A Summer Evening With the Artists

Southern Utah Painter Cyrus Mejia and Photographer Raphael de Peyer

I know that you have become accustomed to me sending dispatches while climbing mountains, biking across valleys and skiing down steep slopes. But on occasion I like to hobnob with the beautiful people, too.

Listen: Utah is a lot more than mountains and canyons and good weather. From the moment Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley there has also been a lot of art. While it may not exactly be a New Orleans or Houston or New York, the average visitor to Utah may be surprised to find paintings, sculpture, symphony, plays, modern and classic dance and (well, of course) tabernacle choirs in even remote places. From Salt Lake City, to Cedar City to Helper, art in Utah abounds.

Many artists have arrived in Utah as sort of art community refugees, or art community escapees, or tired people in search of new inspiration. But just as many were either born here or fused their already-existing artistic talents with the geography and social fabric of Utah after they arrived. What I mean is, they had an artistic vision in place, and when they settled in Utah something about the landscape or the people changed that. Many would say Utah itself provokes, even demands, art.

Cyrus Mejia and Raphael de Peyer, two artists from southern Utah, recently opened a show at the Glendinning Gallery in downtown Salt Lake City. I went to the opening and here is what I learned both about Utah and art.

Cyrus Mejia, a painter, from Kanab

Painting'When I arrived in southern Utah I was blown away by the light,' said the Louisiana native and son of a Colombian immigrant. 'When I saw the light it reminded me of things I had seen written about the Impressionists and what they thought about light. It's that powerful, that clear. The clarity of the light has been an inspiration to me.'

Mejia came to Kanab, in the southern part of the state, in 1984 when he and a group of friends opened up Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Mejia (Meh - he - ah) studied art in college and later while traveling through Europe and the U.S. He counts Picasso, Cheval, O'Keeffe and Cezanne among his inspirations.

Though Mejia says light has been an inspiration in his work, he does not paint landscapes. Rather, his oil on canvas paintings and oil, wood and found object retablos employ traditional religious themes and what I would call whimsical entreaties into the secret world of animals, all of it suffused in surreal glows and ultra-rich pantones. Mejia's view of light may find itself not just in the colors or scenes of his subjects, but also their antics.

'What shows up on the canvas comes from inside of me,' he says. 'All I can do is paint it. Though there are artists I admire, I don't think I follow any lines or schools. One thing I would say is that my dad is from South America - from Colombia - and I think maybe that is why I use bright colors, which you find there in artwork a lot. So I don't think a lot of what I do is really intentional. It is more intuitive. Maybe even genetic.

Raphael de Peyer, a photographer, from Kanab

PhotographPeyer, a native of London, moved to Utah eight years ago along with Best Friends, though most before that he lived in Las Vegas. He went to art school and architecture school in London but gave up photography for years. Then, once in Las Vegas, he again took up the art.

'When I moved to Las Vegas I found the environment so unpleasant to look at - you know, just casinos everywhere - that I covered my walls with pictures. When I moved to Kanab I didn't want to do that. I wanted to counteract what I saw. And it wasn't too hard because I lived in Angel Canyon, which is small but incredibly beautiful.

It was Angel Canyon's surprising colors and micro-beauty that ended up influencing de Peyer's work, an influence that is obvious when looking at his photos. Edward Abbey once wrote that to see the real beauty of the desert one must crawl on hands and knees, across slickrock and through sagebrush. Many newcomers to the West seem enthralled by the hugeness of the landscape, that and its utter emptiness and their photographs try to reflect that. But, many connoisseurs would say, the true beauty of southern Utah is found on inch-by-inch dissections of rock and tree. De Peyer seems to have caught on pretty quickly.

De Peyer takes photographs of, well, very small things, then blows them up into unusual proportions. The bug on a floating leaf, a small natural-oil slick on still water, icicles catching the reflection of a red rock sunset.

'Every week I went to the creek that runs through the canyon and was amazed at the color I saw,' de Peyer says. 'Some of the colors are so extraordinary. I think that is the thing that has really impressed me most - the color. London has this misty light. It is something I am fond of but it is a whole different scene in Kanab because the light is so sharp. There is very little water vapor. You have to look at things differently because the contrasts are so high most of the time.'

De Peyer says the light in Kanab can be a 'three-ring circus' of color and intensity, with landscapes appearing much differently in the light of morning or light of late afternoon. All of this is not lost on the rest of the art world, he says; Kanab has a thriving community of artists and a supportive community that supports regional art shows. The region, he added, is growing its own collection of sophisticated art purveyors and buyers.

Of his own images, de Peyer says the challenge it to 'take elements that are not to scale and try to get peoples' brains to interpret it the way that they see it, rather than a picture being self-evident ... I want to take away preconceived scales and let people invent their reality.' (He said this while motioning to what appeared to be, in its picture, a six-inch long Ladybug.) 'It doesn't tell you what it is. Different people see this differently.'

'3 Artists From The Red Rocks,' the work of Mejia, de Peyer and George Kehew, another Kanab painter, work will be on display until September 29, 2000, at the Utah Arts Council's Glendinning Gallery, 617 E. South Temple, in Salt Lake City. Ten percent of all sales benefit Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab.

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