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...

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...

Boutwell: When "Waiting for the Bus"- GOT RUN OVER!

I always treasured those days on the road with George Boutwell. I have lots of stories from those times, but perhaps the one I’ll never forget was at a show at Baton Rouge…

We were hustling our goods and equipment inside the Bon Marche Mall. George travelled then as he does today, in a motor home, pulling a trailer full of his art and show fixtures. What he schleps around from show to show is staggering. He does the work of three men, and has a fairly well designed system, with everything on wheels.

Waiting for the Bus
He was loading a pile of large framed paintings onto a four-wheeled dolly.  A drunk guy came around the corner in his big pick-up truck, not expecting George's dolly to be there and ran right over it!

On the dolly, among the debris, in shambles, was one of his all time greatest paintings, “Waiting for the Bus.” It was a full sheet watercolor painting on illustration board, under glass.  Not only was it a popular “print piece,” having been reproduced in a signed and numbered limited edition, but it was also SOLD, and paid for, its value at the time around several thousand dollars. 
That evening, I’ll never forget watching him pulling the thing out of the frame, splinters of glass impaled into the illustration board, all scratched up. It was like looking at a dead body. I was just sick about it.
But George looked at it with fascination. He was already seeing the challenge of repairing it. Very calmly he picked out the glass…with that winsome smile “I’m just wondering what I can use to repair the surface… so it will take watercolor like paper… I have some ideas...” I shook my head. Here was a great work of art, almost ruined, a customer about to find out his art had been severely damaged. The pain was just beginning for him.
George was unruffled, calm, deliberate, even though he was going to have to tell an important collector that somebody just ran over his painting, a beautiful work of art placed in his custody, in a parking lot in Louisiana. And it was… totaled. But not to worry!

Sure enough he fixed it, beautifully, but ended up changing the sky completely, and ultimately helped the collector sell it again. George was always game for whatever came up.  He practically lived in that motor home, traveling as far as Chicago or Atlanta in a giant box on wheels crammed full of art and a few clean shirts and a sawed off shotgun. He has to have sold more art than any living American artist. And amazingly, most of it went directly from the artist to the patron. There is no American artist who has a larger customer base, and who has met most of them!
Watching him set up his travelling art show was almost as interesting as watching the circus come to town. I‘ve never known anyone to work so hard, and always with complete serenity, in my life. Then after everything was just so, he sat down and started cranking out art... original art, as if he was sitting in a Texas pasture looking at God's Creation. I always thought George was one of the most disciplined and astute businessmen I ever met. And as long as I have known him, he was bringing in six figures every year. He earned every penny of it.

George was printing and distributing his own calendar every year, an annual series of limited edition prints and greeting cards, and mass marketing all of these publications with a catalogue which he sent out to a huge mailing list of past purchasers. I remember when he finally could print his annual inventory without having to lean on the bank to finance it. He probably had 10,000 names on his mailing list. George was rockin’ and rollin’.

Anyway, here are a few things he taught me… As a young artist... valuable ART marketing strategy...

1)    The DECOY: Never consider someone talking to you in your booth as a nuisance, even if you know they are not going to buy something. That presence of two or more people conversing is a great decoy to draw others into your space. People do not like coming into a quiet zone where they will be stared at. They feel safer if the vendor is somewhat distracted. Keep talking, watching your prey, and then when you sense they are ready, say “Excuse me!” and walk away… The decoy will understand!

2)    In order to sell, you have to know your audience, your target market. After you identify them, you look, dress and act like them. Even emulate their body language. They will trust you faster and buy from you more readily. Whenever they do decide to buy art, they will remember the guy whom they so well related to, the fellow they “liked,” and they will go out of their way to find him. They probably will not realize why. They might even think you are the best artist alive! But it starts by being an accessible and engaging social mirror.

3)    Study shoes. Know expensive shoes from cheap ones. Even tennis shoes. Lower and middle class people wear crappy shoes, and cannot afford art. Nobody likes to be uncomfortable, and everyone will buy the most comfortable shoes they can afford. So if a person has on expensive shoes, he can more probably afford you art. You can almost tell who will buy art by what they are wearing. Wealthy folks dress down… but with expensive brands. Learn them. Sometimes, when your space is full of people, you need to be able to select the most likely to purchase from the crowd. Look down!

4)    Paint what you know: Be authentic. Paint from your own personal experience, not your idea of something outside your realm that you think might sell. Every person has a story to tell. Tell YOUR story! Your work will have more heart, have more edge, it will communicate the soul you put into it. That will make your work unique and help your sales.

5)    Never give up on a piece of your work. If you thought enough of it to paint it, somebody will think enough of it to buy it.

6)    Don’t worry about what the critics say. To hell with them. Awards mean nothing. Many judges are college professors and cannot paint, cannot make a living with their art. Never worry about something having been painted before, becoming old hat.  Just as the subject may be new to you, there are buyers out there who will also be experiencing it for the first time. The only opinion that should matter to you is your own… if it pleases you, and the people who are buying from you. If they like it, and lay their money down, that is the best affirmation you will ever get.

And it went on and on! I was very lucky to meet George and be able to remember and use a few things along the way. As I say, I have quoted him often... and I have tried to always give him the credit.

So now you may understand why I needed to talk to him again …

Boutwell: Tectonic Changes in the Art World

George Boutwell
I went to see George Boutwell to discuss the significant changes in the art industry in the past decade, which have brought me to a career crossroads. I wanted see him, and hear how he was facing these changes, because I knew he would have the most positive outlook, if not the solution, already in implementation. As usual, talking to George is an education. It was well worth the trip.

George is now in his 70’s, but still, as always, seems younger than me, with great hair and complexion, and has not changed. He has no plans to retire. I found him at his notorious modus operandi; Sitting quietly, intriguingly at work with a watercolor painting in his lap, seemingly oblivious to the world, in the midst of a grand display of his varied, colorful Texas scenes, plunked down in the heart of a crossroad of middle-American commerce.

For over forty years, George made his living from a huge customer base, which became a monster emailing network. He has thousands of active names of customers. He uses Catalogue sales very successfully, travelling many weekends out of the year to some kind of event, meeting and selling to his collectors personally. How could that go wrong?

First we discussed the death of the so-called “art show circuit.” George was one of the most aggressive, successful artists in that circle. Most conventional art shows that artists depended on for decades are now gone. Many Invitational art shows are gone, and charity art shows are no longer around… they gradually died out, as did the volunteerism and public support that fueled these prestigious art shows.

The Texas Wild Bunch we helped to get started is no longer active. So he is doing fewer shows - and is no longer focused on regional art shows and mall art shows. He only does a few pure art events these days, as they became too political right before they became unprofitable.

Changing American values, increasing travel costs, and a shrinking economy have made the veteran artist think leaner and meaner. He no longer travels out of state. He has to work harder to capitalize on a shrinking market in his target area. Turf has become much more important, and he notices that local artists are becoming much less collegiate, less magnanimous. Many art leagues have disappeared, and fewer people are getting into the business. And artists who move into his region are not finding a hospitable environment. The American art pie has shrunk, galleries have gone south and protective cliques have replaced clubs.

George had to stop buying back, or brokering his work for his collectors… which he had always done in the past. His collectors got desperate and pushy, and ungrateful for this unusual service, which he had taught me to provide to my customers. A lot of his collectors have died… And because of the shrinking middle class, they are not being replaced by the next generation.

George no longer uses many of the old sales strategies. Everything has become a crap-shoot. More and more he goes to shows where sales are flat, and it is very hard to break even. As a businessman, he has had to discontinue many of his travels and associations that he enjoyed.

What happened?

Even with his technologically sophisticated system, he is not enjoying the growth and profits he has earned.

So I just asked him:  Is the art market flattening due to the economy, or are we watching something die?

He did not even have to think about it:  “We are watching something die.”

America is going through a major realignment of values and priorities and art, artists, art merchants, art suppliers, and art appreciation over all are the big losers. As a general in this increasingly difficult battle, George has seen a lot of casualties, and he has shown amazing determination and resilience.  

George went on to explain how he has had to re-invent himself a couple of times over the years to keep up with the changes in our social and cultural landscape. And he admitted at this point, nobody knows where it is all going. He does not know what to do about what is looming on the horizon. But he is far from quitting.

George has always been a survivor. And one of his strengths is that creative mind which loves to take shattered things and put them back together.
Nowadays he does flea markets, trades days like at Canton, or Fredericksburg every month, and Round Top twice a year; anywhere there are people shopping. They may not be looking for art... but they have not yet met George.

His paintings still hearken Americans, Texans to enjoy and take pride in their rich heritage, and a few still find in his work a reminder of the memories in their personal hard drives that they want to relive.

And in this re-invention process, George continues to find new audiences.

He has learned to appreciate the advantages of non-art venues; shows where he is one of few,  if not the only artist present.

Like Bre'r Rabbit,  he hustles the central Texas region, his own brier patch, reading his market with a flexible attitude, and stocking up with prints and canvas gicles, which he prints and frames himself.

Boutwell's prices have not gone up much in a long time. They are certainly not rising with the cost of travel expenses. A smart collector can still buy a George Boutwell major original for less than $2500.00.  I was stunned at what I saw in his booth. George wisely never let his prices leave the middle market. Therefore his business is still going, where many others have faded away. His work is the steal of the day... grand works, done by an official Texas State Artist… Texas treasures, for the price a big screen TV. Outrageous.

George clued me in to his current world, which I have thankfully avoided for the past thirty years. He graciously agreed for me to share his observations with you. Here are a few changes he (and I) will be grappling with:

 Huge change in demographics:

*Young Americans (20-30 yrs) don’t buy much art at all. But when they do, his nostalgic renderings of vintage classic cars are the bridge over the generations.

*Malls are aimed at a very young clientele, and are no longer a good place for an art market.

*90 % of his originals are sold to Hispanics; They are now the rising class of professionals, optimistic, living the American dream. Hispanic clientele has been the source of some of his MAJOR purchases and repeat business. One Hispanic gentleman called him one day and ordered over $18,000.00 worth of art for his offices in South Texas.

*Although representing only about a quarter of his inventory, 40% sales are prints of vintage cars… These subjects have always done well… but George is most famous as a Texas bluebonnet painter. His booth is crawling with giant paintings of Texas longhorns, farm houses, wonderful storms, Texas country life in hundreds of different scenes… That has been his “pigeon hole” but that is changing. Vintage cars are a cultural link to our youth, who are all about TECHNOLOGY.

*He does not see the white, upper middle-class thirty-something male entrepreneurs collecting art anymore. They are almost extinct.

*His buyers are now much older, well over 40, male and female, and from diverse backgrounds, and diminishing.

I will keep in touch with George as we try figure out how to survive in what appears to be an American Dark Age on the horizon. There will always be art and artists, and George, ever our vanguard, will no doubt lead the way. But I’m sure he would agree that it would be tough for him to try to do what he did in his career again, under today’s circumstances.

And that is bad news for tomorrow’s next generation of painters.

Well, that wraps up my research. And my rant. I told everyone of the artists I interviewed that I wanted to be wrong... and please change my mind. Each found more concerns about the concept than I had. I have provided these opinions purely to make available the best information from real, professional artist's points of view.

Maybe we are full of prunes. But I cared enough to ask around, from the most qualified people I knew, and not rely on my own knowledge or ignorance.
Good luck to the City Fathers, whatever they decide to do.
And thanks to my friends who generously discussed these questions with me. It was great to visit with all of you!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Tribute to the Salado Mermaid

A couple of years ago a terrible flood devastated parts of Salado, Texas, taking much of this sweet scene downstream. I was glad afterwards that I had taken the time one morning to capture this popular local icon on Salado Creek, a bronze sculpture of a mermaid which was lost to the fury of Mother Nature...
No, I did not sculpt her... but I wish I had.
This is the wonderful gift of photography; Preserving for later enjoyment special moments that don't always seem so special at the time.

Chasing vague expectations,
I ran on.
the real and sublime.

The Saga of Three Young Texans

"Three Young Texans" by Russell Cushman

A few years ago Hurricane Ike roared through the Gulf Coast and devastated many homes. It spread destruction and heartbreak all around Baytown, Texas, and yet in the process, brought me and an old customer back together... and an important reminder.

A Saga of Three Young Texans

 Jan only had a few hours to make critical choices about what would go and what would stay. Another terrible Texas hurricane was on the way, and after the destruction from hurricanes Katrina and Rita the year before, she and her husband decided not to weather the storm, but vacate and take what they could with them. Only so much would be able to go. She snatched up those essential things that occurred to her and stuffed her car full. Then she looked on the wall at one of her prized possessions. A large picture with a mammoth rustic frame pleaded for passage. It was a print of a little girl playing with her kitten and ragdoll, deep in pioneer Texas Hill Country. The little girl’s eyes had always had a soulful appeal to her, and now more than ever.

She took the large limited edition art piece down and rushed around looking of a place that might hold it above flood level, somewhere where the “Three Young Texans” might survive, in case of a direct hit. She had owned and loved her signed copy of my watercolor for nearly thirty years, and the babies in the painting were like her children. They had to be saved. Desperately, she placed them on her bed, right where she normally slept, and covered them with blankets, pillows, anything that might protect them. Then it was time to go. She took one last look at her home, and they rushed away.

The storm did hit, with devastating force. Jan told herself, “We are alive, and that is all that matters,” but as they returned to their home days later, the heartbreak began to unveil itself, one painful loss after another. Some of the house was still intact, but in her bedroom, was a giant oak tree. A limb had thrust right through the picture, shattering the glass, and damaging the print beyond repair. Strangely, the frame was almost unscratched. She told herself it was a minor loss, compared to what might have happened to them if they had hunkered down during the storm, and she had been laying there instead of the picture. Pictures can be replaced. It was as if the Three Young Texans had died in her place.

She did not have the heart to throw the image away, even after the insurance had been collected and their life had been reconstructed. She began to look on the Internet for me, to see if I was still around. She found some leads, but they never lead to the artist himself. As with much of the information on the Internet, it was mostly obsolete. It was obvious the artist was still active by all the listings, but she could find no website. Months passed, and occasionally she would do a search. Nothing new popped up. She began to think about giving up, and settling for something else. But she knew that nothing else would do. These were her babies for thirty years…

I painted Three Young Texans in 1979, while Linda and I were living in Altair, Texas. This watercolor was one of my very first “major pieces.” Because the model for the painting was our niece Jennifer, Linda requisitioned the painting almost immediately. Jan purchased a framed print of Three Young Texans from me during theTexas Renaissance Festival during the fall of 1980.

Thirty years later, I had let my website go into Internet oblivion.  But in the spring I taught an outdoor painting workshop, where one of my students directed me to a website company that soon solved my website deficiency.

Almost immediately Jan found me. Relieved and grateful, after months of searching and losing hope, she told her story. And I had great news for her, because we had kept the painting all these years. I had no extra copies of Three Young Texans… but I could make a giclee for her from the original watercolor. Her search for her babies was over.

She told me about the symbolism in the painting, which had so much meaning to her. Her mother had grown up in a central Texas cotton farm, and had a little ragdoll just like the girl’s in the watercolor. She explained how the little girl’s eyes spoke to her… And how she felt as if the Three Young Texans had taken her place.

The hurricane took away an old faded photograph, and God saw to it, in His time, that it was restored better than new.

It was such a long shot, after such a brutal attack from the forces of Nature, that most people would have given in from the sheer time and impossible odds and the tragedy that had unfolded. They would have bought something else and gone on. But Jan proved something special beyond personal taste or materialism. She illustrated the power of art.