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 January 2011
Published by Artists of Utah
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Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda, by Carl Heinrich Bloch
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Old Masters at BYU . . . from page1

Carl Bloch was a nineteenth-century master of the Dutch academic tradition. Like so many northern artists, Bloch was greatly affected by the school of Rembrandt van Rijn. In one of the first installments in The Master’s Hand we see Bloch's "Descent from the Cross," an echo of Rembrandt's uncanny naturalism. As with the works of many great Baroque artists, to stand before this picture is to enter a space and with it a time and a moment. Bloch's technical expertise allows him to render whichever narrative elements are the most important to him. In this painting viewers may find themselves at one with this scene, a solemn moment of the death of Christ, made accessible. The local light hovering upon Christ contrasts with the larger areas of dark to set a melancholy mood. Although the flesh of Christ is very much dead, a warm tonality that enshrouds the body emphasizes that his purpose is not yet fulfilled.

Perhaps the grandest and most Baroque of Bloch’s works is "Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda," painted in 1883. |0| The painting is broad -- in its subject, in its explorative use of color, and in its chiaroscuro effects -- and succeeds with that Rembrandt-like quality of finding the most effective narrative moment. Christ wanders among the poor souls who suffer the pains of mortal reality, but Bloch does not portray a grandiose moment, like the return of sight to a blind man; instead we witness a candid intimacy as Christ pulls back the blanket that serves as a crippled man's shelter. The power of the encounter, with the promise of the man's future salvation is all suggested in that quiet, revealing moment.

Bloch’s "Christus Consolator" might be a more iconic image of Jesus Christ as a universal figure.|1| This is a simpler, harmonious, tempered altar-piece where Bloch uses white and the significance of light as his primary tools. It is understated and Christ is unquestionably the consolator. We see piercing yet placid eyes that are blue and tranquil like water. He is gazing at us and beyond us. He is beautiful and radiant, yet he is calm and at peace. At his feet we see those whom he consoles, faces of many in agony and ecstasy. These few represent untold numbers of whom this man standing above is the savior. This is an image that compels belief.

In contrast to Bloch's large altar-pieces, James Tissot's collection of watercolors now on display at BYU's MOA are small enough to be reproduced life-size in book form; but they share with Bloch's work a mastery of technique and interest in narrative. The 124 paintings, powerful in their emotive qualities and portraying a wide range of scenes from the Gospels, were part of a ten-year mission Tissot embarked upon after a moving experience in the Church of Saint-Sulpice. His vision there of "Christ comforting the poor" unifies this entire ouevre.

A Frenchman, Tissot was influenced by the experiments of the early French avant-garde. Although they are not abstracted, we find within Tissot's work a dominant modernist element that lends a near metaphysical quality. Avant-garde artists were discovering that color, light and visual motif can have an almost “organic” quality to communicate directly with the viewer by the free use of these elements, without word, instruction, or prior understanding; the viewer is affected by this expression and Tissot used these techniques to his and the viewer’s great advantage.

Tissot’s "Annunciation" tells the gospel account of the moment Mary understands that she is to be the mother of the Messiah.|2| This is neither a proud Netherlandish virgin nor some ideal of beauty according to Fra Angelico. Tissot's is a very human Mary, physically and emotionally weighted and burdened as she is addressed by a contrastingly divine angel in a sphere of countless centralized rays of light. More than in any Renaissance or historical Annunciation, in Tissot's painting the viewer feels the heavenly divinity of the light and the earthly weight of Mary.

In Tissot's "Our Lord Jesus Christ" the lone figure grasps his chest, and his heart beneath, with both hands in an acute moment of expressive pathos, offering himself as an ultimate sacrifice for each of us individually and for humanity collectively.|3| This is an intuitive, emotive expression of the fullness of the being that is contained in the person of Jesus Christ. The viewer may respond to the gravitas of this bold yet reduced image of the man who is to bring salvation to the world and believe him capable of this.

Both of these old masters add to the integrity of the canon of religious art the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints uses to represents its doctrine. While Bloch moves the spirit through a grand Classical naturalism and moments of heightened emotion, Tissot affects the viewer intimately with episodes from the life of Christ rare in religious art, with moods attained by the use of expressive color and iconography. Traditional works of the old masters have proven consistently to be in visual and spiritual unity with the aims of the Church and its utilitarian purposes for the art that promotes it. There are equanimity and reason in these historic and timeless representations. These images are in harmony with the weighty doctrine of the LDS Church and more adequately signify the profundity of the central theological figure of Jesus Christ that is too often superficially rendered.

Gallery Spotlight: Millcreek
New Land at Flynn's Artipelago
Amber DeBirk opens Urbanscrap Boutique and Millcreek Arts

The heart and character of any neighborhood are defined by the local independent restaurants, shops, boutiques and galleries that line its streets: it is because of these places that people venture out of their homes, say hello to one another, and a neighborhood turns in to a community. As 2011 begins the residents of East Millcreek have two new destinations that bring their community together: Urbanscrap Boutique and Millcreek Arts. Both are part of an ambitious project spearheaded by Amber DeBirk |1| that brings a community art-education studio, eco-friendly artisan boutique, and children’s arts-and-crafts space to the established studio spaces known as Flynn Artipelago.

DeBirk initially worked in a small studio at this East bench stretch of artist spaces housed in a cluster of World War I era buildings that local saxophone player Kevin Flynn saved from demolition. The enclave’s name plays with the idea of an “archipelago” or cluster of islands in the middle of the sea, suggesting that in these historic brick buildings you’ll find a breath of fresh air and a palpable change of pace from the surrounding urban sprawl peppered with strip malls.

I met Flynn and DeBrik here on an overcast weekday afternoon to tour the spaces and talk about the new project. Flynn has a gentle nature and a serene quality that makes him easy to talk with. There is an unmistakable gleam of joy that comes to his eyes when he starts speaking about playing the saxophone, art, and his love for old buildings.|0| In the 1920s, Flynn tells me, the buildings of the Artipelago housed the Baldwin Radio Company, where the first radio headsets were produced by a team of 150 men and women, all hired by the inventor of headphones Nathaniel Baldwin. Since then the property has gone through a handful of owners, ending with Flynn, who purchased it in 1996. Through Flynn Artipelago Kevin has combined his passions in a unique area that houses 22 artists working in 15 studios.|2-3| At their regular open houses attendees are treated to an array of artwork including handcrafted furniture, oil and watercolor paintings, pottery, fused glass, and even live music.

My tour concluded outside the Grotto Gallery, where a sampling of the tenants’ artwork can be seen. The gallery is adjacent to Urbanscrap Boutique and Millcreek Arts, all of which is housed under one roof at Flynn Artipelago. DeBirk greeted me in the Urbanscrap Boutique, a space where colorful glass mosaics are prominently displayed.|4| She conveys the warm reassuring confidence of an experienced teacher who is excited to offer her craft to the people around her.

All of the pieces in the Urbanscrap Boutique have been made by local artists who work with recycled, scrap, or natural materials, an effort that speaks of DeBirk’s lifelong commitment to conserving natural resources. As an intern for Westminster College in 1996 she developed eARTh Team, an award winning recycling and environmental education program, for the Utah Arts Festival. The 2002 Olympics found her working on the Waste Management Committee, and she also served on the National Board of Directors in Washington, DC for America Recycles Day. Today DeBirk says she is one of only two glass artists in the state of Utah that works with recycled glass.

Next to recycling and her own work with fused glass, DeBirk’s love is bringing these things to the community. Alongside Urbanscrap Boutique, she has opened a new classroom space known as Millcreek Arts,|5| which also features a children’s arts-and-crafts room. At Millcreek Arts DeBirk hosts classes that range from making fused glass jewelry to stained glass wall hangings. The classes have been a big hit and she says that in every session there are at least one or two students who are so enthusiastic about the process that they go out and buy their own kiln. For people who have already taken a class from her DeBirk provides an open studio option where they can come and use the studio space and tools. She even offers to fire the work.

Every second Saturday of the month DeBirk organizes a green arts-and-crafts children’s activity that occasionally has a holiday theme. The children’s space is a special area set aside just for kids; Amber’s two daughters who are 3 and 5 like to call it their studio.|6|

For DeBirk the boutique reflects her personal commitment to eco-friendliness and the workshop space is about community. At the grand opening almost 1,000 people from around the valley came to see Urbanscrap Boutique and the Millcreek Arts because, after all, this is one of those places that defines the heart and character of the neighborhood.

Kevin Flynn outside the Grotto Gallery at the Flynn Artipelago
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