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After 30 years, documentary center in Salt Lake City searches for a home

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Courtesy of Kent Miles CDEA executive director Leslie Kelen interacts with Jordan High School students as part of the "Exhibits that Teach."

By Michael Appelgate

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jul 11 2013 03:33PM
Updated Dec 7, 2013 11:35PM

The Center for Documentary Expression and Art has spent the past 30 years documenting people of local and national relevance — compiling vivid images of the civil-rights movement and unearthing illuminating stories of Utah minorities.

But outside academic circles, the center’s work has been almost invisible in the Salt Lake City community. A vast collection of oral histories of minority Utahns is archived at the University of Utah, but more recent projects such as environmental research into the Jordan River and documenting minority groups in the city’s west side aren’t accessible to the general public.

The focus for the next decade is to find a permanent home to showcase the center’s work. Its current office at 243 E. 400 South, in Salt Lake City, is only big enough for director Leslie Kelen and his four full-time employees. Kelen and the center’s board of trustees have identified the historical Fisher Mansion near the Jordan River as a potential location.

"We have very unique stories. You can learn a lot about Utah by the work we’ve done," Kelen said. With a way to display the center’s work, "We would be a more civic group where we’re giving back to the community."

Oral histories • The center has produced 10 documentary projects directed by Kelen, who moved to the U.S. from Hungry when he was 10. As the son of two Holocaust survivors, Kelen was always interested in how minority groups dealt with struggle. He moved to Utah in 1972 to pursue a doctorate of creative writing at the U. and was drawn to 19th- and 20th-century African-American and Jewish prose because of his interest in minorities.

He thought about pursuing a documentation project on minority groups in Salt Lake City in 1980. When he started it two years later, it was focused on ethnic or minority senior citizens who grew up in the city.

Kelen soon expanded his efforts to the entire state. It was a continuation of a previous history project completed by the U.’s American West Center that documented many of the same immigrant laborers who moved to Utah.

It took Kelen 10 years to complete Missing Stories. The oral-history book on native and immigrant Utahns is more than 500 pages.

Greg Thompson, the associate dean for special collections at the U.’s Marriott library, said Kelen’s work add a second, more important layer to the American West Center’s work.

"Leslie comes a decade later and documents the same communities," Thompson said. "So one of the things you get to see is the change with these communities. He got to a group or two more. It certainly helps to deepen the spread of research materials."

Some of the subjects of Kelen’s works passed away soon after they were interviewed. If he hadn’t documented the stories, Thompson said, they would have been lost forever. That, and the scope and scale of Kelen’s project, makes it important to Utah history.

"In almost every case they are very unique stories," he said. "They are filled with a great deal of hardship. It wasn’t easy. You also are seeing what kind of experiences once they got here: what were they like, where they got employment, what was it like to be a member of the minority."

The richness of the stories prompted the U.’s interest, and a gradual transfer of the stories to the special-collections section of the Marriott Library took place. All the work is available in the Marriott Library for anyone to access.

Other works • Apart from Missing Stories and a photography book that went along with the project, the center’s other works are only available through an online book purchase or seeing one of the exhibits in a school. A large part of the center’s outreach is a program called "Exhibits that teach." Kelen and his team of documentarians set up an exhibit in a school and teach students about Utah history and about documentary work.

The center was a founding member of The Leonardo in 2011, and hoped to use space inside for its exhibits. However, the museum is more science focused than expected, said the CDEA’s board of trustees chair, Hank Liese.

"The idea was to have space for small non-profits and other groups, and we would be an incubator for non-profits," Liese said. "That center for community and culture never materialized."

The center’s most recent work documents the past, present and future of the Jordan River. "Reawakened Beauty" received a $60,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency last year to complete, and the end result is vivid photography of the river and an in-depth look at the river’s ecology. This mix of photographs, scientific research and history can be presented in schools through exhibit boards and classes with Kelen and other documentarians.

Civil rights • Perhaps the greatest success the center has seen is its research into civil-rights movement photographers. This Light of Ours grew out of Kelen’s efforts to document civil-rights leaders in Salt Lake City, but he soon found a national angle, compiling photographs and stories from those who captured the movement through their lenses. In a 250-page book, Kelen and other contributors compiled nine photographers’ images and grouped them to show the struggle to gain voting rights and fight segregation. The images and photographer bios were on display in The Leonardo last year and have since embarked on a national tour. For the next two years the exhibit will visit Virginia, Mississippi and Tennessee.

It will make a stop in Roanoke, Va., at the Taubman Museum of Art, Sept. 14. Della Watkins, executive director of the Taubman, said the "This Light of Ours" exhibit’s images are striking, and the history it portrays is perfect for schools to come visit and learn from.

"Photography is more historical and it’s more vivid," she said. "I love the exhibition. … I think it really will connect people to history, and I love that we’ll have the opportunity to see through the eyes of these people why they were compelled to capture moments in history."

With the local and national projects, Liese said a place to engage the community is needed more than ever.

"I see this as a wonderful opportunity to become even more an integral part of the community and bring to light the work we have done and are doing," he said.

mappelgate@sltrib.com

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