This past Friday evening was surprisingly nice after raining for nearly half the day; a cool breeze with sunny skies and the fresh rain smell are a good combo for a Gallery Stroll night. --- This month was exceptional for the fact that it's the biggest one so far in 2012 with over 35 locations participating in the monthly artistic jog around downtown and hotspot SLC locations. Just to get around to every location this month had to be a challenge on the body or the gas tank alone, not including seeing the over 100 artists involved.
This month, I made my way over to Phillips Gallery on 200 South to check out a triple threat exhibition. Our old friend Cordell Taylor was on display with his sculptures, as well as abstract paintings from Randee Levine and narrative paintings from Lori Nelson. Today, we chat with the ladies about their work, along with pictures from the gallery for you to check out here.
Gavin: Hey, Randee. First thing, tell us a bit about yourself.
Randee: I'm a native New Yorker living out West, mostly in Utah, since my late 20s.
Gavin: What first got you interested in art, and what were some of your early inspirations?
Randee: My earliest inspiration was my mother. Though she wasn't formally trained as an artist, she was, and is, wildly creative and expressive. I grew up in a very creative environment. When I got to college, I was turned on to Josef Albers' Interaction Of Color, which has inspired me ever since.
Gavin: You received your BFA from the State University at New York back in '81. What originally attracted you to its program, and what was your time like there?
Randee: I was attracted to SUNY Purchase because it was a state school with an alternative approach to education that combined programs in the liberal arts with conservatory programs in the arts. It was founded by Nelson Rockefeller in the '60s to offer state-school students a small liberal-arts college experience. My experience there remains one of the best times of my life. I was introduced to so many new ways of seeing and thinking and understanding the world. I had amazing teachers and friends, and I got to spend four years focusing on my art and creativity. Not bad.
Gavin: What drew your interest towards painting, specifically abstract works? And what was it like for you branching out into the genre and creating your own pieces?
Randee: I wasn't born with the natural talent or the patience for mastering representational work. Though while I was in college, I developed a fair amount of skill for it. Anyway, I've always been interested in non-consensus/subjective reality. I'm particularly interested in the unintentional, spontaneous, chance aspects of art and life, and noticing the beauty in what might be considered unimportant or wrong.
Gavin: You spent many years in the New York scene, with a stint in Los Angeles. What formally brought you to Utah and what made you decide to stay here?
Randee: Escape from New York and a relationship brought me to Utah. I've left a couple of times, but have come back because it's an easy place to live, which allows me time to make art and be with my friends.
Gavin: How was it for you at the time breaking into the local art scene, and what were your initial thoughts of what was happening here at that time?
Randee: I don't feel like I broke into the art scene here because I wasn't pushing to get in. I began selling my work from my studio and then showed in informal group shows and eventually got a few pieces into a Phillips Gallery group show. And now a solo show. It's been a natural progression. I feel fortunate to have my work seen in the context of Phillips.
Gavin: Beyond your artwork, you've also run your own private teaching practice for 20 years. What has it been like for you contributing back creatively in that way?
Randee: I don't teach art classes, I teach something called Process Work, which is an awareness practice that involves many channels of perception and expression and so includes art. It combines psychology, spirituality and creativity in a way that allows for a lot of artistic expression.
Gavin: You've also been an instructor for Academic Outreach Continuing Education at the University of Utah. How did that opportunity come about, and what has it been like for you being a part of that program?
Randee: My work with the U, the county and the courts are all connected with Process Work and Diversity training.
Gavin: Tell us about the works you have on display for this month's Stroll.
Randee: My current work at Phillips Gallery shows diversity. While all the work is about color and gesture and layers, there is a continuum of emphasis that allows you to see a range of work. Some of the pieces emphasize color, while others are mainly about gesture. Some are still, while others are active; some are quiet, while others are loud; some are structured, while others are more free, etc. Influenced by the New York abstract expressionists, color-field painters and graffiti art, the show reflects my longtime fascination with color and my current interest in the gesture of the written word.
Gavin: What are your thoughts on being displayed at Phillip's Gallery along with Lori and Cordell?
Randee: I am thrilled to be shown with Lori and Cordell. I don't know either of them very well personally, but have been an admirer of each of their work for a long time. When I look at Cordell's work, I see what may be shared influences with my own work.
Gavin: Before you go, what are your thoughts on our art scene, both good and bad?
Randee: As an abstract artist, I am encouraged to see more non-representational, conceptual and cutting-edge art being shown, appreciated and bought. While I love a beautiful Utah landscape, I am happy to see more and more diversity of styles, especially those that challenge us and raise questions.
Gavin: Hey, Lori. First off, tell us a bit about yourself.
Lori: Hello, SLC! I'm a Brooklyn-based painter who got her start in Salt Lake City. I spent much of my youth there in Salt Lake, taking the mountains and cool summer evenings for granted. I now keep a studio in the DUMBO neighborhood in Brooklyn, but feel much fondness for Salt Lake City. I've got a family and a dog and live in a fourth-floor walk-up. I'm reading Sons and Lovers again right now, wondering how D.H. Lawrence crams so much crystalline description into his work, verbalizing in 1913 exactly how I often feel now. How'd he do that? Can I do that with paint? That's me.
Gavin: What first got you interested in art, and what were some of your early inspirations?
Lori: I had an art problem quite early in childhood. Over and over, teachers complained that if I drew less, I'd get much better grades. I didn't, and I didn't. Beneath a cloud of exasperation, I knew art was the only road for me and found myself compelled. I loved the possibility of creating portals to other realities with nothing but a #2 pencil and loose leaf. And, being socially awkward, I drew to make friends. The fact that I could instantly depict nudity and amorous congress, however inaccurate, made me pretty popular in junior high. This was before the Internet. I still sometimes rely upon this trick.
Gavin: You received your BFA from the University of Utah back in 1993. What made you choose the U and what was its program like at that time?
Lori: I actually started out in the BFA program at BYU. I was at a crossroads during my early college years, on board with parts of Mormonism, but really questioning some of the fundamentals. I started living alone in my sophomore year above an old grocery in Provo, where I could paint alone and leave my mess set up 24/7. This was my first real studio and I loved it because I could paint all night, spill stuff, drag inspirational junk home, totally inhabit my creative world. Unfortunately, somebody turned me in for not living in BYU-approved housing and for living alone with no roommate: a BYU no-no. I was threatened with expulsion if I didn't change my living situation. At that point, I had my come-to-Jesus moment. Why was I taking up space at BYU? There were others who wanted and deserved that space. I had applied months before for an art scholarship at the U and, lo and behold, I got it in the mail right in time. There was my answer. At the U, I joined the gloriously messy and unhinged people who really loved my livin'-alone, nudie-drawin' ways. I felt incredibly free. I questioned everything with much encouragement. More than anything, the fine art program at the U fostered individuality. I thrived. Sam Wilson and Maureen O'Hara Ure were both instrumental in my art ed.
Gavin: During those years, what sparked your interest in painting and portrait works?
Lori: I didn't, and don't, do much portrait work per se. Edouard Vuillard said, “I don't paint portraits, I paint people in their surroundings.” I'd go along with that and add that I really like to paint people in rough and awkward situations. I think it's funny and I think it's real. I have a piece at Phillips now called "Me Thinking of You Thinking of Me." It's a weird little piece with a man working at some tech startup, lost in a fantasy about a woman at another startup who's lost in reverie about that man, with his mediocre bod, in his underwear. We all fall into this situation where we hope and fear people are thinking about us, right? So this is one of those moments that you wouldn't say, "That's a good subject for a painting"! But, like D.H. Lawrence, I'm trying to land on fleeting under-described truths. I want people to say, "I know that guy," or, even better, "Crap, that guy is me"!
Gavin: What was it like for you breaking into the SLC art scene during that period, and how was it for you switching between the group showcases and the one-woman shows?
Lori: I was fortunate that right out of college, I started landing solo shows. I was lucky to be in Salt Lake City, where people were receptive to narrative work. But I love a good group show. I really like themed shows. They're fun.
Gavin: You lived in Utah for several years, but then made the move to NYC. What brought on that decision, and what was the transition like for you both as a person and an artist?
Lori: I was hitting a wall with my work about nine years ago. I'd been painting successfully about motherhood with young children, much of it wry, but felt at a point that my wings were only partially flexed. I supposed I yearned to be smacked around by the art world a little. What better place for that pleasure than New York? I had a solo show coming up in a Utahn-owned gallery in SoHo and decided to take the kids, rent an apartment for the summer in Brooklyn, and execute the paintings in NYC; the shipping of the work from SLC would have cost about the same as airfare. Once in Brooklyn, I saw I could do this here, I can raise kids and paint here. I saw this great big art planet yawn out in front of me and I felt small, intimidated, and so, so excited. I saw a world where my wingspan, fully flexed, was teensy. I got fresh ideas. I enrolled the kids in school, sold our house in SLC, and said, "Let's do it." It was shockingly easy to execute. The transition was difficult and fantastic. We let go of so many heavy things by moving to the city. No car, no trampoline, no bulk groceries. My kids were young so they adapted quickly. They're in great shape now. They know from schlepping! Everyday, I am in contact with people because of the compactness of the city, and this is imperative for my work. I felt pretty isolated in Salt Lake because I tended to stay in my little universe and, when necessary, travel in isolation by car. The forced interaction here is important. I get so much out of this crazy city and its inhabitants.
Gavin: Was it any harder for you to break into the NYC scene, and what were the major differences between here and there for you?
Lori: You know, it took several years to even comprehend the NYC art scene. I was used to one art scene. I finally realized there is no one scene, but rather many, many local scenes. The city is comprised of neighborhoods and each neighborhood has its art scene. Some of the scenes are commercial and cold and comprised of slick work fabricated for artists by Chinese factories, much like your iPhone. There is a lot of money in this scene, but it doesn't hold much interest for me. Other scenes are indie/DIY-centric with lots of emphasis on the artist's mark. This feels good to me. I don't know if I'll ever feel like I've mastered a scene. I do feel comfortable, though, often dealing directly out of my studio to clients who are or will be my friends. The young women who primarily represent me otherwise are a pair of early career dealers who saw my work during an open-studio event and work their tails off getting it out there because they believe in it. They're about to open their first gallery close to my studio. That's my scene, I suppose, and it's scene enough! Lovely. I also participate a lot in conceptual-art projects here, where I interact with the public. I do this work with groups of young curators, tomorrow's heavy-hitters, I'm certain. This kind of work is often political and makes no money, but I feel it is important. I have an ongoing project, "Souvenirs From a Recession" where people donate their handwritten tales about how the recession has affected them and I illustrate the story on tiny wooden plaques. I have hundreds of stories and the collection travels and grows as the Recession goes on and on and on. The plaques just came back from Los Angeles. I also do projects at OWS, weather permitting.
Gavin: What's the process like for you when creating a new piece, from initial design to final product?
Lori: I try to identify a moment that seems archetypical but not heretofore addressed very much. When I paint a beast, I'm saying, "This is the outsider, the stranger, the unknown, the marginal." What a subject is doing with that beast is the story of the painting. I often riff on things I see in the news or on the streets. Or on the subway. Often I work with personal beasties. Or I borrow my friends' beasts. I go straight to sketching on the panel. I used to sketch and plot separately, but not so much anymore. I like the urgency of drawing and sketching on the panel itself. I love to have the history of the painting visible, too. It's like graffiti, painted over, and over. That's tasty.
Gavin: Do you give yourself much room to play with your works while making them or are you very strict about sticking to the plan when you start one?
Lori: I'm not strict with myself. The only constraints I impose are time constraints. Sometimes, I have to forcibly rip a painting out of my hands and kick my heiney down the line to the next piece. Otherwise, I say, play! Use crap from the sidewalk, mix up the chemicals, mix up the metaphors, and go. Attack old work. Respect nothing you've ever done. It's all in play. It's all play.
Gavin: Since the move, you've come back to Utah frequently for exhibitions of your work while still keeping to NYC. What keeps bringing you back to Utah?
Lori: Oh, Utah! I love thee! Utah has so much awesomeness. Daughter of the Utah Pioneers, Gilgal Gardens, Deseret Industries. Some of the most honestly creative people I know come from Utah. I don't know what it is. People have to fight for their right to really, really express themselves and when they do, they do it big. Is that it? Y'all can't keep me away. It's my foundation.
Gavin: You've also been showing around the U.S. in places like Colorado, Tennessee and Texas. How has it been for you branching out across the nation, and how is it for you being a traveling artist these days
Lori: Well, my work gets invited, I don't. The arts are pretty tight in the funds these days. If you can UPS the work, that's the way. But I always wonder what my work saw out there.
Gavin: Tell us about the works you have on display for this month's Stroll.
Lori: I feel like this work is a return to Funny. I'm not going to lie, the economy savaged me and my family and so my last show was pretty dark. It was a dark palette and dark subjects for dark days. But how long can we be kept down, you know? At some point, I dusted all the char off me and my studio and found a candy-coated surface! Coincidentally, a candy store opened downstairs. And a cake store. Still, you will see beasts. But they are falling in love and starting families in this show, amid a candy-colored candyscape. Oh, also, you will see a big painting depicting the birth of the Internet.
Gavin: What are your thoughts on being displayed at Phillips Gallery along with Cordell and Randee?
Lori: Cordell and I go way, way back. I'm happy to show with him. His work is so masculine. Randee? I don't know her, but she seems to have good flow. She seems spiritual. I aspire to spirituality. Alas, I am a clown.
Gavin: Moving on to local art, what are your thoughts on our art scene, both good and bad?
Lori: I'm lost! Salt Lake has transformed itself and I feel lost there now. I used to scrape by living in the cheapies over by Pioneer Park, and now it's very cute there. It's disorienting. But there are pockets I know. I know about Frosty Darling. And for music, Kilby Court is the royal hotness, no? I'm sure there are more upstarts there. Salt Lake's always had a healthy underground.
Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make things more prominent?
Lori: I think if Utah would only get okay with its weirdness it would finally come into its own. There is no place like it. It's weird. Go there. I'm discouraged when I see culture imported from elsewhere that uproots the organic goodness in Salt Lake City. Hell, that's true in New York, too, I guess.
Gavin: What's your opinion on Gallery Stroll today and the work being displayed each month?
Lori: It's really been too long for me to say. I remember the Gallery Stroll's being festive in SLC, though. I love that people bring their young children to openings in Utah. I miss that at NYC openings.
Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of this year?
Lori: Expect more kawaii.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Lori: My hardworking dealers can be found here. Thank you for your interest in my work, Gavin. I owe Salt Lake City. It gave me the courage and confidence to be an artist.
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