the majority of people in Utah, when they think of places to see
fantastic art, South Salt Lake probably doesn't come up in their top
five all that often.
But to the cultural elite and many of the artists who call Salt Lake City their home, it's one of the best spots to be in. Poor Yorick Studios has been doing well for years now with their bi-annual studio showcases. Remaining an underground phenomenon with no publicity beyond word of mouth, it's managed to become one of the best kept secrets in Utah while still remaining one of the main hotspots of the local art community. I got the opportunity to head in Friday night to wine (frequently), dine (occasionally), snap pictures and chat with the artists who showcased their work for all to see. And let me tell you, there's a lot! Not even the over 100 pictures I took scratches the surface of what can be found during the two day event. Going from contemporary to abstract and all points in between, I got most of the artists for a quick picture and a display of some of their work. I also took the opportunity to talk to the founder (and fellow artist that night) Brad Slaugh about Poor Yorick and various other topics.
Gavin: Who are you and tell us a little about yourself.
Brad: I'm Brad Slaugh and I started Poor Yorick Studios under the name Marmalade Artists Cooperative in 1996, just after returning to Salt Lake from Massachusetts, where I got my MFA from Boston University. I am a painter who grew up in Salt Lake and came back here from New England because I missed the West and strongly suspected my subject matter was back here. There has been the occasional second thought, however.
Gavin: For those who don’t know, what is Poor Yorick Studios?
Brad: Poor Yorick Studios is a collective of 39 individual working artist studios in South Salt Lake City. The name Poor Yorick comes from Hamlet, Act V, Scene1, lines 190-204.
Gavin: How did it get started?
Brad: In Boston I received a fellowship upon graduation that was supposed to be for the advancement of my career. While I was tempted to use it to pay my student loans off, I decided instead that I needed to get a studio and start painting. Once I got back here, I found that there was no available studio space anywhere in the valley, and after getting on the waiting list at Artspace (I was #219 and was told they had a turnover of about 4 spaces a year) I started driving around town looking at buildings that looked old, abandoned or industrial. Eventually I ended up subletting part of a big warehouse space from a guy who made stage sets for summer stock and high school theater productions, and I built my own little 20' x 20' studio space out of 1/8" pegboard and 2" x 2"s that he had lying around in a stack, apparently leftovers from from an arts festival. To make a long story even longer, he went bankrupt within a couple of months and skipped town, leaving the landlord, me and three other tenants hanging. I looked around this 6500 sq. foot building and thought, "If a person divided this up into studio spaces, I bet artists would rent them." So I took over the lease and built the first studios out of all the old stage sets and pegboard this guy had left in the building, and when I ran out of those materials tapped into the fellowship funds to buy 2" x 4"s and sheet rock. I was so inexperienced at business and construction that it didn't even occur to me that I needed a building permit or a business license to do any of it, but eventually the good City of Salt Lake helped educate me in these matters.
Brad: After five years when our lease ran out in the first property, the new owners wanted to quadruple what we were paying in rent so we found a new building which was twice as big too, packed it all up and moved. We drew up plans and started building studios in 2001. We were no longer in the Marmalade area and so that August we changed our name to Poor Yorick Studios and I have no really good explanation for that, other than I had just reread David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, which besides being the most wickedly funny epic book ever written, is a recast of Hamlet. After 5 years our lease ran out in the old place, and surprise surprise, the landlord informed us that he wanted to nearly double the rent, thinking we had put so much into the building that there would be no way we would move out. Instead we bought our current place, which is even bigger at 16,000 sq. feet, cut down and transported all the walls from the old place, and moved to South Salt Lake with the intention of staying here and never having to move out because of a rental increase again.
Gavin: What was it like the first time it opened?
Brad: The first time we opened was simply because three or four of us had been invited to be a part of a studio tour by the Utah Watercolorist Society, even though I could count on one hand the number of watercolors I had done in my life. Eventually, we decided to do one ourselves on January 18, 2001. In that first Open Studio there were just 13 of us who participated, and that September we decided to do it again. At some point one of the artists hired a couple of punk bands to play and after a few times opening up around the equinoxes the event really took on its own life, occasionally becoming so big in the old place it was a bit worrisome.
Gavin: Just curious, why is the gallery open so… infrequent? As opposed to having regular monthly events.
Brad: It's actually not a gallery, but a working art studio that we clean up about twice a year in order for the decent folks to come in and take a look at what we've been doing. Putting on a show like this is a tremendous amount of work, and nobody wants to see the same old stuff month after month. The event loses its specialness. Now there's an idea for rebranding the event: our Semiannual Festival of Specialness. If a recording artist was coming out with more than two albums a year (do they still call 'em albums?) they would either be puking up the same old stuff or not being particularly careful with their editing, or both. We try to keep it as fresh as possible, especially since just about all of us have day jobs to fund what we're doing in the studio.
Gavin: What do you think has kept it going?
Brad: I'm not sure about what's kept it going, other than that we enjoy throwing a big art party for Salt Lake and they seem to enjoy coming and eating all our food. I think it's a real novelty for most people to see the work in the actual environment in which it is created. It's a completely different experience from seeing the work in a gallery or a museum. I think an important barrier is taken down between artist and viewer. People get more of a sense of the process, as well as a greater chance to interact with the artists themselves.
Gavin: Tell us about this weekend’s gallery. Who’s being featured and specific pieces on display.
Brad: Too much to talk about here. We've got a lot of our cast of regulars and some great guest artists as well, many of whom are on the postcard/email we sent out but a couple who aren't, such as painter Tessa Lindsey and jewelry maker Jennifer Boyle. In addition to painters we've got printmakers, photographers, sculptors, jewelry makers, potters, clothing designers and assemblage artists. I'm told the Salt Lake Film Society is going to be projecting something on the side of the building and we'll have the experimental jazz combo Seraphim playing on Friday night. We always try to do the refreshments right as well. Someday maybe we'll add alligator wrestling.
Gavin: What’s the issue with serving alcohol at the galleries?
Brad: This is of course a dicey issue in our Grand State, as everyone knows. We are keeping it a private party that is not advertised per se in order to navigate the difficult waters of one adult handing another adult a plastic cup of wine in this state. We understand the realities of the place we live in but also believe it is possible to responsibly enjoy a beverage in the company of adults and look at some interesting art at the same time.
Gavin: Do you feel like you’re being targeted because of it?
Brad: I'm not actually sure we are being targeted. There was a nasty rumor last time right before the event that sent a chill through the place, but I hope that the vice squad has better things to do than troll the Gallery Association events page and send in 17 year olds to try to get a drink in order to shut the galleries down. There was a gallery last year that went under due to some kind of scenario like this, however. Aren't there some meth labs or heroin dealers we should be looking at somewhere? Anyway, all the artists have been told that no minor gets a drop, and if they are shy about asking for ID's they shouldn't be handing out anything but green punch, soda pop or bottled water. No drunk gets served anything but water, either. It's important to all of us that the whole event be in the up and up, in control and utterly legal at all times. I believe this can be done, and that we have demostrated this in the past.
Gavin: What’s your opinion on the current art scene here in Utah?
Brad: Wow. Big question that I don't think I can fully answer here. I believe it is developing all the time, that we don't have to have an inferiority complex or kowtow to whatever fads are taking place in New York or L.A. or wherever. I believe there is no reason why great art can't spring up here in Utah in the same way that interesting and important musicians like Bjork and Sigur Ros have recently come out of Iceland, which is at least as God-forsaken and homogeneous culture-wise as Utah is. How many great independent films have premiered at Sundance, which didn't exist until Bob Redford and his crew grew it from a chick. The reason that cultural centers like Seattle and Los Angeles spring up is simply that a critical mass of interesting folks stay around in a place long enough for interesting ideas to start bouncing around. So the question is how do we keep the real talent from getting out of Dodge as soon as they have the opportunity? Maybe by making Dodge an interesting place to live.
Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to improve it or give it more exposure from where it’s at?
Brad: Believe me, I think about this all the time. We're doing our best, and there's only so much shaking your fist at the sky you can do before it dawns on you that it all comes down to simply making the most interesting art you can and then asking all those people to turn off "The Biggest Loser" and come out to see what you've made. You're never going to get them all but you just have to make sure that what you've got doesn't disappoint or bore them if they've gone to the trouble of coming to your studio.
Gavin: What’s your opinion of the Gallery Stroll?
Brad: Gallery Stroll is a good thing, though I find that I can usually make it to only one or at most two places, since it's also dinner time and like many Utahns we have babysitting that we have to coordinate. Most of the galleries fold up and go home at 9:00, which for many artists is about mid-afternoon. I'm no night owl but 3 hours to see all those galleries isn't much time. I also think that most galleries in Utah are pretty shy about showing anything really groundbreaking, and that most of what I see when we're out there seems kinda familiar and not particularly compelling.
Gavin: Do you feel left out of it because of your schedule, or do you feel that’s what sets you apart from other galleries?
Brad: We are not a part of Gallery Stroll by choice, though we used to hold our event on the same third-Friday-of-the-month night. It ultimately seemed to us that we are now geographically far enough away from the galleries that people could not reasonably be expected to stroll our way, and it also occurred to us that if we held the event on the same night that galleries opened up, we were pretty much guaranteeing that no gallery people would be coming to see any of the artist's work. We also caught the vibe that we were stealing some of their fire twice a year and that more than a couple of them had a little resentment over it. Ultimately this led to the decision that rather than have a tug-o-war over the limited art patrons of this city we'd invite our gallery friends to come out to the party, and so we hold our events on the fourth Fridays of March and September, right around the Equinoxes.
Gavin: What do you think about Pierpont and what’s happened to it in recent years?
Brad: Damn shame about Pierpont what with Artspace's lease running out and all, but they've been able to purchase additional properties that I have to say are pretty cool. It's been some time since Artspace was the low income housing thing that it started out as 25 years ago, and frankly the whole Pierpont street isn't what it used to be, with overpriced restaurants and pubs where galleries and studios used to be. The truth is that the same general trend of gentrification has happened to us as well. Artists move into a place because the rent is low and they can afford it, then the place becomes perceived as cool and coffee shops and restaurants start popping up, then rents go up and the artists leave because they can't afford it anymore. In New York this looked like Soho in the 80s, Chelsea in the 90s, and now Williamsburg in the 00s. The studios at Rockwood and the Guthrie are teetering on the edge of the Abyss even as I type this (quite literally at Rockwood, which is right next door to The Crater That Was Sugarhouse), and Artspace itself is about to build a multi-million dollar project right next door to Captain Captain Studios, which is patterned after the Poor Yorick Model. It may be the final irony that these new high end studios gentrify out the low end ones. We'll have to wait and see. We decided to buy this building after it happened to us twice, and we are making a conscious effort to keep the prices as low as we can. We don't plan on going anywhere.
Gavin: What are the future plans for Poor Yorick this year?
Brad: Replacing old swamp coolers, landscaping, painting the building: boring stuff mostly, though we do plan on creating a mural on the side of the building, which I believe will be very cool. Sometimes I think it would be fun to host shows that nobody else would do, like a Bad Art Show, juried with awards like Worst in Show, etc. Mostly I just want to paint now. I've been building stuff long enough.
Gavin: Anything else you’d like to promote or talk about?
Brad: As a matter of fact, yes. We also take people on a yearly tour to France, and this year we still have some spots left for our trip in May. For more information try clicking on this link, or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.