Flower pots by Artist Spotlight candidate Carina Kooiman. Image courtesy of Carina Kooiman.

When Stephanie Sun and her colleagues at the Union Project were setting up an online store for the arts-focused East Liberty community center, they recognized an opportunity to help local emerging artists.

“We realized this is a process that every artist who wants to reach an online audience goes through,” says Sun, who works as a marketing and customer relationship management consultant for the Union Project.

They decided to launch the Artist Spotlight, a project designed to provide retail and professional development opportunities to candidates interested in becoming full-time artists.

The program showcases a chosen artist’s work for one to two months on the Union Project website and social media channels. During that time, the artist learns how to price, brand, market, and process shipping and handling fees for an online business. They can also gain other valuable skills, such as learning how to communicate their artistic process when interviewed.

“Most artists go to workshops and learn new techniques, but they don’t really have a venue to learn how to establish themselves in the market,” says Sun.

The Union Project has provided a space for artists to gather since the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation bought the property—then an abandoned former church—in 2001. The Artists Spotlight signals a shift in the staff’s objective after years of working on restoring and establishing the venue, including replacing its signature stained glass windows.

“We’re moving away from restoring the building because the restoration is mostly complete,” says Sun. “Right now we’re focusing our energy on using the power of the arts to connect the community with artists. [The Artist Spotlght] is one of the new programs that is expanding artist services.”

The first Artist Spotlight will showcase work by ceramics artist and arts educator, Carina Kooiman.

The young artist started working in ceramics during her time at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she earned degrees in studio art and French in 2009.

“Something about the tactile earthiness of the material really struck me and I’ve been working with clay ever since,” says Kooiman, who teaches as a member of the Union Project’s Ceramics Cooperative and as the art studio coordinator at Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Mugs by Carina Kooiman. Image courtesy of Carina Kooiman.

Though Kooiman has shown and sold her pottery at events such as the Highland Park Pottery Tour, the Union Project’s Mother of all Pottery Sales, and Three Rivers Arts Festival, she admits there are hurdles to overcome in becoming a professional artist.

“There’s nothing more discouraging than to realize you have a basement full of art that no one has ever seen,” she says. “Marketing something as personal as my art does not feel natural. I have to make a really conscious effort to be continually putting my work out into the world.”

While Kooiman does promote her handcrafted stoneware and porcelain pieces on a website, the Union Project will provide guidance on how to expand and maintain her social media presence. She also wants to learn how to set realistic deadlines on prototyping and producing her work.

“[Kooiman] produces high-quality work and she’s really eager to jump into the online sales area,” says Sun.

After Kooiman, Sun says they plan on featuring Abbie Adams, a former Union Project staff member who has gone on to pursue a career as a freelance illustrator.

While Artist Spotlight is currently invitation-only, Sun foresees opening the program up to the public.

As part of Artist Spotlight, Kooiman will sell limited quantities of her work on the Union Project’s online store from November 21, 2016 to January 5, 2017.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated...