OGDEN, Utah – Great stories stand the test of time, and Weber State University’s Storytelling Festival has given life to a great story — one that began in 1976 with a vision and will continue with an art exhibit July 24-28 at Union Station in Ogden.
While the nation was celebrating its bicentennial in 1976, local lawyer and philanthropist William “Bill” Critchlow had an idea to combine Utah artists and local history to tell little-remembered stories of the past. He commissioned 24 of Utah’s best artists to capture 64 scenes of Northern Utah history. Artists including LeConte Stewart, Farrell Collett and Lee K. Parkinson chronicled events such as the discovery of the Great Salt Lake, Fort Buenaventura, the Bamberger Railroad, a horse drive with explorer Miles Goodyear, the Ogden Tithing Yard and the construction of Ogden High School. The art was displayed for the bicentennial and then donated to Weber State.
For many years, the large canvases hung in the Stewart Library. Critchlow, a longtime Storytelling Festival board member, also would show the paintings to community groups and schoolchildren. He estimates that over the years, he shared the art with 25,000 individuals in Weber County.
“They tell a story,” Critchlow said. “They are events that had never been illustrated: The massacre at Bear River, where U.S. troops killed more Native Americans than at any other time in U.S. history; the paddle wheeler on the Great Salt Lake, the “General Garfield”; the settlement of Corinne, Utah; the dummy train to Utah Hot Springs.”
For several decades the WSU visual arts department preserved the paintings in its collection. But good stories remain in memory, and good storytellers have a way of finding them. That’s how the WSU Storytelling Festival got involved. WSU assistant professor of education DeeDee Mower took over as chair of the festival in 2016. She had heard Critchlow speak of the paintings and decided it was time to reintroduce them to the public.
“Storytelling gives life and interest to all we do,” Mower said. “We associate our lives with the lives of others. It’s been that way throughout time. Oral storytelling and visual storytelling all fit with what we offer to students.”
The visual arts department brought the works out of storage, and Storytelling Festival committee members selected 20 paintings. They paid for minor restoration and added frames where necessary. They then enlisted professors from WSU’s history department to write a short narration about the events portrayed in each painting. Two Utah storytellers, Sam Payne and Suzanne Christensen, long associated with the festival, read each historical description.
WSU history alumnus and award-winning documentarian Issac Goeckeritz, combined the narration and historical images to create a visual documentary for each. For example, he discovered film of the final trip of the Bamberger Railroad and other photos to accompany the narrative of “Bamberger to Lagoon” by Mary R. Warnock.
“I think this is an experiment,” Goeckeritz said. “The storytelling festival has always focused on oral storytelling. This was an opportunity to experiment with a different type of storytelling — visual storytelling — and also to tell non-fiction stories about our community.”
The 20 paintings and their accompanying documentaries will be on display at the Ogden Union Station from July 24-28. The “Eyes Toward the Past” art exhibition includes a documentary interview with Critchlow describing the process of commissioning the paintings 40 years ago. Prints of the paintings will also be on sale at the Union Station Gift Shop.
Following the exhibit, the 20 paintings will hang permanently in the David O. McKay Education Building at Weber State, and the Storytelling Festival will begin work on the next 20 paintings. The committee’s hope is that the story of Weber State’s bicentennial art exhibit is one that never ends.
For more information about the Storytelling Festival, visit weber.edu/storytelling.
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