What is art? What does it mean to be an artist? Novice artists all have to struggle with self-doubt and these questions. Some artists may 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 enough 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 has become a long term practice, a habit of at least 15 years now, I have different questions and new issues with my life as an artist/maker:
What to do with all the much loved finished work?
I do still love much of my older work, although some very early work no longer satisfies me.
And how do I get a little bit more interaction and engagement
around my artwork?
Can I find a way to engage with people who are interested in my work in a positive way?
Firstly, what do I do with all that much loved finished work? I can't just throw it all away: it was created with care, attention and love. And it conveys something to others, not just to me; I do know this now.
What do you, the artist, do with your work as it accumulates? Even commercially successful artists, those who market and sell their work regularly, generally have a stockpile of finished work, work they are proud of, but which has not been sold. Only a few artists are so lauded by the commercial art world that they have waiting lists for their work.
I am an introvert. I am happy, most of the time, to work alone. But I am still a social animal, and I do try to communicate with my art, so I do need an audience. How do I get just a little bit more, just enough, interaction and engagement around my artwork?
Secondly, some modest audience for the finished work seems necessary to me, and I have come to want more than I currently have.
I certainly have my friends and family, who will certainly not respond and engage with every piece, but are supportive and often appreciative! I love this. And I especially need and enjoy a few fellow artists I work with regularly, who are willing to engage with me at a meaningful level about my work in progress or finished. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement; we work together one evening a week, and we enjoy and engage with each other over our own work and work by other artists. I see this as very important both to my enjoyment of art, and to my development as an artist. I want to grow, change and improve; engaging in dialogue about art, and about specific works, is very valuable to me.
But I have come to feel this is not enough, I want a little more visibility and more engagement, although I really do not know what that could look like!
I do sell and gift my work to friends and family. But I try not to burden anyone with work they do not love, or have space for, although I am sure that has happened a few times. I have felt great satisfaction from both selling and gifting. It is very pleasing to have my work appreciated and more than that, wanted. To know that someone enjoys work I made enough to hang it in their home, or office is an affirmation. It tells me that I have communicated with someone, and shared something meaningful. It is human nature to want this; we are social animals.
Selling and gifting to friends & acquaintances only accounts for a small percentage of the art I produce! I have my own favorite works hung in my house, and hung much more densely, in my studio. And I have plenty of artworks stashed in layers in my large flat file drawers, filed into multi-page clear sheet portfolios, or only in a digital existence on my computer! I have drawings, hand pulled-prints, and digital prints galore! And I am satisfied and would be happy to share many of them. Of course some are more of a personal record of my own journey toward first calling myself an artist, and then improving my proficiency through practice.
As an artist, I continue to struggle with my ambition, my sometimes inadequate knowledge and proficiency, and now with increasing problems with my aging body. But these things are to be expected, 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
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.
So 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, with the deadline extended there were some 70 artists enrolled, 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. This is an annual event, with many studios open every year. Many studio visitors spare one day for this weekend event, and will only find time to visit a few studios that seem of most interest.
However many friends arrived, and most seen my studio or much of my work. And I was able to welcome a steady trickle of strangers arriving throughout both days, so I was never alone for long.
I really did have a fine time; my husband and friends helped me take breaks and feel totally supported and 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, most to people I have never met before, and also small items that I considered to be experimental studio decorations, rather than finished artwork!
Mind you, I started out with very low expectations for sales, and I set very low Port Townsend prices, further discounted for friends! It was lovely to hear buyers express their pleasure with their purchases.
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 more frequent 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!