Tag Archives: art

Art of the sale

28 Sep


The image of the “starving artist” as a tortured soul who chooses to live in poverty to maintain the integrity of his artistic vision has long existed in popular culture. This perception visits upon the artist a bohemian lifestyle of eccentricity and excess during a lifetime of obscurity. And, of course, as anyone familiar with the life of impressionist Vincent van Gogh knows, the impoverished artist’s work gains acclaim and monetary value only after his death.

Many of today’s fine artists, however, have shed the cliched smock of the starving artist and repainted, resculpted and resketched their images and lives. Sixty percent of artists in the United States are self-employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but that doesn’t mean they’re all living in squalor, surviving at subsistence levels by selling their souls one canvas or sculpture at a time.

“Only the most successful fine artists are able to support themselves solely through the sale of their works,” the bureau reports in its 2010-11 Occupational Outlook Handbook. “Most fine artists have at least one other job to support their art careers.”

Some artists supplement their income by taking secondary jobs that have nothing to do with art. Others hold art-related jobs, such as teaching privately or in schools, and a number are employed as curators at art museums or directors of publicly funded exhibitions. Still others go into the business of selling art as gallery owners, brokers or agents.

“THAT WHOLE TORTURED ARTIST THING does not work for me,” says Renee Williams, owner of Gallery 26 in the Hillcrest area of Little Rock. “I find that the happier I am, the more I end up creating. In fact, I have to stop myself from making stuff.”

Williams, a painter and jewelry maker, sells works of other artists, as well as her own, in the storefront she opened in 1995. Her art business has its own sideline, a framing workshop that accounts for about half of her revenue. When she set up shop, the framing enterprise was to be the sole business. “That was the plan anyway,” she recalls. “But then we found we had enough room for display space so we decided to open a gallery, too.”


Renee Williams and artist Delita Pinchback Martin before Martin’s opening event at Gallery 26.

Williams and other central Arkansas artist/gallery owners say, whether by intention or happenstance, they’ve found being in the business of selling art is a natural for them. They enjoy discovering and nurturing local artists, as well as introducing artists from other states and nations to Arkansas art lovers. They say having primary income not dependent upon selling their art frees them to pursue their creative proclivities without the pressure of those pursuits being their livelihood. None believe, as some might claim, that they’ve “sold out” or compromised their artistic integrity in any way by entering into the business side of art.

“It’s quite the opposite,” Williams says, explaining that sole dependence upon art to pay the bills can cause artists to question their motivation. “They have that pressure of thinking, ‘Am I doing this piece out of love or because I need to bill it?’”

Stephano Sutherlin’s vibrant paintings of locomotives and colorfully creative portraits of noted artists such as Frida Kahlo are a physical testament to his belief that “you don’t create your best work when you’re depressed. I don’t think that’s true at all.

“IF I’M DEPRESSED, I DON’T PAINT,” says Sutherlin, who owns Stephano’s Fine Art Gallery in the Heights. “I’m much happier painting when I’m happy.” One thing that makes him and other artists happy is selling their work. An artist who has a gallery finds a ready outlet for his own work, plus gets to surround himself with the work of other artists while helping them sell.

“I want every artist to make money,” Sutherlin says. “I know it’s tough out there. If artists aren’t making money, they’re not happy, and they’re not creating their best work if they’re not happy.” Sutherlin’s position differs from that of other artist/gallery owners in that he isn’t deeply involved in the business end. His wife, Ashley, handles that as well as decides how to best display their wares. He also attributes ownership of the gallery to his wife.

“I wouldn’t have done any of this if we hadn’t met and fallen in love. She’s the one who’s great with people,” Sutherlin says. “I’m OK with people but I’m better off in my studio painting.” Because of the business, however, he spends more time outside his studio. He sometimes paints at the gallery or on the sidewalk out front. He talks with clients and other artists. As an owner, he also has opportunities to teach young artists how to market themselves and profit from their work.

“The hardest thing for young artists that they can learn from old artists like myself is pricing,” he says. “If you price your work too low, it looks cheap. Price it too high and no one can afford to buy it. So it’s that happy medium. You have to know how the pricing structure in your area works.”

Kyle Boswell, owner of Boswell Mourot Fine Art in the Heights — just a few blocks from Stephano’s — is a glass blower and sculpts with glass and steel. He says he thrives on the gallery environment.

“I’M INFLUENCED BY MY ARTISTS,” Boswell says. “I’m influenced by what I carry and I carry what I like. As an artist, I feel like I have a grasp of the different mediums because I’ve worked in most of them — until I found my niche and the medium that’s best for me, which is three-dimensional.”

The marketing aspect comes easily to him, he says. “I love marketing. I love marketing my gallery and my artists. It’s even fun to design the postcards for my shows.”

Boswell says he worked in politics in Washington for eight years before burning out. “I left Washington and said I’d never wear a suit again.”

Owning a gallery “is the first job I ever had that I enjoy coming to every day,” Boswell says. Like Sutherlin and Williams, he says being content with his life invigorates him and informs his work. Running the Little Rock gallery and another in Miami keep him busy, but he makes time to create art. He’s always thinking, always imagining, so when he gets into his studio, he may make 10 pieces in one day.

Sutherlin, Boswell and Williams sell some of their own work in their galleries, but not exclusively. They also show in other galleries, usually outside the immediate area or out of state. While these three artist/ gallery owners have found that their business endeavors improve their ability to create, Greg Thompson is an artist who discovered that selling art is an art in itself.

Thompson, owner of Greg Thompson Fine Art in North Little Rock, took art classes throughout his childhood, then got a degree in art at Hendrix College. He held a job as a graphic illustrator for two years, then began exploring the idea of selling art for others. In 1995, he held his first art show — featuring the work of Arkansas artists — in his apartment and made as much money in one night as he did in a month at his job. So he quit the job and put down his artist’s tools. He no longer creates artwork. His passion, Thompson says, is in the art of the deal, in managing and finding markets for other artists.

Thompson’s gallery isn’t the typical walk-in-and-browse type. He shows one artist’s work at a time, although he represents many contemporary Southern artists as well as some artists from around the world.

“I’ve learned that it’s just as easy to sell 30 paintings to a corporate client as it is to sell one painting to one client,” Thompson says.

Does he miss creating art?

“NOT AT ALL. I LOVE WHAT I DO,” he says.

Williams says she has never felt a sense of either/or in terms of art. “I’ve always wanted to have a mixture of social interaction and alone time. You have to have a balance.”

She believes that artists need to have something other than art to sustain them — creatively, emotionally and physically — and recommends that working artists get a part-time job. “It’s really good to have some other interest or stimulation. I think artists are more successful when they have something else to work on.”

This article was published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sept. 11, 2013
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Urban oasis: Bernice Garden

9 Sep

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — During President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, some forward-thinking person scratched the word “hope” into cement poured for the foundation of the Bernice Garden in downtown Little Rock. Today, it seems only fitting that such a sentiment is the sole defacement in the tiny, blooming oasis in an area of town long considered unsafe, even seedy.

When assemblage artist and collector Anita Davis bought the vacant lot at the corner of Daisy Bates and Main streets in 2005, it was a blank canvas waiting for a person with vision and imagination to bring it to life. Now it’s a vibrant cultural and artistic hub as well as a serene place for reflection or simply taking a break during a hectic workday.

The Bernice Garden on South Main in downtown Little Rock (photo by Laura Hardy)

The Bernice Garden on South Main in downtown Little Rock (photo by Laura Hardy, courtesy The Bernice Garden)

On Sundays from April through November, visitors flock to the Farmers Market devoted to local and organic products, then linger at the garden to enjoy the native plants and sculptures by Arkansas artists. Many stroll on over to the neighboring Bernice and Lincoln buildings, also owned by Davis, for a bite to eat at Boulevard Bread Co. or to savor a scoop of handmade Loblolly ice cream at the Green Corner Store.

The garden also hosts the Arkansas Cornbread Festival each November, which last year attracted more than 3,000 cornbread lovers. In May, the farmer’s market shared space with the first Arkansas Strawberry Festival as a celebration of Mother’s Day. In April, poultry and plant enthusiasts were invited to gather and swap chicks and seedlings.

Even when there are no events, you’ll see people sitting under the wooden shelter eating lunch, dog owners letting their pooches sniff the greenery or neighborhood children romping among the sculptures. Everything in the garden was created for and by Arkansans, with the focus on valuing and using native resources.

Bringing sculpture and art to the South Main area was one of Davis’s goals, but she also wanted to encourage and nurture Arkansas artists. So each year, she invites Arkansas artists to submit sculpture designs, then a committee selects six for installation in the garden for one year. 

“Nurture” is a word Davis uses often when describing her projects along the two-block stretch of Main between Daisy Bates and 16th streets where she also owns the building housing The Root Cafe and one she’s renovated or the Esse Purse Museum, a celebration of women and handbags througout the 20th century. Davis says she sees her enterprises not just as businesses, but as ways of nurturing the area by attracting entrepeneurs, artists and others interested in developing and recycling natural assets. And she wanted those already living in the neighborhood to benefit from her efforts.

“The garden has definitely made the neighborhood more family friendly,” says Dana Landrum, who lives within walking distance and frequently visits the garden with her three children. “It’s a gathering place for us as a community and it also attracts people who don’t live in the neighborhood. It’s a great way to introduce them to our community.”

When Davis bought the vacant lot in 2005, she had no grand plans. She had purchased the Bernice Building next door in 2004 as a business investment and as a storage space for furniture and other items she had inherited from her parents. When the lot became available, she decided to acquire it too. After that, everything “grew organically,” Davis says.

Looking back, the timing seems serendipitous because it was a period during which Davis was educating herself about the green movement. Keenly interested in recycling and reducing waste as well as repurposing old things for new uses, Davis went to Seattle, Wash., to attend a National Main Street organization conference. There, she learned about “placemaking,” the concept of designing or creating public spaces that honor the qualities, values and assets of a community or neighborhood. She realized her empty lot could become a community hub, a nurturing center for the South Main area and its residents. While a privately owned space, it would be open for public enjoyment.

As much as possible, Davis wanted the garden to reflect the nature of Arkansans. As the Bernice Garden website says, “Arkansans tend to be of hearty stock, people who can stand up to every extreme while retaining a sense of whimsy. The artwork and structures of The Bernice Garden reflect these qualities, adding unique and understated beauty to the mix.”

She also pursued a “sustainability” aspect, using recycled or repurposed materials for the structure, artwork and other features. A walkway of crushed glass — tumbled so that it has no sharp edges — winds throughout the 100-by-150-foot space. The resurfaced concrete patio was once the foundation for a Captain D’s fast-food restaurant that occupied the lot until it burned to the ground. A 50-gallon cistern for gathering rainwater is covered with reclaimed wood from slave quarters at the Alexander Plantation in Scott. The patio’s wood canopy funnels rainwater into the cistern; the collected water sustains the native plants with which garden is landscaped.

Laverne Davis, master gardener

Laverne Davis, master gardener (photo by Laura Hardy, courtesy of The Bernice Garden

Davis entrusted master gardener LaVerne Davis (who isn’t related to Anita) to keep the garden growing and blooming: “When LaVerne is working out in the garden, she’s so joyous. People just come up to her and they have this joyous exchange.”

“I feel like I’m an artist and this is my canvas,” LaVerne Davis says. “I absolutely love this garden. This feeds my spirit. It’s a peaceful place to work.”

A couple of times a week, LaVerne and assistant Willie Allen trundle in with seedlings in styrofoam cups, along with pruning shears, shovels and other tools. They weed and plant, rotating plants in and out according to season.
“Color, color, color, color,” LaVerne Davis crows when asked what she’s got planned for the garden this summer. “Lots of pink and bright, bright colors. Myself, I like color.”

The garden not only benefits the neighborhood, but also attracts people who don’t live in the immediate area to get out of their comfort zone to check out Main Street south of Interstate 430, says Liz Sanders, Bernice Garden coordinator. “I’ve had many people tell me they’d never been south of Community Bakery” at 12th and Main streets, Sanders says, explaining that the perception formerly was that the south Main Street area wasn’t safe and that people wouldn’t go there to shop or attend events. That’s changed, largely because of Davis’s efforts.

“It’s been amazing. What’s going on down here deserves attention,” Sanders says. “It’s something to say that Anita is a private citizen spending her money in this part of town and putting her heart into it.”

LaVerne Davis says visitors to the park are always curious about the garden, its dual public/private nature, and how it was developed. Many have an emotional reaction when visiting, especially when talking with her about the plants.

“We have a lot of folks come in and they are not familiar with a lot of plants but when they see ones like marigolds and coxcomb, they’re reminded of their grandmothers’ yards,” she says. “I remember one morning, a guy came by looking very, very sad. I smiled and said good morning. I asked him if he recognized any of these plants. He said he did — zinnia. When we finished talking, that sad, sad face was gone. He left with a big smile.”

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