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Utah museum displays works of artist James C. Christensen and two daughters

Published January 6, 2014 8:47 am

Visual art • Springville museum displays works by James C. Christensen and two daughters.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Springville • Cassandra Barney once was playing at a friend's house and found something missing.

"Where's your studio?" young Cass asked her puzzled playmate, only to learn there wasn't one there. "Who doesn't have a studio in their house?"

That's when Barney realized her family was a tad unusual.

Barney's father is renowned Utah artist James C. Christensen, and he worked at their Utah County home. Their abode was awash in his and other paintings, art paraphernalia, brushes, pencils, colored yarn, string, miles of paper. Visual stimulation was everywhere for the family of seven — Jim and Carole, three girls and two boys.

Christensen gave each child 180 colored markers and left them alone. He didn't push art as a profession on any of them.

"I realized," the artist said in a recent interview, "that you can't say, 'Daughter, you are going to be the legacy.' "

But two of his three daughters have taken up the brush, and now art of the threesome is on display at the Springville Museum of Art in an exhibit titled "Curiouser & Curiouser: The Artwork of James Christensen, Cassandra Barney, Emily McPhie & Family."

The show also includes a "Cabinet of Curiosities," which the artists playfully call "A Sensory Dispensary." It contains items they drew from their homes and turned into art.

Whimsy, symbolism and irony are among the hallmark's of Christensen's art.

Hunchbacked everymen and dandies weighed down by layer upon layer of complicated clothing. Bizarre figures adrift together in odd-size boats or dancing on a checkerboard playing field. Owls lead the way and winged angels attend them.

Such characters are painted with affection, not with mockery.

"I would not do any work that is demeaning," Christensen says.

And that comes from his faith.

"I am not a religious painter, but a painter who happens to be LDS," he says. "Sometimes the fantastical has spiritual meaning."

He is clearly a proud papa, seeing the art of his eldest child, Cassandra Barney, and his youngest, Emily McPhie, hanging side by side in the upstairs gallery.

You can see the family connection in the attention to details, in the eyes, in the angle of the heads, in the use of symbolism and the imaginative twists on ordinary objects.

But there are clear differences.

"One of the things I am happiest about is that there is no confusion over whose art it is," Christensen says. "There are obvious influences from me, but each woman has pursued her own vision."

Interestingly, all three paint mostly women.

One of Barney's strongest images is called "Atonement."

On the large canvas, a woman in a mostly dark dress looks heavenward as white petals fall on her.

The work was inspired, she wrote in an exhibit description, by a moment of clarity she had while listening to a sermon on Jesus' sacrifice.

The petals are coming down from the sky like a gift, she writes. They are "mallow, which is a symbol of gentleness. As they touched the figure, they took away her impurities, leaving her clean and perfect. The red petals symbolize the blood that Christ spilled for us … and all the figure had to do was look up and accept the gift."

On display also is a tree whose branches are laden with knives.

While on a college campus, Barney began thinking about the fact that knowledge can be a tool — or a weapon. She intended the piece to be provocative, but has been surprised by viewers' reaction to the scariness of "knives dangling over people."

McPhie also has a tree painting, with branches growing out of a woman's head, ears and chest.

"You plant a seed and you don't know where it is going to come out," she says. "It was a chance to express the inner self — looking inward and outward."

Art is not a job, it is a "way of approaching and interacting with the world," McPhie says. "It is the way of showing how I feel. It is a reverence for the everyday aspect of life."

This exhibition, writes Springville curator Rita Wright, "explores and celebrates the creative synergy that is developed in such a family of artists, where a culture of curiosity, exploration and pushing the limits of the imagination are fostered."

And it was all born in a home where colored markers are commonplace and a studio is mandatory.


Twitter: @religiongal —

See the exhibit, more photos

P "Curiouser & Curiouser: The Artwork of James Christensen, Cassandra Barney, Emily McPhie & Family" is on exhibit at the Springville Museum of Art, 126 E. 400 South, through April 6. View photos of the artwork at sltrib.com.