Spring City artist Cassandria Parsons knew her grandfather worked on the renowned transcontinental railroad. But she didn’t learn about the hard labor Sui Lin Wong and other Chinese workers endured until she created a painting honoring him, now part of an exhibit marking the sesquicentennial of the line that united the nation in 1869.
“In a way, it was quite overwhelming,” Parsons said. “I learned about my own history through this project.”
Parsons has seen only one photograph of her grandfather, dressed in a suit and tie. She and her brother, Richard Wong, used their family stories and research about the lives of Chinese railroad workers to collaborate on their vision of their grandfather, painted standing proudly amid other laborers.
“I imagine that is how he is because that is how we are,” Parsons said. “I know that my grandfather is proud of what he has done, no matter how hard it was.”
This week, dozens of events statewide will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the May 10, 1869, connection of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit in Utah. But historic artifacts, memorabilia, art, photographs and more will remain on display in exhibits for weeks and months to come, extending the opportunity for Utahns to learn about the creation and impact of the famed railroad.
In curating the “Transcontinental: People, Place, Impact” exhibit, at the historic Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City through June 14, Felicia Baca and Amanda Moore wanted to include the viewpoints of the American Indians whose land the railroad crossed and the Chinese workers who made up the majority of the construction crews.
“It was really important to me to make sure that we told a story that was diverse and inclusive,” said Baca, formerly the visual arts program manager at Utah Arts & Museums and now executive director of the Salt Lake City Arts Council.
Baca discovered Parsons’ connection to the railroad when she set out to find a descendent of a Chinese worker to portray the laborers’ story. The exhibit includes art forms from paintings and bronze sculptures to digital collages and social practice projects, such as a traveling literary journal.
Artist Rios Pacheco, a member of the Northwestern Band Shoshone Tribe, created images on a white deer hide hung from a willow branch using colorful glass beads, animal fur, sinew and thread. The scenes tell the story of the flora and fauna of the area, and how the people relied on the land and animals for survival.
“The Disappearing of the Life Ways of the Shoshone (Newe) of Northern Utah & Southeastern Idaho (Utah Territory)” depicts life “before the railroad, and how the places that the railroad came through were some of the places that they would go and gather food and hunt for animals,” Pacheco said.
His carefully beaded work shows the pine and willow trees of the forests, the cattails of the wetlands and the sagebrush of the desert, and how they were used for building shelters and corrals, weaving baskets and making nets to catch fish. The jagged track through the middle has missing ties that represent the vanishing way of life for the Shoshone, because many of the trees they used for food, medicine and shelter were taken for the railroad tracks.
There is a lone pair of women’s moccasins, representing not only the resources that were used to make them but also the difficult life of indigenous women who lived by the tracks.
“[The railroad] attacked everything that was meaningful in their lives. It didn’t just affect them physically. It also affected them spiritually,” Pacheco said.
Spring City artist and potter Joseph Bennion doesn’t typically make narrative work. “I make things to bake pies in and brew tea in, and drink coffee out of, and eat dinner off of,” he said.
But for his stoneware piece, “Blood on the Tracks: The Sins of my Father,” Bennion used iconic depictions from the Buffalo and Indian Head nickel because he felt that the impact of the transcontinental railroad on indigenous people was greatest when vast numbers of buffalo were killed.
“The railroad was just the vehicle that brought the buffalo hunters in,” Bennion said.
Seen upon closer inspection are a dying buffalo and the image — from a vintage photo — of the frozen body of Spotted Elk, a chief of the Miniconjou, Lakota Sioux killed in 1890 by the U.S. Army at Wounded Knee.
Three ceremonial spikes were used to complete the railroad at the celebration on May 10, 1869, including the famous golden spike. In his painting “The Divinity of Inanimate Objects Omits Your Sins,” artist Gregg Deal used 24 carat gold leaf to show that “the golden spike has more value than human beings,” he said.
Deal, of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, used acrylic paint to create a collage of a Shoshone man, an American flag, a teepee, a boy wearing a headdress and a candy wrapper.
“The things that are on there are meant to be things that are familiar, things that people can see and kind of understand what that is and where it’s coming from,” Deal said, “but that familiarity is rooted in the existence of indigenous people through American culture.”At an April reception for the exhibit’s artists, Deal wore a men’s traditional outfit that typically is colorful. But in his version, “the bead work is black, the feathers are black, the leather work is black, the ribbon work — everything is just black on black,” he said.
“The metaphor of black on black is like to exist but not exist, to be visible but invisible and to be a shadow of indigenous existence,” he said.
The exhibit reflects both the positive and negative impacts of the construction of the railroad, Baca said.
“We did deal with those historical figures, personal heritage, immigrants and labor issues, indigenous communities, environment and all of the technology and innovation,” she said, “and the impact that kind of transportation, that this industry, had on the nation.”
— This coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. The Salt Lake Tribune makes all editorial decisions.
“Transcontinental: People, Place, Impact” features more than 35 artists, some of whom are direct descendants of railroad workers and American Indian tribes.
The exhibition is a program of the Utah Division of Arts & Museums in the Department of Heritage & Arts, which was supported by the Spike 150 Commission.
When: Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., through June 14.
Where: Rio Gallery in the historic Rio Grande Depot, at 300 S. Rio Grande St. in Salt Lake City.