Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Three Artists Walk into a Gallery

Three artists walk into a gallery. The first artist says to the other two artists… I know it would all make for a good joke but it’s all in a day’s work. Last Friday, I went up to NYC with two artist friends to be inspired, get some answers and hopefully find some opportunities, a.k.a. representation. No, that’s not the joke, that’s the work part. It is harder than it sounds. In hindsight, I’m thinking the best part of the trip was the two-hour car ride. We discussed art;  what it is, what we do, who looks at it, are we as good as we think we are and it ended with a small debate on where the art world is going. The wiser, dare I say, older sage of the group shared his view that it was on the path of exploitation. He stated that we had ventured so far as artists, that we had reached the end of exploitation and it would have to change because we had exploited all we could exploit. I, being the youngest of the group and driving, had control of the ship and our destiny…at least it’s safety until we would arrive in NYC. I exclaimed that exploitation was not at its end for Rubens had been exploiting the art market with prints for a long time. Spin it however you want but isn’t art history all exploitation? My point was made and my job was done. We arrived safely and I parked the minivan leaving the keys to our ship with some young man in the basement of a $200 million high-rise. Yes, we had made it to NYC.

We crossed 9th Avenue and worked our way through the 20th Street blocks of Chelsea in search of inspiration, answers and work. Each gallery could be described as heaven; bright white walls reflecting the light from above and a St. Peter behind every door seated at a desk dressed in a black turtleneck hovering over an Apple computer. I just assume he is checking his list to make sure everyone’s name is on it. I assume he is expecting us because he never looked up for identification. We entered and looked around… nope, definitely not heaven. I’m still not sure what gallery it was or what the show was but, it made me think that painting is dead and exploitation is up and alive. The show wasn’t living up to the expectations of old masters where flesh was beautiful. Don’t get ne wrong, I’m not a prude but I saw more flesh and stray hairs than I needed to. It seems like all this can’t be captured with paint anymore so the artists decide to capture the whole thing on video. I had to quickly leave the dark room in the corner for I feared it would appear on my cable bill.

Mary Boone seemed like the only gallery we visited that had paint applied to canvas. Of course the artist that applied it was up for debate. I enjoyed the brush-strokes and grandeur of the imagery. My other musketeers thought otherwise. I stayed a few minutes longer to soak in a bit of inspiration. “If I could just mimic a few of the color choices in my studio”, I thought. We continued our pilgrimage to many of the white walled storefronts looking for answers and work. We came upon a wooden door with a red awning. This was our answer. The sign on the door said, “Drunken Horse.” Three artists walked into a bar and the bartender said, “Why the long face?” We all smiled at each other and thought it was just a day’s work.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Interview with John Suplee

I have always admired John Suplee’s American Impressionists Painting. Suplee is a local artist that has picked up where Horace Pippin left off, capturing the change and expansion of West Chester, PA. The paintings are common sights painted with confident brush strokes that wiggle around the contours of his subject, popping them from the bright blue skies that surround them. All of the paintings have a shade of red or orange peeking through these brush strokes. I later found out that Suplee’s favorite color is orange.

If I have already lost you with too much art vocabulary and a dizzying description of eye candy, beware, it is going to get more interesting. For, John Suplee is a man that was born too late. If he was born earlier he would be considered a gentleman, a scholarly man, a man of the arts and humanities…today he can be reached by phone not email. This is where my conversation starts. I had only met John once briefly at an art opening and was given his phone number to contact him and set up an interview. I called him and he was pre-warned of my request and graciously accepted. Like all of the interviews they are self serving. I get to eat and drink in the middle of the day while meeting and sharing with wonderful artists. This one turns out a bit differently, however, in a good way. While asking John where we would like to eat he replied that he didn’t really care for restaurants that had long descriptions on their menu and would rather I just join him at home so we wouldn’t be bothered with the distractions of people.  With my self-serving attitude I replied, “That would be great!  I’ll stop by Carlino’s and pick up lunch to be there by noon.”

There I was in Carlino’s Restaurant in West Chester with a plethora of gourmet delights. It is a dieter’s nightmare due to a maze of beautifully laid out food to eat in or take out. I wind my way through dried pastas, fresh cheeses, cured meats, prepared foods, wood oven pizza, hot and made to order, sandwiches, cookies, pies, cakes, and the register.  Dazed and confused, I needed to back track again to gain my bearings and focus on my appetite. I go with the daily specials, a brief menu with a few commas and short and precise descriptions. I take the tilapia sandwich with panko-encrusted tilapia and a chipotle tartar sauce.  For John, I try to play it safe with an Italian marinated chicken breast sandwich. I skip the mixed greens and tomatoes but ask for the sundried tomato spread on the side.  Making my way to the register I notice the bakery section and I think to myself, “We need desert.”  From there I begin thinking about dinner too. My arms are full. I should be able to convince any gentleman that gastronomy is alive and well in West Chester today.

Before I go into the interview, please let me set the scene. Sitting down at John’s newly designed kitchen island, I proudly serve my well thought out “simple” food. I hand John his sandwich and he graciously thanks me. He opens and inspects the sandwich and reaches for his knife, only to scrape every sesame seed off the top of the roll.  Seeds fly across the room landing all around us. Quietly he murmurs how upset his wife will be now that there is a mess.  I press record and allow the humor, the wit, and the contemplative answers to ensue.


How did you get started making art? 
Probably to see things that I couldn’t see without drawing them myself. As a little kid I drew a lot of things blowing up. When I became a teenager I worked on other things that teenagers wanted to see. Around that time, I transitioned into the idea that you could make things that were important that people would pay attention to.
Did you receive any formal art training?
Yeah. When I was a kid, the lady across the road put oil paints in front of me when I was six years old. She painted herself and was a teacher. She was an inspiration. In High school, my art teacher saw some stuff that I made and said you don’t want to take art here in high school. Then he just took four or five of my pieces and put them in an art show. He said I could just come in at noon and use the room if I want. I went to college in New York State, Hamilton College, which I partly picked because of the visual look of the place. I ended up majoring in art there, being virtually the only art major in my class. Instead of just going for an MFA, I’d just continue to work on my own. I studied like crazy. Even today I am just obsessed with searching out other imagery that is not necessarily what the major information streams feed you.
Describe your work in general for the readers?
It’s painting and drawing. I don’t put the drawings out much. I have sort of taken a pause now. But over the last five years I had a big spurt of life drawing. Over the years I have done that and I feel that sharpens my ability to draw other stuff.
What is your medium?
I use acrylic paints. I was working in oils a little before that. I found acrylics was much easier.
How do you choose your subject matter? 
There is never a shortage of ideas. I have always had more ideas than I could bring out. The ones that make it into reality are just sort of the lucky ten percent.
Why are you an artist?
Well, I think I am just sort of a loner type to begin with so I am able to tolerate the isolation and find it preferable to constantly being presented with expectations and interactions with others.
What are your thoughts on perfection?
It’s really overrated. There are painters who paint that way. There is a whole new school of classical realism. They have a rock and a feather and they look so freakin real and you think why? I try to keep it somewhere in between.
Tell me about some of your favorite techniques...
Well I find a great stress reducer for approaching an empty panel is to just do a brush drawing and usually it’s kind of a light shade of orange and eventually transfer into a dark shade of orange and I find corrections present themselves. Then I add white into my painting. The advantage is that I have a lot of orange and reds under my paintings.
How do you decide when an artwork is done?
When stuff that I do to it starts to take it downhill. Fortunately with acrylics, when I see a mistake coming I just wipe it. Even if the correction I am making still needs to be made if it starts out wrong I just, what I call, nuke it and take it back to point zero and then re-correct.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life?
The lady across the street, Aldan Knowls. My family, I had one grandmother who was particularly wise. She would take me into Philadelphia to a Thomas Eakins show. Also, while not extensive but meaningful encounters with Tom Bostelle and he’s the one who started me on the idea that the people who can teach you the most art are dead.
You have been quoted as saying “all art comes from other art” What other artists have inspired you?
Oh wow, well there is sort of a period. I think its more a question of a period of time and an approach to reality that is important to me. It goes from maybe 1870 to mid twentieth century and it’s all about the intersection of the physicality of a painting as it meets the visual world. Say if you take the Dutch landscape, they are all flat with a little bit of land on the bottom and then a sky. I think the big kick in the butt came from our intersection of Japan through Europe. Then all of the artists began to get the idea that you could arrange things and you could intensify things and you could paint things that were a combination of what you saw and what you felt. All the European artists began doing that and then all the American artists trotted over there.  Lately as I have been studying more and more and just recently began studying the internet finding all these obscure people out there that are hugely talented, some of them dead some of them not dead, I found the reason that the high end art is so lame is that talent is everywhere so its not a rarity. There have been a few people who have been given permission to draw representations by the really huge end art world.  Its not that they are so extraordinarily unusual it’s just that they some how sneak under the door.
Besides art what inspires you?
Collecting stuff.
For the beginning artist... what tip do you have?
What are you eating right now? 
I’m eating a dismantled chicken breast sandwich, which I scraped all the sesame seeds off. 
What is your favorite food?
Steak. My least favorite food is anything that takes a long time to describe. I have this sort of paranoid feeling that there is this vast network of menu writing schools. I am a really poor person to go out with for food. 
What does home mean to you?
I get very very attached to stuff that is familiar. My absolute best friend is my wife. We are very happy with our house and our cat. 
What was your mother right about?
Hmmm…Being funny. 
Money is OK, but it isn’t what life is about. What is it about?
Reduction of stress. 
Where did you grow up?
Here in West Chester in the country.
What is the last book you read?
Read…read? Well I’ll put in a plug for a book, I just glanced at by Odd Nerdrum called Kitsch More Than Art. 
You collect?
My wife is a non-clutter person so most of the collections are sort of conveniently put out of sight these days. Oddly enough, rugs were the only worthy objects that my family collected. But even that I backed off a bit because I have some rolled up upstairs that nobody sees. I have some Japanese prints. If I had my way they could easily go all the way up the stairs. Postcards too, it’s just because its random eyeball candy. 
Something that is important on your nightstand?
I have a little skull cap for when my head gets cold.
Your strangest possession?
A shard of glass left over from the accident scene where my childhood dentist was killed.
Your best birthday?
Maybe my fiftieth, Carol made me a nice big party.

You mean drama? I was in some plays. I remember [when I was in school] they took us on a bus trip to see Macbeth in NYC, which was cool.
Philadelphia Orchestra concert.
Plane ride-
Germany during a high school trip
Piece of art you sold-
In college I was doing a lot of free association pen line drawings. I remember that one of the professors in the psychology department bought like twenty or thirty of them.
What is your next trend and where do you see West Chester going?
I think in some ways West Chester is rediscovering itself and kind of becoming a new Manayunk. There are places it could be “do-dadded” up but I think the historical architectural integrity is recognized in the west end of town and they are sort of keeping the lid on, which is good. It doesn’t concern me to capture it. My concern is more about warning people then congratulating them.

I finished up with the questions; we finished lunch and our beers. I reminded John I had dessert, cupcakes, that were decorated accordingly. He reached for the carrot commenting that he likes orange.  We then proceeded through out the house admiring his art collection, his art and other collectibles. When we hit the third floor, he smiled. This was the end of our tour and we were where he loved to be, the “book room.” Every wall had shelves of books, books were then piled on the floor 3 stacks deep. Random sketches collectively piled in stacks then placed on stacks of books told the whole story. This was a gentleman that loved collecting for knowledge and inspiration. Now let's see how he holds up to the speed questions.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How to Price Artwork and Make a Dollar

I often get asked about how I price my artwork. This is usually asked by other artists. I also get asked how much my paintings are. This is hopefully asked by future clients. For both of these questions, I go to my son Nicolas and try to get a perspective on worth and value. He is a good judge of value considering he is seven and thinks we get money by going to stores. Actually from his vantage point at about 38 inches above the ground, it is pretty simple. We pick up something from the store, stand in line, hand the cashier a single bill and in return we get a bunch of bills back plus some shiny coins. We end up walking out of the store with "more money" and stuff. I love this concept but I had to explain that it was a "large" bill and I received back smaller denominations of that bill called change. He didn't really care, he just wanted "one" which happened to be a dollar.

Now that Nicolas has a dollar, he is happy. All you have to do is price your work so you are happy. It is really simple math, yes math not psychology! This is not pricing because it has more meaning or because it is a "better painting". (They should all be better paintings or they should not be for sale.) Math is about square inches or square feet. Take a painting and be realistic about how much it would take, after paying for your materials, to part with it. How much would it cost someone to pay you to learn, grow and do what you love? Now you have a price. Divide that by the square inches of the painting and now you have a formula. Take your most common size and make that your base. As you get bigger, take 10% off and as you get smaller, add 10%. Now see if it works and whether the market will bear it.

This brings me back to Nicolas, who wants my change every time we go to a store. I told him that I do work for this money and he should too. So, to my surprise, I find him doing dishes one evening. I had my fatherly proud smile on and was pleased that he took the initiative to do a chore without being asked. Only, I later found out I was being conned by a seven year old. After he had finished washing, drying and putting away the dishes, he asked, "Ok, can I have my money now?" To myself, I thought why should I, but before I could even form the words, he was explaining, "You said if I do work, I can get money." granted, I had said that but I wasn't about to get into the difference between chores and jobs. So, I humored him and asked him how much  he should get for the dishes. I have to admit, he knows where the moon is, he told me $100. I thought it was a bit much so he came back with $99. I almost thought I had a deal but I wanted a bargain. He quickly came down to $10 and I countered with $5. We settled on $1. Know your audience, know your market and what they are willing to pay. 

Here is another opportunity to see what else my son will do for $1 at our local sushi restaurant. That's Wasabi!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Splitting the Hairs of Perfection

If you have been keeping up with my life and my blog you may have heard about my attempt to build a shed. Since my last post, I have been to an auction where I bought used lumber, only to find out I needed more. I have visited the local big box lumber store and have bought my share of the Sherwood Forest. There is no one to blame but myself and my grandiose ideas of what a “cool” outbuilding should look like…enter my friend who graciously said he would help. I’m sure David was totally unaware of what he was getting into. David has the construction background to make this happen and the artistic sculptural background to make it look cool. I have the space and the need to build plus a secret weapon to make sure the job is completed; a home cooked meal.

One of the only differences between David and I is our version of perfection. As a painter I capture things to represent actuality or at the very least, a mere illusion of it. I have the license to leave details out while highlighting other parts of the painting to make a perfect composition. Close is usually good enough and allows the viewer to complete the image in their mind. With enough information I can create a sense of light, space, and mood. To me five fingers represent a hand…this does not translate so well in construction. As far as I knew, there were three other numbers on a ruler between five and six; five and a medium size line, five and a bigger line and five with a medium line after the bigger line which is all followed by the number six.  These same lines and numbers can be found all the way down the ruler. To a sculptor that combines precision cut steel with carefully aligned holes and screens that attach perfectly to their bolts, lines on a ruler have meaning. To my surprise there are eighths and sixteenths. All along I just thought carpenters had lisps. I was to learn quickly that unlike painting you can’t eyeball it. There are technical terms like a hair; just cut off a hair. These are things so small and fine I didn’t think they mattered. In a painting I wouldn’t paint every single hair.

It is now day three and “we” (I use the term loosely) have the floor in place, four studded walls underneath for a second floor. Up at the house dinner is served; there is enough food to feed an army. My plate is decorated with orange and green vegetables, the charcoal black lines create a diamond pattern on the steak, and my scarlet red wine clings to the glass; it’s a visual delight. Across the table David stacks his carrots and proceeds to cut his steak into eighth inch strips. I’m so happy he will be joining us for dinner next week to finish up my shed.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I need more space...

I'm sure that sometime during high school or college, you heard these words from a significant other. Maybe it was an excuse to end a relationship. Well this year I am using it to end my relationship with clutter. Space is one of those things you can never have enough of; kind of like money. The more space you have, the more money you spend filling up that empty space until the time comes when you have no more space and less money. I've reached that point and I'm going to put a little space between me and my stuff...I'm building a shed.

Seven years ago I built a very nice studio. It was a perfect relationship. I didn't have too much baggage, just a few basic needs. I needed a place to paint, to lay out my stuff and not worry about putting it away. I needed a space for my computer and an area to contemplate that doubled as a place to entertain. Then it grew and grew. The space I loved began to stifle me. A tad bit of OCD kicked in and everything needed a a place. I needed my space back. The problems started to occur when I bought something, used it for a project, then wanted to save the remaining pieces. Side note: How many artists have pieces of matteboard or foam core that are 4 inches wide and 36 inches long? This is the compulsive behavior that I am talking about! The big gold frame, the tubes of fluorescent paint and the gold and silver leaf that I thought were part of a creative breakthrough, need a place to nest and incubate until they can be used to bring into fruition my next masterpiece! Maybe that's it, maybe it's not clutter. Maybe my studio has become a hatchery! All these pieces and scraps of "good idea" projects along with all the shipping supplies needed to send these creations to people who care, have crept into the house.

Now, my wife says she needs her, I'm building another hatchery for myself.