Whether you love it or hate it, you can't really deny that contemporary art has become dominant in SLC. --- With so many artists living in the city, the galleries themselves can't keep up with the list of rising names every year, prompting some to start their own galleries to showcase the latest and greatest.
John Sproul, a longtime figure in the SLC and Los Angeles art scenes, started up Nox Contemporary over on 4th West late last year, giving the art community a wide space to display in while featuring artists on the rise and those established with newer works to unveil. I got a chance to chat with Sproul about his career, the gallery and his three-year plan, thoughts on local art and a few other topics. (All pictures by Cris Baczek.)
Gavin: Hey, John. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
John: I am originally from California, but have now spent over half my life in Utah. I studied painting, drawing, art history and art theory at the University of Utah in the early '90s and received a BFA in Fine Art in '93. In 1997, I moved to Los Angeles and returned to Salt Lake in 2004. I am the Founder & Director of the Foster Art Program & Nox Contemporary and the Vice Chair of the Executive Committee of the YB Council for Contemporary Art at the UMFA. I am married and have three boys.
Gavin: How did you first take an interest in art, and what were some early inspirations for you?
John: I first took an interest in art as a child, as most of us do, and was fascinated by the process of drawing. My early inspirations were sea creatures, dinosaurs, talking inanimate objects, and wars between any or all of them and humans.
Gavin: Back in 1993, you earned your BFA from the U. What made you choose the U, and what was their program like for you at the time?
John: I didn’t have much direction about college or a mindset or means beyond what was local, having been on my own since 18, and so my options were BYU or the U and I chose the latter. I was lucky, as I ended up in what was for me a great program. It was a profound and life-changing experience. The program then was strongly academic with a focus on the figure; I spent hours upon hours almost every day studying and learning to draw accurately and as a result also learned how to see. When I moved from the more traditional painting/drawing regiment into contemporary work, I was encouraged and supported and was taught art theory, criticism and contemporary art history. I went from never having heard of Monet my beginning year to being well versed in the arts in a few short years.
Gavin: What was it like coming up in the SLC art scene at the time and holding exhibitions with the small amount of galleries we had at the time?
John: I remember that there was a lot of energy among the artists and there were a few dedicated spaces -- Dolores Chase Gallery, who I showed with for a while, the Leftbank Coop Gallery, and there was Philips Gallery, which had two spaces at the time, but most of what we were able to put together was in alternative spaces.
Gavin: Your work varies between drawings and paintings with various styles, depending on the set you choose. What inspires the art that you create, and how has it been for you evolving your own body of work over the years?
John: When I think about my work, it is not a matter of inspiration but rather a matter of work in practice and in critical thought. It is my work ethic that moves me forward from one idea to the next. Developing my work for the past 20 years has been challenging, fulfilling, discouraging, sometimes disappointing, painful, profound, and humbling.
Gavin: As mentioned before, for a short period you left SLC and mainly displayed in California and around the States, then came back to Utah. What was that time like for you, and what made you decide to return?
John: I was in LA for seven years and I loved it there; there was so much to see and do and it opened my eyes to many things. The last half of my time there, I was able to work full time as an artist and that solidified my identity as a professional and confirmed my philosophy that you can do anything if you work hard enough for it and really want it. There are many personal and familial reasons why I left LA, but artistically it was because I wanted a more nurturing environment to create in.
Gavin: When did you first meet Emily Plewe and become friends?
John: We met in 1994 when I was living in Provo.
Gavin: How did the idea come about to start your own gallery, and where did the name Nox Contemporary come from?
John: I suppose I had wanted to open a gallery for a long time and don’t really remember where the idea came from, it just sort of seeped in. When looking for a name for the gallery, I wanted something that signified the first or of the beginning, as it would be my first gallery and the first of its type in Salt Lake City. I found the name “Nox” in Greek/Roman mythology as the Roman name for the mother of all of the gods, the mother of Zeus. She is also the goddess of beauty and the night, which seemed appropriate.
Gavin: When did you come across the location on 4th West and what made you decide to set up there?
John: I had been looking for a space off and on over the years and came across that space probably a year before I actually leased it. I was put off by the outside of the building and so never ventured further. Last summer, I decided it was time to make the gallery happen and came across the space again, this time looking inside, and when I saw the potential of the interior space I knew it would be perfect for what I wanted to do.
Gavin: What was it like getting the place set up and choosing who to have on display?
John: Setting the place up and renovating it was a lot of work, but it was exciting as I was finally doing what I had wanted to for some time. I knew a lot of artists from my research in finding artists for the Foster Art Program, and so as soon as the lease was signed, I set about setting up exhibitions for the space. It wasn’t long before I had booked exhibitions for two years out. My original premise in selecting artists was to show artists who I felt like were doing really strong work but who were not being shown a lot in Salt Lake City.
Gavin: What did you think of the opening reception and the reaction from patrons who came to check it out?
John: Before the gallery opened, I didn’t know what would happen or if anyone would show up for the opening reception. What actually happened is that 300-400 people came opening night, which was great. I am fortunate that I have received such a positive response from the community.
Gavin: What's the process for you in selecting who to display each month? And who are some of the people you've had so far?
John: So the exhibitions run for 6-8 weeks and, as I mentioned before, I originally wanted to show artists who I thought were doing really strong work but were not being shown much in Salt Lake City. Now that the gallery has been open eight months, that idea is evolving and I suspect it will continue to do so as time goes on. So far I have had solo exhibitions with Frank McEntire and Jared Steffensen, group shows with Tom Aaron, Jenn Harmon Allen, Shawn Porter, Emily Plewe, Tyler Spurgeon, Nathan Florence, Mary Toscano, Jenevieve Hubbard, Laura Sharp Wilson, Colour Maisch and Jason Lanegan and a performance work by Heidi Moller Somsen.
Gavin: Who do you currently have on display, and what can people look forward to over the next few months?
John: Currently, we have a solo exhibition of Frank McEntire’s work, which runs through August 5th. Then we are taking the rest of the summer off. Over the next year, some of the artists I will be showing are Tyler Spurgeon, Jenevieve Hubbard, Cris Baczek, Phoenix Ostermann, John Bell, Neil Hadlock and Tom Aaron.
Gavin: Being a relatively new gallery, what's your goal for the place in the long run?
John: Right now, I am on a three-year plan to exhibit the work of artists who live in Utah who I believe to be doing work of high quality, and maybe bringing in a few artists from outside of Utah. I am also looking towards trying to create a market for the work I exhibit, perhaps hiring someone with sales and marketing skills, but I am still thinking that part through -- the important part now is to show quality work. At the end of the three years,I will reassess the situation in the community, and if it makes sense to continue the gallery then I will begin to think about bringing national artists to Utah on a more consistent scale and taking Utah artists outside of Utah through venues such as art fairs.
Gavin: Going local for a bit, what are your thoughts on our art scene, both good and bad?
John: I think there is a lot of energy in the art community and a lot going on. The Salt Lake Art Center and the UMFA are bringing in national and international artists, bringing us into the global art conversation, which I think is important for the development of the community and for the artists here. Artists and patrons are investing in the community, opening galleries, creating programs, etc. I feel that we are going through a renaissance right now, and my hope is that we will be able to sustain that. What I would like to see that isn’t happening is a broad, open-minded and sincere conversation about what is happening in contemporary art, both globally and locally. It seems there is a focus on a few specific genres or aesthetics, and much of what is happening is left out, but maybe we need a larger art community in order for that to happen and maybe that will come with time. I would like to see the art community work together as a whole to bring the community forward, and I don’t see that happening right now. I would also like to see the visual, performing and literary arts come together; right now, there isn’t much of that going on although it is starting to happen.
Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make it more prominent?
John: I think that the things that are being done, such as bringing national/international artists into Utah and showing Utah artists nationally, will bring us more prominence in time. I would also like to see what we are doing here covered by national publications on a regular basis, and that is starting to happen, as well. For example, Micol Hebron wrote an article on our last show with Jared Steffensen for ArtForum.com. So I believe just doing more of the same and keeping it going will give us a national presence.
Gavin: What's your opinion on the other galleries around downtown and SLC in general? And do you view them as competition or colleagues?
John: I think it is great that the number of galleries who deal with contemporary art is growing and I want to see more. I see them as colleagues and hope to be able to work together with them to bring the art community forward. Based on my conversations with many of the gallery owners, I think that many, if not all, of them share the same attitude.
Gavin: What's your take on Gallery Stroll as a whole and how it’s doing today?
John: I am impressed at the changes that have come to the Gallery Stroll in the last year or two. There are a lot of things happening at each stroll, and it seems that events are starting to be arranged around it more and more. My only complaint is that it seems that there is too much to do and I never have the time to see it all!
Gavin: What can we expect from you and Nox Contemporary over the rest of the year?
John: Well, I hope to continue to establish and maintain quality exhibitions and bring a little more performance art and the literary arts through readings and such into the picture.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
John: Well, there is the Foster Art Program that I run, FosterArtProgram.org, which seeks to engage the community in a more personal experience with contemporary art. Also, the other contemporary art galleries -- House Gallery, Stolen & Escaped Gallery, Kayo Gallery, Philips Gallery and contemporary art in general -- it is the bomb.
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