In a light-filled studio at the Modern West Gallery in Salt Lake City, visual artist Laura Sharp Wilson – 56, with lapis blue eyes, a blonde bob haircut and wearing a collarless T-shirt on a warm March day – works on a new collection of textile-inspired pieces, who examine society’s relationship to nature and the charged meanings of inheritance, like their grandparents’ teacups, which they believe offer a unique way of examining issues of class and race.
“I’m interested in what European immigrants thought of this country, my great-grandparents who emigrated and settled as working-class farmers in St. Louis or Jersey City—what did they think of racial situations and the melting pot of this country? said Wilson. “Has owning a silver tea set made you feel ‘better than’? What I love about visual art is that it gives you new ways to have that conversation.”
Wilson leads this conversation as one of the current artists-in-residences at Salt Lake‘s Modern West Gallery, whose residency program is helping to spur the state’s creative comeback from the pandemic-induced decline in artistic funding through sponsorships, which is supporting the work by emerging and mid-career artists. The unique program comes at a time when artists say cultural work is urgently needed to heal the collective pain and uncertainty of recent years.
“I can’t think of any other examples of commercial galleries where artists like us actually work in the gallery. It’s pretty unusual. I lived in New York, North Carolina, Washington state. I’ve lived everywhere and I’ve never seen it,” Wilson said. “So this is a tremendous contribution to the arts community of Salt Lake City.”
Founded in 2014, Modern West promotes an aesthetic to “reshape our understanding of the American West,” including works like that of emerging visual artist Billy Schenck, whose style conjures up cinematic imagery in hot colors and deals with the clash of wilderness and Civilization, and whose all-landscape exhibition at A Land Less Traveled gallery ends this month after a successful run.
Not content with just selling art, the gallery’s residency program has nurtured many local artists who she hopes will contribute to the creative dynamism of a city whose art scene is quickly making a name for itself on the city’s cultural map country power.
Groomed for an art life
The Modern West residency is the latest stepping stone in a long journey for Wilson, whose upbringing prepared her for a life in the arts.
Her art-loving grandparents regularly dragged Wilson around the major museums of Washington, DC, where they lived. Her mother worked as a modern dance choreographer and exposed her to theater and dance performances during her childhood in New York and New Jersey.
After graduating with a Master of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Wilson pursued her interest in costume design, took up theater and studied surface textile design at North Carolina State University before teaching at the Fabric workshop in Philly.
Now, Wilson brings together the diversity of her interests and experiences at Modern West’s studio, where her work monitors the collision of visual and textural worlds while suggesting realism and abstraction.
Her signature style is graphic, acrylic and fabric pieces on mulberry paper, a canvas-like medium made from plant fibers favored by Wilson for its textured and translucent body that is sturdy despite being lightweight.
The mulberry paper was originally pursued as a practical solution to the costly expense of shipping canvases – in the expectation that they would curl up like a scroll. Although she chose not to roll her finished work, she still stuck with mulberry for its textural, cloth-like quality.
“I honestly feel like I’m doing different work than if I wasn’t here. It freshens up the process.”
Across from Wilson, in a west-facing studio, Kheng Lin works on a different style that explores the relationships between opposites in color field abstraction with oil on canvas.
Lin, 37, was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to a Buddhist family from which he distinguished himself in two respects: he was the only one interested in the arts and the only one who belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints years converted. day saints. When he moved to Utah in 2011 to study art at Brigham Young University, he was moved by the vastness of the West.
“I remember when I first came to Provo from the airport it was really impressive how close the mountains are and how big they are. And later, when I saw places like the Salt Flats, I couldn’t grasp how much space there is,” said Lin, contrasting this with the narrow and dense cityscape of his Southeast Asian upbringing.
“In my art I tend towards simple forms and open color fields. The Utah landscape really influenced me in that way. My work is about chaos and order, and that’s what it felt like to drive in these vast expanses. There are no limits, but there is no control. I felt like I could do anything but at the same time do nothing.”
After college, Lin worked in a furniture shop before applying his woodworking skills to his own framing business, which supports him and his 4-year-old daughter but doesn’t always give him the time he wants to devote to his art. He says the residency helped by bringing to the fore the importance of painting in his life and leading to a psychologically enhanced sense of self-discipline.
Although for Lin, perhaps the greatest value of the residency is the official association with the gallery, which provides community and creative inspiration while raising his profile as an artist, something that is key to his ultimate goal of living a self-sustaining artistic lifestyle.
“My endgame would be to just paint, to make art, like a full-time artist,” said Lin, who believes the residency is moving him in that direction. “Institutions give an artist credibility. The gallery has done a great job with the promotion and the final exhibition will attract attention. I feel like they really want to help artists.”
Modern West aims to be more than a retail gallery. In addition to its residencies, it offers community workshops, discussions and events, with a tasteful interior adorned with works by over 30 local artists, along with mid-century wicker chairs and potted plants, creating a stylish and disarming vibe. useful is used once.
“It’s a commercial gallery but also a bit of a community center. The way the gallery is set up gives people a chance to come in and feel how some of the artwork would look like if it were in your living space,” Wilson said.
Community is especially important in an industry where sacrifice is the order of the day, even for established artists.
Wilson, for example, has achieved many milestones in her artistic career, along with multiple residency awards including Huntsman Cancer Center Artist-in-Residence, and representation by McKenzie Fine Art Gallery in New York City. But creative work alone cannot support them financially.
“I don’t do it for a living, and I feel like it’s almost impossible to get to this point. It’s incredibly difficult because like any creative discipline, you have to spend a lot of time doing something that doesn’t make you money to get good at it,” Wilson said, adding that residency programs like Modern West’s do are therefore essential to broader artistic progress. “Because we all know that art is incredibly important culturally and we want it to always be there for us.”