In a light-filled studio at Salt Lake’s Modern West Gallery, visual artist Laura Sharp Wilson — 56, with lapis blue eyes, bobbed blond hair and wearing a collarless T-shirt on a warm day in March — is at work on a new collection of textile-inspired pieces that explore society’s relationship to nature and the loaded meanings in objects of inheritance, like her grandparents’ tea cups, which she says offer a unique way of investigating issues of class and race.
“I’m interested in what European immigrants thought about this country, my great-grandparents who emigrated and settled as working-class farmers in St. Louis, or Jersey City — what did they think about racial situations and melting pot of this country?” said Wilson. “Did owning a silver tea service make them feel ‘better than?’ What I love about visual art is that it gives you new ways to have that conversation.”
Wilson is undertaking this conversation as one of the current artists-in-residence at Salt Lake’s Modern West Gallery, whose residency program is helping stoke the state’s creative comeback from the pandemic-induced decline in artistic patronage through sponsorships that facilitate the work of emerging and midcareer artists. The unique program comes at a moment when artists say cultural work is vitally needed to repair the collective pain and uncertainty of recent years.
“I can’t think of other examples of commercial galleries that have artists like us actually working in the gallery. It’s quite unusual. I lived in New York, North Carolina, Washington state. I’ve lived all over the place, and I haven’t seen it before,” said Wilson. “So this is a huge contribution to the Salt Lake arts community.”
Modern West, founded in 2014, promotes an aesthetic to “reframe our understanding of the American West,” including the works like those from ascendant visual artist Billy Schenck, whose style invokes cinematic imagery in hot colors and looks at the clashes between wilderness and civilization, and whose landscape-only exhibit at the gallery, “A Land Less Traveled,” closes this month after a successful run.
Not content merely to retail art, the gallery’s residency program has fostered many local artists it hopes will contribute to the creative momentum of a city whose arts scene is quickly making a name for itself on the country’s cultural map.
Groomed for a life of art
The Modern West residency is the latest stepping stone on a long path for Wilson, whose upbringing groomed her for a life of art.
Her art-enthusiastic grandparents regularly towed Wilson through the great museums of Washington, D.C., where they lived. Her mother worked as a modern dance choreographer, and exposed her to theater and dance performances while growing up in New York and New Jersey.
After graduating with a Master of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Wilson pursued her interest in costume design, picked up from the theater, and went on to study surface textile design at North Carolina State University before apprenticing at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia.
Now Wilson brings the array of her interests and experience together in the studio at Modern West, where her work oversees the collision of both visual and textural worlds, and nods simultaneously to realism and abstraction.
Her signature style are pieces of graphic, acrylic and fabric on mulberry paper, a canvaslike medium made of plant fiber, favored by Wilson for its textural and translucent body, which is sturdy despite being lightweight.
The mulberry paper was initially pursued as a practical solution to the costly expense of shipping canvases — anticipating they’d roll up like a scroll. Though she decided not to roll her finished works, she nonetheless stuck with mulberry for its textural, fabriclike quality.
“I honestly feel like I'm making different work than I would be if I wasn’t here. It makes the process fresh.”
Across the way from Wilson, in a west-facing studio, Kheng Lim is busy at work in a different style that examines the relations between opposites in color field abstraction with oil on canvas.
Lim, 37, was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to a Buddhist family from whom he stood out in two major ways: He was the only one interested in pursuing art, and the only to convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When moving to Utah in 2011 to study fine arts at Brigham Young University, he was moved by the vastness of the West.
“I remember the first time coming to Provo from the airport, it was really impressive just how close the mountains are and how large they are. And later seeing places like the Salt Flats, my mind could not comprehend how much space there is,” said Lim, who contrasts it to the tight and dense cityscape of his Southeast Asian upbringing.
“In my art I gravitate towards simple forms and open fields of color. The landscape of Utah really influenced me in that way. My work is about chaos and order, and that’s exactly how it felt driving in those wide open expanses. There is no bounds but there is no control. I felt like I could do anything but I couldn’t do anything at the same time.”
Out of college Lim worked at a furniture shop before parlaying his woodworking skills into his own frame-making business, which supports him and his 4-year-old daughter but doesn’t always leave him the time he’d like for his art. He says the residency has helped by foregrounding the importance of painting in his life and resulted in a psychologically expanded sense of self discipline.
Although for Lim, the residency’s greatest value might be the official association with the gallery, which offers community and creative inspiration while also lifting his name recognition as an artist, something that’s key in moving toward his ultimate goal of living a self-supporting artistic lifestyle.
“My endgame would be to just paint, make art, like a full-time artist,” said Lim, who believes the residency is moving him in that direction. “Institutions lend an air of credibility to an artist. The gallery has done a great job of promoting and the final show will provide exposure. I feel like they truly do want to help artists.”
Modern West aims to be more than a retail gallery. In addition to its residencies, it offers community workshops, discussions and events, putting good use to a tasteful interior space adorned by the works of over 30 local artists, along with midcentury wicker chairs and potted plants that produce an atmosphere that’s stylistic and disarming at once.
“It’s a commercial gallery but it’s also a little bit of a community center, too. The way the gallery is set up creates an opportunity for people to come in and feel what some of the artwork would look like if it was in your living space,” said Wilson.
Community is especially crucial in an industry where sacrifices, even for established artists, are routine.
Wilson, for instance, has achieved many milestones in her artistic career, along with multiple residency awards, including the Huntsman Cancer Center Artist-in-Residence, and representation by the McKenzie Fine Art Gallery in New York City. Yet creative works alone cannot financially sustain her.
“I don’t make a living doing this, and I feel like getting to that point is almost impossible. It’s incredibly difficult because as with any creative discipline, you have to spend a ton of time doing something that’s not going to make you any money in order to get good at it,” Wilson said, adding that residency programs like those at Modern West are therefore essential to the wider artistic advancement. “Because we all realize that art is incredibly important culturally, and we always want it to be there for us.”
Correction: In an earlier version, artist Kheng Lim’s last name was misspelled throughout as Lin. Additionally, in an earlier version, artist Laura Sharp Wilson’s name was incorrect.