If you live in the Salt Lake valley and are a follower of photography, then chances are you’ve heard the name Cat Palmer. A veteran photographer and member of the local arts scene, Cat has taken part in the Utah Arts Festival and has shown her art in several galleries. She is also the curator and director of the Urban Arts Gallery at the Gateway Mall in downtown Salt Lake City.
When we arrive for our interview, she and several volunteers are in the midst of setting up the new “Day of the Dead” exhibit, coinciding with the Halloween season. Though busy greeting patrons and directing volunteers, she is gracious enough to visit with us in between carrying out her duties.
Not only is Cat in charge of the gallery, she runs her own photography business. Aside from creating her own art pieces, she shoots weddings, engagements, families, and senior photos. Already a success, the ambitious mother of two still has big plans for her future as a photographer, and we have no doubt those plans will be coming to fruition very soon.
Mandy: What kind of photography do you do?
Cat: I’ve been shooting since I was fifteen, so if you want to do the math, that’s like eighteen, nineteen years ago. I picked up a camera, I just started with black and white photography, shooting homeless people in the streets of L.A. I grew up in California, I went to Orange Coast College. I moved out to Utah, and I switched to digital right around 2006. So my first exhibit picking up a camera was with film, and that was right at the end of 2003, and at first I was just taking pretty pictures for the sake of pretty pictures, and it wasn’t until 2006 that I started getting really politically angry, and I started focusing on political shooting. I started getting worried about being known as a political photographer, because that certainly wasn’t what I wanted to be known for, and that was when the University of Utah had me come do their women’s week, because of politics. I realized I was worried that that was all I was being known for. I had done an anti-war series with a soldier in Afghanistan, and I did a “Peace to the Middle East” series, and so from there, I started focusing on women, because that was something I wanted to be known for. I wanted to be known as an artist and photographer empowering women. In 2007, I shot my nonviolence series, but I was still in the throes of being known as a political artist at that point. In 2009, that’s when I started being known solely for empowering women, and I started doing these self esteem shoots. I had thirty-something women get naked for me to do this whole, “Keep the Politicians Out of Our Vaginas” series, and with that instance, because it was a political shoot, but it had to do with women’s rights, I was okay with that. I was okay being known for that. So that’s kind of where I’m at as a photographer, but that’s just one side of it, that’s my artwork. I have a second side, which is the business I run, where I shoot weddings, families, senior photos, just the regular cool and boring stuff. So those are the two different things I do.
Mandy: When you first started doing photography, did you picture yourself where you are now?
Cat: No, I’m much happier where I am now than where I pictured myself. I was silly, I was a teenager. I didn’t know what it meant to be a fashion photographer, but my dream was to be doing editorial, like the real fancy couture stuff, which is funny, because I have no fashion sense, and I kinda don’t give a stinking crud about the fashion world now. I dabbled in it a little bit, I don’t know, seven or eight years ago, and I hated it. So I stay out of it. I think it’s not for me. I feel like it undoes everything I’m trying to do for women, and it gives a very false sense of what beauty is. It gives a very false sense of how you need to look perfect, and I hate the fashion world. So I stay out of it. I will dabble in it, when certain people ask me a certain favor, but you’ll notice all the big photographers in Salt Lake City are all mainly involved in the fashion world, and I hate it. So that’s where I thought I would be at this point. I also shot for SLUG for awhile, and for other magazines in the area, because I thought that would be really fun. But I really sucked at it! So, I realized my creative process is very specific to me, and it’s not always on. Sometimes, it takes me six months to get my creative process on paper. I thought it would be fun to shoot for SLUG, but I had to resign because I couldn’t turn my creativity on and off within 24 hours. That’s a certain type of photographer that can do that; not me. So no, that’s not where I’m at, and I’m in a much happier place, and I’m thankful that I’m not shooting fashion.
Mandy: Do you have any goals or ideas of where you’d like to be now?
Cat: I do, it’s funny. A couple of years ago, I realized I had met all my goals, and I thought, “I need new dreams.” I had achieved the dreams I had always wanted to have, which was to be a mom. I was staying home with my kids at that time. I was doing photography full time, which was where I wanted to be; a full time artist. I had quit my day job, I was a mom, I had two great little kids. I was happy. So it took me about a year to finally come up with my goals. I really want to tour with an exhibit, I want to hit up some galleries in New York and L.A., and tour some major cities in between. I finally have a body of work that I feel is worthy to tour. It’s taken me a long time to get to that point, to where I feel it’s something I could submit and do. At this point, my plate is too damn full, so I’m not in a position yet to do that. I have it ready, I just need to find time to do that. I’m hoping maybe in December or January, I’ll have that time.
Mandy: I really liked your, “I Have a Secret” series.
Cat: That’s the one I want to tour with. I feel like it’s solid.
Mandy: How did you come up with the idea?
Cat: I was pregnant with my first son years ago, and I started on it, just wanting to tell my own silly secrets, really dumb ones. Like, “My husband does all the ironing and sewing,” or, “My floors used to give me anxiety, but now I let my kids eat off of them.” Stuff like that. Nothing terribly deep or dark. As I was getting more into it, I realized I wanted to tell my bigger and darker secrets, the ones I didn’t want everyone to know. The only way I could feasibly do that was to collect enough secrets from enough women that I could hide my secrets within the exhibit. So it was literally self-serving, how I started it. From there, it was just going to be my artwork, but I decided that could only be so interesting. So I invited seven other female artists, pretty well known female artists, to come participate with me. Once I had enough secrets, I would have them look through them, and they would decide which ones they wanted to make artwork out of. Years into this project, someone told me about PostSecret, and I looked that up, and it was really cool. It’s a different project than what I’m doing, and it’s funny, because some people think I’ve ripped them off, but I live in a hole. I don’t hear of things. So I looked into that project, and it’s much cooler than what I’m doing! Mine’s female based, and people don’t send me in their cool little art projects. I’m a marketing whore, and I printed up like, seven hundred postcards with my logo all over them, and so people would just send me those. It’s a much different project, but it’s similar in that people are sharing secrets anonymously. I did round two just recently, and I’m already into round three, so I’m always just collecting secrets.
Kita: As an artist, what would you say your biggest struggles have been?
Cat: Oh wow. Well, a few of them. I often feel like a fraud and like I don’t know what I’m doing. So, I always worry that people are going to call me out of that, or catch onto that. Also, I was in a marriage where he was very jealous of my success in the art world, and I would hear negative comments about my work almost daily. I almost walked away from it all a couple of years ago. So those have been huge struggles, and not having the support from my family and loved ones. My family thinks it’s really strange, what I do. They don’t really understand it. But as an artist, you have to realize you’re not creating work for other people and what they might like. I do it because I enjoy it. It does help other women, but I know the stuff I create, not everyone’s going to like it. And that’s good, because then I feel like I’m doing something right. If it creates controversy or upsets a few people, then I know I’m doing something right. So those are some things I face.
Kita: You mentioned that your family doesn’t really support you the way you’d like, but how about the arts community here?
Cat: The arts community here is amazing. Salt Lake City, if I really start talking and thinking about it, I will cry. This is an amazing arts community. My ex-husband and I were in the Arts Festival two summers ago, together. He was an invited artist, and I was a regular juried in artist, and the arts community knew that we were going to need two of everything. Most artists don’t have two of everything, so people came and would bring us things that we were going to need to our studio. They’d say, “You’re going to need this, and you’re going to need that,” and so people were just dropping stuff off. The day of set up and the day of shut down, people were just showing up to help us set up and take down. We didn’t even ask them, they just showed up. So I feel we have one of the strongest, tight-knit communities. It’s not like this in L.A. or Orange County. We just have an amazing group of people. Recently, I wanted to raise some money for a supporter of mine. She collects my work, and I’m her family photographer, and there was just a situation where I wanted to raise just a little bit of money, a tank of gas, for her, for this trip to a funeral. The arts community came together, and we gave her three tanks of gas. That was within thirty minutes of me posting it on facebook. I had artists stopping by, and collectors, all just donating money to this woman they’d never met.
Mandy: You were talking about how you were collaborating with other artists on the, “I Have a Secret” series. Do you like to collaborate a lot?
Cat: No, I actually don’t like to collaborate my personal work with anyone. The only person I’ve collaborated with was my ex-husband, but I actually am not really fond of the idea. I’m a little bit of a control freak, and I learned from collaborating with my ex that I’m really protective over my work. He was a person that would give and take with his art, and he was able to be a reactionary person. He never had an idea of exactly what it would be when it was finished. He is a very very talented artist, the work he does is amazing. I am a very particular, almost OCD type of person with my work. I know exactly what I want it to look like when I’m finished, and I’m not a give and take artist. So he and I just had really different styles of how we approached our artwork. So I’m not really keen on collaborating my personal art. I think if I wasn’t such a control freak, I’d probably be better at it.
Mandy: What made you get into photography in the first place?
Cat: You know, I don’t really remember exactly why. I was just signing up for classes, when I was fifteen, in high school, and I just fell in love with it. Our teacher “M,” M as in Mother…His last name was Muelmeister or something weird so nobody could say it, so we just called him “M.” He was a really great teacher, and he taught at a college level, and my senior year I was taking two classes from him, and one was a freelance photography class, and he let me write my own curriculum that year. I shot nudes for the first time, and he accepted it. He was just amazing. He got me turned onto Diane Arbus, said that my style reminded him of her. So I checked out her stuff in a library book, since we did not have the internet back then.
Kita: Do you mostly just do photography? Or is there another job?
Cat: I am the curator and director of the Urban Arts Gallery. I basically book artists. We run a program out of here; “Connect,” an arts program for artists. I literally just do art, photography, and the gallery, so my whole world is art. I don’t have a social life outside of it. My only friends are within the art world. I don’t even know what to do outside of this!
Now - November 10: Day of the Dead Art Exhibit, Urban Arts Gallery. 137 S Rio Grande St, SLC inside the Gateway Mall
Tue - Sat: 12:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Sun: 12:00 pm - 6:00 pm
October 18, 6pm: Opening Reception, Day of the Dead Art Exhibit
Is there an artist you'd like us to interview? Questions or comments? Let us know below.