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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Shoots and Ladders

TRASA Urban Arts Collective gives artists a chance to branch out.



Upon meeting, Kristina Robb and Brandon Garcia couldn’t get away from each other. For better or worse, they were instantly stuck in what seemed to be a preordained partnership.


But fate alone couldn’t sustain plans for TRASA Urban Arts Collective. Robb intended TRASA'Sanskrit for “a moving collective of living organisms”'to use art as a catalyst for community action and dialogue. Garcia, who spent time working for San Francisco’s progressive Intersection for the Arts'where nothing was for sale and larger-than-life people, like author bell hooks, (her name is intentionally lowercase, e.e. cummings-style), were on hand to, for example, chat in a steam bath'figured a similar organization would be wildly popular in his native Utah. Instead, he and Robb found themselves locked outside of a peculiar dichotomy.


“The first thing that came up after the first few gallery events,” Robb says, “was that the Salt Lake art scene was, not stagnant, but stuck, maybe. There’s the alternative scene and then there’s what everyone says is art: the symphony and ballet. There was no gray area.nn

While so-called “underground” circles embraced TRASA when it debuted in 2002, Robb felt uncomfortable with their outsider status: “All the people taking risks are dressing the same and doing the same thing and appreciating the same art forms'so then it wasn’t about risk anymore.nn

All the wrong applicants kept knocking down the door to TRASA’s home, an 1800s-era, 14,000-square-foot restored pickle factory, now aptly named The Pickle Company. Robb and Garcia admit that even an ideal candidate might have gotten lost in the flood of voiced interest. Chalk it up to naïveté, or the then-post-9/11 climate, but for whatever reason they weren’t prepared. This might explain how David Ruhlman slipped by without much pause.


The self-taught artist had his first show at TRASA shortly after relocating from Texas, and though the experience led to conversations about additional projects with the collective, nothing solid materialized. Of course, this was before Robb and Garcia went back to the drawing board'before they took a hard look at their environment and realized that what Salt Lake City artists really need is help with the nuts and bolts of creating. “They need resources, they need support, they need nurturing,” Robb says. “They don’t need to be hung in a gallery.nn

From this renewed focus emerged TRASA’s Artist-in-Residence program, a venture that provides artists of all media with the proper space and resources to create ambitious work. Previous participant Black Dog Theatre Company used the opportunity to produce daring takes on Shakespeare. Now, years after his Pickle Company debut, Ruhlman and his brother Mathieu (a sound engineer based in Vancouver, British Columbia) are preparing to unveil their first show as TRASA residents. Aerial is a multimedia installation influenced by a book on Brooklyn’s Collyer brothers'eccentric siblings who became famous for hoarding myriad photographs, books, newspapers, Model T Fords, grand pianos and other junked items during the 1940s to help maintain a connection with their deceased parents. Suspicious of neighbors breaking in, they built booby traps. When one brother got caught in his own trap, the other'blind and bedridden'couldn’t reach him. They both expired, their bodies found weeks later just feet apart.


Ruhlman recognized a universal quality in this rather bizarre account. “I started thinking about how we possess objects and how, if someone passes away, something [they’ve left behind] still sort of holds their presence, their entity,” he says. “I think that’s what we’re stressing a lot with this installation'this communication between one brother, one person and another in another place.nn

To that end, Ruhlman built several structures. One involves an entire room that’s closed off to the rest of the space save for three windows through which viewers can glimpse various odds and ends, accompanied by Mathieu’s audio compositions: the sound of things falling, creaks in the floor, someone rifling through old possessions. Ruhlman also formed a 14 foot by 6 foot strip of grass with a mound in one far corner; he hung upside-down trees in 8-foot planters affixed with little sculptures and, of course, more speakers. None of these arrangements would have been possible before his TRASA residency.


“Mainly I paint, so it’s taken me out of that rut of painting, painting, painting,” Ruhlman says, adding that most Salt Lake City artists lack the funds to escape similar ruts. He hopes Aerial might provide his peers with a greater sense of purpose beyond the usual gallery strolls, perhaps even inspire the sort of artistic groundswell associated with larger cities like San Francisco.


Garcia and Robb are optimistic that with the right motivation and resources, Salt Lake City could easily produce some of the best art in the country. Since TRASA has minimal overhead'the building is paid off, they recently achieved nonprofit status, Robb and Garcia don’t pay themselves'the collective can carry the financial and administrative burden for artists who are prepared to branch out.


“We’re trying to have a set channel that people can go through so we’re not just getting anyone who wants to paint or do a show,” Robb says. “We need slides, we have a curatorial board. Hopefully we’ll start attracting that mid-tier of people who are professional but still taking chances.”


nat The Pickle Company
n741 S. 400 West
nNov. 17-Dec. 10
nOpening reception
nNov. 17, 6-9 p.m.