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Castle Country focuses on energy while embracing arts

By Sun Advocate

Carbon County is a study in contradiction – from the drab, dull browns and greys of the surrounding bluffs that can change with the blink of an eye to spectacular shades of purple as the light shifts, to characters who can ruin a master’s canvass with a bottle of whiskey and then show up in numbers exceeding the population to open a new art gallery.
Embraced in the contradiction is the local culture that boasts a blue collar energy industry and an art community that is quickly becoming nationally recognized. Enter David Richey Johnsen and Thomas Elmo Williams, two professional artists who have chosen Helper as their home.
Johnsen has painting in his blood. The studio he shares with Williams not only displays the work of the two local painters, but the watercolors of Johnsen’s father as well.
He was born in Salt Lake City where he received a fine arts degree from Utah Tech. He relocated to San Francisco, Calif., where he was inspired by the fast pace of the city teaming with characters from all walks of life.
Johnsen eventually tired of city life. A former roommate had lived in Huntington and Johnsen purchased a house there to escape to a style of life that suited him more completely.
The small town setting has inspired contemporary interpretations of the once thriving boom town of the 1930s that was Helper. His work is said to capture the color and the mood of the period with retrospective reverence. It recalls the town’s colorful characters, remembered reveries of times past bathed in the golden light of memory.
Johnsen’s work is included in such collections as Universal Studios, Sony, CBS Records and Turner Network. Private collectors include Jackie Collins, Sid Sheinberg, Marilu Henner and John Bay.
The glamor of Johnsen’s painting is a stark contrast to the laboring men and women filling the canvasses of his student Thomas Williams. Williams came to Carbon County from West Virginia to visit his sister and never returned. Instead, he embarked on a career in the coal mines, working in Hiawatha for nearly 14 years. An industrial accident forced him from the mines, but he insists he will always be a blue collar worker at heart.
Unable to continue to work as a miner, Williams enrolled at College of Eastern Utah with intentions of becoming a high school teacher and guidance counselor. His only experience with art was the occasional sketches he made of miners, until he met Johnsen during a college break.
He then became involved in a plan formed with the help of Mayor Mike Dalpiaz to restore Helper Main Street by installing phantom art galleries in abandoned buildings. The involvement brought Williams into contact with the man who would become his teacher and mentor. Hesitantly showing his sketches to Johnsen, Williams was encouraged by his enthusiasm and encouragement to “paint what he knows.”
The blue collar heart of Williams is exposed on the canvass, understandably endearing him to local connoisseurs of art. And although his oil painting “Just Another Shift” sparks a deep recognition in the coal miner and everyone who knows one, the emotion invoked is universal to the working man and woman. Their hearts, too, are revealed on a Williams canvass.
It is altogether fitting then, that the Mine Safety and Health Administration has selected the work of Williams for the cover of their journal and will feature him in the publication. MSHA has also submitted a package of Williams’s work to the United States Treasury for consideration for a postal stamp honoring American coal miners.
Williams, perhaps, embodies the contradiction of a county with the physique of a laborer made strong through toil, but with the soul of an artist seeking beauty.

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