Friday Tips for Artists: Forming An Art Gang

Toulouse-Lautrec, With Some of His Gang

This is a great idea, backed by great tradition. Groups of artists have played a role in the development of one another�s careers throughout history�in terms of support, inspiration, and in some cases dissipation.

There was Degas� group that gathered each summer in Brittany, which later gave rise to Gauguin�s group. There was Lautrec�s group that roved in and out of a variety of Montmartre cafes, and experimented with a variety of absinthes. There was Benton�s crowd on Martha�s Vineyard, the American Impressionists at Old Lyme, and Jackson Pollock�s band of merry drinksters at the Cedar Bar on Long Island.

If you know these stories, then you know that brilliant work is associated with these characters. You may also know that drug abuse and alcoholism was in some cases associated with the same. It seems in many instances that there is a steep price for brilliance�although this is not always the case.

But it hasn�t just been artists who have banded together. All kinds of people engage in this practice for obvious reasons of mutual support, shared contacts, and shared beliefs. To me, young Ben Franklin�s coalition of intellectuals, entrepreneurs and artisans–called The Junto–during his early years in Philadelphia is one of the best examples.

How do you form such a group, regardless of where you might live? Start by approaching the local paper. If you live in a fairly large city, it�s not likely that the major daily will do a story on this, but it is likely that a smaller, community-oriented paper will. But if the town where you live is moderate in population, it�s virtually a given that the daily will do a story. Why? Because journalists are often sympathetic to the arts, being part artist themselves.

So call the paper, get the name of the appropriate editor, and send them a press release. You can do this via e-mail or regular mail. I recommend the latter so that you can include visuals of your work as an example. The release is nothing more than a one-page business letter, explaining your idea, the story behind it, and why there is an element of human interest. Make the story as interesting as possible. Include details of when you want to meet, where, how frequently, etc.

And while you�re at it, you might want to mention some of the groups I alluded to above, and how throughout history this has been a practice of singularly dedicated artists. Just don�t get into the various aspects of drunkenness and hell-raising.

After sending the release, wait a week, then call and politely inquire whether the paper will be doing the story. In time they�ll let you know. Just don�t bother them overmuch, as journalists are insanely busy people with insaner deadlines.

Once this is completed and the article comes out�assuming it does�undertake an
e-mailing campaign with art teachers in your area, both at the college and high school levels. Many are artists themselves, hang out with artists, will gladly pass on the information, and probably join. It will be up to you to decide if you want to restrict the group to the kind of work that you do, or leave it wide open.

Just be sure to ask yourself, is this group going to merely be a collection of polite coffee sippers who gather to socialize, or are you going to get down to the blood-and-guts aspects of creating art, and be honest with yourselves in the process? This doesn�t mean that you can�t be polite, or that you can�t sip coffee. You should always be considerate, as I think vitriolic criticism is counter-productive, and rarely inspires change. But candor, when born of mutual respect, is essential for the advancement of individuals within any group.

Your purpose should be growth, both as individuals and artists. Growth is best achieved by grappling with and overcoming adversity, in both your work and personal life. That, in turn, is best dealt with through candor. When everyone understands that this is among the group�s goals, then you�ll be creating a coalition that may well leave a significant stamp on each of you for the rest of your lives. Good; that sure beats staying at home and doing nothing in perpetual solitude. There’s already enough of that; too much in fact. This is your way to break out of it.

Have a great time with this. And hey, swap the coffee for wine if you want, or better yet, bourbon (then I’ll join). Absinthe? Man, I think I�d stay away from that. Bad news. Just ask Lautrec.

Previous Friday Tips For Artists

When Art Should Be Serious / Maya Lin / Industrial Military Complex

Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, Designer, Maya Lin
Photo by David Pride

This work needs no comment. The only sad thing is that the tragedies of war are rarely retained, and often must be relearned by each generation. This, combined with inept leadership that is driven by greed rather than wisdom, is one of the greatest tragedies of all–to say nothing of what it does to civilians on the receiving end.

We lost 58,226 in Vietnam, and thousands more afterward; one of those was my older brother. 1.5 million civilians died in the war. Just prior to the explosion of that disaster, Eisenhower warned us about the dangers of the Industrial Military Complex, and how its intent was to prolong or create needless wars, regardless of the human cost, since profit was the primary motive. In Vietnam, all of his predictions were realized to a horrific degree.

I don’t think I need to say anything more.

When Art Should Be Fun / Matt Kirby’s Tuning Forks

Matt Kirby, Tuning Forks

Sometimes art should be serious, especially when a serious issue is being addressed. Other times it can transport you, provoke you, irritate you, amuse you, or just put you to freaking sleep. Still other times, it should just be fun. Case in point: Matt Kirby’s installation of Tuning Forks at The Legends. Yes they really do work, at four different pitches. Very amusing to buy a beer across the way, sit on the deck, and watch people go up and whack the things. Soothing way to pass an hour or two with friends.

Drafting Contracts / Speaking at High Schools / Leslie Reuther

Leslie Reuther, Stamp, Ink and Acrylic on Canvas

Spending the day drafting contracts (or what I call Letters of Agreement) for different artists, different commissions. Boring as hell, but it has to be done. Some important points?
–Establish terms.
–Make sure both Artist and Client know their responsibilities.
–Set deadlines.
–Write in clauses that protect both Artist and Client should disagreements occur.
–Ensure everything is drafted in the spirit of cooperation.
–Protect copyright for artist.

These are only a few of the issues. There are dozens more. Hate it. Would rather be out playing ball or skinnydipping, but I’m the consultant, so here I sit. Better than not having the work though.

Spoke today at another high school, this one in the suburbs as well: Shawnee Mission East. Talked with my oldest son’s creative writing class–graduating seniors. Shot rubber bands at them on occasion. Told them that was the great part of being an adult: I could shoot them, they couldn’t shoot back. Then of course they shot back. Punks! I’ll start speaking at inner-city schools next week. End-of-Year pep talk. Help them get real.

Piece above is by Leslie Reuther, a highly talented painter from St. Louis whose approach to figure is unlike any I’ve ever seen. Believe she may soon land a commission. We’ll see how it all shakes out.

Excerpt from Cool Nation

This is the seventh section from the fourth chapter. All other excerpts are on the sidebar.

Lives Forming

When in summer the pasture grass grew thin and brown, Dad would occasionally ride one of the horses to the end of the block, to a vacant lot there that was bordered on one side by a stream. The lot was rarely mowed and the grass was lush and Dad would stake the horse, whether Nancy or Blaze or Shasta, and leave it to graze for the night.
We would sometimes follow on our bikes and watch as Dad drove the stake and tied off the horse. The horse would pull on the rope until it was taut, the rope stretching out straight in mid-air, then the horse would begin to graze. As it grazed Dad would take a five-gallon bucket down to the stream, fill it, and place it at the edge of the field, just within reach of the rope. Then we would stand back and Stephanie and Jean would go in and kiss the horse goodnight�whether Nancy or Blaze or Shasta�and we would all start back up the hill to the house.
When I was eight we took Blaze one evening and staked him in the lot. The girls kissed him, Allen and I kissed him, and we all went back up the hill toward home.
In the morning Dad, Stephanie and I went down in the station wagon to get him, but when we got to the lot he wasn�t there. Dad stopped the car and we looked out across the grass but he wasn�t there, nor in any of the other yards, nor anywhere else that we could see. Then Dad saw the rope. He saw it at the same time we did.
The rope was stretched as tight as a piano wire, going straight across the lot and over the bank of the stream. It was stretched so tight you couldn�t have picked it up. It ran right across the lot and out of sight down the bank, and it wasn�t moving.
Stephanie, already crying, opened the door but Dad grabbed her and said, �No.�
She shook loose and ran crying through the grass, following the line of the rope, where at the little bluff she stood and put her hands to her head and screamed. I watched her scream, then Dad was there, sweeping her up in his massive embrace, carrying her like nothing back to the car. I had gotten out and come up behind them, and without looking at me he said, �Go back.�
I didn�t go back. I stood at bluff�s edge and looked down to where Blaze lay, neck stretched out, blood-covered nostrils, eyes bulged open, the rope burned into his flesh. Blood had sprayed all over the ivy and grass along the steep of the bank, and his hind hooves had gouged out jagged holes in the mud where he�d tried to raise up.
�Russell Peter! Russell Peter Durrand! Now. Right now!�
I turned and went back to the car, where my sister huddled against my father as we drove up the hill to the house, where she went inside under the shelter of his arm and up to her room and back to bed, he sitting on the bed beside her.
Dad didn�t go to work that day. In all my life that is only day I ever recall that he did not go to work. Instead he stayed home with my sisters, and held them as they cried, nursing them all day through this, their first brush with death; nursing them and nursing them until, by day�s end, he knew they would endure it, even though for years he had a hard time doing the same. My mother nursed them beside him. Mom was also the one who called Doc Carter to come and dispose of the body.
Blaze had pulled the rope its full length in trying to reach the green shoots above the creek. The bank had given way, and he had fallen, dying of strangulation. No one could believe that my father, who ran one of the most successful contracting businesses in the city, who owned and flew his own plane, and who had come so far from so little, had allowed such a thing to occur. But he was human, as that day I realized for the first time. I also realized, when he told the girls over and over that it was his fault, his fault, his fault, that he was also a man, and that I would be lucky if I were ever half the man he was.

We stood at the fence beneath a blue October sky, and in silence watched him. Indifferent to us, or anyone, he stood across the pasture grazing, forelegs askance, tail swishing, he ripping the grass loose with a sideways jerk of the head. Nancy and Shasta grazed at the other end, still nervous and unsure in his presence, both having been kicked and bitten already. Nobody rode the new horse but Dad. He was half Arabian and half quarter and stood sixteen hands at the shoulder and his name was Rex.
�You couldn�t either,� Jean said.
�I could too.�
�You couldn�t. You�d better not anyway. Dad�ll kill you.�
�He�ll never know. Unless you tell.�
�But they�ll see you,� Seth said.
�No they won�t. They�re both upstairs in Mom�s room.�
Allen looked up at me. �Why do they always go up to Mom�s room on Sundays?�
Jean and I looked down at him. �Never mind.� Then I went off to the barn for some oats.
I stood on the split-rail fence and called him, the oats cupped in my hand. He looked up, his reddish hide twitching, looked at the other horses, who were looking up also, then in a slow walk came over. Other kids who had been playing on the rope swing were watching now too. They were mostly the D�Agostino�s kids, little ones all.
Rex came over, his hide rippling, and ate from my hand. I guided him parallel to the fence, and after I felt the relaxing of his guard I climbed on.
It was like sitting in a treehouse, except it moved. I took him by the mane and turned him, and as I did all those kids burst out and came screaming toward the fence, leaping up on the rail with a suddenness and a shrillness that no one foresaw and no one could stop.
The far end of the pasture came racing toward me with a neck-snapping velocity that was surreal in its violence and speed. Then I was airborne, then the split-rail fence came rushing up, and that was all.
It was after a long time, and through a strange darkness, that later I heard Mom weeping, felt the cold damp of the washcloth on my head. Through the darkness I heard Dad say, �Hush now. He�s not dying. I tell you he�s not.�
�But he is he is!�
�Hush. He isn�t either. I won�t let him.�
Slowly I came through the darkness and opened my eyes and saw half the neighborhood crammed into our den: all those kids, a scattering of adults, Seth, Jean and my parents (but not Stephanie, as she was out chasing boys). I was lying on the sofa with them gathered around in a half-circle, Dad damping my forehead, Mom beside me, her face in her hands.
�Helen,� Dad said softly. Shirtless, he was dressed only in jeans, and she had about her the appearance of someone who had thrown on her clothes in a panic.
She looked up, saw my opened eyes, and started weeping again. �You little fool you little fool!� Hugging me now. �What were you doing on that horse? Tell me. What?�
I said nothing, but only stared up at the neat bouffant of her golden hair as she held me, as I smelled her perfume, and as Mrs. D�Agostino, who had been a triage nurse in Normandy, came forward to check for broken bones.
Dad continued to damp my forehead, which before had been numb but was now starting to throb There was blood on the washcloth and on my shirt. I stared at it as though it had come from someone else. I kept wanting to get up, but a strange weight in my head held me down.
After awhile Dad carried me out to the car, and took me to the hospital.
In the end it cost me a concussion, twelve stitches and a broken collarbone�a fair enough price for glory.
The next night, as I lay on the naugahyde sofa wearing my brace and watching Gunsmoke, Seth came over with a copy of �We Can Work It Out.� We set it at the bottom of the stack of forty-fives�their other forty-fives followed. After that we played The Stones, The Dave Clark Five, and The Hollies. We listened to the whole stack, then flipped it over and listened to the other sides too. Then we flipped it over again and went back to the ones we�d listened to first.
Seth stayed with me, playing the records and fetching us bottles of Vess Soda, until his mother called for him home.

Friday Tips For Artists: Relationship First, Contract Later

I recently finished negotiations on a large equine sculpture for a major developer. Erik Beier, sculptural genius, is working with me on this. To date, we’ve had three meetings, and have invested about 8 hours of our time–most of that coming from Erik in the form of renderings, etc. And all of this we did without a contract. Yes, I still sometimes do that, even with all my accomplishments. Why?

Well Erik is rather young as a sculptor, so I’m still in the process of helping to establish him. Also the client doesn’t yet know me, although he’s acquainted with several of my references. The client seems honest, so I’ve been willing to work gratis up to this point. However we recently established that Erik is to be paid for all further renderings, and verbally agreed that the commission is ours.

Look, on small projects, if you try to lock up everything with a contract from the start, you’ll freak out the client, who will then close up, and be more difficult to work with. I prefer earning their trust, and impressing them with our abilities, before insisting on the contract–but only if my instincts tell me to proceed thus. Normally they do, as I’m rather selective in who I’ll invest such time.

Contracts? I swear by them; everything must be spelled out on paper. I just never present them until all parties are in synch.

In fact right now I’m working my butt off on a new project that will require my attention for the next year, and a fair bit of travel, since the client’s outside my region. But the client’s cool, we’re in synch, and I know the contract will be here soon. They confirmed all that in our last conference call. So I’ve already started work. Do they appreciate that? Like you wouldn’t believe. But again I wouldn’t go this route if my instincts didn’t advise me to.

Contracts are not only great, but necessary. Just pick the right time in presenting them, meaning after a business relationship, rooted in trust, has been established. You’re not sure how to assess the trust? That’s easy: go with your instincts. Normally they’ll serve you quite well. But once you do present the contract, make sure all aspects of the project are properly spelled out, protecting both you and the client. When they realize you’re as concerned about their interests as your own, they’ll not only be impressed, they’ll readily tell their friends about you. That’s a type of marketing–the free kind.

Previous Friday Tips for Artists

Dennis Hopper / Arlie Regier

Arlie Regier, Hemisphere in Steel, Stainless Steel

We rented Blue Velvet the other night. Since my kids are teenagers now, they’re ready for flicks like that, and the curious world of David Lynch. I hadn’t seen the movie since it first came out, in ’86. Just as trippy now as then. Dennis Hopper, with his somewhat Dodge City twang, cussing up a storm. Wild.

Hopper. The passion he’s always had. Oh sure it was subdued in those early roles, Giant and Rebel Without A Cause. But once he could cut loose, from Easy Rider forward, look out. Problem was he had no self-control with the dope and booze, and nearly killed both himself and his career. The miracle was how he survived it, then went on to have a brilliant career. He’s 70 now, and recently admitted that he wondered what he could have done had it not been for the dope and booze. Who can say? I use him as an example to my kids anyway as to what NOT to do with your talent. I don’t think he’d mind.

Sculpture above by good old Arlie Regier. Composed of 1000 pieces of stainless steel. Sold it to a San Francisco collector this afternoon. Nice way to finish the day, before going to tease the Brothers, and Sisters, in Light in the Other Room.

Kim Casebeer Opening / Women Artists

Here’s a shot of Kim’s opening. This was taken in the upper gallery, at the onset. The wine had only just started to flow. Went through 100 bodies by evening’s end, and I don’t know how many bottles. Sold 13 paintings and secured 3 commissions. A very good night. Chick in the foreground was about to be ambushed by one of my sales staff. She made an acquisition, went home happy.

Was it always this way? Not at all. Our first opening for Kim, 4 years ago, saw 25 bodies and 1 sale. It takes time and persistence. I love helping to do this for such a skilled and dedicated painter. I love doing it even more for a woman. I mean let’s face it, the arts are still dominated by white men, who as in the corporate world still tend to command the big fees. That’s slowly changing. I’d like to believe I’m of some assistance in the process.

John Gary Brown / High School Talk / New Blades

John Gary Brown, Monument Valley, Oil

John Gary Brown, or Brownie as he’s known around here, has spent time in North Africa, Europe, Central America, and all over North America. His travels inform his abstractions, although I’ll not speculate as to how. I just dig how they turn out. I’ve used his work in several collections, and hope to use it in several more. He’s a brick of a dude, and one fine nude photographer–though my wife has expressed no interest in posing for him. Damnit.

Spoke today to a graduating art class from Blue Valley High School. It took a half hour to get there, an hour to complete the talk, then a half hour back to the gallery. A big chunk of my day. Was it worth it just to inspire a bunch of kids? You bet it was, even if I did have to work late to catch up.

Bought one of my sons a new pair of RollerBlades tonight, this so he can blast around downtown with me evenings, when the place empties out, the streets are vacant, and you can blade wherever you want. Nothing like that on a summer night.

Chicago Artists’ Coalition / United 93 / Gerry Lubensky

A year ago I spoke at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. What was most memorable about this signing? The enthusiasm of the crowd, and the diversity of talent. What was most curious? A photographer from the Chicago Reader who couldn’t seem to get the right angle. What was the most interesting? A group of kids down the street, in front of the Chicago Art Institute Museum, who were drumming away on a set of boxes. Street performers from the South Side. I mean they were good. I tossed some bills in the hat, bent down, and said they ought to get a manager. The oldest one grinned, and said, “How about you, cuz?” I told him I already had enough artists to manage.

The best things about United 93? The piercing honesty, the objectivity, the refusal to take sides in this complex issue that goes back over 100 years, and the forthright telling of a brutal series of events. But that objectivity changes nothing about the losses of that day, the enormous tragedy, the horror for those involved, and the trauma for the families left behind. Great film, just not easy to watch.

Piece at top by Gerry Lubensky. Used it in an installation for one of my clients. Note Arabic script.