Do you ever get disappointed after going to an artist’s website or blog hoping to find some insight or bit of inside information only to find that the “inside information” provided is calculated, dull, and generic? Well, boy do I have a treat for you today. I had an interesting experience recently and I think it might do us all some good to take an honest peek at it.
Last Friday my wife and I decided to attend the opening reception at the Green Rice Gallery in Charlotte, NC for the North to South Juried Exhibition. I realize that for many people the decision to attend or not to attend a social function is quick and easy. Even people with small children may barely blink at the thought of hiring a babysitter or packing the kids up in one of those weird backpack things and heading out for some social interaction. These decisions are never so easy for me.
Those of you who pay close attention may have noticed that the url of this e-sketchbook contains the word "hermit". Yeah. Given the choice between spending time with groups of people while attempting to make awkward conversation or drawing or reading in silence, I'll take the silence. And while my choice would be to remain a hermit 100% of the time, there is a part of being an artist that requires some form of social interaction. Yes, you can simply deliver your work and sit at home and hope for the best, but one of the most useful things my liberal arts education taught me was, and I'm quoting directly here, "You catch more flies with honey." So if you're socially inclined and you have the gift of gab and a friendly face, it is suggested that you can do more to promote yourself and your art by going to the receptions and talking up the viewers a bit. I mean, just ask yourself.....would you rather buy a sculpture from an anti-social jerk who never pokes his head out of his shell or from the friendly southern bald guy standing over there with the adorable child?
I wish I could say that I wanted to go to this reception. Honesty requires me to say that I did not want to go and that I fought with myself over the decision to attend. I could spend 5 or 6 precious hours on that new drawing....or I could go to this thing. I could prepare those other 2 sculptures for shipping instead of spending my Sunday doing it...or I could go to this thing. I could make fried rice, listen to an 8 month old laugh hysterically and make up stories with a 3 year old...or I could go to this thing.
But I went to the thing.
The awkward socializing went to the thing too. Let me explain a little. If you engage me in a conversation, I have no problem talking to you. I'll even enjoy it. If you want to talk about my art, the art in the room, or just art in general we'll have a great conversation. Heck, we can cover baseball, football, music, and religion if you like. The problem I have is that these are not usually the conversations people have at these types of events. Sure, there's the occasional person who is genuinely interested in knowing more about your work or some person you know and have not seen for a while. I do not dread those conversations. The ones I dread are the ones that are not really even conversations. Many of them go like this:
"Um, do you have something in the show?"
"Yes ma'am. That little drawing over there is mine."
"Oh." (horrible awkward silence) "Are you from around here?"
"I'm from Spartanburg, not too far away, but I show my work here pretty often and I teach nearby."
Each time I speak, I notice that the other person is scanning the room for the person they are really waiting to talk to and I realize that this "conversation" is simply a place holder. As the words are coming out of my mouth I realize that this person isn't really listening and wouldn't be able to pick me out of a lineup 20 minutes from now.
"The thing most people don't realize about me is that I'm the illegitimate son of Godzilla and Mothra and I've come to reclaim my throne as King of all radioactive lizards and moths."
"Oh. That's very interesting. It was so nice to meet you, I'm sorry, what did you say your name was?"
"Right, Inigo, it was very nice to meet you."
It's sad just how little that scenario is exaggerated.
Still, I put on my happy face and I went in with a good attitude and things went well. Just after walking in I noticed a painting by one of my grad students from last semester was in the show and then spotted her and her husband and talked a little. My wife and I then slowly moved around the gallery and saw all the artwork. We saw a few other people we knew but mostly we took this time to judge the work.
When you have work in a show with other artists there's no way to keep yourself from comparing. Most of the time I find myself feeling jealous that these people had such great ideas or wishing I could take such great photos or wishing I could paint. And when you find your work in a show with some of the best professors you had in college or with some of the bigger artist names you recognize from this region there's a mix of feelings swirling around in your head. On one hand you think, "Dude, I'm in a show with so and so". On the other hand you think, "Dang, I have zero chance of winning anything here."
After properly surveying the competition I was just thankful to be included in the exhibition and I turned my attention to where we would get coffee after the show and tried to decide if we needed to stop in for dessert somewhere or if we would rely on the snack machines in the hotel lobby for our sugar fix.
It was sometime around thinking about dessert that I realized someone had just announced that my little green sculpture had won Best in Show. This revelation caught me so off guard that I didn't even have time to be surprised. I immediately realized that I had no idea what I was expected to do. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners did not attend the reception so now I was left to stumble through walking up and shaking hands and trying not to say anything dumb. I think I may have muttered something like "holy crap" somewhere in that whole process.
Normally this would be the point where we would be free to go. We'd wrap up the baby and wave at a few folks as we quietly exited the building. We'd find chocolate and Mocha and we'd hope it didn't snow enough to make the roads dangerous. But now I thought maybe I shouldn't just run for the door. Now it was likely proper for me to stand there and have more social interaction. I just had no idea what to say. Some kind well wishers spoke and smiled and I talked briefly with a nice lady. Don't get me wrong, I was and am thrilled and completely grateful, but I was also itching to move on to a quiet place so I could process what had just happened. After a few minutes I was rescued from social discomfort by Carlee, Cameron, and TJ, all former students I don't get to talk to very often. I was totally comfortable and interested in this meandering conversation and by the time it wound down it was time to head out.
The crowd had thinned and I felt we stayed for a reasonable time. We felt great about everything and we were both still pretty shocked by it all. As we drove into the parking lot for coffee my wife told me a story that put it all in perspective. One of her super powers is the ability to blend in harmlessly in gallery situations. This power allows her to accidentally overhear all sorts of funny things that people say. Now, let me preface this by saying that there were 4 award winners in all and she was not sure which one these particular people were talking about, but here’s what she heard them say:
“Which one? THAT ONE???!!!??? Oh my gosh it’s awful! I can’t believe THAT won anything!”
Of course I assume they were talking about mine, because it’s funnier that way….and you know, I still can’t believe it either.
Footnote: The night wasn’t all peaches and sunshine. We opted for the hotel vending machines for dessert and we ended up celebrating with a Mountain Dew and a Reece’s Cup. We chose poorly.