Arts education empowers Salt Lake City

Story by PALAK JAYSWAL

Salt Lake City is home to a growing art scene. Whether it be intricate murals that color the sides of buildings or exhibitions and galleries, there is something for all art lovers. 

Many of the artists on the west side of Salt Lake City use their art as activism, teaching people about their culture through their work and educational experiences. Activists and artists find their path in several different ways, but increasingly on the west side, education seems to direct them.

Jennifer Mayer-Glenn, the director of University Neighborhood Partners (UNP), a program dedicated to bringing greater civic engagement to the west side, has seen the impact of art education. Working with organizations like the Mestizo Institute of Culture & Arts (MICA), Mayer-Glenn said, “Art is a way to connect with the community.”

One example of such impact is featured in the 2020 issue of “Community Voices,” the UNP magazine. A group of 10 youth artists participated in an art residency where they collaborated on the creative process. The result is a mural located at Sugar Space Arts Warehouse that explores the theme of cultural identity. One of the lead artists on the project, Ruby Chacón, holds an art legacy here in Utah — and she has experience with using her artistic voice for activism. 

Art as Activism

Chacón graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in fine arts. She credits her education as a catalyst to create art. “The experience of growing up in Utah as a person of color was kind of what informed my work,” Chacón said in a phone interview.

Yet she never imagined she’d become a teacher. After a negative experience with a guidance counselor in high school, who repeatedly told Chacón she would never graduate, the last thing on the artist’s mind was to become an educator.

Ruby Chacón posing next to one of her murals. Photo courtesy of Ruby Chacón.

It wasn’t until Chacón had her own son and had to think about what kind of educational experience she wanted for him that she understood she was in a position of great power. “I realized I need[ed] to go back and change from the ground up what needs to be changed in schools,” Chacón said. “I wanted to be the teacher that some kids might not have.” 

More than that, she wanted to execute in her teaching and art what she didn’t receive as a child: representation and a listening ear. “My whole experience of living in Utah and going through the school system and not seeing myself in books we read, images we saw — they did not represent me,” Chacón said. “For the longest time, I thought we were immigrants because that’s what everyone told us.”

Chacón wants to take control of her cultural narrative and show young kids they are allowed to dream and create art. When the dominant narrative is one that doesn’t include someone who looks like you, it has a lasting impact. Paying it forward is the next step to addressing this issue. 

Chacón’s TRAX Mural. Located at the Jackson\Euclid TRAX station, 850 W. North Temple. Photo courtesy of Ruby Chacón.

“It’s really important that they can see themselves reflected in a positive, dignified way to counter those narratives that are very poisoning to their identities,” Chacón said. She now teaches middle and high school art in a different state. As the co-founder of MICA, she still speaks fondly of the mission and organization: “It brings an insider’s perspective to share their voice through their art. It purposefully resides on the west side.” 

Education Empowers Artists 

Miguel Galaz, another west-side artist, didn’t realize he could pursue art as a career until he reached higher education and took an oil painting class at Salt Lake Community College. Eventually, he discovered the power of art and activism during a backpacking trip through Mexico and Central America, which helped his art career take off. 

“I was exposed to a lot of different cultures that were just fascinating,” Galaz said in a phone interview. “We went to a lot of Mayan ruins, we were just drenched with different colors, textures, food and music throughout the whole trip.”

This cultural deep dive is what led Galaz to understand what he wanted to present with his art. “I was born in Mexico, but raised over here (Utah). I sort of felt like an identity struggle of not belonging. So going on this trip made me feel connected with my identity and the richness of my culture,” he said.

In 2015, when a friend asked him to do a piece for a restaurant located in West Jordan, Utah, he wasn’t expecting controversy to occur. The experience shook Galaz to the core, but it was another pivotal moment.

Miguel Galaz’s mural in West Jordan. Photo courtesy of Miguel Galaz.

“It made me realize the power of art,” Galaz said. “How applying paint to a wall in a certain way to really impact people can move them.” This idea led to the creation of Roots Art Kollective. “We wanted to do something for our communities,” he said. “To inspire people to want to learn more.” 

Chacón and Galaz are just two of many examples of artists who believe in the power of  art education for students. On the west side, this education can lead to community, creation and connectivity. As Jennifer Mayer-Glenn, the director of University Neighborhood Partners put it, “Art is a way to express repression and oppression.” 

 

Gallery creates a space for diversity

by STEPHANIE FERRER-CARTER

John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States of America, stated, “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.”

During this year’s Pride at the U, artists of all sexual preferences found a venue for their visions.

“Art is a big part of queer culture,” said Bonnie Owens, 21, a senior at the University of Utah and an intern at the LGBT Resource Center on campus. “It’s a big part of any culture, so I thought it was important that it was included.”

The theme of the 2007 Pride Week held Oct. 15-20 was “Culture with a Q.” Owens was inspired by the theme, and chose to revamp the idea of an art gallery as part of Pride Week.

“In the past it’s never been successful, but I really wanted it to run well this year,” Owens said.

The art show was originally titled “Beautifully Obscene,” but was renamed “The Good Stuff” after some concern over what would be displayed in the gallery located in the U’s student lounge.

“The best thing about the gallery is that it crosses so many different boundaries,” Owens said. “We’ve got staff, faculty, alumni, community members and students all in here.”

Though it was labeled a LGBTQ art gallery, Owens said anyone could submit their art. Artists did not have to describe the subject matter, just the dimensions of their work.

“Something like this is so odd,” Owens said. “It’s so queer to have a gallery designed for queer students and faculty. So it’s very, very liberating for an artist that’s having a hard time finding their niche. It’s a good place to be.”

A variety of art was displayed in the gallery, including photography, drawings, oil, water color, mixed media and pottery.

While some works were more subdued, the gallery did feature a series of nudes painted by a former alumna who lives in Santa Quin County. Owens said the woman found out about the gallery through a culture article in the Salt Lake Tribune and was eager to show her work, not only because the county did not have a gallery that would display the nudes, but also because two of the woman’s children are gay.

The gallery became a canvas of emotion and statement for some.

Orbin Rockford, 27, submitted five pieces from a series of 25 Sharpie and acrylic paint drawings to the gallery. The dark images portrayed, both in color and tone, stood out starkly from their clean, white backgrounds.

The inspiration came from an emotional break-up that happened while Rockford was in college at a Boston art school.

“I was in a relationship that was totally messed up,” Rockford said. “It was my first real relationship with a guy.”

Drawing, Rockford said, is a form of therapy, what he calls “instinct art.”

“It’s a great outlet,” he said. “It’s been about coming to terms with myself.” 

But Rockford said he does not want his artwork to be defined only by his sexuality.

“It’s very much a part of my work, some pieces more than others,” he said.

Aside from putting the show together, Owens also submitted her own series of black and white photographs. Each one featured student leaders and activists from the U’s LGBTQ groups.

“They [Owens’ photographs] were designed to be shown, so they’re a little more apparent,” she said. “They’re something that you can look at them and say, why is this queer, what is going on here.”

The pieces were on display for the week, and the gallery full of artwork was proof of a goal accomplished, according to Owens.

“Pretty much everyone from different identities and cultures submitted something, which is something the resource center has had a hard time with in the past,” Owens said. “A lot of events this year cater to people who are often forgotten in programming like this, so people of color, transgender individuals, women, straight allies especially. So it’s great to see some of their work in this.”

Cal Nez finds success

by JESSICA DUNN

He dropped her off, watching as she bravely walked away. He couldn’t bear to leave, so he waited outside all day, his anxiety building. Would she be coming back to him?

Finally, after Courtney’s first day of kindergarten, Cal Nez held his oldest daughter in his arms once again. She was completely fine. Nothing had happened, and she had loved it.

He wished he had been as easygoing and happy about school as his children, Courtney, Chelsey and Colby, are.

As a child, Nez didn’t know the comfort of being with his family during the school year. He spent many of those years away from his home in Tocito, N.M. At 6 years old, he left for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School in nearby Sanostee, where he learned to speak English for the first time. He describes the boarding school as a “demon of the past” and a negative and “horrible experience” for him. The children there had to wake up early, stand at attention and were allowed little time to play. It “took away the beauty of childhood,” he said.

It was during this time, though, that Nez discovered his artistic talent. He made his first drawing, a picture of Abraham Lincoln chopping the cherry tree, at boarding school. He had always been an artist, and he knew he was good at duplicating images. But the teacher praised him for his illustration of Abe and gave him a one-dollar bill.

Nez, 50, was born in the Navajo Nation, Tachiinii Clan for the Tanaszanii Clan. His grandparents, Bitonie and Mary B. Nez, raised him.

Nez spent his junior high school years herding sheep and going to public school. Before high school, he learned about the Indian Student Placement Program, where Native American students were placed in Latter-day Saint homes during the school year. It was this exchange that brought him to Utah.

He was reluctant to leave his familiar surroundings, but his grandma encouraged the idea and told him that she had nothing for him in Tocito. He would be better off by going away.

In tears, he left, saying that he would always remember who he was. He promised to return, and he was determined to make it, no matter the trials.

In Salt Lake City, he studied at South High School for three years. He was successful at everything he tried. He received academic honors and was a member of the wrestling team and newspaper staff. He also won the Sterling Scholar Award for the visual arts, proving his artistic talents.

Nez wanted to be a painter or an architect while growing up, until he discovered commercial art. He worked for several graphic design firms, including Ted Nagata Graphic Design, Inc. and Smith and Clarkson Design.

“When he worked for me, his work ethic was unparalleled,” said Larry Clarkson through an e-mail correspondence. “I believe a great deal of his current work philosophy is a result of working with me, as well as another successful designer, Ted Nagata, early in his career.”

Nez’s art was getting recognition and winning awards, so he decided to work for himself. He quit his job, even though his wife, Yolanda, was pregnant.

“I think one of the key parts of starting your own business is insanity,” said Nez.

Nez packed up his portfolio of designs and went to talk to Peter MacDonald, the former Navajo Nation chairman, and his business was born.

Nez started Cal Nez Design, a graphic design and advertising company in Salt Lake City, Utah, 20 years ago. He takes on a variety of projects, and he gets involved, taking time with each of his designs. Nez likes to focus on the message and target audience for each. He brings every piece of his designs together to create the best communication possible, and he strives to keep the Navajo traditions alive through his art.

Cal Nez Design is now one of the oldest companies in the United States owned by a Native American. And Nez was even featured on the cover of Utah Business magazine in October of 2005.

With all his success, Nez has not forgot his people, traditions or where he came from. He visits Tocito, but things are not the same as they used to be. Sheep corral fences have rotted. A roof of a friend’s house has caved in. And there is not a sheep in sight.

But when he returns, he still goes to the top of a mountain nearby that he went to as a child. Today, though, he sits up there with a laptop in his hands and many successes to his name.

Keeping art alive through graphic design

by AARON K. SCHWENDIMAN

A black hat and mirrored aviator sunglasses stares from the page. A Navajo person looks onto an audience cheering for the participants in a rodeo while a carnival goes on in the background. In the reflection is a community joining together for its nations fair.

“I wanted every viewer to ‘become’ a Navajo for a split second and to look through the eyes of a Navajo person,” said Cal Nez, a Navajo-born graphic designer about one of his first works.

In 1989, former Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter McDonald hired Nez to create a poster for the annual Navajo Nation Fair. This is still the most meaningful and powerful piece for Nez.

Staying true to his artistic roots is what has made Nez so successful in the graphic design field. As different forms of art progress, Nez has brought his graphic design business back to the basics and kept the integrity of art alive.  

Nez owns a graphic design firm in Salt Lake City that is presently celebrating its 20th anniversary. Nez has always been an artist at heart and the consistency in providing quality pieces of art for clients has stayed true throughout the years.

Not only is Nez an artist, with his job as the president of the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce he gives a voice to the local Navajo owned businesses. 

Chamber board member Rosemary Giles has known Nez for only a couple months, but is very surprised at how many people he knows in the community.

“That’s what really surprised me, is that when you mention his name in the [Salt Lake] valley, everybody knows him,” Giles said in a phone interview.

Nez was born for the Tanaszanii Clan from Tocito, N.M. He was given to his grandparents, Bitonie and Mary B. Nez, to raise him from infancy. 

At a young age Nez was forced to attend the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School in Sanostee, N.M., where he first learned to speak English.

Even though boarding school was a dark chapter in Nez’s life, it was at that school where he ventured into the world of art. He recalled a picture he created depicting Abraham Lincoln chopping a piece of wood as one of his earliest works. From that experience Nez said that he has always been able to duplicate real life on surfaces.

After boarding school Nez made a conscience decision to move to Utah where he still resides today. Though Nez wanted to stay in New Mexico with his grandparents he knew there was nothing left for him in his community.

“I’m going to make it,” Nez said to his grandmother before for Salt Lake City. And that’s exactly what he did.

Nez attended South High school and graduated as one of the top students in his class and earned a Sterling Scholar award.

Nez worked for several graphic design firms before deciding to take on clients by himself. He was not receiving the credit he deserved for many of his works. So he quit his job and gathered a portfolio of his works together. He drove to New Mexico to see former Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald and was soon hired to do the Navajo Nation Fair poster. Nez has done projects for many clients during the twenty plus years he has been in business and still has the focus and drive he did when he first started.

Abel Saiz, a good friend and vice president of the Chamber described Cal’s artwork in a phone interview as being very “professional.” With his drive and determination he is always focused on keeping his work professional and unique.

Nez said today many graphic design companies have ruined the creative aspect and originality of the graphic design business. Even though the industry has been saturated with pre-installed templates on computers, graphic design companies are demanding the human element side of the graphic design versus standardized design Nez said. 

Nez’s passion for his community and his success in the arts has surpassed many of the hardships he has faced in life. He is a person who keeps the spirit and roots of art alive in his work and it shows through the hundreds of designs he has created for clients such as the Utah Museum of Natural HistoryEastman Kodak CompanyNavajo Transit System and many others.

Nez offered some advice to aspiring graphic design artists: “Bottom line: don’t forget the artistic aspect of art itself.  Keep the integrity of the artistic aspect alive.”