River Arts District

What Was Art School Like?

Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA

Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA

The other day, a family of five came into my art studio in Asheville. They’d been browsing in and out of the different art studios in the River Arts District and had a lot to say about the artwork they’d seen and artists they’d met. Super nice people. This couple’s son said he was interested in pursuing art as a career and Jim (the dad) asked me if I’d been to art school for training and if so, what was it really like? Was it worth it? Oooooo. Good blog post idea!

So, I’ll try to condense what was a half hour conversation into a short blog.

I really think that if it’s the “right” art school, it can be really valuable to an artist. “Self-taught” is fine, don’t get me wrong. No one taught me the technique I’m known for in my artwork. I made it up. But…I made it up using the tools I got from my education. I went to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. It was extraordinarily challenging but was definitely an amazing experience. I absolutely loved college. One of the things I learned there was to be organized with my time (a valuable tool I’ve used ever since). The work load was so intense and the pressure on the students was incredible. The years I attended, Art Center was ranked #2 (right behind Harvard School of Law) in terms of stress level on the students.

“Crit time” reduced us college students to tears…”

This was also the place I learned to take artistic criticism. I had to either learn to take critique or emotionally crumble! See, upon completion of our assignment, we would post our work on the walls around the classroom. Then we’d each present our assignment, and each of the other students would take turns expressing what was right and what was wrong with what we’d done. There was none of this “now remember, with art, there are NO MISTAKES”. Don’t believe it. “Crit time” reduced us college students to tears. It was brutal and really, really helpful (if you opened up to listening).

The other really helpful thing we learned was about the correct way to compose a piece of art. Did you know there are good and bad color combinations and good and bad compositions for a painting? Oh yes. We learned color theory and we learned about the laws (google "the Golden Section” sometime) that govern makes a pleasing composition of a piece of art. When I got to this point, Jim (the dad in my now captive audience) asked “What about abstract art? Would those rules apply to types of art other than landscapes or still life?” Oh my gosh, YES. Color and good composition are all you have with an abstract painting. Knowing the rules is even MORE important in an abstract.

My time at art college was amazing. I so appreciate the instructors, the brutal critique (though I didn’t enjoy that at the time) and the awesome life-long friends I made there. Because of all that, I’m able to now paint full-time and live in an awesome place like Asheville (and talk to nice families coming into my art studio asking me about my experience at art school. :)

One of my All-Time Heroes

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When we were living in Orlando, Florida, we discovered a museum in Winter Park that turned out to be a complete surprise to me. The Morse Museum houses the largest single collection of Tiffany stained glass anywhere in the world. To be honest, I had no real interest in stained glass at the time, and to me, I associated the name “Tiffany” with expensive jewelry. But from the moment I entered this museum, I was completely blown away by the unbelievable beauty of the glass. This was pure art and I was completely unprepared by the beauty of it all.

One of the things about being a full-time artist with an open art studio, is that you hear all sorts of comments from visitors to Asheville’s River Arts District. Thankfully, most of the comments I get are really kind and very encouraging. Some comments are not very kind though, and honestly even if I get one negative comment out of a hundred, that one comment can bother me. But what would it do to the emotional nature of an artist if he or she never really made a profit from their lifetime of art-creating and if a lot of their creations were simply unnoticed or completely unappreciated? I know I’d crumble.

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But this is exactly what I appreciate about Louis Comfort Tiffany as a man. He produced countless stained glass windows and lamps and he never did make a profit. How can you keep producing and actually improving in your creativity and your craft and not be making a profit? I have no idea, but that’s exactly what Tiffany did. Don’t get me wrong, some people recognized the incredible beauty of what this man was creating, but not nearly enough. There are stories about how people would purchase his stained glass windows at auction and pull out the glass and discard it, keeping only the leading so they could sell it. Unbelievable.

How can you keep producing and actually improving in your creativity and your craft and not be making a profit?

And in 1902, President Roosevelt had all the Tiffany windows in the White House removed (because they looked so “dated”).

The fact that this incredible artist/craftsman was able to forge on and keep going, and keep growing and keep creating his art is absolutely amazing to me. But this all just really makes me sad to think he never really was appreciated. That he did not rely on being appreciated says a whole lot about him. He is my hero.


Regarding "Inspiration" vs "Necessity"

A few days ago, a visitor to my art studio was watching me paint for several minutes, asking good questions about what I was doing, and sharing some of her adventures in artistic endeavors. Then she asked me a really good question that I think bears addressing: “What do you do when you have to paint but don’t WANT to paint?” Then she followed up with a related question: “How do you paint when you just don’t feel inspired?”

There are so many ways I can answer those questions. I wrote a blog a while back “How to create when you don’t feel creative” that addresses some of this, but I’ll answer from a different direction here. 

Art is not just born in a moment of whimsy.

It’s not controlled strictly by the emotions…

I’m a full-time artist and I have my studio in an awesome tourist Mecca: Asheville, North Carolina. We get visitors all year long from all over the country (and other countries) who spend the day wandering through the art studios of over 220 artists, looking at the artwork and getting to know the artists. Because this is more than just a hobby for me, we don’t eat if I don’t sell paintings and I won’t sell paintings if I’m not producing them. So I don’t have an option regarding whether or not I’m painting. That’s my job. What if a doctor didn’t show up in an operating room, or an airline pilot didn’t show up at the airport, or an Uber driving didn’t show up in his car or a restaurant owner didn’t show up at the restaurant simply because “they didn’t WANT to show up”?  I’m not different.

Art is not just born in a moment of whimsy. It’s not controlled strictly by the emotions. If it were, then most of the professional artists I know would go out of business. Just like everyone else trying to earn a living, professional artists have to do what they do, do it as best they can, and then hope it sells. 

I can’t answer for any other artist out there, but personally, I’ve never NOT wanted to paint. I love painting because I love imagining (I can’t help it). But the issue of painting when I’m not “inspired” usually just means I have to be quiet, go for a walk, listen to music. Creating involves emptying the creative “tank” inside my head and when that tank gets drained, it’s important to fill it back up again. So I hike. I pray. I think. I listen to leaves rustling in the trees. I try to listen to God. How one “fills up” would probably be a personal thing that varies from artist to artist, but that’s how I do it. 

In short, I don’t have the option of just painting when I’m “inspired”. If my creative tank is empty, it’s because I’m not regularly filling it up and while I sometimes don’t have control of when and how my “tank” is empty, I do have control over how often I am filling it. It takes time. Resting time. Quiet time. My culture would look at that sort of thing is frivolous and unproductive. It is not. For an artist (and I assume everyone?), that replenishing time is absolutely essential, and that’s an element of my culture I try vigorously to take exception to. 

"What are you Working on These Days?"

My Happy Mess

My Happy Mess

I had a client come into my art studio last week and he asked what I was working on these days. After I recounted some of the projects I’ve got in process, I thought “Wow, I’m really busy!” Thankfully, this has been a very busy season so far and I have lots on my plate and lots more projects I have in mind. So where to start?

  • I’ve got a three month show coming up in the summer at one of the premier hotel/restaurants in downtown Asheville. This will require 10 to 12 paintings, with more waiting “in the wings” to replace pieces as they sell (thinking positive here). Most of those paintings are completed now and ready for the show.

  • I am finishing up a commission (just completed today actually) for a couple that got married in Maine. The wedding venue had an amazing view of the mountains, so that vista was what I painted for their anniversary present to each other. I love creating a painting that’s not only a nice piece of artwork (hopefully!) but actually means something to the client. This one very definitely means a lot to them. How cool is that?

  • I’m also working on a rather large piece for a client that lives on a mountainside just south of Asheville. The view from their back deck is really spectacular so I’m creating a sunset inspired piece from the viewpoint of their back deck. This one is nearly completed now as well.

  • I just finished up a set of eight new pieces and have started a brand new 8-piece set to get ready for our busy summer season. Most of these paintings are on the smaller size (like 16” x 20” and 18” x 24”) so it’s easier on the wallet (since my prices are determined by the size). Come by this summer and there will be a lot to see!

How boring would life be if the motivation for everything we did was simply because it was practical?”

  • I saved the completely impractical (but really fun) projects for last in this list. This year, I wanted to depict a very large wave crashing on rocks and I just finished the line drawing of that composition on the canvas last week. The other project is a jagged peak of a mountain (up close view). I know…I’m in Asheville and how do I expect to sell a crashing wave (we’re five hours from the ocean and we only get huge waves here when there’s a hurricane) and we’re about a 30 hour drive from the nearest “jagged” mountains. So the reason I’m painting these two is because I want to. I don’t really care if these sell or not. I may end up with these on my own wall and if that’s the case, I’m very much okay with that. How boring would life be if the motivation for everything we did was simply because it was practical?” Seriously, I’d be excited if they don’t sell because I wouldn’t mind ending up with two of my very best pieces (and that’s what I intend to create). That said, if. you like waves and/or mountains, let’s talk. :)

Well, that about sums up the current work load of this Asheville artist. If you’re planning a trip to visit western North Carolina this year, please make sure you include our art studio (in Asheville’s historic River Arts District) in your itinerary. With over 220 artists with open art studios, you could spend a whole day browsing artwork and meeting artists. Cheers!

"I'm just not making the sales I need!"

I’m frustrated. Over and over again, very nice visitors file into my studio at 10:15 - 10:30 AM and ask me “What time do all the other artists show up?” That’s such a good question. And when I answer with “some of them will open at 11:00 I think, and then others — who knows?” they sometimes get short with me. I understand that angst. People travel to Asheville and they make their way down to the River Arts District in the morning and they’re greeted with what looks like a ghost town. At 10:00, I’m one of just a handful of studios open.

What’s frustrating about this is not that I’m the only one around. That’s actually good for me. I sell lots of paintings before noon (maybe because I’M OPEN BEFORE NOON). Sorry for the attitude. :)

What’s frustrating is that some of the artists that are not around are the very ones I hear complaining about sales. “I’m just don’t make the sales I need to make it worth it to be here”. But…if you’re not open, how will you make sales?

So if whoever is reading this is an aspiring artist who would like to do this full time, here’s some advice: Look at creating and selling art as a full time job and have regular (and consistent) hours. Then advertise those hours. I know there are lots of artists who are part time in their craft. I totally get that. That was me for many years. So just make it a goal to be “open” as often as you can. And think about finding other part time artists form a co-op and publicize that you’re open! Invite people to visit. Advertise! If you go in with other artists, that makes all the shared costs a lot more possible.

I really want to see other artists succeed, and that can’t happen if people do not see the artwork they are trying to sell. And if the doors are locked, no one will see the artwork and…hence, no art sales. It’s not rocket science.

Exploring Austin Galleries, Part 2

My wife Joy and I delivered a painting recently to some clients of mine in Austin, Texas. It was so nice to see the home my painting would become a part of (it was magnificent by the way!). After the delivery, we spent the day exploring several of the art galleries in town. The first gallery we visited was amazing. If you have not read my post on that visit, please click here first, then return to read the balance of this post, because that post will have a very different tone than this.

When we left that first gallery, I was really excited about what else Austin had to offer. Granted, we did not see every other art gallery in town, but we did see several and honestly, the rest left me feeling really frustrated. I hope it’s okay I say that but it’s really the truth. I know a lot of people who just do not visit art galleries any more because they think they obviously just don’t “get” art (because of some bad experiences with it in the past). If you are one of those people, I get it. If I could do anything, I’d just want to encourage you to keep exploring the art around you. Art is the voice of the culture, and so it’s really important. That said, the voice I heard singing the rest of the day in Austin was pretty off-key, and left me not only discouraged, but really frustrated.

Why frustrated? Well, if you want someone to appreciate your 12” x 18” piece of artwork priced at $8500, don’t make it something that looks like anyone could do it. There. I said it. In my opinion, really great art should wield the power of mystery. It should force you to wonder “Oh my gosh, how did they DO that?”. Over and over again though, the rest of the day in Austin, I was confronted with a lot of art that honestly left me thinking “If I had two hours and the right materials, I could make this myself”. Granted, I am an artist too, but still, if you are going to charge several thousands of dollars for something that I’m pretty sure I could recreate in 120 minutes, something is wrong (isn’t it???).

“With any painting, that skill is what you’re paying for.”

I am an artist in Asheville, North Carolina and I have an open studio there in the River Arts District. People come into and out of my studio all day long and so I hear a lot of comments. There are plenty of people who do not like my artwork (I can hear them making comments since I’m standing right there). So I totally understand that everyone has different taste in art and that’s totally fine. And because of that, some people will value types of art that I do not. But if an artist is going to charge several thousand dollars for a painting, whether I like that style or subject matter, I would hope I’d appreciate the skill involved. With any painting, that skill is what you’re paying for. I don’t like a lot of abstract art. I don’t like cubism. I don’t care for a lot of Pointillism. But I can appreciate the skill involved in the creation of abstract, cubist and pointtalist art. In other words, you don’t need to enjoy ANY type of artwork. But if it’s well-crafted artwork, whether you like it or not, you should be able to appreciate the skill involved.

This is just my opinion, but I feel pretty strongly about it. But if you disagree, that’s fine. And if you disagree strongly enough, I can spend a couple hours creating a mock art piece and charge you $8500. Hmmmm. This could be the start of a new creative direction for me!

New Idea Taking Shape

Contemporary Art

2019 has gone great so far! Even in this “slow” season in Asheville’s River Arts District, art is still being sold (THANK YOU!!) and commissions worked on feverishly. And…there’s even been time for me to develop my new type of artwork: the SAILS. The above photo is the beginning of my new “sail” art idea. This thin panel is shown begin covered with texture. The texture is important because it not only makes the eventual painting more interesting, it catches light and creates shadows. That’s especially important with a piece of artwork that is “abstract” in nature. The challenge with the texture is that it needs to be FLEXIBLE. It’s flexible because eventually, this panel will be permanently set in a flexed position as it attaches to the wall. So I can’t use my “go to” materials (modeling compound and gesso) because they will crack when flexed. But after some experimenting (and several trips to several art supply stores), I landed on the right material.

Panel here is textured and sealed, ready for the metallic leaf application

Panel here is textured and sealed, ready for the metallic leaf application

Initially, was picturing these panels in flexed positions in a vertical or horizontal row. The three prototype pieces i’m working on now all fit into hardwood track that will mount onto the wall. But there is no reason why the finished piece of artwork would HAVE to mount in a row. They could be mounted individually at angles to each other, some mounted concave, some convex. Why not? It’s just a matter of finding the right mounting hardware (which I have by the way). Eventually, I’m seeing this turn into something that would be luminous, undulating and covering a couple dozen feet (or more??) of a wall.

So…between my winter art commission projects, I’m still plodding ahead with this new idea, having a blast, and gratified the idea seems to be working (so far) without a hitch. Fingers crossed…going forward; sailing ahead!

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Lessons I've Learned as an Artist

I love my job. I really love it. I’m a painter in Asheville, North Carolina and have an open studio in the River Arts District. I work around 200 other artists (within a square mile) and share a very precious comradery with them. Every day, I walk the three miles to the studio and gear up to the tasks of the day, and then walk three miles home to unwind. My life is awesome right now.

This lifestyle and occupation niche is really rewarding but doesn’t come without challenges and lessons to be learned. Actually, I’ve learned a whole lot as a result of being a full time artist with an open studio:

1) Learn to be patient with tactile visitors

People love to touch my artwork. It’s not enough to look at it, they have to touch it. And they don’t just touch finished pieces. Every time I step away from my work table, I have to put up several “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH” signs around my work (because it’s wet paint!). Otherwise, I can come back and see foreign fingerprints. I can let this frustrate me (and it has) or insult me (and it does) but my work inspires curiosity and when I remember that fact, it makes it much easier to just deal with the inconvenience of painting over a fingerprint. Inspiring curiosity is an amazing thing and (when my head is in the right place), that makes me smile. That’s what this is all about.

2) Learn to be patient with people’s questions

Every day, I have to answer exactly the same questions multiple times and honestly, it’s exhausting sometimes. The artwork I do is something no one else is doing and while I love that fact, my artwork baffles some people. Before they even look around the studio, some folks have come over to me and almost demanded “So what is that? What’s your process? How do you do this?” I want to say “Why are you worried about HOW I do this? DO YOU LIKE IT?” And that’s because that’s really all I care about. When Joy and I go out to dinner downtown and have an awesome main course, I do not go back to the kitchen and ask the chef “What is this sauce? How did you make it?!” I would never even think of asking. I’m just consumed with “I really love this sauce” or “this doesn’t taste right” and that’s all. So this area frankly baffles me. But…again, if artwork inspires curiosity and ignites questions in the mind of the viewer, is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. It can be exhausting for me as the artist involved here, but I think it’s a very good thing. I don’t want my artwork to look like everyone else’s work. I do want it to be unique. So I’ve learned to be okay (most of the time anyway) with the hundreds of times a week I’m asked this question and try to answer it with a genuine smile (because when they ask, that means my artwork has done it’s job: inspired curiosity).

3) Listen well

I love my business model. Because I work right in the middle of public setting, I get to hear all the comments people make to each other. And this is really helpful. I come up with all sorts of ideas for artwork, but I honestly don’t know if they’re all good ideas until I hang the artwork on the wall and listen to people. This can be humbling, but so helpful. This is my job, and because of that, I can’t afford to be “angsty” and put my artwork up on the wall with the attitude that if people don’t appreciate it, there’s something wrong with them. That attitude won’t fly here. I put up an idea and I know pretty quickly if it was a good idea or not. I can hear some artist say, “Okay, he’s a sell-out”. I disagree. If I want to make a living selling hot dogs, I’d better make sure people enjoy my hot dogs, right? Get some focus groups together and do blind taste tests and see what sells. I’m not saying that an artist should just abandon the passion inside and paint only what people want. But if a respect for people and their interests and tastes is not part of the equation, that artist will not be able to create full time. Unless it’s a hobby, art needs to sell and if it’s not, it’s either too expensive, or the quality is lacking or it’s not executed with the right (popular) color palette, etc. All these things need to be factored into the production of a painting that (hopefully) will one day sell.

That’s probably enough for this blog entry. I’ve got more to say so…this will be continued.

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. :)

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.