February 16, 2010
There have always been those who follow the established norms of both artistic and social behavior. And then there are the others — those who take a different tack when sailing close-hauled against the prevailing winds. They are the ones who most affect our cultural evolution.
They are the cynics, the skeptics, the critics, the radicals, the questioners, the rebels, the heretics — in short, the iconoclasts. They are also the most interesting, of course. By, in their own manner, attacking the cherished and traditional, they continue to expand the collective consciousness.
Here in Utah, over recent times, the great facilitator of nonconformity in the literary arts has been Ken Sanders, proprietor and general debunker-of-myth down at Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City. If there is a gathering to salute historical innovation within the creative community, you can almost bet that Sanders and his bookshop are somehow involved.
Which brings us to his latest production: an exhibit entitled "Uconoclasts: Suite One Literary Utah. From the Obscure to the Arcane: Famous, Forgotten, and Infamous Utahns."
A collaboration between wordsmith Sanders and artist Trent Call, "Uconoclasts" a coinage relating to iconoclasm with a Utah connection — features a dozen literary mavericks with at least a semblance of linkage to our state.
Sanders, who makes it clear that celebrity is only coincidental to inclusion in this exhibit, puts it this way: "Being a Uconoclast isn’t about fame per se so much as accomplishment in the face of all odds. The Utah connection is paramount." Being a bit over-the-top and idiosyncratic probably didn’t hurt either.
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Just a glance at a few of the names involved sets the hook. Some, like Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, Bernard DeVoto and May Swenson, are absolutely no surprise.
Neal Cassady, road-mate and muse of such literary icons as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey, makes the cut for having been born in Salt Lake City while his folks were on their way to California. Four years ago last week, Sanders hosted Cassady’s 80th birthday party. Having passed away alongside railroad tracks in central Mexico back in the ’60s, Neal was a no show. Hs spirit, however, continues to run rampant.
According to Sanders, the germination of "Uconoclasts" arrived with the discovery back in the day of the then mostly unknown Wallace Thurman, a noted figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Thurman, born in Salt Lake City, attended the University of Utah before co-founding "Fire!!" with Langston Hughes and penning four novels prior to his untimely death at 34.
The creative and personal lives of Abbey, of course, nestle perfectly within the friendly confines of Sanders’ iconoclasm-specific project. Old Ed is the poster child of such behavioral and artistic quirkiness. "Desert Solitaire" and "The Monkey Wrench Gang" would alone have provided entrée.
Stegner, of course, looms large over the Utah literary landscape. In many ways, he’s the godfather. From his "Wilderness Letter" to Congress to the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angle of Repose," he often took the literary road less traveled and would mentor many of western literature’s most singular writers.
Stegner also wrote "The Uneasy Chair," the definitive biography of Bernard DeVoto, the celebrated historian, journalist, critic, novelist, social commentator, conservationist, all-around professional scribe, and one of the most acclaimed literary characters ever to emerge from Utah.
Although famed poet May Swenson had been born and raised in Logan, Utah, a year after graduating from Utah State University she lit out for New York, where she would spend most of her adult life. To refer to the somewhat audacious syntax and erotic enthusiasm within her work as iconoclastic would be to totally understate the case.
In conjunction with the Uconoclast exhibit, Plan-B Theater Company will be premiering "Wallace," a play dealing with the creative lives of both Wallace Stegner and Wallace Thurman, which will run from March 4-14 at the Rose Wagner Theater. The original paintings and broadsides of Uconoclast will be on display at the theater from Friday, February 19, through March 14.
The opening on Friday will also play host to an artists’ reception with Ken Sanders and Trent Call in attendance from 5 to 9 p.m. A shadow show at Ken Sanders Rare Books featuring prints of Trent Call’s portraits of the authors of Uconoclast are part of February’s Salt Lake Gallery Stroll and is free and open to the public.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.