LGBTQ stories inspire Utah architect’s “Sanctuary” art project

Doug Staker's moving art project – a walk-through “sacred space” he calls Sanctuary – is intended to celebrate belonging. Staker said he was motivated to create the project by personal stories from family and friends.

“I have a gay brother and we were a very Mormon family,” Staker said. “We just saw that there was conflict between families and it was difficult to know what that meant.”

Staker, who grew up in Utah, is an architect and runs his own practice, Squaremoon Studio, in Salt Lake City. He is also an artist. “I've always been interested in art and that's what really got me into architecture,” he said. “I just wanted to make art.”

(Doug Staker) Artist and architect Doug Staker with his project “Sanctuary” at the Utah Pride Festival 2024.

“Sanctuary” is an architectural art project that, according to the Squaremoon website, “grew out of the painful experiences of friends and family struggling with the disconnect between LGBTQ+ experience and religion and those who love and support them.” On the website, Staker lists some of the stories that have inspired him, like that of his brother Harry.

The project, which was on display in Washington Square Park in Salt Lake City during the Utah Pride festival this month, is made of cardboard cut into square frames. The frames are joined together to form arches that people can walk through. The frames hold colored panels that give the structure a rainbow glow. The arches are joined together to form one large structure.

The design, Staker said, was ambitious – a mix of traditional and progressive art forms, driven by current technology. For example, he used the shape of an arch reminiscent of Roman churches, but with cardboard panels instead of stones.

Staker said the inspiration for “Sanctuary” came from Tempietto, a 16th-century memorial tomb in Rome designed by Italian Renaissance architect Donato Bramante.

“The architect was trying to create some kind of ideal of a perfect form or something like that,” Staker said, adding that he was guided by that idea as he created a space where deeper artistic questions could be answered.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Saturday, June 1, 2024.

Different arches or areas of the project are called “chapels” and have themes – such as joy, hope and sorrow – that determine their color schemes.

When the project was exhibited at the Utah Pride Festival earlier this month, passersby were invited to write messages on the cardboard with blue marker.

Some of the messages that relate to the “Chapel” themes are: “You are loved,” “Be authentic. You are wonderful just the way you are,” and “Joy is being seen for who I am.”

The interactive aspect of “Sanctuary,” Staker said, was part of the concept from the beginning.

“For me, that's part of what makes a sacred place: people contributing. Spirituality has an aspect that's more like a function and a performance,” he said. “I always try to interact with these people who come to the festival.”

The project also has a “reclaiming aspect” — reclaiming sacred spaces and waste materials, Staker said. The colored panels are repurposed from waste materials Staker obtained from 3Form, a Salt Lake City company that makes translucent materials for indoor and outdoor spaces.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Messages posted to The Sanctuary by Doug Staker at the Utah Pride Festival on Saturday, June 1, 2024.

“In a sense, it’s trash art, where we try to build something beautiful out of discarded materials,” he said.

Due to these aspects, the project has been implemented several times, namely in 2018, 2022 and 2024 – each version is slightly different from the previous one.

“Every time we find people who share something from their personal experience with us,” he said. “Then they experience the place by walking around and seeing what other people are saying. That goes a long way toward creating a sacred experience in unexpected places, like on a sidewalk at the festival.”

One reason he's continued to improve the design year after year, Staker said, is that he has a child who has come out as part of the LGBTQ community. That “increased my motivation to keep doing it,” he said.

“I just felt like we needed to create a safe place, for people and my own children, and this was a great direct symbol or metaphor for what we're trying to do,” Staker said, adding that his children helped a lot in building the project's sculpture and recruiting other volunteers.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Saturday, June 1, 2024.

Staker said what he likes most about the project is how people are engaging with it and how it has become a “meaningful community experience.” Showing the project at places like the Utah Pride Festival, he said, “really gets to the core of why Pride exists.”

After showing “Sanctuary” at the Utah Pride Festival, Staker plans to take it on tour. He'll take it to Pride Week in New York in late June as part of a documentary being filmed there. He may also take it to Southern California, and he said some groups in Utah have expressed interest in exhibiting it.

This weekend, Staker said, the plan is to bring “Sanctuary” to a Pride festival in Rexburg, Idaho, the small town known as the home of Brigham Young University-Idaho. “The reason we’re going to Rexburg is because it’s a small Pride festival in a community [where] “The reason for Pride is particularly strong,” Staker said.

Taking “Sanctuary” on trips is always a question mark, says Staker, because the device is made of cardboard – and there are concerns about rain and normal wear and tear.

“It's actually pretty robust. As long as it lasts, we'll continue to find things to do with it,” Staker said. “We're creating a safe space for all of us.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Sanctuary, by Doug Staker at the Utah Pride Festival, on Saturday, June 1, 2024.

Anna Harden

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