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Culture Vulture: The art cover-up that wasn't

Published October 26, 2009 5:55 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sometimes there's less to a cover-up than meets the eye.

The death last week of Utah artist V. Douglas Snow, who was killed when his SUV rolled over on a highway near Sigurd, prompted me to go take a look at the abstract painter's most controversial work: The 19-foot high, 15-foot wide 1997 mural "Capitol Reef," which was installed behind the bench of the Utah Supreme Court's chambers when the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse was built in 1998.

Snow described the work as a depiction of "an apocalyptic thunderstorm saturating the slick rock sandstorm followed by intense heat from the summer sun." The "conflict of storm and resolution" seemed an apt symbol for a place where justices would settle the state's most important legal disputes.

The mural cost the state $80,000, part of a Utah Arts Council program to spend 1 percent of a building's total construction costs on commissioned art by Utah artists. The courthouse cost $79 million to build, so the arts budget not only paid for Snow's mural but for the artwork on the first floor hallway -- two watercolors by Ed Maryon, four Susan Fleming oils and four Sheryl Thornton watercolors.

But the Snow mural drew the fire from the would-be art critics of Utah's judiciary.

"While we recognize the talent and reputation of the artist, it is our opinion that the painting is not appropriate for a backdrop to the bench in the courtroom,'' wrote three of the Utah Supreme Court Justices at the time -- I. Daniel Stewart, Leonard Russon and Richard Howe (who have all since retired). The courtroom, they wrote, "is not meant to be an art gallery.''

The mural couldn't be moved without great expense -- it was installed before the ceiling was put in -- so the court debated for years about what to do with it. In 2001, the court spent $26,000 to install a gray drape to cover up "Capitol Reef" while the court is in session. "They felt it was a little disruptive," said Pat Bartholomew, the clerk of the Utah Supreme Court.

(Lest you think Utah is alone in this sort of political art criticism, consider what happened to a pair of murals created for the visitors' gallery of the Washington State Legislature in 1980. The works, "The Twelve Labors of Hercules" by Michael Spafford, were commissioned in 1980. When they were installed in 1981, legislators complained the abstract works were undignified and even obscene. Within three months of their installation, they were covered with immovable fabric screens. The Washington House voted to remove the murals in 1987, but a court challenge delayed the removal until 1993. In 2003, the murals found a home at Centralia College, about 25 miles south of the state capitol in Olympia.)

If you go to the Matheson Courthouse now, most days you'll see Snow's work and not a dull gray curtain.

Bartholomew said the curtain stays open whenever the Supreme Court is not in session, and anyone in the courthouse can view the mural. (The inner doors of the courtroom are usually locked, but they have large windows.) The curtain also stays open for ceremonial events.

When schoolchildren visit on field trips, Bartholomew said, "we always ask them what they think it is." One of the most common responses: A cheeseburger.

When the Supreme Court is in session, which is only a few days a month, the curtain drawn "to preserve the dignity of the court," Bartholomew said.

The Snow mural would make the justices look puny, so it's understandable that the justices wouldn't want that. (After all, it's the justices' job to make the attorneys feel small and awestruck.)

"Capitol Reef" isn't the only Snow mural that takes a bit of effort to see. One at the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theater is usually seen only by people attending Pioneer Theatre Company performances. He has another work at the Delta terminal at Salt Lake City International Airport, overlooking the security-screening line, so most people only see if they or their loved ones are leaving town. And his work at the old Salt Lake City main library building will be under wraps until the new tenant, The Leonardo, opens in 2011.

It's worth seeking out, though. Snow's legacy of massive abstract works in very public places is a reminder that art is all around us, even when we're not looking.

Sean P. Means writes the Culture Vulture in daily blog form, at blogs.sltrib.com/vulture