An Interview with Larry Ogan

Visual artist Larry Ogan was born in Clearfield, Utah in 1948 at the Hill Air Force Base Hospital. His ancestors on one side were Mormon pioneers that came to Utah from Nauvoo; ancestors on the other side immigrated to Utah from Australia. More of his family is from Missouri. Says Larry, “My Baptist … ancestors chased my Mormon … ancestors out of Caldwell County, Missouri.” Larry married Ellen Chadwick, from Ogden, and they now live in Santa Fe, New Mexico with their fifteen-year-old grandson, Jeremiah, four cats and a big red dog named Malcolm. He is Elder’s Quorum President of his Santa Fe Ward. He is also the executive director of the Santa Fe Council for the Arts, Inc. Currently, he is organizing and producing PhotoArts Santa Fe, a ten-day biennial festival for the photographic arts. His artwork has appeared in numerous exhibits from 1975 to the present. You can visit Larry’s website here.

Larry, please describe yourself and your work.

I’m a chubby, 59-year-old artist with a ponytail and white beard. When people meet me they think I’m either an artist or a biker. I’m considered by most people as a straightforward nice guy, a sort of funny semi-curmudgeon that works too much. A much smaller group of people describes me as a not-too-funny, blunt hardass. As for my artwork, I’m a painter working with oil on canvas or panels. My style is realism that mixes in symbolism and abstraction. I currently jump back and forth between two subjects: straightforward landscapes, and religious art based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, adding Mormon beliefs and history to the mix.

Jesus the Christ by Larry OganBesides being an artist, you are executive director of the Santa Fe Council for the Arts, Inc. Could you tell us a little about your work and what you like about it?

While at Weber state College in Ogden, Utah, Ellen Chadwick, my soon-to-be wife, other fellow artists and I realized that if we wanted to show our artwork more often we were going to have to create our own opportunities. The annual student show and occasional juried shows, that you may or may not get in to, were not enough. So we started the Weber State Artists’ Guild, took over an unused room in the Student Union BUilding, plus the foyer of the Fine Arts Theater, and began to exhibit and sell our artwork. These kinds of activities continued for us after college. In 1986 in Santa Fe, Ellen, two other artists and I started a group called the Artist’s Advocacy Committee. We worked to make our city leaders aware of the needed support of visual artists and ran an alternative community exhibit venue. The Committee published a 32-page magazine discussing issues affecting artists. The magazine lasted for six years. In 1989, we revived the 11-year-old, non-profit Sante Fe Council for the Arts, Inc. and continued our advocacy work and exhibits. I became its executive director and main curator in 1990. I ceased to exhibit my own artwork in the shows that I organized and curated for the Council. Having said that, on rare occasions, when the theme of the show had a particular relationship to my work (like the exhibits “First Impressions and the Comic Book” and also a statewide traveling exhibit of contemporary landscapes), I did include my own paintings. When asked why my art was not in a particular show, I replied, “The whole exhibition is my art.” Organizing and curating shows has enough of the creative process to make it intellectually challenging. When an exhibit is complete and opened to the public, I feel a similar satisfaction as completing a piece of art. My bottom line is educating and touching the viewing public and not particularly making art sales. I’m not opposed to selling art, it is just not my focus. This has made my job interesting if not exactly profitable. My goal as executive director has been to help make Santa Fe an art center and not just an arts market. That of course brings up a whole discussion that is too long to get into in this interview.

What motivated you to start creating art?

I began to draw at about five or six years old, not regular kid drawings, but untrained drawings made by looking at other pictures or objects. The first drawings I remember making were Batman and a vase shaped like a Scottie dog. I had no concept of art other than as illustration. I wanted to create comic books. As far as I knew, all artists were dead except for cartoonists, Arnold Frieberg and a couple of eccentric guys who lived in my home town. Today, when I’m asked what my motivation is to make art, I say it is a passion very closely related to an addiction, or sometimes I say I just do it because I don’t know any better and can’t help myself. These may or may not be true statements. All I really know is I make art, always have and more than likely always will.

Is there an artist, style, or movement that has had a lasting influence on your own work?

I have always had a love for comic books, fantasy movies and 19th century figurative art, especially the pre-Raphaelites. But the whole truth is I’m influenced by art forms from a variety of times, places, and styles. Besides being addicted to making art, I’m addicted to looking at art, to experiencing its stories and soaking it up like a sponge to use at later date in my own artwork. My challenge is to combine nineteenth century technique with twentieth century contemporary styles and sensibility while trying to keep the comic book influence to a minimum. I’m still trying to understand and move into the twenty-first century.

Why do you paint landscapes?

I didn’t start painting landscapes until I moved to Santa Fe. While still in college, I always said that no one could create a beautiful landscape better than God. I still believe that but became enamored with the high mountain desert, rock formations and a kind of spiritual energy that the northern New Mexico and southern Utah environment emits. I am inspired to explore place, form, heat and light. I want the viewer to feel what I have felt while in the desert and make the connections I have made with the land. The desert is a wonderful and sometimes unforgiving place. I love its stark beauty and edginess.

What inspired you to create your retablos?

The Santa Fe Council for the Arts, Inc. was the non-profit sponsor for the Contemporary Hispanic Market from 1990 until 1998. The Market is held annualy in conjunction with the Traditional Spanish Market on the Santa Fe Plaza (the “town square,” as tourists like to call it). I was the coordinator for that event for six years. As a result I became very familiar with not only the contemporary artists but also with the traditional artists. I learned a lot about Spanish devotional artwork, Catholic saints and the mediums, such as bultos, tin work, inlayed straw, and retablos. I was inspired to make retablos of my own but had no real cultural or spiritual connections to the Catholic saints. I loved many of their stories but felt no passion for them. When I returned to activity in the LDS church and began reading the Book of Mormon again I discovered the subjects for my retablos. The Book of Mormon’s prophets, kings and missionaries became my inspiration. When I was studying the northern New Mexico styles and Russion icons to start the retablos series, I realized that modern retablos and icons are painted in the same way as comic strips are constructed. Highly graphic drawing that is outlined and colored with basically layered flat paint. The imagery is simplified and clean.

How has the general art-viewing public responded to them?

The response to the work has been good. Other artists like my contemporary interpretation of a four-hundred-year-old traditional northern New Mexico art form. The general public are accepting of the work but are unfamiliar with the subjects, having only been exposed to Catholic saints in this form.

Have LDS viewers responded differently from the public at large?

LDS viewers that live in New Mexico and know what a retablo is like the work. They understand who the subjects are and respond to the symbolism represented in each piece. One ward member even said that it was nice to see the Gospel expressed in a different way than the normal work that appears in Ensign magazine. I believe there is an audience of contemporary LDS church members out there who are looking for more contemporary, forward-thinking ways of expressing our identity and beliefs. They are tired of the old joke, “What time is it in Utah?” Answer: “Twenty years ago.” In the case of some of the “LDS” art we see, the answer is: “150 years ago.”

What has been the most difficult aspect of creating your art?

I chose to get married and raise a family. This in turn meant supporting a family financially. Art-making and then selling your “product” is a difficult profession, unless you aspire to become Thomas Kinkade. So my difficulty has been time and not enough ambition to play the business field of the art game. Until they are very successful, artists are basically subservient to gallery dealers. I’m notoriously bad at kissing ass. I made my choices and didn’t want the selfish life that most artists are forced to live. I ceased worrying about being an important, profound, heroic artist and learned to love just making art and exploring my own psyche.

What is the most common misconception about LDS art or artists?

That they exist. Why? Would you call Michelangelo a Catholic artist and the Sistine Chapel Catholic art? If someone wants to call themselves a LDS artist, I guess that is up to them. If I’m asked about my “devotional and/or religious” art with its imagery that doesn’t quite fit into the mainstream concepts of religious art, I answer that I’m a Mormon and that the work expresses elements of that belief system. This often leads to the viewer asking many questions about the images and symbols in the pieces. As I begin to explain the concepts, I end up sounding more like a missionary than an artist. That is not my intention but just a side effect. To answer your question, I’m an artist who likes to express who I am and what I feel (landscapes, devotional art or otherwise), and one of those aspects of the total me is my spiritual beliefs. I’m not a LDS artist. I’m a member of the LDS faith who is also an artist. Are you an LDS poet? Are the people who participate in this blog all LDS writers or are they writers whose subject matter is Mormons and Mormon culture? I like to be careful about categorizing myself, it can become a creative trap.

An April 2006 article in the e-zine 15 Bytes stated that you were “unsatisfied with the Utah art scene” and moved to Santa Fe. What about the Utah art scene left you feeling unsatisfied?

First off, 30 years ago there wasn’t much of an art scene in Ogden, where I lived, except at Weber State College. Salt Lake City was better but small and the only places you could see contemporary art was at the Universiy of Utah Art Museum and the Philips Gallery. Second, if you were an artist, you were suspect. My mother told me I should make art my hobby and get a real job. Once, when my father introduced me to his friends, he said, “This is my son Larry. He is an artist but he is not one of those kind of guys.” I know what I thought he meant and you can draw your own conclusions. I’m not sure if it was the long hair or the fact that I was an artist that made him afraid his buddies might misinterpret my identity. Third, I was making contemporary art that was not exactly popular with the non-existent Ogden art-buying public. I did do some cowboy drawings for a while. They sold well (but for very little money) because they reminded the buyer of Uncle Ernie on the family ranch in Wyoming. I felt like I was being suffocated in Utah.

How did moving to Santa Fe change this for you?

Moving from Ogden to Santa Fe was like going from zero to sixty in six seconds. I went from being discouraged to overwhelmed. How? My first job in Santa Fe was as a picture framer. Because of that job, I was able to meet a lot of successful artists right away and begin the learning process of how the real art world functioned. I was immediately exposed to a lot of world-class art and some incredibly talented people. It has been and still is an exciting educational experience. Santa Fe is an international city and I have worked with artists from all over the world, first as a picture framer for eleven years and now as an exhibit and festival coordinator and also as a curator.

As an artist, living in Santa Fe has stimulated me to become the best artist I can become and exposed me to artistic growth way beyond any gain I could make in a college art department. Living in the right environment and associating with a community of like-minded, intelligent and creative people has been a great boon for me as a person and an artist. I’m glad to see Utah has continued to grow. From reading Artists of Utah’s 15 Bytes E-zine it appears to me that Utah is becoming a viable art scene with Salt Lake City at its center. Utah has always had good artists. In the past, they seemed to have been hiding in their studios or in universities watching out for the lynch mob that might show up to string them up for their liberal leanings. Then again, I haven’t lived in Utah for thirty years, so I could just be full of it. I used to say Utah spit me out like a watermelon seed. Now I say I ran away like the Devil was chasing me.

How would you describe the relationship between your art and your religious beliefs, present or past?

In Utah the relationship between my religion and my art was adversarial. I left the LDS faith in 1966 and some of my artwork reflected that with images of angels licking ice cream cones and their wings exploding off their backs and other aggressive works of art. Even though I claimed to be an agnostic for a number of years, my art has always leaned towards the spiritual, even the landscapes. In Santa Fe, I periodically tried to make the Christ my subject matter. I think it was an attempt on my part to try and understand who He was and what relationship, if any, I had with Him. Although I reconciled my anger with God and Jesus Christ in the late eighties, it wasn’t until 2001, when I returned to the Church, that I truly understood the Gospel and had a clearer understanding of Jesus Christ as my Savior. Gaining a testimony has opened the door for me to explore my religious beliefs in a honest and loving manner. The struggle now is not what am I doing but how can I best express the Gospel in a clear and concise manner to my audience while making the work an interesting visual experience. I don’t want to be just an illustrator for church publications, although I would love to see my art published there sometime in the future.

Do you have a vision for your work that you’re following?

I have been painting landscapes for twenty-five years, so that path is well worn and easy to follow, with enough challenges to make it interesting. I still love going into the desert, discovering new places, recording them with a camera, making drawings and creating the paintings. Unlike B. B. King’s song, the thrill is not gone. I have only been producing the devotional work for the last three years. It is the art I have wanted to make my entire life. It is a path that started with comic book superheroes as symbols of good, moving to mysticism and then to Jesus Christ, the ultimate superhero and Savior of mankind. It has been an ever-changing path of anger, wonder, discovery, and I hope in the future, truth, even it if it only a personal truth.

What inspires you?

As corny as it sounds, being alive inspires me.

What advice would you give to aspiring or emerging LDS visual artists?

I would give them the same advice I give any artist, LDS or not. Don’t look to make the next big thing in the art world. Watch out for your own cleverness. You have to have an ego to be an artist but you control it rather than it controlling you. Artists are special people but not better than anyone else. You have an audience whether you think so or not, so don’t underestimate their intelligence. Make the best art you can make. It should be honest and a reflection of yourself (all art is autobiographical). And this last one may be for LDS artists: Thank your Father in Heaven daily for the wonderful talent He has given you. Also, pray to Him that you might be His apprentice in His eternal studio in the future.

Thank you, Larry, for taking time out to do this interview for A Motley Vision! The floor is open for anyone wishing to ask Larry questions or discuss this interview with him.

11 thoughts on “An Interview with Larry Ogan”

  1. Thanks, Larry for taking the time to do this Q&A. And thanks Patricia for pursuing it.

    I’ve been looking forward to reading it and was not disappointed.

    I’m glad you talked about the retablos, Larry. I served an LDS mission in Romania, which is overwhelmingly Christian Orthodox (Romanian Orthodox, actually — part of the Eastern Church that includes Greek and Russian Orthodox), and so was exposed to the art of icon painting (usually on wood and usually involving gold leaf). I found the art form very interesting, but it wasn’t until I met a modern-day artist working in the form that I really got excited about it.

    He lived in Ploiesti (the city the U.S. bombed near the end of WWII because it had oil fields) and painted icons on glass. He relied on traditional subjects, symbols and compositions, but his figures and brush strokes also showed the influence of Picasso. Amazing stuff. What’s more, he was an active believer in his faith and participant in his local congregation.

    That form, then, became a model for what I could see as being a fruitful mode for Mormon visual artists and so when Larry popped up in the comments here at AMV and I finally took a look at his Web site, I was blown away.

    I really like the John the Baptist one — that is, of course, a traditional Orthodox subject. But here Larry adds the Mormon elements — the Sunstone-looking emblem up top — and then the emphasis on the priesthood keys and John’s role as a restorer of the Aaronic priesthood.

  2. “To answer your question, I’m an artist who likes to express who I am and what I feel (landscapes, devotional art or otherwise), and one of those aspects of the total me is my spiritual beliefs. I’m not a LDS artist. I’m a member of the LDS faith who is also an artist. Are you an LDS poet?”

    Huh-uh. And I agree with your points all the way around on this issue. But I was curious to see what you would say in answer to the question. Also, this is a “Mormon” blog, so I feel obliged, from time to time, to ask the Mormon-tilted question or make the Mormon-inflected reference.

    “Don’t look to make the next big thing in the art world. Watch out for your own cleverness. You have to have an ego to be an artist but you control it rather than it controlling you.”

    I’m curious about what you’re calling “ego” here. Do you mean “ego” as in “an exaggerated sense of self-importance”? Or as a kind of appropriate pride in yourself? Or just “ego” as in a “stong sense of self”? Why do artists need egos?

    “I still believe that but became enamored with the high mountain desert, rock formations and a kind of spiritual energy that the northern New Mexico and southern Utah environment emits.”

    I moved down to southern Utah, drawn like iron filings to a magnet by this same spiritual energy. I think a strong sense of place, and rootedness in it, is important to anyone who renders experience into art.

    Though I suppose that for some, an idea or belief can provide grounding. Personally, I need it all — place, idea, belief, and throw progression in with all that, too — an overall movement in my imaginings, growth, a drive towards the next good thing.

  3. The ego I refer to in the interview is a “strong sense of self” but the line between that and “an exaggerated sense of self-importance” is very narrow, especially with artists. To believe that you can affect another person intellectually and/or emotionally with images and ideas that are painted, carved, cast, written, performed or filmed in my mind takes a healthy ego. Of course whether we succeed or not in touching the audience is the fear we suffer. People can love my art or hate it, I don’t care as long as they are not indifferent to it.

  4. “The ego I refer to in the interview is a ‘strong sense of self’ but the line between that and ‘an exaggerated sense of self-importance’ is very narrow, especially with artists.”

    Still, I wonder if it’s possible to get past this point. I wonder if there’s something beyond ego, some kind of faith, “faith” as in “release of certainty,” where the artist puts him- or herself out there in the art and the art is free to provoke meaning between the art and its viewer, sometimes exceeding the artist’s own meaning and intention for the work.
    Is there a point where an artist can “give up” the hope of touching an audience, especially in a calculated way, and just do what he has to do and make what he has to make and turn it loose? Might there be a point where ego, in both senses above, is no longer necessary to produce good, even fine art?

  5. I hope we can move beyond our ego and “surrender” to the muse, faith, the still same voice or whatever phrase artists choose to use while being in “the zone.” Most of my ideas and imagery start at a very simple level and then expand as I explore the initial impulse and push it deeper. I have even had to make major changes in paintings that are pretty far along because the expression of an idea is completely wrong and there is a more correct way to say it or the painting tells you it is not working. It is kind of a nagging feeling. I try to ignore it when it happens but the feeling always wins in the end. I can’t say it all comes from my intellect because I’m just not that smart.

    My mentor at Weber State College, Doyle Strong, use to ride one student in particular about their artwork being meaningless and insipid. After disappearing for two weeks because of being severely chastised about her work, she showed up to a critique with a very powerful new painting. Doyle’s comment at seeing the new work was, “That painting is better than you.” All of us immediately understood what he meant, including the artist. She had moved beyond herself to create something with integrity and meaning. His method may have been harsh but he broke down her ego so she could open up to all kinds of possibilities in her art. Part of the joy of making art is losing yourself.

    At art openings of shows in which I’m exhibiting, I’m often asked, “What is the meaning of that painting.” In most cases, my reply is. “What does it mean to you?” I’m always happy when the viewer see and experience the ideas I’m trying to convey. But I really love it when, besides seeing what I’ve put into a work, they bring in their own concepts that I’m unaware existed in the painting. I usually find the perceptions to be valid. It is great to see your own artwork with a fresh set of eyes and experience it as outside of yourself. I like it when my artwork is better than me. I guess the ego is where you start and I believe, like you, that it can and probably should be dropped at some point in the creative process.

  6. “She had moved beyond herself to create something with integrity and meaning. His method may have been harsh but he broke down her ego so she could open up to all kinds of possibilities in her art. Part of the joy of making art is losing yourself.”

    Yeah, this is what I was reaching for, this “losing yourself,” that IMO ego can get in the way of. Maybe I’m stereotyping “ego,” but I think of it as a mental monument we make to ourselves that sometimes we have trouble getting past. It blocks views. It casts bothersome shadows. We feel powerful temptations to live in its shade, to settle in.

    But what of experiences that don’t confirm our self-appointed position of honor or strong sense of self? If, as an artist, in my case an aspiring artist working with language, I “settle in,” then I think I run a serious risk of unintentional self-parody. In my (admittedly older) age, I still hope to learn how to live continually at the frontier of who I am.

  7. A lot of artists I know call it being “in the zone.” To me it means going to a place where you are totally focused on making art. A space where time stops and the noise of the world ceases for a short time. Your interior chatter can even stop. Just as you can lose yourself in prayer or meditation, you can lose yourself in the creative process. Buddhists call it surrendering.

    Maybe that all sounds like new age hokey pokey but I have compared being in that state of mind and spirit not unlike the Temple experience. I’m not sure if I answered your question.

  8. Thanks Larry for contributing this fabulous interview and Patricia for drawing our attention to Larry and his work. I was unaware of it before, and am now very excited to see that he is producing the kind of “Mormon art” that I’ve been hoping we’d see come out for the past several years.

    While the Utah art scene is quite easily “20 years ago,” I’d like to think that the church itself is a bit more prescient than the art consumers who live in Deseret. I’ve noticed that even Ensign-endorsed art has been growing ever more international as the church does. The Church Museum of History and Art’s International Art Competition, now the only officially sanctioned art contest the church hosts, is reflective of that. The brethren are reaching out globally, and I’m glad to see commercial art following suit.

    The retablos in Ogan’s art are particularly fascinating: he is cutting edge not only among “Mormon artists” (again forgive the usage of the phrase) but among the American academic art scene as well, where Latin American art has just recently begun to be taken seriously. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see an LDS artist who is relevant on a scale larger than the Wasatch front.

    I’m looking forward to watching Ogan’s art career and I hope to see others following the trail he’s blazing.

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