On the road

I’ve been taking my art on the road this fall and winter, trying to cast a wider net and find a larger audience.  I know a lot of people think art should be done for the pure joy of creativity, and that’s certainly a wonderful thing, but I have to make mine support itself, at the very least, and me, should the going get tougher.

With those goals in hand, I am pretty shameless about self-promotion and putting my art out there.  None of this “oh, I can’t really put a price on it” attitude from my camp!  These are not my “children;”  they are products of my fertile imagination, a snippet of God-given talent, and tens of thousands of hours of hard work.  So, people adding them to their collections is the idea; money in my bank account is how they do that.

We all know how bad the economy has been, and really, art is not a necessity.  I’ve done road shows for years now and watched the yard art, jewelry, and pottery survive in these hard times, while fine artists are scrambling to get folks to do anything more than say “it’s just lovely.”

I decided to aim higher: only “fine art shows” so I wouldn’t have to compete with $35 lawn ornaments (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and bigger shows in bigger cities.  I started applying only for the Top 200 shows, and only the top 100 if possible.  These shows are rated on art sold, so that’s got to work better than throwing a dart at a list, or a map.

The results have been mixed — for everyone involved.  The big shows are better.  They are also harder to get into, and cost more money to do.  That said, they are not necessarily big, big moneymakers, even for the seasoned pros who have been on the circuit for years.  People are simply reluctant to part with their money for anything other than what they consider necessities.

A few years ago, at the height of the recession they wouldn’t part with money at all.  You couldn’t make an affordable painting, though the big ones were still selling here and there to folks who hadn’t noticed the downturn.  Now, people are feeling better, but it seems that art is still on the “nice, but not now” shelf.  It isn’t me, or you or the type of art we create, or the price — it’s the new prevalent mindset that says “this could all end tomorrow.”

It’s kind of sad, really.  People do enjoy art, and they love it in their lives.  They apparently don’t realize that if they do not patronize artists (and not the “look down on” meaning of that word either!) then art will not continue.  In the Renaissance, artists had actual patronage, wealthy families who kept them on retainer, to do portraits and altar pieces and make their lives beautiful.  Some modern artists have collectors who function in a similar way.  Perhaps it is up to us, as artists, to show people what they will be missing if they don’t support the artists in their communities. 

What do you think?

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Starving Artists and the New Economy

A lot of art school grads come to the art world with the elevated thinking that art should always “say something” and that actually selling art is below their lofty goals. So a lot of art school grads look down on what they consider commercialization. Many venues don’t even put a price on a painting or sculpture, but require the viewer to seek out a desk in a corner office and ask for a price list. For some reason this makes all these people feel good, above the hoard, sophisticated.

Artists actually making a living with art know that it takes constant, determined and driven marketing to do so. Your paintings need to be in many, quality venues. They need to be in front of people. People need to identify your work and identify with it. Most people who purchase artwork on a regular basis are not interested in “statements.” They are interested in something which speaks to them; something they can walk past every day and still enjoy. They are drawn to works with color and stories; stories they can tell their friends, about the artist or the artwork.

To create work which connects with real people doesn’t mean “selling out.” We don’t have to become Thomas Kincaid in order to make a living. Thomas Kincaid set out to do something and did it, very, very successfully. Ultimately, his success didn’t make him happy, because apparently the criticism from his peers actually did get to him, millions or no.

So, the bottom line is really to find what it is you love to create and make it accessible. If you like it, chances are a lot of other people are going to like it too, because you are going to be generating positive energy all around it. If you are positive about putting work out for people to see, they are going to pick up on that.

You do have to pick your venues. Not all art shows are created equally. And even so-called “juried shows” are often just a way for the venue to make money. Think about it: how much money have you invested in entering juried shows for which you did not get chosen? For me, over the years, it’s hundreds of dollars, many hundreds. Getting into galleries is not easy, either, and getting into galleries does not guaranty monetary success. Galleries are struggling in this economy, just like everyone else.

I’ve taken too many “business of art” courses to count. They are pretty consistent with advice: know your market and connect with it. They also counsel much the same path for doing so: emails, social media, thank you’s, private sales, juried shows. All of those are good resources, but none is better than simply asking people what it is they like.

When someone comes into my studio and says “I really like that,” the smartest thing I can do is ask them why. We talk about it and I learn how people connect to what I do. That, in turn, helps me to continue in my creative process with a path. I don’t have to “sell out” to make what connects with people. I am still creating the works that speak to me. But if I do that with an eye to what also speaks to others, I am more successful in the long run.

I came to painting late in life and I intend to make it my retirement income as I age, but that does not mean it is a hobby. I paint every weekday for five or six hours a day. I work hard at my craft. I take classes in areas where I need more refinement. I go to critiques where I can learn how to improve various pieces. I think about what I do ALL the time. I dream about it. Am I obsessed? You bet! But it’s the best obsession I’ve ever had, and if I can also make a living at it, all the better!

Someone said “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” That is what painting is for me.

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the art of giving art

I annoyed the majority of a business of art class yesterday with my question to a CPA about what an artist can claim on taxes for a piece of work donated to a non-profit to auction for fundraising. It has always been stated that the artist may only claim the cost of materials (and apparently that is still true) but recently a reputable and successful gallery owner informed me that it was legal to claim the amount the piece auctioned for, in much the same way you would claim the auction amount of a car you donate to a non-profit. Having donated several cars in this manner -i n one case to “the blind” which generated a lot of humorous responses — this seemed reasonable to me, so I asked the CPA. Not only did he dismiss it, he also told me I could not claim the donation to the blind for the car in the manner I described. Having done so twice, with a CPA doing my taxes, I knew he was wrong, so I persisted with the art donation clarification. Let me say right here, that the wonderful taxman has made it impossible to donate cars, boats and planes for their Blue Book Value any more, but you can still claim the money the item generated for the non-profit. Which brings us back to art.

Artists get asked pretty frequently to donate work to help raise funds for everything from art-related non-profits to Boys and Girls Clubs. I think a lot of folks believe that art just “appears” like magic dust and that the artist simply stands by and observes the process. They clearly do not grasp the level of labor involved. So asking for a painting seems like a no-brainer. “Got a spare painting you can give us so we can auction it off to save the porcupine?”

I am a full-time artist. This is my job. I have a studio in a gallery which is open to the public 5 days a week. I work in my studio between 5 and 7 hours a day, usually 5 days a week, sometimes more. I also volunteer with arts organizations, participate on committees for arts shows and am involved with a group of abstract artists who create a number of large collaborative pieces every year to raise money for organizations of our choice. I am also a fairly prolific painter, and in the years I have been painting, I have given away dozens of paintings, probably close to a hundred. In the beginning, I didn’t even keep track of them, much less claim them on my income tax. But when I became a full-time artist with a business license and itemized deductions and an eye to making my own work more valuable to my collectors, I started being more judicious with my donations _- and that includes making sure that the paintings I donate reflect the quality of my work, rather than something that has been sitting at the back of a stack, unsold, for a year.

If none of this is important to you, you will already be bored and have stopped reading. But if you do any of these things, let me tell you how it works out. Apparently artists and museums have been trying to change the tax deduction on donated works since 2008, with no success. Artists want to be able to claim more of a deduction for a donation which involves hours, days, weeks or months of effort and talent; museums and non-profits want artists to be able to do so, so that they can obtain more, and better quality, art in this manner. No dice.

The sticking point seems to be “fair market value” — which is what sets art apart from cars, boats and planes. The value I put on a painting needs to be verifiable. Artists should be able to do this by showing a history of sales. But what about an emerging artist? There seems to have been talk of establishing some sort of impartial jury to review works, but that was deemed too unwieldy. So why not keep it simple and let us claim the amount for which it was auctioned? Not consistent, apparently, since we all know auctions are not reliable indicators of the real value of our work. (Sometimes pieces go for 3 times their usual retail price, due to the excitement of a bidding war. Other times they might go for a third their value on a silent auction table.)

So for now, until the powers that be who rule the tax world can come up with a solution, we are stuck with being limited to deducting only the cost of materials. And everyone loses. Fewer and fewer high quality pieces get donated in this economy because we are working too hard making a living to let go of a piece of blood, sweat and tears for the price of stretcher bars, canvas and paint. We’d rather hang on to it, in hopes that someone will fall hopelessly in love and buy it from us, for real money. And serious artists know better than to give away the second-rate piece, lest it sully their reputations; better to paint over it and put the materials to better use.

Add to this quandry the pain of seeing your painting bid up to three times your price at an auction when you haven’t sold a painting out of your studio for three months.

The CPA’s answer was that we should be donating anyway, out of sheer altruism. Easy for him to say. Altruism was a lot easier when there were two working adults in my household. It’s a little tougher when we’re trying to make a go of it on my “international art star” status, which as international as it is, isn’t in the “art star” category yet.

I will still donate art to a select group of non-profit groups I believe in. They will get smaller pieces, specifically created for their auctions. The random solicitors will be graciously declined, and may or may not get my tax speech. And on those rare occasions when they offer the artists some portion of the final bid, they’ll get a big showy piece!

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art and the current malaise

As a painter I try to apply as much discipline and new knowledge as possible into the mix with imagination and technique.  I work every day, starting early in the morning until mid-afternoon.  For me, that is the best way to keep things fresh: I just dive in, feet first and hope the muse will join in along the way.  (If I waited for her I’d be doomed.) This is a technique that writers advise and there’s no reason not to put it to work in the studio.  So far, it has kept me from slogging through painter’s block and it’s kept my skills sharp.

The other thing I like to do on a regular basis is participate in critiques.  These have been a fantastic resource in the years since I began painting and a really good critique “class” can really move a body of work into another level.

As methods go, I can’t find anything wrong with these.  What is sometimes hard these days is maintaining the enthusiasm.  While accolades, compliments and the occasional significant purchase are usually enough, I’ve noticed that lately a certain malaise has settled over everyone.  It’s like a fog that drains the enthusiasm out of the simplest things. It’s not just me and it’s not just the art world.  It’s society in general, at least in the States, and it seems to be attached to a sort of dangling anxiety.  Everyone seems uneasy  so they don’t really dare to step out,  make major moves, take risks.  It’s like everyone, everywhere is waiting for the other shoe to drop, and expecting it to crush us.

My personal response has been to paint ever more relentlessly happy paintings — architectural abstracts with strict delineations, but in bright, happy colors — as if by the mere act, I can bring in a wave of positive energy.  I know – too New Agey by half, but think about it.  There is a whiff of possibility there.  If we all started moving forward again, as if there were no recession, as if we weren’t all uneasy, maybe the forward momentum could create the positive energy needed to turn it around.  After all, if the economy collapses, these will look like the good ole days, so what’s to lose?

A discussion of all this on Facebook over the weekend came around to the  law of inertia, and that may be the best summation:  a body at rest tends to stay at rest.  But a body in motion tends to stay in motion.  Maybe we all just need to get moving.  Do the work, even if the muse isn’t there.  What could it hurt?  And you know we all feel better when we have something to do.

Volunteer.  Pick up litter.  Read to sick kids.  Visit old people. Every institution in America needs help right now.  They have all had to lay off staff and have had budgets slashed.  So, those of us with the time, instead of moaning and worrying and hunching over the computer wondering when it’s all going to change, can effect the change.  Even one day a month would be significant.  There are 14 million people unemployed.  A lot of those people are fit enough to volunteer in any number of arenas.  Think about it.  What’s the Buddhist adage about the fluttering wings of a butterfly?

Even if it didn’t help the economy, it’s still working the muscle and maybe even learning something new.  Maybe a volunteer might find a new direction and find a job.  Maybe a volunteer team goes on to do something else together.  Off the couch, away from the computer, out of the house.  Those results alone would probably cheer a few people up. It’s a thought.

In the meantime, I am going to continue to paint bright abstracts.  I know they bring some smiles.  And that’s a good thing, too.




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All things “princess”

Everyone’s been talking about princesses lately, thanks to Prince William’s marriage to Ms. Middleton today.  (It was a lovely wedding, by turns “relaxed” and elegant, involving an attractive couple who are relaxed and elegant themselves, and appear to be much in love.)

The now-Duchess of Cambridge will eventually be a princess, hence all the interest in America.  Grown women, apparently, have been expressing their princess dreams, to the point where my husband believes all women have this fantasy forever.  When I tried to explain that most of us give it up at a certain age or with some reality checks early on in life, he says only 3 of us gave it up; the rest were holding on, still dreaming.  Even “Doonsebury” has been addressing the dream.

When I was young and cute and running around the Mediterranean with a fast crowd of Euro-trash and glitteratti, I met several princesses, as well as a couple of princes.  Only one princess was the kind we imagine, and she was unceremoniously dumped by her husband (a sultan) when he deemed his work more important, so only her looks were princess-like, after all.

In those days, a lot of us  thought we would probably “put up with” Prince Charles if we had the chance.  He wasn’t very dashing, or even remotely good-looking, but he was heir to the British throne, and until 1981 he was quite single.  I never did meet him, though, and the princes I did meet were “minor princes,” mostly of Eastern European extraction and trading on their titles and money, without any real power or cache.

One did propose to me, though, which is rare enough, I suppose.  He was enormously rich, with homes in Monaco, London and Ghana and a chauffeured Silver Cloud Rolls carrying him from private club to private club, his entourage dutifully following.  His name was Prince Noldi and he was very taken with me (remember, I was YOUNG and cute) and insisted I sit with him whenever we crossed paths.  He asked me to marry him several times.  I always refused.  He promised to build me a home wherever I wanted to live.  I still refused. He tried to give me gifts.  Nope.

It wasn’t so much that he was shorter than me and bald.  It was because I was 25 years old, with what I hoped was an exciting life ahead of me — and he was 82.

My so-called friends encouraged the merger — “think of all the money you’ll inherit!” — but I knew that if I took the low road and did that, my dear prince would live to be 102 and I would be miserable and middle-aged, and have missed an exciting life.  Besides, what good can come of marrying for money, and a rusty title?

A decade or so ago, I started seeing little girls wearing Disney princess costumes on a daily basis.  One of the elements of modern parental indulgence seems to have become “embracing your childhood fantasy” by wearing the cowboy boots and tutu to the grocery store and waving a wand over the turnips.

I wish our parents had been as relaxed.  Perhaps fewer adult women in America would still be hanging on to their own princess fantasies.  Then again, some of these little princesses may be the young adults now whining about the world owing them a living.  Who’s to say which is best.  At least I had the chance to choose, and when I did, I knew becoming that princess was not going to involve tutus or tiaras.

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How we choose our path in life

As a parent, I wanted to be able to give my son a “guide to life” which contained all the dangers and pitfalls and all the positives and sound methods.  Every parent likely wants to do the same.  After all, why waste all the painful lessons we’ve already learned?

It’s impossible to do this  for a lot of reasons, the most important being that we want our children to be able to make their own best choices, and we realize we have to let them make mistakes in order to do that.

So how do we choose the paths we take?

Clearly, we don’t simply choose on the basis of practicality, or there would be no artists or musicians.  And we don’t choose only from a position of safety, or no one would join the military, or become a firefighter or policeman.  And do we even think about the choices as we make them, or just reflect on them when we get old, like I’m doing now?

When I was in high school and in the few bits of college I completed, I had no idea what I wanted to do “for the rest of my life.”  Lots of my friends did; even in the heady, freedom-seeking Sixties, they were clearly set on paths to become lawyers and engineers.  All I knew was that I wanted to travel, and see as much of the world as I could.  I wanted to experience everything exotic and colorful and non-New England-like, and in hind-sight,  every decision I made in that first decade of adulthood was predicated on that desire.

So I traveled the world, by myself.  I couldn’t afford to just “travel”, like the trust-fund babies I met on the way, so I worked on cruise ships, sang songs, did clerical work, crewed on sailboats, milked sheep, wrote for little newspapers.  But each new country and each new job required saying “yes” to something I knew little about, and each “yes” required faith in my own abilities and my decisions.

I wasn’t always right.  There were a few missteps along the way, and there were times when I envied my more solid friends, who were settled and established while I was still pulling luggage and backpacks off trains in Eastern Europe, wondering how I could make a go in a country where the language was indecipherable.

I did manage, though, and even settled down for a decade or so, long enough to raise a terrific son, a rewarding adventure in itself.  And I can’t help but think that having the courage to say “yes” to adventure has stood me in good stead.  I’ve got a library of images in my mind that will source my paintings for years to come, and my adventures gave me strength to handle the difficulties and challenges I had to endure, when life wasn’t exciting at all, but merely tragic and sad.

My parents led me to believe I could do anything I put my mind and energy towards, and if I failed, they’d welcome me back.  That gave me a lot of confidence.  I only had to go back once — living ingloriously in their basement room for a year between journeys, in my late 20s — but I always felt they had my back, and that’s invaluable.  Will the children of the “helicopter parents” feel that security, or will they be running as fast and as far as they can from too much protection?  Or will they be too timid to leave home at all?!

Would you choose your life again?

I would, even the mistakes.  It’s been grand.  And those leaps? The scariest ones brought the best results, the most knowledge and the most growth.

So I guess that is the path I would advise a young person to take: the one that brings you the most knowledge and growth.  And some fun, if that’s part of the option!

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Terror in small doses:6 miles, 6 hours and 6 minutes

Last week we had 28 tornadoes in North Carolina.  We have more tornadoes than most people think, but they are usually EF0s or EF1s and they come  throughout the spring and summer, often shaking people up who are near them but rarely doing much damage beyond a small area where they touch down.

Saturday’s storms were in 8 strong diagonal lines, reaching from the southwestern corner of the state to the northeast corner,embedding individual tornadoes which traveled up to 150 and 200 miles, doing damage all the way.  They were as devastating along their surgical paths as any hurricane, of which we are much more accustomed, and they were much more frightening up close than they ever look on TV.

I left downtown Raleigh as a huge tornado approached from the other side of town.  As I crossed a flyover bridge I looked right at it.  It was so big, it didn’t seem like it could be a tornado.  I kept driving, because it sounded (from the radio) like I’d be driving away from it, and I was, but at some point I entered one of the edges, where horizontal rain made the whole world white, I could barely keep my shuddering car on the road, and where I was really scared the quarter sized hail was going to break my windshield.  After pulling over beneath an underpass a mile from my house (along with about 20 other cars) and having to leave when it started to flood, I dragged myself into the house, shaking.  Since our neighborhood was just having a thunderstorm, my husband was fairly cavalier.  I told him that I had just driven the scariest 6 miles of my life.

(It is unnerving to drive through flying debris and it is creepy to find yellow insulation all over your neighborhood, but no one we know was hurt and all our kids are alright. Raleigh has rallied to help those who lost everything and we will continue to do so.)

The only scarier experience I’ve ever had was  6 hours spent in a Force 9 gale, beating back to the Dardenelles Straits across the Marmara Sea in a 35 ft sailboat.  I’d been on watch that morning at daybreak, marveling at the dusky dolphins surfing alongside in the silvery light, not much noticing the blood red sunrise.  “…red sky in the morning, sailors take warning” was trumped by communing with nature.

Later that afternoon the wind went up to 10 knots, and then 15 and 20 and 25, and so forth, until I was pulling down the mainsail and raising a storm jib the size of a napkin, and the captain determined we had to turn back.  We didn’t have enough boat to push through it.  All that black afternoon we sailed back to the shelter of the historic straits between Greece and Turkey, with waves the size of two-story houses looming up over the stern.  It was totally terrifying, several boats were lost, and it was a long time before I could watch storms at sea, even on a TV screen,  without shuddering.

The 6 terrifying minutes were 30 years ago.  I was 8 months pregnant and walked in on an armed robbery in the German bakery near my office in Las Vegas.  I was halfway to the counter, thinking the guy at the cash register didn’t look “right” when I heard a heavily accented voice in the back yell, “he’s got a gun!”  I simply turned around and walked back to the door, expecting a bullet to fly before I got to there, and then before I got to my car.  It didn’t.  I drove to my office, stood at the counter in the break room and ate my whole lunch, standing up, waiting for my heart to slow down.  The bakery folks were locked in their walk-in refrigerator for hours, but no one was killed.

The common element was that each time, in each circumstance, the only option was to keep going, plowing through, hoping whatever resources available were enough: the car made it, the boat didn’t sink, and the robber didn’t shoot me.  But each time, after the scariest part was over, there was a “jello period” where everything kind of dissolves as you realize you are okay, but “that was really close!”

The adrenalin rush of the crisis and the endorphin rush of surviving are as close as I ever need to be to real danger.  You won’t find me choosing danger for excitement – so don’t ask me to jump out of a perfectly good plane, for example.  But I do understand why people do it.

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