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Artists aim to challenge, comfort audience at festival

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SALT LAKE CITY — In a festival populated with mind-bending sculptures, experimental photography and provocative surrealist paintings, Michael Rohner's work stands out for its "gently confrontational" nature.

Presenting a style that combines pen-and-ink images with spray-painted color finishes, Rohner's work is among the many displays at the 2017 Utah Arts Festival at Library Square.

For Rohner, one particular image — a lordly lion surrounded by bright blue flowers — tends to draw much controversy, with the powerful creature subtly emasculated by the soft flowery touch. Male viewers often ask for his images of lions without flowers, Rohner said.

"I'm like, 'No, you've got to get them with flowers,'" he said, "and that's kind of what I am doing here, kind of trying to gently challenge people."

The son of Korean and Swiss parents, and raised by an East Indian stepfather, Rohner said his work is reflective of his diverse background. Much of his experience growing up was a battle between being an extrovert and an introvert, he said.

Art was where Rohner found his center, allowing him to focus his quiet personality into a work that would spark a conversation.

Like many of the festival's artists, Rohner was self-taught, his style developed out of classroom doodles. He eyed a number of opportunities for a formal education and applied to several art academies, but Rohner said he never felt like his personal style was being taught, and he resisted the offer to be rebuilt as an artist in others' styles.

Without that training, Rohner spent much of his early 20s without direction, unsure of what career to pursue, he said.

"I did jobs that I could bail on at any moment, and I finally realized I was just frightened of this, and I was frightened of not getting to do this," Rohner said of his art. "About the time I turned 29 or 30, I realized that if I don't pursue this, I will die with regret."

In 2007, unsure of where to start, Rohner hit the road, traveling around the country and eventually finding a place for his art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He began frequenting coffee shops, bars, parks and public events, selling his prints out of a backpack.

Once again, Rohner learned to make fast friends and start conversations with his drawings.

One of his works, "Always," holds a special meaning, Rohner said. The elephant in the picture is adorned with the traditional paint style of the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. It stands as a deeply personal tribute to one of his sisters, a close friend and confidant who helped him through the dark periods in the pursuit of his art.

Though they had different personalities, Rohner said the siblings kept each other in balance and helped each other through hardships. After his sister took her own life, Rohner struggled to remember her, he said, and he began working on the picture to honor her memory.

Rohner said he likes to keep the emotional parts of his paintings subdued, allowing people to study them on their own.

Though the paintings evoke a broad spectrum of responses, and many people simply see the pictures for skilled technique and vibrant colors, people often open up about their personal struggles after looking at his work, Rohner said.

Suddenly, his paintings can reach out to a complete stranger and forge a connection.

"I think it's sometimes rude to make someone deal with that when they are not ready to," Rohner said. "When it's just below the surface, I am just pulling it out a little bit."

While not all of his paintings carry the same emotional significance as "Always," each comes with layers of intrigue. His neatly detailed pen-and-ink lines are often subverted by splashes of messy color, at times balancing between surface-level order and subliminal expressiveness.

Rohner is one of 174 visual artists featured in the Utah Arts Festival — the most in the event's 41 years. The festival also features more than 100 musical and performing artists, including Shooter Jennings, Dexter Allen and RJD2.

Studying the theme of memory, the festival is showing 60 short films that explore the topic. Additionally, the festival will host more than a dozen urban artists, offering an opportunity for festivalgoers to interact with the art experience.

The Utah Arts Festival got underway Thursday and runs through Sunday. On Monday, the festival will announce its best-of-show award winners for the various categories. The festival will also include the mayor's artist award to recognize outstanding members of the art community.

Ticket prices are $12 on Friday and Saturday, and a four-day festival pass is available for $35, or $30 through online purchase. The festival provides free admission to children ages 12 and under.