Mini vs. Maxi

You can drag your kids to the art museum, but can you make them drink the Kool-Aid? As a mom I had to use bribery when they were little (We’ll have treats in the café afterwards!”) but eventually my kids got to know and love art on their own. They developed their own tastes, but what I never expected was that my son would become a minimalist.

I guess my art could be best described as maximalist: lots of colour, pattern and texture. And I find it kind of amusing that Sam’s taste is the opposite, I’m glad that he has his own opinions. But what happens when I offer to paint a painting for him?.

So, here’s one of Sam’s favourite artists, Agnes Martin.

And here’s the artistic church I worship at, courtesy of the artist, Hense.

But since Sam is the “client” in this case, I have to try to create something quieter, which pretty much goes against every instinct I have. So I compromised and created this:

Do you remember the messy apartment in Montreal? It’s a lot neater and cleaner now, but unfortunately, I won’t be able to finish the living room because it’s still full of boxes that haven’t been picked up yet. But I can show you before and after photos of the bedroom.

The bedroom as it was when I arrived:

The bedroom today:

I had to buy the canvas for $29, but the duvet cover/shams/cushion were stuffed in his closet. I found a three drawer organizer on the sidewalk, where I could put away a lot of stuff in the closet. I bought two extra pillows for $11 (buy one, get one for a dollar at Provigo!) I moved the bed around so Sam can actually use his bedside table, and picked the lamp up from the floor(!) Like any good house porn decorator, I stuffed the excess items away and voilà: the perfect minimalist bedroom. Total cost of redo: $40.

I’m posting this once he’s on the plane, but hopefully he’ll like it! I know it won’t stay this way, but I’ll always remember…Montreál.


How to copy

Recently I opened up my Facebook page and found an interiors shop I like featuring a brand new artist. The painting looked very familiar, and I thought, “That’s Artist X!”
But when I read the post, it wasn’t Artist X, it was a brand new artist. So brand new, she didn’t even have a web page yet, but she did have a Pinterest page, and guess what? Artist X is an artist she admires! Admires so much apparently, that she doesn’t mind completely ripping her off and then selling the work.

The issue of copying and copyright is one that affects musicians, writers and artists. With the internet, it’s much easier to find ideas. Musicians are the most protected, you can’t even quote song lyrics without permission but riffs are harder to prove. While exact plagiarism is easy to trace, writers have more difficulty protecting their ideas, thus the more than 50 copiers of 50 Shades of Grey. Most artists can’t be bothered pursuing expensive or time-consuming legal action, and the copiers get away with it.  In addition, people seem to believe that because they live far away from the original artist it’s not really theft. But the internet also makes it easier to get caught.

In recent conversations with a leather artisan and a jewellery maker, both found people making replicas of their work. In gentle communications with either the store or copier, both were told that the work “wasn’t exactly the same.” The artisans had a sad resignation when they told me their stories. I think they felt abused, but didn’t want to drain their creative energies going after the offenders. But the sadness remained as they told their stories. Many artists have also told me that etsy is a ground zero for copiers’ inspirations.

Certainly, copying is a good way to learn. Copying was one of the original methods of teaching drawing, which you can still see in museums to this day. If I see an artwork I like, I analyze right away why the composition is pleasing to me or why the size/palette/medium works. I have even done works “in the manner” of artists like Basquiat or Wayne Thiebaud. Some were for school assignments and others were experiments.

Any artist is visually inspired. I have seen motifs on damask fabrics or on antique tiles, and then used them in my work. I have seen colour combinations I liked, and created a palette around them. When am I crossing the line into copying?
Since I’m standing here on a soapbox, I should confess one case, from my own practice, where I might be accused of copying. I have long admired the work of Richard Diebenkorn. I like his use of subtle image under thin paint, his switching between representation and abstraction, his colours, and his composition. In fact, I liked his compositional form so much, that I did a one-page art school assignment on it. Then a year later, I did this painting:

lines revealed

Ocean Park 54 by Richard Diebenkorn

Ocean Park 116 by Richard Diebenkorn

I wasn’t consciously thinking about Diebenkorn when I did the top painting layer, and but certainly there’s no question that there is a resemblance in terms of the final composition and palette. I didn’t copy a single painting, more like I took everything I liked about him, stuffed it in a blender and spewed out this painting. Then, I added my own technique of ripping away the surface and created the exposed wood, randomness, energy, and layering that can be found in most of my art. Originally, I had intended to paint more layers on top, but the composition was so pleasing that I stopped right there. I resined the work, and then featured it in an open studio. It wasn’t until someone mentioned that it reminded them of Diebenkorn, that I realized the resemblance.

So is the final painting mine or a homage? I guess that is debatable, but the fact I even have to ask the question, means that it’s too close. Since then, I have learnt to ask myself if there are visible influences in my work, and if there are I obliterate them. As artists we are visually stimulated and have great visual memories, and we have to make sure that we are not unconsciously copying another’s style or content. If we are consciouslycopying, a pox on us.

When I first found the copier, I was incensed. I had made the connection that others might not, given that the copier is in Australia and the original artist is not hugely famous. I wanted to email everyone involved, the store, the artist, the copier and the art website which originally featured the artist. In fact, I wrote a whole post, exposing her and other artists I’ve recently found who copy. But when I talked with my good friend, who also happens to be a life coach, she asked what exactly I was trying to accomplish. Did I want to humiliate and shame artists?
I realized that what I really wanted was prevention: for all artists not to copy each other’s imagination. First I needed to look at myself and see if I could pass scrutiny, and if not then I don’t get to throw the first stone. We can definitely get inspired by work we see and learn from it. Goodness, artists teach workshops so we can learn their technique. We can copy at first, but then we have to stay in the studio and push the work until it becomes our own.
In this case, I noticed that the copier’s work was not as good as the original, she had copied the motifs and techniques, but was missing the random and aged qualities that made the originals sparkle. Still I feel sorry for whoever buys the painting. They own a hollow artwork which lacks its own creative spirit.

Too much choice?

Only one of these size will survive…

A lot has been written about the many decisions we make in our lives, and the idea of too much choice. A few years ago I read the book, The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz. He explores the idea that although we would think that having lots of choices would be a good thing, it actually fries our brains. The brain tires of having to make the constant decisions, and begins to shut down. At first, the brain is as bright and perky as an energetic preschooler, but after having to decide breakfast, what to wear, which route to take to avoid the accident, and then all the work decisions… by the end of the day the brain is as exhausted as that preschooler’s mother at 5:00 pm. “Whatever,” the brain says, “I don’t care anymore.” This whole idea of too much choice has given birth to voluntary simplicity movements and ideas of non-consumption.

I completely agree with this idea. One way I simplify is to make choices by colour. I prefer bright, true shades, the kind you see in my paintings. To the despair of my technophile son, my cellphone was chosen because it came in this great turquoise colour. My camera is hot pink. My car is cherry red. And this works for me because I’m happy each time I use the item, its colour cheers me up.

Yet when it comes to my paintings, I have to admit I do a lot of experimentation. And one way I’ve experimented has been size. I created smaller sizes to make more affordable work for certain shows and events.  But because a lot of my work is dense and layered, I feel that detail doesn’t work on a small scale and I usually work as large as I can. Currently that size is limited by what fits in my cherry red car, so what I’ve done lately is to work on diptychs. The work is larger in total, but more portable.

When life hands you a bunch of 36″ square panels, make a diptych.

But I feel many sizes are actually confusing for people who come to my studio. They say they love the work but they can’t make up their mind. The second year I displayed my resin art in the Culture Crawl, I had only two sizes and eight paintings and they sold out. The only decision that had to be made was: Which one do I like best? These days I can hardly keep track of all the prices and sizes. So in order to simplify things, I’m going to cut down on the number of sizes of panels that I work on. I currently have 16 different sizes and in the upcoming year, I’ll cut that down to six. I’m looking forward to having fewer decisions in my art. It’s important to really get to know a size or shape and be able to explore all the compositional possibilities. Limits are what fuels creativity. I enjoy playing with small panels, but my main practice is creating the large pieces. Years ago, I made a philosophical decision that I wanted my artwork to have impact when it was displayed, and size is a part of that.

Phew, having made that decision, my brain feels better already.

Sharing everything, but chips

Art in a can?

So how are your New Year’s resolutions going? I hit a new low this year, I broke a resolution on January 2nd. Ah well, as anyone who has ever left me alone with a bag of chips knows, I have no willpower. The fact that I’ve had any success as a painter is only due to the fact that I love being in the studio and painting is one of my favourite activities. Second only to eating chips, of course….mmm, chips.

However, my year of art giving in 2012 is already going very well.  I am currently working on a painting for a local charity, I’ll write more about that when it’s complete. I’m working on the painting above for my studio building as well, just to brighten up a shared work area (well, it’s actually a washroom, but that doesn’t sound special enough.)

And now a new opportunity has come up, one I didn’t expect. Rachael Ashe is a mixed media artist I met when we were both interviewed for Chris Tyrell’s marketing book for artists, “Making It.” Last week, she asked me if I would consider mentoring her.

To be honest, I was taken aback by the request. I think of myself as an artist who is still learning and striving to improve all the time, and not successful enough to mentor someone. But after Rachael and I discussed what she was looking for in a mentor, which was basically art advice, we agreed to give it a three month trial and see how things were working out. I realized that Rachael was not looking for some expert who could answer all her questions, but someone whose work she liked who would take the time to consider her work and art. She told me that she got the idea from my blog that I was someone who would be willing to share my experiences. 

Unfortunately I have encountered artists who are very secretive about their work, their success and their contacts. But I once read that if you jealously guard your ideas, you don’t have the energy for new ones to appear. If you give your ideas away, more will arrive, which is something that applies to all aspects of life.

When I first got my studio in the Mergatroid Building, I was lucky enough to sublet from Cheryl Fortier, an artist who has become a good friend. Cheryl was a wonderful example for me of someone who treated painting as a profession, she worked regular hours and also taught art classes. Cheryl gave me great advice on all the business aspects of art, including how to set up for the Culture Crawl. Looking back, Cheryl was definitely a mentor, and with her current adventures in artist’s residencies she continues to inspire me.

So I guess it’s time for me to pass on my art knowledge, which hopefully is larger than I realize. But the good news for my blog readers is that I’ll pass on any lessons that Rachael finds helpful. And in an ironic twist, I was already keen to pick Rachael’s brain about social media, an area of expertise for her. So I’ll be able to share Rachael’s advice on social media as well. How expert is she? Well, when I went to look up her website she had already done a blog post on this mentorship idea, and tweeted about the post as well. Clearly it’ll take everything I have to keep up with Rachael!

So the year of giving is off to a great start! Now, where are those chips?

A New Year of Giving

There’s no question that 2011 was a difficult year in the art world around me.  Local galleries were closing down and some are still teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Several artists I know were forced to give up their studios and take their practices home. Although I realize that many artists thrive in home studios, the ones I know were wistful about leaving the artistic support and community of a studio building, but resigned to the fact that they could no longer afford it.  Other artists had to put their art on the back burner and take up better-paying jobs.  During this year’s Culture Crawl, I heard more people speak frankly about the financial aspect of collecting artwork, saying that they loved a lot of the work that they saw on the Crawl but they couldn’t afford it. British Columbia bucked the trends for a while, but the economic turndown has finally caught up with consumer attitudes.

I have to consider myself fortunate in all this turmoil, my art sales have remained steady and while I haven’t experienced the growth I’ve had during stronger economic times, I’m happy with my art business. 

Each year, I try to set up a general goal for my art.  In the past, goals have been to get more public gallery shows and to generate more media coverage of my art. Although I have a business background, I never set specific goals, such as: “Increase sales by 25%,” because that would be pointless. I can’t control the market, and while a big art sale might increase sales temporarily, it would harm my sales in the long term. My goals are more general. When opportunities arise, I take those that move me in the direction of my goals, all the while maintaining my painting practice and my regular marketing efforts.

This year my goal is a little different, it’s a philosophical goal.  I’m calling 2012: A Year of Giving. Being an artist, I work alone in my studio, and operate my art business is in a vacuum, and while I have donated art to institutions like the Vancouver General Hospital and the National Nikkei Museum, I’d like to be more mindful of my part in a world that needs a little generosity right now.

What I mean by giving is not just giving art to different charities and auctions, because I already have some strong opinions on that subject. I’m thinking about giving in terms of donating art supplies to programs that need them, donating time, promoting other artists I love, and even giving a little joy to all the people that like my art.

I’ll blog about some of these endeavours as they occur, since this blog is always a place to freely give:  information, amusement and advice. Meantime, stay tuned for more!

How to buy art on the Crawl

Seems easy enough, right? You see a painting you like, so you buy it and take it home. And it is easy for some people, but for others buying art is a bit of a mystery. So to demystify the process, here’s some practical advice on how to buy the art you’ll treasure for years.
The hardest part is choosing the right artwork. The Eastside Culture Crawl has an amazing range of artwork, from realism to abstraction, in various media, and priced from $10 to $10,000.  Even though the Crawl is not juried, in general the artwork is of good quality because the artist has a studio and a professional commitment to their art. However, as in all large events there are different levels of art, and you have to use your own judgement.
Choosing the right painting is a lot like falling in love. Really. You walk into a studio and see this painting and Blam, love hits you. If you’re a little indecisive, like me, you may wander around the studio and examine every other painting, but your first love keeps calling to you. In my own studio experience, although people often like two or three paintings, it’s always the first one that they like that is the right one.
Again, I consulted with my friend Liz Malinka, who is a Crawl regular with an amazing art collection.  What I really like about her art collection is its diversity, some of the paintings come from the best galleries in town, but others are from new artists she discovered on the Crawl. She says there is nothing as satisfying as the joy of the artist who is selling their first painting.  Liz also advises, “If you love a piece buy it!! If you have to think twice, it’s probably not for you. I always ask myself, if I walked away from a piece and turned around and someone else bought it, would I be heartbroken? If the answer is yes, then I buy it immediately!”
I could write a whole blog post on why people buy art, but I’ll just say one thing:  if you really like a piece of art, it will bring you a lot of pleasure. Nobody ever regretted buying a special artwork.
The Price is Right
Obviously, price is important. If you don’t buy art regularly, you may wonder if you’re getting value for your money. Fortunately, the Crawl offers you a perfect opportunity to shop around and compare prices. It should only take a few studios to give you an idea of the price range of paintings you like. Art by established artists will be more expensive than someone right out of art school.  Art is generally priced by size, but occasionally artists price by the age of the work, with newer work being more expensive. Some artists even price based on how pleased they are with the work!
If you really like a painting in the first studio you visit, you can ask if the artist will put the painting on hold for you (some do and some don’t). Or there is something called the right of first refusal, so if someone else wants the painting, the artist will call you first and you have to decide right away. However, the Crawl is a crucial time for artists to make sales, so please be respectful about placing holds.
Since the Crawl is an informal situation, you may wonder if you should bargain for a lower price. Here are the facts about pricing. If an artist is represented by galleries, the price will be firm, since if the artist undersells the gallery he or she runs the risk of getting dropped. In fact, some galleries get a commission on paintings that are sold on the Crawl since they promote the artist year round, so the artist is not even keeping the full price.  It may be possible to negotiate a better deal if you pay cash. Most painters do not take credit cards, they usually take cheques or PayPal, so bring your chequebook. Most clay or textile artists do take credit cards, since they are used to working craft fairs.
If you are buying multiple pieces, you may be able to get a discount. If you return year after year to make purchases from the same artist or refer your friends, you may get a discount.  Also, if you can tell that a work is older, perhaps from a previous series, the artist may be more inclined to give you a discount.  You can certainly make a polite inquiry about discounts, but do keep in mind that most artists are not getting rich once you add up the costs of studios, materials and time spent.
Instead of discounts, you may be able to negotiate other benefits: staggered payments, delivery of the work if you do not have a car, or even help in deciding where to place the work in your home.  Some artists may allow you to try a few paintings in your home, to see how they work before you purchase one.
Not just paintings
Most of this advice has been around painting, which is the area I know best. However, I realize that there are other areas, like clay, sculpture, textiles and woodworking, which are slightly different.
My observation around clay is that it is already so reasonably priced and practical, that buying it is an easy decision. I have pottery from four different artists here in the Mergatroid Buildingand I delight in using it all, enjoying the handmade feel of a teacup or the beauty of a glazed bowl. They make fabulous gifts as well, so I do a lot of my Christmas shopping right outside my studio door.
As for textiles and sculpture, I think they are similar to artwork.  Take the time to ask about the process, what raw materials are used, and all the stages in creating the work. Once you realize the effort that goes into creating the work, I think you’ll find the prices are very reasonable. 

Boomerang chair by Dexel Crafted
In my building we have a number of furniture makers. Buying furniture from them can be as easy as seeing something you like in their studio and then purchasing it, since much of the furniture you see on the Crawl is for sale. Most woodworkers have books of the custom work they have created.  I spoke to Curt Dexel of Dexel Craftedin my building and he tells me that much of his work is custom, which begins with a discussion with the client about their needs. If you commission a piece of furniture, you have the luxury of many options around materials, size and details.  Just keep in mind that although the prices will be higher than Ikea, the quality is much higher.
Don’t forget
It sounds funny, but it’s almost certain that once you’ve seen a lot of studios, you will get them confused. So take notes, take business cards and take photos (ask first though!) so that if you want to follow up afterwards, you can.
Most artists are happy to open their studios to you after the Crawl, if you want to come back and see the artwork again or even if you missed their studio the first time around. However studios are a working space, so they are cleaned up ferociously before the Crawl but they will normally be a lot messier and less gallery-like. And you will have to make an appointment first, since studios are only open for these three days. If there is an artist you particularly liked, but you missed out on a favourite piece, try contacting them in a few months time when they will have new work. And be sure to get on the mailing lists of the artists you like.

There is lots of talk around supporting the local economy, and buying directly from artists is an excellent way to do that. As you sit back in your hand-crafted wood chair, sipping coffee from a specially-chosen clay mug and admiring your challenging new painting, you are a true supporter of the arts!

Unwelcome in the gallery

Art gallery volunteer at work.

I have complained before about the lack of decent docents in art galleries. (I am speaking about regional galleries, which are funded by municipal governments, and not commercial galleries.) I understand that many galleries use volunteers and there is not enough funding to pay fulltime staff, but I wonder if this is not a chicken and egg situation. There is nobody in an art gallery/museum because people do not feel welcome there. And since attendance is low, there is no expanding the gallery’s programs.
Recently I went with a friend to a regional gallery, which showcases well-known artists. The only interaction we had with the woman working there was when she hissed at us not to touch the painting. It was as if she was watching us and waiting to spring into action as soon as we neared the artwork. For the record, neither I nor anyone I have been with has ever touched a painting, but being involved in the arts sometimes we like to get quite close to determine the materials or process.  In this same gallery, I have been told not to touch a display table, because it was fragile, this table had a glass case enclosing some sketchbooks and small paintings, and to examine the materials you almost had to lean on it.  Would it not be better to get durable display cases? And would it surprise you to know that whenever I go there, I’m the only one in the gallery?
On the other hand, in large art galleries or museums I’ve had some delightful experiences with security guards. At the Vancouver Art Gallery, one security guard was so delighted with Jim Campbell’s LED “paintings” that he kept encouraging visitors to look at it from his favourite viewpoint. At the Musée d’art Contemporain in Montréal, I’ve had long chats with guards who were both friendly and happy to be asked questions about the art or artists. I assume that the person who spends hours in the gallery has more knowledge than I do, and seek out that knowledge.
I consider this difference in attitude is really an attitude about art. Some people clearly side with the artist or artwork and consider themselves as guards who protect the artwork at all costs. However they never consider that their negativism might alienate people from entering or returning to the gallery. Most galleries are daunting, with their hushed atmospheres, white walls, high culture and mysterious artworks.  And they are scary enough without adding Dobermans disguised as matrons of the arts.
As an artist I would rather have people touch my art than walk by it. I prefer engagement to indifference, and touching to ignoring. I have the advantage of working in resin, but I can’t believe that one thumbprint is going to cause a painting to disintegrate.  Like the many friendly guards I have met, I believe that art is for the people and the more people in the gallery the better. We understand that displaying the art in pristine surroundings is not the aim, the aim is to get the most people into the gallery, interacting with the artwork.  And the future of the gallery depends on it.