Meet the Utah women at the forefront of art and activism

An image of artist Marcela Torres appearing in a performance of "Agentic Mode." The image is displayed in "Women to the Front: Perspectives on Equality, Gender, and Activism," an exhibit at Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City.

Which of Utah’s women artists are at the forefront of infusing their art with activism?

Nancy Rivera decided to try to answer that question, as a commemoration of both the centennial of the 19th Amendment and the 150th anniversary of the first vote cast by a woman in the territory of Utah, considered the first modern vote by a woman in the U.S.

Rivera, visual arts coordinator for the Utah Division of Arts & Museums, brought in curator and art critic Scotti Hill, who has a background in art history. They wanted to consider a variety of mediums — photography, painting, drawing, fiber arts, installations, performances and printmaking — and began with a list of more than 40 artists.

They narrowed it to 15, including painters Lindsay Frei and Lis Pardoe, photographers Jamie Harper and Denae Shanidiin, and illustrator Mary Toscano (who also work in other mediums).

“We don’t want to generalize and say, ‘This is what it looks like to be a female artist,’” Hill said. “But sadly, there is still something quite important about saying that this is what women can do.”

Now, meet four of the new and emerging female artists with ties to Utah selected for “Women to the Front: Perspectives on Equality, Gender, and Activism.” (While the exhibit is closed following earthquake damage to the historic Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City, it will run through May 8 once the building reopens.)

Marcela Torres: ‘An experiential performance’

Using her body as a medium, Marcela Torres interweaves narrative, sound and fighting techniques into her performance art. Her work speaks to the violence directed toward minorities and people of color.

“I’m thinking a lot about how to accurately tell stories to make a larger population understand how people live and their experience in order for us to care more about each other culturally,” said Torres, who grew up in Utah and now lives in Chicago.

“I’ve been talking about this idea of storytelling and all the ways in which one can storytell accurately, and sometimes if you tell someone you are in pain or you need help, it can be easily dismissed,” she said. “But if you create this giant scenario in which it can be experienced through the body, people can understand that you’re human.”

Her display in the exhibit includes a series of photos printed on velvet fabric and projected onto lightboards, as well as video documentation of her past live performances. Her use of sound, for example, includes recording the thump created when she hits a punching bag, then looping it and moving to the beat she created.

Growing up among the dominant religion of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she said, she always felt undervalued as a Mexican American, as a person of color and as an artist. Her performance work is not about religion, she said, but it is based on her experience of being in a religion.

“I think that often people get into a sort of confrontation about beliefs and for me, it’s not confrontational. It is an experiential performance in which I am telling a narrative, and that narrative is universal and specific to things that I’ve experienced growing up in Utah,” she said.

“I’m always tied to my home of Utah and am tied to the landscape, the precarity of terrain and the very interesting politics of Utah,” said Torres. “I think that it can’t be denied that Utah is a very white space. And I would never give up … my experience in growing up [in Utah], especially in the LDS Church. I would never give that up. I think there are so many things and lessons that made me, me.”

She has spent the last two years working on and developing a performance piece titled “Agentic Mode,” which has a story arc that means “people will be saying something really different at the beginning than at the end,” she said.

She was scheduled to perform it at Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City, but that has been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. She hopes to reschedule and perform in her hometown in the future.

An image created by artist Jaclyn Wright and displayed in "Women to the Front: Perspectives on Equality, Gender, and Activism," an exhibit at Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City.

Jaclyn Wright: Exploring parallels

Jaclyn Wright uses a photo technique that involves colorful layers of different exposures of film, combined with imagery in the shape of her own birthmark.

From her series titled “Marked,” she photographed images of Utah landscapes in the west desert, where objects have been used as target practice and discarded. She at first tried cleaning up the land, she said, but felt it was hopeless, and instead used her art to look at how the body and the land are often used and discarded.

The images appear to be a collage or cut and pasted, but they are all made with a single sheet of film in a camera. The images have up to three exposures, each with a shape in the middle that looks like a map or the outline of a country — but it’s the outline of a birthmark on her neck, which has drawn physical and verbal attention from others.

“There are parallels between the ways in which the gendered body is oppressed or exploited, controlled, and how that parallels the way in which the landscape in this case, particularly how the Utah landscape, is also exploited, controlled and extracted from, especially the west desert,” Wright said. She said she is “using that as a symbol in addition to my birthmark, to parallel the way in which the land and environment are treated as well as the body.”

Originally from the Great Lakes region, Wright now lives in Salt Lake City and is an assistant professor of photography and digital imaging at the University of Utah. She traces her decision to use her birthmark in her art to the 2016 presidential election and the national #MeToo movement.

“I was feeling frustrated and angry about things that were going on and decided to reclaim this part of my body that had caused reasons to participate in the MeToo movement,” she said. “In order to reclaim that, I would use it symbolically in the work as a way to address trauma, gender, privilege.”

"I've Got Out At Last," a printed and embroidered piece created by Erin Coleman Serrano and displayed in "Women to the Front: Perspectives on Equality, Gender, and Activism," an exhibit at Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City.

Erin Coleman Serrano: ‘Layered meanings’

Erin Coleman Serrano often uses techniques traditionally considered women’s work: embroidery, sewing and needlework.

Her pieces chosen for the exhibit are part of a series based on the 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, about a woman who is experiencing postpartum depression and is taken to a country estate to convalesce. It’s an early example of feminist literature that addresses attitudes toward women and their freedom.

To create the series, she used a technique with gelatin printing plates to build up layers of paint on fabric, resembling the yellow wallpaper referred to in the story.

“It allows me to build up those layers that I think could reflect some of the layered meanings that you find in the text,” said Serrano.

Serrano then embroidered quotes from the text onto the painted muslin, even using her own hair to weave through the fabric in one of the pieces.

“I’m interested in that connection with the text, because the text is slowly revealing her narrative,” said Serrano. “I think there’s a fine line between what’s happening with her mental health. Is she descending into hysteria or she is fighting for freedom?”

Storytelling and narrative is at the heart of her work, Serrano said. While she recently gave birth to a baby boy, she produced this series before she thought about having children. She finds it interesting that the timing of this exhibit is coinciding with her new role as a mother.

“What I’m finding is that there are real shared experiences that transcend roles or stages of life. I created this work before I was a mother, and now that I’m a mother, I see that there are things that don’t necessarily change, even if my perspective has changed,” said Serrano.

A photograph by Fazilat Soukhakian, displayed in "Women to the Front: Perspectives on Equality, Gender, and Activism," an exhibit at Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City.

Fazilat Soukhakian: ‘People and their places’

Fazilat Soukhakian began photographing scenes in Iran when she was 18. After she finished an undergraduate degree, she began working as a photojournalist and was among the first women photographers in her country.

“It gave me a lot of perspective on social issues,” Soukhakian said. “That gave me a very deep perspective on what people are in need of versus what the governments are imposing on people.”

Now living in Utah, she wants to expose the types of discrimination people face here. She dealt with discrimination as a woman in Iran, and thought that America was a more advanced society. But she found that women are still struggling for equality everywhere.

In her photography series “Queer in Utah,” she focuses on the LGBTQ community, specifically within Utah’s dominant religion, because she was surprised that people could face discrimination here.

“This is a topic that is very, very important and this needs to be resolved,” said Soukhakian. “In my country, if you’re gay or lesbian, there’s a big punishment for them. But I never thought that in America, there is a place that in this century, that people are dealing with this issue.”

She photographed 15 gay and lesbian couples in affectionate poses, mostly outdoors, in a style similar to images that heterosexual couples have commonly used in wedding announcements or family photos displayed on mantles above fireplaces. One image is of a gay couple who recently adopted a baby; they are sitting on a couch and embracing beneath a framed portrait of the Salt Lake Temple.

“I was always interested in this topic back in my country. I also had a lot of friends that were struggling and in my country, it’s much more difficult,” said Soukhakian. “I couldn’t do this project there. … But here it was a big surprise. I didn’t know that Utah is struggling with this issue. And then I came across that and I thought, this is very important to me. Not only at [the] country level, but globally.”

She specifically chose couples who have backgrounds as Latter-day Saints. Many of her subjects consider themselves still faithful to the church’s beliefs, but some have lost their membership and their jobs due to discrimination, she said.

She wants to normalize images of gay and lesbian couples by sharing their stories through images.

“I’m interested in looking for stories about people and their places. I’m fascinated by it. I feel we live in a world where everybody has their own stories,” said Soukhakian. “I love to discover these kinds of stories that empower people.”


The exhibit “Women to the Front: Perspectives on Equality, Gender, and Activism” currently is closed due to earthquake damage to the Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City.

But it will run through May 8 once the building reopens; its business hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The organizers hope to schedule a closing reception with the artists.

“Now more than ever, we need art to lift our spirits and rally our community,” said art critic Scotti Hill. “... The artists are so deserving of having a celebration of their achievements.”

Celebrations of recent suffrage anniversaries are important, said Nancy Rivera, visual arts coordinator for the Utah Division of Arts & Museums. But the exhibits was designed to also provide “a way to think of how to move forward, and continue providing spaces for these artists and to have their voices heard no matter what the year might be.”

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.