Local artist Michael Sharp emphasizes materials and processes in his efforts to understand the impact of place and time on identity
March 16, 2019
As a teenager in northern Utah, Michael Sharp used to seek solitude at Rosel Point, home to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. At the time, the Spiral Jetty was submerged in the Great Salt Lake, but Sharp fell in love with the desolate surrounding landscape. As he studied the geology of his home, he learned how the prehistoric Lake Bonneville—the Salt Lake’s much larger predecessor—had shaped the west Utah desert.
“As Lake Bonneville receded, it left marks and built geologic features,” Sharp explained. “Lake Bonneville created the salt flats and the mud flats, the gently bowled valleys, things like the benches of the Wasatch Mountains that I grew up seeing every day but did not realize were marks and signs of high water.”
After a stint in Washington, D.C. to study art and the book atCorcoran School of the Arts and Design, Sharp returned to Utah with new questions about its impact on his identity development. His artwork has since revolved around the Great Salt Lake and the environment encompassing it, with a special focus on the voice of materials and processes. The collotype process in particular fascinates Sharp because it parallels the effects of Lake Bonneville on the formation of the Utah landscape.
Uniting Sharp’s interests in photography, printmaking and book arts, the collotype plate is created with a photo sensitive gelatin. Exposure to light hardens the gelatin, but when soaked in water, the gelatin swells proportionately to the amount of the exposure. The plate then accepts ink proportionately to how much water is in the gelatin.
“Lake Bonneville created the salt flats and the mud flats, the gently bowled valleys, things like the benches of the Wasatch Mountains.”
“The swollen and reticulated gelatin creates a microscopic landscape with hills and valleys left rippled like sand at the shore of a lake,” Sharp said. “Or, on a greater scale, the hills and valleys of the basin and range landscape.”
This method is central to Sharp’s piece, “History/Prehistory,” which is comprised of eight gelatin plates, each displaying a faint image of Lake Bonneville over its fluctuating existence. The gelatin plates are mounted onto iron frames, referencing human impact on the land through industry.
Erdlebenbildkunst, a term that refers to art created from the perspective of the earth, has further influenced Sharp’s work. One way Sharp has implemented this concept in his work is through making his own ink using pigments taken from a specific place. For the light gray ink depicting shorelines in “Lake Bonneville Remnants”, Sharp used earth from Rosel Point mixed with other ingredients, including local beeswax. For the cover text and shoreline coordinates, he used iron oxide pigments, again invoking the influence of industry in the west.
Through his art and study of the earth, Sharp seeks to understand time. Specifically, he wants to know “how history has created a specific environment within time, and how that environment has shaped identity and perspectives.” He also wants to explore the impact he has had on the place he occupies.
I explore the concepts of memory and identity within the context of place and time. I have been looking at the way place influences life experience and the remnant memories that define our relationships with those experiences. These memories ultimately come to define much of our human sense of identity. My work represents a personal attempt to understand and define these aspects of the human experience.