Since the early 90s, the storefronts along the Sugar House shopping district have been refaced, rebuilt, repurposed and retired. Each vitrified with thousands of memories, yet few have impacted as many lives as Petersen Art Center, founded by watercolor artist Harold “Pete” Petersen and ceramicist Mark Petersen in 1993. The father-and-son pair have frequently collaborated through the years, but their culminating endeavor happened during a phase of life when most people start to slow down.
After a 30-year career as a Highland High art teacher, Pete and his wife Lucretia took a trip to Europe to kick off his “retirement” and started planning what they’d like to do with their free time. Opting to build an A-frame home upon their return, Pete created an art studio on the upper level and opened his home to artists eager to learn from him.
“There was barely any room in that space to move around. It was elbow to elbow, no social distancing back then,” Mark recalls with a chuckle. “Turns out he had around 350 students waiting to take a class.” Coming from a corporate and marketing background, Mark identified the potential and started looking for a building.
Early ’90s Sugar House bears little resemblance to the now developed neighborhood. Still, once they spotted the vacant building just above 1000 East on 2100 South, they sensed its specialness and made an offer. It had no weight-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 a parking lot, which is nearly impossible to find nowadays. We opened the doors with a small business loan for an art center.” It’s something Mark has been told set a unique precedent for art centers across the country.
The ground level of the center is home to Dick Blick, a tenant the Petersens feel extremely fortunate to partner with due to the high quality of their art materials. It’s a great location for the community and students can walk right downstairs to purchase materials. Although the space that Blick occupies has evolved since the doors first opened, walking through the hallways of the top-level art center transports you to a time when things felt less chaotic; the center feels lived-in and loved. Artwork and old news article 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’ve done 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 to allow people to discover a wonderful part of their humanity. That’s what creativity is. It’s our humanity. Creativity and creating are the most important parts of a fulfilling life. One thing I love to share with my students is the idea of lineage, of being able to pass something down to each generation. As they scribe 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 endless students claiming they aren’t creative. Pete doesn’t buy it. He likes to tell his students, some of which have been taking lessons from him for more than 30 years, “If you weren’t creative, you wouldn’t have come here. The fact that you even looked into it tells me you’re creative. A lot of people feel like they might want to take an art class sometime, but that feeling drifts into eternity, getting them nowhere. If you’ve had an inkling or something in the back of your mind that’s telling you to do it, give us a try. It’s never too late.” At age 91, Pete ought to know.
At Petersen Art Center, there is a true sense of camaraderie not always encountered within the walls of a shared art studio, and students of all levels appear in every class. The artists take ownership of the space, following the motto to leave it in better condition than you found it. The instructors are passionate and skilled, but they don’t hover unless you want them to, and there’s always someone around to ask for help.
More than 18,000 students have taken a class at the art center and it has no signs of slowing down, even during the pandemic. “It was interesting to me how willing people were to wear a mask and follow all the guidelines just to have access to our space.” says Mark. “There was very little push-back from the community, and we were surprised at the lengths to which people were willing to go to keep creating.”
For more information about classes, visit their website.
1025 E. 2100 South, SLC