The landscape of Southern Utah is more than just a subject for Cedar City artist Arlene Braithwaite. It’s a passion.
She loves the natural beauty of the region from the red sandstone cliffs of Zion National Park to the stark white aspens on Cedar Mountain. But the love wasn’t immediate for Braithwaite, who was raised in Salt Lake City.
“When I first moved to Cedar, I was intimidated by the landscape,” she says. “It was overwhelming.”
While she soon grew to love the natural world surrounding the Festival City, it was the festival part of the city that first drew her in.
While attending school at the University of Utah, Braithwaite made a trip to Cedar City to attend the Utah Shakespeare Festival. She looked around and decided she liked the town.
“If you could pick a place to live it would be Cedar City,” she thought at the time. “I always tell Fred Adams (founder of the Utah Shakespeare Festival) it’s his fault I’m in Cedar City.”
Yet after that trip she had to return to Salt Lake City to continue her education. She was studying graphic design at the U and working as an artist and photographer for the Deseret News.
Then one day at a church dance, she met a fellow university student named Robert Braithwaite. She was intrigued as soon as she found out he was from Cedar City. They eventually married as he finished his law degree and she went on for a master of fine arts in education.
While looking for a town to begin their lives together, they explored places similar to Cedar City — towns where the mountains meet the desert like Durango, Colorado, and Bend, Oregon. Yet they kept coming back to Cedar City. Her husband hesitated because he grew up there, but it was the place for them to build their lives together.
After moving to Cedar City, Braithwaite began working as a freelance reporter and photographer for The Spectrum while also teaching art part-time at what was then Southern Utah State College. That was the beginning of what would become a 34-year career as an associate professor of art at Southern Utah University.
“It was a wonderful job,” she says. “I loved the students.”
During her tenure at SUU, Braithwaite received the university’s Distinguished Educator award in 2002 and the Utah Art Education Association’s Art Teacher of the Year for the State of Utah award the same year. In 2010, the association honored her with the award for Art Teacher of the Year in Higher Education for the State of Utah.
Kathy Cieslewicz, manager and curator for Dixie State University’s Sears Art Museum Gallery and an art instructor at Mohave Community College in Colorado City, was among Braithwaite’s students at SUU. Cieslewicz says Braithwaite’s influence was especially felt among the future teachers that were in her classes to learn how to teach art. She estimates Braithwaite influenced thousands of current teachers.
When Braithwaite turned 60, though, she found that she wanted to spend more time painting. It also gave her the chance to explore more of the outdoors. She began hiking the Continental Divide, racking up hundreds of miles along the mountains.
Because of her love of the outdoors, Braithwaite turned much of her focus to painting “en plein air,” or outside on location. Sometimes she only uses her plein air time to create studies — smaller pieces that inform a larger work created in her studio. The studies allow her to get the basic composition and colors for a piece as it truly appears.
However, a few years ago she developed rosacea, a skin condition causing redness and irritation in the face. Sunlight is a common trigger. Suddenly, her passion was a health concern.
Through the use of sunscreen, shade and proper coverings, Braithwaite has been able to push through the rosacea to continue painting en plein air. She is now part of a group based in Cedar City that paints together twice a week.
While painting, they are mostly silent — concentrating on capturing the light and color while it lasts. When they finish painting, though, the group becomes social, examining each other’s work and offering feedback.
“It’s a very nurturing group,” She says. “People are very supportive of each other.”
Portrayed in pigments
Braithwaite’s medium of choice is pastel.
While it might look like sidewalk chalk to the untrained eye, pastels are sticks of pure, powdered pigment held together with a binder. As such, they stand up well over time, preserving their color and structure as long as you don’t brush them up against a pant leg, Braithwaite says.
They also work well for plein air painting because she doesn’t have to mix her paint with anything else. She doesn’t even need a brush. All she has to take is her portable box of color.
“I really like the tactile quality of the medium,” she says. “You just open up your box and you’re ready to go.”
Sometimes she will do a variety of studies from the same location on different days as the light changes. This helps her get a feel for the area’s natural color pallet so she can decide how to best depict it when she gets back to the studio.
“Every day you go, the color’s a little different; the sky’s a little different,” she says.
While Braithwaite has worked in a variety of artistic mediums, she transitioned to pastels when her children were little. She needed a medium she could put down at a moment’s notice when a kid was crying or someone needed to eat. It was simply practical.
However, when working with pastels indoors there must be some precautions taken. The dust from their pigments can irritate lungs or eyes. So Braithwaite’s studio is equipped with a vacuum device mounted below her easel to keep the air clean.
She also uses little latex finger cots to protect her own skin from prolonged exposure to the pigments. It might sound complicated, but when you see her collection of hundreds of pastels it also looks like a lot of fun. She agrees.
“It’s like having a giant Crayola set,” she says.
Other artists have encouraged Braithwaite to try different mediums but she likes what pastels offer. Cieslewicz says Braithwaite uses pastels about as well as anyone.
“I would say she’s one of the best pastel artists in the United States,” the curator says. “She’s very good.”
While some artists look at pastels as more of a drawing medium rather than producing finished pieces, Cieslewicz says Braithwaite uses pastels as a painting medium, creating fully realized pieces from the pigment.
Additionally, she has been a part of group exhibitions like SUU’s Southern Utah Artist Invitational and DSU’s Sears Invitational. This past summer she showed three pieces in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s tribute to the Adams Shakespearean Theatre, which was on display during the festival at the Randall Theatre. She sold all three pieces in that show and had a fourth commissioned through it.
She is also represented by two Southern Utah galleries: Artisans in Cedar City and LaFave Gallery in Springdale.
When it comes to inspiration, Braithwaite says she paints what she loves. When she was younger, much of her art focused on her children.
Now she has transitioned to painting another love: nature. She first began painting outdoors because of her students. They started a plein air group, and she realized it was a perfect fit for her.
“It combined two of my passions — getting outside and art,” she says. “That’s kind of an essential part of who I am — just being outside.”
For information on Braithwaite and her art visit arlenebraithwaite.fineartstudioonline.com/.