We do a lot of shows with many artists that we see all year long. Some artists sell small inexpensive items and they have to sell a lot of things to make a lot of money but then we have friends that only have to sell one or two things and can have a $10-20,000 show. For us we are really in the middle. We sell original artwork but its not in the thousands of dollars so we don't attract the high dollar customer that can come in and essentially buy our whole booth. What we do have are moments of joy at selling young couples their first piece of original art. It has happened so often that a few years ago we decided to start a payment plan so that more young people could start buying original works of art instead of reproductions. The payment plan has led us to some wonderful encounters with people and recently we were fortunate to be able to be part of a great surprise.
The wife of one of these couples who had bought from us before and loved the work called me to ask if she could buy one of our newest pieces for her husband and together we arranged a plan not only for paying for the piece but to bring it to the art show where they come to see us each year that was a few months away. When the day came she arrived with her husband and he walked into our booth and asked if we still had this new piece and I said " Yes, we do" and showed it to him already wrapped up. He said, "Oh too bad somebody bought it, someday..." and I said" Okay, "Today, its yours". He said " Oh yeah, right". To which we all said. "Really, it's yours". His look was priceless. He had no idea and was just thrilled.
To be able to be part of the surprise and to know that we could help Tracy make this possible made us very happy and really makes us feel so luck y to do what we get to do in our lives now.
It has been awhile since I have posted anything and I have been struggling to decide how to approach the subject of Sunday art buyers. It has always amused me when someone asks for a discount because it is Sunday. For us each day is another opportunity to sell our work and it is never the last day for us. Our lives frankly don't include a day off very often and over the past two years I think we sometimes don't even know what day it is. I wonder sometimes what people really think when they see us at the shows. Do they understand what it takes for us to be there? Most of the time to be at any show requires a process that begins a good six months before. We are spending money early on just to apply to all the shows we do. Then we begin the anxious wait to hear if we are invited to a show or not. There are great shows that we simply can't ever get into and there are shows that even though we feel good about participating that we still must do the dance.There are a few months of the year when all we do is apply,wait and then have to pay for booth fees. It is a never ending job application and it is always a nerve-wracking time for us.
Once we are accepted and have paid the fees we still have to figure out how to get there and where we can stay that won't cut into our expenses too badly. We have friends who simply sleep in their vans but we have never gone that route. Just before the show we spend at least a full day packing up the van, always trying to guess what pieces will appeal at each show. Do we bring birds this time? Do we have a corner booth so we can display more? Then in many cases we start driving, and driving for days to get to the location of the show. We eat frugally and sleep in the least expensive hotels we can find. Once we arrive we may have to set up our booth in the dark of night,early in the morning or in the middle of a hot and windy day. We spend hours setting everything up, ever cautious about the weather.
By the time most people see us at a show we have already incurred a great deal of expense and we put our bright and shiny personalities to work to greet , to explain, and sometimes to discuss why we don't bargain. This is our living, it is not a hobby and every dollar we make goes into producing work, arranging travel and just plain living. We chose this life for many reasons and we are happy living it. The best friends anyone could hope for are usually only a few booths away at any show and we get to meet a lot of very wonderful people.
By the end of the show on Sunday, our work just begins. We have to tear everything down and pack up the van. If we are lucky we are heading to another show in a few days or we prepare for a long drive home. We are thankful for everything that happened over the past few days, even when it's not successful. For us it is just another day and we just get into the groove of what we have to do next. It can be a challenging life at times but it is our life and we are responsible for our successes and our failures. We wouldn't change a thing.
We go to so many shows and sometimes we find ourselves drawn to certain customers that become friends and a bright spot every year when we visit a given city. Dale was one of those people. Every year when we would do the Utah Arts festival we knew that he would be one of the first people we would see and that his beautiful smile and zest for life would set us up for a great weekend. The Utah Arts Festival is a grueling show. It is four days long and it goes from noon to 11 pm. We work hard but it also has provided us with some truly wonderful moments with some very special people. Dale was in a class all his own. He came all four days and he came for the music as much as for the art. Since I love music so much and I reluctantly could never go hear most of it, I seemed to live vicariously through our moments with Dale and his wife Karen. They bought art from us the first year and yet they never missed visiting with us every year after. They saw us throughout the show but we knew they would be the first and the last people we would spend time with during the show. It meant a lot to us, probably more than either of them knew.
This past June, they came as usual but this time Karen took us aside and told us that it was going to be Dale's 60th birthday and to surprise him she wanted to buy him "Beach Patrol", the raven which he had been looking at for years. It would be a surprise and we worked with her to get it to her without his knowledge. We couldn't wait for September to come so that we could hear his reaction to his present. We had no idea that this time we would hear news that would set us back for quite awhile.
Dale received his art on his 60th birthday and was thrilled. One week later he died from heart failure. We sell art for a living but each and every piece we sell we give a little piece of ourselves with it. This time we lost so much because we knew what the world lost that day. Dale is dancing to great music somewhere and we feel blessed to have been a part of his life.
I think the number one question we get asked at every show is "Where are you from?" and yet in many ways it is a question that means nothing. You see we spend our lives on the road for the most part. When we come home we spend our time creating the artwork we display but the inspiration for the work itself comes from the times we spend far from the place we now call home. For many artists we get so little time to actually stay "home" that the question is always a jarring one. Home is a studio, a garage, an open space for building and creating and preparing for the next trip out the door. Does it matter in the big scheme of things where we are from or can the work speak for itself?
Many years ago we moved to Seattle because of a job transfer and now we are selling our house and planning to move back to Arizona. Will people stop buying from us in the Northwest once our address changes? Will more people buy in the Southwest when we do? Does it make the artwork look different based on where an artist is from, really? The artwork should speak for itself and it should be about how it makes the viewer feel, no matter where it is from.
Do customers want to buy "local" and if so, do they understand that most artists would starve if they only did "local" shows. We love the places we visit and at many of the shows we do, we now have customers that we genuinely are excited to see every year just to say hello. We visit many places every year and as we travel to these locations we frequent some very beautiful locations along the way. We are so fortunate to have this luxury to be able to take in such inspiration wherever we go. We aren't from Utah, Oregon, or Texas but there are images in our booth from time we have spent there.
So now that we will be from another new place, when people ask us "Where are you from?" we will answer differently but then we will look at each other, smile and know that really we are still the same people we were before we moved.
I actually began doing art shows way before Steve. In the early 1970's I used to go to art shows in California with my cousin and sell beautiful necklaces made from beads that my aunt brought back from her travels in Africa and parts of Asia. It was so simple then. We just showed up, spread out a blanket and stayed until we sold out or got tired. Everyone around us made what they sold, some of it was fine crafted and some of it was not but I don't think the idea that they didn't make it themselves was ever of question.
Over the years the idea of buying finely made original art in an outdoor setting evolved and suddenly it became more structured. There came a purpose and a sense in the community that when you went to these shows that you were seeing the best the area had to offer in the arts. We all bought white tents, white vans and learned how to take professional photographs of all of our work so that we could be compared against our peers for a chance to have a spot at these coveted venues. There were years when the community went in masses to buy work by the artists and to commune with them to understand the hours of labor that went into each and every piece on display. It was a respected and valued way to make a living.
Then the economy tanked and suddenly a few things began to change that have caused us all to stop and wonder about the future we face as more people decided to join the art show circuit. There are still incredible artists and craftsmen who have chosen to sell their work directly to the public. Yet we are now challenged at these very venues by booths full of "vendors" who sell items that they did not make themselves or they may have initially designed and have now found a way to mass produced on the cheap. The promoters of some of the shows we have historically supported no longer care if the work is original or not or even if the visitor knows that what they are looking at is actually made by the artist or not.
I spent a great many years in the corporate world in sales competing against other companies. What I always knew was that integrity in sales was the most important value I could bring to a customer. As someone who has lived in both the art and corporate world I find the situation I am witnessing these days really interesting. Do the customers we talk to every week really interested in buying from the artist who actually handmade the work or has the retail world now changed things so much that no one cares? I personally faced this challenge a few weeks ago when I bought a garment from a fellow "artist" only to find out later that she didn't make them but bought them from a wholesaler and marked them up to resell at the shows. It made me question so much about how I felt about what we do now and how I should respond to the artist in question.
As customers visiting the shows, it comes down to deciding why you are there I guess. For most people it is just a way to while away an afternoon and maybe purchase a small item to remind you of the day. For the people standing in the 10 x 10 booth spaces however it can mean a great deal more.
Every week that we set up the booth in a new city we look at each other and say the same thing. Will this show bring us visitors that know what a serigraph is? It will make a difference each week in what the show will mean for us by how many times we have to explain the process of making a hand printed screen-print but more importantly it will make a difference in how often we will have to defend the purchase of original printmaking. The increase into the marketplace of giclees has muddied the waters of the original printmaking world and it seems that it has become a real challenge to find a creative way to explain why someone would want a numbered "original" print that is not a reproduction.
If someone knows and understands the work that goes into making a hand cut and hand printed screen print then the reaction is usually quite wonderful and we know that they understand that they are buying a piece of art that will last a lifetime. In the meantime we continue to open up our binder of photos of the steps of the process and start the explanation again.
Recently while talking with a fellow artist we shared this dilemma and he shared an analogy that I think we may continue using for awhile. The next time someone asks us where the "original" is and why the numbered pieces cost so much more than a reproduction I will share that a reproduction is like when you buy your first pieces of furniture in college. You may go to Target or Ikea and the furniture could be made of particle board with maybe some laminate cover on it but that's okay, you aren't planning to keep the furniture for long and it will serve its purpose for it's time just fine. But the fine hand crafted mahogany desk or bed that you decide to buy that you plan to have forever and to ultimately pass on to your children some day? Well, that's a serigraph.
Original artwork is meant to hold on to and to cherish. Buy it for the feeling it gives you from the very first time you saw it and keep it until you are ready to pass it on to someone who will love it as much as you did. Invest in the real thing and if you have to do it in baby steps, that's okay because in the long run it will hopefully last you a lifetime.
"Why do we do it? We must be able to sell this art some other way than by driving so far and for so long?" This conversation popped up more than once this last month on the longest trip we have taken to date. We spent 6,200 miles, slept in 16 different beds in 9 states over a one month period. We saw some beautiful parts of the country and we had days of nothingness as well. Mostly we drove, and drove and listened to the radio (thank goodness for XM Radio). This trip we managed to camp twice and discovered that the state of Texas has some really beautiful campgrounds. Our art show record was quite interesting. We went back to a small but really good show in Southern Utah, then to a new and beautiful show outside of Houston where we won a big award but due to the weather had less than spectacular results, and we ended in wonderful San Antonio where the people loved our colorful artwork. Could we sell this art some other way? Maybe. Would we enjoy doing it this much and get to know our customers the way that we do? Don't think so.
I have been a salesperson for as long as I can remember. I have sold at the highest levels of the corporate world where strategy means everything and the art of the negotiation is key. I wore the suit, flew on planes across the country, had lengthy "strategy" meetings and in the end when I was successful I couldn't tell you a thing about my clients real life. It was just not a key component to the sale in many instances and it didn't mean I wasn't good at what I did.
Today I get to sell to people with no account plans, no forecasting but what I do get is an opportunity to share some wonderful stories and at the end of the day I feel like we truly do know something about each other when the sale is done. Some days the stories take on a very special significance and recently in Scottsdale that happened again for us. We used to live in Arizona when we were just starting out and some of the first pieces of art Steve ever sold were there to friends and acquaintances of his then mentor, a man who encouraged him to seriously pursue art as career. The pieces were sold for next to nothing since Steve was just happy to see someone wanted to have his artwork at all. Where these pieces ended up 25 years later we would never know, or would we?
On Saturday a lovely couple came into our booth to look at our work. They loved the style of the work and remarked to each other how much it would blend with the pieces that they had been lucky to have found at an estate sale awhile back. The pieces that they had purchased had just been sitting in the house and not getting much attention but the colorful buffalo really caught their eye and after some time they were able to negotiate a price they could afford and bought it along with two smaller pieces. They had no idea who made the work but they loved the colors. Now they found themselves in our booth and it suddenly felt the same way it had when they were at the estate sale. The booth was fairly crowded but Ashley's mom walked over to a stack of greeting cards we had and when she turned over a box to see the price they were all stunned to see their buffalo looking back at them! They had found the artist of the mystery artwork from the estate sale! No wonder they liked this work so much and they all agreed to come back the next day.
On Sunday they returned and we all proceeded to talk about the estate sale. I shared with them the story of our start there and how the work probably ended up there and I walked them over to show them that the Lonesome Bull of which only one remains is now the most expensive thing we have. The story brought back memories of Steve in his early years trying to start out doing this. The time we all spent together as they picked out two new pieces became a really special time for everyone. Their collection has grown, we have added new friends, and we now know that life has brought us full circle. Priceless.....
It was a risk but with the uncertainly of the jobs market we decided at the beginning of the year to see if we could make it this year working together as a team full-time as HarmstonArts. We both have always had other jobs in addition to this and my corporate life had been a big part of our income. So what did we learn this year? First and foremost that after more than thirty years of knowing each other we really could stand to be around each other 24 hours a day. We learned that we were really happy doing this full-time, knowing that our successes and our failures were ours alone both to cherish and to resolve. We learned that what we were offering in the marketplace was not for everyone and that there simply were parts of the country that we were better off leaving off our list in 2012.
Best of all this year we found out that there are people from our distant past who decided to go to an awful lot of trouble to find us. We were reacquainted with childhood friends, cherished coworkers, dearly loved family members. We had moments when we were able to make a sale to someone that included a connection that surpassed much more than an exchange of art for money and for that we will always feel blessed. Finding confirmation that what we put on the walls could mean as much to someone else as it meant when it was created is the reason that all artists decide to put themselves in such a vulnerable position and this year we were fortunate to have some very special moments.
We also learned rejection when we had times when no one seemed to like what we had to share. Was it the images, was it the prices? We probably won't ever know but it definitely was a sign this year that the economy has hit the independent artist hard. How do you explain the change in customer's perception of worth in the art world? Does original art mean very much in a world of bargains? As we struggle with our all original artwork we will continue to appreciate the many clients that have supported us and what we do.
The economy has made many people artists these days and there are so many people looking to quickly put something out there for people to buy. We also search for other ways to create new items to sell so I certainly can't fault the industriousness in anyone. Yet will people stop appreciating original artwork that takes months to make?
Time will tell but for now we will continue on the road ...together
We are always asked if someone can come and see "our studio" and while so many of our artist friends have spacious studios we actually work in a corner of our garage. We nevertheless do occasionally have customers come by to visit and pick up pieces of art and now we have decided to actually open the garage up for the public to come and see Steve in action for the first time. We are pulling out all of the artwork we have collected over the years that we just can't bring due to the confines of the truck and a 10 x 10 booth space so that people can see the pastels and mixed media pieces as well. What will our neighbors think? Do they even realize what we do for a living? It will be interesting to see who will come to see us and whether this open studio tour is successful or not...