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:
- The first public showing of the new titular painting, Bump,
- a selection of new drawings absurdly priced at $10 and $20,
- the opportunity to have your portrait sketched and pay whatever you want.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.