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It's the autumn open house at Poor Yorick Studios and the narrow hallways are packed with people of all ages. There's a lot of interesting facial hair and creatively coordinated clothing. It's hard to believe this many hip people even live in Salt Lake City and that the beautiful people here are as beautiful as anywhere else. For many of them, Yorick's open house is the highlight of the visual-arts year.
Kristyn Roberts, a New Zealand native who moved to Utah 18 months ago, is drinking in the art and, like others, munching on hors d'oeuvres. "I didn't even know it was here, and I'm so excited to find it. I've finally started to find some people who are into art, and they're taking me here. It's fantastic. I think it's brilliant. It's taking me back to my days in art school."
The warehouse-style building that houses the studios of 26 artists in a light industrial area southwest of downtown is nondescript, blocky and windowless.
During the crowded September open house, bodies generate a slightly humid heat in what feels like the human equivalent of a rat maze -- except that the walls are red, orange and green, with art hanging all along them, most of it for sale.
In cube-shaped studios branching off hallways, hefty old printing presses make hand-pressed cards and stationery. Sculptural work crowds the corners. Oil paintings vie with acrylics and watercolors in an array of sizes and styles. Some of the paintings bear scribbled signs that shout, "This painting is still wet so watch out!"
Some of the studios are neatly organized; others are so cluttered they bring fire hazard to mind. For some, the barrage of light, sound and color is overwhelming. "I think there's too much stuff. It's sensory overload," said Elizabeth Crowder, a gallery stroll patron visiting for the first time. "I think it would be better if there were fewer pieces and you could stand back and look at them."
One man's dream: Brad Slaugh, a Salt Lake City native, founded Poor Yorick when he returned from graduate school in Boston 10 years ago. He wanted a studio space where he could not only work but also interact with other artists. Artspace, which houses artists along Pierpont Avenue and was the only thing even close to what he wanted, had a long waiting list.
He found a warehouse on 300 West and recruited artists. "I took money from a grant and built studios, and about as quickly as I was building, they were rented," he says.
They stayed there for five years, moving to the current location, 530 W. 700 South, when the lease got too expensive.
Slaugh oversees the administrative end of Poor Yorick, which has blossomed into a group of about 30 artists. "It has been a super epic project," Slaugh admits. But "having a sense of community is important, for me anyway. It's important to have artists around and have a dialogue with other people."
For artists like Slaugh who work outside the mainstream, support is even more important. Part of it is the very practical consideration that many Utah galleries won't take chances on avant-garde work, he said.
"It's a rough place to do something different," he admits. "If you're not a landscape painter or a still-life painter, it's a tough nut to crack. If you're going to do something weird, there's not much of an audience."
Behind the curtain: A few people sit on couches and sip beer on an outdoor patio while guitarist Nate Padley plays, dressed in blue and gray plaid polyester dress pants from the 1970s. The scents of fresh paint and cigarette smoke waft by. Trent Call did Padley's album cover ("Dude, what a fabulous cover"). As for Poor Yorick, Padley says, "I totally, totally, totally love it. There's such a plethora of styles, wow. Talk about a Utah Renaissance, you know? You've got, like, young and old people putting themselves on the line, doing things artists should do."
Down the hall, many of the studio spaces have their own stereos playing, and hip-hop layers over jazz over rock. Evan Smith is here with a few friends. "It's great to be able to kind of see behind the curtain. Often, you get the gallery side of things. It's great to be able to go backstage. You get to meet the artists . . . not just the artists but the space they work in," he says. "It's neat to see what gets them up in the morning, what inspires them. And unlike a gallery, you get to see a whole variety of abilities. You get to see people who are just starting out."
Before wandering off, Smith hugs Chase Leslie, a painter with a space in the back of the warehouse.
Her husband, woodworker David V. Leslie, displays some of his pieces in his wife's space. "You can hear people talking about art as you walk in. You feel secure, not just physical security but knowing you can put whatever you want on your canvas, or whatever medium, and you'll be appreciated for it. People really get to know each other and appreciate each other. It's like a family. And my God, these days, you need as much family as you can get."
Jim Edwards is a curator at the Salt Lake Art Center. Here, he joins the patrons in admiring the mélange. "I have this feeling that this scene is really peaking, and Poor Yorick's is really part of that," he says. "I just feel there's a real energy here centered around a young group of artists, and this place is a big part of it. . . . Salt Lake's ready for this."
Creative space: The 26 studios (some are shared) vary in size. A large one, about 450 square feet, costs an artist $280 a month (utilities included); the smallest, which is little more than a closet, is about $120.
"I think it's important to keep the rent down, keep it affordable," Slaugh says. "It's not something that will make me or anybody else rich." Artists are free to come and go at all hours; even in the middle of the night, the building is rarely empty. Yorick is not the only such artists' community in Salt Lake City; Guthrie Studio Artists on 200 South downtown and Rockwood Studios on 2100 South in Sugar House have similar open houses a couple of times a year. But Yorick is the biggest. The Yorick's artists have considered holding open houses more often than twice a year, but they want to be able to show new work at every show. "We talk about it all the time: We have to do this more often, because it's so much fun," Slaugh says.
The name comes from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (Act 5, Scene 1), in which Hamlet mourns the death of a court jester: "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy," Hamlet says as he holds Yorick's skull in a graveyard. "It's a really funny scene, in a darkly comic sense," Slaugh says. "I really liked the idea of the jester, this person who laughs at us from beyond the grave. He's sort of an outsider." On a less philosophical note, Slaugh says, "It also makes a great logo."
Happy customers: Mark Bates was wandering a brightly colored hallway two years ago, during an open house at Poor Yorick Studios, when he walked up to a "distorted, slightly freaky" painting.
"He kind of stood there and said, 'What do you think?' " recalls his wife, Phoenix. It wasn't until he did a double take that he realized the painting was of himself. "We're walking along and totally oblivious, and it's a portrait of us," he recalled at this year's September open house.
Phoenix Bates stumbled upon Poor Yorick during an open house six months earlier. Slaugh's work gave her an idea, and she asked Slaugh if she could commission a portrait as a surprise for her husband. Six months later, the painting was hanging on the wall for Yorick's semiannual party.
When the Bateses moved to Salt Lake City from Monterey two years ago, they didn't expect much from the arts scene here.
But they found an oasis in Yorick. "Here you see 20-something artists in one big warehouse. It's such an intimate space. A lot of places, you feel like they live there . . . and they're very gracious about it," Phoenix Bates says.
As for Slaugh, she says, "I can tell he feels passionate about this place." She had never before even thought of wanting a portrait painted, but she loved his expressionistic, vibrant work. "I don't think I could have someone paint my portrait in a realistic style. This is more what my soul looks like." Her husband is happy with it, too. "We have three kids who are just hopefully going to fight over this painting," he says.
Trent Call His art: Colorful paintings of shapes and people on board or canvas, capturing a mood or a moment.
On Yorick: "It's really hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but it's a good environment -- lots of people doing a lot of different things, so you can peek around and see what other people are doing."
Chase Leslie Her art: Brightly colored, often translucent still lifes with jewel-like colors created by using many layers of glaze.
On Yorick: "Brad Slaugh really runs a great space. The energy is always really high." And while all the artists are serious about their work, "There's not a lot of competition. It's an atmosphere of camaraderie."
Ryan K. Peterson His art: "Bizarre, mildly disturbing" sculpted or painted fantasy characters (Peterson works on movies for Hollywood), incorporating lifelike and abstract elements.
On Yorick: "It's really hard to work with the materials I do in an apartment. . . . I like Brad a lot, and I respect his work, and I like the idea of a studio space for a lot of artists, a collective."
Trent Thursby Alvey Her art: Figurative, landscape and abstract oil paintings; large-scale calligraphic brushwork on mylar. The work is contemplative, focusing on a process in which she doesn't have a preconceived notion of what's going to happen.
On Yorick: "There's a lot of diversity and different age groups. There are young people like Trent Call, and then there are people my age. It's quite a nice community. When I started doing art full time, I was looking for that sense of community." If you go * The next Poor Yorick's open house will be at the end of March. Several of the studio's artists run workshops and classes; e-mail Brad Slaugh at firstname.lastname@example.org for information.