Artists have a reputation for being a bit touchy. Their egos appear to be easily bruised to those in professions in which work has no personal value beyond earning cash and prestige. Artists work for those goals too, but their production is tied to their personal creativity, to their internal values. When someone tells a painter that he or she doesn’t like a painting the artist often feels a twinge of rejection that an administrator in a food packing plant doesn’t feel when consumers say that they don’t like a particular brand of canned asparagus.
The skills that artists use and the work they make are consistently undervalued by the public, gallery dealers, and officials in arts organizations. We’re fresh meat until our work gains enough clout so that we can call some of the shots. But even then there are instances of exploitation. The situation truly reverses only when the artist’s work is so in demand that a gallery, museum and the buying public have more to lose than the artist. Then a painter (Picasso got away with this quite often) can take his or her revenge by fobbing off mediocre work on fools willing to pay for anything bearing the artist’s signature regardless of its quality.
I’ve told a few of the following stories to newby artists who are beginning to consider using their talent to earn a living. Most think that I’m being incredibly negative until they’ve had a few experiences of their own.
I once received a phone call from a stranger who heard that I painted murals. He wanted to hire me to paint scenes of an ancient Roman bath on the walls of his bathroom. I was appalled at the idea of trying to work images of Roman columns and marble statuary into a composition that would complement this guy’s toilet and bathtub, but I politely told him that I wasn’t the right man for the job. He was angry that I turned down the project and sneered, “You artists are all alike. My mother was an artist, and she was way too sensitive. She always got huffy when I said anything about her art. You’re just like her.” Our conversation ended badly.
On a another venture I drove down to Kissimmee, Florida to a janitorial service company. They wanted a mural on the inside wall of their office to brighten things up. I got lost and arrived a bit late, and my reception by the manager wasn’t all that friendly. He pointed to a five feet wide by eight feet tall gap on a dimly lit wall between gray metal shelves holding cleaning supplies. My mural would have to fit in that space. I asked him, a secretary and an accountant what kind of imagery they wanted. One wanted a teddy bear flying a biplane pulling a banner with company’s name. One wanted a giraffe (she liked giraffes) dressed in a company uniform pushing a broom. The final request was a pink dolphin leaping out of a pond in a clearing of an Amazonian jungle. (I swear that I’m not making this up.) They would have added a few more things, but I told them that that imagery was more than enough to make a compelling composition. I went home and actually began to do some sketches for the mural, but they didn’t contact me again as they had promised. I decided to forgo forcing my services on them out of a sense of self-preservation.
I went on a fool’s errand several more times in hope of landing mural painting jobs. One was to a juvenile detention center in West Orlando. I was told that I would be paid $300 to paint the front facade of their building, which ran about 50 yards long and was twenty feet high. At best, once I took out the cost of the paint, I’d make five dollars per hour for the job. The committee that met me to discuss imagery had not convened before, offered no previously agreed upon theme for the mural, but unanimously disliked the drawings I brought. We brainstormed. One woman wanted me to paint happy, skippy families walking hand in hand on a path in a park. She didn’t like it when I questioned the propriety of putting a greeting card message on the front of a jail. Another thought that beige stripes might be nice. The other two committee members stared blankly at me. We reached no agreement. I killed that deal by telling them to call me when they figured out what they really wanted. They never did.
The last attempt to win a mural contract was negotiated with a young mother living in an uppity upscale neighborhood in Winter Park. She wanted a floral garden for a wall in her dining room. I showed her several of my landscape paintings, and we discussed a composition. She paid me $40 to do a small scale mock-up canvas for the project, and she was thrilled when I brought it over a few days later. She held onto the painting to show it to her husband, friends and decorator. The next time I met her the deal fell through. The colors in the painting were too bright. “I can add white to make them more pastel,” I countered.
“You added an arch along the garden path. We didn’t talk about that,” she said. Her tone of voice accused me of trying to pull a fast one on her.
“The arch makes the composition better,” I said and added, “But I can take it out.”
“My decorator says that the focal point of the room is the French door. She thinks that a mural would be a distraction.”
I didn’t tell her what I was thinking, that what she really needed for that wall was wallpaper. Instead I waited for the final shoe to drop–she was building up to something. She looked at me shrewdly and said, “Well I did pay you $40, and I’d like to keep the little painting.”
“We agreed that that money was to pay for my services in coming up with a design for the mural, not for the painting itself,” I answered. I usually sold my landscapes for $200. She insisted that she deserved something for her money, and I gave in. She was more determined to rip me off than I was to wrestle the canvas out of her hands.
I’ve also been treated poorly while minding my own business painting landscapes. Ex-frat boy business men out on the streets to get lunch mock me with “Yo, Picasso!” when they see me working at my easel in downtown Orlando. Random passersby like to stand in front of me to block my view. They caper and dance up and down and ask, “Want to paint me? Want to paint me? How much will you pay me to pose?” This has happened so many times that I’ve learned to ignore these prancing idiots and work on the sky until they go away. If they are persistent I tell them, “No, sir. I really, really don’t want to paint you.” Some folks will stand a few inches behind me and look over my shoulder as I work. If they linger they inevitably begin to tell me, their captive audience, all about their personal history, love life, troubles at work, etc. One guy, an unemployed nurse who had difficulty getting along with supervisors, bent my ear for twenty minutes. Then he graced my unfinished painting with a disparaging glance and gave me a grade: B+. A woman murmured a few condescending pleasantries before advising me to add figures to my painting of Central Park in downtown Winter Park. When I didn’t immediately start painting the oldsters sitting on the park benches she added, “Your painting is dead if you don’t add figures.” She had a smug, cruel smile on her face as she spoke–she apparently knew a lot more about painting than I did, and she was used to having her wishes immediately obeyed–and was surprised when I waved her away with twinkly fingers and said, “Bye bye.”
Outdoor art festivals are other public sites of humiliation for artists. I gave them up long ago, but a friend of mine, a fellow landscape painter, endured several years of intermittent abuse as she waited on potential customers in her canvas tent. I witnessed one such moment. Brenda loved sandhill cranes and had done several paintings of these unusual birds. I listened in as a customer, a middle aged woman with a red face, exploded in outrage in front of the crane paintings. She cried, “Sandhill cranes! I hate those birds! They land on my car and leave claw marks. They shit all over my lawn, and they tear up golf courses and they’re a nuisance down at the docks where we keep our boat. If it were up to me I’d shoot every last one of them!” She stormed out of the tent convinced that Brenda had schemed to paint those birds in order to personally insult her.
Brenda’s tent and the tents of several other good painters were mostly empty that night. But down the row from Brenda’s booth were a man and a woman doing brisk business. They had figured out that a fair number of budding alcoholics in Orlando were sentimental about booze and dogs, and had brilliantly decided to combine the two subjects into improbable but popular images. When a patron walked up they asked, “What’s your favorite dog?” Then, “What’s your favorite drink?” Then they would use a laptop and an inkjet printer to run off an image of a miniature dog curled up inside a drinking glass (a chihuahua in a martini glass or a beagle in a wine goblet) and would charge $25 for the print.
I once comforted a student who was upset that one of his paintings wasn’t selected for a show. I told him that he would get along fine in the art world as long as he accepted the following adage: In art there is no god, and in art there is no justice.