Cedar City grows into a haven for artists, from the Utah Shakespeare Festival to do-it-yourself creators

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Artist Kaitlin Mills with her exhibit at Frontier Homestead State Park in Cedar City, Wednesday, June 19, 2019.

Cedar City • If you’re in need of an artist who’s also a Shakespearean actor, educator, theater troupe founder, freelance graphic designer and grad student, Kaitlin Mills checks all the boxes.

“I’m the queen of side hustles,” said Mills, whose first solo art exhibit is hanging at Frontier Homestead State Park’s museum on Cedar City’s Main Street. In Cedar City, she said, “the possibilities are endless, if you can do it yourself.”

Mills is symbolic of how art and culture permeate so much of this southern Utah city of 33,000 that’s home to the Utah Shakespeare Festival — which opens its 58th season Thursday with previews of “Macbeth” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

“There’s always been a group of people here who valued the arts and made it a priority,” said Sara Penny, vice president of the Cedar City Arts Council, which represents dozens of music, theater and visual arts organizations.

Vicki Bourns, director of the state Division of Arts & Museums, hates to make comparisons, but she cited Cedar City as one Utah city (Logan is another) that is “moving into that top tier of [places with] interesting things to do. … It’s a place where you want to go and hang out for a while, because it’s really fun.”

The arts draw lots of tourists — more than 102,000 last year visited Iron County during the summer, mostly to see the Utah Shakespeare Festival, according to the Cedar City/Brian Head Visitors Bureau.

In Iron County, where Cedar City sits, $76.1 million is spent annually on the arts, by the artists and organizations creating it and the audiences consuming it, according to a 2017 study on art and economic prosperity by Americans for the Arts. The same study found that the arts support 1,955 jobs in the county.

“It’s not just a tourist attraction. It’s something that creates its own employment as well,” said Christopher McCormick, president and CEO of the Cedar City Chamber of Commerce.

‘A terrific cycle’

“Clearly, the festival is a cornerstone,” said Frank Mack, executive producer of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, who arrived in Cedar City in 2017 and fell in love with the place.

“I thought, ‘These plays shouldn’t be this good. … This is just too cool a place to be doing this exciting work,’” he said.

The success of one arts group, Mack said, fosters more arts groups around it. “It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle — it’s a terrific cycle,” Mack said. “It’s not uncommon that where you see people participating in professional arts organizations, that if it’s successful, it breeds more of the same.”

The Shakespeare festival has changed the literal landscape of Cedar City.

The two main theaters, the outdoor Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre (designed to resemble Shakespeare’s own Globe Theatre in London) and the indoor Randall L. Jones Theatre, are jewels on the Southern Utah University campus. In 2016, those theaters, along with the black box Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre and the shiny new Southern Utah Museum of Art, were dedicated as the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts.

The center, Bourns said, “just creates a synergy that pulls more people in.”

This year’s festival audiences, Mack said, will see new landscaping and construction in the plaza connecting the theaters. A new clock tower has been built, as well as a new concessions stand — called Ellen’s Sweet Shop — and a gift shop in the Engelstad. And while the old plaza was “a big flat concrete slab,” Mack said, the new one is a green lawn with a colonnade of trees at the center.

The festival is also adding a coffee-and-breakfast concession stand, for people who make a day of Shakespeare. “We have a lot of people who will come at 9 in the morning to hear a talk with a scholar about the play the night before,” Mack said.

It may be “a chicken-and-egg question,” Mack said, but “there is a very high Shakespeare literacy in Cedar City. … They can talk to you about [Shakespeare’s] history cycle. They know the plot of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost.’ They know who their favorite character is in ‘The Tempest.’”

Mack attributes some of the community’s expertise to the festival’s educational programs, which take Shakespeare to the schools. Similarly, Penny — who also directs Suzuki Strings through SUU — credited local educators for the community’s sharp interest in music.

All the schools in Cedar City have an orchestra, Penny said, and a third of the households have a piano at home. Penny compared Cedar City’s musical talent to Iron County’s county seat: “Yo-Yo Ma could have lived and died in Parowan, and no one would know.”

An inspiring landscape

A large number of visual artists also call Cedar City home, drawn by the redrock surroundings and the small-town pace.

“Of course, they’re coming down here because of the landscape, and the beauty that’s around here,” said Jessica Farling, museum director of the Southern Utah Museum of Art.

“My husband was dying of cancer, and he wanted to get out of Chicago,” said Diane Walsh, a painter who moved to Cedar City in 2013. When they arrived, Walsh saw the variety of visual artists and said, “I could live here. … I could have a community.”

Walsh now helps run Artisans Art Gallery on Cedar City’s main drag, Center Street, with her partner, Steve Yates — and she paints in a backroom there. The gallery represents some 60 artists, many of them local.

“The area has tons of artists of all kinds — ceramicists, oil painters, just everything,” said Linda Kiley, who owns Art Works Gallery, around the corner from Artisans Art Gallery. Kiley is also a transplant, from Portland, Ore., with a daughter who attends SUU.

“Oh, it’s beautiful — the scenery and the inspiration,” she said of Cedar City’s redrock environs. The town is also well-situated, a day’s drive from Salt Lake City, Moab or Las Vegas.

On the city’s monthly Final Fridays community art events, the back door that links Artisans to Art Works Gallery opens, and patrons can move freely between them. The galleries are both within walking distance of the town’s coffee shop gathering place, The Grind; a drive-up pastry shop and cafe, The French Spot; and Centro Woodfired Pizzeria, with a massive chalk-art mural inside.

The odd combination of small-town comfort and university cosmopolitan is “such an interesting mix — to find that mix of things anywhere else would be mostly impossible,” said Allen Butt, principal violist for the Orchestra of Southern Utah, which performs at Cedar City’s Heritage Theater.

Whether Cedar City’s mojo can be replicated was tested when Farling and Iron County Commissioner Mike Bleak attended the Creative Counties Forum, a series of workshops put on last year by the National Association of Counties. Farling and Bleak were one of five teams from around the country, talking about how they integrated the arts and culture into economic development.

The proposal Iron County’s team presented, Farling said, was about how to create a “cultural corridor” to link SUU, where the Shakespeare stages and SUMA reside, with the arts scene downtown, a few blocks away.

“What we tried to do was get together and increase the number of stakeholders,” Farling said, adding that some of those ideas about arts and culture have been incorporated into the Cedar City Chamber of Commerce’s Vision 2050 plan, which is still in its early stages.

Vision 2050 “is trying to bring all organizations together, business and government, to work on an overall vision” for Cedar City, the Chamber’s McCormick said — and the area’s arts community is one of those organizations.

The city’s recreation, arts and park tax, or RAP tax (similar to Salt Lake County’s ZAP tax), doled out around $573,000 last year, with a third going to arts groups — including Utah Shakespeare Festival, the smaller SimonFest (formerly the Neil Simon Theatre Festival) and SUMA.

Meanwhile, as part of what Penny called “relentless arts advocacy,” the Cedar City Arts Council awards mini-grants of $250 or $500 to a handful of artists twice a year.

‘A wealth of art’

Kaitlin Mills arrived in Cedar City from Heber City in 2007, as a freshman theater major at SUU — and except for a short stint in Pittsburgh, when her husband, Dallin, went to grad school, she never left.

“Cedar City really is a surprising place,” Mills said. “I didn’t expect to find any art outside the theater community. … But there really is such a wealth of art here.”

Though Mills jumped into Cedar City’s talent pool at the Utah Shakespeare Festival — playing such roles as Bianca in “The Taming of the Shrew” and Hermia in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — she’s also branched out in other ways.

Her current art show, at the Frontier Homestead State Park museum, is “Divas and Dames,” highlighted by art nouveau-inspired drawings of such Shakespearean female characters as Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and Ophelia. The exhibition also includes another series of her artwork, ‘40s-style pin-ups inspired by Disneyland food items, such as churros and Dole Whip. (The show will be on display through Oct. 12.)

She has been an adjunct professor at SUU, teaching stage makeup, and she’s studying for her graduate degree in arts administration. She is a freelance graphic designer. She co-founded Women of Will, an all-female Shakespeare company, and last year played the titular prince in the company’s production of “Pericles.” Also, she and her husband (who’s a special product manager at Utah Shakespeare Festival) are raising their son, Henry, now 3 years old.

“I am a woman of many hats,” she said.

Mills said the scenery is part of Cedar City’s appeal. “On the weekends, you can drive 20 minutes up the canyon and have these beautiful hikes and views,” she said, adding that there’s a “small-town vibe that can be really appealing to people who want to escape the metropolis.”

As she’s dug deeper into the arts community, Mills said, “I find the people here are very receptive and welcoming, and make it such a comfortable and magical place to live.”


Utah Shakespeare Festival

The 58th season of the Utah Shakespeare Festival launches this week.

Where • Beverly Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts, Southern Utah University campus, Cedar City.

When • Previews start Thursday, June 27; premieres begin Monday, July 1. Season runs through Oct. 13.

Shakespeare’s plays • “Macbeth” (previews begin June 27, opening night July 1, performances through Sept. 6, Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre), “Hamlet” (previews begin June 28, opening night July 5, performances through Oct. 12) in the Randall L. Jones Theatre), “Twelfth Night” (previews begin June 29, opening night July 3, performances through Sept. 7, Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre), and “Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3” (previews begin June 29, opening matinee July 6, performances run through Aug. 31, Anes Studio Theatre).

Other plays • Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (previews begin June 27, opening matinee July 4, performances run through Oct. 12, Randall L. Jones Theatre), Lauren Gunderson’s “The Book of Will��� (previews begin June 2, opening night July 2, performances run through Sept. 5, Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre), Duncan Macmillan’s “Every Brilliant Thing” (opening night July 11, performances run through Oct. 12, Anes Studio Theatre), and Arthur Miller’s “The Price” (preview Sept. 12, opening night Sept. 14, performances run through Oct. 12, Anes Studio Theatre).

Also • The annual Greenshow, in three different versions — Scottish, English and Russian — as well as orientation sessions, seminars and lectures. Go to bard.org for details.

Tickets • Available at bard.org.