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15 Years of Utah Arts Reportage, From Sun Tunnels to Outsider Art

Since 2001, '15 Bytes' has chronicled the wealth of creative work happening in Utah.

Kara Weisenstein

Kara Weisenstein

Images courtesy 15 Bytes

This article originally appeared on Creators.

In 2001, when Shawn Rossiter started curating 15 Bytes, an online athenaeum of creators living and working in Utah, the internet was in its infancy. Most artists and galleries were off the grid, social media had yet to become ubiquitous, and newspapers were just beginning to streamline arts reportage. Craving the in-depth conversations about art and culture he'd experienced in academia, Rossiter founded his site as an answer to generalized artistic dialogues and a repository of Utah's wealth of artistic talent.

"I wanted to try to make a digital version of the role the cafes played in Paris, or the bars did in mid-century New York," Rossiter tells Creators. 15 Bytes is fueled by passion; it's an outlet for culture conscious Utah residents to discover, appreciate, and meditate on the role of art in society. "We try to generate a dialogue that makes you want to have an argument, makes you want to go in depth, and reminds people that the arts are important and enrich our lives," Rossiter adds.

Utah artists Jared Steffensen and Christopher Kelly work at one of Artists of Utah's co-LABs, where artists are given an empty warehouse space for a month to create a collaborative art piece (March, 2015)

For a state dominated by spartan landscapes and majestic wilderness, Utah is home to a surprisingly large number of artists per capita, evidenced by the vast index featured on Rossiter's site. Though it's still more common for artists in major markets like New York and LA to find success on a global scale, Utah offers livability that's lost in larger cities. "Most Americans come from a city smaller than New York. I mean, it's much cheaper here, so it's easier to do something here," Rossiter says. "If someone has an idea, I think it can happen more easily. The layers of the powers-that-be are not as thick." He adds that artists choose to live and work in the state for a multitude of reasons. Some cherish Utah's natural wonders, others cherish the community, and some flourish in a context where they can make art for themselves, rather than dealers.

Over 15 years of reportage, Rossiter and his team have featured a stunning array of local artists. "A recent one was this outsider artist who, for 30 years, had been transforming a building in Salt Lake City. He'd literally dug out the basement, and there was this kind of odd, metatextual, religious thing going on. He was in Salt Lake, working outside of any mainstream art world, in a bad part of town, and people would drive past and wonder what he was doing in there. Well, we got to go in there, which was kind of a fun experiment. And then on the flipside of this oddball, outsider artist, we went out to the Sun Tunnels with Nancy Holt before she died. So it's kind of the dichotomy of these types of things," Rossiter says.

Still from "The Gospel According to Ralphael," a documentary by Torben Bernhard, Travis Low, and Marissa Lila, with support from 15 Bytes and VideoWest. In a run-down commercial block on Salt Lake City's State Street, Ralphael Plescia works on a three-storey, 50-year installation project that tells his version of the Biblical creation story (2016)

Just as the internet revolutionized cultural dialogue when 15 Bytes started out, arts coverage is morphing again. Rossiter thinks that in a world increasingly saturated with online content, attention spans are more adept for Tweets than longform reportage. Still, in his role as documentarian of Utah's multifaceted art scene, Rossiter bears witness to incredible, isolated creative evolutions.

Utah artists Jared Steffensen and Christopher Kelly work at one of Artists of Utah's co-LABs, where artists are given an empty warehouse space for a month to create a collaborative art piece (March, 2015)

"I remember going out in 2003, when the Spiral Jetty first came back out of the water—that is, when the water of the Great Salt Lake receded enough that the rocks were once again poking out of the water. In the past decade-and-a-half, it's now all dry land around it. But to see that reemerge... When we'd go out there then, there were no signs. You sort of had to find it, and now people fly in from all over the country and take helicopters there. But in the long term, to see how that has kind of exploded, has been cool," Rossiter says.

Every few years, Artists of Utah hosts 35x35, an exhibition that highlights the young (under 35) talent in the state. (September 2016)

Check out 15 Bytes for more local Utah arts coverage.

All year, we're highlighting 50 States of Art projects around the United States, starting with Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Utah, and Florida. To learn more, click here.