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Sunday, March 5

suddenly I'm obi-wan kenobi

It seems like only a year ago that I was picking the brain of a coworker in my government job about how to make money at craft fairs. He and his wife were "on the circuit" and they made stuff for work events and since I had tried every craft known to man, I figured maybe this could be a small revenue stream for me. I was already plotting how to take a very early retirement from a job I really hated.

They were true "crafters" and I remember they were making the "hot" items for that year: Country and Victorian. Jerry kept track of trends and pandered to them. I wouldn't call him an artist necessarily but he was a careful and creative crafter. He took me under his wing.

When you start in this business you have no idea how it works. I mean, how do you get to do a show? Who do you call?  Oh lordy, I was naive. He helped me find a few "easy" show to start with and taught me how to apply. I was actually accepted to 3 shows before I had made one sellable item. It was crazy. But it was fun. That was almost 20 years ago now. Wow.

So, anyway, now we are hardened show artists. I still learn something every show from my fellow artists, but we are comfortable in our routines and we know what to do!  2 years ago a show I do added an "annex" for new artists and students. That is where I met Joshua. He is a college kid with a delightful spirit and warmth. I was drawn to him because he works in paper and he works with it in a way I wish I could. He follows his instinct and his muse and makes lovely, whimsical works of art. I am more likely to choose designs and work based on whether it will sell and while Joshua is also hoping to make a profit, his spirit is clean.:) We have become friends and while I am sort of a mentor for him now, he is an inspiration for me. It's a great partnership. We will be doing some shows together this year.

Another friend called me the other day and asked to meet for coffee. She wanted to talk about  being a working artist. She is a talented watercolorist and also a quilter.  We met and I told her everything I knew. I advised that she make a choice between her 2  arts and stick with it. She had a lot of good questions. This is one smart lady. I told her, on a personal note, to make sure her partner is supportive because she is going to need him and he is going to need patience. Not everyone has a Russell. I am so blessed in that area. She brought me a small book with anecdotes on creative entrepreneurship. It was a wonderful coffee date. She is going to "shadow" us at a few shows to get a feel for it and she is happy to pitch in when needed. This will be fun.

I guess I am now the seasoned veteran, importing what wisdom I have to beginners. That's pretty cool. The show circuits need new blood. Notice the average age of the artists you see in their little white tents. Mostly baby boomers. The festival artist pool is aging out and there isn't a lot of new blood to step up. Technology may be the final death knell. If you can sell online, why bother with the hassle of setting up shop on street corners? I love it, but this generation may not. I guess we'll see.

Meanwhile, I will drag my aging butt back out there. I will absorb the energy of the festivals and reconnect with my show friends and eat street food and get inspired and meet wonderful people with whom I will have interesting conversations. And I will always remember my mentor, Jerry, now passed, and feel grateful that he took me by the hand and led me into this wonderful world. Thanks, buddy.


Tuesday, February 28

plotting the course

I have learned a lot of lessons these past couple of years, most of them good. About art and commerce and life and death. Adjustments have been made, new work created, old work improved. I wish it hadn't taken so long. I'm getting old fast!

Let me share a secret about life as a festival artist. You may know this if you've read my blog over the years. It is hard. Physically hard.  You need to be able to lift and tote heavy boxes and display pieces, set up a tent that weighs hundreds of pounds and goes together like a Rubiks Cube. The days are long and weather is always a factor. You may send 12 hours in tropical heat with no breeze, or a rainy, windy day that threatens not only your fortitude, but your work as well.  We won't even think about Winter in Western New York! The days spent off the circuit are spent in whatever space you have designated as your studio. Kiss your Summers goodbye.

And I love every minute of it.

I am not one of those artists that makes boatloads of money. Most of us aren't, despite what you might think when you see people crowding in our booths. I am luckier than most in that my cost of materials is very low and I recycle and reuse every scrap. So, I was getting kind of lazy. My cards, (that are reproductions of original collage), are very popular and once the original artwork is done and the card formatted, become a simple "press and print" function. Same with the prints I sell. They are very popular and people buy multitudes of them.  It became a safety net. I became obsessed with having lots of those things  I hate to admit this, but why blog if you are just going to tell fairy stories? My real art work, the handbound books and original collage and miniature book jewelry? They became the backdrop for those "press and print" items instead of the main event. Pretty sad when you get lazy like that.

Then we had a "situation". I was at my favorite show, the one that brings in twice as much money as any other, the one where people clamor for my cards and I can make as much just in cards as I can for the whole booth at another show. I had to remove my cards. What triggered this unexpected switch is not important. It was reasonable since many shows do not allow them, but it was spur of the moment and we were not prepared. I was pretty concerned abut my ability to even break even. The organizer of the show,( a terrific woman and one of the best in the business), fretted over this the whole weekend and we had many fruitful discussions over the weekend and I just sucked it up and decided to make the best of it.

And a funny thing happened. I had a terrific show. Without the distraction and temptation of the $4 item, people bought my art. All of it.  For the second show at that venue a month later, I brought many more originals and sold almost all of them making that show one of my best ever. You see, I didn't have enough confidence in my art to make originals the backbone of my business. It was a revelation that totally changed my perspective and my work ethic. My collage sells! And if I show up with a large inventory and keep growing creatively, this is going to be  a good year. I'm excited.

But not all changes were happy ones. Some years ago I had the pleasure of being at an after-show picnic at an artist friend's house where we met Richie and Lynne. Amazing folk. Talented artists and musicians, loving hearts, smart, funny, open.  I was at a point in this art show world stuff where it was get it figured out or give it up, And I wound up having quiet conversation with Lynn about how to do this business smart. My eyes were opened. We became art show friends. That means you really only see each other at art show related events but you seek each other out at set up and stay connected through to tear down, sharing life and business stories with the openness of cronies. At one show, Lynn told me she had been diagnosed with appendix cancer. How bad could that be? I thought.  Snip it out, right? Wrong.Now,  I am living with cancer. Treatable, chronic, non-invasive, non-aggressive but a part of my life that shadows all the other parts and Lynn knew this and we talked about it and it seemed she would be OK. But when I mentioned to my Doctor that a friend had this he looked at me sadly and communicated with his eyes that this was not going to be easy. And it wasn't. She relapsed, did the chemo, made an appointment with my Doctor but still I thought she was just too damn special to lose this fight, Her life was too beautiful, her love too enduring, her new grandchild too perfect. And then, late one night, a text from Ritchie, "Lynn is at the end".

Now we see him at the shows, setting up the usual display, but all alone. I offer to spell him for breaks, but he says he's OK. I bring him lunch as if this would be enough to ease his pain. I hug him. I try to find some moments to go schmooze for company. I listen. I mourn. But still he is alone in that booth, surrounded by the beautiful, bright full-of-life illustrations he and Lynn created.

It reminds me that none of us is forever, but that art endures. I think of how many rooms have the stylized, colorful, sophisticated  prints they create, how many note cards have been sent across the world with their joyful botanicals. Lynn lives in these offerings. Her spirit, her artistry, her vision remain with us.

I am blessed to have known her, to have her husband as a friend and mentor.

Gains and losses. Trials and victories. Art and commerce. A year in the life of an art carnie.

And on we go.