Art Professional Profile: Salt Lake
Knowing When to Step Back
Hikmet Sidney Loe and the Art of History
It may seem obvious that teachers know things their students don’t—materials and methods they hope to impart. How much of the difference is quantity, how much quality, is another matter. Good teachers are still students themselves, even if further along in exploring their field. The best know that teaching is a form of repetition, only better because the dialog demands ones best. Studying accumulates information, but teaching bestows understanding. The pursuit of certainty can take us into unlikely places, but the pleasure of immersion, even identification with what fascinates us, can lend the search a measure of contentment. That may be the source of the serene confidence one meets in Hikmet Sidney Loe, Westminster College’s popular adjunct Art History professor. She has her own way of explaining why, after years as historian and librarian, she found her greatest satisfaction in sharing what she has unearthed. “Teaching has changed my life,” she says. “My students have helped me shape my voice.”
The ‘journey’ to knowledge is not just a metaphor for Loe, who has criss-crossed the United States in its pursuit. She started out in Cleveland, Ohio, the daughter of a Turkish father and a British-Canadian mother who shared an old world determination that their children not only be educated, but also feel the value of learning. When only two-and-a-half, Loe was photographed standing before Rodin’s “The Thinker,” in front of the Cleveland Art Museum. It was a picture to make a family proud of their curious and cultivated child, a talisman that is still her favorite portrait, but it foreshadowed a conflict between generations that arose when her growing interest in art clashed with more practical concerns. A way to resolve the conflict between the quality of life and making a living began to take shape when, after earning a BA in Art History at Penn State in 1980, she moved to Salt Lake, to be near her family, and began working in the Fine Arts Department of the Salt Lake City Library. In 1984 she moved to Berkeley to pursue a Master’s degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of California. Returning to Utah, she spent two years as Marriott Library’s Fine Arts Librarian before crossing the continent to New York, where she worked at the Museum of Modern Art, then the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and eventually became library director of the Parsons School of Design, all while working on an MA in Art History from Hunter College of the City University of New York.
These are the dry facts that comprise a resume, but the events they outline are, as usual, more complex. In a sense, during those years Loe was circling around Salt Lake City, spiraling closer to the parts of a story she’d encountered, but hadn’t fully grasped. These included the desert landscape, the unique topography left behind by the prehistoric transformation of Lake Bonneville into the present post-diluvian lake system, and a number of so-called “Earthworks”—large, remote, hard-to-see landscape projects created by artists who had been here decades before her arrival. According to statistics gathered by the Utah Geological Survey’s former geologist J. Wallace Gwynn, by 1993 falling water levels were revealing the best-known Earthwork, Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” after twenty years of immersion beneath the Great Salt Lake. While Loe, like MA candidates in schools around the world, was contemplating the boilerplate of aesthetics—from Edmund Burke on the sublime and William Gilpin’s picturesque to Cézanne’s practical experiments with perspective—and seeking a direction for research that might sustain a thesis project, large scale environmental changes were setting up a literal watershed moment that would put her at one node of an epoch change in human thinking.
In late 1994, Loe again returned to Salt Lake to be near her family. There curiosity about “Spiral Jetty”—which she has called “Utah’s most infamous work of art”—had simmered in the local art community through the years, and now its likely comeback was part of the buzz. Sensing an opportunity, Loe settled on a topic that took advantage of her unique perspective among New York’s art historians: she was on the scene in person, where instead of a legend, the stone coil was a fact of unknown repute. Once she began to research local interest in this globally celebrated achievement, she saw how, like a prophet, an artwork may go without honor in its hometown. Indeed, she found only three contemporary articles in Utah papers, each of which treated it as a local story while ignoring the way it had attracted attention from far beyond. When she tracked down Bob Phillips, the contractor who directed the work of building “Spiral Jetty” in 1970, she learned she was the first person to ask him about it. In 1996 her thesis, “An Intermittent Illusion: Local Reaction to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty” was accepted, and New York put its stamp of approval on the eyewitness. Loe makes a face as she points up the irony of her situation: here she was at what was fast becoming the center of a spiral of interest in Smithson, but the documents that recorded his ideas and experiments were all back in New York, in storage at the Smithson Estate, and as she was drawn into his story by the accident of her relocation, teasing out the threads of that story would require more travel to New York.
If satisfying an art historian and librarian’s curiosity about the man who made “Spiral Jetty” required long-range travel, with its modern conveniences, satisfying her interest in what he made was more challenging, requiring an encounter with the land so intimate it transformed her. It wasn’t the practical mechanics of exploring the desert, nor was it the challenging scale of the western landscape that daunted her. Loe had already encountered and absorbed those on a visit to Moab in 1980. But getting to where she could appreciate the topology surrounding the Great Salt Lake was another matter. Her first sight of that, approaching the airport after flying across the Rockies, was a long descent over what appeared to be a wasteland. Seeing this lake, by turns boring and despoiled, couldn’t be confused with the Romantics stalking the Lake District. Yet in the years since it’s become apparent that the encounter with lands ruined by mining and other human activities is just a later chapter in the same book. Lost in the agenda of Land Art’s boosters was the fact that Smithson’s choice of wasted land was not forced on him financially, but represented a choice to affiliate himself with damaged places. As Loe came closer to his reasons, she began to share his insightful way of looking at unprepossessing places. If Loe understood him correctly, in those final years Smithson framed what may be the most important future role for art.
Sitting in her office at Westminster College, surrounded by student projects, maps, charts, and photos riffing on some of Smithson’s other artworks, Loe seems as completely, happily in her element as someone can be who also admits she’d like to learn to fly a helicopter so she could take daily flights around the Great Salt Lake. She began to trade the library for the classroom in 2006, though with her characteristic insistence on precision she would probably object to the suggestion she’s given one up for the other. Her classes survey the vast history of art, within which Land Art is only one topic, though she may well find in it the climax of everything that went before. And while no historian is ever through with reading, the art of Smithson’s era is characterized by an emphasis on theory and the importance of documenting its own history. The earthworks that preoccupied Smithson in the last few years of his life are almost literally the tip of an iceberg that is an idiosyncratic and often original body of work, including the photographs, films, essays, and myriad other expressions of his projects and objects that he insisted were legitimate parts of them. Probably only a handful of experts can know this material better than Loe, and she knows those experts, too, like Nancy Holt, Smithson’s collaborator, fellow artist, widow, and executor. Finally, she may be closer than anyone to the experience that Smithson’s career anticipated, but that he didn’t live to carry out: witnessing the way his artifacts changed over time. To borrow his terminology, she knows “the site” as well as “the non-site.”
Not every authority is a resource; some hoard knowledge as if they could be robbed. Art historians have to know theirs is a story of survival, and that even sand, salt, and rocks are finally fragile. Yet for now, Loe sees no need to build a fence around “Spiral Jetty” like the one around the Pyramids. Much of what excites her enthusiasm is intangible, durable, even inexhaustible. There are those views from the air, or of the sky as weather and the angle of the sun change. Earth and water display never-ending arrays of color and texture. Google Earth lets fans and the curious alike explore remote places, including the jetty, from a desktop. Photographers like David Maisel, one of Loe’s favorite influences, doesn’t just understand it for what we might see, but show us things we otherwise wouldn’t. Last year, Loe curated an exhibition for the Great Salt Lake Institute of Westminster College on national artists inspired by the lake, and this month, as part of “The Smithson Effect,” UMFA’s pioneering exploration of the artist’s legacy, she will deliver one of a series of lectures expanding on the exhibit. All along, she continues to introduce Smithson and his art to anyone who cares enough to make the acquaintance, through her classes and her work as an Independent Interpreter for the Center for Land Use Interpretation, touring the lake with individuals and groups. An important part of her project will reach fruition next year with the publication of her book, The Spiral Jetty and Rozel Point: Rotating Through Time and Place. Each time out, she can be expected to share her insight into Smithson’s final discovery, or what today’s pundits would call “the takeaway” from his art. It was no accident that he located those large, late works on land despoiled by mining and other, characteristically destructive human activities. What he was looking for was a role for art in land reclamation: nothing less than a new, more authentic and useful way for art to play a role in elevating the quality of human life.
Asked what it’s like to have the privilege of showing someone “Spiral Jetty” for the first time, Loe takes her time answering. She is aware that almost no one comes to the jetty without a great deal of anticipation, usually beginning at a great distance and rising to a crescendo on the approach to the lakeshore site. At this point, she emphasizes that it is her role to step back, to let the new witnesses see it in their own way, with their own senses. Because it’s about the art. “Because,” she says, “it’s about the experience.”
Locale Spotlight: Wayne County
Where Spring = Art
Wayne County Art Comes Out of Hibernation
Spring has sprung in Wayne County, and not a moment too soon. The weather is still iffy, of course, but the town of Torrey is waking up. The Chuckwagon Store & Deli is open, the four restaurants that close during the winter are now serving, our two art galleries have begun their full summer hours, and the Entrada Institute kicks off its 2011 season with an event this month.
Gallery 24 held its seasonal opening reception on April 23rd for a good crowd, despite a cold drizzle. Owners Brian Swanson and Pat Priebe-Swanson |0| are artists, in metalwork and furniture by Brian, and watercolor landscapes by Pat. As mentioned in one of 15 Bytes’ early editions (see October 2002) they founded the gallery in 2001 with Karen Kessler and Sally Elliot, who also built and ran the Skyridge B&B for several years.
An eclectic mix of painting, sculpture, photography, furniture, jewelry, pottery, and basketry |1-2| makes Gallery 24 a popular destination for tourists as well as collectors. Most artists are locals or near neighbors, some are widely known, such as Arthur Adelman, Laura Boardman, and Nancy Green, and all work is of high quality.
Torrey Gallery was opened in 1997 by Cathy and Larry Bagley. They knew many artists back in the day in Salt Lake, so when Cathy opened her real estate business in Torrey she hung some of their paintings in her office. Real estate customers asked about buying them and Cathy soon realized it would be a pleasure for her, her customers, and her artist friends, to open a real gallery.|3| She had inherited several Navajo rugs, and Larry had gotten to know Navajo weavers on the reservation while doing sheep business there, so they also offer a fine collection of antique and modern Navajo rugs. Indoor and outdoor sculptures are also featured.
Most of the artists are long-time friends of the Bagleys and have local connections, such as full-time or summer homes, and all are accomplished artists as well. Denis Phillips, owner of the well-known gallery in Salt Lake, advised them on the business end. The visionary painter Doug Snow |4| lived here in Teasdale for over 30 years and gave the Bagleys kind but firm advice on how to treat their artists and how to hang his paintings. Other well-known gallery artists are Paul Davis, Silvia Davis,|5| Tony Smith, Doug Braithwaite, Bonnie Posselli and Kathy Peterson.
More info: www.torreygallery.com.
The Entrada Institute is a nonprofit organization founded in 1993 by a group of Salt Lakers who had a special love for this area, home to spectacular landscapes both in and out of Capitol Reef National Park. Its mission includes “supporting artists, writers, humanities scholars, and earth and social scientists … and promoting understanding and appreciation of the natural, historical and cultural heritage of the Colorado Plateau.” From May through October Entrada sponsors events at the Robber’s Roost Bookstore |6| in Torrey, which boasts a large outdoor stage area. The first event this year is the 10th annual Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival,|7| to be held on May 27th and 28th, combined, for the first time, with the Torrey Music Festival. The event is part of their Saturday Sunset Series, which includes programs by artists, writers, local historians, and many others.
There is much more to say about the art and artists of Wayne County, so look for further dispatches. Meanwhile, come visit where the air is clear and the Milky Way is visible!