Sling Blade and Teenage Film Makers

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We watched Sling Blade again the other night, a favorite film of my wife’s, my sons’, and mine.  I’ve always been partial to Arkansas, and not just because we canoe there or because my Dad’s side is from the Ozarks.  I love the extremes of that state.  If you’ve been there, you know what I mean.

I’m still amazed by the character Billy Bob Thornton portrayed.  If you’ve spent time in The South, you’ve known guys like that.  Hell, I’ve worked with guys like that, back in the 70s, in factories and warehouses, when I was putting myself through school.  But gentle giants of that sort had no college in their futures; just misunderstanding and hardship.  Ever notice however that they’re incapable of hate?  This is what Russian peasants used to call being “touched by God.”

Last night my oldest son was up late filming the final scenes of his independent film.  Don’t know the title yet, all I know is those buttheads were running around the house until 2:00 a.m., crashing through stage windows, smashing stage furniture, and spurting blood.  If I were a different man, I’d have kicked all their asses out, seeing as I had to rise at 6:30.  But what the hell, it’s just sleep.  So I read about J. Edgar Hoover instead (talk about an American dictator). 

Anyway the crew finished filming, but were so excited they stayed up talking until dawn.  I love that kind of intense creative joy.  I’m glad they can live it.  I’m glad I still do. 

 

Glamour of the Art World, Part II

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Here’s a shot of a typical meeting between me, my counterparts at Mortensen Construction, HOK Architecture, Tranin Design, and assorted contractors/engineers.  We’re comparing notes on a huge (20′ high) installation in blown glass for a prominent structure.  Today we sorted out issues such as lighting placement, armature placement, blocking for collar rings, install deadlines for downrods and armature, engineering approval of weight loads per downrod, install methods for 40′ above deck, etc.  

Sound glamorous?  We both know it ain’t; the glamor occurs for the glass artist after install, during applause.  But by having these meetings, and meticulously reviewing all details, we avoid collective brain farts, so no one’s flipping out during the week of install, wondering how a particular item could have possibly been overlooked.  This is part of my job: to oversee critical details so the artists can just concentrate on their work. 

See the clock on the back wall?  That’s the countdown, in days and hours, to grand opening.  Keeps everyone real during meetings. 

If you’re wondering who the artist on this project is, I’m not allowed to reveal that yet.  But I will when the time is right.

John Northington and His Sculpted Concrete

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One of my clients, a developer, is in the process of finishing a swank little shopping center in south Johnson County–which around here is akin to Orange County, Westchester County, or NW Chicago in terms of income.  The center is pretty sleek, as are the surroundings, so I felt something rather jagged would provide nice contrast.  I recommended the work of good old John Northington, and my client fell in love with it.

So yesterday evening I went to John’s house and studio, which is far over on the East Side, in an industrial valley that is adjacent to a very rough ghetto.  But John and his wife, Sally, never seem to have any trouble.  They just sculpt, and apparently live a full life.  The piece I’m leaning toward is the tall one with the glass inserts.  Think it will be a perfect fit. He worked very hard on this: textured the concrete with a jackhammer.

Unfortunately I didn’t take any shots of John, Sally or their dog.  I will at the install.  He went to the Art Institute, and is one helluva guy.

Portfolios and Presentation Folders

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(Excerpted from Living the Artist’s Life) 

As the digital age and websites evolve, portfolios aren’t as critical as they once were.  But no matter how sophisticated a site might be, it could never take the place of a well laid-out portfolio in the hands of a client or gallery owner, as you’re sitting across from her, discussing your work. 

If you’re like most artists, you’d rather be creating new work than assembling a portfolio.  Yes they’re a pain to deal with; I’ve never yet met an artist who enjoys assembling them.  I don’t enjoy assembling them.  But they’re essential.  If you look on the portfolio as a work of art itself, utilizing a direct presentation that is visually stunning, it won’t seem such a bore.  Spend the necessary money on it, and on the photography, to make it look good.  The money will be returned by means of sales.

For those of you who have no interest in selling your work, create the portfolio in whatever fashion you wish.  Make it sleek, make it ragged, make it out of duct tape if you like, so long as the finished product adequately represents your work, passion and ideas.  If the notion of making money from your art doesn’t jive with the way you create, then let the portfolio suggest, or even shout, this as well.  

Regarding portfolios, I recommend the following: 
1)  Portfolio Size: 17 x 20 
2)  Size of Photos:  8  x 10s or 5 x 7s (no smaller)
3)  Other elements: Resume or Bio, an Artist’s Statement, and Press Clippings.

Lay out the photos two-to-a-page, or four-to-a-page, depending on the size you choose.  My personal preference is two 8 x 10s per page, because they give the viewer the best visual impression of your work, and that first impression is the most important one you’ll make.  Repeat: THE FIRST VISUAL IMPRESSION YOU MAKE ON A GALLERY DIRECTOR, OR  COLLECTOR, IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ONE YOU WILL MAKE.  Please never forget this.

After you’ve laid out the photos, put the resume and artist’s statement at the end.  I never put these items at the beginning of a portfolio, because I want the viewer to be impressed with the work itself first.  Once that impression has been made, then they’ll be willing to read about the artist.  Needless to say, when I lay out a portfolio for an artist, I always place the most stunning images on the first pages, with the weaker ones following, then finishing again with the stronger works.  If it’s all strong, so much the better.

Just as importantly, anytime you show your portfolio, try to have a small original with you, since the work itself will always read better than a photograph, no matter how well the latter is shot.  If a gallery director, or collector, is already looking at photographs, and liking what they’re seeing, you can reinforce this by casually showing them the small jewel that you happen to have at hand.  Note use of the word “casual.”  Contrary to general misconceptions, the art business does not function at its best in a mode of pretension and pressure.  Rather it is always at its best when everyone is relaxed: the artist, the dealer, and especially the collector.  Relaxation leads to trust, trust leads to sales.

Finally, after you’ve shown your portfolio, be prepared to leave behind a well laid-out presentation folder.  You can find these in any office supply store.  They’re the size of a notebook, utilizing either pockets or transparent sleeves, and can make a very impressive visual statement.  Make sure a disc of your work is in the folder, along with photos, a business card, postcards, your resume, and other essentials.  If you’re still using slides rather than discs, fine, but be prepared to ultimately make the change to discs.  The visual world is heading in that direction, and I doubt if it will head back.

You’ll also need to include any press clippings you might have garnered over the years, and a select list of clients.  What?  You don’t have those things yet?  Don’t worry.  I’ll go over the getting of press, as well as how to acquire that coveted list of clients, in later chapters.  

Art at Powell Gardens

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Had a major presentation today for the board of Powell Gardens.  Concept I dreamt up last winter.  Been working on it, off and on, for a few months.  Will it involve professional artists?  Young artists?  A responsive public?  And passion?  Yes.

Too soon to say yet whether it will all come together, but I’ve a good feeling about it.  Should it be approved, I think it will go quite well.  Will keep you informed.

Premiere of Art Film

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Bottom Photo: STRETCH, Art Consultant, Dierk Van Keppel, Vernon Brejcha, Lonnie Powell, William Lobdell, Brent Collins.  In abstentia: Lisa Grossman and Leslie Reuther.

The film Art on the Block premiered last night at the Copaken Stage to a packed house.  I don’t mind saying I was more than a little blown away, and agree with the film critic’s A+ assessment.  Does that reflect bias on my part?  You bet. 

Even so, the film retains the objectivity and slight edge that I think all good documentaries need.  The film-makers–Professor Daven Gee and his students at UMKC–simply told the stories of the artists, and myself, as we assembled the major commissioned pieces for Block.  They allow the audience to decide whether or not we screwed it up, and whether or not this is a step forward for culture in the Midwest.

Well, I’ll assert this much: we didn’t screw it up, and it is a step forward.  I hope you get to see the film.  Should run on PBS later this year.

Senior Show at Paseo / Apprenticeship for Young Sculptor

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These are some of the young artists who were in my mentoring program this year at Paseo Academy.  They had their senior show this weekend.  My wife and I attended last night.  Man, it was fine.  So much passion and originality.  Several kids have gotten full rides to area universities.  Made me very proud to be a small part of their growth.

The kid in the apron, Rodrigo, is an extremely talented metal sculptor and painter.  I’m going to get him an apprenticeship this summer in Arlie Regier’s studio.  I know Arlie will teach him things that he wouldn’t learn elsewhere.  Expect it to go quite well.

Friday Tips: My First Gallery, Bottle of Bourbon, and Going Broke, 1995

(Excerpted from Living the Artist’s Life)

Opening the gallery did two things for my writing: first it stole from it, then it fed it. Initially I was so busy I had no time to write. For a full year I didn’t write, which was very hard, and built up a lot of internal pressures that I had difficulty bearing–just as it would for any of you. Then a book burst out of me in a way that no book ever had before, and, despite the dire state of my finances, I felt fulfilled again. Not fulfilled in the way that my children’s laughter, my wife’s touch, or long trips alone fulfill me, but only in the way that artists truly can be: by doing their best work.

In the mornings I would come in, look at the sunlight as it lit paintings, and with the glow of all that color around me, I’d set to work, writing for maybe three hours before people began wandering in. Then I’d concentrate on gallery business until late at night, knowing that my real work had been done, and that I could go back to it the next day, and that it would still be there, waiting.

That book, my fourth, was a breakthrough work for me. In writing it, I learned more about how I wanted to handle prose than I ever had before. I even sent it to the literary critic for the Kansas City Star, Theodore O’Leary, who called to congratulate me, then invited me over for drinks. He wasn’t sure if the book would get published in today’s parlous market (it didn’t), but he felt it showed great promise, and urged me to stick with it. I told him I would.

It would be two more years before I’d land my first agent, but after Ted’s encouragement, I knew I was on my way. As with most artists there was no course I could follow, and no map, but I believed my intuition would guide me, and that continued hard work would pay off. Deep inside, in that place where our dreams live, I could feel the certainty of it. That wouldn’t make the coming hurdles any easier to cross, or the pressures easier to bear, but it did give me hope in those times when things often seemed hopeless. What I didn’t know was that the feelings of hopelessness were far from over; in fact the worst of them were about to begin.

My gallery by now was two years old, and I at last had a reputation of sorts. Many people recognized the gallery’s name, and even seemed to respect it. Scores of these people would come in to visit, browse, satisfy their curiosity; as usual, few would buy. All the other galleries in the city were convinced I was doing a bang-up business. In reality I was at least as broke as they, and often more so, since many of the other galleries were underwritten by wealthy owners, or had framing to fall back on.  I didn’t want to frame; I wanted to build an art-consultation business, promoting Midwestern artists in large-scale projects, executing world-class works.  But as yet I had no large projects, and few clients.  As as consequence I was still slowly, inexorably headed for bankruptcy, with apparently no way to stop it.

No matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t seem to break through that middle-class attitude in America, where so many of the prosperous spend hundreds of thousands on their homes and cars, then put framed posters on the walls for art. Regardless of their income level—the upper-class included—this tends to be the overall practice. And if you think this is just a Midwestern phenomenon, I’ve got news: it ain’t.

It isn’t that the average American doesn’t enjoy real art, they’re just too busy, or indifferent, to recognize it. If I can help them see it when they come in the gallery, frequently they’ll become impassioned about it—assuming they’re open enough to see things at all.

Even if they can’t afford the work, helping them respond to it is my first priority. The difficulty lies in getting them in the door, and getting them to slow down long enough to comprehend what it is they’re viewing. With my current level of accomplishment, and list of clients, this is no longer a problem; in fact I’m gratefully amazed by the amount of business that comes our way now. But in those lonely early years I still had much to learn about the process, and the resulting poor rate of sales was driving me mad.

What also drove me mad was the fact that the two oldest galleries in the city frequently sold work that I felt was mediocre, and they sold it like candy in a dimestore. In these galleries illustration passed for painting, and overdone canvases passed for depth. The works were normally uninspired, flat and shallow. But because the gallery owners hobnobbed with the city’s elite, they never lacked for buyers. Their openings were always packed, with everything selling off the walls. My openings were packed too, mostly with wine-sipping bohemians who loved the gallery, and loved the art, but could afford none of it. Consequently I held several openings where not a single work sold.

The lesson to be learned? Connections will sell anything, including bad work. I had no connections. I had a small but growing list of clients who trusted me, and I trusted them. Initially I had thought that would be enough. It wasn’t.

It was at about this time that a large jug of bourbon began to appear in one of my desk drawers. It would show up on Wednesday and be emptied by Saturday night. I never hit it during the day, but in the evening as diners filled the adjoining restaurant, and hence my gallery, I’d take snorts off that sucker and watch the non-buyers file through. I was going broke, I was enraged at the position I had placed my family in, and at thirty-eight I still hadn’t written a novel of the power I was trying to attain. That’s what angered me the most. I blamed myself, I blamed the art business, and especially I blamed the crowds of non-buyers who took up my time. I had begun to despise them:

A wide-eyed suburban woman coming through the gallery, staring at all the work without seeing a single thing, then turning to me and saying: “Oh my. Did you do all this?”

Me sitting at my desk, my feet up, shoes off, a glass of bourbon in my hand. “You bet, ma’am. I painted every painting in here. Did the sculptures too, but only in my spare time.”

Still the wide eyes, the kind but vacant expression. “Ohhhh. You must be very creative.”

“Why thank-you, ma’am. I sure try to be.”

Or a gaggle of similar men and women, squinting at the work and muttering among themselves about the prices, one of the men finally turning to me and asking the same question that the suburban woman had.

Me blearily looking up, taking a sip of bourbon and saying, “Buddy, I couldn’t draw flies with my shoes off.”

All of them filing out in bewildered silence.

Or the occasional New Yorker, Texan, or Kansas Citian who was a serious collector, but me often too embittered to give them appropriate attention, they sensing the bitterness, and leaving as quickly as they had come.

I would think of opportunities missed, opportunities that never came, the thousands of phone calls and letters that had never been returned, and my bitterness would deepen.  Then I’d soddenly go home to watch a movie with my family. My kids on my lap, too young to realize my condition, me holding them as they watched It’s A Wonderful Life, weeping inside for the thing I’d done to their future. Me thinking about my life insurance policy, wondering if they’d be better off. And don’t think I didn’t consider it, but as I said earlier, I’m just not made that way. Either way, I’d sunken into the trap of self-pity, which leads to inaction, which leads to failure compounded. I was so mired in depression that I couldn’t seem to realize I was living in the wealthiest country in the world, with multiple opportunities at my fingertips, if I’d just fine a way to tap into them.

My wife watched my descent from aside, uncertain if she knew me anymore, and a little afraid of who I was becoming. A wall of miscommunication had begun to grow between us. She felt it. So did I. Neither of us said a word about it.

Owing to stress, overwork, and looming financial disaster, I had begun to forget to do the little things: soft words, caresses, the taking of walks, sitting and talking, flowers for no reason, the occasional seduction before the fireplace, phone calls midafternoon just to ask how she was, what she was doing. I had begun to forget those things, and so had she. I knew then that our marriage, and my gallery, would either have to undergo an evolution, or not. The problem was, I didn’t feel capable of an evolution, either within myself or without. I needed one though. I needed one badly.

Little did I know it, but one was coming–and not in a welcome form.

Business debt at this stage: $90,000. Other debt: don’t ask.

Kim Casebeer’s Show / The Issue of Pre-Selling

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Postcard from Kim’s Show.  Opens tomorrow night, 6-9.  I’m expecting a crowd, as her popularity has risen greatly over the past 5 years.  Have we always had crowds at our openings?  Man, I remember in the early 90s how I had to pack my first joint with students and friends, otherwise it would have been empty, since few collectors ever showed up.  Great party, no sales.  Still a great party, but usually abundant sales. 

Have pre-sold 8 of the 30 paintings already, two of them quite large.  Do I have an issue with selling work before the opening actually begins?  None.  I’m here for the artists, their families, and my family.  I’m here to sell the work, and to make it easy for the clients to buy.  Since many can’t make opening night, you bet I pre-sell.  The more work you place, the more greatly it is valued.  The more it is valued, the more art appreciation grows–to the benefit of all.

Derrick Breidenthal and MMG Worldwide

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Dirty Run, Oil on Panel, Derrick Breidenthal 

This is the lobby of MMG.  Very sleek and minimal.  Complements the original design intent of the building, which is on one of the hills north of The Plaza, and was built in the 50s–during the height of our love affair with the International Style.  MMG also has offices in NY and Miami.

See that clean white wall behind the reception desk?  That’s been selected for a large piece by Derrick Breidenthal, meaning 28″ x 72″.  Derrick will start the study soon, after he finishes prepping for his June 15th show here.  Sold five of his pieces this month, so we’re low on inventory already–a nice dilemma.