Back when I was a starving student in Provo, I went to the student employment office to find out if they had any jobs I could do. They looked on a list and saw that the Art Department needed a model for figure drawing. The only qualification was that you had to have a body. At any other school than BYU, this job would have required, on my part, a moral compromise. But at BYU they insisted that I wear my brown hang ten swimming trunks with the orange stripes, and that made me glad to be a cougar.
The teachers liked me. I had muscles. Trevor Southey could stand me up in front of his class and say “Flex this one.” And I would. Then he’d say “Flex this other one.” And I would. Gary Smith, who now paints landscapes at ten grand a pop, was a graduate assistant back then, and he’d sneak into the beginning drawing classes where I was “working” and draw me with a ballpoint pen. Maybe I have a rosy picture of all this in my mind. Maybe they were thinking, “If we can make this guy look good, we can make anybody look good.” Whatever.
But that’s how I got to know the Alpine Artists, the promising young painters and sculptors who had chosen the tiny town of Alpine, Utah, as their home and as their headquarters for changing the world. One of them was Dennis Smith, whose sculpture was getting a lot of attention in those days. Dennis was born and raised in Alpine and had re-designed the family chicken coop into an art studio. Because of Dennis, Trevor Southey moved to Alpine. Because of Trevor and Dennis, Gary Smith moved there. Pretty soon John Marshall lived there, and Mike Graves, and Wulf Barsch, and Neil Hadlock, and Frank Riggs, and George Gruber, and Joe Heiner, and after a while Ed Hamm, and Mark England, and lots of others who I don’t even know.
All of whom were making their livings entirely from their art. If you’ve ever walked across the BYU campus, or through the Springville Art Museum, or any gallery in Park City, or were a fan of The Pointer Sisters, or have attended any temple built after 1990, or subscribed to the Ensign Magazine, you’ve seen art made by these guys. The artists were the first to flirt with the idea that Alpine was “cool,” way before developers imagined that they could make it “cool.” (Bill Kirkpatrick, noted portrait painter, beat most of the other artists to Alpine, not because it was cool, but because it was beautiful.)
In those modeling days, I had a couple of albums out and lived with my wife and little Sam on a farm in west Provo. The farmer lived in town. (We drank well water out there and it had a peculiar aroma and taste. One night the young couple living in the house on the church farm a quarter-mile south of us on the dirt road invited us to dinner. Their water had a peculiar aroma and taste, too, but it was a different peculiar aroma and taste. After much discussion, we concluded that it was the difference between Charolais and Holstein. Maybe I told you this already.)
Then another son, little Joe, came along and we moved in with some friends who bought an old pioneer house in Springville and we were communists together. We shared everythinggardened together, cooked together, ate together, and slept in opposite sides of the house.
One morning at about three, we were all shocked out of bed by an earth-shattering “BOOM” that sounded not unlike a stove exploding. That’s because the stove exploded. We rushed into the kitchen and the oven door was blown off and the insides of the oven all bent outward, like a globe. The evening before, little Sam had thought he would “cook” a can of beans, and put one in the oven. By three o’clock, the flame of the pilot light had heated that can up until it burst like a bomb, and there were little bits of bean spattered on everything. There are still chairs, forty years later, that are decorated with little bits of bean, fused to the wood like fossils fused in stone.
This was, perhaps, the perfect moment for the artists in Alpine to call me up and say that Dennis Smith’s old house was for sale and get the heck up there. So they did. And we did.
Immediately we felt that we’d finally done something financially sound, because in the backyard apple tree there was a terrific tree house that Dennis had built for his kids and we reckoned that if times ever got tough we could sell it as a Dennis Smith sculpture for a lot of money. But we wound up adding another level and some railings to the tree house and sort of voided the warranty.
A few of us artists got together one night a week and philosophized. We organized ourselves into “North Mountain Artists Cooperative” and spent many meetings trying to come up with the name “North Mountain Artists Cooperative.” Then, with such a pretentious name, we thought we’d plan a community to build together within Alpine. We would call our community “North Mountain Artists Cooperative,” because we weren’t about to try coming up with another name. I’ll tell you later how that all turned out.
Now, one downside of being an artist is that hard-working people traditionally look at you as being a little froofy and perhaps not altogether manly. At one of our meetings we decided to rebel against this froofyness image and backpack into the Uintahs on a fishing trip. The idea was to cuss and spit and not brush our teeth and blow our noses without handkerchiefs and have manly nicknames. Mike Graves was “Bohunk.” Gary Smith was “Surefoot.” My nickname was “Crazy.” That’s all I remember, except for Dennis Smith’s. I remember it pretty well. He didn’t think one up fast enough so he was assigned one by Neil Hadlock and it wasn’t nice.
Neil Hadlock, who had a bronze foundry for casting everybody’s sculpture, made us all fishing lures out of bronze, according to his own design that assumed that fish would be attracted to artful things and bite them. He had never seen humans respond to his art in precisely this way, but he thought that fish might.
Neil Hadlock is a highly creative guy. He once conceived a bronze cube about the size of a hatbox and then set out to get it registered as lots of different things, like, for example, a patent and a copyright. Then the idea was to stamp these different registration numbers on the cube and it would be art. He acquired a few registration numbers and stamped them on and things were going along pretty well until he tried to get it registered as a trailer.
“So what’s your trailer made of, Mr. Hadlock?”
“Isn’t that kind of heavy?”
“How big is the trailer?”
“Fourteen by fourteen.
“That’s too wide, Mr. Hadlock.”
“No, no, fourteen inches.”
“Fourteen inches? How wide is the wheel base?”
“There’s no wheel base.”
“No wheel base?”
“How’s it gonna carry stuff?”
“It won’t carry stuffit’s already full.”
“What’s it full of?”
At this point Neil was asked to leave the building.
I don’t know if that’s the oddest art idea to come out of Alpine, though. There was Mark England’s “coffin period.” Mark England crafted very fine wooden coffins which he would sell to people, telling them that, while they were waiting to die, they could use the coffins for food storage. Now that’s odd, you gotta admit. When Mark was Cubmaster in our ward, he put a little baby Jesus in every pinewood derby car he made. As you can tell, Mark is kind of a spiritual artist.
In fact, all the artists on the fishing trip (maybe not Neil) were kind of spiritual artists, except on the fishing trip. We all cussed and spit and didn’t brush our teeth and blew our noses without handkerchiefs, and Dennis Smith dislodged enormous boulders and rolled them into canyons, taking out several acres of National Forest and a family or two of bears (now that’s manly), but I, little I, their guitar-picking mascot, caught the only fish. Mike Graves cleaned it and cooked it and everybody had a bite. It tasted a little like chicken, but not quite enough. So does rattlesnake, if you ever get the chance, and also survive catching one.
Neil Hadlock did end up being very useful to us on that tripwell, useful to Dennis, anyway. In a restaurant in Heber on the way home, Neil noticed Dennis smiling in an innocent neighborly way at a pretty girl across the room. Neil, who had been raised in little St. Anthony, Idaho, with cowboys in it and a restaurant in it and pretty girls in it, warned Dennis that he could easily get beat up by a cowboy if he didn’t stop smiling. This was useful to Dennis, who had grown up in Alpine with cowboys and pretty girls in it, but no restaurants.
The North Mountain Artists Cooperative cooperated in lots of ways besides fishing and self-defense. For example, the Southeys and the Graveses and the Paynes owned a cow together. Her name was Penelope Butterscotch Pudding. Elaine Southey, who grew up in Toquerville, was the only one among us who had any experience with this sort of thing, so she did all the work, and the rest of us shared the cost of feed and contributed the labor of going all the way up Grove Drive to Southeys’ and picking up our milk.
Penelope Butterscotch Pudding bore us a calf one day, a little brown bull with orange stripes like a tiger, or like an artists’ model at BYU, which made us wonder where Ms. Butterscotch Pudding had been spending her evenings, or what kind of creature had been smiling at her in cowboy restaurants. In due course, the bull became a steerI don’t know if it was Elaine who affected this changeand we named it Ground Chuck.
It was set to graze freely in the hills above Fort Canyon, and when it didn’t appear at roundup time, we just called on local cattlemen until we found him. (You can flat forget trying to rustle a steer that looks like a fat tiger.) Then we kept him staked in the Payne’s front yard, where he pulled over several trees before finally fulfulling the measure of his creation. Ground Chuck was slaughtered and divided into little bits that could fit in our freezers. Elaine Southey could have done this, but I don’t remember if she did. Elaine is not froofy. And Ground Chuck tasted not a bit like chicken.
In those days, everybody in Alpine knew the artists and worked with them in Sunday School and thought it was neat to have them around. They were at the heart of something my then wife, Niki, and Jay L. Beck invented called “Mountainville Musicfusion.” This was a week or two one summer when the artists all donated master classes in the field every morning for whoever wanted to come and all the music teachers in town gave away lessons. There were studio tours and musical performances all over the placeAfton and Gene Healey’s shady front yard was transformed into an outdoor theatre. I conducted a choir that learned and performed Vivaldi’s “Gloria.” There was an “art hike,” where you would start at Power Plant (at the mouth of Dry Creek Canyon) and winding your way to Schoolhouse Springs (the flats north of the Alpine Cove) you’d turn a corner on the trail and be practically ambushed by a bluegrass band or a string quartet, depending on the corner. The lizards up there were just in aesthetic ecstasies.
Down in the valley, Joan Lindsay was directing three casts of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”a children’s cast, a youth cast, and an adult cast, all at once. They all rehearsed together and performed for each other and learned a lot from each other. It was all for Alpine, but people came from as far as Pleasant Grove to be part of Mountainville Musicfusion.
Remember that vision of an artists commune in Alpine? Well, it died from two deadly blows. One was that Judy Smith really wanted to maintain an outdoor clothesline for drying her laundry and there were grave concerns among the artists as to whether or not this would be aesthetically sound. The other blow fell when, all at once, most of the founding artists moved to Highland.
They clustered on the east bank of Dry Creek (optimistically re-named “Bull River”) just upstream from the big dip in State Road 92 that runs out to the Point of the Mountain. They’d been invited out there by the brilliant architect, Joe Linton, whose concept was that everyone would build into the hillside with highly organic materials that would make the homes appear as though they had simply sprung from the surrounding rock and trees. When that concept was well established and the artists were building houses that were practically invisible, Joe built his own house up at the head of the draw entirely out of bright, shiny steel. (One night during a fierce electrical storm his whole family cowered in the center of the house, and asked their dad what they should do to protect themselves from the hungry bolts that were flashing through the sky above them seeking something metal to strike. Joe said, “Gee, I don’t knowthey never talked about this in architect school.”)
Well, in Alpine we’ve had several former NFL and NBA stars, a Major-league Baseball MVP, a couple of Seventies, a Senator, a couple of opera singers and a genuine alchemist, an Olympian and a polygamous heirarch.
But yes, I moved there to be with the artists. Dennis Smith has come crawling back home out of the Highland ravine, like the prodigal son, and maybe others will repent and follow.
And if any of those artists ever hear about what we’ve shared here and disagree with any of the particularshey, maybe they should just remember that I’m the one they called “Crazy.”