For Ashley Thalman, Art Is Explicit

Hi, I’m Ashley Thalman, this week’s—and the first—guest editor of The Beehive Newsletter.

Hi, I’m Ashley Thalman, this week’s—and the first—guest editor of The Beehive Newsletter. I am, above all else, an art lover, and have molded my life around and toward one question: what the hell is art? I’m slowly learning that it has something to do with loosening our worship of the good/bad binary and simply telling things straight. There are a million ways to live and breathe and work from a place of not wanting to be wrong, not wanting to be too much; countless templates to follow that whittle us down to acceptable and good. And they are traps, all. All the daring art weirdos in history have made work that says, "There exist ways of answering, instead of seeking answers; of penning life from nothingness instead of looking for assurances from the supposed knowns." 

I live in Woods Cross, Utah, with my partner and our kids. We co-create Ultraviolet Backdrops, designing and painting large-format canvas backdrop installations for visual professionals (photographers/videographers) and audacious designers. I am currently working to complete my project, “At a Distance,” where I photographed life through windows with a community of participants from March–May 2020. I’ve been writing about, and sitting with it, ever since. 

Now let’s talk about beautiful writing. 

I am currently working my way through James Baldwin (Go Tell it on the Mountain and his essays on creative living). When an interviewer once asked what being Black, impoverished, and homosexual meant for Baldwin he answered, “It was so outrageous you could not go any had to find a way to use it.” He alchemized his story into a catalogue of creative pursuits that singes the eyebrows. What is art? For me, art is explicit. For someone who, for much of her creative life, used winding wordy escape hatches through which to avoid the explicit, I’ve discovered that what I really need is to be alone enough that the explicit becomes the most fundamental—the most true stuff. Alone offers us bravery enough not to measure our work or our living by what anyone (including ourselves) thinks is good or bad, but rather sees what is.

 A few weeks ago I was writing into these newfound sacrosanct qualities of privacy, silence, and of being alone, and I found this:

“Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone. That all men are, when the chips are down, alone, is a banality — a banality because it is very frequently stated, but very rarely, on the evidence, believed. Most of us are not compelled to linger with the knowledge of our aloneness, for it is a knowledge that can paralyze all action in this world. There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

If you haven’t read T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” aloud, now’s your time to do just that. There is something about poetry that can really shut us up, and though it uses words, it also breaks them, reshaping vowels and consonants into direct projections of feeling. Good art for me is an awakening. It’s as if in the middle of one season, a door to another is flung open by some wildish wind, and we all stop shocked to see winter in June or the dead made alive. After this year of being positively marinated in unknowns, in the earth quaking and trees falling, worry and joy co-mingling as we watched clocks and wondered what’s next? There’s not a soul alive that doesn’t know the elastic nature of time that both Blake and Eliot tease throughout their works, "I will show you fear in a handful of dust" (Eliot) and “eternity in an hour” (Blake). The rhythm and length of both works carry a grief-depth, revealing everything to be just as weird and beautiful and sad and heavy and holy as it ever was.

I know you’re thinking, “I DON’T DO POETRY,” but throw all that aside and see if you can read these works aloud. Let them be unknown. There’s no need to “get it.” Sitting with great writing can be heavy, but that’s something even college degrees can’t help us with—and maybe that’s by design. If you feel weird when you sit with art—good.

Weird is just fine and art is like that.

I love the art scene here in Utah. I would likely love it anywhere, but here we are. And there is there, here. Let’s start with And Artists. Director Rebecca Aneloski is blessed with a creative genius that knows no bounds and she and her team are preparing to release a film featuring their gripping movement entitled Deliquesce, created in 2020 (a real feat). Jonathan Canlas’ work to elevate and support the native community is multi-faceted. His work with Restoring Ancestral Winds and the Safe/Not Safe projects, as well as his educational efforts to expose Utah’s white-washed past, offer truer light to better see. If you don’t know Alex Caldiero, know him. Alex’s lifetime worth of work is on display at the UMOCA. A most impactful living mentor, my most favorite of the dada wizard prophet poets. 

If, like me, you’re into post-modern absurdity fused with not-all-that-grown-up punk try David Byrne’s “Everybody’s Coming to My House.” The entire American Utopia album and Spike Lee’s HBO documentary (by the same name) are both a solid and nourishing trip. Next, meet Benjamin Clementine. His album At Least for Now (think Nina Simone reincarnated into a towering story-telling poetic talent of a man) is also worth ordering on vinyl from Lavender Vinyl (Ogden). 

Being as it’s Covid times, and you need some show recommendations, start with Lovecraft Country (HBO, 2020). The acting, special effects, Jordan Peele’s horror hits, and the confident, bombastic, knock-out writing spun by Misha Green and her writer’s room—Lovecraft lacks nothing. If, after episode one you’re feeling ready to dive in, I recommend following each episode with its accompanying HBO podcast. Heads up—this one ain't for kids. And when you want to watch something slow and colorful, stay on HBO and watch Buena Vista Social Club

Want a nice hot drink? Try the oat milk mocha from Blue Copper Coffee (easiest online ordering), get your ass kicked by cross-country skiing at the Sundance Nordic Center, and spend your money on locally curated and created goods at Atelier in SLC. I’m there especially for the ceramics (Inner Spacism), and jewelry (Desert Rose). My favorite places to eat from all around the state: Wimpy and Fritz (Ogden), Yoko Ramen (SLC), All Chay (Rose Park) Rawtopia (SLC), Bombay House (Provo), Ginger’s Garden Cafe (Springville), and Love Muffin (Moab). And last but not least, make your way to Maynard Dixon’s Home in Mt. Carmel. 

If you’re wanting a nice day, the kind that makes you feel like the king of the goddamned hill, here’s my formula: first, poison (with pleasure) yourself with a kouign amman (the queen of pastries) and a hot drink from Gourmandise (introverts and folks not ready for ordering in-person, their website works perfectly for pick-up) and then meander the aisles for a few word-loving hours at nearby Ken Sanders

Thanks for reading along. While I am deep in my editing work for “At a Distance” (and not posting a whole helluva lot), I can be found intermittently posting my thoughts on Instagram (@ashleythalmanphoto) and regularly sharing painting experiments at Ultraviolet Backdrops (@ultravioletbackdrops).

The Beehive Newsletter is a community-based weekly newsletter that provides a platform for Utahns to share the stories and events that are unique and important to them individually. From politicians and high school students, to farmers and health-care workers, our Guest Editors change weekly, providing diverse perspectives and overlooked stories from every corner of the state. 

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