Public art initiative continues cultural legacy for University of Utah, state

Story and photos by CHRIS SAMUELS

When University of Utah students walk down the main stairs of the Marriott Library, they may not notice a 50-foot-tall mosaic of a stack of books.

Students walk by a public art piece in the Marriott Library.

Students walk by a mosaic created by Paul Housberg in the Marriott Library.

Or, while they’re studying on the third floor common area, they may not see a giant arch with Arabic and mathematical equations that wraps around the center of the open space.

Even in less noticeable areas, sculptures of books rest on bannisters and landings as students pass them by.

After they leave the library, many may be looking at their phones rather than observing sculptures at each of the Utah Transit Authority’s TRAX stations on campus.

Hidden in plain sight, public art can be noticed anywhere on campus.

Art instillations in spaces like the library and other buildings are actually a fixture of the university.

Luise Poulton, rare books manager at the Marriott Library, said three public art pieces were commissioned when the library was renovated in 2009. The works include a 50-foot glass mosaic that scales all floors of the grand staircase titled, “Another Beautiful Day Has Dawned Upon Us,” by Paul Housberg, and a collection of sculptures of books by Suikang Zhao.

But art in public spaces is not just an initiative of the University of Utah.

The state unveiled the Percent-for-Art Act in 1985 in an effort to introduce more art in public spaces and reach more audiences. According to the bill, the measure designates 1 percent of the cost of the building be spent on furnishing the space with permanent public art pieces. The intention of the act is to enhance “the quality of life in the state by placing art of the highest quality in public spaces where it is seen by the general public.” The act also “promotes and preserves appreciation for and exposure to the arts; and foster[s] cultural development in the state and encourage[s] the creativity and talents of its artists and craftspeople.”

A public art piece inside the Spencer Fox Eccles Building.

A public art piece inside the Spencer Fox Eccles Building.

Gay Cookson is director of the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, the state department that has authority over the bill. Cookson said public art enhances many of the newly created public spaces around the state, as well as the frequent construction projects that are going on around the U.

“I love that the statute is at 1 percent, and that public buildings have to be invested into arts,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to set aside a budget for arts, but with the statute, it’s really the one time when a building is being built that they recognize they need to do a significant investment in art. Even though it’s forced by statute, they were excited to be engaged in the work.”

Obtaining the art, Cookson said, is a process of application and determining what fits best with each publicly funded building. When it is nearing completion, a committee comprised of planners, building managers and those who will be using the space will review proposals for art pieces. At least one art expert is always included in the group.

Cookson said when a new project is considered, the Division of Arts and Museums can receive up to 40 different proposals by artists from Utah or across the country. The committee’s responsibility is to narrow the list down to three finalists. Those finalists are given $1,000 to construct a model to present to the committee. Then, a winner is selected and is given the funding to proceed with the art piece.

Cookson emphasized that the entire committee is not reliant on art expertise. She wants those who will view the instillations much more frequently than experts to make the decisions.

A sculpture of a book is displayed outside the Marriott Library

A sculpture of a book by artist Suikang Zhao is displayed outside the Marriott Library.

“We want the final say to be on who will be living in that space,” she said. “Which is kind of cool because you’re empowering people who really have no artistic experience to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on art.”

Since the act’s inception in 1985, every new publicly funded building that is constructed must have 1 percent of the total cost of the building be dedicated to art, according to the bill. Buildings that were already completed by the time the bill was introduced are grandfathered in, and do not need to retroactively install pieces.

Administrators of public buildings can opt out of the art requirement if a certain percentage of the costs of building the structures are not met by public funds, according to the language of the bill. This was the case for the newly-completed S. J. Quinney Law School, which had enough private donor money in place to exempt it from the Percent-for-Art Act. However, Cookson said law school leaders wanted to honor the importance of art in public spaces, and complied with the mandate.

After a work is completed, the Division of Arts and Museums is responsible for the maintenance and repair of the pieces, according to the bill.

On the Utah public art website, finalists and commissioned artists of each project are publicly listed, with their website or portfolio attached.

A public art piece outside the Sorensen Arts and Education Complex.

A public art piece outside the Sorensen Arts and Education Complex.

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.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

%d bloggers like this: