Visual Arts

Taking it to the Streets: Salt Lake’s Public Artists

Since artists first enlivened the walls of caves with their images, the necessity to have a place for creative expression has remained a continual quest. Oftentimes the magical properties of the Arts cannot be contained in a mere building, behind glass, or upon one’s shelf, and so must explode onto the streets and open spaces, manifesting itself in unorthodox forms of artistic exuberance and showmanship.

Such is the case of Utah’s growing coalition of “Public” artists – artists just as at home displaying their creations on the street corner or park as in a gallery. In fact, most of these artisans prefer open, public spaces for a number of reasons: creative control, freedom of mobility, and — most importantly — direct contact with the public.

Spray paint artist Jim Long on the streets of Salt Lake.

Alex Moss and Token Plaskett of NO FIERCE Urban Streetwear offer their wearable art on Main Street, outside Crossroads Mall, on Exchange Place, and in Pioneer Park. They love the “immediate gratification” of having their creations appreciated and purchased by downtown patrons and state that “the public is very welcoming and seem to enjoy the idea of artists displaying in public places”.

Occasionally, in urban areas “public” or “street” artists may be misconstrued as being vagrants – somewhat out of place in society. It may simply take time and a continued effort by the arts community to educate the general public in order to dispel this stereotype. Contrary to the common perception of a “street artist,” public artists represent a truly varied cross-section of the populace. From teenager to grandparent, they comprise all social and economic strata. They derive at least a portion (if not all) of their income from art sales, some traveling to various cities as the weather dictates, but all with the common goal of sharing their creative process with the masses – one on one. “Mystery,” a public artist who sells — among other items — intricate raku beads, notes that public artists are “not just bumming, it’s their life.”

Joe Bankhead, an artist who has been selling his work full time “in public” for fifteen years, travels frequently in his motor home, going from city to city, and can often be seen in Pioneer Park on Saturdays. He also frequents many of Salt Lake’s other “Public Art” venues such as Exchange Place, Liberty Park, and the Salt Lake City Library plaza.

Generally he feels Utahns “have come a long way in the last fifteen years” in becoming more interested and educated in viewing and buying “street” art. “The public in general here loves the idea of having artists out on the street or in the park showing and selling their artwork”. Selling prints of his paintings is the more profitable as well as more convenient way for Bankhead to make money, since he earns his entire living in this manner, as do a good deal of the public artists.

Basking in the afternoon sunshine and enjoying the vibes at the Library plaza or in the parks, Bankhead and the other artists can usually be found busily selling their wares. One cannot help but be in awe of the dedication and passion shown in their personal choice of becoming a public artist. Many of these artists would have no problem showing in a traditional gallery (and some have), but these people have made a conscious choice to sell and show outdoors to the public. A true breath of fresh air to a city in dire need of this type of artistic diversity.

The experience of selling art on the streets is not without its hardships, however. Often these dedicated artists are met with a less than enthusiastic welcome from city officials, police officers, and security guards that may insist on maintaining tight control on the status quo. City governments can enact “minimal time, place and manner” restrictions to provide certain controls for public artists to express themselves with their artwork while upon public property.

However, in the recent passing of the “Street Artist Ordinance,” Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and the city have demonstrated a willingness to open public properties to forms of creative expression, a move that will inevitably help to foster and embrace the cultural diversity so sought after by the mayor and the majority of the city itself.

Shaun L. Christensen , a digital design artist who has used public places as his primary venue for the last four years says, “I’ve noticed many artists reaching out for help from established organizations and feeling quite frustrated that there are not many opportunities to promote their work. For an artist, art doesn’t just happen one show a year or one time a week. It happens every day of their life. Artists need continuous opportunities – that’s why I’m so encouraged about this form of “public” art. We’ve placed it into the hands of individuals for their own empowerment. I want to help to enable more artists to show in this manner by continuing to work with the city to try to get proper ordinances in place so we can have more of these opportunities”.

We can all help patronize these dedicated public artisans in a number of locales around town. Perhaps it’s Friday night and you’ve just finished Gallery Stroll and are looking to purchase more art, or simply experience a new, creative ambiance. It’s as easy as walking down to Exchange Place (350 South between State and Main) to visit the public artists who set up there on Friday evenings (weather permitting). They are often there quite late, which is a boon to those who don’t finish dinner until 10pm.

Watching artists actually creating their artwork on the street is a unique experience to our city and our state, dubbed by one artist as “Planet Utah”. And since there is a campaign to change the image of downtown Salt Lake City, public artists, musicians, and performing artists seem to be the best way to give the area a much needed boost. John Nielsen, Board Chair of the Utah Arts Council said, “ I envision great restaurants, galleries and street artists to be a mainstay of the revitalization of downtown. Along with committed city leaders and business community, the Utah Arts Council is anxious to lend its support to this effort”.

Saturday mornings in Pioneer Park public artists converge alongside local farmers to create an exciting outdoor market with virtually every type of artist selling an abundance of items. From paintings to jewelry, to scarves and pottery, you never leave Pioneer Park without one great piece of art in hand, along with a hefty bag of produce. On Saturday afternoons you can find the artists in the new Salt Lake City Library outdoor plaza, a gorgeous venue for public art, and on Sundays you’ll see more artists working on the northeast side of Liberty Park.

Weekends at these venues bring a fresh, new outpouring of creativity and camaraderie which our comminuty is obviously eager and hungry for. Laura Durham, Public Relations Director for the Salt Lake Gallery Association said, “The public artists bring an exciting energy and a fun atmosphere to the downtown area”.

Whether you are aspiring to be an artist or are a seasoned professional, feel free to take part as a “public” artist. All you need is a table, chair, your artwork and the commitment to make a difference in the art world of Salt Lake (picking up a list of ordinances from the city wouldn’t hurt, either!). Meeting together and forming a bond with the other committed artists is invaluable to the creative soul. We all must support our public community artists in every way possible to help make the “free celebration of community arts” a continuing reality.

1. Friday night starting at 7 at Exchange Place
2. Saturday mornings starting in June at Pioneer Park at the south end of the park
3. Saturday afternoons at the Salt Lake City Library Plaza
4. Sunday at Liberty Park.

Categories: Visual Arts

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