Planning for a Second Studio Location!

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This winter, I will be doing the preliminary set up for a second art studio…in TEXAS! I love mountains or wild seascapes, so I never, ever thought I’d be excited about being in Texas but here’s the thing…three of my four kids are there and seven of nine grandchildren are there, and Joy and I have the opportunity to set up shop right there with them all. We’ll still be keeping Asheville, North Carolina as our home base, and St.Claire Art studio in the River Arts District will still be open there, but parts of the year (corresponding to slower tourist seasons in Asheville), we’ll be painting in Texas.

I’m excited about two things related to this: first of all, I absolutely love the idea of being close to our family, and second, this opens up new opportunities for galleries in the central U.S. and Rocky Mountain states.

…finding the ear of a gallery owner takes either a personal visit by the artist, or a connection via a third party…

I’ve always wanted to find gallery representation in that part of the country, but being on the east coast, it’s just too far away to realistically explore. And finding the ear of a gallery owner takes either a personal visit by the artist, or a connection via a third party who knows the artist and the gallery owner. This second option happened to me just this summer. There is a gallery Elk River, Michigan (on the north-west coast) that will be carrying my work in the spring and I’m really excited about it! I’ve been to that area and it’s gorgeous — and it’s frequented by tourists. This opportunity came about because a client of mine that lives in that part of Michigan knew a gallery owner and she played matchmaker, and I’m so appreciative whenever that happens because it makes my job so much easier!

So if anyone out there in cyber-land knows of galleries I’d fit into in the central US and Rocky Mountain states, please let me know! This spring, I’ll be ready. :)

Steps Involved with a Painting Commission

Yesterday morning, I was in my “happy place”, finishing up a landscape painting I’m working on featuring the meadows and mountains for western North Carolina. My art studio had had several visitors poking in, looking at the completed artwork I have displayed on my walls and stopping to talk with me while I was working.

Around mid-morning, three women arrived and I remembered two of them from a previous visit. They had come in to talk about steps involved with commissioning a painting. Luckily, they had a laptop filled with some really beautiful photos.

These clients live in beautiful home near the eastern tip of Long Island and their home overlooks a bit of wetland and then a bay (Wickham Creek). They showed me photos of their home and some shots of where the painting would be eventually installed. And then we perused photos of their amazing view during each of the seasons.

So the first question to answer was “what is the subject matter for this piece?”. Over the course of the conversation, they decided on a view of the bay with the foreground being a mix of cattails and various wetland foliage. The problem was that there are trees in the way of the view they desired, but I assured them that that was an easy problem to remedy as an artist (I’ll just remove the trees in the artwork!). And this time of year, with leaves nearly all off the trees, they can just give me a good shot through the trees and that will give me the mid-ground and background for the composition.

Then we discussed time of year to be depicted. Their walls are a “golden retriever yellow, so a sundown would be too warm and winter would be too cool. We decided that a late September view (before the cattails were pruned off) would work great. Blue sky with some clouds maybe? Lush green wetland in the foreground with some early autumn rusts and golds (which tie in with the wall color).

It’s so much fun to sit down and talk through what the client is looking for.

The only thing left to decide was the size, but they were thinking something around 4’ x 6’ or maybe 3’ x 5’, as it is to be a real “statement piece”, hanging above the couch. As soon as they get home, they’ll measure their couch, and then get back to me. In the mean time, I did a little research and found that the average three-cushion couch is 84” long, and based on that, I did the following three plans:

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I’ll forward the photos to them today, so they can start thinking about the proportions that would work best for them. Then we will be ready to start, and about eight weeks later, the painting will be delivered to it’s new Long Island home!

This is how I generally work a commission. It’s so much fun to sit down and talk through what the client is looking for. Sometimes people know exactly what they want, and sometimes we need to talk it through. Either way, it’s really a lot of fun for me as I begin to imagine the completed work. As we talk, the painting begins coming together as we nail down the plan: theme, colors, time of year, time of day, angle of the shot, best size for the space. All of that is great fun for me and I think my clients really enjoyed it too. The result of all that fun will be an awesome piece of art. That’s not bragging — it’s just really hard to go wrong with painting the view of the bay they were showing me. It’s going to be amazing.

As the plans come together and the piece is started, I’ll document the progress here for anyone interested in following along. Cheers!

How do you stay "balanced"?

This past week, some very nice folks from Chicago came into my art studio in the River Arts District. They are artists (oil painters) and while in town, they wanted to visit the Biltmore Estate (a must see!) and tour around Asheville’s River Arts District and see some artwork and meet some artists. So they were in the right place! We spent quite a bit of time talking about our art, influences, art history, culture shapers and obstacles to “making it” as a full time artist. It was a great conversation! One really great question they asked was how I stay “balanced” as an artist / husband / dad / human being. Really good question.

This is the one job I’ve had where I think it’s been difficult to stay balanced. When I was a project manager (earlier in life), I had no problem at all forgetting all about my job and focusing on my family. But now, honestly, it’s hard because creating art is not something that’s easy to stop thinking about. I can stop painting (that’s easy enough). But I can’t stop dreaming. I can’t stop thinking creatively. Well, not easily anyway. That’s been the big issue I have had to learn with this job, not because the job is so demanding but because thinking creatively comes second nature. I can be listening to you and hearing you (really) AND thinking about a new project I want to start when I get into my studio on Monday morning. But I don’t think that’s fair to the people I’m listening to. When I’m talking to someone, I would like to think I really have their full attention and…uh…I think that whole “do unto others what you would have them do unto you” principle probably applies here. So I’m not mentioning this as a strength. It’s a weakness, but there you have it.

I’m learning that the most important things in life are not paintings, but people. I think paintings are only important because they effect people. So I suppose the way we stay balanced has to do with granting the most importance to that which is most important. And that just takes mindfulness and awareness, and prioritizing accordingly. That sounds easy enough, right? We’ll see, but I am committed to learning to do this well. Balance. That’s where I’m going…

What makes art "Art"?

  “Red Triangle”  Francois Pelletier, 2003

“Red Triangle” Francois Pelletier, 2003

Imagine one afternoon not long ago, you were visiting a rather famous art museum. Some of the art, you felt like you understood and you were feeling pretty proud of yourself. And then…you came into the “modern art” wing and and saw there, at the end of a long hallway, the huge master work by French painter Francois Pelletier “The Red Triangle”. Imagine please that this was your first time seeing this piece (maybe it is?). If that was/is the case, what is your visceral reaction? It’s okay to be honest. We’re all friends here. Many people (we’ll call them “Group One”) express that they have felt and received the message Pelletier was trying to convey and others (Group Two) laughed at the people in Group One, so whatever your reaction, you’re probably right.

What makes art “Art”? Do you know? Is there an actual answer anymore? See, what makes art “Art” depends upon several sometimes conflicting assumptions. Is “Art” beautiful? Sometimes, but not always? Is it disturbing? Sometimes but not always? Is it serious, whimsical, deep or meaningless? I know people who would answer with a resounding “YES!” to each of these descriptions of what makes art “Art”. Eventually, you get to the point where everything and anything at all is art if you “think” it is.

But honestly, I think that is only possible because today in western culture, we’re not allowed to have any form of “measurement” when it comes to measuring the value of art. I don’t mean that we’re not given any form of measurement, I mean we’re not “allowed” any. But if that is correct, then art (and artists) really are in a completely unique category.

Imagine you were planning a trip to France and you went to TripAdvisor to see what were the “must see’s” in France. The Louvre had five stars, Eiffel Tower had five stars, the restroom in front of Nortre Dame - five stars, the bus from the Arc de Triomphe to the main train station — five stars. And then you notice that every point of interest, every restaurant, every hotel had five stars. Well of course they do, it’s Paris, right? But seriously, if there was no judgement being exercised by anyone rating on TripAdvisor at all, if everything they rated was given five stars, what sort of help would that be? And do you really think that the bus from the Arc de Triomphe to the main train station “DESERVES” five stars? But “who are you to judge?”

So if there are not standards at all (and our post-modern western civilization tells us there are not), then is there such a thing as real art? Beautiful music? Skillful poetry and prose? Masterfully executed films? If your answer is yes, then how can our post-modern assumptions be correct? And if the answer is no, then how can we live in a world like that? Can you?

I’d love your input on this one. No judging here. This topic is a pretty big one and I will not pretend to be the ultimate authority here. It’s just my blog, that’s all. :)

"How Did You Stumble Across This Type of Artwork?"

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I love the balance of painting and the concentration that it requires, and having interesting conversations with visitors to my art studio in Asheville’s River Arts District. I think that the constant conversations with folks keeps me from going to an intensely morose, introverted state of mind. The balance between intense personal creativity and enjoying a great conversation is one of the things that I like best about my job as an oil painter with an open studio here in Asheville, North Carolina.

One of the questions I’m routinely asked can be phrased just like it was this past week: “How did you stumble across this type of artwork?” If I can be really honest, I didn’t like the way that question was phrased, though I believe I understand what they actually meant. Rephrased accurately, I think it would be asked “how did you come up with this?” And that’s a better question because I didn’t “stumble” across anything. It wasn’t by chance or whimsy. It’s like visiting Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico and asking the park ranger how they “stumbled” across all the pathways through the maze of awesome underground chambers. Those pathways we routinely use to see this amazing place were not “stumbled” upon. They were forged. It started with exploring, and then running into dangerous places and remembering to keep clear of them. It was about going down one series of caves and hitting a dead end. Retreating. Continued exploration. Mapping it out.

That is how I “came up with” (not stumbled upon) the type of artwork that I do. There is no one else doing what I do, and while that’s really awesome, it’s equally frustrating, because there is no mentor of mine out there that I can call when something horrible goes wrong. I have to do research and brainstorming and experimenting (I feel like I’m half artist and half mad scientist) and so far (between my wife Joy and I) we’ve figured out the correct answer to every problem we’ve run into (but there may be a brand new issue we encounter tomorrow. You never know!). And to be honest, some of the issues we’ve had to figure out were absolutely critical if I was to keep developing this type of artwork. For instance, did you know that some things make the aluminum I paint on dissolve away? Not immediately, but over several months. Think about that…I paint the entire painting ON TOP of aluminum leaf. If that aluminum dissolves away, there goes my painting. I can’t have that happen (obviously). Only Banksy can get away with that. There are issues with varnish and resin and the way we wash brushes and what we wash them IN, and the paint we use…all of these issues presented challenges that had we not figured out the solution, I would have had to stop painting the way I paint.

So the answer to the question “How did you stumble across this type of artwork?” is: I didn’t stumble across anything. I experimented and explored, found dangerous places and remembered them, found dead ends and retraced my steps. And the “cave” of creativity is something so immensely huge, there’s no way I can explore it all in my lifetime. What fun is this! Every day is a challenge and sometimes a total failure and sometimes a complete victory. I like those “victory” days the best though. But honestly, the whole creative PROCESS is what I’m addicted to. Half artist, half mad scientist. I’m content with that.

"A Personal History"

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One of the things that I’m always interested in finding out about something is it’s origins…how did it become the way it is? What were the steps that, when put together, created what I see? I would have absolutely loved to have seen the huge block of marble Michelangelo used to create his David. When I saw David last year, I was completely awestruck. But it would have been so fascinating to actually see the transformation from a hunk of marble into the awesome sculpture standing now in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence, Italy.

I bring this up, because in my Asheville art studio, one of the questions I routinely get from visitors is also about origins, and it goes something like this: “Have you always been an artist?”

So I’d like to address that question here. The simple answer is “yes, I’ve always been an artist” (as far back as I can remember anyway). Very early on, I think art was about the only thing my stay-at-home mom could give me to do that would keep me quietly occupied for several hours. Boredom has always been my nemesis, and artwork most often was the cure. So by the time I entered grade school, I was pretty good at it. And it’s a good thing. Remember that awkward kid that was always the last chosen for the football or baseball or basketball team in grade school? Well HELLO! That was me! I clearly remember the coach having to end the argument between the two team captains about who had me on their team last. Ouch.

Art became my savior…That’s not a good thing.

Day after day, for many years, I clearly felt like I was not wanted and not good or acceptable as a person…except when it was time for art class. The same guys that would reject me on the football field would come around my desk and ask “how did you DO that?” At that point somewhere early in first grade, art became my savior.

That’s not a good thing. It turned out that art was a fickle and demanding savior. See, all was well as long as I was the best artist in my class, and I was…until high school. Ugh. In high school, there was a guy named John Howarth and John Howarth was a better artist than I was. And he was good looking and popular and just an all around great guy. I can say nothing negative about him, except that he dethroned me. I didn’t know how to handle not being the best. That period of time was horrible for me. Eventually, I found another (and ultimate) savior that was not fickle, but that is another story. What happened at this point in time though was I realized that I was using art for myself. I was using it to make me feel worth something.

Eventually, finding a much more dependable savior let art off the hook. At that point, art became something I could just enjoy. Art became a gift to me, and I could then give it to others. If this was not the case, I could never have developed the art genre I work with now. If being the best at art was still prime, I would be paranoid of failure and of making any mistake. But as I said, art is off the hook. Me failing doesn’t matter in the least. I can just start over, having learned from it. I’m smiling right now because that sounds like such a platitude! But it’s really not at all. It’s what frees me to create with joy and abandon. My theory is that if I make a mistake with art, I want it to be a really big one. I may belly-flop, but it’ll be memorable!

In my next blog entry, I’ll address another “origins” question I’m asked often: “How did you stumble across this type of artwork?” Hint: I didn’t stumble. I sculpted it. More on that later.

Commission Confusion

This last week, I had a visitor to my studio in Asheville’s River Arts District who spent quite a bit of time looking at all my paintings I have displayed in my art studio/gallery. They walked around a couple of times, studying each piece. I just assumed they were an artist trying to figure out my technique, so I was politely quiet. :)

I don’t charge any more for commissions and I guarantee you’ll be happy with it…

After several minutes, they left, but then returned about an hour later and went back to a couple of landscape paintings I have hanging near the back of my studio. On my way to my “back of studio workspace (where I do the messy work), I briefly commented that if they had any questions, to be sure to ask. They nodded quietly and continued staring at my painting. That’s fine. After another ten minutes or so, they walked slowly by my front-of-studio workstation and watched me paint. So I got to talking with him just a bit and he said that he REALLY liked a couple of the paintings but was afraid they were both the wrong size for his space. So I recited my standard commissions speech:

“If you would like to commission a painting based on one of the paintings you like, I am very happy to revisit that idea in another size. I can even change it from a summer to an autumn scene or add some sun rays coming across the trees. I don’t charge any more for commissions and I guarantee you’ll be happy with it or I’ll sell it here and paint you another one. And I ship for free, which, since you live in New York, saves you having to pay the NC sales tax…”

“Oh no,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to have you do that.”

I was fine with that, smiled and told him to have a great day and to make sure he comes back again next time he’s in town. But honestly, I don’t understand his reluctance to commission a painting. Did he want a “unique” painting? Or did he not want to spend the money for a “commissioned piece”? Or did he think a commissioned piece wouldn’t have the same “artistic energy” from me as a painting that came “from my own heart”? I didn’t ask because, well, I just never would.

Is it unique?

As far as being a unique painting, each one I do is a unique piece of art. I never just “copy” a painting of mine — I always tweak it so each one is unique, but I feel complete freedom to revisit a favorite theme (look up “Monet Water Lilies” or “Money St.Paul’s Cathedral” and see how many iterations he did of the same theme). If Claude can do it, so can I (that’s my reasoning). And honestly, when I try a new thematic idea and it works, when I have gone back and rework it, the new one always turns out better.

The cost of a commissioning a painting?

I never charge more for a commission. It’s exactly the same price as it would be if I just did it to hang on my studio wall and tried to sell it here.

Is a commissioned painting inferior to a piece that “came from the artists’ heart”?

No. Bottom line is that I just love painting. I don’t care what I paint. And commissioned pieces honestly have always been the most fun because I get to paint ALL SORTS OF THINGS I’d never be able to sell here in my Asheville art studio. For commissions, I’ve painted scenes from Scotland, Canada, the Swiss Alps, New Zealand, the canals of Venice, underwater fish “cyclone”, even a sunset over Antarctica. I absolutely love it when someone says something like “I have probably a crazy idea for a painting…” Right there, they have me hooked. Something new and try!

I hope my studio visitor comes back sometime and sees something he likes. But I would really get excited if he said, “okay, I don’t see exactly what I want so let me try to explain it and see if you can do it.”

I can do it, and I promise I’ll have a blast.

"Aqueous Dream"

Several months ago, I was asked to create a large installation piece of art for a design showroom in Oklahoma City (30A Home). The place is awesome and amazing and they are displaying one other installation piece (multiple panel art) and several single abstract paintings of mine already.

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This piece was an unexpected challenge. Ha! I have found that the term “unexpected” is usually applied to all my abstract paintings because they seem to have a mind of their own. I tell visitors to my art studio that painting an abstract painting is a bit like raising a teenager: they have their own mind and don’t like to be forced to conform to YOUR will. They have their own plan. It sounds almost metaphysical (sorry) but my job as a painter is to figure out what each abstract paintings “wants” to become. Landscape paintings are totally different. They’re like the super agreeable and responsible first born kid. An abstract piece is, uh….not like that. This particular abstract installation was a particularly challenging painting, in that I painted it twice. I originally had my own idea regarding what I wanted it to look like. So I spent several weeks applying paint and not liking it. So I worked on it more and arm wrestled it into compliance…and..then…

It won. It did not want to be what I wanted it to be. So I killed it. (It’s okay. It’s just a painting. I’m anthropomorphizing it.) So in a fit of rage (not really, but it makes a great story), I covered over every single panel with fresh aluminum leaf and…begun again.

This time, I just picked a color palette and let it have it’s say. And oh my gosh, even after the very first then application of paint, I was so glad I started over. I loved it. There’s got to be a life lesson here. I should write a parenting book I think. Anyway, after several more weeks of simply “listening” to what this piece wanted and complying; gently coercing it to my will here and there JUST A BIT, it turned into something I am so proud of. Wooo Hooo!

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Beauty in the Center of the Pit

Let me first say that if someone by chance is reading this blog, you probably already know I’m an oil painter in Asheville’s River Arts District. I paint some abstract pieces (great therapy!) but mostly I paint local landscapes. For the record, my favorite time of the day to depict in a painting is dawn or dusk, because the light is perfect, and my favorite time of the year to depict is probably autumn, because again…the light. I love trying to capture that moment in a day that may only last a couple minutes and then it’s gone — that time when the sun colors the clouds crimson and orange and the world feels like it’s holding it’s breath, waiting for the first cricket to begin it’s song. In short, I love depicting the awesome beauty of this place.

This week though has been really difficult for me and I need to write about it. So this blog entry will really be more like a journal entry. I need to get write this down or I’ll pop.

“I’m not afraid”.

I got a phone call from my 92 year old dad last week and it sounded like he had the flu, so he went to the hospital. As the days of last week slowly ticked by, we found that he has a large tumor in his colon and it’s nearly blocking the whole thing. I know what this means, and my dad does too. I knew he wasn’t going to live forever but “that day” was (in my mind) always off in the future. Grief and fear are really interesting. Most of the time, I steel my heart and I’m fine. But then there are waves that are too large, and they knock me off my feet. My plan was that my dad would live the end moments in my home. But he’s in Dallas and I’m in Asheville and this snuck up on us by surprise. By Tuesday, when they get the biopsy results back, we’ll be able to make a plan. For now, we wait.

Suddenly now, I remember all the ways I disrespected my dad (he wasn’t perfect — surprise!) and caused him pain with my words and my own brokenness, and that regret can be crippling. But when I talk to him now, I can tell none of that matters to him at all. He just loves me and wants me to know he’s not at all afraid. For him, this is the final logical step one has to take to meet his Maker, who loves him, and my dad takes that very seriously. Yesterday (through many tears) I read Psalm 91 to him…

”Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday…”

I was crying but he was encouraged. “I believe that Steve”, he said strongly. So do I.

I don’t know how long he has. Maybe days or weeks? Maybe months or years? No idea. But this is grief and I guess it’s time I become familiar with it and let it become fuel for my creativity as the waves wash over me. What does grief and creating artwork have in common? If done right, I think they are very much connected because they’re both real and honest. I found myself painting some pieces of art this week that I’m really proud of and excited about, not as a diversion from the grief and fear but because of it, propelled along by it. Strange thing.

Alright. I feel better now at least getting that much down. I promise I will not regularly use this blog to vent regarding this. But this was therapeutic.

Only North Carolina?

 “El Capitan” circa 2013

“El Capitan” circa 2013

A few years ago (before I moved to my current studio on Depot Street, I was in the Wedge Building in Asheville’s River Arts District. At that time, I was painting mostly local Western North Carolina mountain scenes — places that were within an hour or two drive from Asheville. I was beginning to sell well (much better than I’d ever thought I would or could) and I was really excited about what I was doing. I was selling artwork to people from the north as far as Maine and south as far as Florida, and from the east coast to the west coast.

Because my clients were from all over North America, the thought occurred to me that maybe I was unnecessarily limiting myself in my subject matter. My musings at the time went like this… “Since my art buyers are coming from literally all over the country, maybe I shouldn’t JUST paint local Western North Carolina landscapes. Maybe I should I branch out and paint some of the iconic scenes from all over the country.” ???

So I spent several months painting some of the most amazing landscapes this country has to offer. The painting I’m featuring on this blog post “El Capitan” is from that series. What I found though was that my sales shriveled to a small fraction of what they were before. Because I am dependent on making the most people happy as possible with my artwork, I gave up painting anything but generic or local North Carolina landscapes and…my sales went back to where they were before my little theme-based experiment. I learned something from that, although I confess I wish I could make a living painting more than JUST my own backyard. I love this part of the country, but this country is so huge and so beautiful — as an artist, I’d love to be able to paint all of it. But as a homeowner, I need to sell my artwork so I can pay my mortgage. So that has been my quandary.

So I write this blog post to ask for the opinions of anyone out there that might feel inclined to share…

1) Would you like to see at least some paintings that were not “North Carolina themed” and, if you could, would you be more inclined to purchase them than local themed paintings?

2) If you answered yes to question 1…What part of the country would you love to see depicted?

3) Do you have a favorite place in your own state that you would love to have depicted in a painting? Or have you visited somewhere in your travels that would make an awesome piece of art?

If the only artwork I can sell here in Asheville is North Carolina themed and generic landscapes, I’m content with that. I’m just wondering if I chose the wrong photos to work from or if the paintings I did back then just weren’t all that great (I hope I’m a better artist now than I was six years ago!). But I’d love your input. I really do listen. So thank you ahead of time for any opinion you have on the matter!