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All in the family: James C. Christensen joins forces with 2 daughters for art show

Published: Sunday, Sept. 13 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Artists James C. Christensen and his daughter Cassandra Barney in Casssandra's studio in her Orem home.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News

Like father, like daughters? Well, yes and no.

Cassandra Christensen Barney and Emily Christensen McPhie may have inherited some of their father's (fantasy artist James C. Christensen) art genes, but they also have developed different approaches and styles that give them their own voices.

Which makes it especially delightful, they say, on the rare times when the get to "sing in harmony," as it were — when they get to have a joint exhibition of their artwork.

One of those occasions is an upcoming show at Art Access Gallery. The show opens Sept. 18 and runs through Oct. 7. An opening reception will be part of the September Gallery Stroll.

Another thing that makes this show so delightful, the artists say, is the theme: "Hortus Conclusus, or The Enclosed Garden."

They were sitting around one day, talking about ideas, explains Christensen. "I had done a 'Tree of Life' that was in an enclosed garden, and our discussion took off from there. We found the Latin term, and we realized there was a lot of symbolism, a lot of metaphors in the idea of an enclosed garden."

The traditional design of a walled garden, split into quarters separated by paths, dates back to the earliest gardens of Persia, he says. "The 'hortus conclusus' of High Medieval Europe was more typically enclosed by hedges or fencing, or the arcades of a cloister."

But the idea of enclosure was to create a protected and nurtured space, "where ideas and people, like plants and flowers, can flourish. The idea of a controlled safe place can represent the family, the community or even the space in one's own mind."

For Barney, the idea "got me thinking about what I want in my garden. It is an intimate space, where you can create your own paradise." In doing research for the show, she says, "I was delighted to find that the word paradise is, by definition, a walled garden. It is a place to learn and grow and create beauty. It's a safe place where there is celebration. But it also needs to be tended, because behind its walls is also a place to be vulnerable. There can be hummingbirds, but there can also be demons. This has been one of my favorite themes to work on."

As a mother of young children, McPhie's thoughts "immediately jumped to my kids." Her marionette-like images for the show "are a comment on parenthood, on how many decisions I make for them each day. And how do I know when it's time to cut the strings? When is it time for them to go outside the wall? There are so many emotions that go with those decisions."

And that, Christensen says, is really the fun part of working with his daughters — "the ideas bouncing back and forth, the what-iffing, the planning. I love these collaborations."

But it's not like they ever exactly planned on being a family of artists. "When we were growing up, Dad didn't push us to do art at all," Barney says. "I didn't ever think that I would be an artist." In fact, she was going to major in physical therapy — until she got to the first day of classes. "I realized that I didn't want any of those classes; I wanted to take art classes instead. I finally told my dad about halfway through the semester."

That was when she was attending what was then Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho). "We took a physical therapist up and brought an artist daughter home," Christensen jokes.

But he thinks that "part of the reason why Cassie and Emily are artists is because they were not forced into it. I thought that I was the anomaly, and they would grow up to be real people. But I always had the art supplies around. If they wanted to color, they had 120 colored pencils to choose from and a hundred colored markers."

He also knew, however, that they would have to develop their own passion for art. "My philosophy is that art is passion-motivated. Without passion, it's just too hard. Passion leads to the desire to spend the hours that are necessary. Passion leads to the work ethic. Passion means you are willing to go under 'studio arrest' for periods of time."

And that, says Barney, "is the thing that rubbed off on us. Dad had that passion. We had his example of loving what he was doing. And he worked hard at it. He would teach all day, and then come home and have supper and do the family stuff, and then he would go to his studio and paint."

Christensen is equally proud of his two non-artist sons. His middle daughter, Sarianne, "works with me in the studio, hand-tinting art, and is head of the art program at Pleasant Grove High School. She also does ceramics. But she loves working with the kids."

But it also has been satisfying to see his oldest and youngest daughter — they are separated by 10 years — come into their own as artists.

For the first few years, when they did something together, "it was, here's James Christensen and, oh, by the way, he has daughters," he says. "But the last year or two, it's getting to where they attract more attention that I do. Cassie and I did a signing in Boise, and she had huge lines at her table. The guy in charge asked me if I'd like him to slip people a dollar to come see me. They don't need me anymore," he jokes.

Part of it, he says, "is because they blog. They blog worldwide" — Barney at churningsandburnings.blogspot.com; McPhie at tendernessandtoil.blogspot.com — "and now it's like they have best friends all over the world. They have a tremendous following. They put their lives out there. They talk about canning peaches. It's a way to connect with people that also helps people connect with their art."

Barney and her father get to interact frequently because they practically live across the street from each other. Christensen will come and look at one of Barney's paintings for the show that she is struggling with. "You don't need to change it," he will tell her, "you just need to change the way you look at it. You're going with the medieval fear-of-void concept. Just pick a light source and add some shadows." Then, he adds, "Tomorrow, she'll come over and fix my painting."

For McPhie, who lives in Arizona, the constant interaction is a bit harder. "But I get to come spend a month each summer," she said in a telephone chat. "I get to paint in my dad's studio. I get to go shopping with them for art supplies. That's the most fun thing — to stand in front of a wall of colors and say, 'Have you tried this one?' or 'You've got to see what this one does.' Of course, it was more fun when Dad paid for them all."

It was only when she got married and began to deal with in-laws, McPhie jokes, "that I realized how odd my family was. Do you know there are people who go to Europe and only go to one museum? I always thought museums were the only things in Europe."

But growing up, "I had a lot of influence, a lot of appreciation. I had classmates who had parents who didn't see the value of art. I never had to worry about that. And I kind of fell into it naturally. I also had Cassie to look to; I learned a lot from her experience as an artist and as a mother."

And while there never has been any rivalry, says Barney, with a grin, "We have learned that if you have a good idea, it's better not to tell anyone about it, or they'll grab it. We do overlap a lot. Sometimes, we simultaneously paint a unicorn tapestry. It's so bizarre."

But even then, they do it in their own way. "Cassie paints something, and I come over and it means something different to me," says Christensen. And that, he says, is the pure joy and extreme value of art. "It can have a lot of meanings. It's open-ended. It has the potential for people to find their own meanings in it."

And that's exactly, he says, what the song of "Hortus Conclusus, or The Enclosed Garden" is all about.

If you go …

What: Hortus Conclusus, or The Enclosed Garden, featuring art of James C. Christensen, Cassandra Barney and Emily McPhie

Where: Art Access Gallery, 230 S. 500 West

When: Sept. 18-Oct. 7; Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.,

Also: Opening reception, Sept. 18, 6-9 p.m.What: Hortus Conclusus, or The Enclosed Garden, featuring art of James C. Christensen, Cassandra Barney and Emily McPhie

Where: Art Access Gallery, 230 S. 500 West

When: Sept. 18-Oct. 7; Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Also: Opening reception, Sept. 18, 6-9 p.m.

e-mail: carma@desnews.com

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