After a few years of working without showing my work beyond a small circle of artist friends, family and neighbors, I prepared to open my studio and show my art in the annual Port Townsend Studio Tour. This was exciting and a little bit unnerving; most of us want to be liked and want our work to be admired!
I spent nearly two months preparing for this two day weekend free tour. I organized and cleaned my studio, after almost eight years of use, and some months of neglect, it really needed a spring cleaning! I retrieved favorite work hung in my home, I mounted & framed more work, and I made my studio walls my gallery. I cleared and organized my work stations, shelves, and racks and set up some show of my process: the steps for making molds, the tools for carving stone, and “before and after” examples for digital transformations. I wanted to honor the true spirit of a “studio” tour. I created written descriptions of my processes, and I made copies of my short artist biography/statement, printed art cards and had lovely business cards to give away. I went all out, and it really was great! I loved the way my studio looked, I loved my work on display; I was so ready for the crowds! I even warned all my neighbors in my cul-de-sac, and arranged extra parking.
Well, the crowds did not arrive. Promotion was poorly handled this year, the brochures printed very late, and there was very little advertising. When I realized this a few weeks before the event, I started a Studio Tour FaceBook page, paid for a bit of online advertising myself, and distributed a few brochures at the last minute. With some sixty artists listed on the tour, studio visitors could hardly visit them all, and I am guessing most visited less than a dozen.
But many friends arrived, and few had spent time in my studio or seen much of my work. And a steady trickle of strangers arrived throughout both days, so I was never alone for long. I really had a fine time, and my husband and friends helped me take breaks and feel totally relaxed. My friends and most visitors were enthusiastic and engaged with me once I introduced myself. Several visitors really entered into the event, asking questions and looking at everything. And wonder of wonders, I had more sales than I ever expected. Part of the surprise was what sold: a few “big” pieces, and some small things I made that I considered experimental studio decorations, rather than finished artwork! Mind you, I started out with very low expectations, and I set very low Port Townsend prices, further discounted for friends!
I am so very glad that I don’t need to profit from my art in order to eat or keep a roof over my head. My years as a computer geek paid off, and I am pretty comfortable in retirement. I don’t need to have a new car or take expensive vacations. But real art sales could provide a special trip, or more likely more and better art materials for larger art projects!
The real lesson learned from Port Townsend Studio Tour 2019 has been the sheer pleasure of sharing my work with interested visitors, whether friends or strangers. I think I want more of this than I have had for the past few years. But I don’t really know what that looks like, or how to get it.
I don’t think I can get the same satisfaction from an annual open studio. Many friends have now seen what amounts to a retrospective, covering years of making art. They will hardly have the same level of interest every year, and also it took me two months to prepare the show I put on this year.
I do have more artwork, and with considerable effort and some expense, I might be able to display a new and different exhibit next year. But I can not do that every year; I won’t have enough new work. And it would be a huge disruption and distraction from actually making new art! I don’t produce finished work quickly, I don’t have help, and I can’t pay for professional framing or mounting; I do all the presentation work myself.
So maybe Studio Tour might work for me every other year, or even every three years, and probably on a bit smaller scale. I might work up a live demonstration for some additional interest.
That may give me a few sales every other year, to help with the stockpiling of work, and it will help me stay on top of actually finishing work and clearing out the chaff! But I would still like to have a few more sales, I think.
And I do crave more engagement: it was really lovely to have that. I wonder how to get this without trying to be an extrovert, which is not going to happen!
Currently, as an artist, I struggle with my ambition, my sometimes inadequate knowledge and proficiency, and with increasing problems with my aging body. But these things are to be expected, to be coped with, and will be managed!
Setting these issues aside, I am still have immediate questions to resolve, questions I seem to need help with! I don’t where to start resolving my twofold dilemma:
What do I do with all my finished artwork?
And how can I best find sufficient rewarding interaction and affirmation around my artwork?
And preferably without hours, days and weeks away from actually making art!
There are many artists who do not have a gallery contract or regular venue to show or market their work, yet they persist in making art. Artist creators who do not have agents, or galleries, or much of an audience. Most visual artists create alone, and do almost all their work alone, without paid assistants, interns, or other helpers. Some of us must share a need to find homes for our work, or to engage with a broader audience.
When I thought my work was ready, I started entering local juried art shows. At first I was delighted to have work accepted. This let me feel successful communicating something in my art: I was evoking a response in others, not just for myself. Also I had hopes of sales: I wanted to at least pay for some art materials & frames. For some years, I entered a 2 or 3 juried shows each year, and was pleased to exhibit a few pieces. But nothing sold. After a bit, I developed a body of work and more self-confidence, so I made the effort to arrange my own shows at local businesses. It is common in town for restaurants, banks and a few professional offices to display the work of local artists on a rotating basis. Generally artists simply self-nominate, and are put on the schedule. I have been lucky enough to have help selecting and displaying my work in this way.
So I have exhibited some work in the past, and sold a few pieces at my own shows, or to friends at other times. I don’t remember ever selling work from a juried show. And yet artists pay fees to enter juried shows, and must meet gallery guidelines for presentation. The fee is usually a small one; a base price plus a bit more for each submission, but framing can be pricey, and the gallery will keep a significant percentage of any sales. After submitting, the artist must wait in some suspense, with the likelihood of rejection. We may submit 3-5 pieces to a particular show, but given the number of entries, we will be lucky to have 1 or 2 accepted. At an exhibit opening, there will a dozen or more artists present, each showing just a few works. Few attendees take time away from their personal friends and from refreshments to engage with unknown artists about their work.
As you may guess, I no longer find it appealing to enter juried shows. Even when work is accepted, the experience is not rewarding. Quite the opposite, in fact. So I have not entered a juried show in several years. Nor have I made the effort to create an exhibit of my work at any of the local business venues.
Instead, this year, I signed up for the local Studio Tour, an annual Port Townsend event promoted with a brochure and some advertising. Participating in Studio Tour has been an ambition since getting my current studio space in 2011. I am lucky enough to have an excellent, heated, comfortable studio, with enough wall space to actually showcase quite a lot of work, and August is a good time for me to show some outdoor work also. So I finally made the commitment to have my studio and my work on display.
When I show art in an exhibit, I may never hear from viewers, and if something sells, I may never meet or talk to the buyer. And it is difficult for me, as an introvert, to engage with strangers looking at my work. My artwork is always personal, and I, the maker, am vulnerable to criticism even when I am most proud of my achievements. And of course there will be people who do not like my work. I don’t really want to overhear critics who may not try to be tactful.
The occasional sale does communicate something; it tells me that I have reached someone. There has been some sharing, and there is a response, and presumably appreciation! This does help me enjoy making art. I may never know what my work evoked: a sense of mystery, a bit of beauty from a balance of colors and shape, a definable message, or perhaps a personal memory. But some shared response was evoked in the buyer.
Is that enough? It seems that I crave a bit more interaction.
What is art? What does it mean to be an artist? Novice artists all have to struggle with self-doubt and many such questions. Some artists continue to consider or even agonize over these and related issues throughout their “careers”. But for many artists a few years of daily work and habit will provide some answers. And for me it comes down to something very simple: it is making art that makes the artist.
Professional artists, collectors, art critics, and others who make money in the art world may deny “amateur” artists the full status, reserving the title, or at least their respect, for those artists who sell their work. But must the “real” artist manage to live off the proceeds of their art? That makes little sense; many “professional” artists, successful or otherwise, are subsidized by family members for years before achieving financial success, or they may start out with independent means. Other artists teach or make much of their income from lectures, workshops, or unrelated occupations. Many loved and respected artists, now dead, never did achieve much financial or critical success in their own lifetimes.
Artworks in a museum or two certainly give artists a level of credibility, even respect. But of course not every artist will have their work noticed, let alone acquired, by a museum, especially during their lifetime! That is neither a measure of quality or a necessity for the definition of an artist. Rather it is a matter of visibility & marketing.
Art is subjective, personal, and in the eye of the beholder. This is so evident from the wide variety of things and actions that we may classify as art. I am primarily interested in the artist as maker; that is the maker of things, of objects that endure, rather than the maker of performance art and happenings.
And a side note; although I am willing now to say “I am an artist.”, I do still prefer to say that I make things! Too many people have firm prior convictions around what an artist is & does! And of course, these convictions are oh so varied!
As my daily work to create becomes a long term practice, I have new questions and new issues! What to do with all that much loved finished work? Yes, I do still love much of it! And how do I get just a little bit, just enough, interaction and engagement about my artwork?
“Wooden ships on the water, very free”. Or maybe there is just the one ship, and the one fishing net, there in the top two 3″ x 3″ prints.
I think the double print is quite different. So probably the lower image is not a wooden ship, but a plant; a fern in the ground, with five fronds newly emerging above the surface. And I suppose the upper image is not a fishing net at all, but a sea creature submerged below the surface of the ocean, with delicate tendrils reaching up to find plankton in sunlit layers above it.
OK, despite my own claims sometimes I do have story for my artworks. But generally the stories come after, not before, the making. The images must come first, then the story. If I start out with a story line and a plan, the artwork will likely never be completed, never be satisfying. The joy, the exploration, will probably be absent, and there will be only work and frustration.
Studio Tour was a fine weekend for me; I was proud of my work, proud of my (intensive!) preparation, and totally enjoyed meeting and engaging with visitors to my studio. I was never busy, so I had time to answer questions, share my enjoyment, and really have a nice time!
A few artworks now have new homes: four more significant sales, several prints, digitally patterned water bottles & tote bags, and a few trinkets. Selling with interested & engaged visitors is very pleasing, an affirmation of my weird vision perhaps… and the enthusiastic feedback was great, purchase or not. My prices barely cover materials most of the time, or there would be no sales at all, I think.
There were no negative experiences, though one was close … a bit odd!
I hope all artists on the Tour had as much fun. I put in a lot of work preparing my studio and yard; I essentially put on my own solo show, and most visitors recognized and enjoyed this. And I had wonderful help & support from my partner and friends!
I put out lots of signs, and cleared & prepared far more parking spaces than were needed. I never had more than three cars at a time. But my other efforts were rewarded by the enthusiastic comments I received, with most visitors really enjoying my Yard Art.
Cleaning up my studio in preparation for Studio Tour 2019 (August 17-18) means finishing up unfinished projects, finessing less satisfactory projects, shuffling & categorizing work, etc. Some pieces go outdoors, becoming slowly disintegrating Yard Art, others are completed, improved & better presented, and a few just filed away out of sight.
Many of my assemblage & collage works come together slowly, and I accumulate found objects that claim me; really, I don’t claim them! Many of these items do find a place in a finished work, but that may take years. Meanwhile I arrange & re-arrange the most interesting finds along with my most experimental creations. These get photographed and enjoyed, but also take up a lot of space and collect a lot of dust. Some of these just need to be abandoned, they will never “fit”.
The piece shown here evolved from working with wax a few years ago. The center part is made from mat board, dried grasses, thread and cheesecloth saturated with wax. It has been mounted into an old wooden desk in-box, painted black. For a long time it featured a folded paper sad dog, but that bit of paper finally lost its charm, and the mountainous rock and a cast resin figure took its place.
I cleaned it up today, making a few alterations, and mounting the polymer clay bones (on the top) and the sleeping resin figure permanently. This should probably get a glass or clear acrylic facing to keep out dust and protect it, but … it is, of course, an odd size. I am not going to order glass, or carefully cut and bevel acrylic unless someone wants to buy this piece. And that is not too likely to happen!
These are pages of a book that honors a life now closed.
The crystal ship with the recumbent figure is work that came together slowly. Like much of my work, the final piece is assembled from parts I created along the way. While I had a special desire to create a “crystal ship”, I did not plan the final work in advance.
This figure, which resembled a good friend, became a memorial to him when he died, and it fit into my crystal ship perfectly. The symbolism of the ship is relevant both to him, as an individual fascinated by ocean explorations, and more broadly to all of us. All of us who have sailed, or will soon sail away. It is a deeply personal piece.
I attached the figure and the few special objects to the crystal resin ship. The work sits on a lightweight wrapped wire stand that I made for it. I have photographed it in many settings.
This is a scan of (most of) a mostly finished collage using two of my drawings. The “sad angels” started as a graphite drawing, which I scanned as usual. I created a couple of digital variations, then worked further on the printed pieces to finish these three sad angels. The abstract wooded scene scan has been enlarged, and is also further modified after printing. The figures, leaf drawing, and feather print are attached with matte medium.
The collage is a little too big for my scanner, so the top & both sides are cropped. And of course I cannot resist trying out a digital foil variation:
Art, making, and how I feel before, during & after!
Before starting, I am drifting, uncertain, and shifting various ideas and visual images.
Once I start work, I am excited, engrossed, and enthusiastic. It may be tough at times, I may feel my piece is ruined or will never get to the level I want, but mostly I am engaged and energized by the work! At some point I am really excited about ambitious work: I can smell success!
Then when I am finally finished with a good piece there is triumph, but that is generally short-lived. I start to lose interest quickly, and soon I will lose much of my interest in the work. It may actually bore me, even when I remain satisfied with the quality and content of the work.
Maybe that is why career artists often develop their words (!) and find stories for their artwork and why they make art. The story may come during or often after the art work is complete. But a story allows the artist to remain engaged with a piece after it is finished, and to retain more enthusiasm for their finished work. Enthusiasm is very important for marketing art, so lacking a outgoing patron or gallery owner, the artist may need to be the enthusiast! A good story not only helps the artist stay engaged with an artwork, but it allows the artist to share their enthusiasm, through their story, with potential buyers.
I don’t tend to analyze or create stories about my artwork, or about why I work. I find that difficult…!