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The Trial
(Arwen Ek's, Not Kafka's)

By Jordan Scrivner
People who talk about Salt Lake City and Utah, for good or ill, often frame the discussion in terms of the state’s clichés. Nowhere is this more true than when talking about creativity and the fine arts. But what is it really like to
be a starving artist in this city? As a first in a series of interviews about “the artist” in Utah, Jordan Scrivner spoke with Arwen Ek, a street performer who briefly found herself in the custody of mental-health specialists after being misunderstood in the big city. Two years later, she’s still supposed to pay for it.
“You have to get out of your house to see the outside world, and you have to get outside the sphere of your mentality in order to see life in a different way.”

Arwen Ek has a face like the moon and very earnest eyes. These eyes highlight the earnestness with which she speaks about the performing arts and how she sees the world. Sitting crossed-legged on the floor of her small apartment in the avenues, she discusses the way the artist sees the world and how the world sees the artist. “When I experience things, or see things in the news, or have a dream, experiences that everyone has... I think the artist sees these experiences from a different perspective. Part of the artist’s job is to express [this perspective] in a way other people may not see it.”

An example of this “something you don’t see everyday” artistic expression happened on the morning of Dec. 15, 2003, when Ek, then a 19-year-old modern dance major at the University of Utah, found herself abducted in the middle of a performance when a Gold Star ambulance picked her up for psychiatric evaluation. Performing an act that she had been planning for weeks, Ek donned a white T-shirt, white skirt, flip-flops and a red shawl, and drifted down 1300 East one morning as a “wandering spirit in search of her lost lover.” A concerned neighbor called the police, believing Ek to be a derelict.

“So, 8:30 in the morning. I go out. I’m doing my thing. Shortly thereafter, the cops arrive. I’m speaking cordially and, of course, I break character and I’m making perfect sense. And it was a half a block from my front door... One of the officers actually went and spoke with my roommate and asked, ‘Did you know your roommate was doing performance art in the streets?’ and my roommate said, ‘Yes.’”

But the officers still held her for further evaluation.

“So they strapped me down to the stretcher, arms and legs, and sent me to the University Hospital where I met one person who was supposed to be a doctor who asked me ‘How many fingers am I holding up? Who’s the president?’ Things like that. And they decided from that evaluation that I needed more evaluation. So they sent me down to Highland Ridge Hospital, where an actual professional psychiatrist did the full gamut...every evaluation thing, and finally said, ‘Why are you here? Go home.’”

Unfortunately, that’s when Ek’s troubles really began. After a few weeks of what might have been a minor, albeit annoying, misunderstanding, she found herself slapped with a $532 bill for two ambulance trips she never needed in the first place.

This was all reported in the City Weekly article “Committed Artist” by Shane Johnson (Nov. 14, 2004.) Johnson described the whole situation was “almost like a Kafka thing.” “She told them ‘I’m practicing my art,’ and they’re looking at her like she’s crazy. If they had listened to what she was saying, it would have made perfect sense. Even given that, the ambulance company is still pursuing her,” Johnson said.

Since the incident, Ek’s troubles have only multiplied.

“I told them, ‘I’m not giving you any money.’ And they said ‘alright, well then we’ll sue you.’ Then one day I got a letter from the court saying ‘automatic judgement has been passed’ because I failed to show up for a court date. But I never got a letter from the court about any court date.”

With the added fees and expenses, Knight Adjustment Bureau, the collection agency for Gold Cross Ambulance and the plantiff in the case, is now suing Ek for $1,316.95.

Knight Adjustment Bureau did not return calls requesting comment.

Two years later, Ek is still fighting with Knight Adjustment Bureau and is still a fully sane, fully functioning member of society. While on break from her job at the Art of Baking, Ek talked about an incident that gave her a keen insight into the whole situation.

“A woman came in here. Obviously homeless. But, you know, she paid for her meal and everything. Then she sat in the corner of the restaurant and...just started crying. Just going into hysterics. So we called the police and an officer came in who actually seemed very compassionate and told us that she was well-known amongst the police force and that she’s been in and out of hospitals for a while now. The officer told me that if she went through the same situation I went through—the police, the ambulance, the hospital, the mental health facility—the best they could do for her [in the end] is give her a prescription for medicine she couldn’t possibly afford and send her on her way. And of course they wouldn’t charge her for the ambulance ride. But since they know her and have dealt with her before, now they just tell her to go somewhere else. So, in a way, with me, the whole thing feels very arbitrary. Like, they are only charging me for the ambulance ride because I have an address.”

The whole experience has galvanized Ek into doing more for the art world than ever before—including, but not limited to, dropping out of the Modern Dance program at the U to pursue her own major called “Integrated Arts.”

“I seek to pursue a unified artistic expression of the human experience.  Our shared humanity is expressed through languages that describe commonly experienced phenomena.  From gravity to love, from entropy to despair—to be human is to embody the potential for the entire spectrum of creative energy.  I am interested in designing a major encompassing all performing arts—music, dance and theater, through application of theoretical physics, anthropology and philosophy.”

Ek’s all-encompassing view of art as a way of life is obviously something that the Utah community will have to get used to. Ek’s conviction of the importance of art for the community is infectious, and it isn’t hard to, at the very least, admire her ambition and nerve.

“I really feel that art is an endangered species in Utah… You have to get out of your house to see the outside world, and you have to get outside the sphere of your mentality in order to see life in a different way... On that morning, on December 15, some woman saw me and said ‘holy cow’...On that day, some people stopped and reconsidered… The value of art is like opening a wormhole into the city.”

jordan [at]


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