This monthly pop-up helps Utah artists find success and community

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In a time when a banana duct-taped to a wall can get attention and praise — and a $120,000 sales price — many artists are trying to figure out more practical ways to break into the market.

A pop-up solution convenes nearly every month in Salt Lake City, as the Connect project offers friendly critiques and competition. Artists can walk in and submit up to two pieces with no cost or pre-registration. After the crowd votes, works from the top five artists are shown in the Urban Arts Gallery until the next event.

December’s Connect, scheduled at the gallery from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13, will be a culmination for the monthly winning artists throughout 2019. They can submit new work or a past winner, and the top three winners after a new round of voting will split $4,000.

“One of the things that we’re trying to tackle is that artists tend to not have a lot of confidence in showing their work,” said Michael Christensen, director and founder of Connect.

“The curatorial processes of galleries are kind of stringent and they have to be, because that’s the point of a gallery,” he added. “But it’s easy for artists to get frustrated because they’re not immediately accepted. And so the goal of our program is to provide just a first step so you can get used to sharing your work.”

With Connect, he said, “in theory, you could have an artist who hadn’t heard of a program in the morning, hear about it in the afternoon, come out to the event and get voted up and have their art in the art gallery for their first time in the world.”

That has happened many times, he said, and he finds “really gratifying” to “see people, in their eyes, when they realize it’s possible.”

At November’s Connect, tables covered in black cloth lined the Urban Arts Gallery as artists made their way in, set up easels and placed their artwork on the tables and wire stands around the room. People greeted each other with hugs and hellos, and stood by their art preparing to chat about their work.

“It’s been helpful to just be talking to people,” said artist Natasha Hoffman, standing by her collage piece of a girl precariously swinging over the tentacles of an octopus. “It’s not so much about feedback on my work specifically as it is about the process of getting out there and engaging, and realizing that you’re a terrified little fish in a big pond; everybody else is a terrified little fish in a big pond.”

THE CONNECT FINALS FOR 2019
Connect Finals, the only Connect ticketed event, will feature works of art from artists who have won monthly competitions over the past year. The gathering is appropriate for all ages, and refreshments and a cash bar will be available.
Where • Urban Arts Gallery at The Gateway, 116 South Rio Grande Street, Salt Lake City
When • Friday, Dec. 13, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Includes • Two presentations on how to price artwork
Admission • Advance tickets are $10 (+service fee) online and $15 at the door
Details • Online at www.utaharts.org/CONNECT

Jeremy I. Fagergren first heard about Connect last year on his birthday. He entered one of his etched metal pieces and, to his surprise, won. His method creates a holographic effect, as his images seems to move as a viewer does.

Fagergren used his own blood to color his new piece, titled “Isolated,” after he accidentally sliced his hand on the edge of another metal piece and noticed the blood had an effect similar to paint. “I kept coming back to, how can I put a piece of me into my art?” he said. “How can it be more personal?”

He used an Exacto knife to pierce his finger, he said, and “definitely suffered a little bit” for his art, “getting up the courage to just slice it enough to get enough blood out of there.”

For him, the new piece — which has a hovering circle that looks almost three-dimensional with a slight pink tinge — is an examination of life and death, and an attempt to dissolve the barrier between artist and their art.

Artists of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels have attended Connect events and competed. Emma Goldgar has been attending Connect for the past three years, and won monthly contests with seven out of eight pieces she’s entered this year.

In November she entered “Burn In,” one of the largest paintings in the competition and one that had crowd members talking. It depicts elegant ballerinas dancing symmetrically into a fiery phoenix in the center.

“I liked the imagery [of the dancers], especially because of the effort that ballerinas put forth; it ruins your body, training for so long. And I feel like that’s like the perfect kind of metaphor for burning yourself down to be reborn,” said Goldgar.

Some artists have used Connect as a tool to grow their portfolios. Garnett Wyatt has been creating a piece for Connect every month since February, as part of his “21st Series.”

“It’s about how we see art in the 21st century, how it’s all become pocket-sized, how we carry art with us,” he said. A colored pencil and watercolor image of an iPhone “was about how we find art through search engines,” he added.

The voting process — with an artist vote and a patron vote — helps artists get used to the competition of the selection process in galleries. Artists who are showing select their three favorite pieces, and gallery visitors choose two. The process is designed to allow artists to be judged by peers while preventing anyone’s family and friend network from overwhelming the results.

As votes are tallied, artists participate in activities that help them improve their marketing skills. In pitch sessions, they have 30 seconds to try to sell their work, and attendees award Monopoly money to those they feel did the best job.

The idea for Connect, which started in 2010, came as Christensen realized that it was hard enough to make good art without having to justify and market one’s own art.

“I wanted to be a filmmaker,” he said, “and I realized that that the skills that you need to be good at making film are not at all the skills you need to fit in the business world of the art world.”

Derek Dyer, executive director of the Utah Arts Alliance, was also brainstorming ideas for helping emerging artists. Many said they wanted a community and opportunities to show their work. Dyer and Christensen realized they were working in parallel, and started Connect together.

When November’s winners were announced, Goldgar was excited to learn her “Burn In” painting took first place in the artist vote. She also won a special $1,500 award for consistently placing all year, which means her work will appear but will not compete in the finals.

“To be brutally honest, I need the $1,500 that comes with it this year the most because I recently found out that I lost my job,” she said. “So I’m working every possible angle with art that I can.”

Fagergren’s etched metal piece won first place in the patron vote. He received a lot of good feedback, he said, and enjoyed seeing people’s reactions.

Artists gathered after the event was over and congratulated each other, with some planning to get coffee together later that week. Wyatt sees Connect as a way to meet other creators and see their work, and to better himself as an artist. Goldgar also is drawn to the support the informal network shares.

“The community itself is just really strong because everyone is revolving around the same passion,” she said.

December’s year-end Connect event for the year’s winning artists will include two presentations. Urban Arts Gallery curator Scott Tuckfield will discuss how artists should price their work and what sells at galleries. STEAMpunk Academy, a local organization that focuses on the sciences and the arts, will then present the psychology behind what people will pay for art.

The first Connect competition in 2020 is scheduled for Valentine’s Day.

Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.