Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Civil Rights Protest -- at an Art Fair!

Politics and art mix all the time at art fairs -- but generally it's about who knows the director and gets the best spot. Civil rights don't come up very often, unless you're honest enough to notice that they're aren't very many artists of color in most shows. But that's another topic.

I experienced three "firsts" at the River Arts Fest in Memphis last weekend. The first "first" was shortly after the show opened on Friday evening. Apparently the fire department forgot the street was closed -- or didn't care. Two full sized fire trucks tore down the street at 50 miles an hours, with lights and sirens, just inches from the packed art tents and patrons. After the emergency was over, they came back through an a more leisurely but no less treacherous 30 miles an hour! When those trucks almost nick the awing of your tent with tens of thousands of art in it, it's a little nerve wracking!

Then a patron wanted his picture taken with me! How cool is that! Guess he likes middle-aged, chubby bohemian types!

But here's the one that stuck with me: the art fair had a protester! And I can't say I completely disagreed with her.

The fair was set up on Main Street. Not a charming Main Street or a bustling Main Street. In Memphis, Main Street is struggling. The sidewalks are crumbling. The store fronts are empty.

The Lorraine Motel is a block away. For those under 50 or those who don't remember their Civil Rights history, the Lorraine Motel is place where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. It's been preserved and now is the home to the National Civil Rights Museum. You must go there. But be prepared. It's not a happy place. I haven't been there in five years but I still tear up when I remember coming around a corner and being confronted by a burnt out city bus. Not a model of a bus -- but one of the actual buses that was burnt and destroyed with innocent people inside -- all because they asked to be treated like people.

I was a young teen was Dr. King was killed. A few months later, Bobby Kennedy was killed. Malcolm X had been dead three years. John Kennedy for five. It was Vietnam. It was Watts. My teen years were not peaceful ones. This stuff sticks with you forever and shows up in art and opinions and everyday life.

When the protester came around, I talked to her. She had a good point. The art fair had set up a music stage in front of the Lorraine Motel. That didn't seem right to me either. The stage is the place where fair goers drink and dance and enjoy themselves. The stage should have been moved.

But the protester didn't like that the artists were on Main Street either. I disagreed with that. Every artist there is a small business person. None of us is getting rich. We're not exploiting anyone. We're not polluting or destroying natural resources for our own gain.

We are people making our own way in the world and trying to support our families. If our art can make someone smile or think -- so much the better.

Art saves lives. If art can bring people back to Memphis' Main Street and help revitalize it, then Dr. King's memory has been honored -- not desecrated.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Critique

Last month I finally got up the nerve to submit my work to a professional art fair juror for a critique. If you've been to art school or a serious art class, you've been through a crit. (No, the local art club doesn't count. They're too nice.)

A crit can be exciting and nerve-wracking. You can walk out of there jubilant or crestfallen. If the crit is bad, you're probably crying -- even if you're a tatooed, 250 lb pipefitter who longs for a solo exhibit of his delicate oil pastels. You're certain you've wasted your life.

If it's good, your head will not fit in the door of the next gallery you present your portfolio to.

For most of us, it's in between. And that's fine -- when you're in school. After you've been doing this professionally for a while, you need the crit to fine tune your work or help you find a new direction -- but basically you want the art professional to tell you that you're wonderful and next month you'll be on the cover of the Times art section. You want reassurance.

Some friends wanted to know why I bothered: I'm getting into good shows, I've been honored with some nice awards -- what more could a crit tell me?

The problem with being an art fair artist is that we get a lot of compliments. "Wonderful work" is the currency most people use to get out of a booth without buying something. They are polite and an art fair booth is an intimate, small space. It would be rude not to say something!

Eventually, we start to believe it, regardless if the work is selling. We might even start to think we're the ONLY artist who hears these remarks.

The crit brings us back to reality.

The good thing about professional crit is that I get to chose my own judge! When else can you do that? I'm paying the judge for the crit (you didn't think it was free, did you?) so I get to choose. My decision was based on thorough research: I read the 200 word blurbs of the choices. Ultimately, I went with the one whose image and credentials were presented in a style that spoke to me. We go through the same process when buying art, so why not when choosing a judge?

Robert Watson is an art professor at Florida Atlantic University and offered me far more advice, feedback and inspiration that I could have imagined. First, he told me what I already knew but refused to accept: jurors hate florals. I have to stop doing them. I know. But they sell! He knows. I have enough of them. His favorite: Ferris Wheel. But he hates the title. In fact, he hates all my titles. I don't blame him.

What really surprised me is after the crit of the Polaroids was over, he went back and looked at all my work and pulled out images to praise that I can't get accepted into exhibits or shows anywhere. He selected images that I love too, but the general public or other art jurors don't.

It was a terrific experience. I learned a lot. I'm energized. I'm thinking and working.

Now, would anyone like to buy some lovely florals?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Highland Art Fair & Aunt Florence, 1908-2007

I was watching CNN a few years ago when they ran a human interest story about a woman in Arizona who celebrated her 85th birthday by para-sailing. Oh my gawd! I called my mother. Guess what Aunt Florence is doing now?!!! My mother wasn't surprised. Five years earlier, my mother had celebrated her 50th by jumping out of an airplane. I come from a long line of very interesting, rather eccentric and quite bold women. Who would have guessed?

I took this picture of Florence at a family reunion in Highland, IL in 2000. She always had fresh flowers in her hair or on her hat. Her laugh was infectious and she was very proud of those gorgeous teeth. A few years ago she went in for some surgery and the nurse tried to remove her teeth. With a patronizing little pat, the nurse said that she couldn't have an operation with her teeth in, thinking they were false because she's so old! Florence threatened to bite the woman's hand if she stuck it in her mouth again. The teeth were real and connected to her face!

Aunt Florence was planning to celebrate her 100th birthday in May on a parasail. She missed it by 7 months. Her memorial service will be in Highland, IL today. Her brother and other family still live and have a business there -- Widmer Florist.

Florence was an amazing woman. Born in an era when women could be mothers or have a career, she chose the latter, as did several other women in the family. She had her own floral shop on North Grand in St. Louis until she was in her late 70s. She sold the shop and decided to marry -- for the first time. She had boyfriends before, but apparently the relationships were quite proper and chaste, because she told my grandmother Genevieve (who told me in whispers) that Florence really liked married life. She REALLY liked it!

Her first husband died and she wasn't ready to be old yet, so she got herself a younger husband. She was in her 80s when she married Norm, in his 60s! They were sweethearts until end.

I felt Florence's presence in Highland this weekend. I was there this weekend exhibiting at the Highland Art in the Park, along with 60 or so amazing artists, many of whom have become friends over the years. Sales were pretty good (Highland is small, but they love art and support the show), I was honored to receive an Award of Excellence.

Thank you Highland. And thank you Aunt Florence. You will be missed.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Next Generation

Next Generation is a photograph I created this spring in response to the Katrina Diaries, an exhibit sponsored and produced by the Women's Caucus for Art, New Orleans Chapter. The WCA - St. Louis Chapter hosted the exhibit this summer, together with work that member artists created in response and reflection.

Next Generation is on exhibit this month (October 2007) at the Creamery Arts Center in Springfield, MO. If you're in the neighborhood, please stop by and view the entire exhibit.

A sister artist, Jennifer Weigel, paid me the highest compliment about this photo and those now on exhibit at Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis. She admitted to me that she doesn't much like photography (I get that a lot), but that my images are intimate without voyeurism. She feels drawn into them.

That's very high praise for any artist, especially a photographer. Thank you, Jennifer. (And I won't mention that it kills me that you were born the year I was a senior in college. Sheesh! When did I get so old?)