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In a what has to be a rare, if not downright historic, case of redrock diplomacy, the works of six Utah artists are being shipped to Kuwait. Soon, their work will hang in the ambassador's residence in Kuwait City, as an artistic effort to strengthen bonds between two desert cultures.
The artists include four landscape artists, Leslie Thomas and Mark Knudsen of Salt Lake City, M. Morgan Coleman of Provo and Shanna Kunz, Ogden. The show also includes Bountiful photographer Bret Webster and Brian Kershisnik, the Utah County painter whose whimsically primitive and spiritual paintings of people are difficult to classify.
Utah-born Matthew Tueller, a Brigham Young University graduate, was appointed ambassador to Kuwait in September. As the son of diplomat Blaine Tueller, Matthew Tueller has lived in Europe, North Africa and Latin America. As a State Department employee, he previously has served in Egypt and Kuwait.
Tueller calls Utah his home and has long admired the artists whose works were loaned for the Kuwait exhibition, says Sally Mansfield, a State Department curator of the Art in Embassies program. The art, 13 works in all, is awaiting shipment to New York then to Kuwait. The exhibit is expected to open in a month or two, Mansfield said.
"We want to capture the spirit and landscape of Utah and share with the thousands of visitors to the [ambassador's] residence some of the things that our cultures hold in common," Mansfield wrote to the artists.
Though it might seem that desert images would be the last thing to appeal to people who are surrounded by sand, photographer Webster says he has found Middle Easterners are fascinated by Utah's redrock desert with its dramatic vistas. His photographs often feature time-exposures of cliffs or buttes against southern Utah's gin-clear skies.
"They were looking for a common ground for people of the desert and it's a great idea," Webster says. "The Islamic community seems to really respond to pictures of the desert within the cosmos."
He says he tries to approach his landscape photography as if he were exploring a new planet. "It seems purposeful that our existence is filled with such incredible depth of beauty and magnificence. We might be the eyes of the universe," he explains, "able to look back and appreciate its awesome beauty."
Coleman and Kunz's work contributes a lusher view of Utah's mountains and farming areas, while Thomas says she makes paintings that "show our home, this Western land, not comprehended by faith or theory, but odd and beautiful, delicious to the eye and to the heart."
"The Kuwaitis think their desert is beautiful," Mansfield says. "The drama of Utah's varied landscape is amazing to anyone. Also the issues that go with that, like water, ways of life, food, environment and the spirit of independence, are shared by the Kuwaitis."
Thomas and Knudsen, husband-and-wife landscape painters, will have two paintings each in the show, work that captures the grandeur of vistas familiar to most Utahns, including Coyote Mesa, Factory Butte and the back wall of Canyonlands National Park from Dead Horse Point.
"It's a fabulous opportunity," Knudsen, a former graphic artist at The Salt Lake Tribune, says of the show. "We won't have any problem selling our work to oil sheiks. Maybe a Bedouin will want to trade a camel for one of my paintings."
Mansfield says the Art in Embassies program also mounts shows of artists of the host country and sponsors outreach programs that put U.S. artists in contact with local artists. "The people from the embassy meet people they would have never met otherwise," she says. "[The exhibits] are meant to stimulate conversation. Over the years we've had many stories where people saw an exhibit and it made it easier to discuss other issues."
See more of the work of Utah's artist/diplomats
Bret Webster • http://www.bretwebsterimages.com
Leslie Thomas and Mark Knudsen • thomasknudsenart.com/leslie-thomas
Brian Kershisnik • http://www.kershisnik.com
Shanna Kunz • shannakunz.com
M. Morgan Coleman • bit.ly/w8f9J8