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Painting the Pain: A Steve Salget Retrospective

Like many artists, landscape painter Steve Salget often had difficulty talking about his work and what drove him to create it.

“It’s a healing thing, a restoring thing,” he told Salt Lake Metro (QSaltLake’s previous incarnation) in 2004. “It’s my interpretation of what life is, and the experience of it, the joy of it. That there is this beauty all around us.”

Until 2006 the Utah artist painted the beauty he saw in the natural landscapes of several Western and Southern states including rugged Nevada, swampy Louisiana, colorful Utah and his native Washington. He painted his impressionist-style landscapes (think what Claude Monet might have done if he exchanged his water lilies for sage brush and mountain vistas) in part, he said, to “[restore] me, and [keep] me going” through his years-long battle with HIV. But instead of focusing on disease and disintegration, Salget poured his energy into depicting the landscape’s still, contemplative beauty. For him, doing so was just a different way of engaging with HIV and AIDS than many artists would take.

“At one point people asked, ‘You’ve been through so much — why don’t you paint the pain?’” he said in 2004. “In a sense I can say, ‘Well I do.’”

But sometimes the pain of life just becomes greater than the beauty. In January Salget committed suicide after a long struggle not only with HIV but with bipolar disorder (manic depression) and other health concerns, including a broken wrist last fall.

“You could tell he was depressed,” said Joe Evans, Salget’s friend and the owner of No Brow Coffee and Tea who said he noticed a “down turn” in the artist shortly after Salget injured his wrist.

“He got quieter and quieter,” he remembers. “And in December he spoke in a voice that was barely a whisper.  I don’t remember hearing him talk about being suicidal per se, but nobody I knew seemed surprised when he died.”

In the months before his death Salget and Evans had spoken about hanging a show of Salget’s paintings. A few days after the funeral, Evans sat down with Salget’s partner Lars Hansen and finalized the show which opened July 18, two days before Salget’s birthday. The show ran until Aug 13.

With the exception of two paintings Salget asked to be included in the show, “Allous – Lafayette, Louisiana” and “Espiritu Sanctu,” the task of going through the artist’s 80 unsold paintings fell to Hansen. To make his decisions, Hansen would pin each onto the board that Salget carried in his truck and upon which he painted his landscapes during his many rambling journeys through the wilderness.

“It was quite a choice,” he said. “I didn’t have any particular painting in mind, I’d just put them up. I tried to get a good variety of colors and stuff.”

Hansen remembers riding through the state with Salget in the artist’s flat bed truck, its bed modified to carry all of Salget’s art supplies and even a sleeping bag, in case he needed to camp overnight on one of his painting trips.

“If I was with him he’d say, ‘OK, this looks like a place I need to paint,’ and we’d pull over,” Hansen remembered. “He’d figure out where he’d want to go and I’d have to leave, he’d say, ‘I can’t have you here.’” This was because Salget did his best work “when he got into his subconscious.”

“I paint what I see using primarily acrylic, spray paint, and soft pastel. I use other materials as I feel along with chemicals and water, producing texture,” said Salget in 2004. “I generally work very quickly with the climate of the out-of-doors as a determining factor in how the work progresses. I enjoy this evolve-as-you-work process — always producing something in a different way.”

“When I was watching him at first it was like a kid finger painting,” Hansen recalled.

Salget would often spend several hours painting outdoors, or plen aire, using water to keep the oil paint, spray paint and acrylic moist and pliable in the hot desert sun. When finished, he would take the painting home, hang it on the wall and consider it for about a month, making sure that it was exactly what he wanted.  Approximately a third of the remaining paintings lack his signature, meaning that they are unfinished.

“I’d say 80 percent were done when he was done [in the field],” Hansen said.

Hansen said Salget favored chalk, spray paint and acrylics because of the way they blended with the oils. Acrylic painting also dried faster, meaning that Salget could finish a draft of his painting in hours instead of days if he wanted.

In the past, Salget also constructed furniture such as end tables and designed windows for Macy’s, Nordstrom’s and ZCMI, including, quite possibly, some of the Christmas windows the then Mormon-owned department store unveiled in the mid 1990s.
Along with the 80 unsold paintings, Hansen also has one of Salget’s unfinished projects hanging in his garage – “about a dozen” clocks in various stages of painting and disassembly.

“They look like lava rock, and they look heavy,” said Hansen when asked to describe Salget’s last project. “He’d chop them up and put them together [in different ways] and paint them in different colors.” Salget then screwed the deconstructed clocks on “two or three pieces of Styrofoam” and numbered them, so the purchaser could hang the clock sections “how they best felt it fit together.” Salget even strung Christmas tree lights through one clock, the one now hanging in Hansen’s house. Although Salget had plans to sell the clocks through a shop in Washington near his mother’s house, Hansen said that he “kind of gave up on them.”

In his previous interview with QSaltLake, Salget prophetically – and perhaps eerily – commented on his work as a representation of life’s fragile and fleeting nature, a theme with which he was all too familiar as a man living with HIV.

“I may be less likely to see as many tomorrows as I might if HIV/AIDS weren’t directly a part of my daily life,” he said then. “Of course, upon living with this idea for a long time, I’ve learned that none of us as human beings have any true reliance of a tomorrow.”

But Hansen can rest assured in the reliance that his partner’s spirit and personality live on through his unique and beautiful paintings. This is true for Hansen of the 2005 painting ““Allous – Lafayette, Louisiana.” Although Salget never spoke much about this painting, Hansen said he just knows it was of a place in New Orleans.

“I am thinking he’s in the park lying on his back looking through the tree, and this is his holy spot,” he said.

To learn more about Salget’s art work or to purchase paintings visit stevesalget.com.

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