As artists get priced out of downtown Salt Lake, they’re creating new spaces of their own

Material is featuring a Taiwanese artist whose ink-and-paper works consider ideas of femininity.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Taiwanese artist Lu Wei at Material, an art gallery in South Salt Lake on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023.

The latest project by Jorge Rojas — the Salt Lake City artist and art curator — is about fostering creativity through connection and collaboration.

Rojas made such a connection earlier this year, when he met Taiwanese artist Lu Wei while on a two-week trip to Kyrgyzstan, as part of a nomadic art project, learning about the culture and art of the region’s cultures.

Wei, who has studied feminist theory and history, then curated an exhibition on a retreat in Taiwan, Rojas said — and the two stayed in touch.

When Rojas heard that Wei would be coming to the United States for the first time — for a residency at Los Angeles’ 18th Street Art Center — Rojas said he jumped at the chance to bring her and her work to Utah. Specifically, to Material, a new art gallery Rojas and fellow artist Colour Maisch launched in August at 2970 S. West Temple in South Salt Lake.

In Wei’s exhibition, “My Sole Desires” — which opened Sept. 29, and will be on display through Oct. 27 — she expands on the practice and history of Yin ink calligraphy and painting, in which she is trained, through the lens of femininity. Many of the pieces build on her own experiences as a woman, including pregnancy and motherhood.

“I found that there is no mother identity in Chinese ink painting or history,” Wei said.

While she was at university to earn her bachelor’s degree, she said, only one of the teachers of traditional ink painting was a woman. Wei was pregnant at the time, so she was even more aware of the lack of a female perspective.

“I decided that I would like to create a new identity for mother, but I don’t want to abandon the traditions of ink painting techniques and skills,” she said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Taiwanese artist Lu Wei at Material, an art gallery in South Salt Lake on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023.

On display in the gallery’s main room are large works Wei has created, “Mother and the Unicorn,” that are inspired by the famous 16th century Flemish tapestries known as “The Lady and the Unicorn.”

The original tapestries depict the five senses, as well as a sixth sense — defined as soul, heart or will — though in Wei’s version, there’s also an allusion to the sixth sense in Buddhism, the sense of self.

Those tapestries, Wei said, focus on the unicorn figure, which she said (and art analysts have also found) has been likened to the figure of Jesus. The figure of the lady, it follows, often represents the Virgin Mary.

“For my painting, I want to bring more power and energy to that lady,” Wei said. “You can tell that the lady is kind of controlling every animal by herself.”

Other pieces in the exhibition include a long, hand-drawn scroll balanced on a ledge, and language and ink books. One ink book, which Wei made by hand, is full of images from her personal life when she was pregnant — dreams she had, how she felt about her body and how others did.

Wei said she felt excited about her first solo exhibition in Utah — which is also her first time in the state. (She’ll return for the exhibition’s closing event in late October.)

“I have never heard about Salt Lake City before, just New York or Los Angeles or big cities. So it’s quite special to me that I can come here and have a solo show. … It’s not only about a solo show, it’s more like a culture is [exchanged] — to Jorge, to this gallery and to the people in Utah.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jorge Rojas at Material, an art gallery in South Salt Lake on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023.

A different kind of space

Material is a “little less formal” than most contemporary art galleries, Rojas said. That’s on purpose and out of necessity.

“Sometimes people are intimidated by galleries,” Rojas said. “[They] aren’t necessarily the most welcoming places, either.”

The building is a five-room space that doubles as an incorporated art studio for Rojas, Maisch and half-Hopi artist Jessica Wiarda — who was the artist-in-residence for Utah Diné Bikéyah and recently helped put on the state’s first Indigenous fashion week.

Wiarda’s colorful neck scarves hang off furniture in her space, her pieces decorate the walls, and a long table with a green tablecloth takes up the center of the room.

Rojas’ space is being used as a staging area for Wei’s show. Maisch’s area is fit with loaded shelves containing ceramics, and has a garage door that opens to an outdoor area they use to open up the space and host events. (There also are plans, eventually, to offer art classes to children, Rojas said.)

One of the rooms is affectionately called the “kitchen gallery,” Rojas said. It used to be an office, and before they remodeled, Rojas said, it resembled something from the set of the sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati,” which aired from 1978 to 1982.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jorge Rojas at Material, an art gallery in South Salt Lake on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023.

While walking through Material, Rojas said that he and Maisch were “studio mates” for nine years, in a large studio space near 500 South and 500 West in downtown Salt Lake City.

“Then, because of the cost of rent and everything, we were basically priced out,” Rojas said. That’s why they placed Material in South Salt Lake.

It’s a common complaint among Utah artists. Derek Dyer, director of the Utah Arts Alliance, has been outspoken about how downtown Salt Lake City real estate prices led his group to relocate its Dreamscapes exhibition from The Gateway to Sandy’s The Shops at South Town.

Rojas said the shift reminds him of his days in New York City, when he saw the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Bushwick develop.

The hope for Material, Rojas said, is to develop a space where art collectors can come to buy art. “While there are many contemporary artists here, there’s still sort of [a] market being developed for it,” he said.

Part of that development is being innovative in the way the gallery collaborates with the artists whose work is displayed, Rojas said. Since he and Maisch are also artists, Rojas said, they understand the need to make a living off their work.

“When you work with a gallery, you’re basically going to get maybe like one solo show every two or three years,” he said. In part, that’s because artists often sign an “exclusivity contract,” he said, “which means that you can’t show anywhere else, usually in the state and sometimes even nationally.”

Material also plans, Rojas said, to split commissions 60/40 with artists — with the artists getting the bigger portion. At most galleries, he said, the split is 50/50.

And the way Material brings art into the gallery will be “a much more collaborative kind of approach,” he said. “Oftentimes galleries will say, ‘We want that and and make three more of those.’ That’s how it works, because they believe that they know best about what the market is and who their clientele is. … But then the problem with that is that it tends to box artists in a certain way of creating. Artists need to innovate all the time.”

Material will show art from local, regional, national and international artists, Rojas said — as well as artists who historically have not been well represented. The first seven artists the gallery will display are all women.

“Half of it is connecting with the artist as a human — what their vision is,” Rojas said. “I’m not only investing in their art. I’m investing in the artist.”

Material, a contemporary art gallery at 2970 S. West Temple, will show Taiwanese artist Lu Wei’s exhibition, “My Sole Desires,” now through Oct. 27. Hours at the gallery vary, based on openings and other events. One can also book an appointment on the gallery’s website, materialartgallery.com.