The Art Assassin

a nonfiction novel by Albert Wang

Chapter 11: ASSASSINATION: Shawn Rossiter, Artist Represented by Utah Artist Hands and Editor of 15 BYTES

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Shawn Rossiter in front of one of his large-scale drawings entitled “Tiamat.” Courtesy of Shawn Rossiter.
Partial screenshot of 15 BYTES online newsletter using Screengrab!. Courtesy of Artists of Utah.

Shawn Rossiter is one of the hardest working men in the Utah arts world. He is an abstract expressionist painter as well as editor of 15 BYTES, which is Utah’s foremost online visual arts magazine and newsletter, and founder of Artists of Utah, a non-profit organization that helps to bring together the arts community of Utah. With his insightful and logical energy, Rossiter has been instrumental in bringing Utah arts into the forefront of the contemporary art world.

The artist is quite a wonderful and experimental painter and draftsman. He has executed large-scale abstract landscapes mixed in with figurative elements that reflect a sense of the dynamic motion in today’s world. Shifting his style from a more traditional approach, he has begun to explore a world of light and movement that reflects his own interest in the way that people interact with their environment.

If you have any questions about Rossiter’s artwork, feel free to contact Utah Artist Hands at (801) 355-0206 or at info@utahhands.com. If you wish to know more about 15 BYTES or the Artists of Utah organization, contact Mr. Rossiter at editor@artistsofutah.org.

Now here are THE ART ASSASSIN’s details of the “assassination”:

qi peng: To start off on a lighter note, what are some of your favorite artists, books, television shows, sports, art magazines, toys, movies, and other cultural artifacts that you wish to share with your fans of your work here? Do you have any recent galleries or exhibitions that you have seen and would to recommend to us? What things in those shows inspired your artistic eye and imagination?

Shawn Rossiter: I think compiling these types of lists is one of the reasons I don’t have a facebook page . . .  but here’s a go at it: I just finished Roberto Bolano’s “2666,” and read his “Savage Detectives” last year. He’s an original writer, the type that seeps into the pores or your consciousness, so I recommend him. Our TV only gets reception (poor at that) on a couple of channels so we don’t watch much. But I’ve been watching, and enjoying, “The Wire” on DVD. I used to regularly read art magazines, back when it seemed like there were three or four national/international ones on the racks. Now there’s so many I don’t know where to start. I play basketball on a regular basis (when I mentioned this to one of my writers he was a bit taken aback — I believe he referred to me as a “jock” at one point – and implied that the appelation might ruin my artistic credibility); I don’t have much money (or inclination) for toys, and when I get a chance to see a movie (we have two small children so don’t get out much) I usually go to the Broadway.

qi peng: Your formal education was in comparative literature at Brigham Young University (BYU) before you became a full-time artist. What were those years of education like? Were there any influential professors and fellow students whose ideas or drive influenced your decision to pursue art and running the non-profit organization Artists of Utah? Are there any memorable stories from your school days? What accounted for your switch from literature into visual art?

Shawn Rossiter: I enjoyed my days at school. I had the opportunity to read a lot. I enjoyed almost all of my professors and many were very encouraging and supportive and had hopes for my career in academia. The professor that influenced my decision to go into art was Stan Benfell, though he wasn’t trying to do it. One day he sat me down and explained to me what looking for a job with a PhD in Comparative Literature would be like – how many applicants there would be and how little money I would make. With those odds art didn’t seem like such a risk.

That was a pragmatic (or unpragmatic, if you ask my family) consideration, but a more emotional reason for the switch was my thesis. I was writing on Primo Levi, an Italian writer who had survived the death camps. I was immersed in his and others’ writing on the Holocaust and I think I was depressed. I turned to painting to embrace a sense of joy and to get away from words. I had finished the thesis and just never bothered showing up again at the University to go through the process of corrections and the defense.

qi peng: Are there any places which you would like to travel someday to? Which places would you find inspiring to see and create potential artworks that are inspired from being at that location?

Shawn Rossiter: I enjoy traveling, and there are few places I wouldn’t be interested in visiting. But I most enjoy visiting places where I can speak the language, because without interacting with the immediate culture, traveling can feel like going to a museum. This limits me to English-, French- and Italian-, and to a lesser extent, Spanish-speaking countries.

That being said, top of my list right now would be India.

I’ve stopped traveling looking for inspiration or trying to make art. To do that I think you need to be in a place for a good length of time, and now that I have young children I’m only able to travel for a few weeks at a time.

qi peng: What are some of your hobbies outside of painting and drawing? How do these things relate to your studio practice? Do you find yourself having to enter into the mental state of creating art out of discipline or inspiration or a mixture of both? What are some of the practical challenges that artists have to face inside or outside their studio time?

Shawn Rossiter: Last year we bought a house that needed a lot of work so these days all of my free time is spent doing home repairs, remodeling, and working in the garden. To call these hobbies, though, I think I’d have to enjoy them. All this work, and the fact that I still haven’t built my studio here (right now I’m in an unfinished room in the basement) has interrupted my artistic output. In the end having a “studio practice” is about discipline, setting apart the time and space; because you can get inspired but there are so many other distractions and legitimate calls for your attention, that getting any serious work done can be difficult.

qi peng: What is your opinion of art world journalism and art critics such as Jerry Saltz or Roberta Smith? Do you read periodicals such as ArtForum or ARTnews to get an up to date understanding of what goes on within the art world? Do you have any favorite artistic blogs or websites that you enjoy looking at on a regular basis? Do you feel that smaller, regional art markets like Salt Lake City or Denver will have a chance to expand their horizons into becoming essential and vibrant art hot spots just like Los Angeles or New York City during the recession? What do you think is the current state of contemporary art within Salt Lake City where you live and work?

Shawn Rossiter: As I mentioned above, I don’t read the art magazines as faithfully as I used to. But when I’m at Barnes & Noble and my kids want to play with the train set, or take down a stack of books for the poor, beleagured staff to put away later, I grab a couple of magazines and flip through them, reading one or two articles at best.

With all the people writing on the visual arts now, you of course find a lot of “filler,” but also some good stuff. I like to read it but I’ve given up on “staying abreast” of things. You get to a certain point where you get tired of trying to find out where things are going and if you’ve caught the right wave and you’re just happy to be pursuing what interests you.

Salt Lake or Denver will never be like Los Angeles or New York. They’ll never be that large. We’ll never have the population or money to sustain “art stars” (and that may not be a bad thing) and I doubt we’ll ever be “essential.”  There’s no point in looking to either coast and trying to be like them. Artists who stay here do so for certain reasons – and they are not the reasons people go to New York or LA — and I think that will be reflected in the type of “art world” we create. I’m not sure what that will be, but it has some interesting potential.

qi peng: With the recent downturn in the American economy, have you seen any changes in how the galleries been able to interact with their audience? Can galleries afford to take a risk in curating riskier or more visually challenging exhibitions during this period? Are you seeing collectors’ habits change within the Utah area as the banking and other financial sectors are suffering from various problems such as foreclosures?

Shawn Rossiter: Galleries here have never made a lot of money and there are a few that are in trouble right now. But I’m not sure that will have a tremendous impact on the shows they curate. The strictly commercial galleries have always had to worry about the bottom line, so I don’t know that they have been able to be very risky anyway. And I don’t get the sense that the non-commercial venues are toning it down. They may have money-trouble, but it’s not because their donors and supporters don’t like the work they show.

qi peng: On a lighter note, do you have any favorite restaurants, hangouts, or cool places around Salt Lake City or anywhere else that you would like to recommend to fans of your artwork? What do you like best about the places that you have chosen?

Shawn Rossiter: Because of the children I mentioned above, I don’t get out much (I don’t even go to Gallery Stroll every month). And if I had found some place cool I’m not sure I would want to shout it from the rooftops – that would only mean I’d have to wait in line next time I went.

qi peng: You have been involved in various community art projects such as the Utah Artists Project and the Salt Lake City Art Committee. What have the experiences been like? What were the joys and challenges of being able to promote the arts to the large Utah and potentially international audience?

Shawn Rossiter: It’s always great to work with the type of people who join those committees and projects – people who are committed to the arts and volunteer their time to serve the community. But they are volunteer positions and I have less time to do that so I’ve had to resign from some. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that if you take the time to expose people to different art or ideas about art, most people in this state have a positive reaction. It’s not that they have examined contemporary (or even modern) art and found it lacking. They simply haven’t been exposed.

qi peng: You have been the founder and main editor for 15 BYTES, which is the leading Utah resource for the visual arts through the internet. What is the story behind the start of the e-magazine and its growth during the years that you have worked for the publication? 15 BYTES combines various exhibition reviews, artists’ profiles, listings, and even tips for art careers. As a complete resource for Utah and even a few out-of-state artists, in what ways do you feel that your vision and thus mission for the e-magazine has been fulfilled. How has 15 BYTES evolved as a wonderful newsletter who those people trying to learn about the state of the Utah arts scene? What are the future plans for 15 BYTES?

Shawn Rossiter: I started Artists of Utah in 2001. I had been painting professionally for a couple of years, and had been showing with Phillips Gallery. But I wasn’t from Utah and I didn’t go to art school here so I didn’t know very many people. So, naturally I wondered what kind of community there was and how artists connected with each other. I got the sense that there were only little pockets of community; not because there were restrictive cliques, just the natural result of the solitary nature of what we do and the way Americans live in the 21st century. I wanted to see what would happen if we could bring all those pockets together and create a dialogue about what we were doing. I had heard laments from a lot of artists that the last time they had had any real critique of their work was when they were at the University. So, I wanted to create a network for artists to connect and a means for a serious discussion. The Artists of Utah website was my answer to the first goal and 15 Bytes was the answer to the second.

It was tough at first because even though this was only eight years ago, the internet was still relatively young. When I went to make our original artist directory there were only about thirty artists that had a website, and only a few. Hardly anyone knew what a “blog” was, so the idea that they would “read” on the internet was still foreign. Every year it seemed someone would try to convince me to go to a print publication. If we had, we’d be going under, like all the newspapers. When we first started I gave off the impression that we were a large organization, but it was basically me, in my basement, with a dial up connection. We have a lot more people helping out, and now we’ve got a dsl connection, but come the first Wednesday of the month, it’s still me and my laptop in the basement.

It’s impossible to know how much impact we’ve had on the community or what it would be like if we hadn’t been publishing for the past eight years. For some people – recent transplants or people just getting out of school – 15 Bytes has always been part of the art community. They don’t know what it would be like if we weren’t around. But there are many people who do, and they are the ones who support us every year when we have our fundraisers. I think that’s because we’ve gone a long way towards achieving the original goals of connecting people and creating a serious dialogue. Last year during one of our fundraisers a writer said to me, “Not only do I write for you for free, but I pay you for the privilege.”

qi peng: The “Studio Space” feature within 15 BYTES is an online version of a studio visit for a particular artist. What is it like to visit all types of studio layouts and see kinds of artwork in progress? Do you have any fascinating stories with those artists whom you have reviewed?

Shawn Rossiter: I like visiting the studios because I’m always seeing little things that I can incorporate into my own studio. And in most studios there’s a sense of energy and intimacy that I enjoy. Fascinating? Not that I recall. If an artist is good, their work is more fascinating than their personality or personal life.

qi peng: What are some of Artists of Utah’s goals apart from 15 BYTES appearing monthly? In what ways has your organization interacted with the local and statewide community to promote contemporary art in its agenda?

Shawn Rossiter: You say that as if publishing 15 Bytes every month wasn’t enough? We do have some other programming, most of it online – our artist and organization directory and our message board. This fall we’ll be hosting a juried exhibition for artists under 35, something we did years ago. We partner with other organizations from time to time, but mostly we’ll stay focused on what we’re already doing and try doing it better.

qi peng: Do you have anything else which you would like to share with your readers and fans of your artwork, Artists of Utah organization, or 15 BYTES here?

Shawn Rossiter: [no answer]

For more gossip or dishing me the art scoop: E-mail me at qipengart@gmail.com
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Written by qi peng

May 12, 2009 at 1:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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