Rise of the Arts in Helper Utah
David Johnson always knew that growth would happen. He, along with Tom Williams, work out of the Boxcar Gallery painting an array of realist and social scenes, Johnson lately with the palette knife in rich textures and colors and Williams capturing the Works Progress Administration style of working-class people within the rugged setting of the town. They split time in the studio by mornings and afternoons, leaving alternating time to draw inspiration from the world around them. Johnson wears a neat beard, is warm and zen-like and lines bunch around his eyes when he smiles. He shows us the back patio of their gallery. It’s the east-facing side of the row of buildings with the iconic view of the Book Cliffs along the West Tavaputs Plateau in the near background, and the railroad lines in the immediate foreground.
It’s a strange sensation to feel instantly transported from the old railroad town into these modern environs, yet through the exhibition, stay firmly rooted in an aesthetic definitively Central Utah.
Something about this place draws and catches the eye. Johnson, Williams and co-arts-pioneers David Dornan and Marilou Kundmueller bought buildings here and launched an arts festival when no one else was looking at Helper.
Now, people are looking and more artists are joining the community.
Steven Lee Adams had been driving 60 miles into Helper from Mapleton to work at his studio for about six months before realizing his heart was in Helper and he permanently relocated. In his gallery’s basement Adams runs an intricate 22- and 12-karat custom framing operation, representative of just how elevated the art here is. And it’s one of two custom frame operations in the small town because of the extremely high value and quality of the art being produced.
The bright and modern interior of the Anne Jespersen Fine Arts Gallery during the “Helper and the Landscape” exhibition.
Community and family history depicted in a mural on the side of Helper’s forthcoming natural market.
Adams smiles easily when he enters descriptions of his paintings, and I get the feeling that nostalgia and sentiment breathe through the plein air vitality of his work, even where the palette is muted. With deep greens and dark woods, the gallery space is moody. But if Adams is a tormented artist, he hides it well.
Adams shows us the mismatch collection of original light fixtures that a previous tenant had removed, only to be returned by the person hired for the job who felt they’d someday serve out their original purpose. It’s how things work here. Adams says people in the community pick things up as they see them — serendipity has a lot to do with how things come together. He says that it’s really hard to force these things well and still be authentic. Matsuda says that happens a lot around here and points to the recently restored vintage gas stations.