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New exhibit to feature art by incarcerated teens, underrepresented communities

"The Universal Human" is one of the pieces of art created by incarcerated youth throughout Utah that will be on display starting Dec. 6 as part of the "Dissolving Contradictions" exhibit at the downtown Salt Lake City Main Library.

"The Universal Human" is one of the pieces of art created by incarcerated youth throughout Utah that will be on display starting Dec. 6 as part of the "Dissolving Contradictions" exhibit at the downtown Salt Lake City Main Library. (Mollie Hosmer-Dillard)


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SALT LAKE CITY — One painting depicts a sunflower growing in a dark box. Another shows a person made up of puzzle pieces, with images like a dog, a football and music notes above them. A third shows a phoenix rising from flames.

These are just a few of the pieces created by incarcerated youth throughout Utah that will be on display starting Dec. 6 at the Salt Lake City Main Library.

The exhibit, called "Dissolving Contradictions," is the culmination of classes taught by artist Mollie Hosmer-Dillard through Utah Tech University's Higher Education for Incarcerated Youth program.

It also includes a large-scale painting called "Clouds," created by over 200 Salt Lake residents and made possible with a grant from the Salt Lake City Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. The "multi-vocal" piece was created over the course of six weeks as Hosmer-Dillard held more than 35 workshops throughout the Salt Lake Valley at places like River's Bend Senior Center, the Road Home, Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, and Spectrum Academy. At each location, participants were given a cluster of wooden laser-cut tiles, a selection of blue and white paint, and asked to paint clouds.

"Each person kind of has a different way of pushing the paint across the pieces," Hosmer-Dillard said.

The artist behind the exhibit said she grew up in central Missouri and completed her undergraduate degree at Oberlin College before pursuing an art career in Berlin, Germany, and later in New York City. After finishing a master's degree at Indiana University, she accepted a job teaching art at Utah Tech University.

Hosmer-Dillard said she got involved with Utah Tech's Higher Education for Incarcerated Youth Program about a year ago and soon experienced a "pedagogical shift" that left her wanting to create something that uses art as a communicative tool.

With that in mind, she suggested holding an exhibition, and her most recent courses have focused on creating artwork for "Dissolving Contradictions," she said.

Hosmer-Dillard said she travels to various incarceration facilities throughout the state to hold weeklong intensive art classes for youth ages 14 to 24. Students learn about composition and surrealism, complete assignments and receive college credit for completing the course. About 26 students got involved in the Dissolving Contradictions exhibit, she said.

"It was really striking to me (that) each student knew exactly what they wanted to paint," Hosmer-Dillard said. "Almost nobody hesitated."

Hosmer-Dillard said these students have been through some difficult challenges, but creating art has helped them develop self-confidence and communicate their views.

When people have the tools to create art, "you feel powerful. You feel like an authority in your own creation," she said. "So, I really do see some of those as valuable skills (acting) as a kind of metaphor for other skills in life."

Hosmer-Dillard said the other portion of the exhibit, "Clouds," grew out of the thought that art often focuses on individuals, either the single artist or the single subject of a painting. However, she said so much of society is about groups.

With that in mind, Hosmer-Dillard said she specifically reached out to people experiencing homelessness, children with autism, people on hospice, and "as many types of people as I could" for the creation of one painting.

"To me, the final image is a really powerful one because there are all these different viewpoints on reality," she said. "I invited them to paint clouds, but then each person does that in a completely different way. And so when you see the final piece, you sort of start to understand how there's no one right way to think about a cloud."

Hosmer-Dillard said she wants people who view the exhibit to feel an "empathetic relationship" with a wide range of people. The name "Dissolving Contradictions" refers to the way she hopes the art will "dissolve the ways we put people into different categories."

"Each and every person is a valid human being with incredible dignity and value," she said.

An opening reception for "Dissolving Contradictions" will be held at the downtown Salt Lake City Main Library on Dec. 6 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Hosmer-Dillard said the exhibit is free to the public and will run for a month. After that, "Clouds" will be on display at the Day-Riverside Library branch beginning in February, she said.

Additionally, anyone who's interested in donating to or volunteering with the Higher Education for Incarcerated Youth program can email nathan.caplin@utahtech.edu for more information.

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