Camelot Door-to-Door Results

Whew. I’ve finished the most difficult part of the Camelot project. It took just over 3 weeks for me to hand-deliver my newsletter about trying to meet all my neighbors and draw portraits of them as gifts. I usually left the house at 4:30pm on weekdays, with a few weekends in there to try to squeeze in more homes. I’m still processing the experience, and the results and consequences of this effort to be neighborly are still unfolding.

Below is a picture of me in my Camelot-canvassing get-up. In case you’re wondering, yes, I do realize I look like a bit of a putz. My pants were high-waters on this day, which happens to be the last day of the mission. Also, I chose to tuck my shirt in on this last day, for reasons that escape me now, especially looking at the underwhelming visual effect of the ensemble. Listen, I try to look decent, but the fact is that my only real physical assets are that I’m still thin and haven’t started balding yet; other than that, I’m an awkward dude with bad hair and a second-hand wardrobe. I embrace this, even as I try not to look at too many photos of myself.

Jim Public on his last day of going door-to-door in his neighborhood, Oct 28, 2011

I look like an upstart preacher who has neither congregation nor decent wardrobe, or an office temp circa 1975. I am anti-superstition, but I would like to share that I wore the same shirt for the duration of the door-knocking and I didn’t wash it till I was done. I’m not sure why. Maybe it gave me confidence to have a little secret to keep–that I adhere to 19th-century hygiene standards–as I approached strangers, feeling vulnerable. Let me assure you that the dirty bohemian lifestyle is not all affect–some of us are just like this.

Here’s a breakdown of the data I collected so that I could look at evidence for how the experience went rather than rely on my faulty recollection.

  • 226–homes I visited (excluding my own)
  • 222–homes that appeared to be occupied
  • 82–neighbors I spoke to
  • 61–neighbors about whom I wrote the word “nice”
  • 8–neighbors who were obviously home but didn’t answer
  • 5–neighbors I spoke to through unopened doors
  • 5–neighbors with “no soliciting” signs
  • 5–neighbors with “no soliciting” signs who were not mean to me for knocking
  • 1–neighbor who told me it wasn’t a good time at all
  • 1–neighbor who warned me not to get too close because he was contagious
  • 1–stern English-speaker who refused the newsletter
  • 1–nice non-English-speaker who refused the newsletter
  • 1–couple who invited me into their home
  • 1–neighbor who Jehovah’s-Witnessed me on her own doorstep
  • 1–neighbor who later invited us over for a huge Vietnamese-Catholic house warming party, in which we were the only white people and we got to listen to a 15-minute call-and-response chant-song of the Stations of the Cross and Hail Marys as a blessing of the new home, which sounded absolutely unlike anything I’d ever heard

Plus, there’s the neighborhood party that occurs in about 24 hours that would not have happened had this project not happened. So, as jittery as I am about putting this thing on tomorrow in spite of my lack of experience with such events and my lack of organizational skills, I am happy that at least a few people will be gathering, bouncing, eating, and chatting in front of our house.

So, the door-to-dooring is over for now. I know a few more of my neighbors. By tomorrow evening, the neighborhood will be a little more acquainted with itself. I hope that more people will come forward to have their portraits drawn. And, we’ll see how things continue to develop here in Camelot.

Neighbors, October 25, 2011

Jim Public's neighbors October 25, 2011

I’m happy to say that I’ve been doing a few more neighbor drawings. I had started to think that I wasn’t going to reach 10, much less my original goal of an easy 100. If people show up this weekend for the neighborhood party, there’s a chance that others will volunteer to receive a nice ink drawing from the local artist.

I do think the drawings are getting better as I go. Maybe my community is more shrewd than I’ve given them credit for: they want to be drawn later in the process when I’ve really gotten my chops down. I should be taking another photo this week, and I have high hopes for several more appointments after Saturday.

For a few weeks I had started to move on mentally from this goal of drawing the neighbors. So few people have taken me up, and it does take a decent amount of work for which I don’t earn anything. But, it’s not like this project is taking me away from making a living. Things are quiet right now, which is part of how I ended up here in the first place. Obscurity can offer freedom. I’ve accepted that I’m basically starting over as an artist, and when you’re starting over you don’t reach out to take–or at least I don’t. You’ve got to reach out to give.

I may have said this before, but I’m treating this as if I’m in the street musician phase of my career. I show up when and where I can, open up my guitar case, and just start playing. Maybe someone throws me sixpence, but I just want people to hear the music. Who am I to ask for people’s money in exchange for my trying to live the art dream? What do my life and career goals have to do with you?

These are some of my thoughts at the moment. I’m happy to draw as many of my fellow Camelotians as I can. It feels good to make the neighborly gesture, plus I get to reproduce the drawings and show them to you, which also feels good.

Up Next: the Camelot Neighborhood Party

The Rangers just lost a close Game 1 of the World Series, so here I am to compensate for my disappointment with the loss and my disgust with my own time-wasting by contributing to Jim Public’s web presence.

Chances are you’re familiar with the kind of schedule-craziness that forces you to drop everything and do something immediately, otherwise you won’t have a moment to get to it for a week, at which time it will be too late. Today, October 19, I realized that I had to design, print, and deliver 227 invitations to the neighborhood party we’re throwing on October 29, and I had to do this today because a succession of fully booked calendar dates begins tomorrow, which will obliterate my work-time for the next week.

This is no big deal; you know how these things go. I just share this stuff sometimes because I usually think of other artists as being solely devoted to their practice, like brush-wielding Ahabs, who forbid their children and family trips and dishes from deterring their aesthetic monomania. But life happens to all of us: surely Francis Coppola has had to put a script aside to take a son or daughter to a soccer game. Even during these spells when a tight home schedule pulls my hands away from paper and pigment and dispatches them to dishcloths and detergent, my mind is still in the art game, which I hope counts for something besides the regular sub-par performance of my chores. It’s said that sitting and concentrating on shooting free throws is as beneficial to a player as standing at the line and actually tossing them. I’m out to prove that this works for creative pursuits, too.

Here’s the flyer I designed, printed, and delivered today:

Camelot Neighborhood Party Flyer 111020 Jim Public

I’ll do my street tomorrow with my son, who doesn’t like being dragged along to neighbors’ porches; but, as my own street is pretty small, we should be able to get through it together. We’ll be asking my neighbors if they’re cool with me blocking the street with our cars for those few party hours. I called the city and learned that you can’t officially block a street for a party unless you’re a registered neighborhood association, and that is not what the Camelot project is about, though if someone wants to pursue the official path I’ll be most supportive of it. My interest is in getting together with some of my neighbors in our purely voluntary, unofficial capacities as citizens and humans. People, such as myself, often say they don’t know their neighbors but would like to; what I’ve done with the Camelot project is act on this desire that I know many of us share, and as a result of that little bit of action, we’re having a party that wouldn’t have happened had I continued to stay on my property feeling all lonesome. I hope you don’t mind my pride about this; it just feels kinda good.

More broadly, I think I’m feeling the spirit of independence that fuels both the Tea Party and the Occupiers. I think there’s something about civilization that periodically over-structures our lives and causes us to roar back like captive animals. Well, I’m not roaring so much as stretching my confined limbs, but I have become more aware of how absurd it is that we let institutions, both visible (government, corporations) and invisible (culture), limit the exercise of our wills and imaginations. If you want to block the street, you can call the city and start a weeks-long process of gathering signatures and filling out forms, or you can give your neighbors the heads up and park your truck across the road. If you want to meet your neighbors, you can keep on wanting it while your fear of rejection or embarrassment keeps you in your comfy chair, or you can comb your hair, walk out of your house, and start ringing door bells.

Oh, and I did have a funny thing happen in my marathon afternoon of putting flyers under welcome mats. After I delivered the goods to the neighbor who had me draw his dad and grandparents and then didn’t answer for his photo opp, I had just turned onto the sidewalk for the next house when I heard, first, a door fly open and, second, “You fuck–” The neighbor saw me and halted, muttering that he thought I was this other guy, then he emerged with his hand extended and thanked me again for what I did for him. When I told him that he stood me up of the photo opp, he apologized and smiled broadly at me, showing off the really nice dental work that he had apparently been receiving when I had last rung his doorbell. His tooth supply has doubled, and they look natural and quite clean. He said he’d be at the party, that I’d get my photo of him and his wife for the drawing. And he was, as I’ve come to expect, wearing only boxers.

BUMP in Celina

Jim Public BUMP at City Hall, Celina, TX 111017

Saturday, October 15, 2011 was my inaugural DIY one-day solo art exhibition, and it was a Texas-sized mixed bag. I’ve had two good nights of sleep since then, and I’m still trying to fit all the strange little pieces of the day into a coherent impression; but, the pieces aren’t coming together. I’ve been an artist, and a person who likes to act on strange impulses, long enough to know that the actual occurrence of an event will always defy my expectations for it. Possessing this grain of wisdom is powerless to stop us from dreaming about what may happen in the future, but it does offer a softer cushion to land on when impending reality once again bucks our hopes.

As the poster for the event stated, the BUMP event comprised three main attractions:

  1. The first public showing of the new titular painting, Bump,
  2. a selection of new drawings absurdly priced at $10 and $20,
  3. the opportunity to have your portrait sketched and pay whatever you want.
Jim Public BUMP setup, Celina, TX 111017

First, the painting looked great, and I’m not just saying this as an upbeat self-promoter. It’s a really good painting. It feels like the best large painting I’ve made; I’ve been living with it for a few months since I finished it, and I’m still excited about it. I wouldn’t have gone to the bizarre trouble of mounting all 5,984 square inches of it to a homemade billboard scaffold and driving it, strapped across the bed of my pickup, 40 miles, 2 of which were unfortunately and unexpectedly unpaved, to a small Dallas suburb populated by small-town Texans who were as genuinely friendly to my family as they were apparently unaccustomed to seeing large abstract paintings perched in front of their city hall.

Jim Public making the scaffold for Bump 111017Jim Public ready to hit the road to Celina, TX 111017Jim Public driving to Celina, TX, in the dirt 111017

Here’s an example of their hospitality. When my son’s hearing aid batteries both ran out of power, not only did a local store owner have someone deliver the needed replacements to his shop immediately, insisting that my wife not make the trip herself, he also told her she needn’t pay for them. In the end she was able to prevail on him to accept payment, and we marveled at how much trouble he took to help us with our own problem.

Now, going into this situation I didn’t expect people to gather around the painting and spend time with it as if it were in a gallery. In fact, the painting’s reception was about what I did expect: lots of kids said, “Oooh!” while their parents hurried them along, a few kids came up to touch it and ask me what it was supposed to be and how I did it, and a handful of exceptional adults gave it a generous amount of museum-worthy attention. Not that I was much aware of this as the day went on, but more about that in a moment.

Next, I’ve been working on 5″ x 7″ and 8″ x 10″ drawings as part of my escalating war on not-selling-art. I debuted them up in Celina, on an art-fair-style table and wall combo, with the thought that I would certainly sell fewer than I’d like, but it would be good to test these $10 and $20 artworks on the unwitting public. I sold zero. As we were packing up for the night I thought, “Of course none of them sold. Did I really think anyone would buy one?” But in the frenzy and focus leading up to that morning, it really had seemed likely that I would score a few bones for some of these lovely little abstract works on paper. They were admired and looked over throughout the day, particularly by tween-aged girls, and my daughter did her best to promote them, darling entrepreneuse that she is!

And I’m not displeased with the experience: I’m proud of the effort, and I learn best from failure, which, judging by my professional record thus far, may well mean that I’m close to a tipping point–the moment at which the knowledge I’ve gained as a consequence of continuous failure shifts my fortunes toward a brighter, more successful future. If each failure makes you a little wiser, surely you eventually reach a level of wisdom that makes further failure less likely, right?

Jim Public, sketch portrait early in the day 111017

Finally, I wanted to do something that the locals might relate to, something fun that I could offer as a way to connect with people who were not in downtown Celina that day for the contemporary art. So I made a sign that said, “Portrait sketches, pay what you want.” Just as one’s own name is the most beautiful word in the world, one’s own face is the most popular subject matter for a piece of artwork. I don’t mean this cynically: as art has marched away from the concerns of the average citizen for the last 150 years, the portrait remains a way for the contemporary artist to make a human connection to someone who doesn’t follow contemporary art.

Jim Public, sketch portrait 111017Jim Public, sketch portrait of five girls 111017

And I chose to have the sitters pay what they want as a gesture of goodwill. I had been concerned that the Celinans would see me as an interloper from the city, so the “pay what you want” policy was my way of saying, “Hey, I value your time and my time, so let’s meet in the middle and enjoy the celebration together.” At first I was making around $5 a drawing, which came out to a rate of $60/hr. because I made these things fast: the word “sketch” was very intentional. Had I kept up the quick pace, the steady supply of sitters, and the $5/drawing rate, I would have done well for the day. But things took a turn in the late afternoon when the gangs of unsupervised, poor kids emerged.

Jim Public, sketch portrait later in the day 111017

Okay. So I drew 30-40 people that day; I lost count because I was so busy drawing and was progressively flustered as the day went on. This is why I only found out later from my wife that people had shown interest in the large painting and the smaller drawings; I got too involved in this sketching business. At first, when kids came up with their moms and grandmas and said, “It says I can pay whatever I want so I can pay a penny!” the matriarchs intervened and told the youngsters, “But that wouldn’t be very nice,” and then the kids would hand me a Lincoln. Maybe one of you economists out there could tell me if there’s a principle that puts downward pressure on voluntary prices over time, because there was a definite breaking point around 3 hours into the event when a combination of too many kids saying, “I can only pay a penny!?” and too few supervising adults resulted in a devastating crash of the Jim Public sketch portrait market. When I accepted 8 cents from a very excited and fairly dirty kid, even before I started the portrait, it was all over. The sign said “pay what you want” and I honored it; and, the rest of the day, until it got too dark for me to see my work, was bonkers.

Can we talk about social class for one second? On the map, there’s Dallas, Garland, Celina; one name for one place. But in reality, there are numerous Dalles (I just decided this is the plural of Dallas), Garlands, and Celinas. On this Saturday, for example, middle- and upper-class Celina took turns speaking on the centennial stage, invoking the proud past and future of the city. They were well-spoken, kind, and, again, very welcoming to my family. Lower-class Celina, on the other hand, was not up on stage, nor were they seated in front of the stage to listen to the speeches. From what I could tell, they were not on the square at all, except for their kids, who snowballed around me as word spread that you only need a penny for a portrait. Some of these kids’ parents were truly absent and others didn’t speak English, so they were simply not available to suggest that their kids pay the artist a little more. Maybe I was naive, but when I made the “pay what you want” sign, I really didn’t see this coming.

So, this class divide was the dynamic that I was experiencing that day, and it’s probably familiar to any American. The issue of social class is complex, and I’m not alone in sympathizing with poor kids. This is the context that led to my feeling okay about virtually giving away these portraits. Have I mentioned they were good drawings? I would have taken pictures, but I was too busy. I may not be able to monetize my skills very well, but I have a facility for portraiture, and there were only a few that I did that I wished I could have re-done.

As I saw the divide between the Celina elites and the scruffy kids who seemed to be just getting by, and as I saw how effing happy these kids were as they waited, sometimes for more than an hour, for their chance to have a real artist draw them, telling the sitter as they waited, “Junior, it looks just like you!” I felt good. And even though, for me, it probably would have been better for my pride had I just done it all for free rather than endure being handed pennies and nickels in return for my time and skill, for the kids it was probably best that they got to pay what they could afford for their portraits rather than have it handed to them like, you know, a handout. And we all know how little kids, regardless of class, can be when it comes to money: they read my sign and thought, “Oh man! I can afford that!” not, “Maybe the artist is hoping for a little more than the absolute minimum.” But, the sign said what it said, and I accepted each kid’s payment with a smile and a “Thank you.”

I made $71.16. $30 was for one drawing of 5 girls, and $15 was for a drawing each of two siblings. Of the remaining transactions, fewer than five were for around $5, and the remaining dozens were a dollar or way less. The kids had so much fun with it, and I feel good about that, but the situation did start to get the better of me. Eventually I felt abused, and the coming of nightfall was the perfect excuse to pull the plug. I could have moved into the light and kept going, but the inertia of shrinking prices and growing crowds of poor kids made me say, “All dop,” which is a family idiom meaning, “I’m all done.”

Will I try something like this portrait sketching thing in the future? I think so, but I will probably re-phrase the sign. If I had more sources of personal income, I’d keep it as is, but I actually need to make money sometimes, so I might have it say, “Portrait sketches, pay what you think it’s worth,” or just add to the original sign, “(Children must be accompanied by adult).” I lean toward the former, because I don’t like adding caveats to an offer that is supposed to be generous. Maybe I’ll just have a hat that says, “Tips,” and that will be that.

Thanks to all of you who wished me well on Facebook. Thanks to Kerry and Carrie for making the drive and posing for their portraits when things were slow at first. Thanks to my son and daughter for their love and assistance, and most of all, thank you to my wife not only for the heavy lifting (literally), which she probably didn’t foresee when she decided to marry an artist, but for keeping up with our kids and the inquisitive visitors during this long, amazing day.

Next on my list, planning the neighborhood party that goes down on October 30th, which should be a fun, concrete result of the Camelot neighbor-meeting campaign. I don’t really know what to expect there either, but at least it’s just in our front yard.

Poster Post

Jim Public Bump posters at UT Dallas art studios 111012

I spent yesterday evening getting acquainted with the campuses of some of the larger universities in the Dallas area. I can tell you that between 5pm and 9pm, the art departments of SMU, UT Dallas, Collin College (Plano Campus), and UNT are all a-bustle. The smells of linseed oil, burning steel, wet clay were strong; the clothes were well-worn; the hair was unkempt and long; all of this was just as I remember it from 10 and 15 years ago. Art students are timeless creatures.

The occasion for this campus-roaming was the dissemination of my Bump posters, a project that is as necessary as it is scary. Walking first onto the lovely and new UT Dallas grounds in Richardson, I felt like a middle-aged intruder, slinking around happy young people with a FedEx Office bag crinkling loudly in my duffel. I knew it was only a matter of minutes before someone figured out that my posters and I didn’t belong there. I rehearsed my nonchalant responses to the impending, “HEY! What do you think you’re doing here?!”

But, despite their problems, colleges really are pretty great. They’re all about the sharing of ideas. They are public spaces replete with public posting areas, and I soon realized that not only were my rolls of tape unnecessary, but each of the several dozen notice boards across five campuses were well stocked with push-pins, just waiting for someone to post his promotional printed matter. No one raised an eyebrow to my interloping. So, my new motto holds:

Life’s too short to let fear get in the way of what you want to do.

As I venture into the public and try different pseudo-guerrilla tactics to connect with people, I keep bumping against my reluctance to step out of line in any way. I’ve never been much of a rule breaker, and even though I fancy myself avant-garde in some ways, I’m not even much of a norm breaker. But, as I clear away the old habit of over-concerning myself with what others might think of what I’m doing and instead meditate on what it is that I want to do with my life’s work, I find that rules and norms stand in the way of most of the things I want to try. And as I head out to do those things, I nod my head to the rules, the norms, the habits, the judgments of others, and keep walking. So far, they haven’t tried to stop me.

Jim Public Bump poster in the UT Dallas commons 111012

I’m proud of my posters. Time and again I would pin one up, take 10 of 20 paces back, look on the wall, and see that mine was the most legible and possibly the most attractive of the bunch. I’m going to be planning more events like Bump if for no other reason than to have an excuse to make rock posters and hoof them around the metroplex, trying to make a connection here and there to people who may be into the idea of a grassroots art career.

BUMP, October 15, 1:30 to 11pm, Celina, Texas

Jim Public, BUMP, October 15, 1:30 to 11pm, Celina, TX

I’m so excited to announce my first DIY art exhibition BUMP, which will take place this weekend on the porch of City Hall in Celina, TX, a small suburb not yet gobbled up by the DFW juggernaut, about 10 miles north of Frisco.

Using a crack combination of scrap wood, black spray paint, paving stones, a little fabric, some work lamps, and things I’m still cobbling together in the Agora, I’m piecing together my own version of an art fair booth. In it, I will be debuting a large painting, Bump, sketching portraits of passers-by for whatever price you want to pay, showing a bunch of small drawings I’ve been working on these past few weeks along with some work from the past year, and generally hanging out, chatting, and enjoying what should be a charming autumn afternoon.

I was invited up to Celina for their Downtown Square Centennial Celebration, which this one-day exhibition is a part of. There will be live music, old cars, food and drink, the newly remodeled park grounds on the Square, and a good amount of company to be enjoyed on this day. Even if I weren’t participating, this is just the kind of event the Public family would have been looking for this weekend; it should be a lot like the State Fair we just attended except cleaner, quieter, less expensive, better smelling, and inspiring a generally better feeling toward one’s fellow man. Thank you Christiane Jones and Carolyn Harvey for having me up to Celina; I’m really looking forward to it.

I hope to see you and/or your local friends this Saturday!

Neighbor, October 9, 2011

Jim Public's neighbor, Octeober 9, 2011

When I met this neighbor around a month ago, I had just started the door-to-door phase of Camelot in earnest. Her friendliness and surprising lack of alarm at my pitch was refreshing. On the second day of walking and knocking the neighborhood, I was working an area several blocks from her home when I saw a woman walking her dog across the street. She asked how the project was going, and at that moment I matched her face to the one I has spoken to earlier. We had a nice, brief chat; she told me she had plans for the next day, but she’d contact me and make an appointment for the photo op.

This encounter was the first and only one of its kind, and the kind of chance visit I have hoped might happen more often as a result of this project. I love the idea of running into people in the neighborhood and not just politely saying hello to each other, but knowing just a little about each other so we can have an actual conversation.

Our little chat gave me the resolve to keep canvassing, and that day ended up being the longest day yet of going door to door, ringing somewhere between 40 and 50 doorbells. I hope she’s happy with the resemblance; I think it’s pretty good, but it can always be better!