Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Cheerleading tryouts in the Fine Art world

Let’s say you have a hobby that you enjoy.  You knit or read fortunes or glue stuff on other stuff.  You want to start a business.  How do you start?  What do you do?  If you got fired and had about ten minutes to start making money somehow, could you do it?

After I stopped blubbering about getting fired from my corporate job in 2005, I started peddling my pencil portraits at craft shows.  I had no clue how to go about it; I’d never even gone to a craft show before.  My last day at work was February 28, and my first craft show, at our local county fairgrounds, was in early April. Considering I did some serious post-job sulking, I’m surprised I got started as quickly as I did.  Fortunately, that first craft show turned out to be a decent show, just ten minutes away.  I still do it up to three times a year.

Nothing makes my former mechanical engineer father happier than designing something and building it.  I brag regularly about how he invented the moving walkway.  He’s also brewed up some other handy contraptions over the years, like a pulley system that allowed our old Volkswagen Rabbit to yank his speed boat out of the lake and a custom desk that runs along one wall of my brother’s old room and into the closet.  It’s gorgeous.  My dad is in heaven working with his hands. 

When I signed up for my first craft show, I had to come up with some sort of booth, or exhibit.  I had a cutesy idea in my head of suspending a sign from a big pencil.  I sketched it quickly and emailed it to my dad, asking if he could help. 

I think it was just a couple days later that we went shopping together at Menard’s and my dad built a pencil for me out of PVC pipe.  The supports that held up the pencil could be stored inside it.  He put together special clamps and floor supports that attached to the table.  Look how much that dang pencil looks like my drawing!  My dad is brilliant.

There's a big pencil, so you know I'm good.

I spray painted it bright yellow, covered the metal tip in contact paper, made the pencil lead out of the end of a plastic ice cream cone from my kid’s play kitchen and fashioned an eraser out of foam paper and silver curling ribbon.  Years later, the lady in charge of that first craft show still asks me, “What happened to your big pencil?”  It made an early, immediate impression when I didn’t have much else to show. 

I printed out some inquiry forms, hoping people would fill them out at the show like the corporate conventions I'd worked with my dad.  I made a sample book that included photos my clients had given to me and the resulting portraits.  I crossed my fingers.  Looking at this first display, I can’t even believe how little I started out with.  Twenty-four people filled out forms.  My husband and I excitedly shuffled through all those potential orders, mentally counting our load of cash.  Of course, only a couple people actually placed orders, which was a lesson I’d learn over and over, eventually making me the poster child of skeptism I am today.  No matter how sincerely somebody praises my work, promises that they’ll order a portrait, that they'll call me tomorrow, come back the next day with photos, very few actually follow through, because they are busy with real jobs.  Nobody needs a portrait that bad.

Craft shows worked well for me as I learned, little by little, what I needed for a professional display.  There were few traditional artists at craft shows and I felt like my work was more impressive when I was next to potholders, lamps made from booze bottles and "sh*t on a stick" (as art fair insiders affectionately call lower end craft shows).  I wasn’t confident that my work could stand up next to talented painters and sculptors.  

For outdoor shows, I bought an E-Z up tent from Sam’s Club for $200.  Ouch.  At the time it felt like a big investment.   I had no clue how expensive my outdoor display would eventually be.  At first, I displayed my portraits by spraying the backs with adhesive and slapping them on foam board.  I hung them from fishing line tied to my tent supports.  Snazzy!  The foam board would get dirty and beat up, but I felt like a pro.  People actually ordered portraits by looking at the foam board flapping around in the breeze.  Do you recognize pretend-dead Grandpa in the middle? 

What an artistic water bottle you have there.

I enthusiastically sent this photo with my first fine art show application to the Prairie Arts show in Schaumburg.  They laughed (probably) and rejected me in a frosty letter accompanying my returned check.  People had been so kind, building up my hopes with all kinds of nice compliments.  I was shocked that they wouldn’t let me in their fine art club.  How dare they!  Little did I know, the photo of an artist’s display is just as important as the quality of the work, for fancy fine art shows.  Let’s observe the fact that in this photo, my artwork isn’t very visible, it is CROOKED, there is some crap underneath and on top of my table and I am clearly a complete hack.  When applying to a fine art show, a panel or jury decides whether your artwork and display are up to snuff.  You can’t look like a 12 yr old created your display, no matter how adorable your drawings are. I had flashbacks of trying out for high school cheerleading, smiling in terror and hollering the routines, all hopeful and doomed.  I didn’t have a clue what I was doing then and I'm still learning.  But I wouldn’t give up.

Once I understood the  importance of a professional display, I promptly half-assed it, as usual. 
Cheap lattice provides the best yield of splinters during set up.

I do not like to spend money.  At all.  On anything.  So rather than invest in some art display walls, I built folding screens out of lattice – the wood bric-a-brac used underneath our deck.  They were rickety, uneven and needed to be plastic-tied to my tent or they would fall down. At first, I thought they’d look better if they were painted white.  I figured my kids could do the painting, since I was always looking for something that would hold their little boy attention for more than five minutes to avoid my impending insanity.  After I spent a good half hour setting up all the stuff, they painted for about four minutes and then wandered away. This was their usual peekaboo window of interest in anything that took me more than 20 minutes to prepare.  More paint was on the lawn than on my screens.  Rather than finish it myself, I decided the portraits looked better hanging on the natural (cheap) wood than on white wood.  So in addition to the lack of sturdiness and unevenness, a couple of the screens were about ¼ covered in gloppy, dried white paint drips.  Classy! 

Here I come, fine art world!

Continuing my “only the best for me” approach, I coughed up $10 a piece for 16x20 plastic frames from Wal-Mart.  I soon discovered that the plexiglass immediately got scratched and/or cracked and/or accented by uncleanable smudges.  But what a difference from dirty, crooked foamboard.  I was legit!  Sort of.  Regardless of the lattice screens’ endearing faults, my work looked a hell of a lot better in frames, especially from a distance.  Plus, the total cost for my three home-made screens, hinges and amateur carpenter labor: $70.  Cost of the professional display walls that I would eventually buy: around $750.  Cost of the big girl tent I’d eventually buy:  $1000.  Weight of the plastic bins full of frames with actual glass in them: back breaking.  My set up was quick and light back in those days.  I’d pop up the crappy screens, hang my beat up plastic frames, done!!

I limped along for the first three years, building my business on a shoestring.  I upgraded my website,, building it myself using a Godaddy template, listing my show schedule which was starting to include some nicer shows.  (Don't look at my show list right now because it is from last year.  I broke my website and am currently in the middle of procrastinating.  Seriously, I was going to fix it today, but went to lunch and wrote this blog instead.)

As my shows improved, I asked fellow artists for recommendations and check out their set up. Every time I’d see better displays, I felt more and more embarrassed of my flea market setup.  I’d cart my stuff to the next church, high school or fairgrounds and look around at my glue gun creation neighbors, thinking, “Is this really where I really fit in?  Next to the bedazzled t-shirt lady and the doggie treat guy?”  Occasionally people would ask me, “What are you doing here?”  My price point was way beyond lawn art or silk flower arrangements.  Some people would pick up my price sheet, shudder and put it right back down. As time went on, I built a library of portrait prints that I could sell on site, rather than always leaving each show with nothing in my pockets except hope.  I drew historical figures and sports images, offering multiple sizes and greeting cards.  Sometimes those $4 cards made the difference between a good show and a miserable one.

Finally, I bit the bullet and bought mesh walls for my tent from, for $750. 

Actual booth photo that is taken on my SLANTED yard.
It looked better, but the setup of my “walls” went from a few minutes to the better part of an hour.  During my first craft shows, I used to wave good-bye to Bob Schmidt, a sports collectible guy and one of my favorite fellow crafters.  He’d have tons more to pack up and he’d shake his fist at me as I’d skip out among the first to leave the show.  As my set up got more complicated and professional, he’d laugh at me as I’d be staying with him later and later, still breaking down after most of the other crafters had packed up their American Girl doll clothes.  I’d added shelves, lights, a carousel of greeting cards and an extra table to my set up.  “Ha ha, you used to be out of here in a half hour!” he teased, when I was still packing up 90 minutes later.  Packing up is NOT the fun part. It's faster than the set up, but usually done while pouting. I built a crappy pull-cart with a piece of plywood and hauled my growing display out to my gas-guzzling Durango, sometimes in pouring rain, often tipping an overloaded pile of stuff and breaking something while swearing at the top of my lungs.

In my 5th year, I had to face the fact that my cheap tent wasn’t going to hack it anymore.  It was leaking and pulling apart at the seams.  One time, the center pole poked through the top of the tent after I’d had everything set up.  I had to take everything down, reposition the pole, and set up again, while crying and feeling sorry for myself.  Nothing panicked me more than the first time it rained outside AND inside my tent.  Crafters cleverly use hula hoops and pool noodles in the corners of the cheap tents to keep it from sagging with pooled rainwater, leaking buckets into the tent.  I’ve lost a lot of work to rain, which is never a friend to paper.  Replacing a few soggy prints is nothing compared to the unfortunate souls stuck in serious storms… the cheap tents can crumple like tin cans, blowing out into traffic. After consulting (such a great resource), I chose a Showoff Trimline tent, which is one of the easiest of the fancy tents to assemble by yourself.  Spending $1000 felt like a swift kick to the gut, contributing much stomach acid to my panic attack that always accompanies any big expense.  Setting up my old tent was like opening an umbrella… the new one had to be built in stages.  But it was water tight. 

The first time that I set up my brand new tent at a show, I built the domed canopy structure on the ground, like I'd practiced.  It was a windy day, and when I attached a second leg to the tent top, the wind yanked it like a kite and wrenched it straight up, snapping off a piece of my brand new expensive structure.  I held the broken piece in my hand in horror, realizing that I would have to load everything back in my car, go home and get my cheap leaky tent.  I had to miss my Bunko group for the first time and I cried on the phone to my Bunko friend Karen, feeling sorry for myself again.  I have the emotional constitution of a five year old.  After I got a replacement part shipped to me, I made sure that the tent top was weighted down any time there was even the slightest breeze before I put the legs on.  It's a nonstop learning experience.  Sometimes my husband and boys help with setup or breakdown (hallelujah!)... mostly I'm on my own.  My husband insisted that I buy a nice cart this year and it has made a world of difference. 
Fancy!  But those curtains take forever to put up.

Now the majority of my shows are fine art shows… I get into most, but many are still too selective to let me in… maybe my display still isn’t fancy enough, or maybe my work isn’t good enough either. Each time I apply to a new show, I still feel like I'm trying out for cheerleading, yelling as loud as I can, trying to smile, fearful I won't make it.  But unlike my failed cheerleading career, I make it in fine art a good part of the time.  I’ve even won some ribbons at a few shows and I’ve landed some larger clients.  But as the shows get nicer, my display is starting to feel like it needs yet more upgrades.  And then it's suddenly as if I’m out there for the first time again, with my card table and big ole pencil.

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