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Art Venture Born In City That Needs It

Dan Haar

May 28, 2011

Like the owners of any new enterprise, Ashleigh Kay and Joe Bun Keo shared a nervous moment of truth when the doors opened Wednesday at 5 p.m. Their venture was off the ground.

They had used Facebook, free media outlets and word of mouth, but you never know if anyone will show up. It's a tough economy out there.

They didn't have to wait long. Quickly, artists flooded the ArtSpace Gallery at 555 Asylum Street in downtown Hartford, hauling in paintings, drawings, photographs, sculpture and installations. The patrons, an army of Hartford's young and youthful creative class, filled the walls of the spacious venue with hundreds of works.

And so Hammered & #38; Nailed explodes on the Hartford scene, simple in concept: a salon-style art exhibition in rent-free space, open to anyone, unjuried, uncensored, at no cost to the artists. Saturday is the opening from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. with music, performance art and food - with no charge to guests, no collection for a charity and no organization pushing an agenda.

Sure, some of the art is for sale, but that's strictly between the artists and the buyers, with no commissions. And a few companies stepped up as sponsors (Blick Art Materials, The Half Door, City Steam, Wood-n-Tap) but there's no profit to be had by Keo and Kay.

It is, in short, a venture that resembles a business about as much as a corporate social-media campaign resembles a grassroots movement. Still, make no mistake: On this holiday weekend, Ashleigh Kay and Joe Bun Keo are key players in the city's economy.

They are, in fact, delivering the one thing Hartford's economy needs but can't buy: unfettered, creative energy. (OK, we can't buy a major league sports franchise either; that's a different column.)

This is not to say Hartford lacks creative energy; some would say it's on the rise, mostly in the for-profit variety and the large-organization variety. We all have our favorites. But no one would argue that Metro Hartford needs more of a spark if the region wants to attract people. That does not mean bars and nightclubs; it means spontaneous outbursts of ideas and happenings.

Two years out of the Hartford Art School at UHart, Keo and Kay are keenly aware of the big picture, for artists and the region as a whole.

"The main mission in this, the goal, is to create opportunity in the city of Hartford," said Kay, of Ashford, formerly Ashleigh Kay Vose before dropping her surname.

Artists in Connecticut grow up hearing that Boston and New York are the places they need to be, if they stay in the Northeast. But, she said, "We believe it doesn't have to be that way. You can be a successful artist in Connecticut."

"There is no reason why Hartford can't be the next flourishing art center," said Keo, who lives in Bristol.

They both have works in the show, hers for sale, his not. He works in shipping and receiving at Gems Sensors and Controls. She works part time as a property manager, but she said, "I'd like to be an art-related event planner."

If Kay and Keo someday form an event management company, they can look back at this as the start. Hammered & #38; Nailed was inspired, they said, by un+art, a similar salon-style open art show, also at ArtSpace, to benefit the South Park Inn homeless shelter. Artists Tao LaBossiere and Amy Mielke, who also live at ArtSpace, started un+art in 2007.

Hammered & #38; Nailed runs through June 8, with limited gallery hours. Information is at www.nluv.org, the website of Now Let Us Vindicate, an arts think tank.

"It's a big event that's created organically from within the community," Mielke said. "It's not some kind of corporate-created event ... not that there's anything wrong with a corporate-created event."

It's a big tent, indeed. As the economy struggles along, it's helpful to remember what our heroic veterans are dying for in all these wars.

Sure, a free democracy with a regulated market creates surplus wealth for the purpose of buying all kinds of stuff, including art. But it also creates energy and events that have less to do with money and more to do with culture. And if it doesn't do that from the bottom up, it stops creating wealth altogether, and the machine dies.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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