Local Utah artist’s work reflects on community, beauty of Utah’s wetlands

Story, video and pictures by JAVAN RIVERA

Slideshow courtesy of Shawn Porter

Derk’s Field photo courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society

For everyday people the world can often seem dull. We wander through our lives, habitually proceeding from task to task. Rarely do we stop to appreciate the

Shawn Porter, 43, with a sample of the Braille text that will be displayed on his artwork.

world around us, much less take inspiration from it.

Shawn Porter, however, is not an everyday person. The facilities supervisor for the arts and sculpture buildings at the University of Utah, Porter sees inspiration in places few would think to look. From that inspiration are born pieces of art that are as reflective of their environments as they are creatively breathtaking.

Porter, who has had work featured in both public places as well as more traditional gallery settings, didn’t begin his career as an artist. In fact, his artistic inspiration stems from more practical creations.

Having grown up in Lehi, Utah, Porter, 43, spent more than 13 years working as a professional woodworker, designing and creating functional pieces of furniture. It was that time spent honing his skills with wood that actually allowed him to branch into art, Porter said.

“The technical end of woodworking or being a craftsman has given me a platform to spring off of as far as making artwork is concerned,” Porter said. “People often say, half-jokingly, if you can build a chair you can build anything.”

Since coming to the U, Porter has expanded his use of materials beyond wood. His time working in the Department of Art and Art History has allowed him to gain a better knowledge of the “artist’s dialogue and process.”

In 2010 Porter began working on a project for the Utah Transit Authority’s (UTA) “art in transit” program. The agency, in collaboration with the Salt Lake City Arts Council, commissions local artists to create pieces for the various TRAX stations and routes that run throughout the Salt Lake Valley.

Porter believes public art, such as his work for “art in transit,” should be reflective of the cultural and historical values of the area in which it’s being placed.

“In a way I think public art is in place to represent the community,” Porter said.

He wants his work to be as much a representation of the public area surrounding it as it is a creative piece of art.

“That’s what public art is really supposed to do. That’s what it’s intended for, in my mind. That is, it isn’t just pretty decoration in a location. It definitely references local environment, culture, history, and it all depends on the history and culture of that area.”

Justin Diggle, an assistant professor of the Department of Art and Art History, at the U, agrees with Porter. Having worked on the committees for both the Salt Lake Art and Design Board in 2003, as well as the University committees, Diggle aided in the selection process for past “art in transit” pieces.

“With any public art I think you have to be sensitive to the area,” Diggle said. “You have to be sensitive to the people who live around there, people who are going to use it.”

Porter’s work will be installed at the 1950 W. North Temple TRAX stop, and will be modeled after the wetlands and waterways that exist between the Salt Lake City Airport and the stop. It’s expected to be installed around September of this year.

Porter said he wants his work to draw attention to the fact that the Great Salt Lake is actually a thriving wetland full of life.

“It [the Great Salt Lake] is not just a wasteland. It’s not just this smelly thing that people think it is,” Porter said. “It really is a thriving ecosystem.”

Porter’s minimalistic design for his “art in transit” project will be made primarily of stainless steel, a bit of a departure from the wood materials he’s used for most of his life. The change has been a good one, he said.

“That’s the challenge I really enjoy. The thinking through an idea and then bringing that to life through the use of different materials and the complexity of those materials.”

Porter’s work will include two large steel plates, elevated two feet above the ground to simulate a river’s surface. It will also include segmented pipes that evoke the idea of river reeds resting among a riverbed of smoothed metal stones. Porter is fabricating three minimalist representations of birds associated with the Utah wetlands that will also be placed throughout the piece.

“I think it’s really critical also to draw visitors into that conversation of—what is this place? What is it like? What might I experience in visiting Salt Lake City?” Porter said.

He wanted to ensure his work reflected more than just the natural surroundings leading up to his stop, but also the areas of public access nearby. For the 1950 W. North Temple stop, that includes the Utah State Library for the Blind and Disabled.

As a way of incorporating the library into his piece, Porter included an artist’s statement about the piece as well as some poetry about the Great Salt Lake and the birds that migrate there. The poetry will be written in Braille, directly on the piece.

A sample of the Braille text that will be featured on Porter's artwork.

Roni Thomas, the public art program manager for the Salt Lake City Arts Council, said that Porter’s inclusion of Braille on the piece was yet another inspiration from the well of his creativity.

“Shawn recognized that there was an opportunity to reach out to an audience that ordinarily couldn’t participate because of their visual impairment,” Thomas said.

Whether it be through addition of Braille, or simply, the inspired reflection of Utah’s beauty, one thing is certain—Porter’s creativity is sure to shine through his new piece.

“A lot of people just look at public art as decoration,” Porter said. “But I think it’s important for people to take something from the work that is there. Whether they recognize that it is a representation of something in their community or not, I think at the base level people can at least take [something] from the aesthetic.”

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