Michael Hall watches people every day take a seat on the odd little metal bench in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood.
“The one I notice the most is when a parent and a child take a rest there,” said Hall, director of Jane’s Home, the mansion-turned-gathering place on South Temple and T Street. “Those [city] blocks are pretty long for little kids.”
The bench, a random bit of whimsy along a busy street, is part of the legacy of public art of Richard Johnston, a sculptor and longtime University of Utah professor who died earlier this month.
Johnston, 75, died Dec. 12 in Hyrum, according to his friend and fellow artist Frank McEntire. Johnston had been suffering from Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s disease when he died, McEntire said.
Johnston, McEntire said, was dedicated to public art, works that would become part of a city’s landscape. “He was always looking for ways to bring projects and people together,” McEntire said.
Johnston created metal sculptures familiar to Salt Lake City residents: the stainless-steel pelicanlike bird that stood for many years at the entrance to Tracy Aviary in Liberty Park; the untitled geometric assembly built in 1975 that for years sat in the front yard of the Glendinning Mansion on 700 East (the site is now undergoing renovation); and “Spiral Arch” (1990), the red metal span on 100 South near City Creek Center.
More of his works can be found at the Utah Department of Health’s offices in Provo and on the campuses of Salt Lake Community College’s West Valley City branch, Weber State University in Ogden, Utah Valley University in Orem, and Dixie State University in St. George.
Johnston was born in 1942 in Kankakee, Ill., but grew up in Southern California. He earned his master’s of fine arts from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. He was hired to teach at the University of Utah in 1968, lured by the legendary painter Douglas Snow, who chaired the U.’s art department.
“Doug threw him in his Porsche convertible and took him up to Snowbird,” McEntire said. “That seemed like something that was appealing at that time in his life. He just wanted a new start.”
Johnston was a professor at the U. from 1968 to 1990. From 1983 to 1986, he also was director of the Salt Lake Art Center (now the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art).
Much of the public art he made in Utah was constructed over this period — including that bench in the Avenues.
Philanthropist Jane Porter commissioned the bench, to go with the big house at 1229 E. South Temple, which she had bought in 1987 and started a three-year renovation project. Porter, Johnston and the architects discussed what kind of art would work on the property, said Bonnie Phillips, Porter’s daughter and co-owner of the Phillips Gallery in Salt Lake City, which represented Johnston’s work for decades.
The bench is modern and eccentric. “It’s very traditional, compared to his other pieces,” Phillips said. “He really made that effort to do what was needed, with great respect to the public.”
The flat part where one sits is propped up on one end by a triangle, like a fulcrum, and on the other by a wide circle of metal. Resting on the bench are wrought-metal replicas of a bowler hat and a folded umbrella — the sort of things a proper English gentleman would carry.
The hat and umbrella don’t represent a particular person, Phillips said, but reflect the Georgian Revival architecture of the house. Hall, who worked with Porter until her death in 2008, agreed. “The only significance I see is the old and the new,” he said.
When Porter died, the house became Jane’s Home, a meeting place for nonprofit organizations, with Hall as the director. The bench remains, with no identification or explanation.
Johnston left the U. in 1990 to direct the Robert Fullerton Museum of Art at California State University in San Bernardino. He ran that museum for its first six years and taught at CSUSB for 25 years, retiring in 2015. He returned to northern Utah to be closer to his wife, Nadra Haffar, then the education curator at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at Utah State University in Logan.
The Phillips Gallery, at 444 E. 200 South in Salt Lake City, will host a “Celebration of Life” open house for Johnston, Jan. 6 from 4 to 6 p.m. But his legacy, Phillips said, will be felt by anybody who comes across his public art.
“You’re engaged with it, even if it’s subconsciously,” Phillips said. “It’s part of the city.”