Monthly Archives: April 2008

Working Artist or Business – Which Am I?

 

Black Iris

Russian Black Iris, New Brunswick, Canada, 2005

Last week I put up a show on Main St. in Greenfield, Mass.  Part of a project called AWE (Artist Window Exhibit) the Artists of Franklin County (AFC) are displaying their work in various store windows in town.  It was a big hit last year and so we’re doing it again this spring.  On Tuesday I put six framed photographs in the window of Simon’s Stamps.  They cleared on entire window for me which was great, giving me space to spread my frames out neatly in a little half circle.  When I looked at it from the street I felt very excited and proud.  It’s so exciting to have this kind of opportunity to share my work. 

Last week as I was contemplating preparing for the window display, I got an email from Douglas who is the executive director of Rowe Camp and Conference Center in Rowe, Mass.  I’d given him some of my photos on a CD last fall and he wanted more.  He didn’t actually say why but he’s an old friend and I’m a big supporter of Rowe so I just asked him what he wanted and spent a few hours over the weekend sorting through my images looking for the right ones that would meet his needs.  All of this could have been considered procrastinating as it gave me a good excuse to put off doing the matting and framing I needed to do to finish getting ready for AWE.  Still, it was easy and something I liked doing so I did it.  A lot of times I don’t decide things based on much of anything except do I feel like doing it.  Sounds selfish I know but there it is.  After so many years of working for a living, keeping a house (such as it was) and taking care of my family, there’s a certain stubborn pleasure in just doing what I feel like and deciding not to do things I don’t want to do until I really need to do them.  And then still… 

So, anyway, when I got to Tuesday morning I had what seemed like a simple task, mat and frame two photographs and get them ready to be transported into town.  Actually, there was more to it than that. I thought I’d just pick two more pictures from the ones I had stored in my file cabinet and frame them but as it turned out they weren’t the right size for the pre-cut mats I was using.  So I had to remember how I’d printed the other photos to fit, do that, then mat and frame.  I’d bought a piece of glass in town the day before because one piece previously purchased has a scratch on it and I’d thrown it out.  After I looked at the glass (just as I was cleaning it off to put it in the frame) I discovered it had several marks on it making it really unusable for framing.  Still, tick-tock, tick-tock, I didn’t have a choice so I used it, reminding myself my old friend Stephen Andrew’s admonition against trying to be perfect, “try to mess up one thing each day” and so I guess I succeeded in that.  I did get everything out and into the windows as promised with just a small imperfection on one piece of glass the only flaw.  

It turns out that Doug is using my photographs for the Rowe Center Post, a quarterly newsletter, where I will be the featured artist for the next edition.  In lieu of pay I will get a free workshop which I’ve already started considering.  I’m leaning towards Molly Scott’s workshop with horses.  Not sure I understand entirely what it’s about but I like the idea of hanging out in the country with a bunch of horses for a weekend.  And no doubt there will be an opportunity to spend some time singing around a campfire. Generally speaking this would certainly be considered a successful week for me.  Two creative activities coming to fruition.  

And so when I went into a meeting with Amy at the Franklin County Community Development Corp. (FCCDC) on Friday, I did so with a good deal of confidence and optimism.  We were getting together because I want to work on my business plan and she agreed to help me look at my finances and explain what I should be doing with them.  I consider myself rather poor at understanding numbers and maintaining records.But before I could even pull out my little Excel spreadsheets she stopped me and asked me this:”Is this really a business?  Or is this a hobby?”I was surprised.  The word hobby makes me think of stamp collecting or paint-by-numbers artists.  A real artist doesn’t have to be a business but I can’t really call serious art a hobby.  And yet, there are many people who are photographers who do pursue it as a hobby.  That’s not how I would chose to define my work, however, whether I’m successful at selling my work or not. 

So I asked her, “At what point does an artist become a business?  Is it when they sell one piece of art work?  When they sell ten pieces?  When they get accepted at a gallery?  Is it when their earnings match their expenses? (Or exceed them?)  Is it when they get representation, get their work in a museum, get written up in a national magazine?”

She answered that it was a very good question.

Amy taught a business class for artists offered by the FCCDC which I attended in 2006.  We meet as a group periodically to update each other on what progress we’ve made and share our work.  It’s been a very interesting process that I’ve worked hard to comprehend, not always successfully.  This could have been a disappointing conversation but it wasn’t.  Amy encouraged me to consider just enjoying the freedom I now have to chose what I want to do and pursue whatever creative endeavor interests me.   I’d not looked at it this way before and realized afterwards that it took a great burden off of me as I go forward.  To some extent, when I begin a project and it doesn’t lead to financial rewards (as in, somebody actually buys what I put out there) I feel a bit of a failure and fear I’m letting people down.  Those people would include friends and family who seem to have such hopes for me, and even those in the class who have to hear once again that I went to this show but didn’t sell anything…

Amy said she sees me as still finding my way, building towards something, gaining skill, knowledge, experience, confidence but still not really as having a business, and I woud agree.  It’s still not clear what product I have that is marketable, to whom I’m going to sell my work, or even if that is my ultimate goal.  A big part of me wants to go out into the world and be a reporter and photojournalist.  Use my camera to tell a story.  I love going to events and photographing whatever I see.  Even the photographs of flowers that everyone seems to love are usually taken on the fly, as I walk through a garden or across the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne falls.  I don’t set up a tripod as many professional photographers do.  I prefer to walk.  If I walk through and the light is wrong and nothing inspires me, I’ll go have some lunch and read a paper and go back later when the light is better.  I like to go back to certain places I’ve been before and see what’s new but also appreciate that I know the place and have learned the best way (and time of day) to photograph what I see there.  I also love to go off to new places with my camera and just see what I find.  Art is an adventure.  It’s a vacation in time, a break from the doldrums of normal life.  If it isn’t that then it’s not worth doing. 

All I can say about art and business is this.  In New York City, when I was working as an assistant to a creative director at Grey Advertising, I got to see the results of a lot of working artists.  I don’t think I ever met an individual artist in person except for one that was my boss’s son-in-law come to visit. Successful commercial artists pretty much spend all their time working on their art.  Other people, artist’s representatives, agents, stock houses, do the business side of things.  I don’t know if an artist by her or himself can do all that and actually get any work done.  If nothing else, it will steal the life out of your work if you walk the streets of New York with your portfolio (like some actress or model hoping to be discovered) getting sore feet and discouragement for your efforts.  That’s not to say that in the beginning you don’t have to go to people with your work and make an effort on your own to get seen but it has to make sense.  It has to be specific, and deliberate, tailored to your work and intentions. 

I think before an artist can be successful they need a body of work.  To some extent, because I’ve been working with photographing flowers for about ten years now, I have such a body of work and can take that out in the world and try to promote that.  But there is always that itch to do something new, to say, I’ve done this already, I’m bored, I want to go do that instead.  As an artist who is more than a photographer, I have begun to think I want to try my hand at painting again.  I gave up painting when my son started to crawl.  Initially it had to do with space and the fact that kids get into everything but after a while it was just that I wasn’t doing it anymore and I’d just stopped.  In the artist’s group I belong to there are a lot of people who work in several mediums and they’re inspiring me to try my hand again.  Plus there is this funny thing about my hands; they crave the feel of a brush, they long to take a pencil to paper.  It’s a physical thing that can’t be replaced by a computer program.  And the spring air calls to me to watch the world transform and record the action in paint, brush and photography.  Can these things work together?  We’ll see.