Thursday, July 31, 2008

Public Art: Why Bother?

I have a friend finishing up his creative writing PhD in Scotland. Often I’ll ask him how things have been going and he’ll respond with a sigh and tell me it’s been a tough day or a tough week. I usually take the bait and ask what has happened only to have him half jokingly explain that he’s had a hard day of reading and coffee drinking and now he’s just worn out. We joke about this because we’ve realized this is the impression people sometimes have of the life of the artist.

This false impression can lead to some serious problems for the artist. Of course no one wants to hear you complain about what they perceive as your luxurious life of thinking and creating, and if that’s what they really think then I can’t blame them. But this misunderstanding may also lead them to expect you to donate your artwork or your time and expertise to some sort of project they’ve got an idea for. Since they don’t think you really do anything all day they do not see this as an imposition at all. It’s not even that unreasonable for them to think that in some way you owe this to them or your other viewers because they’ve said nice things about you or maybe they came to a show once. If they’ve gone to the trouble of showing an interest in your work or abilities, don’t you owe them something?

Often these groups or organizations are dealing with a very limited budget or perhaps some government allotted funding on which they’ll need to keep a close watch. If you could reduce your asking price a little or a lot it would help them stay in the black for the fiscal year. Perhaps if you could find ways to trim your expenses and cut a few corners they might just have enough left in the budget for an extra addition to the permanent collection or to increase the Best in Show Award for their upcoming juried show. Your prices are a little bloated anyway, right? Surely you have built in some room for discounts.

I would not attempt to speak for anyone other than myself on this issue. Surely there are artists around who over-price their work. In the world of public sculpture the high price tags always seem to take even me by surprise. It is sometimes tempting to look at a public sculpture and wonder why anyone would pay in excess of $10,000 for that….thing. It is equally tempting to think that the artist must have made out like a bandit on that deal. The truth, however, is that the artist probably didn’t profit more than a few bucks and in most cases he or she would be lucky if that “profit” covered all their expenses.

The problem here is the unseen. People see a public sculpture made of steel and they assume the price tag represents the object or installation (…$10,000 for that?). The fact is the visible object or installation may only represent a fraction of that price tag. So where are these other expenses? What could possibly cost so much? While this is certainly not a complete listing, it may help to give an idea of the hidden expenses involved in public sculpture. Let’s start with the things a steel sculptor must purchase before making anything: You’ll need at least one welding machine, at least one power cut off saw, one plasma cutting torch, oxy-acetylene torch, air compressor, painting equipment, a large assortment of general hand tools for maintenance of those machines, several dollies, carts and lifting devices (overhead crane lift, fork lift), spools of welding wire/welding rods, other welding accessories including hood, heat resistant gloves, gas valves, regulators, and replacement parts. You’ll have trouble starting a sculpture without first purchasing steel and my supplier has almost quadrupled their prices in the last five years. And of course you’ll need a place to put and use all these things which means you buy or build a building equipped to house this type of machinery or you rent one by the month. Which lead me to the monthly fees the public artist must pay EVERY month regardless of whether or not any work is being produced: Count on a high power bill for the hungry machines and lights, bottle rental for at least 4 bottles of compressed gas (different mixtures for each welding machine and torch), storage fees for each finished or old sculpture, gas for furnace if you want to be able to work in the winter, and in regular use, you’ll need to replace all the tips, covers, and accessories on the welding machines and torches every few weeks, and when you very close to finishing a sculpture, expect to run out of welding wire or rods or gas and have to replace it in a rush. You’ll need a few gallons of primer, paint, probably some hardener, and thinner. And keep in mind; these are just some of the expenses involved in actual production of the work. This does not include travel, planning, crating, packing, transporting the work, installing, un-installing, and completely repairing and refinishing each sculpture to make it presentable for exhibition once again.

Want more? What about paying per hour for several people to help you transport and install the art which often requires traveling a considerable distance to another city or state. So you can expect to cover meals and heaven forbid, an overnight stay in a hotel on top of the wages. For a permanent installation you’ll be required to have the artwork certified safe by a structural engineer (a $1000 minimum) and for most installations you’ll want to have an extra insurance policy to cover vandalism and other damages. And since my teleportation technology is not nearly as advanced as that of Willy Wonka, I still have to use a truck and trailer (did I mention you’ll need to buy a trailer?) and pay the going rate for a few tanks of gasoline.

Oh, and then there’s that pesky day job. What? You thought all you were going to have to do was make art and drink coffee? No, see, there’s the issue of the home mortgage and the family. You’ll need a full time job that actually pays a salary and you may even find yourself working a part time job as well. But when will you make sculpture? You’ll do that during the time that most normal people call “spare time” or perhaps what they call “bed time”. And since most public and private organizations do not operate on weekends, if you plan to install art on their property, or visit the site to plan such an installation, or meet with a committee to talk about the possibility of perhaps, maybe thinking about installing art, you’ll need several days off from the full time and part time jobs during each year. If you’d like to be paid for these days, you’ll learn to call this “vacation”. Speaking of time, you might want to plan to spend hours each week communicating by email and telephone and finding time to meet with people who seem interested in what you do. Avoid doing this during the full or part time jobs as that can lead to you no longer having the full or part time jobs. Also set aside time for publicity, interviews, and of course you’ll still need to keep up your personal research and reading and you’ll need to write about your artistic output on a regular basis.

Have I left out some things? Definitely. I’ve left out a lot of things. An artist can also count on these very expensive machines breaking down throughout each year. One recent day revealed a small problem with my plasma torch that had to be fixed immediately in order to continue working. This simple problem cost me several hundred dollars just for the part which I had to install myself.

Complain much? Well, no actually I find no solace in complaining. It’s a waste of precious time (see above). So why make these lists and disclose all this potentially frustrating information? Because my experience has shown that when people begin to realize all that goes into making a work of art they are less likely to feel cheated by the price. I’ve met individuals who express their heartfelt thanks just for producing works of art under these circumstances. I’ve even found more realistic people who ask why anyone would be financially irresponsible enough to try to make public sculpture if all this is true. And maybe that’s the best question to examine. Why go to all the trouble to make public sculpture?

I thoroughly enjoy making sculpture. I enjoy the process with its physical and mental challenges. Call it childlike or primitive, but there’s something so very satisfying about creating something with your hands. There’s a deep pleasure to be derived from imagining an object in your head and being able to render it in three-dimensional space. I also enjoy making viewers think and ask questions. I like to think that my abstract sculptures work to call memories or images to the tip of the viewer’s tongue, or perhaps the tip of their brains. I hope that many viewers view work and think that there’s something almost familiar about it even though they may not be able to pin down the exact answer in a single viewing. I like to make people think.

Still, one could enjoy this practice and choose to only exhibit those objects in galleries and interior museum spaces and one could save thousands of dollars and many hours of labor by doing so.

The difference is the audience.

In a gallery or museum you may snag the occasional school group and perhaps in the right city you may even be surprised by a couple of tourists looking for conditioned air or shelter from the low, wet clouds. More typically you can expect your audience to be gallery patrons, gallery assistants, collectors, or other people connected by some interest in the visual arts. Generally these individuals will get the art history references and may even be familiar with the artist’s previous work and personal information. Many of these viewers would be considered “insiders”. While these people are very important to me they only represent half of my interest as an artist.

I grew up making objects in my father’s metal fabrication shop. My dad’s customers ran the spectrum in terms of education and culture. On any given day you might see a high school drop-out, a college professor, and industrial engineer, a serious farmer, and a yuppie all bringing things in to be created or repaired. During Graduate school when I would be working on my latest art project, any number of those customers would walk over and ask me what I was making. With such a wide range of individuals asking, I learned quickly that a single blanket answer would not do. As these types of conversations continued for many months I realized my work also began to change. Early in the planning stages of a new sculpture I found myself carefully embedding several different layers of meaning in each new work. I consciously wanted to make sure I had something there for everyone who cared enough to ask. There was a glimpse of Minimalism and Post Minimalism and a heavy coating of Modernism for the art historian. Maybe that image was a reference to Greek Mythology for the professor? What about that thing that looks like that cartoon my kids watch? Yes, that was in there too. And did you realize that little thing there looks just like the chickens we used to raise when I was a child? Yes, it’s in there. These people who were being kind, sociable, and curious left their mark on the development of a large body of work. They changed how I approached visual communication.

And now despite the difficulty, I still find myself seeking ways to keep that relationship alive. When your sculpture is deposited by the side of the intersection or just off the sidewalk you’re not encountering people when they are “prepared” to view art. They have not decided to make this day a cultural day or an educational outing for their children. They’re just on their way somewhere. These are people going to work or meeting friends for dinner or racing to their attorney’s office. As a result their response is instant and honest. It’s crap. It’s funny. It’s a rabbit. It’s the devil with his tongue stuck out. It’s a waste of tax money. Whatever the response you can count on one thing, this is what they really think. And that is the key…..they think.

Would I like for the average viewer to get some of the references? Of course. Do I hope that after consideration viewers make connections with specific memories and experiences based on my use of image and color? Absolutely. But am I also happy if someone just walks by and smiles at the art without a second thought?

Immensely. It is communication in one of the simplest forms.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

so, I'm bald

...and apparently that means I look like or remind people of every other bald guy of a certain age. In an effort to help distinguish my bald head from all others, let me provide you with a list of people I seriously do NOT look like:


michael stipe

scott hamilton, no really.

and this guy. except for the white t-shirt.

Alright, enough nonsense. Get back to thinking.

Friday, July 25, 2008

small changes

Someone told me that Albert Einstein once said: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.". I don't know if he really said that, but let's just suspend our doubt for a moment and go with it.
Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different outcomes is crazy...I can agree with that. But what about doing things a different way and expecting the same results? Is that also insane?

Because that's what I'm on the verge of doing.

If you're lucky enough to enjoy some amount of positive response to your art work it can be easy to fall into the trap of continuing to turn out similar work for years hoping to continue to enjoy that success. If you're not careful, this can cause you to stop taking chances, to stop reaching further, and to stop being honest in your work.
But if you step out of that comfort zone, out of that established area of what viewers think of as "good", you run the substantial risk of failure and rejection. And aren't we all afraid of falling flat on our faces in front of everyone? Don't we all fear that scathing review that announces that our work is just not as impressive as it used to be?

Perhaps not as much as we fear becoming a one trick pony.

Maybe no one will notice the changes. Hey, it could happen.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

so long, beauford.

Beauford 2006-2008
Beauford was a nice little sculpture with a great sense of humor. He was built specifically for a solo show at the SC Governor's School for the Arts & Humanities where he served as a focal point welcoming viewers into the gallery. In early July he was quietly disassembled.
My decision to kill off Beuford was immediately met with a "Why?" followed by "That was one of my favorites. What were you thinking?".
This has happened before, you know. A few years ago I bisected a large sculpture intending to create two new sculptures from the pieces. One day after the separation a collector contacted me and asked to buy the original.
There were several reasons Beauford needed to go into that sweet by and by but the most important reason is that what I was trying to communicate with him, I never felt I was able to completely get across. The visual focal area was so strong that most viewers concentrated only on that area for interpretation. A few of my ideas were too quiet and at least one was far too loud. So after second and third guessing myself, I hacked the sculpture into pieces and began the process all over again.
Over the course of the last month I've had a couple of cursing fits, I've tossed a couple of hammers, and I've almost given up on the project three times. Seriously. And I'm not much of a giver-up-er. I am not proud of my almost-tantrums nor my extreme frustration, but in my defense it has been about two thousand degrees here recently along with humidity you almost have to dog paddle through. Add some molten steel, long sleeves, gloves, and thick denim jeans to that and you might think of throwing a hammer too.
All silliness aside, the really bad part is that each day when I left the metal shop and each day I arrived again I would look at the sculpture with a quick thirty second critical eye. Each time I was disappointed. Each time I shook my head and wondered if I had made a huge mistake.
Late Saturday when I left the shop, I gave the work in progress the critical once-over and for the first time I sort of cracked up a little. This is a good sign. I think it's working. There's still another couple of weeks of heavy grinding, sanding, and serious critiquing, but there's a chance this one could be really good. The uncertainty is healthy.

Monday, July 21, 2008

doldrums in green and blue

green's peach farm
cicada in need of a jumpstart


Thursday, July 17, 2008

you only love me for my lunchbox

7-11-08 at the Showroom
photo by Steven Long
Sometimes you just have to go out and see some live music. Sure, it might mean not getting that new drawing finished or not spending the evening working on the sculpture you're excited about, but sometimes you just have to go to a concert.
Last Friday I shirked my creative responsibilities and went out to the Showroom ( to catch a show by The Asylum Street Spankers. And what a show it was.
I love live music but I'm not such a big fan of crowds and I could do without loud drunkards attempting to sing and dance (and talk) while I'm trying to listen to live music. So when the Spankers came out to begin their show and kindly asked everyone to turn off their phones and to refrain from talking and being obnoxious I knew I had made the right choice.
Though I've listened to the Spankers for a little more than 5 years, I was still surprised and impressed with their vocal and instrumental prowess. The songs can be pretty raunchy at times but the band members keep their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks and you'll find yourself unable to hold back your laughter. However, when not being naughty, the Spankers tilt toward the beautiful with wild and lovely songs of varying tempos. In fact, their most recent album is a children's album - though probably not what you'd expect from a children's album - and while it is completely innocent on the surface, it is probably their best complete collection of songs to date.

As it turned out, this was not as much of a distraction as I thought from my creative duties. These guys (and gal) were having a ball doing something they love. They seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves and their creative output was not only entertaining and was also thought provoking. Even the most goofy songs brought out topics of religion, politics, individual rights, and philosophical truths. Their songs seem to strive to offer something for everyone. You can choose to take their lyrics at face value and laugh and get on with your life or you can begin to peel back the layers and think about what they've carefully placed just beneath the veneer of beauty.
And thanks to Stephen, Alix, & Betsy and everyone else involved with for bringing such a great band to our town. Let's face it, we don't live in the cultural center of the universe, so to get an act like this in our back yard is a big deal.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Go Ahead, Ask.

I think it's funny that people get the idea that I don't want to talk about my artwork.
Not funny in a humorous sort of way, funny that odd way.

Upon seeing my work people often ask, "what is it?" or "what were you thinking of when you made that?". Excellent questions. But when I explain that part of what I'm trying to do is communicate ideas visually in a manner that rarely lends itself easily to ordinary words or labels, I can see their eyes glaze over and if I look closely...I can actually see them lose all interest in our conversation.
This is something I see in my students all too often. Many, not all, but many come in to an art class looking for the formula. They want the equation or the easy template they can memorize and simply apply to all future artistic endeavors. They may or may not realize that what they are asking is if there is a way to keep from ever having to think for themselves or make difficult decisions. Much to their frustration, I espouse a philosophy of teaching that centers around exploration of media and ideas and learning as you go. Even if there are some easy answers and easy solutions, I encourage my students to distance themselves from such drivel and to keep digging below that surface level in order to discover something new and meaningful.
My dad always says, "if it were easy, everyone would do it." My dad's really smart, by the way.
A recent article about a public exhibit of my sculpture began with the words, "Don't ask....artist Doug McAbee about the concept behind Herman and Elmer, the large yellow and blue sculptures....". It was a thankfully positive article, but I can't help but wonder if this lead sentence might give a reader the impression that I don't want to talk about it at all. I certainly do not want to give my viewers the idea that I just crank out strange objects and images that do not mean anything and that should not be given considerable thought. There are, after all, hours and days spent working on refining, economizing, and abstracting specific realistic images in the hopes that I will be able to visually communicate my ideas to viewers by carefully tapping into both personal and universal memories and experiences. These memories and experiences are shared by artist and viewer and they create a common ground on which this new visual conversation takes place. This visual information is so carefully chosen and always has the viewer in mind.
Think of it this way: Do you know why they don't sell connect-the-dot puzzles with the dots already connected and the puzzles already solved? Exactly. What would be the point? Where's the fun in someone solving your puzzle for you? The fun is figuring it out for yourself.

So please, go ahead and ask about the artwork. Just don't be offended or put off if my answers come back in the form of questions. I want you to think about the art. I want you to think about what it means to you. What do you see in that jumbled mess of bright yellow steel?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Anybody Want This?

I made this table and set of 4 chairs in 2003. It's awesome. It also needs to go. I have sculptures, drawings, and frames crammed in every cubic inch of my storage areas and this ended up the odd man out.
It's one of a kind, hand-made and still in very good condition. Yes, I know the faux-fur seat cushions rock.
$100 for all 4 chairs and the table. Comment or email me at my website if you're interested. UPDATE: someone called dibs.