Excursions: Utah

I've been living intermittently in the Southwest since I was ten, and I've managed to make it to all of the states in this region at least once, but the one state I hadn't visited, however, was Utah. I'm not entirely sure why, it has plenty of things to appeal to my interests, including museums and gorgeous national parks, but for some reason I always visited someplace else.

Until this past March, that is, when I was invited to give a paper at the Branding the American West conference at Brigham Young University in Provo, in conjunction with an exhibit of the same name. I was more than happy to share my research about the Roswell Museum's Peter Moran drawings with a scholarly public, and even more keen to finally check out this mysterious state.

I flew into Salt Lake City a couple of days before the conference, so before driving to Provo I decided to check out Temple Square. The architecture here is unlike anything I've seen elsewhere. Sure, I've seen plenty of neo-gothic buildings, but the buildings here have a certain crispness to their structures that, quite frankly, borders on the uncanny, rather like a clear day in New Mexico when you can see everything in considerable details for miles. It's like I'm seeing a hyperreal version of my expectations of historical architecture, if that makes any sense.


Salt Lake City also boasts some great older houses, like this pastiche of a domestic confection:

Eventually I took my rental car and drove up to Provo, where I spent some time getting acquainted with the University campus. You can see some of the buildings nestled at the foot of these mountains. Not a bad view for the students who go there.

I also spent plenty of time exploring the surrounding environs on my own. I haven't seen dramatic, rugged mountains like this since Wyoming. The deja vu was particularly strong when I visited Utah Lake State Park, which reminded me of many visits to Jenny Lake, Leigh Lake, and other sites in the Teton Parks:

Naturally I wanted to see the Great Salt Lake while I was in the area, so the day before the conference I took a drive out to Antelope Island. I spent a marvelous day here hiking the trails, wandering along the beach, and observing wildlife. Between the expansive mountains and relative solitude on the trail, I felt rather like a hobbit embarking on a great adventure. I even encountered a cluster of bison on the trail at one point, but thankfully they were more interested in their grass than they were in me.

No trip is complete without some sketching, of course, so I made sure to draw plenty of landscapes while I was there. I don't know when I'll get around to doing something with these, but I certainly enjoyed making them at the time. I've really come to embrace the practicality of pencils, now that I have such a good set of them at hand.

I have noticed that I gravitate toward certain motifs when I'm sketching out of doors. I really like the tree-like plants in the foreground with a watery and mountainous backdrop, for example. The plants here are grasses, not trees, but they remind me of a print I made of Jenny Lake several years ago, which featured trees against a similar background.

Not all my drawings were landscape, though. I also did several sketches at the BYU's paleontology museum, which features a great fossil collection.

So what were my impressions? I definitely enjoyed my time there, and I wouldn't mind going back. I only saw one part of the state, after all, and the southern part of the state looks rather different from the area I visited. I didn't get to see Spiral Jetty this time around, so that's always a good reason to go back as well. The Mormon vibe was definitely discernible, particularly in Salt Lake City, and in all honesty I did feel rather out of place. Everyone I met was friendly and helpful though. BYU has a great art museum, and I highlight recommend a visit to it, particularly to the Branding the American West exhibit if you get a chance.

Plus I got this great sketch of a dimetrodon skeleton, so that's worth something, right?