Existential conversations with Utah artist and Brushworks Gallery co-founder Darryl Drage. | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

January 04, 2023 News » Cover Story

Existential conversations with Utah artist and Brushworks Gallery co-founder Darryl Drage. 

An Artist's Artist

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  • Drage Portrait by Steven Fawson, Courtesy of Darryl Drage

"What happens once an artist overcomes the hurdle of obscurity, after having been validated in some insignificant way? For the rest of life, she refers to herself as an artist. A lot of times, the honorable title is a curse because while it insists some things, it prohibits others ... like sustainable careers."—Darryl Drage.

In 2007, then-Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson honored artist, collector and Brushworks Gallery owner Darryl Drage with the Mayor's Artist Award for Service to the Arts. The late Patrick Eddington—a beloved Highland High School art teacher from 1988-2014—nominated him. Independent filmmaker and author Trent Harris snapped a pic of Drage onstage.

Looking back at the award and its accompanying trophy, Drage said: "I remember thinking, 'The city didn't spend much on this. I should go down to Benson's Trophies and ask Craig to make me something beefier.' Ha! So egotistical. Of course, I never did."

The accolade came 52 years after Drage's dad, Lt. Col. Donald Dell Drage—nicknamed "Lucky" because of so many close calls and his appetite for Lucky Strikes—served in World War II with the 72nd Fighter Bomber Squadron ("Loose 7 Deuce") that was based in Chambley, France. The elite group of fighter pilots included Michael Collins (who later went to the moon) and William D. Curry (who finished his career as brigadier general).

Considering his pedigree, Darryl W. Drage—born in June 1950 at Holy Cross Hospital, now Salt Lake Regional Medical Center—should've become a U.S. Air Force pilot like his older brother, Wally. Instead, after a stint of liberal arts education at Duke University, where he was president of his freshman class, and then a spell at George Washington University, he graduated magna cum laude from the University of Utah with a degree in fine art.

"So many kids study studio art," Drage said. "I understand fine art and art history. But going to college for the fundamentals like composition, color theory, technique or design? Sure, there's value in knowing the principles. But can you apply them in any new and unique way? Thousands of art students graduate every year. We hear about a fractional percentage of them who make an impact in the world of art."

Drage ranks among that subset who succeeded in spinning art into a career. His philosophical, enterprising and artistic influences are evident throughout Salt Lake City's confluent worlds of fine art, business, government and education. He is a true Kierkegaardian existentialist and entirely too unpretentious to label himself. He's a family man, entrepreneur and artist's artist.

Drage is a purveyor, lifelong student, master maker and old-school contrarian who looks at life through a curious lens of empathy, self-responsibility, artistic fearlessness and true desire to be known—but only by those he loves. Consequently, this is why I talked to him off and on for 16 months before he granted me permission to write this piece.

click to enlarge Darryl Drage and his wife, Rosalyn, met at the University of Utah in the early ‘70s before going on to be among Utah’s  most influential artists. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Darryl Drage and his wife, Rosalyn, met at the University of Utah in the early ‘70s before going on to be among Utah’s most influential artists.

Creation and Destruction
Drage graduated in the class of 1974 from the University of Utah, where he met his wife-to-be Rosalyn Richards—a talented artist in her own right. His antics are the stuff of legend.

In 1976, he won first place in the prestigious Utah Arts Showcase, and his painting was placed on display at the U's fine arts museum. But one day, in denial of his painting's worthiness, Drage entered the museum and slashed an "X" through the center of the canvas.

Campus security arrived to arrest the vandal. "It's mine," Drage declared. "I can destroy it if I wish."

Later the same day, he did the very same thing to another of his award-winning works that was hanging at the Eccles Art Center in Ogden.

Fast forward to one day when Darryl and Rosalyn are watching a news report on a painting that the renowned street artist Banksy created and rigged to automatically shred at auction. "Didn't you do the same thing 45 years ago?" Rosalyn asked. "Yes, but on a smaller stage and scale," Drage recalled. "Art, as well its destruction, is derivative. There's nothing new."

Blank Canvas
Drage was accepted to a master's program in California. He approached Rosalyn about the opportunity, but she refused to accompany him. "You want to be a college professor in art? How many art professors do you know who are in their first marriages?" he recalled her asking.

And so he stayed, painted and competed. "A bit of prize money here and there. My racket was to submit the same winning piece to numerous competitions around the country," he said. "It sucked when someone would buy it because I'd have to replace it with another for the same purpose and of similar quality."

In 1976, after co-founding Brushworks Gallery on South Temple with his sister, Claudia Niss, and fellow painter Kirk Randle, Drage set off on an odyssey that would define an age in the Salt Lake Valley.

"There weren't many galleries in Salt Lake City in the 1970s—or 1980s, for that matter," Drage recalled. "The legit ones were in Park City. Meyer Gallery comes to mind. They used to feature a lot of R.C. Gorman's artwork that we would frame."

click to enlarge “After the Storm,” part of a series of dead-cat inspired pieces created by Drage during the Great Recession. - CALVIN JOLLEY
  • Calvin Jolley
  • “After the Storm,” part of a series of dead-cat inspired pieces created by Drage during the Great Recession.

Brushworks developed a niche clientele during a period that predates this town's cultural, culinary and artistic awakening. "Back then, you could walk into Lamb's Café on Main or Bill and Nada's across from Trolley [Square] and actually know people," Drage reminisced. "We ate and drank at the same haunts. Business owners, U of U professors, folks from the burgeoning art scene or underground. It was a small community."

In the early days of Brushworks, Randle—a gifted water colorist—painted, Drage built frames, and Niss managed the business.

"We had street sales down to a science," says Drage. "Among the most important lessons of the festival circuit? Color sells. I'd give Kirk a wish list—like five of these in this palette and three of those in that palette, plus the size—he'd crank them out, I'd frame them, then off we'd go. It was a sweet combination, but our partnership didn't last long."

Eventually, Niss married and left the state. Randle wanted to branch out on his own, so Drage bought his friend out of the business they co-founded.

Within that early period when most small businesses fail to gain a foothold, Brushworks outgrew its original location. In 1981, Drage moved into a bigger space on 200 South, next door to the original Bar X—instead of swanky Hollywood cocktails, think of a peanut-shell joint with ripped vinyl seats atop four-legged metal barstools, where patrons guzzled "tankards" of cheap beer and, from time to time, weaponized the heavy glass goblets.

Up in Smoke
Drage's shop was directly beneath the old Stratford Hotel—downtown's last bona fide indigent flophouse. He fostered customer relationships, developed business and supported an ever-growing community of artists by connecting them to buyers and philanthropists.

But in 2005, disaster struck when some disgruntled boyfriend barricaded his boarding room door with a mattress and then lit it on fire.

"Story is, he planned to kill himself. Instead, he was the first one downstairs and to the street when sparks began to fly," Drage recalled. "I got a call around 3 a.m. Plumes of smoke set off the sprinklers. By the time the fire crew arrived, my shop was flooded. I was exasperated by how much artwork I had in there."

The fire chief agreed to send in one man to recover a single piece of art before the containment crew entered with axes. "I said: Go in, hang an immediate left, go down the hallway to the office on the right-hand side. Behind the desk, hanging on the farthest wall from the door? Grab the ugliest painting you see."

A fireman emerged from the smoldering wreck with the right painting: A 4-by-4-foot study for a mural by Minerva Teichert, known for her Western subjects and Book of Mormon depictions. At the time, Teichert's piece was valued at $40,000.

Why did Drage describe it as ugly? He shrugs: "I was trying to come up with adjectives that someone could recognize and, well, it wasn't a pretty painting."

A policeman accused him of looting on the way to his car. Drage talked himself out of arrest and drove home. Over the ensuing week, he filled three dumpsters with original art, supplies, a horde of frames and furniture that water and smoke had damaged beyond repair.

"I lost 1,200 Gary Collins prints to water damage. Not a single one was salvageable," he said. "Think $15 a pop, more if signed. We're talking $20,000 retail value for those alone."

click to enlarge A piece by Drage, deemed unworthy of its accolades and defaced with two intersecting cuts by the artist himself. - CALVIN JOLLEY
  • Calvin Jolley
  • A piece by Drage, deemed unworthy of its accolades and defaced with two intersecting cuts by the artist himself.

For nearly a quarter century, Drage had opened his doors for free storage to artists in the community. In hindsight, the problem with this arrangement was that whatever wasn't officially on consignment during the time of the fire wasn't insured.

"Tragedy," Drage said. "Not just for me, but so many people, because so many lost pieces that were irreplaceable. But you know what? Everyone stepped up and lent a hand."

The city's community of artists, philanthropists and customers—a network that Drage had played such a vital role in creating—banded together in his time of need. The Tivoli Gallery on State Street gave Drage a place to build frames until Mayor Rocky Anderson's Redevelopment Agency moved Brushworks into an empty building downtown at no cost (see sidebar). Borge Andersen and Associates stepped up with their equipment and workspace.

"Everyone called. Everyone came. Everyone helped," Drage said. "I remember dropping off a painting at Scott Anderson's Zions Bank office. Harris Simmons, chairman and CEO of Zions Bancorporation, [was] there with a group of top community leaders. 'Hey Darryl!' he shouts, 'you gotta reopen Brushworks. We need you in this city!' Folks really encouraged me."

Recovery and Dead Cats
Following an insurance payout in 2006, Drage rented a brick building on 800 South just a few blocks west of where I live in Central City. I visited his gallery for no other reason than to talk.

Our discussions were instructive. We rapped about the interstices between art, religion, education, philosophy and government. His gallery boasted a comfortable couch and candy bowl that my two young daughters grazed from.

During one sit-down, I acquired one of his original oils. "After the Storm" presents a brilliant assembly of bold—but muted—blues and greens, toggled together by a single horizontal perspective line that doesn't intend to create an illusion of height or depth between sky or seascape. Instead, the flat shape of an upside-down cat, rich in mustards, golds and the occasional orange flare, overlaps the water. A single paw and patch of tail breaks the water's surface.

The cat might be looking upward if Drage hadn't used the classic cartoon symbol for death—a big "X"—to cover the cat's only eye.

The piece ranks among the smartest and most sensitive examples of color assemblage in my personal collection. There's something whimsical about the work that excuses its subject: a dead cat.

"During the recession of 2009, morale was low among my co-workers and the arts community in general. I came up with this idea for an employee show to inspire, energize and unite us. The question for me was what to paint—not another landscape," Drage said. "Then I got to thinking about how much I hate felines. I'm allergic to the beasts. So I started my Dead Cat series. I painted 'Bait,' 'Bubbles,' 'Norman,' 'Rosco,' 'After the Storm' and a few others. They made me happy. Lots of artists love cats. Poor souls."

Being There
The pandemic of 2020 was a lonely time for everyone. Late that year—roundabout the time Drage sold Brushworks for retirement—I talked my way into his private studio. We picked up a conversation where it'd left off the year before: love, liquidation, death and degradation; life, hope, creativity and commitment; family, children, art and art's opposite—which isn't artlessness, but cliché.

click to enlarge In 1974, Darryl and wife Rosalyn collaborated to create the large painting—a self-portrait of how they envisioned themselves. The work hangs in Drage’s private studio. - CALVIN JOLLEY
  • Calvin Jolley
  • In 1974, Darryl and wife Rosalyn collaborated to create the large painting—a self-portrait of how they envisioned themselves. The work hangs in Drage’s private studio.

Drage expresses a quality of iconoclastic trickery in all of his personas. His edginess translates into a kind of transparent honesty. His rawness and insight are intellectually and entrepreneurially attractive. As a result, his network of generational customers reads like a who's who list of art lovers: the Huntsman family, Scott Anderson of Zions Bank, Dick Bass of Snowbird, Carolyn Tanner of O.C. Tanner, John Williams of Gastronomy, Bob Garff of Ken Garff Enterprises, Pat Lynch of Perpetual Storage, the folks at F. Weixler Co., and the list goes on.

Drage's frames hang or have hung in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Church History Museum, Utah's Department of Transportation offices, Clark Leaming Designs and in various buildings across the campuses of the U of U and Brigham Young University.

"All these guys were, at one point or another, among my biggest clients," Drage said.

Late Utah philanthropist Merline Clark Leaming used to park her Jaguar on the sidewalk out front of Brushworks. She introduced Drage to Dick Bass of Snowbird, countless high-end retailers, big name restaurateurs, interior designers and other movers in the community.

"That's the deal. Being there," emphasizes Drage, "when that one someone who will make your day or year walks in to look around."

And so, for more than four decades, that's where people found Drage: At Brushworks, sometimes with a cup of coffee or, if nearer closing time, a cracked-open but squirreled away can of cheap beer.

Success Through Community
Despite a successful career, Drage's philosophical sensibility is untainted by the hubris typical among those with talent. His achievements haven't come at anyone's expense.

"Everything changes, man—meaning that eventually, all things go to shit," he said. "Take almost any dynastic enterprise: Sooner or later, all viable neighborhood brick-and-mortar businesses morph into tattoo studios, coffee shops or massage parlors. I mean, Utah produces some really creative phenoms, right? So talented that they ruin themselves through a distorted sense of self-belief."

Drage said that too many artists believe the world will discover them. As a result, they give up career opportunities for the "mythical" value of being a struggling artist. "Then, things go to hell because there's nothing glamorous about the struggle," he said. "For those that do achieve a level of notoriety, the price of their artwork is well-deserved."

Drage's career is an example of how one can succeed by empowering others with opportunity. When, for example, Leucadia National (reorganized in New York as Jefferies) closed its South Temple operations after Salt Lake City native and Leucadia co-founder Ian Cumming retired in 2013, the enterprise was valued at $6.8 billion. In addition to being a titan of business, Cumming was a philanthropist and collector of Utah artists.

"Cumming had amassed something in the neighborhood of 160 paintings by local and regional artists," recalled Drage. "One day, I get a call from my son Andrew, who was doing work for the corporation. 'Leucadia is selling the entire collection,' he tells me. Evidently, the fancy financiers in New York City didn't have any interest in the West or Utah's podunk art scene."

click to enlarge Drage at work in his private studio during the pandemic of 2021 after a more-than-40 year run with Brushworks. - CALVIN JOLLEY
  • Calvin Jolley
  • Drage at work in his private studio during the pandemic of 2021 after a more-than-40 year run with Brushworks.

Drage spoke to a company representative and explained that while selling the collection one piece at a time would generate the largest overall sum, such a task would require connections they simply didn't have. "I'm willing to take it all," he recalled saying, "every last piece for lots less than their individual value, but no more worries for you about how to get rid of them." The Leucadia representative's response: "When can you get here with a check and truck?"

Drage's acquisition cost $100,000 and included a cornucopia of Utah and Western art. He advertised a customer appreciation sale. "I found good homes for all the pieces, gave screaming deals and doubled my investment."

Love and Legacy
There exist many examples of win-win stories that define Drage's business philosophy. None, however, is more sincere than Ukraine-born Vita Kobylkina's overall assessment of him. She parlayed her 15-year career of framing at Brushworks into a gig as a full-time painter—and a fine one at that.

"Darryl has been many things to me—boss, colleague and fellow artist. But most of all? My friend," Kobylkina said. "The relaxed working environment he created at Brushworks ruined me from wanting to work for anyone else."

Drage did it his way for nearly 50 years of copasetic exchange with fellow artists through the sale, purchase and negotiation of their works. His network reads like pages from the comprehensive reference guide, The Dictionary of Utah Fine Artists—Gary Collins (among Drage's "local heroes"), Kirk Randle and his son James Randle (who now studios in Santa Fe), Richard Murray, Mark Petersen, Randall Lake, Frank Ray Huff Jr., Karl Thomas and many others.

His donations of art include gifts to the Utah Arts Council, LDS Church, Huntsman Cancer Institute, Salt Lake Community College, seemingly any nonprofit with an upcoming auction and uncountable silent drops to the Deseret Industries, where guys like me thrift in hopes of finding one of his collector-worthy pieces among racks of posters.

Drage's best friend, wife and love of his life, Rosalyn, is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He's a beer-drinking iconoclast.

Rosalyn regularly hosts church gatherings and is available whenever called upon. Drage burns candles, paints, reads and enjoys the company of Utah's working artist elites in his private studio.

"It's hard for people to understand how much I love my marriage to a Mormon," Drage said. "Rosalyn is the mother of my sons. She's my caretaker, and I've always tried to be hers. There's her orbit, my orbit and this wondrous overlap. What would I do without Rosalyn? I have no idea what would happen to me."

Although Drage's retirement signals the conclusion of a great era for local art, we are the fortunate inheritors of his legacy. And perhaps thanks to the tragically low levels of the Great Salt Lake, Darryl has a straight shot of the salt flats to ride off into the sunset.

Calvin Jolley is a longtime resident of Salt Lake City's Central City neighborhood. His writing has appeared in American Book Review, MAYDAY Magazine, Context South, Otis Nebula, 15 Bytes and elsewhere. He also serves as vice president of corporate communications for the immune system nutraceuticals firm 4Life.

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo

Brushworks Memories
By Rocky Anderson

My first recollection of Darryl Drage is when we spoke on the phone after I learned that his gallery—then located in the Stratford Hotel—had been destroyed in a fire. I was Salt Lake City's mayor at the time. When I called Darryl, I noted that the city's Redevelopment Agency (RDA) owned the State Street building where the Tivoli Gallery was located and that he would be welcome to use some space there that had been vacated by an antique shop until he got another location lined up.

I mentioned to Darryl that it shouldn't be a problem for the RDA since it seemed to take the agency forever to do anything with the building. In my view, it would be to everyone's benefit to have his gallery remain in business by locating there temporarily. Darryl occupied the space for five or six months before he moved to the current Brushworks Gallery location on 800 South.

I recall presenting Darryl the Mayor's Artist Award for Service to the Arts by an Individual in 2007 during the Utah Arts Festival. (To my recollection, the recipients of the award were chosen by a process overseen by the Salt Lake City Arts Council.) Darryl and I hit it off immediately, with a photo taken of us laughing together—probably about the fact that he had come and gone from the temporary space I offered to him, and the RDA still hadn't transformed the rather decrepit building on State Street.

Brushworks Gallery has been a cherished, welcoming city gem for many decades. In an open and spacious gallery, one can browse a variety of art (paintings and sculpture) created mostly by outstanding Utah artists. The expert displays of art seem always to include exquisite Utah landscape scenes.

It is also a place to have works of art professionally and beautifully framed. I took a large work of art for Brushworks to frame a few years ago and still remember being impressed by the friendliness of the staff, the helpfulness in picking out a frame and the beautiful work they did on the piece.

Small, locally owned businesses like Brushworks Gallery, where hospitable people obviously care so much about excellence in all they do, add so much to our sense of belonging to a creative, uplifting community.

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