Plan-B Theatre’s world premiere of Debora Threedy’s ONE BIG UNION celebrates the impact and music of Joe Hill.
The initial run November 10-20 is sold out so we’ve added two performances on Sunday, November 13 and Sunday, November 20, both at 5:30pm) that go on this morning – Happy Halloween! Click here to purchase) .
Over the past two years, two large-scale public art pieces have come to life in Salt Lake City. Last week, we chatted with Joshua & Heidi Belka, creators of the Joe Hill mural on Ken Sanders Rare Books. This week, we chat with Mark Hofeling who, along with Christian England, co-created the sculpture “10,000 Years of Labor in Utah” in the Central 9th Neighborhood.
Tell us a little about yourself as an artist.
I am a film and television production designer with almost 30 years in the business. While I have lived and worked in many cities in my career, I have made Salt Lake City my permanent home. Part of making peace with the hometown I used to want to flee from was embracing its true self, its actual history. Oddly enough, part of that embrace began unintentionally on a trip to visit a pen pal in Leningrad in the waining months of the USSR.
What drew you to Joe Hill?
In the hallway of a Russian government building we were gazing at portraits of the founders and heroes of socialism. Marx, Lenin, Engels, etc. But there was a man in a hat I had never seen before. My host was baffled that I had never heard of the man, seeing as that I was from Utah. It was my first meeting with Joe Hill.
That would have been bad enough, but even worse, as a graduate of Highland High School, the execution happened a block away from where my history classroom and I would later sit. I already suspected much was being papered over in my home state, this careful omission confirmed it.
How did your public art piece come to be?
I have known Jesse Hulse and Jason Foster, the developers and architects of the Central 9th development, for a few years now. They approached me with the idea of an art piece that would somehow acknowledge the story of working people in Utah, and our overlooked or hidden history generally. I was delighted by the chance to work with these local legends, and to contribute something to the neighborhood I’ve lived in for almost 20 years.
Christian England is an extremely talented young artist and illustrator who has joined me on several movie projects. He shares my interest in seeking the truth about the history of the Beehive State and its founders. I roped him into the C-9 mural right away. I drew up the narrative, almost a script – who and what would be featured – then in collaboration with Jason and Jesse came up with the idea of a steel collage of bar-grate, cut plate images and 3D collage boxes. Christian took that direction and came back to me with a pencil sketch of the mural that knocked me over. Jason and Jesse had the same reaction. His dissolving, attenuated figures perfectly captured the essential idea of the decomposition of memory, like looking at a distant figure across a plain on a hot day, people are lost to history unless we make an effort to pull them closer for a look. Though the journey along our steel timeline covers more than 10,000 years – from the first known human habitation at Danger Cave – to the day after tomorrow, our figures are purposely all anonymous men and women who toiled in ways large and small to build the life we now enjoy, except for two: Mother Jones and Joe Hill. We would have been participating in yet another glaring omission if we had not included Joe in our story. He is without doubt the biggest single event, perhaps with the exception of the arrival of Mormon settlers, in our labor history.
We had a lot of help from the community in this work. I was determined to get some particular details of the circumstances surrounding Joe Hill right. Despite days of research I couldn’t find what firearms were used to execute him. The collage box next to him was meant to be nothing but those five rifles. I contacted Ken Sanders, who very kindly threw the lever on his Joe Hill history all stars. From Will Bagley to Steve Gallenson, a whole network of experts in the field weighed in and continued to research for us. We finally settled on the 1903 Springfield, which is now in the mural.
You may also notice that the only place over our 60 running feet and 10,000 years that the mural touches the ground is under Joe Hill. This is a nod to the barbaric but unfortunately “real” issue of Blood Atonement. Few people understand why Utah until very recently carried out the nasty business of execution by the violence of the firing squad was because of this savage Mormon belief. So the bar-grate that represents our timeline, that also runs in stark diagonals to represent the varied geology of our state, here becomes a blood line, spilling out of a man – likely an innocent one – in a grizzly symbol of the poisonous collusion of church and state.
Once we agreed on the design, My business partner Matias Alvarez and I began fabrication. Together wth our team at CSB (Creative Services Bureau) we finally installed the mural late this summer. While Christian and I are very much to the left of center of the political spectrum, we also agree that history is nothing more than the hand you are dealt. Some is positive, but usually most is negative. For every Nolan Bushnell and Philo Farnsworth, there’s the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Topaz, Ted Bundy and Super Dell. The mistake we make is thinking that history is optional, that one can pick and choose what best suits the desired narrative. “10,000 Years of Labor in Utah” is meant to start the opposing conversation: it’s all part of what makes us us. To fail to embrace it is to fail ourselves.
Click here for more information on and tickets to the world premiere of Debora Threedy’s ONE BIG UNION, running November 10-20.