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Holly Farrell might still be painting houses if not for the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition.

"Art is the one place I found in my whole life I feel comfortable. I don't think it would have happened if I hadn't taken that first step," Farrell said.

The exhibition is a highly desirable show for artists, not only for the exposure -- about 100,000 people pass through Nathan Phillips Square at Toronto City Hall over three days -- but also as a way for artists to break into the market.

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Dealers from as far away as California and England make the journey to Toronto to check out the show. The next big thing could be right around the corner -- there is a large student section full of fresh blood and new ideas -- and Fran Hill, the director of Toronto's Bau-Xi, says her gallery scouts it very carefully.

"To get in, the artists have to pass a jury. It's pretty heavyweight," she said. This year, Hill was on the show's executive board and the jury. A couple of the slides caught her attention, and the gallery was so impressed with the work of Christopher Collins, a third-year student at the Ontario College of Art and Design, that it selected some of his paintings for a show at its gallery called Outsider.

"We have a lot of good artists, but when the summer comes it's exciting to show what's going on in the art world," Hill said.

Collins, 22, was overwhelmed at the chance to have his paintings shown. Until then, his work had never been shown outside his school. One of his paintings, a yellow globe with two stick-like figures carrying the world somewhere else, is being used for the exhibition's advertising poster.

"I was at the subway and saw it and I was like, wow," he said. "It's been kind of hard for other people to believe. At school some people are jealous because they are in their fourth year and have never had this kind of publicity, ever."

This year the exhibition, which runs from today through Sunday, has received about 1,200 applications for 500 spots in 15 media categories, including painting, sculpture, metalwork, glass, ceramics and photography. Selected artists come from across the country, although most are from Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario.

Farrell's foray into the art world happened eight years ago when a friend suggested that she submit some slides to the show. Much to her surprise, she was accepted in the folk-art category. Farrell was not a trained artist -- she used to be a social worker for children with special needs.

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"For me, the show was basically responsible for me being able to make a career out of my art," said Farrell, who lives and paints in Toronto. "It's great for artists who are just starting out who don't have access to galleries."

Even though her art has now evolved into painting still lifes of antique furniture and bottles, she has a loyal clientele, some of whom have grown with her through her transitions and followed her to various gallery showings.

"The people I was meeting would normally shop in the Yorkville galleries for paintings, and found themselves at the show. There were also kids out of high school looking for art. The range was so broad," Farrell said. She continues to show her work at the exhibition and also stages an annual studio show.

Much like Farrell, Toronto-based artist Rob Gonsalves grew up believing he didn't have a career in art. Professionally trained as an architect, he quit his full-time job to work part-time and paint some murals. In 1990 he took a collection of old paintings to the exhibition.

"The show was hugely important for me. My art was taken quite seriously by people and it helped me make the decision to continue painting," Gonsalves said. His work can be described as magic realism -- the image seems straightforward at first glance, but transforms under closer scrutiny. He established a lucrative contract with Discovery Galleries near Washington, which advertises his work in magazines such as Architectural Digest, Art News and Western Art.

Although the show can encourage fledgling artists, it can also help veteran artists re-establish contacts and get their names out. Don Maynard, 45, showed at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition five years ago after he moved from Toronto to Kingston. As luck would have it, he met Adrienne Clarkson at the show and she did a half-hour special on his work for the CBC.

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Because artists usually work in solitude, the show forces them to come out of their shells. Instead of just hanging their art up at a gallery and seeing the names of the people who bought it in a book, the artists are the producers and the marketers of their work.

"It's gruelling. It's kind of like the Boston Marathon," Maynard said. "But as an artist, it's a great way to get feedback about your art and learn how to present your work. It's so immediate, and you understand how people interpret your work."

Taking home 100 per cent of their profits doesn't hurt either. Many support themselves on proceeds from the show. There is a $200 fee for selected artists to set up booths at the show, dropping to $75 for art students. The organizers do not receive any commissions.

"The year I don't get accepted for the show will be devastating," said Lise Carruthers, a Toronto mixed-media painter who has participated in the exhibition since 1989. Her vaguely abstract still-life paintings have caught the attention of film shoots -- some of her paintings were seen in 1994's Trial by Jury with William Hurt. She also did 15 pieces for Novotel's lobby, a hotel in Montreal, and is now painting for a TV series based on the movie Soulfood for Paramount Canada.

"It's the only venue in Canadian art where you meet the public directly and you aren't hindered by a third party or a gallery," she said.

The gallery route can be daunting and intimidating. The more popular, high-profile galleries can get hundreds of slides a year, and the competition for notice is fierce.

"Some galleries won't even look at your work. It's hard. It's your own art, you are baring your soul, and rejection can be hard to take in the earlier stages," said Eva McCauley, 43, who did the exhibition for three years in a row from 1995 to 1997. In her second year she received the first and second prize in printmaking, showcasing some of her prints in the prestigious Ernst and Young printmaking collection. Her personal, psychologically intense portraits of faces also drew attention.

The wave of interest in her work boosted her confidence; rather than her having to pound the pavement to get galleries' attention, contacts and dealers were approaching her. She is now represented by Bau-Xi.

"It proved to me that if you do the work you really believe in, someone will respect it if it's honest," McCauley said. The Outdoor Art Exhibit is open tonight until 8 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Nathan Phillips Square.

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