Some white tents and a close-knit group of artists swayed Doug Adams to leave the steel mill for good.
"I don't owe anybody anything, except myself," Adams said, after three decades of working in a furnace. "And that's the freedom to create."
About three years ago, Adams and his wife, painter Dianne Adams, finally paid off the house. At the time, his 12-hour work shifts had been cutting into family time. And the metal sculptures he'd begun selling alongside Dianne's paintings at the Downtown Salt Lake City Farmers Market helped him gain a foothold in Utah's fine-arts community.
It's just one example of how farmers markets and the growing push to "buy local" are fostering a new crop of Utah artists. The trend allows them to trade advice and find mentors, and to refine their work.
For newer artists, like Doug Adams, it's a vital lesson in dealing with customers and getting to know buyers and curators.
Fertile ground • "There's a couple generations who are used to growing up shopping at Walmart," who are now turning toward "this culture that my grandparents told me about, where you buy from these little places on Main Street," said Angela Brown, executive director of Craft Lake City.
The fairs blur the lines between crafts, typically thought of as knickknacks, and fine art. That's because every vendor including painters, craftsmen and sand art booths sets up on the same level. And they deal directly with customers, cutting out shop commissions, gallery fees and other costs.
Brown had a tough time getting her photography into galleries and feared she'd have to leave town to make a living in the arts. That frustration, in part, pushed her to open up Craft Lake City, she said.
"We've heard that a lot" from artists and art buyers, she said: " 'I feel like I need to go to New York. I feel like I need to go to Los Angeles.' It's about, hey, you know what? There's a lot of great talent here in Utah."
A new variety • Salt Lake City isn't the only midsize city to nourish a growing group of painters, sculptors, photographers and others. Other Western underdogs, including Portland, Seattle, Aspen and Reno, are giving the usual favorites new competition, said Maggie Willis, interim director at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.
And more buyers are shopping from afar, Willis said, so artists' digital shops are key in sustaining the ones who choose to stay put in smaller markets. It helps, too, that people are buying a bit more than they did a few years ago, artists say, when the nation hit the depths of the recession.
Utah's smaller arts scene makes for a tighter-knit community, said Hilary Nitka, curator at Park City's Kimball Center. On the gallery circuit in bigger, denser cities, like Manhattan, "you're schlepping from Brooklyn" all over the place, she said, with less time to learn names and faces.
Dianne Adams had sold her paintings at the Downtown Salt Lake City Farmers Market, where she met Park City gallery curators. They helped shepherd her work into galleries there and in Santa Fe, too. So she encouraged her husband to sell his wares.
"The more confidence you have about yourself and about your work," Dianne Adams said, "the more others see that and they desire" it.
The shop at the Farmers Market boosted their income just enough to help Doug Adams retire earlier than he'd planned.
Close community • Doug Adams found a mentor in sculptor Chris St. Jeor, who is also the founder of SnowClaw, a sporty snow shovel designed for backcountry trekking. St. Jeor gave Adams pointers on how to price his work and build a portfolio.
St. Jeor credits the Farmers Market for cultivating his own sculpture career, because he could hear what customers liked and didn't, and he could get to know curators and buyers who would later help guide his work into galleries.
St. Jeor first opened his tent in 2008. He began by selling serving platters made from granite scraps, leftovers from companies that carved the rock to make sinks. St. Jeor now makes bronze, glass and stone sculptures with human figures.
Setting up a tent at the market doesn't guarantee big sales, especially if your works cost upward of a few thousand dollars, St. Jeor said. But it's a good idea because curators and buyers show up at the market for tomatoes and peaches, too, and their feedback counts, he added. That feedback has helped others, too.
In the past half-decade, St. Jeor says, has watched Adams' work evolve "into more of an art piece" with glass, different finishes and other elements, rather than "a bell with a cool design."
A freeing change • The Adamses' work now displays at galleries in Santa Fe and in Sedona, Ariz. They roadtrip there together to drop off their pieces a few times a year. He swims each morning, and they sit down to huckleberry pancakes with their 9-year-old son before they walk the boy to the school bus.
"I tried to talk him into being a sculptor," Doug Adams said. "With a real smug look on his face, he said, 'I'm a painter, Dad.' "