or, how paintings evolve….
Painting was my every waking thought from sometime in 2002 (when it was one of several vehicles I used to coldturkey decades of drinking) until December of 2019, when I formally retired from “show business.”
During that time period, I painted hundreds of paintings. Hundreds. From 6 foot long landscapes to 4″x4″ wildlife studies. And I sold thousands of prints, so I saw what people liked. It was and is the most rewarding endeavor besides parenthood I’ve ever chosen. It continues to surprise me in my seventies.
Painting, like any “talent” is a gift from God. In order to create, you have to listen to inner voices and see things with your mind’s eye, your imagination, your critical eye, and God’s eye. While painting is enormously therapeutic, and part of the joy is in that aspect of it, I had committed to feed my family with my painting. So I wanted people to be drawn to my paintings every day. I wanted my paintings to be something that would always bring people joy. And I told them that.
But art is the most subjective of our adornments, next to jewelry, so what what touches your heart is different that what excites someone else’s eye. So while painting is therapeutic, selling paintings is not. Just saying. And after years of selling my own and others’ paintings, in hushed galleries and noisy festivals — it is only when someone connects to what they are seeing, that they want to see it every day.
What we are drawn to is something that “touches” us. Speaks to us.
People are drawn to images which connect them to something: a feeling, a memory, a hope…
So, creating something that connects with others on those levels requires letting God lead. I feel as though I can brag on my work because a lot of it is God’s direction. I know you worldly sorts will stop right here, but that’s fine. And if you’ve shopped for art with an interior designer, none of this applies, but…
…the really good pieces? The ones that people crossed rooms to see, smiles building on their faces sometimes….those pieces? All from God. The paintings people fought over (honest, it happened, and it was humbling) — all God. I have painted ginormous abstracts in a couple hours,had no idea what moved the brush — but those were the ones that everyone wanted. God.
Paintings I planned too much, commissions where the collector had too many ideas, paintings where I tried to force a concept — none of them worked.
But if I was doing a commission for someone who needed a blessing, and I started by penciling a Bible verse underneath it all…those could be really good, too. If I tried too hard to convey a “message” — not so much. You get the idea.
But if you’re still with me, the paintings themselves evolve, too. Take this one:
(Hammocks are small islands in south Florida.)
It’s a triptych, and the photo is a little wonky because of that, but I liked it. Lots of people at the 62nd Annual Beaux Arts Festival in Coral Gables liked it too. There was a certain whimsical appeal to its simplicity, and similar pieces had already gone to their new homes that weekend, but not this one. So, clearly it was “missing something.”
The lovely thing about my art business in those days was that I had a public studio in my gallery, shows in other galleries, and up to 20 “road shows” a year. I had a lot of eyes on my work so I didn’t fret a piece that didn’t sell. Initially.
After awhile, I forgot about it. It was hanging on a wall in my studio, but I had other shows after Miami and you don’t take the nauticals to Lexington and Louisville, you take the rolling green hills and hints of horses.
But in mid-March of that year I knew I was going to have to spiff up some studio stuff to take with me to Oklahoma City. It was a six day show, average weekly attendance 750,000. I had never done a 6 day show and wanted to have as much inventory as I could carry. If it was show-worthy it was going with me. I may have had a show in Nashville on the way to OKC that first year, too. So, the van was packed.
I had lots of stuff to sell. I thought. I had 4 really big paintings. And a half dozen medium sized pieces. But I had never done a week long show, so I was looking at all my medium sized pieces again, to see what could be tweaked enough to carry with me.
About a month before I left, I had had a quiet morning. I’d found street parking (downtown Raleigh in the arts district in the heyday) before 7:30 am and had a few hours to pray and paint. It was my daily routine. Find all-day free parking while the sun is coming up, open the gallery and lock the outside doors again. Make coffee. Pray. Look at work in progress for a few hours before the public showed up. Sometimes it’s reflective to just pick up a brush and add some random color onto something while you’re sorting it all out.
That was when “Mattheson Hammock” became Island 16, “View from the Hammock”:
Now some of the difference is just that the photo is straight, so you don’t feel seasick.
But I got into the mood of the place that morning. It went from whimsical to a little moodier. All I did was darken some things and lighten others and it spoke. At least I thought it had more to say.
I decided to take it to OKC. I’d heard a lot about people selling big pieces and having empty walls, and when it was all together it was a big piece — even if it was a “water” painting going to the great plains.
The Fine Arts Festival of OKC opens for VIPS at 9 am on Tuesday and is open until 9 that night. The rest of the week it’s 11 to 9. Lots of hours. A bit like a short term job!
I had a great first two days, and some big pieces sold. I put up another group of smaller abstracts, and those sold. But the fourth day, Friday morning I needed an eyecatcher. That’s the big piece that grabs your peripheral vision while your wife’s friend’s husband is telling you a story. Without that, my tent opening was just another in 144. So, I pulled out the hammock paintings.
I was still straightening the three pieces on my long wall, when a young woman walked up and stood behind me. I greeted her and got off my ladder, and we looked at it together. We joked about hanging it straight. Then she asked about how hard it would be to achieve that on an actual wall, and how far apart I’d think to hang them. I told her I’d put up two finish nails close together for each piece, in a straight line with about an inch or two in between the pieces, depending on the size of the wall.
I folded up my ladder and puttered around. It was early, and the show was just warming up. She stood and studied it, and I didn’t bother her. I figured she’d say she’d “just started and would be back” but she said, “write it up, please.”
We were in Oklahoma City, half a continent from ocean in any direction. Their film festival is called “Dead Center.” She loved a painting that was all water and palm trees. I was surprised. She was a very quiet woman, though, so I thanked her and asked her some packing questions, handed her 2 parts of the 3 part receipt, and she walked away.
Shows like OKC, and Harding and the Southeastern Wildlife Expo in Charleston which collect a percentage, offer the artist the opportunity to talk with the collector twice: when they choose the piece, and when they come back to pick it up after they’ve settled up. Often, the great ones are carrying sheaths of sales sheets. (We love you people.) Then they come back carrying bags, and get bags from you.
Even though this was a triptych and therefore in three separate pieces, they were 20 x 20 each, so it was a significant piece when hung. When the young woman of few words came back, I found out she was from Kansas and was moving into a new home of her own. “View from the Hammock” (see the subtle shift there) would be along one wall of her den, to keep her “sane between trips to the Gulf.”
It spoke to her happy place.
I never failed to take coastal scenes to Oklahoma City after that. I went there until I retired. They always sold. I even got a number of commissions from OKC collectors for their favorite “places with palms trees and turquoise water.” I was something of the Jimmy Buffet of that show, perhaps, providing the islanddreams.
One of my favorite favorites was a recreation of an “island dream” for a young man who missed getting the first one. We’d talked about the painting (bottom left) the first time he walked through, with his buddies on their lunch hour. (The hidden beauty of downtown shows.) And it was still there another day. But when he came with his family on the weekend, it had sold. So we discussed my painting something similar for him, after the show.
I did, and sent him pictures, but it didn’t really click. But we continued to talk about it “his painting”during the ensuing festivals. It was always a pleasure to chat because he was smart and funny and an architect. Many of my collectors are architects, city planners, and game designers: the structure in my fantasies appeals to them. So I got an idea of what it was that had called out to him in the first one, and brought the second one.
Now, remember – paintings and fantasies evolve. My young friend’s “escape” had evolved, too. And his choice of palette had changed, as had mine. I still like them both, but I love the peachyaqua one best. The left one has a slightly more ominous feel. But I wouldn’t have said that at the time.
What we want to look at on a daily basis is very subjective. And what someone in one location might like isn’t always what we think, either. I painted a positively stunning Miami skyline, a huge piece I thought sure would go home in Coconut Grove — which sold in Raleigh. And one of my all time bestselling prints is a huge painting of Houston (which sold there before the show opened) that I have sold as prints to people all over the country with no connection to Houston at all. Same with my Charleston churches.
We change and our tastes sometimes change. For an artist, that can be a mixed blessing! For me, the blessing is seeing things in new ways, which I hope will always continue.