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Pride Story Garden provides an immersive look at Utah’s LGBTQ experience

With a lingering pandemic and no parade, the Utah Pride Center reimagined the story of Pride itself.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Pride Center unveils the Pride Story Garden as a replacement to the usual pride parade with an outdoor museum featuring LGBTQ-focused displays of history, artwork and current issues at Washington Square in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. The exhibit opens with limited ticket access to maintain social distancing Thursday, June 3 through Monday, June 7, 2021.

When Rob Moolman, executive director of the Utah Pride Center, and his team started designing this year’s Pride Week at the start of 2021, he wanted to place a special emphasis on telling queer and LGBTQ stories. The UPC staff gathered often and brainstormed “thousands” of ideas that would be COVID-safe, according to Moolman.

One suggestion was to create a “story garden,” or an outdoor, self-guided museum tour where Utahns could learn about LGBTQ history and issues at their own pace. It would offer a safe environment for visitors — whether they are vaccinated or not — to learn more about the LGBTQ community even as COVID-19 public safety regulations continued to evolve throughout the planning process.

The garden is designed to safely accommodate waves of up to 100 people at a time, with a new wave of visitors allowed to enter every 15 minutes. Created entirely by volunteers, the garden features more than 600 pieces centered around this year’s Pride theme: “Our stories, our history, our community.”

“Each garden [area] is unique and has its own contemplative element,” said Emily Walker, UPC community engagement manager over volunteers.

Billy Clouse, the volunteer designer of the Pride Story Garden, explained that it is built like a labyrinth, meaning that there are multiple paths visitors can take through the 20 exhibitions housed inside. There are various exit points throughout the space, which stretches from State Street to 200 E and University Blvd to 500 S on Washington Square. Clouse is quick to note that while the layout may resemble a maze, no one will end up lost inside.

Clouse had learned about UPC while attending Pride in 2019, and decided to volunteer after seeing a post from UPC on social media asking for graphic design help in February 2021. He was given the responsibility to take the Road Rally that UPC held on National Coming Out Day in October 2020 and “crank it up 20 notches,” Clouse said.

[Read more: How organizers seized the chance to reimagine Pride Week]

Working alongside a team of 11 other volunteers, Clouse estimated that hundreds, maybe even thousands, of hours of work went into researching the topics, writing informational panels, reaching out to community partners, designing interactive pieces and curating the artwork that’s displayed throughout.

“In Utah, Pride is so important,” Clouse said. “Not just as a celebration, but also for community building, and ultimately, as a suicide prevention tool. We wanted to do something that was bigger than before with a way to interact in person, but in a safe way.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Pride Center unveils the Pride Story Garden as a replacement to the usual pride parade with an outdoor museum featuring LGBTQ-focused displays of history, artwork and current issues at Washington Square in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. The exhibit opens with limited ticket access to maintain social distancing Thursday, June 3 through Monday, June 7, 2021.

Each of the 20 fenced-in garden spaces is designed around a single concept connected to the LGBTQ community and the queer experience. The individual gardens vary largely in purpose: one garden features tributes and memorials to honor members of the community who have passed away, while another asks visitors to write down something that they’ve never told anyone and post their notecard to a wall of secrets.

There is a Drag Kingdom and a Drag Queendom where visitors can learn about the history and importance of drag shows within the LGBTQ community, and live DJs will play music for attendees at the Studio 54 dance floor. (There will be even hula hoops indicating where to stand on the ground, so dancers will have to move on to the next garden after one song to allow for a physically distanced dance party.)

[Read more: With the parade canceled, here’s how you can still celebrate Pride Week]

“[The garden] allowed us the opportunity to bring the history and the stories of representation to Salt Lake City,” Moolman said. The goal was “to do something different, but to do it differently in a way that highlights the story, the individuals, the work that’s getting done in the LGBTQ community.”

Clouse said that the biggest challenge his team faced was bringing such an ambitious project to life in just over three months. “We wanted to put together an event that could bring people together and into a shared space, but also to reflect on why we have Pride. You could have 20 exhibits on any one of these topics that we have,” he said. “The fact that we have so many of the rights we do is not by accident.”

While the Pride Story Garden will feature a variety of educational and interactive exhibitions, it also offers a platform for LGBTQ artists to express themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Artist Spotlight: Rian Kasner, 3D mural installation

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Pride Center unveils the Pride Story Garden as a replacement to the usual pride parade with an outdoor museum featuring LGBTQ-focused displays of history, artwork and current issues at Washington Square in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. The exhibit opens with limited ticket access to maintain social distancing Thursday, June 3 through Monday, June 7, 2021.

Rian Kasner was studying graphic design at Southern Utah University when their strength and conditioning coach asked them to create a large display to decorate the weight room.

Kasner had been recruited out of Puyallup, Washington, to play goalkeeper for SUU’s women’s soccer team, but didn’t discover their true passion for art until they decided that instead of just crafting a design for the wall, they would paint the entire mural themself.

That project sparked a love for creating murals that has become central to Kasner’s life. While they usually work on flat walls, Kasner created the 3D mural “See Us” as their submission for SUU’s Capstone Exhibition after discovering parallax artwork online.

Parallax artwork creates different images throughout a work depending on where the viewer is looking at it from, forcing the viewer to reconsider their perspective as they take it in. Kasner wanted to create a project centered around their experience with coming out as a queer person and created the installation by painting larger images on staggered white posts.

As attendees walk around the installation, they’ll see a new image on each of the four sides. Kasner started the work with a monotone self-portrait to represented what it’s like to feel out of place a gendered world. As viewers move around the installation, they will encounter happier faces and brighter colors that represent the acceptance that Kasner has found since coming out.

“It’s difficult because we’re growing up believing that the only option is to be a man or a woman. That’s all you see as a kid,” Kasner said. “It’s really scary when you start to realize that you don’t really fall into that. It’s hard. Even if you come from an accepting family, society is not very accepting as a whole.”

Creating the installation was a painstaking process: Kasner spent more than 200 hours — painting post individually — to ensure that the images would be proportionally correct when displayed in 3D.

The project deepened Kasner’s passion for art. When they heard about the Pride story garden from Clouse, who also attended SUU, they successfully submitted the work to appear as part of the Pride Story Garden.

“It means quite a bit to me,” Kasner said. “I have the privilege of being able to freely be out and proud about it and not worry about it with my family or work life. That’s not something that everybody can say.”

Kasner is grateful for the family they found among SUU’s LGBTQ community, and that appreciation extends to being a part of the Pride Story Garden. “I am very thankful to have the privilege to share my work,” they said. “I just want society to change perspective and to see us as queer individuals, to understand that our journey is difficult.”

The ultimate goal, Kasner said, is to “have people see it and hopefully change some minds.”

You can find more of Kasner’s work on their website and on Instagram.

Artist Spotlight: Marshall Sharpe, painting

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A painting by Marshall Sharpe acts as a place holder for the artist as the Utah Pride Art Exhibit slowly takes shape for the Pride Story Garden, a replacement to the usual pride parade with an outdoor museum featuring LGBTQ-focused displays of history, artwork and current issues at Washington Square in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. The exhibit opens with limited ticket access to maintain social distancing Thursday, June 3 through Monday, June 7, 2021.

Marshall Sharpe painted “Waking Up” entirely with one hand.

He was skiing at Alta Ski Resort when he lost his balance and careened into the ground, breaking his collarbone. Sharpe works as an instructor of drawing and painting at Utah Valley University, and he wasn’t going to let a sling keep him from getting back to his easel. When he learned that the Pride Center was looking for submissions for the story garden, he selected the painting as his submission.

“I was feeling very vulnerable and isolated during COVID, and I wanted to make a response piece that didn’t have a facemask or a Zoom call,” Sharpe said. He was looking for “a more elegant, quieter way to communicate how I felt this last year.”

Sharpe originally hails from North Carolina, where he graduated from Elon University with a bachelor’s degree in art before moving to Hawaii to teach at a middle school. He said that he wanted to “emotionally return” to that time of his life during the pandemic, so he incorporated the green ferns often found there into the background of his self-portrait.

“I think I’ve felt very vulnerable over the last four years,” he said. “It felt like raw and fearful. At the end of those four years, I was waking up to my own community’s marginalization. And, with the death of George Floyd, that was giving me empathy for other communities that had also been historically marginalized.”

Sharpe originally thought about titling the piece ”Waking Up to Whiteness” as he has been wrestling more deeply with white privilege over the last year, but decided on simply “Waking Up” to emphasize the push for equity in everything from public health programs to federal legislation like the Equality Act.

Sharpe moved to Utah in 2020 after he was hired at UVU. “I was very fearful at the time,” he admits, “because I’d only heard bad things [about] Utah in terms of the way the LGBTQ community was treated.”

“When I moved here, I started seeing these Pride flags all over town,” Sharpe said. It matters that the Pride Story Garden is being constructed “right at the center of the city. That feels symbolic and significant.”

You can find more of Sharpe’s work on his website and on Instagram.

Artist Spotlight: Caitlyn Barhorst, sculpture

It started with a post from the University of Utah’s Trans Health Program.

The post was seeking an artist to create an installation for the Pride Story Garden, and Caitlyn Barhorst would only have about three weeks to make it happen. Bahorst started to forage for materials — around their friend’s burn pile and on Facebook Marketplace — and set to work turning old packing pallets and discarded two-by-fours into a butterfly.

“I was like, ‘Okay, how can I translate the idea of transformation and, in a simple form, take these materials that are not being used and transform them into something that can be enjoyed as a sculptural piece?’ Bahorst said. “That ties it all together.”

Barhorst graduated from Texas Tech University after studying architecture and went on to earn their master’s degree in architecture and historic preservation at Ball State University. They moved to Utah in 2019 to work as the historic preservation planner for Park City Municipal Corporation.

Working in preservation made Barhorst eager to get back into design, and they started to sell pottery and fiber figures online. Because of their training in historical preservation, Bahorst said they are particularly interested in reusing materials in their work.

“I’ve never really been to Pride before because I’m quite introverted. The pandemic brought a lot more social craving out of me,” Barhorst said with a laugh, “so this piece was an effort to start getting out of my shell.”

Barhorst, who lives in Kamas, constructed much of the butterfly in Summit County before bringing lumber to the garden to finish assembling the 5-foot wide, 4-foot tall sculpture on site. This is the first time they have built something this large, and they found the challenge exciting.

The piece features large, painted wings behind a bench designed for visitors to sit on and take photos. It represents the metamorphosis that is a natural part of transitioning. Barhorst, who identifies as queer, wanted the installation to feel accessible, and to inspire those who see it to create as well.

“I don’t want to say it’s simple,” Barhorst said. On the surface, “it’s just cutting up some pallets, disassembling it and creating this 3D piece out of it.” But, just like affirming one’s gender identity, they “want people to be encouraged to think ‘I can actually do that.’”

You can find more of Barhorst’s work on Instagram.


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