From the age of perhaps four years old, I have been drawing and painting and showing my work to others for approval. Tucked in my baby book is the first real watercolor I ever painted. It depicts a jet plane with a flag on the tail. I have no recollection of the reference material used for that depiction of a jet. But it does exhibit some precocious visual interest in the world. Bic pen, watercolor and a piece of typing paper. It doesn’t take much to get started.
By the time I was twelve, drawing and painting were part of my everyday life. My father even helped me sell work to his friends. And by seventeen years old we’d put some artwork in frames and hung them in the old Manor Restaurant in St. Charles where we lived.
Too many study halls were spent drawing instead of studying. My grades in classes such as Economics and Government were not the greatest because I’d be drawing cartoons for my buddies rather than paying attention to lessons about how stock prices are affected by the market.
Art is both a wonderful obsession and a significant distraction. Being creative is not the best option in disciplined classroom situations. You can even be branded a smartass for giving creative answers to seemingly rote questions. You can also be branded a dumbass for not knowing the basics of this world.
I once wrote an essay titled “My Life As An Art Major, Or Why We Qualify for the Americans With Disabilities Act.” And it was funny, in a way. Because the world does not always accept creativity as the answer to basic questions.
But notice that does not suggest that artists lack problem-solving capabilities or that artists have no role in society. Quite the opposite. This interface between “reality” and operating in the abstract is often explored through art shows, where artists gather work together to show the public, and the public wades through and considers what is being shown, and said, by the art they find.
Just last night our Water Street Studios collective held a Resident Artist’s exhibition. As part of “the team,” of people renting studio space, four of my works were shown in the main gallery and my studio was open for visits during the evening.
Preparing work for any art show is a laborious process. Doing the paintings or other processes is just part of the mix. There is often framing to do, and that takes time and money. It can be exhausting getting everything ready on time. Then comes the lugging too. Carrying artwork comes with risks. All it takes is one dent on a frame or picture from a swinging door and a work can be ruined.
For that reason, art shows are Sisyphean ventures. There is no such thing as an artist being done with his or her work. Either the work itself is in progress, or a body of works is not complete.
Yet your goal is to sell some pieces to pay for the effort. Which brings back the harsh lessons of that high school economics class in which you might not have paid that much attention. Art shows are a practice in marketing. You market your work. But you also market yourself.
Body of work
People tend to buy artwork from artists that show a body of work rather than a piece or two that attracts their eye. It’s like the mating dance of exotic birds. The more ornate and complete the dance, the more likely the “buyer” is to welcome the artistic advances.
That means an artist needs to build both a body of work and with it, a reputation. Then comes word of mouth, and loyalty. You build a clientele, if you’re lucky and smart. One of the craziest experience I ever had as an artist was an art show held in a private home in a wealthy community. The hosts served lots of alcohol and the guests whipped out checkbooks and wads of cash and paid me on the spot. Women shoved money in my pockets while grabbing a painting and copping a feel. It was a very artsy evening, to say the least.
A more rational but equally stimulating version of that show was the annual Artists In Action event held in Geneva, Illinois each year. Artists were invited to actually produce work during a September weekend on which the Festival of the Vine was held. I always sold a lot of work there because people liked being able to see the artwork being made. It built a bond between patron and artist. And that’s good.
Making a sale is not necessarily what goes through you head while you’re actually doing the work in a studio. Ideally, you are producing paintings or other artwork because you have something you want to say or show about the world. When that statement is visually or symbolically pleasing to other people, they might be motivated to buy. In other words, you take pride in your work. And that’s the right kind of pride.
Yes, there are some artists who develop a formula for sales and crank out things those purposes. Art is a business, and art shows are an extension of that business. There is no shame in that either. Some of that art is sentimental or familiar. But we should be able to distinguish between that style of art and that which is produced to make an impact.
Wine and canvas
In recent years, art seems also to have taken on a public flair with people taking courses featuring wine and canvasses. Everyone in the group paints a picture while being led by an instructor. These are fun and valuable lessons in art appreciation.
But the difficult part in producing art is being definitive. That is the characteristic one Jamie Wyeth (Andrew’s son) most values in his work. If it is not definitive, he wants no part in it.
Which brings us to the conclusion that good art shows are where good art shows. That is, it is definitive. And that is the goal of any real artist in this world. And to sell, of course.