Finding Their Muse | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Finding Their Muse 

10 local artists share tips on how to stay inspired.

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Once an artist gets past that romantic idea of what it means to create and be creative in the world today, they're often discouraged to learn that making art isn't just an effervescent process that miraculously ends with something beautiful. True artists have pushed past that misinterpretation and persevered even when they learn that creating art is about discipline, confronting personal demons and meeting tight deadlines. True artists don't sit around waiting for inspiration to just fall in their lap. They do as Jack London said—"Go after it with a club."

For this issue, we tracked down 10 local artists whose realities and processes are as varied as their disciplines and asked what inspires them. Their introspective responses reflect exactly which club they like to use to hunt down their respective muses and make their work jump from the sketchbook, canvas or, in some cases, the rawest of instruments—their bodies.

JOSH SCHEUERMAN
  • Josh Scheuerman

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Gabriel Danilchik
Etching, Engraving and Printmaking Artist
Danilchik's medium of choice is the ancient art of intaglio, which consists of etching designs into a letterpress plate, slathering them with ink and creating a stamp-like image on a surface. A look at his work reveals a dark, frightening world inspired by Eastern European mythology, medieval weaponry and Gothic horror. "I've always been an artist of some kind—from doodling on my homework to taking figure-drawing classes," Danilchik says. "I got into printmaking during a post-bac community college program in Portland." Once in Utah, he secured a position at Salt Lake City's Mandate Press. "I've had the opportunity to focus on the polymer-plate letterpress-printed art that I've been doing," he says. In addition to his work at Mandate, Danilchik recently appeared as a vendor at Craft Lake City and Crucialfest. Because his prints can be easily produced and copied from his original plates, it makes it easier for Danilchik to keep his original art. "I grow attached," he says. "Selling one painting that I'll never see again would break my heart." As his aesthetic embodies eerie, fantasy-influenced tones, that's where he looks for inspiration. "I like to depict scenes that tell a story but are not entirely spelled out," he says. "The inspirations for a lot of these come from my love of sci-fi and fantasy, as well as classic literature ... and from listening to heavy metal."

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Mylo Fowler
Nature Photographer
The quest for inspiration is one that Fowler considers a spiritual endeavor. "The root of creativity is a conviction to pursue a craft," he states. "Being Navajo allows me to share the important and meaningful ties we have to the land and light of the Great Creator." Fowler is a professional photographer who draws upon his cultural identity and his family's love for adventure to inform his work. "I love including my kids and wife in most, if not all, of my adventures. They make the experience more meaningful," he says. Having two young children who are constantly asking questions about the world around them provides him with a constant stream of new ideas and perspectives. "They inspire me to learn more about shapes of rocks, geology, formations of landscapes or distinct animal features in their environment," he says. Fowler's career as a photographer has given him a unique opportunity to help out those in need. When the giant mine spill in Colorado contaminated the San Juan River in 2015, Fowler sold prints to raise funds to purchase drinking water for Navajo Nation residents. The effort eventually raised enough money to send 40,000 bottles of water to the reservation. "I'm always learning about unique lifestyles and viewpoints people have about the land," he says. "It seems that once you know, you know, and the deep roots fuel the 'what's next.'"

Models: Mandy Sullivan and Amber Pearson - Photography: Jessica Janae Magalei - Hair and Makeup: Stephanie Marsh
  • Models: Mandy Sullivan and Amber PearsonPhotography: Jessica Janae MagaleiHair and Makeup: Stephanie Marsh

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Rebecca Fenton
Fashion Designer
As one of Utah's most sought-after fashion designers, Fenton doesn't have time to be uninspired. She creates her Gothic and sci-fi-influenced pieces at her Farmington home studio—an inviting space filled with velvet furniture and Lego box-sets. "Legos are the ultimate symbol of creativity," she says as I geek out over her collection. Fenton is a fan of art and design that has a slightly creepy aesthetic without veering too much into horror territory—think Edward Gorey meets Tim Burton. Her unique take on fashion began early in her childhood. "I have always had my own style and wanted to express that, but it wasn't something that you could ever buy in the shops—so I started creating for myself," she says. Fenton has been designing clothes for 22 years, and has enjoyed participating in several runway shows. When she needs an extra jolt of creativity, she taps into the imaginations of others. "I am inspired by art and music. Both play a vital role in my design process and keep the creativity gears working," she says. "I have to surround myself in art. There is always music playing when I am creating." Discussing some of her favorite bands—The National and HÆLOS among them—she explains that her creativity comes from exploring the worlds of other artists and imagining her own entry point into those worlds: "I love discovering new songs that just spark the artist in me."

Kalyn West and Carleton Bluford in The Third Crossing - COURTESY PLAN-B THEATRE
  • courtesy Plan-B Theatre
  • Kalyn West and Carleton Bluford in The Third Crossing

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Carleton Bluford
Actor and Playwright
When most kids his age sat around bitching about how there was nothing to do, a young Bluford consumed films and recreated them himself. "I used to watch my favorite Disney movies like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast and memorize every single word, sound and phrase—it was literally my favorite pastime," he recalls. With a childhood hobby like that, and a mother who encouraged him to recite poetry and perform monologues at retirement homes, Bluford's career as an actor began pretty much at birth. "Performing is part of my DNA," he says. In addition to the performing arts, Bluford is an accomplished writer. His play Mama won a grant from the David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists, then it was performed as part of Plan-B Theatre Co.'s 2015 season. "As an actor, you revel in the world that someone has created for you; as a writer, it's your job and responsibility to create those environments," he says. "Storytelling is really what I love. Acting, directing, writing, dancing, singing—all of it is a sort of storytelling." With such a wide range of interests, Bluford doesn't find it terribly difficult to stay inspired. "Life has so many stories to tell. That's why those of us who tell stories must hold ourselves responsible for the kind of inspiration we put out in the universe," he says. "People are full of wonderful stories—all you have to do is watch and listen."

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Megan Kennedy
Photographer and Digital Artist
I was first drawn into Kennedy's foreboding and necrotic world when I spotted one of her pieces on display at Watchtower Café. Ever since, I've become enamored of her photography skills, which capture the beauty of typically unsettling images. "My consistent themes are death, isolation, power, insanity, nature and dreams," she says. "I typically have a dark, femme, pagan aesthetic." Kennedy discovered the therapeutic nature that art and photography can have in her late teens. "I was coping with undiagnosed PTSD and an unstable family life," she says. "I discovered dark, digital art and along with it, a way for me to express the ugly and upsetting emotions I was enduring because of my life circumstances." When she branched out from writing, which she has done consistently throughout her life, she started to see visual art as a way to process the pain that she had experienced. "I've been lucky enough to develop my style and skills over the past decade and create something I'm very proud of," she says. That something is Abuse of Reason Art and Photography, her online digital studio. She maintains her craft and creativity by believing in her work and the story that she has to tell. "Nothing cripples my imagination or output faster than self-doubt," she says. "I don't have a quick fix for recharging that faith in oneself, I just know that I'm never better than when I'm acting as my own champion."

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Justin Watson
New Media Artist
One of the most recent artists in residence at Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Watson has defined himself by his ability to break boundaries and seek artistic expression in a wide range of media. "A lot of my work processes are in direct opposition to the definition of art brands," he says. "Currently, my interests are aligned with multi-channel nonlinear video installations, 3-D animation and sound." Watson's origins built a solid foundation for his more modern, technology-based pieces. "I painted and used pen and ink for nearly a decade," he says. "My process is quite cyclical, however, so I wouldn't be surprised if I eventually shift back in that direction." Even after embracing the tech component, some might be surprised at his back-to-basics approach. "Pen and ink, in particular, still fascinates me for its high degree of risk versus choice," he says. "There's no turning back, no undo button." Watson's migration to technology and screen-based mediums has helped him turn any space that he currently occupies into a creative one. "There's a real pragmatism that stems from being able to carry a laptop anywhere and keep working," he says. "I've modeled it in a way that I can work anywhere." Outside of places like coffee shops and bustling city streets that contain a lot of different stimuli, Watson uses his own curiosity to fuel his inspiration. "Curiosity in how things work; curiosity in what makes us human," he clarifies. "I have an intense passion about most things. I could probably sit through a lecture on the various striations of limestone discovered throughout the world and still find fascination and awe."

NATHAN SWEET PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Nathan Sweet Photography

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Laura Brick-Kempski
Professional Dancer
Entering her fourth year with Odyssey Dance Theatre, Brick-Kempski's inspiration flows from keeping in motion. "I've been dancing since I was 3 years old. I loved moving my body through space when I was young," she says. "As I aged, dance became a stabilizer in my life. When I'm feeling disheartened, unbalanced or merely out of sorts, I know when I walk into the studio and move my body, I'll be back to a centered place." Working with the group of professionals at the theater also keeps her creativity in high gear. "It's hard not to be inspired on a daily basis dancing for Odyssey," she says. "I'm surrounded by talented dancers who are constantly pushing themselves to make new choices every day." Her time there also has fostered a deeper love for the process of finding new and exciting perspectives within herself. "I've fallen in love with creating characters and surprising myself with what characters are bubbling within me, just waiting to make a stage appearance," she says. When not dancing, she finds inspiration in other forms of expression. "I'm an avid yogi, and journaling inspires me to find my most genuine being and bring that into the studio every day," she explains. "Staying open and available to the talented humans around me and the positive energy in the room allows for my creativity to flourish."

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Jared Steffensen
Curator and Educator
Maintaining a staple like the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art is a creative process in and of itself, which is why Steffensen, curator of exhibits there, likes to stay on top of his artistic game. "I'm interested in the potential of objects to have use beyond their intended purpose, and I usually end up using whatever material it takes to realize my ideas," he says. "I bounce around from wood to fabric to plastic to digital works on paper. I'm all over the place because I like to constantly be learning a new material or process." Steffensen's career as an artist and curator began when he lived in Heidelberg, Germany in the mid-1980s. He had a transformative experience while visiting the Pompidou Center in Paris, where he first saw Knife Ship, a towering sculpture of a Swiss army knife turned Norse longship by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. "There was something about the fact that I could walk all the way around it that clicked with me," he reminisces. "It made me realize that the artist had to consider every angle and vantage point while making the sculpture, and that appealed to me." Steffensen's trick for staying inspired is to keep in touch with his younger self, which his children help him to do. "I try to keep up with them to stay inspired," he says. "I still go skateboarding, which is much harder to do in your 40s."

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Samuel Fox-Huntress
Graphic Designer
Creativity and an eye for design are things that make artists attractive to all sorts of companies, even real estate ones. Fox-Huntress works at one such organization as marketing coordinator and director. The day gig, he says, eschews the term graphic designer for picture-put-together-er. "Everything I do comes down to putting a picture together—whether it's graphic design, video editing, brand building, PR management or social media advertising," he says. "It all comes down to putting together an experience for an audience." His interest in graphic design and video editing came from discovering MS Paint and Windows Movie Maker when he was 8. From there, he became interested in how principles of design and striking visuals related to the field of marketing. "I've always fallen in line with people who held my same vision," he says. "I want everything I touch to turn to gold. I'm here to make an impact and inspire the stragglers." When engagement is often the key to a solid business outcome, it's crucial to keep the ideas fresh and plentiful. "I take good care to notice what my environment is doing to my immediate thoughts," he says. "I start my day by sitting down with a cup of coffee and journaling. I write down my goals, my dreams and my aspirations." Once he's on a project, Fox-Huntress finds that solid time management—and a steady stream of music—helps his thoughts and ideas take shape. "All in all, there are no excuses for living life in the medium," he says.

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Kim-Cerise Damaskin
Woodworker
Signed & Numbered is one of Salt Lake's most eclectic home décor shops—they specialize in framing works of art within works of art. Based on the creative nature of the shop's business, each staff member has their own creative spark. Damaskin, one of the shop's woodworkers, came from a rich cultural background that helped shape her love of art. "I am French-American-Norwegian-Ukrainian, born in Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to travel back to France several times during my childhood and adolescence," she says. The back-and-forthness of it all defined her craft. "My French culture, along with having parents and grandparents that were artists, is what ultimately birthed my love of art," she says. When she was a teenager, her love of art eventually blossomed into a passion for woodworking. "What I love most about the creative process of working with wood is the trial and error," she says. "When I'm learning a new form of jointing or learning how to make a new piece, the way the gears start to turn in my brain as it's trying to figure out how to do it for the first time. It's an amazing and satisfying process to be able to go through." Like many artists with full-time jobs, Damaskin's creativity occasionally gets stifled by time management. "I have only experienced creative blocks a few times in my life, and when I did, I found this incredible workbook called The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron to be a great tool to get those creative juices flowing again," she says.

Through personal challenges, professional demands and parenthood, these artists survived and thrived in honing their creative spirit. Think it's too late to surrender to your own artistic passion? Perhaps Cameron said it best in her book: "But do you know how old I will be by the time I learn to really play the piano/act/paint/write a decent play? Yes ... the same age you will be if you don't."


NIJRON
  • Nijron

Six experts in their field offer artistic advice.

The prospect of making a career in the arts seems like a daunting one, as every dad who ever asked "How are you going to pay your rent?" will tell you. But plenty of people manage to succeed—and some of those who have are willing to share their thoughts on how others might join them. We asked professionals across multiple disciplines in the Utah arts community what advice they would give to aspiring artists, and their answers were honest, revealing and—best of all—encouraging.

Karen Azenberg, Artistic Director, Pioneer Theatre Co.
"You must love what you do, and if you can imagine yourself doing something else, do that. But if there is nothing else in the world you can see yourself doing, take every opportunity you can find to practice your craft, to interact, to network, and to collaborate with other artists. Never say no to an offer of work; you never know where that connection will lead you. Accept problems and challenges as opportunities to make a more creative choice. And finally, trust your inner voice. At the end of the day, you only have yourself to answer to."

Adam Sklute, Artistic Director, Ballet West
"One word comes to mind: commit. For me, if one really wants to have a successful career—not just in the arts, but any industry—one has to commit and give it 100 percent. A great career is the product of about 25 percent talent, about 25 percent luck, (taking the opportunities when they present themselves). However, that other 50 percent is just hard work and commitment. The thing about commitment is—if you do it—you will not have any regrets. You may not find success, you may not reach all your goals. However, if you endeavored 100 percent toward your objective, you will likely have success and definitely have the gratification and pride in knowing you gave it your all."

Shandra Benito, exec. Director, Art Access Gallery
"Don't shy away from controversial or divisive subjects for your work. Our country is in a time with so much hate, violence, inequality and fear, and we need art that challenges people, changes perspectives and makes our community stronger."

John Cooper, Director, Sundance Film Festival
"Work hard, believe harder. Never underestimate the role fate plays in your success, but you have to listen and stay alert to possibilities. Opportunities can look different from what you were expecting. Don't play the age game of, 'I am too late for this,' or, 'I can only take that kind of chance as a young person.' Your passion opens doors automatically. Never judge your path against another person's journey. Above all, leave time for yourself to ponder and be awed by the world and the creative works of others."

Shannon Hale, Author
"There are 1,000 different ways to do it—what worked for one person might not work for the rest. There are so many lies out there: You can't make a living at this; you have to know people on the inside; a degree in the arts is a waste, etc. In my experience, there's usually a way to make a living doing what you love, though it probably won't turn out to be exactly the way you imagined."

Lisa Sewell, Director, Utah Arts Festival
"Having been involved with the festival since the mid-'90s, I have had a great opportunity to see the tremendous growth in the arts in our state and across the country. There's been an explosion of artists applying in all the artistic formats—visual, performing, literary, film—over the years. Gone are the days when we'd have 50 musical groups submitting cassette tapes to perform, or 100 visual artists submitting slides of their images. It's a much more competitive market for artists these days to get in front of audiences and get their work noticed. I've seen a huge leap in the quality of artwork out there. I'm always blown away that artists are pushing the envelope and stretching and moving in new and different directions—that's exciting to see each year. That would be my advice: Keep exploring new ground; recognize and value the energy and agony that goes into being an artist. I don't think it comes easily to any of us."

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