Robert Gehrke: How one Utahn used this pandemic to create works of art

How have you spent your COVID quarantine?

Did you get a sourdough starter and figure out, like I did, that you’re better suited for baking bricks, or did you promise to wear out those running shoes that are still sitting in your closet? Or maybe you had a stack of books that are gathering dust.

John Hess is making a significantly better use of this time.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Hess talks about some of his woven works of art he has created on Tuesday, Sept, 22, 2020, after messing up his back that landed him in a senior center right as Covid hit.

Hess was born in Ogden in 1939, earned a botany degree from the University of Utah before moving to San Francisco to attend design school in the mid-1960s where he was first introduced to weaving.

He came back to Utah and taught textiles at Westminster and the U., while continuing to turn out remarkable work, including several massive pieces displayed at the Magna Library, at the Rose Wagner Theatre and at the West Valley City Library, among others.

Hess is also a sculptor who produced a metal work for the “Flying Objects” public art installations you might have seen downtown and another large image of firefighters at Fire House No. 6 in Salt Lake City’s Poplar Grove neighborhood.

At the end of last year, Hess was working at his loom and went to sit down but missed his chair and dropped to the floor. He suffered a compression fracture in his back.

He spent eight weeks in a rehabilitation center before moving into the Chateau Brickyard assisted living facility.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

The people are friendly, the staff is helpful, but, Hess told me, there isn’t a whole lot to do. What’s more, he had less space than he was used to, nowhere near enough room for his old loom — a cumbersome contraption that was roughly the size of a grand piano and took up an entire bedroom in his old home.

Hess was settling into his new apartment just as ominous reports were popping up about the new, deadly coronavirus spreading across the country.

As the warnings grew louder, Hess’s friends were working to set up a smaller loom in his new living room, but it was intricate and took weeks to get right, Hess' friend, Patrick Munger, told me.

They finally got it operating just a few days before the facility restricted visitors in order to protect the well-being of the vulnerable residents.

“Oh wow, I’d go crazy if I didn’t have that outlet,” Hess said when we met last week.

Now he spends days at a time turning out smaller pieces, each thread meticulously woven into place creating elaborate patterns in the rich, vibrant colors. It will take him 10 days or more, working for hours a day to turn out a relatively small 4-foot-by-3-foot piece.

But that isn’t the end of it. For a piece he showed me when we met he has tiled together 120 different segments and inserted mat board into pockets in the woven fabric, letting him shape it and give it structure.

Currently he is mounting it on a piece of birch wood, turning what otherwise might look like a flat rug or tapestry into a three-dimensional textile sculpture. On other pieces he will use the texture of the woven fabric as a canvas for paintings.

“It has been a real hard adjustment. I’m dislocated from my old place, cut off from other artists because I’m limited here in who can visit, but at least I have my weaving and the creative outlet,” he told me.

In the next few months, Hess is hoping to show some of his recent work at a gallery, although that, too, has been disrupted by the pandemic and, like so much, is in limbo.

“I could’ve just given up, especially after I had that compression fracture,” Hess said. “I don’t know, I just thought I’d continue with my work, even on a more limited scale.”

To one degree or another, we’ve all been challenged by, putting it mildly, a suboptimal 2020. And we could give up.

Or we could do what John has done. Faced with that adversity, he recalibrated his expectations, drew on the help of those around him, and dedicated his talent and energy to creating something good and beautiful.