Since the early 1990s, the storefronts along the Sugar House shopping district have been redone, rebuilt, refurbished and removed. Each vitrified with thousands of memories, but few have had as many lives as the Petersen Art Center, founded by watercolourist Harold “Pete” Petersen and ceramicist Mark Petersen in 1993. The father-son pair have collaborated frequently over the years , but their peak effort occurred during a phase of life when most people begin to slow down.
After a 30-year career as an art teacher at Highland High, Pete and his wife Lucretia took a trip to Europe to kick off his “retirement” and began planning what they would like to do with their free time. Opting to build an A-frame house upon their return, Pete established an art studio on the next level and opened his home to artists eager to learn from him.
“There was practically no room in this space to move around. It was shoulder to shoulder, no social distancing back then,” Mark recalled with a laugh. “Turns out he had about 350 students waiting to take a class.” Coming from a background in business and marketing, Mark saw the potential and started looking for a building.
The Sugar House of the early 90s bears little resemblance to the now developed neighborhood. Yet once they spotted the vacant building just above 1000 East on 2100 South, they sensed its specialness and made an offer. There were no load-bearing interior walls and they were able to modify the space to match their vision. “Today we could never do what we were able to do back then. This building even came with parking, which is almost impossible to find these days. We opened the doors with a loan to small businesses for an art center. It’s something that Mark said has set a unique precedent for art centers across the country.
The ground floor of the center houses Dick Blick, a tenant with whom the Petersens feel extremely fortunate to partner because of the high quality of their art materials. It’s a great place for the community and students can go straight downstairs to buy gear. Although the space occupied by Blick has evolved since the doors opened, walking through the halls of the high-level art center transports you to a time when things seemed less chaotic; the center feels inhabited and loved. Illustrations and old news clippings create a time capsule wallpaper with notes of encouragement, proclaiming that anyone can be an artist.
Mark attributes their success to the fact that they did things differently. They wanted to create a space for more than a quick class; they wanted a space to encourage creativity. “What we’ve done here is allow people to discover a wonderful part of their humanity. That’s creativity. It is our humanity. Creativity and creation are the most important elements of a fulfilling life. One thing I like to share with my students is the idea of lineage, of being able to pass something down to each generation. As they write their initials and date on the bottom of the cup they just made, I say to them, ‘Now imagine your great-great-granddaughter holding this cup 100 years from now.’
Both Mark and Pete have encountered countless students saying they weren’t creative. Pete doesn’t buy it. He likes to say to his students, some of whom have been taking his classes for more than 30 years: “If you weren’t creative, you wouldn’t have come here. The fact that you even peeked into it tells me you’re creative. Many people feel like they might want to take an art class one day, but that feeling drifts off into eternity, getting them nowhere. If you’ve had an idea or something in the back of your mind telling you to do this, give us a try. It’s never too late.” At 91, Pete should know.
At the Petersen Art Center, there is a real sense of camaraderie not always found within the walls of a shared art studio, and students of all levels show up in every class. Artists take ownership of the space, following the motto of leaving it better than you found it. The instructors are passionate and knowledgeable, but they only get high if you want to, and there’s always someone to ask for help.
More than 18,000 students have taken a course at the art center and it shows no signs of slowing down, even during the pandemic. “It was interesting to me to see how willing people were to wear a mask and follow all the guidelines just to gain access to our space.” said Mark. “There was very little resistance from the community, and we were surprised how far people were willing to go to keep creating.”
For more information on the courses, visit their website.
1025 E. 2100 South, SLC
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