As we come out of the dry chill that has been the winter season, we're seeing more people make their way out and attend the monthly Salt Lake Gallery Stroll. This month we wandered down to Phillips Gallery on 200 South where Larry Elsner and Denis Phillips were on display on the main floor, while down in the Dibble Gallery we had mixed-media artist Liberty Blake showing off her latest works. This month we chat with Blake about her career and the work you can check out for the next month, all with photos from this past Friday.
Gavin: Hey Liberty, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in England, my parents are both artists and they moved from London to the countryside when I was one. We lived in a converted Victorian train station, I spent many hours roller skating up and down the platform and climbing trees. I moved to Utah in my late twenties, it was the "Thatcher era" in the UK and it seemed like a good time to leave the country and have an adventure. I didn’t intend to stay here, but I instantly fell in love with the outdoors. I worked at The Sundance Art Shack for four years (started by my mum
, Jann Haworth) teaching paper-making and doing some design for the resort. Before I came to Utah I was painting primarily figuratively. But Utah inspired me a completely new way, I started painting landscapes and the first renditions of the abstract paper collages started to evolve. Then for quite a few years my art was ‘on pause', I was a full-time Mum and homeschooled my two sons. I skated for Salt City Derby Girls as a jammer under the pseudonym England’s Glory, started a recreational derby league with fellow skater Mannarama, called The Red Rockettes and then started inline speed skating obsessively. I currently work at The Leonardo museum, and I’ve been mountain biking a lot.
Gavin: What first made you take an interest in art and what were some early influences on you?
I grew up surrounded by art, as both my parents are artists. My Dad is Peter Blake and my Mum Jann Haworth, both pop artists in the sixties. My Mum’s sculptures were always around the house, life-size figures like "The Snake Lady" and "Cowboy." I don’t remember having many friends over to play—I think they were probably freaked out by them! My dad had a studio up the road from the house and I used to go and visit him when he was working, his studio was packed with amazing collections and lots of art. I would poke around and look through his badge collection and ask to "borrow" one or two. I can still remember the smell of the studio, oil paint, turpentine
and paper—very atmospheric. When I was eight, my Mum started a school called The Looking glass School, it was very small and prioritized the arts. That school really formed my character, we were immersed in art and literature, and the outdoors, and we were encouraged to be ourselves.
Gavin: All of your education comes from various art academies in the U.K. How was it for you switching between schools and learning from three different schools?
I did my foundation year at Sydney Place, in Bath. In England, "Foundation Year" is so you can try out all different art disciplines. I really loved it there and had some inspiring tutors. I ended up specializing in illustration. Then I went on to Bath Academy of Art for a year and then transferred to Farnham to study painting. I wouldn’t say my college education was particularly successful, I felt a little lost and didn’t really find a niche socially or artistically.
Gavin: What specifically drew you toward doing mixed media art and what did you find most appealing about it?
I had always dabbled in collage, but I first started doing it seriously when I was in Sundance, my dad had given me some very beautiful hand-made papers and I fell in love with the feel of paper, its warmth. The tactile aspect of art is very important to me. As I’m working, I touch the work as much as I look at it. My pieces then were mainly paper or paint and traditional marble gesso on canvas.
Gavin: When you eventually came to Utah, what made you decide to stick around longer than a stint?
I stayed mainly I think because of the outdoors, the space and color of Utah. The red rock, mountains and the huge sky. I love being outdoors, I speed skate and I just started mountain biking again last year. I get most of my inspiration from time outside, most of my collages are abstracted landscapes.
Gavin: How was it for you breaking into the local art scene and getting your work displayed?
I showed and sold a lot in Sundance (in the late '90s) then I showed for a while in Park City and then didn’t work for quite a while. I got back into it when my friend Amanda Hurtado asked me to show in her gallery, Stolen & Escaped. That was my first solo show and the pieces were all small color based abstract collages. That was a turning point for my work.
Gavin: What's the process for you in creating a brand new piece?
I work intuitively, I usually have something in my mind that is the inspiration for the piece, often a landscape or amalgamation of places, but sometimes its
a poem or specific event. My artist's statement probably describes it best: “The collages are assembled from cut paper. The shapes are often purposefully awkward and uncomfortable, wedged together as if they are holding each other up, or precariously balanced, layered, worn through. Creating tension and balance is essential, the size and placement of every piece of paper are carefully considered. Color relationships, relative scale, texture, all come into play. My work is abstract, but the story behind each piece is personal and distinct; a place, friend, poem, landscape, object, or collection. These images play in my head as I work and they are what I see when I look at a piece. But one of the beauties of abstract art is that the viewer’s response will be unique to them. I hope that my collages evoke an emotional response, that they trigger thoughts and memories, and that they create a sanctuary for the eye.”
Gavin: How much of it do you play with until the end and how much of it is by specific design?
It's all "playing with it until the end," some pieces come together very naturally and others are a struggle—I keep working on them, layering and adding paper until it feels right. I can feel it in my chest when it's finished, like a warm glow. That sounds weird, but its the only way I can describe it with words.
Gavin: When did you start getting involved with The Leonardo and what was it like for you teaching and displaying there?
I started working there just after it opened, about three years ago. I had previously done a huge collaged mural for them during the first Body Worlds exhibit. I love working there, it’s a very creative environment and inspiring because we are sharing and teaching art to so many people. I am involved with art content and I recently made 400 sq. ft. of collaged panels for the "No Fixed Address" exhibit, which is currently showing there.
Gavin: You've been involved with various high-profile projects in SLC, including the SLC Pepper, Kayo's Cigar Box fundraisers and the 337 Project. What would you say has been your favorite collaborative project?
The 337 Project was amazing as an art happening, it was very inspiring to work alongside so many different kinds of artists, the creative energy in the building was astonishing. That was my first real taste of the Salt Lake City art scene. We need another happening like that! I also co-created ColLaborArt with Shawn Rossiter at the Leonardo, it’s a yearly event at The Leonardo, where visual artists to work together over a weekend to create a work of art. It's a very dynamic and exciting process.
Gavin: Most recently you were doing shows with Shawn Rossiter. How was it working with him?
I first worked with Shawn on a large collaborative mixed media piece during ColLaborArt, our work had some similarities, the color palette, and abstract nature. But the scale was dramatically different. It started out almost as a joke, a test to see if collaboration was possible. He had done a large pastel with artist David Habben in front of a gallery stroll audience, it was inspiring to watch and I liked the idea of the challenge of it. We ended up getting a studio together to finish ‘Magnificat’ and we worked collaboratively for about a year. I credit Shawn for getting me working seriously again. I gave up the studio when my work at The Leonardo went full-time last Summer. Since then I've been working solo.
Gavin: Tell us about what you have on display for this Gallery Stroll.
About 25 abstract collages, inspired mainly by landscapes. I'm at a very happy place in my life right now. I think the work reflects that.
Gavin: How has it been for you working with Phillips Gallery and displaying in the Dibble Gallery?
I went into the Phillips Gallery last summer to see if they still wanted to show my work (after I stopped working collaboratively with Shawn) they offered me the show that day! I was so surprised and thrilled! I love that room downstairs—the ceiling creaks from people walking upstairs, its cozy and intimate and the lighting is perfect. They hung the work so well, I'm really happy with the show.
Gavin: After this gallery, what else do you have coming up for the rest of the year?
I'm taking a breather for a few weeks to do fun things, like taxes! I will continue to bike and be outside as much as I can. I like the direction my work is going, I'm going to keep playing with paper and I think I might reintroduce oil paint to some the work—we will see, I never quite know what direction it's going to take, but that's the magic of it.