Art of the Everyday

Samuel Wright

One morning artist Jacqui Larsen rested on a hiking trail near her home, high enough to see the city of Springville sprawled out beneath her. The city was motionless, with few cars to be seen on the roads. Watching the still town, she wondered how many people down there had ever walked this trail, so close to them. Then she turned that question on herself: “How well do I know my own surroundings?”

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-4-20-15-pmThree years later, in summer 2016, the Springville Museum of Art displayed Three- Mile Radius, a collaborative exhibit with Jacqui—two-time winner of the Utah Visual Arts Fellowship—contributing paintings, collages, and photography, and her husband, Lance Larsen—a BYU English professor and Utah’s poet laureate—contributing poetry.

“The whole project is about understanding one’s environment and what’s close by,” Jacqui says. “We tend to go from box to box—our house box to our car box to our work box—and we don’t see anything along the way.”

When setting out on the project, both agreed to focus their attention within three miles of Jacqui’s studio. Visitors to the exhibit were greeted by familiar landscapes: lean horses, open fields, sun-drenched mountains, cloud-streaked skies. These images were accompanied by those of less-conventional artistic subjects: houses, both new and abandoned; street signs and road construction; even the SOS Drug Company pharmacy, established in 1909 and a Springville sight so common that it often passes unnoticed.

Too often we seek art and beauty in centers of culture, Lance says. “But if you ignore your immediate surroundings in favor of exotic places like Paris or Florence, you’re going to miss out on some of the richest artistic experiences available.”

Mutual Inspiration

The exhibit blurred the lines between poetry and painting. Paintings hung next to plaques bearing poems and paragraphs, often treating the same or similar topics. As the arrangement of their art suggests, the Larsens have worked in paths parallel and intersecting for years.

Lance and Jacqui met as BYU students. “We would collaborate in conversation,” Lance says. “She’ll work out certain problems or questions in her art that are relevant to my poetry and vice versa. We’ve been each other’s sounding board for over 30 years.”

That ongoing conversation has been a ladder out of dead ends. When Lance learned about a relocated hut from the Topaz Japanese internment camp, he began a poem on the subject but eventually shelved it. Later Jacqui visited the hut in a Springville backyard and painted Topaz House: the house sits beneath a black and red sky, but the windows are painted in golden light, depicting the home as a sacred refuge from the trials its former inhabitants endured. The painting inspired Lance to return to his poem, displayed in the exhibit as “Green Hut from Topaz.”

Jacqui likewise borrows inspiration from Lance. Her painting A Love Story Tilted features a line from one of Lance’s poems: “This is a love story tilted, a creation myth with stings and wings.” 

“That poem stood out to me,” Jacqui says. “I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a whole world inside that line.’ I was thinking of the home, the family. It’s a love story. The family is a creation myth. And then the stings and wings—I love that mix of things going well and things falling apart.”

To See Art in the World

“I want this exhibit to inspire people to get out of their boxes and look around,” says Jacqui.

Lance adds, “You have to learn how to observe. We’ve lost the ability to be engaged by [everyday] places. We see them as boring and move from screen to screen instead.”

The work to break people out of their boxes extends beyond Three-Mile Radius. Impressed by a former professor who deconstructed classroom walls by inviting students into his home, the Larsens host informal living-room discussions with students. They hope to help students nd the artistic in the everyday, having seen the blessings of art in their own lives.

“We really value each other’s work,” Jacqui says. “And that’s behind the whole thing. If I’m not able to get anything done during the day, I’ll say, ‘How was your day?’ And he’ll say, ‘I made progress on this poem,’ or, ‘I got a new idea,’ and I’ll think, ‘That’s wonderful. Something good happened today.’ ”

Lance adds, “Painters become painters and writers become writers not to make tons of money but because the making of art alters them. As Robert Louis Stevenson says, ‘To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.’ Even if all my poems were destroyed, the journey itself would be worth the sacrifice. The way you see the world changes. You become a different person.”

Humanities Magazine Fall 2016 Full Issue