Beth Krensky is inspired to make art out of kites, nightgowns and her cultural memories
By Ellen Fagg Weist | Photography (c) Josh Blumental, 2018
Fractured. That’s how Utah artist Beth Krensky felt emotionally.
This was a few years ago, when she was burned out from juggling artmaking, teaching and parenting. She had written a book, 2009’s “Engaging Classrooms and Communities through Art,” at night, while her young son slept.
Krensky was passionate about the subject, but tired from the hard work of living a creative life. To find herself, she needed to get lost on a metaphysical journey.
She grew up in a Jewish family in Utah, but then left for art school. After she returned in 2003 for a job training art teachers at the University of Utah, she started thinking about the metaphoric power of the story of Mormon pioneers in her own artwork.
She was moved by the wide-open expanses of the Great Salt Lake and the Bonneville Salt Flats. She was inspired by the work it takes to believe in a better life. She thought of the Donner Party and their disastrous shortcut. She thought of the salt of tears and the salt left behind by an inland sea.
SOUNDING THE BELLS OF CREATIVITY
And so in 2011 she created “Metaphysical Handcart,” a movement piece she performed on the Salt Flats. Last year, the stylized handcart was acquired as part of Utah’s Alice Art Collection. The state collection was named after visionary arts advocate Alice Merrill Horne, who in 1899 drafted a bill to create a first-in-the-nation state arts agency. Krensky’s artwork joins a collection of some 2,000 pieces, with a value of nearly $10 million, says Jim Glenn, visual arts manager of the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts.
For the handcart body, Krensky recycled a tray her mother used to plant garden starts every spring, then drew upon her sculptural training to create a cart from anodized aluminum. She found recycled steel wheels and made a wooden handle from olive trees that grow between Israel and the Palestinian territories. The handle represents the idea of bridging divides across the shared concerns of Israeli and Palestinian mothers — as well as mothers all over the world, the artist says.
Inside the cart are three kinds of relics: Bronze models of dead birds, which she considers symbols of sadness and hope. A bronze bowl, limned with a Hebrew blessing, filled with dried olive leaves. And bells she cast or collected from holy sites all over the world.
When Krensky performed the piece on the Salt Flats that summer, it was hot and smelly. Bugs swarmed and bit her. The handcart was bulky and difficult to push across the uneven salt crust.
But when she pushed the handcart, she could hear all those bells ringing, a sound that served as a creative wakeup call for the artist.
The artwork came to represent her own journey of growing up here, going away and then returning. It took a long time, she says, for her to make art consciously inspired by the place where she lives.
After the breakthrough of “Metaphysical Handcart,” she has become braver about featuring her body in her work. Now she exhibits her artworks along with videos of her movement performances.
IN THE STORE OF WISHES
The materials in her artworks, often found or recycled, are infused with metaphoric weight, Krensky explains on a winter morning in her east Salt Lake backyard studio. She’s inspired by collections, reliquaries and altars, and the idea of transforming discarded things into something precious.
Her studio is awash with natural light, as well as a thriving potted lemon tree. You’ll also find collections of magic wands made from branches, and bronze and gold-leaf keys to houses that no longer exist.
The artist’s whimsy is evident as she recounts a story of overhearing her then-young son telling friends not to mind dead things in the backyard. “My mom is a crazy artist and she collects dead birds,” he explained.
That sense of whimsy — or more particularly, wonder — is what sets apart Krensky’s work, says Whitney Tassie, the contemporary curator at the Utah Museum of Fine Art. “It makes me feel like Beth has a view into some secret realm, a view into another realm of the magic or connection that unites us all.”
‘WHEN I WAS YOUNGER I COULD FLY’“
Krensky, 53, has spent most of her life collecting and making things from fragments. She recalls walking along the beach as a young girl, attracted to the line between water and sand. She roamed by herself outside for hours, and in rainstorms, she walked circles in the mud.
“At a very young age, I was doing performance art, although I didn’t call it that,” Beth Krensky says.
During the emotional thunderstorms of her teen years as a student at Holladay’s Olympus High School, she made installations of doll heads in her bedroom. She explored sewing and fashion before she turned to studying art.
In art school, at Boston’s Museum School, at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and then while earning her Ph.D. at University of Colorado-Boulder, she made wearable objects and relics. With her mentor, George Rivera, a sociologist turned art activist, in 1996 she helped found Artnauts, an international collective aimed at creating change.
Krensky has exhibited widely internationally, while collaborating in the local art community. She earned last year’s Alfred Lambourne Prize from Friends of the Great Salt Lake for her art movement work, and earlier this year was named one of Utah’s 15 most influential artists by 15 Bytes, the online arts magazine, in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune and the Utah Division of Arts and Museums.
As part of the state’s “Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists, Vol. II” exhibition at Salt Lake City’s Rio Gallery this spring, she exhibited “Make Me a Sanctuary,” a dress and portable tent made from one of her late mother’s tablecloths, embroidered with a scripture from Exodus: “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”
Another recent work, “Float Away,” represents another kind of artistic journey. She pieced together a white kite from her mother’s nightgowns, gloves, undershirts and pajamas, and embroidered it with a eulogy to her mother, Doris Krensky, who passed away in November 2018.
At the UMFA last year, Krensky exhibited a video of her flying the kite near the Saltair beach of the Great Salt Lake, paired with another kite imprinted with her image on it, “When I Was Younger I Could Fly.” In flying the kites, she was sending a message to her mother. And, she hopes, a universal message to art viewers everywhere, about what we lose and find at every step along the journey.
MORE: View the artist’s work.
READ: The artist’s eulogy to her mother on “Float Away.”
ORDER: Buy the book: “Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists (Vol. 11)a