When and how did you become interested in art history?
I have always been interested in art: I drew biomorphic blobs in kindergarten and in high school took all the art classes. My art teacher saw my interest and began sharing books with me so I could learn about artists along the journey. The art history program at Penn State was broad and challenging; it’s where I learned to see art as a reflection of so much: of culture, religion, geography, innovation. I loved learning about the motivation behind a work of art and finding connections between artists and their environments.
What factors influenced your decision to make this your career?
I received a lot of positive feedback from my undergraduate professors: I was awarded the College of Arts & Architecture Award for Creative Achievement while at Penn State. After moving to Salt Lake City in the early 1980s, I began a career as an art librarian, which eventually took me to New York City. I enrolled in the graduate art history program at Hunter College, eventually completing the degree after moving back to Salt Lake City.
What aspect of your work are you most passionate about?
The work I’m most passionate about is teaching, writing, and exploring. While teaching, it’s all about engaging students with the material so they can begin to piece together history through art and think critically about content. When I’m writing, the passion flies when I find hidden connections and new ways to consider art. While working on my book, I researched several topics for long periods of time; in some cases for several years. I couldn’t let go of the connection that was around the corner. Exploring brings each facet of my work into sharper focus, whether it’s exploring art collections or exploring art in the landscape.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your work?
The answer for each area of my work is the same – just keeping up! Teaching requires consistent energy and the ability to keep the world at bay while in the classroom. Writing requires a very different kind of energy and time, which I need to carve out so that I can focus. Exploring could be a full time job! If I come home from an adventure and don’t have the next one planned, I’m out of sorts. Maybe the most challenging aspect of my work is the temporal nature of things.
In your years as teacher and scholar, what have you found to be the most fulfilling and/or surprising?
When asked to teach at Westminster College, I said no for several months, then gave in to the request to teach one class. I had not taught before and was quite insecure about taking on a new venture at that point of my life. Two weeks into teaching I thought: this is what I’m meant to do. It took time, but I developed a level of confidence in my voice as a teacher that translated to my scholarship. It has been fulfilling beyond measure to work with students, and recently surprising to find that I enjoy working with high schools students as well. That initial class was in 2006 and I’ve been teaching ever since.
How did you choose to focus on the Spiral Jetty?
I moved back to Utah in 1994 while still enrolled in Hunter College. Friends encouraged me to see theSpiral Jetty, which became visible in 1993 after being submerged for twenty years. By the time I actually found Rozel Point, in 1996, the Spiral Jetty was under water again, so I didn’t see it for another few years. During this time, however, I began researching the earthwork and had the opportunity to interview Bob Phillips, the construction foreman on the job for Smithson. Bob lived in Ogden near my family so it was easy to find him, then talk with him. His information regarding the construction of the earthwork was new information that hadn’t been published to date. I also interviewed Bob Bliss, former dean of the school of architecture at the University of Utah, who also knew Smithson. The focus on “local reaction” to the Spiral Jetty became my graduate thesis and the platform I maintained throughout research for the book.
What do you find most inspiring about Robert Smithson?
Smithson was a polymath and through his extensive studies and intellectual inquiries, he opened up new ways of seeing the world and influencing the world of art. His interests were so broad ranging. He was able to connect, sometimes quite tangentially, a wide variety of topics. It’s very exciting to study the work of one artist, who then opens up the world to many artists and ideas.
One of the classes you teach is called “Environments and the Space of Art.” Can you explain a little about that topic?
I was asked to lead a group of faculty in the Honors College at Westminster College to create this new course by following Honors’ guidelines: the course would be taught by two interdisciplinary faculty, who would use primary texts as guides to student-engaged classroom discussion and experiential learning. Faculty from fine arts, music, biology, arts appreciation, and environmental studies worked with two honors students to looks at natural and fabricated environments and the many ways we view and interpret the world around us. The class is offered annually, each year with a new compliment of instructors. I taught with Matt Kruback (painting/drawing faculty) in the spring of 2017, and next year will teach with Brent Olson (environmental studies faculty). The course is incredibly rich, allowing students to bring so much to the table. With discussions that begin with questions such as “what is the true nature of art” and “how do you define ‘nature,’” we are never at a loss for discussion.
Can you tell us something about how you approach your own work as an artist in photography? Growing up on the east coast, I had a certain lens within which to consider the landscape around me. When my family moved to Utah, I initially found the landscape to be alien, devoid of depth or detail. It wasn’t until I moved back to Utah in the 1990s and began to study the Spiral Jetty that I began to document the region, at first just to supplement my memory and capture information. Eventually, I found I had an eye for composition. My initial small craft flight over Great Salt Lake was the game-changer. The lake is made up of untold microenvironments, with additional changes brought on by weather and proximity. I find great inspiration in the ways this one body of water changes and shifts so radically. It really is an ideal region to photograph. I seek out details that provide information, which is usually incomplete (which is how I like it) within the larger picture.
What draws you to the Great Salt Lake?
Certainly my attraction began with studying the Spiral Jetty, and grew from there. I love the lake itself, the strange materiality of its composition and surroundings. Its ecology is fascinating, particularly its vast avian populations. And as a subject for scholarship, it provides so much inspiration and avenues of expression. I’m currently engaged in researching my next book, which I can loosely describe as a cultural history of the lake. Through hundreds of years and multiple new ways the lake has been used and viewed, it will be exciting to see where the research leads in the next few years to complete this project.