I manipulate metals and minerals and bonding solutions in order to provoke emotional responses from people I will usually never meet. That which happens in the process some people call art. My talent for creating icons and illusions turned into a lifetime of manipulations... in various pigments, bronze and steel, some quite large, which loom in museums, schools, collections and public places all over Texas. Here on this blog you can watch my creative actions and insights unfold...

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Blast From the Past

This was my opening welcome for my website, which has fallen into disuse since I started blogging. Still the facts are the same, and you might find it interesting.

Thank you for visiting my netfolio, and welcome to my world. Please feel free to communicate with me about what you have seen. I love the discourse... I have always said that I love to argue... so I chose art. It's OK of course if you want to say something positive. Either way, please take time to send me a short note with your impressions... and especially your favorite artwork on this site.

If you get the impression that I have had a great life, then that's only the half of it. But to whom much is given, much is expected. My Aunt Joy has a saying about the standard for greatness... "It's not how much you made, it's how much you gave." Giving back is almost a family tradition, yet it is sometimes an elusive ideal. To whom and how much?

I wanted this website so that people would be inspired to persevere and live their lives to the fullest. Like many of you, I too have been in the clutches of the jaws of defeat. My life's work is the epitome of stiff-necked commitment, and God's helpful intervention. After viewing this website, you might find it hard to believe that my college art professors rejected my sophomore portfolio, and advised me to change my major from art to something else. My traditional mindset was an unwelcome aberration in their '70's New Age classroom. Using big words and lofty excuses, they explained that my kind of art was history and I was a dinosaur about to perish in the Post-modern deluge.

 I argued that if other "disciplines" (I must have discovered my political abilities here) that were done in the art school, like video experimentation, pornographic photography, phallic ceramics, found objects, and more, were all accepted as art, surely there was a place for me. Although I was an A student, they were insistent that I did not belong, was not welcome to continue, and they had no suggestions about where I should go, so long as I went. So, young, shocked, and demoralized, I changed my major! And then, after struggling with the world of advertising, which seemed to have no soul, I dropped out of school, without a plan.

After about a year working as a brush chopper on a survey crew, I found my head screwed on quite well, and I made a decision to follow Norman Rockwell's philosophy... to let the next generation sort it all out. I would make pictures, whether they were art or not. If I liked to make them, and other people liked to buy them, then who cared what you called it? It was a product. It was LEGAL. If not FINE art, surely picture making was as high a calling as leatherworking or pottery or stained-glass making? I never thought I would get rich... If folk art was legit, then perhaps my trade could at least be placed on that level.

Finally after a great deal of meditation and observation about this strange clash, I have come to this peace... in my mind: Anyone can make legitimate art. I have seen elephants make great abstract paintings. Monkeys, Jackson Pollocks' swinging cans, computer programs, etc. Almost anyone can make "art"... but only the greatest artists, the ones that can imagine, draw, and bring to life illusions from relatively lifeless materials, only they have the passion, the talent and training to make the highest, most disciplined form of art; good illustration. Only an elite group, the best artists, are illustrators. And from what I can tell, I am an illustrator. If my college professors at NTSU were right, well, I had a great run anyway, as a... picture maker.

So if you have a passion to do this, to make things, shape materials, create illusions and icons, and are willing to submit yourself to instruction, and you feel like nobody understands who or what you are, take heart. The truth is that the right-brained folk (creative artist types) have always been suppressed. Left brained folk rule the world... by majority. But right-brained folk, many of them Lefties, have changed the world. From Julius Caesar, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Napolean, Beethoven, Queen Victoria, Henry Ford, Marie Curie, Gandhi, Paul McCartney to Bill Gates. Almost all of them had to go against the grain to make their place in history. And art is the most subjective, unfair and erratic of right-brain dominated playing fields. You have to find the strength within to persevere, to know inside that no matter what anyone says, the world, or at least your world is a little bit more whole when you have done your thing. And nobody else can do what you do. So put it out there! There has never been a greater demand for designers of every kind, and thus never a better time in history to be an artist than right now.

If this sounds like your kind of gig, then with or without formal education, find an artist you respect and learn everything you can from them. Do that several times, and make 50 works without expecting to sell anything. Listen to your mentor. Put everything you have into it. Don't look back or listen to anybody who does not understand your passion and your purpose. Then, after you have done this, if absolutely no one wants what you have done, none of it, then perhaps you might need to go get a job... The rest of you will be so swarmed with orders and commissions by then that you will forget you ever read this. Just don't forget to pass it on!

Howdy Art Readers!

This is not my website, but a "blog," my running day-to-day commentary which includes my latest projects, articles about my art, ideas and info for budding artists. There are "pages" in the list on the right that will show a sampling of my works... called "Most Recent Projects," and "From the Easel." They will also guide you to my official website if you would like to see more!

Thanks for looking into my art.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


It finally happened after forty years in the business... a magazine has done a spread on my work, and a nice article about me to boot. I remember seeing this "chick" magazine years ago and thinking what a good job my paintings could do for them... Anyway I got to meet the publisher a year ago and she has generously worked Russell Cushman art into her considerable Texas art legacy.

 My thanks to Sherry McCartney and the talented folks at Flair magazine, who covered me in a precious, valuable document that Texans will love and cherish as well.  Nobody could ever buy this kind of exposure... This is truly one of the most wonderful things ever done involving my work.

Featured in Flair, "Eliza Rae's First Dance" can be viewed at the French Market in Navasota.

This Winter issue (absolutely free!) is titled "Texas Trailblazers" and is about Texas Women... and features seventeen of my paintings, and a full page article about me. It will always be known as the Russell Cushman issue. The Texas woman, cowgirl, belle, Native American, has always been one of my favorite subjects, even though I am not known for such. These are paintings that I have painted over the past twenty-five years, but a few are still available.  You can get one of the magazines from me or pick them up at Blues Alley.. or check out my available works as well and pick one up at the French Market.  

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Part II Art and the Law: RESIST TEMPTATION!

So you are broke and you need a gig and somebody approaches you with what sounds like a real career boost. You are willing to almost agree to anything to get a paying job, to get your work out there… What should you do if they hand you a contract and ask you to sign it and “get on with it…”?

I’m going to answer this question indirectly by sharing some of my experiences with my own art project contracts. My brother Ralph is an attorney and taught me a long time ago to treat contracts very seriously. He impressed on me the basic truth that lawyers design contracts for their clients to protect them and their interests, even to give them the legal edge, and they have no intention of designing anything remotely fair.  These contracts are inherently skewed in the favor of the employer, and after paying for their services, companies are not likely to ignore the “best counsel” from their own attorneys... So often the result is a stalemate.

Still, contracts are often the necessary step to commence with projects for design consultants, general contractors or architects. And they can get pretty adversarial. The State jobs will always have a contract requiring bonding and a certain amount of liability insurance.  And nowadays schools will require a contract that requires a criminal background check and total access to all your files, equipment and computers.

My first contract wrangle was a doozy, and worth telling for what you can learn.

I won a bid to create a sizable amount of art inside a school, ($12,000.00 worth of murals and sculptures) and although endorsed by the architect, I technically was going to be hired and paid by the general contractor. The contractor, who I will call Dime Construction, told me to come pick up the contract and review it, and I elected not to sign it immediately, and instead chose to look it over during the weekend.

It just so happened to my great advantage my brother from Alaska, an attorney, was in Texas and we were able to go over it. After reading it he stated flatly, “If you sign that, I’ll never speak to you again.” Assuming he was kidding, I laughed and said that I was probably going to sign it in some form because I needed the job. I needed the business! I’ll never forget what he said…
“You may need business, but you don’t need THAT kind of business.” I began to realize he was dead serious. “Can you afford to do all of that and not get paid? Because that could happen with this contract.” Now he had my attention.

“If their forklift runs into your mural and destroys it, can you afford to do it over and not be compensated?
If their forklift runs over your palette knife, and somehow disables it, can you afford to fix the forklift?  
If they for some reason do not get paid by the ISD, they don’t have to pay their subs… can you afford not to get paid?
If they for some reason are not pleased with your work, they don’t have to pay you… Can you afford to spend months, and thousands on payroll and materials, and not be compensated?
Can you afford to work for free?”

“Uh… no.”

“Well that’s what this contract says! If you sign this I can’t help you… You do not need this kind of job… you may need work, but you don’t need a job that could bankrupt you.”

He was right of course and we red-lined the stuff I could not abide by and I submitted the amended contract to Dime that next Monday. In no time Dime Construction contacted me and said thank you very much but I would not be getting the job. End of conversation.

Welcome to the game of business hardball!  A couple of days later the architect, thoroughly disappointed, asked what had happened. He wanted me to do this job. After hearing my explanation, he arranged for me to work directly for the ISD. I went to see the Assistant Superintendent and we had a nice visit… Everything was great until I told him I would need a deposit to buy materials and make payroll for my sub-contractors.  He shrugged that off, as it was against district policy. End of conversation. I shrugged it off too, as by now I was fed up with the striving required in the “big leagues.”

Then the architect called me again, incredulous. Finally, thankfully, he agreed to hire me and pay me and get reimbursement. That was how I got my first major contract, and this story has a moral: Dime Construction failed to meet deadlines and standards on this project and did not get paid, and went under. Had I signed that contract, I might never have been paid. It would have been a debacle.

Now fast forward sixteen years… Recently I was invited back to the same school to do my third extra mural since that job. They love me and I got the bid and hired a helper and purchased materials. Then I got an email from my friend, the principal, to hold everything …

It turns out the State of Texas now requires that every ISD contractor with direct exposure to schoolchildren has to submit to a criminal background check (absolutely fine with me) as well as his employees (OK).  AND he must pay to join a criminal background checking service (not so happy, but OK)  AND agree that the State inspectors, for any reason, at any time can demand access to and total  disclosure of all of a contractor's files, papers, computers, equipment and anything connected to his business. Since I office in my home, this would include my home.  Hmmmmmm. Not only that, but this process of just getting cleared to execute the contract can take several months, or longer to complete! I would not be able to complete the job in the time window I promised.

So my twenty year career as a school muralist came to an unceremonious end.

Contracts.  Gotta have ‘em! But more and more the legal eagles are tightening the screws on their perceived adversaries. And they have become greedy bullies in the process…

Even more recently I agreed to lead painting sessions at a national chain franchise “paint & sip” studio, the going thing these days. It’s getting to where folks are only curious about their talent if it involves drinking wine… anyway I jumped through all the hoops until finally I was handed a contract. Which I knew by now,  I had better take it with me, sit down in a quiet place, while very sober and consider it. But how contentious could this fun and light-hearted kind of place be?

The studio required that the teachers do all the preparatory set up and after-class clean up, but the artists would only be paid for the hours of instruction (2@ $20.00 hr). They were required to provide availability schedules, but were not promised any particular set number of hours of work. The artists are required to provide, for a measly $40.00, one completed painting per month to be used as a model for future sessions. No royalties will be paid, not even credit for doing them. Forever.  And here was the kicker… The artist leader that meets these expectations joyfully gets to lead more sipping sessions…  But can you imagine what this company could make off of one talented moron who willingly submits to this conscription, over the next decade?

That will not be me. I let them know as nicely as I could that this contract was very objectionable to me. As somewhat of a leader in the arts in my community, I have an obligation not to appear to endorse the wholesale, corporate violation of artist’s copyrights and intellectual property. 

So by now you can see the trend. We are screwed. Corporate America and the government have teamed up to rob us of our privacy, our earnings, and even our just residuals. So you need to define your limits and brace yourself.

I am old school, and I cannot make the turn. And I pity the next generation who has to fight this fight, for the rights our forefathers fought for and established long ago. But there is a real fight ahead for artists to maintain the respect, incomes and professional leverage they have enjoyed.

God Bless, and let me know how you do!


A young artist asked me if there was any kind of transaction that was a positive experience for both artist and collector… and there are a few.

Unfortunately the old -fashioned community art festivals have all but disappeared, but they were great venues to meet with your patrons and enjoy direct and exciting exchange between the art makers and the art buyers. But the fact is they have faded into the past because sales became weak as American lifestyles and priorities have changed. It was a big effort to arrange and produce such events, and the enthusiasm around the art shows went the way of the profits made having them.

Living in a small town, I have enjoyed great rewards by the interaction between myself and my local collectors, and to some degree the general public, who seem to appreciate the public art I have done. It was a long time coming.. but ever more appreciated by me. A few days ago one of my out-of-state collectors blew through town and hunted me down and purchased a painting at my hometown gallery… everybody gets a bang out of that.

And this brings me to something I have never had personally but always thought was the most desirable- to live in an art town such as Santa Fe where those kinds of exchanges can happen every week. And that is why so many artists move to such places. The down side is they are often situated in high-end Real Estate areas and require a very high cost of living… Right now lots of artists are giving up on such idealistic arrangements and seeking affordable lifestyles instead…

Art is nothing if it s not hope. It is often an escape from stress and the pressures of the world. It stimulates hope and optimism and creativity, in an envelope of euphoria. And folks who appreciate or are attracted to art and artists tend to be wealthy, slightly narcissistic, kind of flighty and sometimes get carried away in everyday conversations.  That is the fun and the burden of such company.  90% of conversations are just stream of conscious wishing out loud. Brainstorms. Artists must condition themselves to enjoy the banter, while keeping their own feet on solid ground.

And these days while shoppers are getting scarce, don’t get discouraged by meaningless discussion. It’s part of the business. And eventually, if you maintain your positive spirit, some of it will bear fruit.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

ART & the LAW. A word from the wise.

"When Law Dulls the Edge of Chance," by C. M. Russell
Howdy fellow artist. Perhaps you found this blog because you are having some questions about the art business. I am no attorney, and no expert on the LAW, but I do have forty years of experience in the art business, as an artist. And I can sum it all up in one word. BEWARE.

But it is not the law that is your enemy. When it comes to commissions, publications, representation, public interviews… BEWARE! Although the laws supposedly protect you, they only work if you first protect yourself.

Beware of contracts.  Whenever somebody sticks one of these between you and a so-called opportunity, pay close attention to it. They are not all bad, but there are a lot of bad ones and they can really put you in a world of hurt.  Most contracts are written by corporate attorneys whose job it is to put everything in the corporation’s favor. They are very professional and RUTHLESS. They write each contract as if it will be read and negotiated by an equal, and more tellingly, by an adversary. The minute you hold that contract, you are in over your head.

Beware of “handshake deals.”  While it is true that these are far more comfortable, and thus attractive, they can be much worse because of what was not said before the handshake. The best solution is to hear out a proposal and then write down your interpretation of it, including many of your assumptions about what you think was implied, and verify these impressions with your client. The back and forth dialogue will be healthy and revealing. Then shake hands-  and may God be with you.

Beware of wonderful deals, “big opportunities” and apparent windfalls. They hardly ever are. Publishers will promise to make you famous, knowing you will receive proportionally and embarrassingly very little for the art they publish. Charity auctions solicit donated art for popular causes, offering you huge “exposure.” They are unaware that your donation is not even tax deductible, (except for the cost of materials) and that few artists ever hear from anyone “exposed" to their art at the auction. Galleries may promise to put your work in the window, and talk it up, but soon grow bored and adopt a new flavor of the day. If you stay away for awhile, and return unexpectedly, you might find your work out of sight and in storage.

Beware of galleries. Especially new ones.  Most will be out of business in a few years or less. And when they go, they often take your work with them. People closing a business or mired in financial trouble do not have time to worry about you. Easy come, easy go. Watch your galleries closely at first to know their business ethics, their prospects for survival, and what to expect out of them.  Many art galleries start out as a second business for a wealthy couple looking for “something fun to do.” They might also need a tax write-off and not necessarily care about profitability. They love the atmosphere and the glamour and often underestimate their responsibility to earn their commissions. And they often forget to send you your money. They do not set out to be crooks, but few galleries are run by responsible, business-minded individuals. Many art galleries are going out of business these days... only a few will be missed.

Think about it, what other kind of store can you open and not have any previous experience and not have to invest in a single bit of inventory? This only helps to produce a cavalier attitude.  Selling art is serious business. It is about one third public relations, one third retail cunning and one third dogged resourcefulness. Most galleries have only one of these, if any.

Beware of yourself, as you are the only defender you have. The bottom line is that little has changed since the early 1900’s, when musicians sold their songs for a few bucks and forsook all deserved royalties and never lived to see any appreciable wealth earned from their intellectual property. And why?  Because they just handed it over. They trusted "the man."  And artists today are being asked, even required by egregious contracts to do this very thing.  So Beware of your own humility and magnanimity. Artists often undervalue their talent and what it can do, and more importantly, what it and their products are worth.

Sometimes (often!) artists get financially desperate and from a position of weakness, make strategic compromises. But almost every deal that comes along has unseen pitfalls, and often your compromise turns into bitter regret.  If you are going to manage yourself, you have to lose several things: Quick decisions, benefit of the doubt, trust in mankind, and unwillingness to take responsibility. You cannot ignore these things and "just make art." Make yourself read and scrutinize the fine print.  Yes you are an artist… but you are also in business! And that means you are supposed to survive and show a profit. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

Beware of smiling, well-intended benefactors. Promoters often start out praising you and smiling big while they think ahead, begging for slack and special treatment, with promises of worthy returns down the road. Their visions usually never materialize. The life of an artist is tough and unpredictable. You are destined to pay plenty of dues without someone asking you to. As an old mentor of mine once told me, “your knowledge is your stock and trade!” I cannot, and you cannot afford to give your knowledge, your products, and especially your royalties away, or sell them cheap. Things are tough enough for an artist anyway. When a deal is offered that has some thorns on the rose… Understand that with every opportunity, you will have to pay for it in some way. Watch for those thorns! For instance:

A land developer might appreciate an artist’s touch and ask you to design or even develop marketing materials, even amenities to sell his vision- which may be a delusion, using your talent as a cloak to cover his poor business plan. I have been through this a couple of times. A bad or suspicious business plan almost guarantees you will be the first casualty!

A business might ask you to design a billboard- advertising something you find objectionable, even immoral. You might be asked to paint something that would bother your peace of mind. Be careful what you agree to without sufficient background details.

An art studio might ask you to teach art lessons- and require you to provide valuable additional art for teaching materials, on the side for cheap-  if you want the job. This is the latest "get rich off of trusting artists" scheme.

A gallery might ask you to consign your work- and demand as much as 60% commission- and pay you on a 90 day cycle. A lot can happen in 90 days.

A popular annual charity auction might ask for free art to sell, to raise money and provide you “advertising”- year after year. And never even give you a chair at their banquet!

An author or publisher might ask you to provide illustrations for a magazine or a book, or a website- or to make reproductions of your works to sell and offer you a very small percentage- or nothing except good public relations!

A school or museum might ask you to paint murals in its halls- but require you to sign a burdensome contract.

All of these things have happened to me. Each opportunity had some critical issues, some of them legal, which could affect me and my future. I’m sure you can learn from my experiences.

The failure to plan is just a plan to fail. Know what your personal and professional policies are and stick to them. I have wasted a great deal of my life giving some moron the “benefit of the doubt,” against my better judgment, only to regret it… and I have paid for it. Most of the time I failed to plan for such “opportunities” and tried to wing it without legal counsel. I could write a book about my failures, especially on the business end!

You may not need to run out and hire a lawyer yet, but you need to be ready for these and other traps in the art business minefield. I’m going to share a few stories that will help illustrate the need for you to be ready to protect yourself. And I will give you some hints about when it is time to put your dukes up. Because after that, you are on your own. 

You need to know right now, as best as I can tell, we are headed into a veritable dark age when it comes to art and the art business and our cultural environment. It is getting very litigious and hostile. Lawyers will soon run the Universe. And most of them do not have a conscience. And everyone you will be working for has the pockets to afford these hired guns that make a living scheming your disadvantage.

So you are broke and you need a gig and somebody approaches you with what sounds like a real career boost. You are willing to almost agree to anything to get a paying job, to get your work out there… What should you do if they hand you a contract and ask you to sign it and “get on with it…”?

We’ll talk about that next time. If this is information you need, from another artist’s perspective, please leave a note and let me know your specific concerns. I want to encourage and warn you at the same time!

Next time…

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Art makes a difference!

My good friend and patron Faber McMullen has assembled a charming list of weekend get-aways and remodelled them to perfection... now available to rent.

As the finishing touch, he decorated them with my art... and the results have been very pleasing... to us anyway!

The 1900 farmhouse known as Pleasant Hill sits a good 150 yards off of a country road in southern Grimes County.
It has been completely overhauled... The exterior appears much as it did when the German farmers who lived there called it home...
But the inside has been freshly remodeled and beautifully decorated. Still, visitors can enjoy the old- fashioned Texas farm life, with lots of WOOD, wood floors, wood burning stove for heat in the winter, and board and batten wooden walls, just like everybody used in times past.

The spacious kitchen is well equipped, and has modern amenities such as coffee-maker and micro-wave oven.

Surrounded by quiet and the sounds of nature, the cute, intimate dining room is perfect for conversation.

The bedrooms are comfortable and yet filled with light and austere country life. There will be curtains installed here, but I enjoyed not having any, as the sun can wake you up in the morning. This bedroom sleeps three.

The east bedroom faces the rising sun, and sleeps two. One on the bed, one on the floor... just kidding. These beds are primo- very comfortable, and provide for excellent sleeping, even through a thunderstorm!

Still, my favorite part of the old place is the porch, which must have fifty foot of breezeway which wraps around three sides of the house.

Pretty cool huh? Let me know if you ever need the place, I'll try to get you a deal, my "Blogger's Discount"!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

One man's version of Heaven on Earth

photo by Stephen Williamson

The LINK below will take you to Stephen's website... where he has done several great studies of this photograph.

What is "Plein Air"?

A dry gully empties into the creek in the belly of Palo Duro Canyon.
Plein air painters can be kind of like reformed smokers or alcoholics... they seem to take a superior, all-knowing stance and make other artists miserable with their quasi-scientific, technical talk about "edges" and "transitions" and "values." Suddenly they assert confidently how they understand art, nature, artists, YOU, everything... annoyingly so. I have been one of those smug "outdoor painters" for a long time... as I taught or chased off all of my disciples. What could possibly make an artist so insufferable?

It's a French term, so that fits. It comes from the French Impressionists who thought they had invented something... painting from life, in the OPEN AIR, out in the fields of France. But a simple definition will not do. It was, more importantly, what happened to these pigment slinging iconoclasts, as they began to paint in the sunshine... and the dust... and even the fog and the rain.

About 90 minutes of intense study... produces an 8" x 12" field sketch on Masonite panel done "Plein Air" at Palo Duro Canyon. The details and colors and values were swiftly and yet carefully recorded.
A photograph taken at the same time. Cameras exaggerate light and shadow and miss the true colors of things. Digital cameras have serious blind spots to certain colors.
Rendering a landscape became an experience;  A souvenir from real life; with glimpses of real life; the sheen from the sun, the haze from the dust... and it became a real life struggle to capture a particular moment in nature. It was not enough anymore to paint contrived counterfeits of earth and sky. Artists began to speak of mass, form, atmosphere and temperature.  And landscapes would never be the same.

Sure artists have always depended on their imaginations to create their works as well, but artists ever since Monet and Pissaro and Van Gogh have found spectacular effects while studying nature; while painting what they see, or trying to, as opposed to their own pre-conceived, if not ill-conceived notions.

John Cogan and Stephen Williamson discuss "transitions."

If you are not an artist, it is hard to quantify the difference. But most plein air painters would agree that the difference in their work would be the same as the difference between a day on the beach and a snapshot of it.

I have often told my students that the difference between my work now than before is the difference between a color and a black & white photograph. We all carry snapshots in our memory, and these were re-enforced for artists through photography... but there will never be a substitute for an immediate, hands on experience. The difference for the art audience is more exciting art, greater passion, greater authenticity, and most importantly, an artistic statement with just one step between them and the great wide open. Like a gardener handing you a handful of fresh vegetables, or a hunter handing you a day's kill.

And for most plein air painters, it does get to be more like hunting or harvesting than the tedium of artwork at a desk or an easel.  They become restless with studio work as they suffer through it, longing to make another plein air trip. They become more at home, more creative, more artistically satisfied, anywhere out of doors, where they mine for images in the wealth of God's Creation. I soon began to realize that plein air painting was also, for me, another form of worship of God.

So you can see, it is a big deal to those that partake. When they appear a little distant or opinionated, as if they have someplace else they need to be. They do. It is the call of the wild and making a living and worship all rolled into one. And maybe that will help you understand why they seem bored with just hanging out. There is nothing plain about plein air.

When you look at it, realize there were numerous thoughts that went into each and every stroke... done by human hands, in a very limited space of time, a Divine mystery on canvas... and you could even own such a thing!


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Untold Story

This is not a painting of a flock of birds flying across Palo Duro Canyon... it was right at sunset and there was time for one more quickie...

This is the number of buffalo gnats that stuck to my painting while I tried capture the moment. There were thousands of them in a nasty swarm and the rest of them were on me.  This may have been the quickest field sketch I ever did. Little suckers bite like hell and the bites itch for a week.

After I took refuge inside John Cogan's truck, they began to feast on the other two artists. They said that the smell of my bath soap attracted them... and once I was unreachable, they went after the others who had been camping several days... and had not been exposed to soap very recently... I guess the gnats prefer clean humans.


Monday, October 7, 2013

Deep Inspiration: Palo Duro

"Just me, Willie and the angels"
About twenty five years ago I pulled into Palo Duro Canyon at sunrise, listening to Willie Nelson and staring misty-eyed at the legendary canyon where Quanah hid the last of the wild Comanches from civilization, and later where Charlie Goodnight built his cattle empire. I'll never forget the song playing, as I stared at its awesome beauty: "Pancho was a bandit boy..." needless to say Pancho and Lefty has been one of my favorite songs since.

A view from the north rim of Palo Duro Canyon

Anyway I did several paintings from that early morning visit, so the canyon has put some serious meat on my table as well. One of them was named "Just me, Willie and the angels." So FINALLY I got to go out there again to meet up with Willie and the angels, and do some painting with my old Texas Wild Bunch friend John Cogan, now a premier painter of American canyons. John is something of a fixture in Southwestern plein air circles, having won the first prize at the Grand Canyon Plein Air Competition, and is one of the most popular Grand Canyon artists around.

John Cogan is known on You Tube for his "One Minute Art lessons." And there is a reason for their brevity...

Here is where I must confess, the recent announcements of the City of Navasota to support the arts... and/or artists, has already begun to pay-off for me personally. I would never have made this trip, and had such a great time, had I not contacted John about his views on the current state of the art business... to double check my own instincts about City affairs... and learned in the process he had over the years picked up "plein air" painting ( painting out of doors, from life ) and was even teaching it to a lucky few. His student on this excursion was Stephen Williamson, a very promising landscape painter from Temple, Texas. I shamelessly horned in on the deal and I owe the City of Navasota for stimulating the whole process!

Steve Williamson tackles painting water on his fourth day of instruction... and did a very nice field sketch.

Moreover THANK YOU to John and Steve for allowing me to tag along. It was wonderful to reconnect with John and to meet this excellent young talent who sure made a liar out of me. (It's a good thing!)  I had warned a couple of City Councilmen that a bunch of young rent-free artists would only tear up the place they plan to customize for them... and then... I met... one of the finest and most talented young men I have met in a long time... So anyway Art and the canyon and even the Navasota City Council inadvertently brought this article together. I still contend that Williamson is ONE OF A KIND.

Signs of weather extremes common to west Texas... luxurious rains have made the grass and wildflowers lush in time for "Indian Summer," as southern winds fill the canyon with dust.

I remember arguing with John when he told me he planned to move to Arizona, so he could be closer to his favorite subject, the Grand Canyon. "You don't have to leave Texas," I whined, "you can move to Austin and go paint PALO DURO!"

John explained in his typical gracious manner that Palo Duro was no Grand Canyon.

I agreed BUT, "The Grand Canyon is like Miss America... she is beautiful, but you could never get to meet her... OR DATE HER... only stand back in awe of her... Palo Duro on the other hand was beautiful... and accessible, like the girl next door"

Don't know what this cave is actually called... I call it the Georgia O'Keaffe Aperture... Don't ask me to explain that... just look at her work... still a very accessible girl-next-door climb for most people.

Of course John Cogan did not buy that for a minute... and packed up his family and left Texas for good. And that was what he should have done when you consider his success doing what he was born to do. I just hated to lose another artist friend- to...

 Texas retARTation... a syndrome I have grown immune to but am always reminded of...

If more people would get OUT of the house and see places like this, and get connected to our wonderful American landscape, artists could still make a living bringing these kinds of experiences into their living rooms...

Hell, we're going to to paint these places ANYWAY! Which gives me an idea... an INSPIRATION!


Return to Palo Duro Canyon! With John Cogan!

I had foolishly scurried through this marvelous landscape a few times before, always in too big of a hurry to do it right, always promising myself to return sometime "down the road" and do it justice. Sometime has taken way too long...

Finally an old friend of mine, John Cogan of Farmington, New Mexico, told of his plans to meet a student there for five days of plein air painting. I decided to hang out with them some and make good on my long ignored best intentions.

John Cogan teachs his outdoor painting methods to an eager young student.

For year-round inspiration, there is no place in Texas that offers the depth, color and diversity like Palo Duro Canyon.
I will be sharing my photos and thoughts about the trip in the coming week. It was a glorious experience... on that "magic carpet ride" I often refer to (where only God could be the driver!). Can't wait to tell you about it!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Picking my mentor's brain... about the art market

Of all the artists I have met and befriended, Jimmy Dyer has been the most influential on my career. We met at a Texas Wild Bunch show at Buffalo Gap, Texas around 1980. It was obvious from his choice of subjects we were kind of like soul mates. I would look at his paintings and think... I would have done that, or I have done that! I guess he thought the same thing. But he was a newly-wed and had his cute little wife with him... I did not want to bother him too much... Still, a friendship was begun.

A few years later, around 1986, out of the blue, Jimmy made a phone call that changed my life. "What are you doing? he asked, with something up his sleeve.

Jimmy Dyer painting in Santa Fe, New Mexico

I started a pitiful explanation of how I was going broke the hard way... TEACHING ART and not painting that much... Just trying to make a living in a failing economy... manufacturing crates on the side for Gates Rubber... to contain variable bore rampackers. No kidding!

He did not flinch, but said he was up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming painting. He told me if I could get myself up there, he thought, he was SURE, that he could help me make a big difference in my art and thus my art career.

I borrowed a car and went, driving up there by myself. I brought along an art box which I planned to bolt to a tripod... Jimmy had been hanging out with Wayne Wolfe and Tom Lovell, and was going to show me how to PAINT OUTDOORS. "Plein air" as they say.
Tim Lawson and Jimmy Dyer painting plein air near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

From that trip on, I was what I called a "born again painter." I spent the next twenty years developing my new style and teaching others. The improvements were obvious to me, and my view of art changed drastically. He and I have stayed in touch... more or less, and I have always considered him my best and last painting mentor.

A few months ago we drove all around Austin looking for a good art gallery. I needed a place to put my new bronze, he was looking for representation since he lives nearby, on Lake Travis. We never found a decent gallery, but had a chance to catch up and talk about the art world... I called him the other day to verify my impressions from our conversation that day... and ask him a few more questions...

Jimmy Dyer teaching Plein Air techniques at Independence, Texas.

Jimmy is a fierce competitor, a driven achiever, a great artist and a thinker... all of which makes his opinion matter to me. I told Jimmy about the plans the City of Navasota had to renovate a Victorian house to make it into apartment/ studio/ gallery space for emerging artists. Like the other artists who I have approached about this, he was not very encouraging.

"Artists are barely scraping by" he said flatly. "Everything is about saving money!" In other words, people are not buying art at present. It's a bad time to get into the art business. He did not think offering free rent to artists was going to be enough. Beginning artists cannot afford to stay in obscure places where there is no ready opportunity to sell their works. And unless there are some serious other benefits, they will not stay long in that kind of environment.

What they need is an inspirational environment with lots of moneyed walk-by traffic, so they can create and sell a few pieces to pad their wallet.

Jimmy went on to cite Texas towns who have tried to build an art brand by having competitions. Marble Falls has done the best job of it. But it also has the Hill Country lakes and scenery and German folklore attractions to build on. It is already a resort area. Still, after several years of diligence, it has not rocketed to success. It takes many years and fortuitous geography to make an art town.

Granbury, a striving "wanna be" art town where Jimmy lived for awhile, touted itself as the "next Taos" thirty years ago, but still cannot support an art gallery, even today after decades of trying to capitalize on the lake and its proximity to Dallas - Ft. Worth. Even galleries in Fredericksburg, the supposed end-all of Texas tourism, struggle to survive.  Texas has never panned out as an art state.

Jimmy pointed to the most staggering evidence, at least half the art galleries he knows about have gone under. The 50% still in business find the market less profitable, sales having been flat for the past five years. The art market has been changing drastically, and requires more prudence and discipline than ever. So Jimmy has been experimenting with new venues, drawing upon his most reliable strategies.

Jimmy and I were raised by Texas rednecks, who said, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!" But rednecks also have no time for bullshit.

He sees the Artist Project at the Horlock History Center in Navasota as the first part of a much larger plan, which would only work if it includes large commitments to advertising. He also worried that it could easily devolve into a money pit, and a management nightmare.  

"There is no visible art presence in Navasota. There is not enough traffic. You've got no reputation as an art market." He wondered if the City had the experience and knowledge needed to create those things in time to help the artists staying in the house... We kicked around the idea some more... until it just felt like beating a dead horse.

The problem Navasota is heading into, ( my opinion ) especially offering free rent to artists with no visible means of support, is these fledgling artists will not have, nor are likely to develop the work ethic or profit-driven motives of most mature businessmen.  They will be more like fraternity rejects than artistic geniuses. The art they produce while under the City's wing may have absolutely no cultural, economic or aesthetic value, and during the worst economic conditions for artists in over fifty years. There is a good chance that the program will go through many artists before it hosts a successful one. This is no formula for success, and it could be a very expensive public relations nightmare. 

My suggestion? Art is everything about ideas… World views. BEFORE the City of Navasota does this major overhaul of a historic structure, the whole city council should visit the art galleries in Houston or Austin to see what kind of culture you are inviting to staff your flagship. It will probably not be artists from my genre (landscape, Americana). It will probably become the home of a lot of very contemporary art, which will not easily relate to the population hosting it.

But beyond art, and styles and tastes...

How will you provide these artists with the resources, community, and financial support to sustain them? If their stay in Navasota is uninspiring, unprofitable, or even miserable, word will get out and the program will be short-lived.
Major Questions:
How are you going to screen applicant artists to insure success in the program and limit embarrassment to the program and the City? (tough!)
Once occupied, how will you then nurture art that will be a positive reflection on the program and the City? (almost impossible!) Walk through any college Art Building and you will understand my point.
How does the City ever recover the money invested in this venture? I realize it does not have to. But wouldn’t that be a better goal?
Inspiration, Sales and Atmosphere; Don’t bring them here and then start thinking about this. If you do not create a positive, inspirational experience for them, you will find them taking out their frustration on the house.



A reminder of God... from JOHN COGAN!

Cedar Ridge and Evening Light     by John Cogan
I remember the time I said good bye to John Cogan, when he was leaving Houston and going west to establish himself as a painter of the Grand Canyon. I was jealous of his calling and ambition, but it was not my path. We did not keep in touch much over the years... but I have always considered him a good friend. John was a Rice graduate, his field Physics, and working for Shell Oil when he discovered that he loved something more. I'm one of the guys he met briefly during that time of decision... and then he was gone.

But that decision led to a great art career, mostly in Arizona and New Mexico, where he is a popular landscapist today.  I have kept up with his work and progress via his website... you need to go check it out... But in this blog we are still talking about the huge changes in the art world... And how John is facing them...

John now lives in Farmington, New Mexico. His kids are grown, and he and his wife have settled there for good. He and Karen have found a good place to live, and are now looking forward to cuddling their five grandchildren, with more on the way.

"These are tough times" he admitted, agreeing that many galleries in the Southwest have gone under. Even in the hottest art market in America, in Santa Fe and Taos they have they have seen a 25% attrition. Some towns like Sedona, Arizona have suffered even worse. John has seen one of his top galleries, El Prado, in Sedona go under... with nobody stepping in to replace them. El Prado was the gallery who gave him his start in the Southwest and sold the heck out of his work.

He explained that all this attrition "has pushed more artists into fewer galleries." The surviving art galleries are packed with great art, and not so many buyers. That kind of competition is a killer for fledgling artists. It's rough for the old veterans as well.

He tells a tragic tale of a slippery slope in Jackson Hole, Wyoming where he has had to watch two of his galleries in less than two years go out of business. He is starting with his third gallery in two years as we speak. These are the best tourist /art markets in the country, who cannot support art galleries.

Not surprisingly, this concentration also drives sales per artist and prices down. Even having a good reputation does not help in a market where so many good artists are struggling for a piece of the pie. John explained that his artist-friends are talking about drastic solutions... some are selling their ranches, some thinking about relocating. The word on the street is some of the"biggies" in the business are having to liquidate and downsize or worse. Some even get so desperate as to suggest moving where the perceived money is... to TEXAS! That cracked me up.

The Farmington area is the home of an impressive stable of "famous" artists. Besides John, there are cowboy artists Tim Cox, and Gerald Farm, and a few others. Still, there is not the critical mass to forge any kind of art colony, or art market per se, and no attempt to make anything out of it. I asked him why not?

"That's not how an an art market gets started... look at Santa Fe, how did it get started?" John explains how a bunch of ALREADY FAMOUS ARTISTS converged on this sleepy New Mexican village, and adopted it..hung out there for years, made it a cool place to be, because of the western light and local subject matter, and they were encouraged and patronized by their big-money collectors back home in New England. It started with mature artists gathering, and young artists seeking them out in an idyllic setting. Farmington is the home of some significant artists, but it is not an "art town."

He went on to tell of towns in Tennessee and California who have tried to force it, with limited success. It takes as a lot of commitment and money to make it get off of the ground. And why would they?

As John points out, all the buyers have died. Literally, died off. "Those guys buying our art back in the 80's are dead or in their eighties now... and they are not collecting art. Their children call me and want to know what the paintings are worth... do I know where they can sell them..."

It is a new game. And if it was a football game, it has been reduced to half the field, with one hundred players, butting heads, and... there is a ball the size of a pecan.

So, what to do?
John Cogan
John is an artist, and as he admitted, he chose his path a long time ago and he is committed for life. But he has begun to expand his portfolio. He has sort of started his career all over again. He has started painting out of doors, ("plein air") something he resisted for a long time. The practice has given him a fresh outlook, and a new challenge. He has taken some college courses... in Christian Apologetics. He is "casting his nets in every direction," willing to capitalize on whatever opportunity presents itself.

And that's the way it was when he came to Farmington twenty years ago. So not much has changed... except the country we are trying to operate in. John changed the subject for a moment, but he was actually moving towards the larger question...


"Americans in this post-modernist era no longer want or value beauty" John finally confessed, as he hit the nail on the head. He went on, John Cogan the Christian apologist did, to explain that "Beauty reminds people of God" And they do not want that. People today do not want anything that reminds them of God...

We are in an age where order, beauty and serenity, are not where people's minds are, and they clamor after things that better reflect their own state of mind: ugly, dark, and chaotic. The art problem is really a national spiritual problem. If art is selling, it is re-enforcing all the negative tendencies of a failing culture: Tattoos. Pornography. Video super heroes that promote mindless violence. And none of us make that kind of stuff... and do not want to. We represent yesterday's values and today's anachronism.

That is bad news for more than artists... it is bad news for America.

We talked for awhile about the ironies, that we made our livings in the past years selling mostly to people who did not share our world views. Sooner or later they had to turn away from us. "I don't know why," John offered, as if it was a lifetime mystery, "but most Christians do not buy art."

Christians did not understand their most effective spokesmen were Christian musicians and artists and actors, who could help fight the spiritual warfare in this country in the entertainment industry, which has stolen the hearts and minds of our children. There was no collective awareness which understood the importance of the artist as messenger, as agent of social stability, or any duty of Christians to support them. That is why so few Christian songs, movies and art have made it into the mainstream. It is artists that design entertainment, commercials, movies, videos, websites... and their world view will shape our culture.

So much for that.

Thank you John for inspiring us and bringing God's Creation to the fore, and fighting a good fight.

The fight is not over yet.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Shop Talk With George Boutwell

TEXAS WILD BUNCH, 1979  top row: Al Richardson, George Boutwell & Russell Cushman
bottom row: Randy Souders, Harley Murray & John Cogan
George Boutwell was one of several established Texas artists who generously took me under his wing. When I was a young aspiring artist, he graciously encouraged me, framed up my humble array of prints, and  took me along to art shows, filling my ears with very practical business theory. Those were some wonderful times. When I met George he was "king of the mountain, " and he still is.

I have found over the years that I was able to take most of what he taught me to the bank, so to speak, and have caught myself quoting him many, many times, as I have passed on what he told me. Lately I have found myself at a crucial professional crossroads, and I sometimes, even now, ask myself, “what would George say?” I guess I got tired of wondering, and I went to see him recently at a one-man show he was having in Richland Mall in Waco.

When he recognized me, we engaged immediately, as if we were still at a mall art show thirty years ago. I told him I needed to talk to my old mentor. I think he had absolutely no idea what kind of impact he had on me so long ago. I told him I had some new questions. He met them with a ready smile. George is a very generous person. He has always been that way with other artists as well.

He used to tell me that he was glad to tell us everything he knew. He knew that after we saw how much work it was to be a successful artist, he had nothing to fear.  And he was right. Few artists would or could walk a mile in his moccasins.
Texas Wild Bunch cutting up at Alamo Village in Brackettville, Texas:
Charles Chupp, David Nicolas, Jack Cannon, Ernie Roche & Harley Murray.
I'm the dead one. 
When I ran with George, we were herding (like cats!) a bunch of Texas artists into an art show circuit called the Texas Wild Bunch. The loose knit group of western and wildlife artists had been the brainchild of Harley Murray, another of my early mentors, who envisioned an artist’s co-op where artists promoted shows for each other in various parts of the state.  I might put one together at a Houston bank, or Memorial Mall (photo above), Harley might arrange one at the LS Ranch in Bosque County, or the Thistle Hill Mansion in Ft. Worth. This concept never worked for me financially but I had a lot of fun and made some valued friends.

Soon I was learning how George did it. On the road. All over Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana. Malls and festivals. Almost every weekend out of the year. And soon my wife was concerned how we were ever going to make a home and a family with me gone all the time. I had to choose my wife, and my life in Plantersville over the weekend art circuit. It was an easy decision, as sales for me were pretty flat most of the time, and I was always having to hustle or rustle money or materials or something. I prayed for God to provide me a different way to make it as an artist where I could be home and go to church on Sundays. And eventually He did. But still, I missed those valuable conversations with the man at the top of the mountain...