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Alumni Spotlight: Chris Peterson

Chris Peterson grew up in the foothills of Timpanogos along Utah’s Wasatch Front. During his twenties, he served an LDS Mission to the South Bronx, studied painting at BYU and KCAI, spent time living and painting in New York City and took semesters off to explore the wilderness of the American West.

Alumni Spotlight: Chris Peterson

 In 2001, Chris pivoted from studio art-making to pursue a graduate education in conservation and community-building work.  Graduate studies at the University of Utah earned Chris an M.P.A. in Nonprofit Management & Environmental Policy and an M.S. in Environmental Humanities focusing on conflict resolution and leadership development. His organizational work during this time included Colorado River restoration and tribal coalition-building, charter school and nonprofit co-founding, leadership development programming, teaching as a K-6 art specialist, rural development humanitarian work in East Africa and South Asia, and directing the Sorenson Unity Center, with a focus on civic engagement and arts programs for Salt Lake City.

 In 2009, Chris began moonlighting on murals and organizing community arts and youth-centered park visioning projects as a strategy for combating nature deficit disorder”. He worked with various organizations to provide youth arts programming, including community murals with Ugandan and Cambodian youth and students across Utah. In 2017, he was commissioned to install a 45 foot jaguar mural, inspiring him to restart his studio practice to refine his painting and design processes around wildlife concepts. His practice today includes mixed-media studio paintings, large scale murals, placemaking projects and custom installations.

In 2022, Chris partnered with the Utah Wildlife Federation to launch the Utah Wildlife Walls Project: A statewide arts, science and engagement campaign to celebrate local wildlife, including the installation of 29 wildlife murals; one in each county.  Chris is the principal of Chris Peterson Studio LLC., located in Holladay, Utah. 

Below are Chris’ responses which have been edited for clarity and brevity. He talks about his work in the community as an artist and his journey in becoming a muralist.

Fiona: I'm interested in how your artistic style has evolved over the years and what you aim to convey in your murals.

Chris: My journey as an artist has not been what I expected. Initially trained in fine art painting, I found my own unique style using acrylic latex and oils, heavily inspired by the landscapes of Utah, especially the red rock. However, life took me down unexpected paths, and I took a long break from painting to pursue other interests, including nonprofit work and teaching elementary school art. It was during this time that my perspective on art began to shift. I became disillusioned with the idea of art for art's sake. What resonates with me is art for Earth's sake. I am an activist at heart. When I eventually returned to painting, I found myself drawn to place-based murals as a means of expression. It’s community development, it’s celebrating the story of a place. It's fulfilling to see how murals can spark conversations and inspire positive change within a community.

My recent work is especially inspired by my face-to-face encounters with wildlife. I have been charged with a bear and I have been face to face with a mountain lion. There is a big dose of therapeutic nature that you get by just walking next to a river, or in some green space, or getting fresh air somewhere. And in my own experience, a face-to-face encounter is a very high dose of that. All I wanted to do when I came back to artmaking was paint trout and elk and bears. I realized these paintings were highly therapeutic for me. The colors, the creation, it helped me heal through some of my trauma. I recognized the importance of wildlife encounters where anxiety is growing around climate change. So a lot of my work is an attempt to reconcile the losses of climate change with a celebration of our present moments with these species.  I want to honor those encounters and communicate some part of it that soothes the soul.

Fiona: That's fascinating. How did your experience in the environmental Humanities program at the University of Utah shape your journey?

Chris: I was in the first cohort in 2006, with an initial interest in art activism that evolved into essentially building a participatory action research model leadership development program based on storytelling and conflict-resolution. I designed it with Terry and Brooke Williams, we facilitated a co-creative process, and I analyzed the results.  It was something called the Next Generation Project and it was 12 leaders from around the West that were all under thirty. In these sessions, we explored the stories we tell around environmental conflicts. We recognized the importance of rhetoric and how to talk about these issues at a deeper level and how to work with people across disciplines and demographics. For me, EH gave me permission to combine my talents as a creative and activist to do meaningful community arts work.

Fiona: What a cool journey. What advice do you have for students interested in blending different disciplines like art and science?

Chris: They are intricately related; science inspires creativity and creativity pushes science into new dimensions. I am a huge believer in multidisciplinary work. Embrace the ambiguity and uncertainty that comes with expanding your experience. Innovation led by art makers is what our society needs now more than ever, so nurture that creative side of you as much as you can. And at the right point in time, I believe, that will help you with whatever other endeavors you are doing to make the world a better place.

Fiona: Do you have any big projects coming up that you're excited about or that you want to talk about?

Chris: One of the projects that I'm most excited about is my Utah Wildlife Walls Project The idea behind it is to paint at least one wildlife mural in each of Utah's 29 counties. It's been an incredibly rewarding endeavor so far. We've already completed four murals in three counties, and we're just getting started. The project began about a year ago, and I've partnered with the Utah Wildlife Federation and Brett Prettyman to make it happen. What's exciting about this initiative is that it's taking art into places that sometimes don’t have as much public art.

For each mural, we put a lot of thought into selecting a species that resonates with the place. We’re looking for animals that have stories in that place. In Vernal, we painted a Colorado River cutthroat trout. This mural tied into a larger habitat restoration project that the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) was doing in the area. They wanted to do some outreach around it, so we partnered with them to get the message out in conjunction with putting a 120-foot trout mural on Vernal’s main street.

What's cool about this project is that it allows us to open conversations about wild animals in rural places. It’s a positive message of celebrating local wildlife that brings people together and creates place. We are planning to do a lot of community engagement and by the time we get done with all 29, I’m hoping we have the community engagement piece dialed in. But it looks different in different places and we’re just planning seeds and bringing the wildlife-loving humans together.

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Last Updated: 2/28/24