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Sugar Post



Don't turn your back on this heap of scrap metal... you might end up missing a gnome.

--- Sugar Post has been producing both pottery designs and metal works for over ten years now, catching eyes with specialty designs and unknown creatures. The metal works have become a fixture at art festivals, and over time have formed into a would of characters themselves. Not bad for a heap of scrap. I got a chance to chat with Sugar Post owner and creator Fred Conlon about his work, starting Sugar Post, thoughts on local art and a few other things. All while he introduced me to several of his friends for pictures in his South Salt Lake workshop.

Fred Conlon

Gavin: Hey Fred. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Fred: I was born in 1974 in what was then the small town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado.  I grew up the only son of two English Teachers who understood that they were raising a boy, not trying to preserve the drywall in the upstairs bedroom.

Gavin: How did you first get into art, and what were some of your early inspirations?

Fred: I used to be really into HO scale trains, and would spend the money I earned from cutting grass in the summer and shoveling snow in the winter to buy tiny model trains and buildings which I promptly put together and placed on the giant sheet of plywood in my room.  The stuff didn't look that cool just sitting on a plain piece of plywood, so it wasn't long before I got the plaster of Paris out and started building mountains and landscapes to the side of my wall.  Over the next couple of months I would add paint and glue to stick the grasses and trees all over the plaster mountains and up my wall as high as it would go.  It was a great project, and my parents were cool enough to let it go as long as promised not to spackle any of my dirty clothes into the mountains.  I was also the kid who got a wood burning kit for Christmas and set out to amputate and cauterize various GI Joe figures.  I grew up skiing the best snow on earth, and could go up practically whenever I wanted, as long as I fulfilled my weekly obligations as an Alter Boy at the local Catholic Church.

Gavin: At what point did you head out for college, and what made you get into art?

Fred: As it always is, I couldn't wait to get out of Steamboat after High School, and now wish I had a way to get back there.  Sometimes it's kind of a bummer when I go back to visit just to see all the changes and building that has taken place.  Nothing like a small town that eventually pushes out all the locals.  Not that its the towns fault, but things get expensive when the tourists bring in the big bucks and pretty soon the locals cannot afford to live there anymore. I went to Central College in Pella, Iowa my freshman year of college.  I chose Central mainly because they were a small Division III school that wanted me to come play football for them, and it was pretty far from home.  I showed up for camp weighing in at 235lbs and 6'2" tall, only to find out that the other guys on the team were heavier, taller and faster than I was.  Football was a 24/7 commitment in college and I rarely had time to focus on anything else.  One of my electives was a class called "Pottery, Bookbinding, and Jewelry Making 101"  The first time I sat down at the potter's wheel I was hooked.  Professor Vruwink took me under his wing and allowed me 24 hour access to the studio.  Before long I was loading kilns, mixing clay in the pug mill and thoroughly enjoying every aspect of the clay studio.  It was a time for me to relax and forget about all the other stresses of trying to play football and not flunk out of school. After spending a year in Iowa, and surviving the bleakest, most miserable winter of my life, I decided that the mid-west was not for me.  I suppose I was spoiled growing up in Steamboat, and the Iowa winters only had brown dirt, freezing rain, and grey skies, as opposed to the fresh snow, green pine trees, and sunshine of Colorado.  That winter in Iowa I also ran into some Mormon Missionaries and found a Church that I wanted to be a part of, which has made a big difference in my life.

Gavin: What made you choose the U of U for college, and what was their program like?

Fred: My best friend growing up in Steamboat was named Jeff, and Jeff and I had always talked about being roommates in college.  We met up after our freshman year in college and decided we wanted to make that happen.  He suggested we go to Utah, since there was ample skiing in the winter and deserts in the summer, and it was only 6 hours from home.  I thought that sounded pretty cool. So we drove out to Utah and ended up at the University of Utah.  Now my parents, aside from being English Teachers, were also wise enough to tell me that while it was important to get my degree, I should also pursue classes and topics that I was interested in.  That philosophy kept me taking a pottery class every semester in addition to my regular college courses.  I became a regular in the studio, getting special permission from various instructors to take upper division classes.  The interest in pottery remained strong, even when my interest in other majors waned.  I changed majors several times, from Psychology to Sociology, to Education, to Criminal Justice- I had no idea what I wanted to do after college. And I distinctly remember chiding the Art Majors at the U telling them they will never make a living with a stupid degree in Art. After 5 years of college, I finally sat down with a guidance counselor and ask them what I could graduate in.  He looked carefully over my transcripts and said that if I took one more semester of the prescribed classes that I could have a degree in Communication!  "Wow, sign me up!"  I said.  And that's how it all played out, I ended up with the maximum number of pottery credits and a degree in Public Communication.

Gavin: Where did the idea come from to start up the pottery shop?

Fred: In December of 1997, I married the coolest girl I have ever known.  She was the one that encouraged me to go after my dream and open up a pottery shop.  A year or so before graduation, my Grandmother cashed out on some savings bonds and distributed them to all her Grandchildren.  My share of the cash-out was about 5k.  It came at a crucial time and was used to finish paying off tuition and make some sort of a car repair.  With the money left over, I started a small business with another potter.  I bought 4 pottery wheels, an electric kiln, some glaze ingredients and 1000 lbs of clay.  We had barely enough money to pay our first months rent on a small space in Sugar House across the street from the Post Office.

Gavin: What was the first year open like?

Fred: Sugar Post Pottery opened the doors in October of 1998.  We taught pottery class as a way to cover all our overhead, and that's barely what it did.  The only take home pay we received was when we sold some pottery, and it was tough to make that happen.  My wife had a job our first year of marriage while I struggled to figure out how to actually make some money off my pottery.  She was the constant encouragement telling me to stick with it, even when it seemed to be the darkest of days. After sticking with the pottery full-time for 2 years, my wife was able to quit her job.  This allowed her to help me down at the studio, and we were barely eeking out enough money to make ends meet.  I started doing every little art show there was locally, and these shows seemed to fill in the cracks when we were short on sales down at the studio.

Gavin: What inspired you to start doing the metal turtles?

Fred: I always set time aside for new ideas, like when I was making a run of mugs, say 30-60 at a time, my mind would wander to other things and I would try and think of ways I could get into bigger and better art shows.  Art shows are a strange thing- any of them that are worth doing need to be juried into- that means you need good pictures/slides of your work that go before a panel of experts.  They are the ones that ultimately decide if you get in the show or not.  The slides I had of my pottery were mediocre at best, and jurying into the larger shows were extremely difficult.  I had always been interested in metal sculpture, and had recently purchased a small 110v welder to use for kiln repairs.  I needed something interesting to add to the pottery, maybe some sort of metal component or accent that would make my stuff stand out from the rest. One day in early April of 2001, I found myself in a junk yard scrounging for interesting metal parts.  I came across a pile of army helmets and was intrigued by them.  My grandfather, husband of the grandmother that gave me the money, was a WWII veteran, and was stationed at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked.  He always told me that "War happens quickly."  As I was standing there looking at all the helmets, remembering his words, I thought to myself, "War does happen quickly, and peace moves slowly."  Turtles move slowly, and the pile or army helmets looked like turtle shells to me.  So the first army helmet turtle was born.

Gavin: Where do you get the parts to make everything in the metal works?

Fred: I bought enough parts to make one turtle, welded it together, and set it out in the pottery studio.  It wasn't but a few days and a customer came in and wanted to buy it.  I made a couple more, and sold a couple more and the rest is history.

Gavin: Did the designs come about by planning, or was it more accident than design?

Fred: I took the turtle and wanted to expand on the idea, so at Christmas I made a turtle with wings and sold them in a set of "2 Turtle Doves", a ladybug followed the next spring and then the Army Ant- all made out of authentic WWII army helmets.  I was promoting cool stuff for the garden, but it seemed to me that people put a lot of stupid things in their garden.  That is what led me to create the Gnomebegone-finally, garden art that didn't suck!  Put the cool Gnomebegones in the garden and they will rid your yard of those pesky little Euro invaders!

Gavin: What brought about the decision to make a separate studio?

Fred: I did both the pottery and the metal stuff for about three years and found that I could jury into larger shows only with the metal, so that was the direction I headed.  We moved from our original location across the street from the post office in 2003, to the old fire station on 2100 south.  It was awesome to have all that space.  I built a small quansit hut in the back parking lot and made all the metal art on site. In 2007 we started running out of room- the metal and the pottery were both growing and I had not touched the clay in about three years.  I simply needed more space.  2008 rolled around and I began looking for a warehouse space where I could create larger scale art sculptures.  I finally found one, and moved out of the pottery shop in early of 2009. The 11 years I have been in business I have always had a great relationship with my two different business partners, I missed the first one when he decided to leave, and I miss the second one now that I have left.  We still keep up the friendship, and it is good to hear from them from time to time.  The thing I will miss the most about leaving this time is the daily contact I had down at the pottery shop with him.

Gavin: Up at Sugar House you guys teach pottery classes. Tell us about those and what you can learn.

Fred: Class is still offered Monday through Friday nights from 6:30-8:30pm.  The cost is $85 a month and includes clay, glaze, tools, and firings, plus all the open studio time you can use during the month.  It is one of the best things going on in Sugar House, and we have people that have been in class for 6 years, as well as newcomers each month.  People can make as many pieces as they want, from bowls to mugs to platters to vases.

Gavin: Going state-wide, what are your thoughts on the local art scene, both good and bad?

Fred: The art scene in Utah is interesting.  I do several wholesale shows out of state and most of my regular accounts are on the East coast.  Utah tends to be somewhat frugal when it comes to art, not that it is a bad thing, it's just how it is.  People in Utah tend to be a bit more conservative when it comes to shelling out a ton of money for quality art, as opposed to people in other states.  But as far as artists are concerned, I honestly believe that Utah has more talent in that area that any other state.  I am always amazed to see how many Utah artists there are at my out of state shows, and the quality of their art is second to none.  The Salt Lake Arts Council has also been instrumental in the promotion of art in Utah.  Recently the Flying Objects program has turned out some amazing local work that appeared in Downtown Salt Lake.  It would be nice to see more public art commissions be opened to local artists.  It's sometimes a bit of a stinger when a local commission is awarded to an out of state artist.  All in all, I think the art scene in Utah is improving.  Most of that has to do with the education of the general public.  Any time a client or customer would come to the studio, I would try to talk with them about what makes a good pot versus a bad pot.  These days I try and do the same with the metal sculpture.  Its cool to create stuff that makes people laugh, but its really the story behind it that gives it meaning and value.

Gavin: Seeing how you've been at the Utah Arts Festival for a while not, what are your thoughts on how its grown and its impact on the state?

Fred: The Utah Arts Festival as well as the Park City Arts Festival are both terrific shows.  I had to pay my dues though to get into them.  I applied to both of them for 5 years in a row before I finally got accepted.  Once I was in, it was, and continues to be, two of my best shows.  I won best of show in Park City two years in a row, and have been a steady participant in the Utah Arts Festival for the past 4 years.  In this line of work, you just never know if you will be in the show next year- it all depends on the current jury and if they like your slides or not.

Gavin: What can we expect from you at both shops over the rest of the year?

Fred: What to expect from me in the upcoming season?  I always have new products coming out, and this year is no different.  Now that I have a larger space to work, I am not so limited by size.  I have a ton of ideas kicking around in my head of larger scale things I want to make.  I love the creative process... if fact sometimes it is more enjoyable for me to go through the process of making it than it is to get a finished piece.