Utah Female Artists Explore the Sublime Through Art
At the intersections of landscape, domestic life and religion, female artists have created a renaissance in Utah
Utah reminds me I am small, and that the landscape is ancient, wise and encompasses both time and mystery. Once, on a drive to San Francisco, I came to the Bonneville Salt Flats at dawn and my boyfriend and I stepped into the shallow layer of water resting on top of the cracked and endless white salt. Something in me shifted, some belief in the surreal awoke.
The varying landscape of Utah is so much larger than I will ever understand. That seems to be a common preoccupation of a generation of female artists who have grown up and around Utah landscapes like wildflowers, each creating according to her own experience.
Many Utah artists are inspired by a unique intersection — a physical landscape that begs to address the sublime in contrast to a cultural landscape that often supports or grapples with a ubiquitous belief in Christian divinity. The field is ripe with tension and awe, and throughout the state female artists are facing what it is to create amongst such spiritually relevant questions and so much natural beauty. Here are excerpts from conversations with 14 artists, whose work — across a variety of mediums — represent a female renaissance in Utah-anchored art.
"The field is ripe with tension and awe, and throughout the state female artists are facing what it is to create amongst such spiritually relevant questions and so much natural beauty."
The Landscape of the Domestic In Utah Art
In the early 19th century, Minerva Teichert a well-known artist of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints religion, was known to take a bouquet of flowers from a funeral and return them in the form of a painting for the grieving family the following day. Her life was made up of both the landscape of the domestic, and a living room full of paintings that she used as barter to send her children and the children in the neighborhood to study at Brigham Young University.
As a hopeful, burgeoning artist in college, I knew the work of Teichert well, and my idea of her encompassed everything I aimed to be at the time: a successful artist with a handful of children running through the studio.
Many of Utah’s female-identifying artists are raising children while simultaneously forging a career. This can yield a vibrant cache of creative work both within those bounds and work that pushes against them. This intersection of women entrenched in the domestic while pushing forward in artistic careers makes fascinating and relevant art.
There’s a strong sense of community among Utah’s female artists, in a scene marked by collaboration, rather than competition. I believe this is created by a confluence of both the problems and the beauty that come with creating in a setting where a Christian religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is a part of so many current or past lives.
Utah painter Emily Fox King creates within this domestic structure, and also pushes against expectations and assumptions. “I hope my flower paintings convey beauty and chaos, with the richly-layered paint, fiercely and aggressively applied,” the artist said in an interview with Segullah, a female-run online Latter-day Saint literary journal, explaining that viewers often consider her paintings to be “happy.” “I want to reply, ‘No they’re not, can’t you see the RAGE?’ But that’s my point. I think life, motherhood, womanhood, is a mixed bag of beauty, chaos, uncertainty, anger and resignation, all in one.”
Elizabeth Sanchez, a Mexican-born, Latter-day Saint who paints quirky depictions of the domestic mingled with symbols and images of her heritage, underscores the support she has found for her work. “To all the artist moms trying to find balance in motherhood and being creative — there isn’t such a thing,” she says. “However, focusing your attention between the two doesn’t make you less artist or less mother.”
Susan Krueger Barber began her art career after college making paintings during her young children’s naptime, before eventually turning her art-making practice into full-fledged local activism. In 2015, she literally buried herself in dirt and emerged with the alter ego “Art Grrrl,” oftentimes dressed in a homemade superhero costume. A recent project consists of placing hundreds of figures around her neighborhood. These figures have heads encased in a mold of jello as commentary on her religious roots (in cultural lore, Latter-day Saints love Jello), and the idea that viewers perceive morality, politics, spirituality and life in general through their own particular lens of experience. “The environments and events I generate borrow meaning from the complex and sometimes conflicting origin stories of my respective lineages, namely: DIY, Queer, Feminist and Mormon,” she says in regards to herself as an artist.
Representations of God, and in more recent history, the addition of a female God, play a part in the art created in Utah. Many artists create work directly in relation to Latter-day Saint doctrines. This body of work is evolving and in many ways being led by women who insist on taking charge of the way they understand and perceive their spiritual experience. A few years ago the work of Caitlin Connolly could have been seen as subversive, or on the edge of the Latter-day Saint canon, but in recent years, the institution itself has embraced representations of a Heavenly Mother. Connolly’s work also depicts struggles with infertility, and her own evolution to a mother of twins, as she paints female figures as holy and powerful, often in communion with other women.
In her work, Paige Crosland Anderson seems nestled in the intellectual space of the domestic. “Pioneer quilt patterns are symbols of my cultural heritage,” says Anderson. “Not only am I the descendant of Mormon pioneers who crossed the plains but also my grandmother Donna was an expert quilter.” That adds context to viewers who see the layered and seemingly endless patterns of her paintings. “I paint the same pattern several times in different colors until there are an indiscernible number of underlayers,” Anderson says of her process. The paintings feel indicative of what a traditional spiritual life can look like, repetitious, even dull from the outset, but rich with texture, color and surprise the longer viewers look at it.