VERVE: Living the Creative Life

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The online series exploring creativity in the arts, music, sciences, and beyond is back to broaden horizons and influence inspiration. Follow VERVE, Season 3, every Friday to discover a new local innovator living the creative life. From a Nobel Prize winning geneticist, to painting elephants, VERVE highlights the spark behind the inherent desire to be a creator. Let VERVE help you discover artists and inventors in your neighborhood making their mark on the community.

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John Neely, Potter
S3 E8

John Neely has been building ceramic pots for almost 50 years. In high school, he didn’t really know what he wanted to do with his life but he did know he liked making pots. When he was 19 years old, he travelled to Japan where he fell in love with the pottery pieces he saw there. He says that learning the Japanese language was key to his experience in Japan.

“It took me a long time to start to understand what was going on and learning Japanese made all the difference. The way I explain it is this – It is very much like looking through a camera lens where everything is out of focus. When you slowly bring it into focus you start to understand what it is that is on the other side of the camera. That’s how it was when I learned to read and especially write Japanese….ALL the clues were suddenly there and I could understand what was going on and I found it all fascinating!”

He is particularly well known for designing an efficient wood-fired kiln named the “train-kiln” (it’s shape resembles that of a train). This kiln is widely utilized by potters worldwide and is the result of John's curiosity and research into primitive kiln design.

“I am fascinated with the history of ceramics - rather, by the history of technology. Much of what we know about early technology is because ceramic objects remain. They survived in all kinds of conditions. Fiber disappears, wood doesn’t last, metal corrodes….but we’ve got lots of ceramic stuff to learn from”.

Neely's ceramics program at Utah State University (Logan, Utah) is highly competitive and attracts students from diverse backgrounds and from all over the world. His program has an intensive series of ceramic technology courses that covers kiln building, glaze formulation and making, and tool building. “I think [the technical focus of the program] is part of what has given our students the strength to do what they want to do.”

John Neely’s remarkable influence on the landscape of ceramic art cannot be overestimated.


Utah State University - College of Art + Design (Ceramics)

Production Team

Jenny Mauro (Producer/Editor), Ashley Swanson (Editor), John Rogers (Videographer), and Brenton Winegar (Audio Engineer).

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Scott Carrier, Independent Radio Producer
S3 E7

As an undergrad Scott Carrier studied cultural anthropology. “It was almost like it was an infinitely deep subject.” He explains, “The mysteries and complexities and strangeness of culture, I was just amazed at how different people are."

Having an interest in filmmaking, he became fascinated with the old anthropological documentaries shown in his classes. “They were terrible, most of them,” he admits, “But they blew my mind, and so I started studying documentary film, watching every film I could, sometimes two or three films a day.”

Carrier didn’t have enough money to buy a camera or 16mm film to make documentaries, but he did have a portable cassette recorder and an Electrovoice RE-50 microphone. He and a friend would hit the streets in Salt Lake City and randomly interview people they met. These interviews were the beginning of a life journey in radio, writing, journalism, teaching and podcasting.

When he was 26 years old he hitchhiked to Washington D.C., interviewing the people who picked him up along the way. Armed with these stories, his plan was to go to NPR with the hopes of having a radio show on All Things Considered. “Even back then, it was very unlikely they would let anyone do that,” says Carrier. “You just can’t walk in off the street.” But it worked. The producer at the time, Alex Chadwick, let him have a chance.

“All stories are constructed whether they are fiction or nonfiction,” says Carrier. “There’s a lot of creativity in nonfiction. Where do you start and where do you end, and what the hell do you put in all that middle part, and in what order, what’s the context- these are choices we make.”

Scott won the Peabody award for his NPR story “Crossing Borders.” He’s written for Harper’s Magazine, Mother Jones and is a contributing producer to NPR’s This American Life and Hearing Voices.

His current project is Home of the Brave where you can listen to his podcasts on a plethora of subjects, thoughts, adventures, misadventures, refugees, his neighbors, political rallies, Bears in Yellowstone, the West Desert and more. You can also find Home of the Brave on various listening apps.

Produced and Edited by

Dana Barraco

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Cathy Tshilombo-Lokemba, Chef and African Fashion Guru
S3 E6

Cathy Tshilombo-Lokemba, known by most as Mama Africa, is a local chef and creator of her famous Pili Pili hot sauce and ginger punch. But what most people don’t know about her is she is also an African fashion guru and interior designer. She studied Interior Design in Tournai, Belgium and was one of the first designers to bring African textiles and fashion to the Belgium market when she started a design business after graduating.

“Being creative, you have to be hooked and connected to your creator,” Cathy explains. “We’re given so much creativity, so the more you exercise that, the more it grows. You can’t stop it.”

Growing up, Cathy moved between the United States, Europe and The Democratic Republic of the Congo. She’s lived most of her life in large cities such as New York City, Dallas, Phoenix, Brussels, Kinshasa, and settled in Utah 11 years ago. Over her childhood and teenage years she learned to speak five languages.

“It really empowers you,” she explains about having traveled the world. “You’re not just stuck in your culture, but you have all the different flavors and you can mix it and create something new.”

Cathy can often be found at her restaurant, Mama Africa Grill, where she makes and bottles her Pili Pili sauce and runs her catering business. There you will also find her small boutique with African shirts, dresses and aprons along with African textiles, baskets and hand fans.

To find out more about Cathy you can visit Mama Africa or her Facebook page.

Produced by

Erik Nielsen

Edited by

Ashley Swanson

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Brent Christensen, Ice Castles Creator and Founder
S3 E5

Nine winters ago when Brent Christensen and his family moved from the Bay Area to Utah, he started playing with the ice formed from a leaking water source in his yard with his kids. Inspired by the possibilities, Brent wanted to take it further. What started as an ice fort grew into what is today the Ice Castles.

For Brent, the most important part of the creative process is “Allowing ourselves to be curious,” he says, “and not feeling like you have to be grown up all the time.”

The Ice Castles design and formation depends on the natural environment; water, temperature and time. “I consider what we do a dance with Mother Nature.” he explains, “We can’t direct what the humidity is going to be, we don’t know exactly how the wind is going to blow. All of those things combined create a lot of surprises.”

Built from the ground up, the Ice Castles are often started in October by a team of ice specialists and sculptors. With an estimated 25 million tons of ice, the castles are composed of slot canyons, frozen waterfalls, tunnels, archways, slides, caverns, thrones, fountains and more. Today there are 5 Ice Castles locations across North America and Canada.

The team of designers and sculptors implement lights into the ice for a colorful night show. “There’s engineering and architecture and a lot of art in it,” Brent says, “But the real art is what happens when we go home and go to bed and turn the water on, it happens at night.”

For more information on the Ice Castles, tickets, FAQ and more, visit the Ice Castles and Facebook pages.

Produced and Edited by

Paige Sparks

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Katie Johnston, Metalsmith and Jewelry Maker
S3 E4

Following her artistic sentiments, Katie Johnston became interested in creating jewelry at an early age and naturally found her way into metalsmithing and jewelry design. “I like working in the context of jewelry because it has such a layered personal meaning.” She explains, “It can take a bunch of different forms. It can be a status symbol, or like a metal of honor or a memorabilia, carrying something to remind you of someone you’ve lost or someone you love.”

As an outdoor enthusiast, her jewelry and small metal work is influenced by the natural world, specifically the flora and fauna of the American west. Her work incorporates these themes into unique designs. “Lately I’ve been exploring the concept of the totem animal.” She explains, “People will sometimes have a certain animal that reoccurs in their life, and so they feel a special connection to those animals.”

Katie received her BFA in metals from SUNY New Paltz, New York where she worked with professionals in the art jewelry world. After spending two years honing her skills at the bench of a designer jewelry studio, she left New York to create her own studio in her home town of Salt Lake City.

To see more of Katie’s work visit her Instagram feed.

Produced and Edited by

Ashley Swanson

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Jonathan Gonzalez, Barista
S3 E3

Jonathan Gonzalez first introduced himself to the culture of coffee when he began brewing pour overs at home with a hand grinder and ceramic Japanese kettle. He also began frequenting coffee shops around Salt Lake City at a time when specialty coffee was just taking hold. When he experienced the siphoned coffee, which is typically served black, at Caffee D’bolla, things changed. “That’s when it hit me that coffee could taste that way.” He explains, “It’s an old way of brewing coffee, it’s one of the cleanest ways to brew coffee and the process takes a lot of time to perfect.” Since then Jonathan has happily immersed himself into the craft of brewing and preparing coffee drinks. 

Many artists feel a responsibility towards presenting their work, but for Jonathan, presenting a coffee drink is about displaying the final stage of coffee’s long journey from coffee cherry to cup. As a barista, he feels that being the last person to touch and process the coffee, is a responsibility. “All that goes behind growing coffee and how it helps communities and then the process of picking and shipping it, and the roasting,” He says, “That’s defiantly something that’s inspiring to me, making the fruit of their labor worth it and bringing out the best.”

Jonathan has worked for Salt Lake City based roasters La Barba (formally Charming Beard), Blue Copper Coffee Room, and Publik Coffee Roasters. He has also worked with Saint Anthony Industries, a local company that manufactures barista tools from aprons to tamps. He is currently Assistant Green Coffee Buyer and Coffee Educator with Publik Coffee. 

His coffee blog is an attempt to document the further changes in the Salt Lake City coffee scene.

Special Thanks to

Publik Coffee Roasters and The Rose Establishment

Produced by

Ashley Swanson

Edited by

Stephane Glynn and Ashley Swanson

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Nicky Keefer, Free-style skier
S3 E2

To Nicky Keefer, Utah’s ski resorts and mountains were like a second home. Around age 14 he began pushing the boundaries of conventional skiing and soon ventured into the world of freestyle skiing with its aerials, moguls, cross, half-pipe and slopestyle skiing. Today Keefer is an award-winning professional freeskier who competes internationally.

Keefer, who studies physics at the University of Utah, sees a strong correlation between theoretical physics and how he approaches and thinks about freestyle skiing. Both, he says are built on connecting techniques and formulas to develop something unique and original. "I try to welcome the unknown as much as I possibly can, I don't like to get too constrained...and I think that helps me progress at anything I'm doing."

He believes that being on the forefront of ideas and keeping an open mind to innovation is central to reaching any goal. “You have to be very aware with what everyone is doing, you have to be current.” Explaining his approach to both freeskiing and theoretical physics, he says, “you have to be so obsessed with what you’re doing that you know what hasn’t been done before.”

All winter footage of Nicky Keefer freeskiing is curtesy of The Distillery and Anvi Films


Produced by

Samantha Highsmith

Edited by

Samantha Highsmith and Ashley Swanson

Special Thanks to

The Distillery and Anvi Films

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Heidi Moller Somsen, Figure Sculptor
S3 E1

Heidi grew up on the coast of British Columbia where she would often collect shells, wood, moss, rocks, and other materials to build small sculptures. “For me it was more about the materials, so from a young age I was collecting things from nature and making these little assemblage pieces,” she says. “I would work on these pieces and I didn’t really think of them as art, I didn’t know what that was necessarily.”

For Heidi, creating art is a way to "process the vicissitudes of life and to satisfy my curiosities.”

Although she is best known for her large figure sculptures composed of ceramic, drift wood, roots, beeswax, burlap, and other materials, Heidi enjoys experimenting and trying new processes. She often builds a ceramic bust only to cut it up and reassemble it. “There’s this basic sort of representation of the human figure that everybody can relate too, but then adding this layer to it…you’ve got to have a bit of ambiguity, or make it just a little disturbing.”

Heidi works from her home studio in Salt Lake City and teaches figure sculpture at the University of Utah as well as ceramics courses at the Visual Art Institute. She currently has works on exhibit at Philips Gallery and has shown at Miri Gallery and other galleries around the country.

Produced and edited by

Ashley Swanson

Camera work by

Jenny Mauro and Ashley Swanson

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