sign from above.
“Get the picture, Mark!” Thomas exclaims suddenly, and then continues the story. “We were driving to Bellevue and I looked up to see these contrails in the sky. I asked Mark what they looked like, and he agreed with me that they formed the Roman numeral XII. So I took that as a sign that we should get married on the 12th of the month and we did!”
Knudsen chimes in to say, “You should have seen Leslie driving through Southern Idaho. She was so intense because she didn’t know when the courthouse was going to close and she wanted to get to Winnemucca in time.”
“Yep,” agrees Thomas. “We got married in this courthouse with pencil drawings of Elvis on the walls. They were having a high school art show of some kind.”
And then shortly after they were married, Thomas was laid off and Knudsen took early retirement after 35 years at the Tribune. “Mark wanted to make a run at fine art painting full time,” Thomas says, “and I decided I wanted to paint a lot more, too. We had gone out on weekends to do some plein air painting, but this was a chance for us to get a real studio and paint full-time, and Mark has always been one of my best teachers.”
Thomas and Knudsen subsequently developed their current painting technique, which is to take road trips through Utah, Arizona and Nevada shooting hundreds of digital photos of the arid landscape. “We don’t compose our photos,” says Thomas. “We just take tons of them and turn them into panoramic shots on the computer. Then we take those pictures back to the studio and paint from them.” Asked why she focuses on this particular geography, Thomas replies, “I was born here and took this landscape as a given, but then I came to treasure it after I moved away and came back.”
Even though the two artists sometimes paint from the same photo, there are marked differences in their styles. Knudsen is known for his stretched horizontal views of the landscape and Thomas paints in a more traditional size. Knudsen also tends to include more man-made items in his paintings – fences, vehicles, etc. -- while Thomas usually sticks to pure landscape. “That way I don’t have to do such straight lines,” she laughs. They also use different materials; Knudsen uses acrylic and Thomas paints with oil.
Thomas says she’s made a lot of progress as a painter in the last few years and specifically notes two influential forces. First was the chance in 2009 to exhibit at the Utah Arts Festival as an invited artist with Knudsen. “All I did was paint for the six months that led up to the Festival,” she says. “I only moved forward because I didn’t have time to look back and worry about my painting. I had to make it all count.”
The second reason she feels she’s a better painter is due to yoga. “I first started doing yoga at Artspace to support the program, but then I started noticing that my back didn’t bother me as much. I had always painted sitting down so my back wouldn’t seize up, but now I can stand up all day and paint. As a result, I can paint better and larger.”
Thomas is enthusiastic about her upcoming exhibit, but notes that she and Knudsen were thrown into disarray a few weeks ago when their studio was systematically burglarized. The art thief targeted hundreds of dollars in brushes, paints, palette knives, expensive solvents, and a pad of canvas. He even walked off with their stocks of Diet Coke and garbage bags. “Now that’s low,” Knudsen interjects.
Thomas and Knudsen have since installed security and are negotiating with their insurance company, but each day they still feel victimized when they reach for something that turns out to be missing. Towards the end of this interview, for example, Knudsen exclaims, “Man, that guy took my cerulean blue! And I need it right now!”
As Knudsen trundles off to the art store for more paint, I ask Thomas what her future goals are for painting. “Well,” she replies hopefully, “before I die I would like to have a painting turn out like I see it in my mind’s eye. That would be nice.”
And then she adds fervently, “This is the best chance I’ve had of my second chances.”
Gallery Spotlight: Salt Lake:
A Neighborhood Place
Millcreek's Evergreen Gallery (and Frame Shop)
It’s hard to find a frame shop around town that doesn’t secretly want to be a gallery. They may start off with the intention of simply framing art, but somehow, whether through the relationship with their artist clientele or their own passion for art, hosting exhibitions becomes an exciting focus for their business.
Millcreek's Evergreen Gallery was established as a frame shop back in 1985. Owners Majid and Kelly wanted their own business and it was a natural fit for Kelly’s framing background. It wasn’t long before the business took on some local artists and then, in 2003, they expanded by constructing a new building around the corner on 3295 South and 2000 East. Knowing that displaying art was a growing passion for them, they were able to include designing appropriate exhibition space early in the process.
Originally from California, Art Director Jodi Steen has worked with Majid and Kelly for over fourteen years. “I originally came to Utah for my husband to go to graduate school at the University of Utah, so I promised my employers two-three years…we really liked Salt Lake City, so my husband got a job here, we bought a house, had some kids, and now call it home.”
Evergreen is a privately owned gallery and represents approximately 25 artists including Don Prys, Ben Behunin, Carel Brest van Kempen, Aaron Fritz, David Meikle, Cassandria Parsons, M’lisa Paulsen, Nathan Florence (and others you can see on their website). The styles range from traditional to contemporary. They rotate exhibits almost every month and participate in the monthly Salt Lake Gallery Stroll. New artists are always welcome and a selection committee reviews portfolios on a monthly basis.
Evergreen says they always strive for the same goal: to always improve on what they just did. That may mean developing new framing techniques or curating an innovative show. They also give back to the community. A monthly opening for high school students is designed to give the students a “gallery experience.” Evergreen also hosts political and charity events, and makes financial contributions to worthy causes through some of their shows.
As much as the gallery is keen on maintaining good rapport with clients and the community, Steen also emphasizes the importance of keeping good relationships with their artists. They feel strongly about educating the artists as much as possible to ensure both the artist and the gallery has a good and successful experience. Being an artist herself, Steen gets the interesting experience of being on both sides. “I feel like I help link a lot of artists with the gallery owners and get each to see both sides of things differently. I also get to chat with people all the time and get feedback on my work, where if you’re not in a community of artists, you may not get that.”
The gallery rests on a well-traveled street so it enjoys a visibility that invites passers by as well as destination shoppers. “People come specifically to see an artist, to do framing, or do gift buying” says Steen. “We have a lot of people who bring in visitors from out of town to see our gallery. We feel like we are a great neighborhood alternative to going downtown.”
Now that summer is over, the gallery is back in the swing of lining up shows for the coming season. In September they will feature landscapes by Jeffery R. Pugh. Steen says to look for some surprising self-portraits amidst his better-known landscapes. Along with Pugh they will exhibit some glass birds by Morag Totten and mixed media birds by Alison Armstrong.
October brings in Bren Bataclan, from Boston. With his colorful, cartoon-character paintings, Bataclan wants to make people feel "everything will be all right." Continuing a project he has been taking across the country, he will be leaving 15 paintings around town for people to find and enjoy. This exhibit is also a benefit for the Ability Center in Park City.
November is a group show called “Buy Local, By Local” where the gallery will invite all their local artists to paint works of local people, places, and things.