Friday, February 22, 2019

unsolicited advice

I received a letter of acceptance to a national exhibit this week.  This is, of course, reason for celebration, but an artist can always find a way to over-examine a situation in search of the the darker side.  Part of this has to do with the automated notification system that makes life easier for artists and for exhibit hosts.  For this exhibit, I entered three drawings.  One drawing was selected and two were rejected.  Or "Not Invited" as the email stated.  I'll admit that sounds less negative.  Kinda.  The first email was the "Invited" one.  I was thrilled.  The next time I checked my mail, the second email had arrived with the "Not Invited" entries.  This allowed me to properly celebrate with a happy dance and then a while later, mourn the fact that not every human on Earth loves my work.

My university hosted the annual student juried exhibit recently and each year this is an opportunity to teach my students how to deal with the process of entering exhibits and dealing with the results.  It's a lesson in maturity, human nature and the mechanics of the art world.  And even though I know these things well enough to teach them to my students, I still find myself dwelling on the two uninvited works.

While I'm easily distracted, and Lord knows that during the semester I have plenty of things to distract me, my mind eventually circles back to the exhibit.  I have to put it on my calendar and make sure I ship the work to a state many hours away so I have to be reminded not to forget.  And even when I'm taping up the box of art I know I'll still be wondering why the juror chose this drawing but didn't chose the others.

Academically speaking, I know the answer to this question.  Artistically speaking, I know the answer to this question.  But as a human trying desperately to hide his sensitivity about something he created, I'm tempted to dwell on the negative and to even think negatively about this mostly ridiculous thing called The Art World.  Just a few weeks ago I waded into a conversation about the art world with my advanced sculpture students.  I love my students dearly and I want to fuel any excitement I see in them as it relates to studio art.  Many of them have traveled to art fairs or the Venice Biennale or will travel to them soon.  All of them have the current celebrities of the art world on their Instagram feed so it's easy for them to think that this is the sum total of what it's like to be an artist.  Of course I want them to see contemporary art and to also have goals of obtaining gallery representation if that's the best path for them, but I also feel the need to spring a little honesty into that constant barrage of happy art stuff.  

They're going to be rejected.  Many hundreds of times in their career they're going to feel that burn.  They will be passed over for great jobs, they will have work rejected from exhibits and they will have galleries delete their emails on a regular basis.  They will watch artists they know rise to unimaginable heights and be promoted to celebrity status while they may never win a single award and may struggle to get work in a local exhibit.  This is a weird area of studio art education and one that is mostly overlooked by universities.  We want to pump our students up about possibilities but I think we have a responsibility to prepare them for the certainties.

So let's look at some observations together.  And let's be honest about the observations and say that they are the observations of one mid-career artist.  (Am I really a mid-career artist?)  Other artists may have different experiences and not all artists may agree. 

1. Exhibit Jurors are biased.  Juried exhibits, large or small are chosen by single humans or small groups of humans.  Humans with personal interests, particular tastes and individual built-in biases.  I've been a juror for exhibits and I would want you to think that I can be totally unbiased.  I would argue that I chose the absolute highest quality work for the exhibit and for the awards.  I could justify it all on paper.  But the truth is, on a different day of the week, with different weather and with a different amount of caffeine in my bloodstream, I may have chosen slightly different work.  Of course I had a list of criteria points but those points were chosen by me.  If a juror is experienced in a certain area, they may be hard to impress in that area.  At the same time, they may have expertise that informs them that a work of art in that area is exceptionally well handled, even if it's not the "best" in the pool.  You will also notice that not all jurors are exhibiting studio artists.  In fact, many are not.  Now the interests and biases have changed.  If this juror also owns a gallery (and many do) what personal interests might also be in play?  Most often the entries are meant to be anonymous but some established styles don't need a signature to be recognized. You could pick my work out of a lineup right now.  I could probably pick yours.  

I would suggest that the best approach with juried exhibits is to understand the built-in flaws and see the exhibit for what it is.  Not a show of "the best" artwork submitted, but a show of high quality artwork selected by a particular juror.  

2. Favoritism is a real thing.  Some days it will work to benefit you and other days it will not.  It's not cool to accept one side of that coin and to complain about the other side.  I've been very, very lucky as an exhibiting artist.  I've had gallery owners take chances on my work because they responded to it positively.  They've actively promoted my work to collectors, telling them my work was good.  While this was great for me, I have to be aware that a choice was made and while that choice put my work in someone's home or office, that same choice left another artist's work unsold.  One person liked my work and told someone else to like it.  I've been in situations where I'm sure that an exhibitor liked me and my personality as much or more than they liked my work and that has benefited me as well.  Late night host Conan O'Brien said "Work hard, be kind and amazing things will happen."  Every artist can't be the best.  I'm pretty sure math doesn't work that way.  But if you're good and you're likable, you put yourself in the best possible position to succeed.

Instead of complaining about favoritism, perhaps you could spend some time and energy working hard and being kind.  There's no downside to this suggestion.

 3. It's not fair.  That person in your Instagram feed is a hack.  That painting that won Best In Show is terrible.  That artist's work really isn't any better than yours.  You will have these complaints and more and you will be totally justified in having them.  There's nothing fair about a system designed around making a profit.  If collectors are not art savvy, gallerists may resort to pushing the lowest common denominator to ensure a sale.  This has much more to do with a healthy bottom line than being fair.  That artist who always makes the most gigantic pieces for shows always seems to win the awards while your tiny but exceptional work of art goes unnoticed.  Maybe you like to work small or maybe you don't have a warehouse studio or a truck.  And that artist representing that country at the Biennale isn't the best artist in that country.  They were picked up by a gallery, then chosen for a fair and then promoted to a committee.  They are exceptionally lucky and probably very grateful but what they really are is a person who was in the right place at the right time and it turned out that what benefited them was coincidentally something that benefited someone else.  

Worrying about what's fair or unfair will not make a new body of work for you.  It will not show your work to the new gallery and it will not make you a better artist.  Getting in your studio and working hard will make you successful.  Focus on you, not them.

4. The value of your work is decided by you.  Is your work any good?  Is it worth making?  Is it worth sharing?  This is not a choice left up to any outside source.  The gallery director/owner may know very little about art making.  They may or may not have a degree or any experience in art.  The juror for that exhibit may have terrible taste.  And even the ones who love your work are not the ones who give it value.  You decide if your work is worthwhile.  You decide if you will spend your life sharing it with others.  But here's a tip:  if there's something inside you telling you to make art, you need to make it.  If someone doesn't pick it for a show, you still need to make it.  If you don't win an award, you still need to make it.  If your jerk professor hates your project, keep trying.  It's fine to get down about a rejection or a negative comment, but remember the person who rejected your work or made a negative comment is not the reason you made the artwork.  

Making art is bigger than you.  It's bigger than the the exhibit.  Take a moment to say a bad word, have an ice cream and then get back in the studio and get to work.  Someone is waiting to see it. 

5. If it was easy, everyone would do it.  This is a cleaned up version of something my dad used to say when I complained that something was difficult.  I love the idea behind the phrase.  It suggests that of course this is tough to do and that you should feel honored to be good enough to do it.  Art is hard.  Ask any of my current students.  Better yet, ask the students who changed their major to something easier after the first year.  Not only does it require a ton of physical effort and mental strength, it also requires an emotional maturity to be able to deal with negative feedback and keep moving forward.  Studio artists, we get to make art.  It's a privilege.  An honor.  You may get a "not invited" email and you may not get represented by the good gallery but you may also inspire a young person to pick up a drawing pencil.  You may make a viewer smile.  You may make something so powerfully beautiful that your work of art touches a nerve in the heart of a viewer and changes their life forever.  

It's not easy.  Nothing worthwhile is.

That's probably enough for now.  I hope it wasn't too much of a fortune cookie.  I just want you to know some of the things I've learned so far.  Maybe it will help you be better prepared for life after art school.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

sewe 2019

Feel free to skip this one.  I'll admit it's more for me than for you.  
When we travel, we usually find little adventures to entertain ourselves - even when we're supposed to be relaxing.  Those adventures have tiny little enjoyable details that sometimes get lost in the fading memory of my brain.  I always take my sketchbook and try to log some basic information at the end of each day, but things like the voice of the Starbucks drive-through person may not make it into the sketchbook.  And that might have been an important memory.  I find that if I upload some photos and try to type out some of the details when we return, the little memories have a better chance of sticking around.  So if you're really bored, grab a coffee.  If not, I'll see you in the next post.

Way back in the years before we had kids, G and I took a spur of the moment overnight trip to Charleston, SC.  It was Valentine's weekend and pretty chilly as we walked through the market and the waterfront.  We ate well and found our hotel just across the old Cooper River Bridge in Mount Pleasant.  That night we had trouble sleeping because our neighbors kept bumping the wall and making loud thumping noises.  It sounded like they were wrestling.  We were not impressed.  The next morning as we headed out to breakfast we were greeted in the hallway by the neighbors and their luggage.  Their luggage consisted of two large aluminum cages, each with a full grown bengal tiger inside.  That explained that.  

That's when we realized that there was some sort of animal festival going on.  We later found out it was the South Eastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE).  We remembered it and checked it out a few years later and it seemed like it was mostly hunting and camouflage related things.  Not really our cup of tea.  Then we forgot about it and decided to escape the kids a couple of years ago for a weekend trip to Charleston.  We walked up King Street to Marion Square and there was a big thing going on.  We walked through and realized it was SEWE.  We were still unimpressed until we found the Birds of Prey tent.  I love birds and really love drawing them and walking inside this tent filled with all sorts of huge, beautiful birds was nothing short of amazing.  This was reason enough to drive to Charleston.

 Who am I kidding?  The food in Charleston is reason enough to drive to Charleston.  These days it's barely a 3 hour drive for us and I'm not embarrassed to say we've made the drive just to eat lunch.  So this year, more or less at the last minute, we decided to throw the kids in the car and let them see the animals.  We were able to get everyone free for Friday and we slept in a little and still made it to Jim 'N Nicks for lunch.

 Marion Square was our next stop and since we weren't trying to adopt a cool looking hound dog, or join an organization, we quickly made our way to the bird tent and marveled at the cool birds.  I love seeing the birds in their little stress hats.  When they get too freaked out by the crowds and noises, they put the little hats over their heads and eyes.  

 We got little lessons on the birds and learned why owls fly silently, why opreys can carry fish and how these interesting animals can kill their prey with just their claws.

 Some of the birds are back a few feet on a perch resting while others are held up just inches away from you.  

 There was a family in front of us in line moving through the exhibit standing in front of a very, very large Eurasian owl.  The owl was very still and one of the children in that family thought it was fake so she reached out and poked it with her finger.  Of course the owl jumped and gave her a death stare and the child and her mother both jumped out of their skin and screamed.  All the bird people laughed in a way that suggested this was not an accident.  Good move, bird people.

 There was also a serpentarium tent next door so we walked through there too.  This seemed like a good idea until we got to the rattlesnakes and copperheads in little boxes on top of shakey tables.  And little unruly children leaning on the shakey tables.  But we did get to watch that rattlesnake poop and it was highly disgusting.  Violet and I laughed hysterically.

 After the tents we took up our spots at the temporary fence to watch the Birds of Prey Demonstration.  This is one of our favorite parts.  They usually have a couple of birds fly off the roofs of nearby buildings and swoop down into the fence to land on the arm of a trainer.  These birds are untethered and can go wherever they want.  The trainers almost always convince them to fly back into the fence.  Almost.  No good photos of this but the kite above was pretty impressive with it's ability to catch treats in the air and it's always fun to watch the guy talk a small child into running through the grass pulling a fake rabbit on a string and then watching the kid freak out as a falcon zooms down from a tree an takes the rabbit.

 If you are adept at not making eye contact with vendors, it can be cool to walk through the other tents just to see the skulls and other exhibit items.  That's a turtle skull.

 And there was a cow.  We don't know why and we don't care because we got to pet it and it was awesome.

 Photo opp as we left the square.

 The expo brings a ton of money to Charleston and Charleston responds by making everyone welcome.  It's such a weird mix of people from all sorts of monetary backgrounds.  There are hunters from the county we live in there, there are English fox hunters from across the Atlantic and there are people who go on African safaris.  And there was us, a weird little family from SC laughing at the snake pooping.

The weather was pretty gray and a little damp but it didn't actually rain on us.  It was cool but not cold.  By the time we made it back to the car we had slipped into the busiest time for every restaurant in town.  SEWE had emptied out and everyone was eating.  We knew we were in for a wait, but we really wanted Page's Okra Grill in Mount Pleasant so we parked and waited a good bit less than we expected.  We watched the tipsy guy beside us flirt with his lady friend and I had some really good spicy chicken and waffles.

We found our hotel and our room and just when we started to relax and get comfortable with our desserts we ordered to go....we noticed a disturbing stain on the carpet and the bed skirt.  The nurse among us identified it as potential vomit so we packed up again and got a cleaner room.  Kinda gross.

 I love the light in Charleston.  There's something about it.  I also love the proximity to water.  All the cool places seem to have water in the background.  We know I love the food there too.  But another favorite thing is running in Charleston.  If we stay downtown I get to run along the waterfront and down King Street.  If we stay in Mount Pleasant I get to run the Ravenel Bridge.  I got up and went out into the light rain and steady wind over the Cooper River.  Everything about it is wonderful.  The air, the light, the view, it's all great except the steep incline.  It was a great run and pretty fast.

 I had invited everyone to go with me and of course, when I got back and everyone was awake, they wanted to go back.  So I gladly went back.  We had a good walk in the wind that had increased since my run but it was dry and we saw a few spots of blue sky above us.

 I was still wet from my run and this wind was steady.  But the kids wanted to go out on the pier.  I was really cold by this point.  We walked, we looked, we took photos and saw pelicans.  Then we warmed up in the car and headed to Starbucks.  When the car in front of us ordered, we could hear the spunky order taker.  G gave me one of those looks that said "it's too early for that kind of happiness".  It actually wasn't early at all anymore but I still had not had my coffee so it was a touchy situation.  I'll come at you if I haven't had my coffee.  I pulled up to the speaker and the spunky guy started talking.  G and I were both immediately at ease.  This wasn't the fake happy talk you get sometimes.  This was a dude who was actually really happy.  You could hear him smiling through his voice.  We decided to let him live and I got the best white chocolate mocha I've had in months.  The day was off to a great start.

 We looked at the clearing sky and decided to drive to Sullivan's Island to walk on the beach.  The sky looked great and the temperature was not bad but when you walked out onto the beach the wind felt pretty icy.  We enjoyed the beach quickly and headed back to the less windy car to talk about lunch.  

Poe's Tavern was close and we made it just in time to beat a huge crowd of people who had to wait.  If you're not a Poe person, Edgar Allan Poe was stationed at Fort Moultrie for a year or so around 1827.  That's enough for Charleston to claim him as a resident.  Poe's Tavern has a ton of Poe stuff and some of the best burgers you'll ever taste.  Mine had a crabby patty on top and was exceptional.

 We had no real plans, so after we ate, we drove along the shore looking at houses and decided to get a closer look at the lighthouse.

 It's not an aesthetically pleasing lighthouse, but a cool structure nonetheless.

 Violet and I got out and explored near the Coast Guard Station and found this old bunker used for guiding launched weapons.

 We passed the Poe Library and remembered we had walked around Fort Moultrie several years ago and thought the kids might enjoy it.  We were correct.

 The unassuming fort from the ocean side.

 A stranger took our photo and accidentally turned on live photos while trying to figure out how to work the camera.  I learned this about 20 live photos later.

 The kids thought the fort was cool until they realized they could go inside and explore on their own.  Then they thought it was extremely cool.

 They kept finding new tunnels and rooms to explore and saying "This is lit!", "This is amaaaaaazing!"  They were happy and it was free, so I'm calling this a parenting win.

 The sun was pretty warm by this point and we had spent most of the day outside.  We had promised some of our group we'd go shopping so we found a few cool places to do that and soon it was time to think about eating again.

 Again we had waited until prime eating time and all the restaurants were hopping.  We drove by Shem Creek and briefly thought about going to RB's but the parking lot was ridiculous and there were bodies everywhere.  We were out of ideas when we remembered a place we had wanted to try for years, The Wreck of the Richard and Charlene.  What a name for a restaurant, right?  We found it and figured we were in for a wait but our luck continued and we walked right in to sit down.  The sun was setting so I left G to figure out kid menus and slipped out the back door to get some photos of the boats on the creek.

 I loved the food, even though we didn't get anything fried.  From the smells in the kitchen, fried was the way to go.  G wasn't as impressed.  But the hot boiled peanuts kept Violet happy.  They were so good.

It was a perfect day.

 The next morning the rain had returned along with the wind.  I realize the wind was pretty much only a factor on the bridge, but since that's where I was, I get to complain about it.  When I arrived in the parking area I was greeted by a few hundred US Soldiers training in their gear.  They were divided up into groups and were walking with their packs over the bridge.  This made passing them difficult but the rain kept the cyclists off the bridge so it worked out.  There was a serious runner lady who made me feel really slow.  She passed me on the incline and stopped to talk to a friend.  Then she passed me again.  Then she stopped for a running watch issue and then passed me again.  It was like I was sitting still.  

 After breakfast we drove back across the bridge to walk through the market and see some Charleston things.  This is a Gullah New Testament that was pretty cool.

 Violet loves horses and she loved seeing these guys up close.  We didn't discuss how we felt about the treatment of the horses, we just appreciated their beauty.

 The only other part of SEWE that we had never tried was the dog demonstrations at Brittlebank Park.  We love us a dog for sure, so we paid the entry fee to see the dock diving dogs and the sheep and duck herding dogs.  

It was like a strange K9 version of Sea World.  We got splashed a little and enjoyed the acrobatic dogs.  There were some crazy hunting vehicles to see and lots of things for sale but for us, that was about it at the park.  We saw what was there and moved on in search of food again.  We eased back downtown for lunch at The Kickin' Chicken.  After being around so many humans for the weekend, by the end of the meal, we were all ready for some alone time.  We had somehow not been able to have ice cream all weekend so we stopped at Cookout for milkshakes on the way home.  The drive-through lady called me "baby" about 16 times.  I wasn't mad.

Friday, February 8, 2019

coffee with mcabee: molly and bigfoot

Today I had coffee with Molly.  

I met Molly 6 years ago when she walked into my 3D Design class as a freshman.  It was one of those moments when you meet someone and in the first 30 seconds, you know you want to be around them as much as possible.  Molly brings an energy into a room with her that creates a gravitational pull in her direction.  Beyond that energy, she threw herself wholeheartedly into every class, every project with ambition and drive.  She always brought the rest of the class up because they were all trying to mirror her energy.  

I'm told that I'm hard to read in that first class.  That semester is always a bit odd as students try to figure out what my faces mean and why I'm smiling.  Molly had a bit of that but it didn't stop her from initiating conversations with me in class about various debatable topics.  I'm certain we debated the existence of gravity and the mysteries of Bigfoot.  And when we did, it always appeared that Molly was much more interested in learning about me than she was about solving those mysteries.  That was the thing with Molly.  She was always out to learn about other people.  She had a genuine interest in them and she was full of questions designed to bring the truest nature of that person to the surface.  She had a way of pulling back the curtain without making the other person feeling exposed.  She would ask questions and then listen, really listen.  Not just to the words, she was listening for truth. 

Luckily for me, Molly excelled in sculpture and took several of my classes over her 4 years.  Each time it was a joy to have her in class and help to guide her toward her goals.  Most days when she would leave class she would stop and say "Thank you" before exiting the room.  Can you imagine?  That's the kind of person she is.  Her sculptures were always exceptional and there was never any doubt she was bound for grad school and greater things.  

After graduation, she took a couple of years off of school to work at a cool coastal camp for kids.  She did a summer residency in sculpture at a prestigious school and I expect she'll get several acceptance letters in the mail in the near future to begin the next phase of her education.  

Today we were able to set aside some time to catch up in person so she drove to campus and we chatted at Starbucks.  She is so generous with her energy that we invited two current students to join us as she shared about her experience with the residency program and told us stories about wrangling alligators at camp.  I think those two students enjoyed it just as much as I did.  I mean, you can't sit with Molly and not go away changed for the better.  

The thing that became really obvious to me today is that Molly does everything that she does with intentionality.  She considers her actions and interactions and plans them based on how she can impact the people around her.  As she told us stories today, it was easy to trace her movements by how she could offer something to the others in the stories.  She actively seeks to show love to people through actions.  It's really an amazing thing that I wish wasn't so rare.  I wish I was more like her.  

We should all have friends that make us want to up our game.  We should surround ourselves with people that inspire us to be better humans.  

It's easy to get cynical and think that everyone is selfish.  It's easy to think that seeing a truly kind and generous person is as likely as seeing Bigfoot.  

As I write this, Zeke is snoring beside me on the couch and Bigfoot is peering just over the top edge of my Macbook.  Bigfoot is in the large photo on canvas on the wall across from me.  It's a photo of a Bigfoot statue taken at the alien welcome center in Colorado.  Molly took this photo and I was able to snag it from her in a trade when she graduated.  It is a fitting reminder to be more like Molly.  To up my game and to be a better human.