Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How Long Did That Take to Make?


Spring Break, Mixed Media Painting, 20x20, $335

I understand the question. "How long did that take to make?" Artists and craftspeople hear it all the time.

I remember the first time I asked it. My family was traveling in the southwest US and we stopped to visit Navajo tribal land. A woman displayed her handmade silver and turquoise jewelry on a colorful, woven blanket. My mother, who collected silver jewelry and was trying to avoid getting her ears pierced, was searching for clip on earnings.

I was 12 and didn't have much money. I was looking at the less expensive beaded necklaces.

I picked one up. "This is pretty," I said. "Did you make it?" She nodded. "How long did it take you to make it?" "Oh, a long time," she said.

My father took me aside. "You shouldn't ask that question," he said gently. "It took her a long time to learn how to do this. Maybe she learned from her mother or her aunt, who learned from their mothers and aunts. Her work isn't about hours of work, but her skill and talent."

I think I understood. A little. I understand a lot more, now.

Much of our work in this country is paid for by the hour. We value the TIME it takes to make something-- sometimes more than the skill and talent and education and heritage of the work. Oh sure, we appreciate those things, but often the value of the work comes down to the TIME required for creation. 

I realize now that the beaded necklace might have only taken 15 minutes to make. If she had told me that, would the value had been diminished? Probably. I might have focused on the time the item took to make, instead of the value of the skill, the history, and the practiced hands that made it for me. I might have compared the price to the amount of time I had to work to earn that money.

When asked, some artists respond with their age: 'It took me 52 years to paint that. All my education and experience went into its creation."

It's a cute answer, but not satisfying. And it reinforces the idea that the value art or craft is measured in TIME. It's not. It's measured in emotion. It's measured in the viewer's connection to the work. It's measured in excellence. 

As an artist, I don't punch a time clock. I have no idea how long it takes to create a particular piece. When asked, a try to give a quick answer: "Oh, I don't know. Sometimes hours, sometimes days. I don't pay attention. I work until it's done."

That generally satisfies. What the person is really asking is: "Please tell me more about this art." So I do.

I bought the necklace I found in the desert that day. I still have it. It's value has stood the test of time.

13 comments:

Leighton Photography & Imaging said...

GREAT article! I often get asked the same question with some of my digital photo art.... thanks for posting!!

Hero's Cousin said...

Great thoughts. You are right that we measure in time - same way we now measure trips in time it takes, and not distance. :)

William & Susanne Waites said...

I am happy to see this subject discussed. But I must differ with you a bit. I think a lifetime of experience, honing skills, shaping one's gift as an artist is a very good way to answer the question. Rather than focusing on the "making" time it shifts the question to years of preparation and inspiration. I believe this would be an excellent lesson for a child (or someone who measures value by an hourly rate.)

Another aspect is authenticity. Particularly among Native American artists. There ae so many cheap rip-offs sold as the real thing or Indian-like. I have just posted a video to my blog on the very subject. You may find it worth a look at http://TribalArtery.blogspot.com

In fact, as an artist, you might consider a feed.

All that said, thank you for your thoughts and efforts.

documonts said...

Very well said. I linked to this article on our twitter.

ChaoticBlackSheep said...

Great thoughts Jeane. I'll admit to being way too nosy about this sometimes. I posted a response on my blog.
http://chaoticblacksheep.blogspot.com/2009/05/time-taken.html

Vickie said...

This has come up several times in discussions with other artists. I agree to say your age is a little flippant.
My work is layered, so it is hard to put a "time" on it, as I rotate throughout several pieces at one time. I'm in an art marketing salon, and I'm going to share your thoughts with them!

Allison J Smith said...

I've used the "I don't know", "maybe a day" and other vague answers and they never seem to satisfy the client. I've found most people work jobs and know their hourly rate, they relate to that. So no matter how much we (artists) don't want to, we have to do better in our explanations, merely to connect with the public more.

Read more on my blog:http://allisonjsmith.com/blog

Cindy Davis said...

wonderful, wonderful post here.

It is so hard to place value on Skill and Experience instead of TIME and Labor Hours.

Maria said...

This is the nearly the same as the question I get asked as a pilot: "How many gallons per hour does the helicopter burn?" They're trying to calculate my costs, to see what kind of profit I'm making. It bothers me because my costs are beyond the cost of fuel. There's insurance and maintenance and my hangar. And what of the debt service on the loan I needed to buy the aircraft? And the $50,000 or more I spent on training?

It's the same for art. A friend of mine who does fine art painting can whiz through an original of certain themes she often paints in about a day. But how many paintings did she create over the years to give her that level of skill and speed? And what about her materials and training? The cost of those tiny brushes and paint, the easel she sits at, the electricity to power the lights overhead? The cost of traveling from show to show to get her work in front of potential buyers?

People who try to calculate raw costs and apply them to art (or most other goods or services) to see if they're getting a "good deal" don't deserve the work we create or provide. It's more than just numbers.

Jeane Vogel said...

Maria, Great thoughts. You're right. They don't DESERVE our work.

Thanks everyone for your thoughts. This is a interesting topic for many of us, no matter our profession.

Jeane Vogel said...

Maria, Great thoughts. You're right. They don't DESERVE our work.

Thanks everyone for your thoughts. This is a interesting topic for many of us, no matter our profession.

Allison J Smith said...

I think they DO deserve our work!

If we can't learn to teach others about our art and our experiences as an artist, even when their life experiences are different, it's US who don't deserve to display and sell OUR art.

The most valuable human trait is to have compassion and understanding for others, especially when they are different from ourselves.

RMCotton said...

This is a very valuable article to all artists as well as buyers of art. Many artists give in to the "per hour" cost equation b/c it is easier to explain, but in the long run we all suffer by undercutting each other and ultimately ourselves. I will share this!