Asking Glenna Empey what art means to her is like asking her how she feels about breathing or blinking or any other necessary function.
“It’s part of my life, actually,” she said.
Beyond a mere love for art, Empey, 84, has a long career filled with sharing her passion with others. Since 1975, she has taught art lessons, and designed and painted scenery for dozens of local theatrical productions for 23 years.
But her love affair with art began innocently enough when her grandmother gave her an oil painting set when she was 9 years old, and started her first painting almost immediately.
“I sat down that very Christmas and painted a still life,” she said.
The Bakersfield, Calif., native moved to Tooele after marrying Preston Empey, and began studying art at Brigham Young University in 1960. Empey has displayed her artwork in dozens of exhibitions and won several awards, including best of show in the Intermountain Society of Artists and the Tooele County Fair.
Empey said perhaps the thing she loves most about painting is that it can serve as a gateway to another world, both for the viewer when it is on display and for the artist during its creation.
“You just get so immersed in it that everything else, you don’t think of your problems — when you’re painting, that’s it,” she said. “I don’t even have to leave [the house]. I can just come down here and paint.”
Getting out of the house, though, often makes for stronger emotion tied to the piece, she said.
“We used to go out and just paint outdoors, and that is really my idea of really painting. You can take a photograph and you can bring it in and you can paint it — it’s not the same as starting one outdoors, because you get the feeling with it,” she said. “Then you can start it and bring it back and finish it, but you still get the feelings you had when you were there.”
Her subjects are often serendipitous, and are sometimes chosen because of how the light makes a particular scene look in a moment. Empey has also used art as a way to connect with her mother, who died when Empey was 4 years old.
“She had a lot of old pictures and I’ve actually painted her more than once,” she said. “When you don’t know her, you kind of wonder if you painted her right.”
Besides the many landscapes and portraits she has painted over the years, Empey has made an impact with some of her larger projects. Perhaps her most visible piece in Tooele was a mural she made on the back of a flower shop on Vine Street, which stood for four years before the store was torn down to make way for new construction on Tooele High School.
“It was about a block and it went around the corner, but it was fun. I enjoyed it,” she said. “They had a floral shop back there and the kids were always painting graffiti on the wall, so [the owner] thought if I painted a mural on the wall that it would stop the graffiti, and it actually did.”
While painting a block-long mural is quite another animal from painting a scene on canvas, Empey said the difference in scale can make things easier in some ways once a painter gets accustomed to it.
“Working at the high school, you have to get up on scaffolding, and you’re painting huge. After you’ve done that a while, you can do it. In fact, you get to where you want to paint large,” she said. “You feel looser; you’re not all confined to some small space.”
Empey’s first theatrical scenery was for Tooele High School’s 1985 production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which she did after her daughter told then-THS theater director Carol LaForge that her mother was skilled at art. From there, Empey went on to paint sceneries for as many as three THS productions a year, as well as for community plays and the mural of Southern Utah used as a backdrop for Grantsville Elementary School’s annual Utah-themed program.
Each production was its own challenge, not only designing the most functional scenes in an appropriate style — the style for “Peter Pan,” for example, would be much different than for “Snoopy” — but then finishing them in time for the curtain to be raised, sometimes in as little as a month. Empey recruited friends to help her finish the painting. Painting the top parts of the scenery on scaffolding also required her to get over her fear of heights.
“That top scaffolding has nothing to hold on. You’re just up there. You creep out there on the edge and then you sit down, because there’s nothing to hold on to. It was scary. But I gradually got over it, because it was something you had to do,” she said. “You’re pressured because the show has to go on, so you have to get it done.”
Even after her daughter left high school, Empey continued painting scenery for the high school’s productions, up until LaForge retired in 2008. Empey said, though, that she would consider painting scenery for community productions in the future.
Of course, painting a backdrop for a production that runs a week or two is hardly etched in stone. Empey joked that, between her building mural being torn down, the fire that resulted in GES being torn down, a gallery in which she displayed work being torn down and the temporary nature of scenery, she must have some kind of bad luck.
“It seems like everywhere I go something happens,” she said. “Like every year at the high school you paint over the scenery again. I don’t know how many coats are on that thing.”
Sometimes, though, her work does last. The LaForge Encore Theatre’s production of “The Sound of Music” in June featured Empey’s scenery from 10 years ago.
Smaller-scale paintings, too, have a longer life span. Last month, Empey sent off two paintings to be displayed in her son’s insurance business in Texas, and many other works have been sold or displayed.
In another way, her passion for the craft is passed on to her students, too. Empey said over the years — nearly four decades worth — of teaching art lessons to local youth, she enjoys seeing the progress her students make and the love they develop for the craft.
“I don’t know how many kids I’ve had in the years. I haven’t kept track, but there’s a lot. And some of them come back, and their kids have come back, that’s what’s scary. You think, I can’t be this old,” she said. “To see some of your students go on and do something with art is really fulfilling. You feel you’ve accomplished some little thing.”
“To see some of your students go on and do something with art is really fulfilling,” she said. “You feel you’ve accomplished some little thing.”