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 …