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...

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Art Collecting: No Idiot's Guide Will Do

I have been a professional artist for forty years, and some visitors to my home are shocked when they see my wife and I are modest art collectors as well. I buy and sell art all the time. That is because I KNOW art as a product, with real value. When I buy, I have a natural process of decision making which governs the search, and the purchase, and I rarely break from it. 


There is no one way to collect, as art has many markets and venues and too many variables. Each is a unique adventure, and each has its own lures and pitfalls. I have watched this free-for-all most of my life, and it has only grown, so maybe I can spare you some pain... So here is my brief “artist's guide” to art collecting.

Any idiot can collect art, but no idiot could build a responsible collection. If you are going to truck in the arts, you gotta have smarts. Art and collecting art is fun, but experienced collectors make it look easier than it is. If you care about something beyond immediate gratification, or want to build a true asset with art in your financial portfolio, you will have to engage your whole brain, and temper your purchases with wisdom born of study and heart.

Primarily, I have to really like something to buy it, regardless of other concerns, and think I would be happy with the art even if everybody else hated it. I buy things I want to live with. After all, I may have to! I often consider my wife's tastes as well, as she has to live with it too. If I love it, a lot, especially for more subjective, non-artistic reasons, I may have to ask myself a different series of questions, because I may be losing my objectivity and pay too much, or fall into a narcissistic trance. Too many purchases like that can lead to disaster. The trick is to combine objectivity and restraint with an aggressive, inner passion.

It has to be priced realistically. Could I, if push comes to shove, sell it and at least get most of my money back? After these two questions are satisfied then the only other concerns I may have are about placement and the amount of disruption this addition will be to my overall collection arrangement. I do not mind buying art that will be temporarily stored if it is a good enough purchase. It will eventually find its place.

As an artist, I frequent many possible art markets and venues. Almost all are struggling right now. Consumer trends are presently shifting in a sea change that is leaving everyone unsure of what may come. The loss of many art galleries throughout the country has caused some alarm. Regional art shows are diminishing, and longtime collectors have tried to cash in on their collections at auctions and sometimes found a fairly soft market. As gold, silver, land and other investment opportunities become lackluster, nothing seems to be a safe investment.

Although all of this is true, I am glad to report that the art world is far from dead. The old game has died and a new one is emerging. Many artists are being hurt or lost in the change, but the free market will establish new trends with new leaders, and reward new survivors. I enjoyed vigorous sales at the end of last year, totally confounding all of my fears. I had adapted my marketing strategy and it paid off. Savvy art collectors will learn to watch artists and their art and not magazine ads. The Internet offers many art sites which help buyers find their art, with a million twists never before possible. So you will be able to find something you love. There is a ton of variety in this new art game and the quality is out there. The question is how do you sort it out? Who can you trust? When do you know it is time to pull the trigger?

If you are a new art collector with these or similar questions, I have a few suggestions. First of all, take a trip.

Go to a known art market... like Santa Fe or Carmel and observe the contents of as many of the galleries as you can. Go back and revisit your favorites to cement them in your mind. Or visit some art museums in a major city. You need to know what the art, truly great art, looks and feels like in real life. Experience the richness of color and texture of a Monet in person. See the shadow of an Oldenburg across the room and across your shoe. Caress the rugged texture of Rodin in a garden. These physical, tactile responses are what make you human- and art essential. They are what separates the digital illusions on your computer monitor from the handmade, blood, sweat and tears creations of flesh and bone visual artists.

Educate yourself. If you like landscapes, look at Turner or Moran or Church. If you are drawn to portraits, spend an hour melting into a Sargent, or a Rembrandt. If you are into Contemporary, know what made good modern art good. Because of its freedoms, there is a lot of counterfeit modern art being made by hacks.

FORGET, for the moment, the critics or historians, and become sensitive to what the Masters found important. There is very little new under the sun. Art is a language that has been spoken without words for centuries. Learn the vocabulary. Sensitize yourself to just one favorite “great” painting, taking in the various hues of green, or the weave of brushstrokes, or the use of design to move you through the composition. See if you can identify an artist's stylistic techniques... his fingerprints so to speak. This is sort of looking into the soul or DNA of an artist. During this rational, whole-brained process, your right side of your brain, the creative side, is feeding essential information to your Left brain... your business manager side, and it will come in handy later to provide the appropriate response.

Most people handle the left-brained skills adequately... knowing your budget, the Google search for facts and figures, and basic art history. But after you have really experienced art, inspected, smelled, and truly felt Fine Art, and you start thinking you know what the artist was thinking when he made this or that... you have started to utilize the right side of your brain...Then you are ready. You have begun to utilize the two lobes of your brain... right brain for creative analysis, the left brain for organizing your conclusions... Now you have a trustworthy frame of reference.

Seek, find, scrutinize the art, apply all of your head “knowledge.” After the art passes these tests, PAUSE.

Then I'm going to ask you to change channels... Use your Right brain and enter a totally different line of reasoning. Buy because of an inner, emotional response to the art, not a superficial, rational one. Your right brain is the one who knows. This leaves right-handed people (who are left-brained dominant!) at a disadvantage, in the beginning, until they learn to stretch and use the other half of their brain power. If you are searching and buying because of subject matter, ( preconceived notions- a left-brained thing) you are only genre enthusiast. Many things with the desired pictorial elements will trip your trigger and you will buy a bunch of crap. I am in Texas, and here we have a lot of theme-art buyers who will hang a $15,000 masterwork across the room from a Coors poster, because they feature a culturally popular subject matter. In both cases they might well live to be disappointed in their choices, as trends come and go, and they learn what really good art feels like.

This second, less popular brain function takes time to cultivate. Ask yourself questions like,
Does this art inspire an emotion, or does it just satisfy one my predilections (like a favorite subject, color, etc.).

Does this art have any flaws that will bother me after I have looked at it a few times?”

Does this art leave me with a feeling I want to preserve, and engage with often?”

Is this art a masterpiece, which I would respond to even in a busy airport or an abandoned storage building, or just a masterfully executed image, a predictable product, which has won my attention by artistic skill and marketing?”

Sooner or later, you will develop your own Right-brained questions. And you will be buying art like an artist. You will buy better art and you will enjoy it more.

Don't “settle.” Save your money and pay a little more and start by buying a modest, special work of art. Wherever. You might not have a good gallery near you that carries art of your persuasion, so look at all the fabulous art on the Internet sites. As you look at the prospects, compare their qualities to the qualities you have experienced in person. (left brain) How do they stand up? Demand clear, close-up photography. Don't buy from anyone that does not offer a fair return policy. Usually, if you like it on the Internet, you will love it in person. The biggest problem with today's new collectors, who have seen so much “virtual” reality, is that they have trouble adapting their tastes to reality.

Don't get too caught up in the word on the street. Talk with other, more experienced collectors who share your interests. Ask to see their collections. Find out what they like about the art. You may be very surprised- or underwhelmed with their reasoning, or sometimes inspired with their insights. Still, these conversations expand your frame of reference.

Research the name. Any artist worth anything is easily researched on the Internet. Usually you can find comparisons to evaluate your buying opportunity. True, there are many great, unknown artists whose works will never appreciate much but whose art is affordable and will bring you joy daily. I have plenty of that kind of art. You just don't want a whole collection full of these kinds of paintings, which will not bring much upon liquidation. Soon you will have a whole mental “stable” of artists you are seeking. You will find that the artist you like had friends or associates who will often intrigue you as well. A smart way to build up some background on a school of artists is to collect old illustrated auction catalogs. Tons of useful info there.

Don't follow the crowd. Avoid “starving artists” sales. A great deal of imported art has flooded America in the past decades, with phony names and flamboyant frames, and it will never be worth as much as the frame it is in... (as in the time of purchase!) I see a lot of art buyers buy because of social and decorator trends. Many, like a school of fish, follow what “THEY say.” I know too many folks who buy something they literally dislike just because “THEY” are all buying something, and these folks do not want to miss out on a so-called opportunity. This is because they have never given art a thought before and do not trust their own judgment. Their likes and dislikes are governed by ignorance and insecurity. They depend on “they” to guide them. Usually these kinds of art opportunities are fleeting scams. It is not hard to educate yourself and become knowledgeable about the basics of art, and buy things with lasting value, even INVESTMENT VALUE.

Art is a great investment and a great pastime. Collecting is fun and rewarding and the investment can also be rewarding. Out of all the things you acquire in a lifetime, the furniture, technology, tools, collections, machines and clothing etc. will get randomly discarded, but your heirs will usually covet the good art left behind. Art creates and stores memories. If chosen properly, it will be worth at least what you paid for it when it comes time to dispose of it... unlike most other things in your home, which will be of little value. Antiques, coins, and even metals will fluctuate, and art usually performs as well as them. My collectors have followed my career and very few ever want their money back. (I am always glad to give it, as I can make money on those terms!) Outside of beautiful land, there is no other investment you can make where you can feel good about the expense and literally be entertained by it every day, and anticipate an increase in value. I have known several couples who collected my work, who got divorces, and in each case almost everything was negotiable but the art, which they both fought for. I suppose a good policy would be to buy TWO OF EVERYTHING!

So now you are ready to buy and you know what you want. I will tell you, the art world is your oyster, and there has never been a better time to buy art... because the art is good and artists are hungry.

The market has been soft due to the economy, and there have not been the traditional venues for buyers and artists to find each other. Social media, ebay, blogs, estate sales, garage sales, could all be worth your time in locating good art. I have seen outrageous deals at well-attended collectibles auctions where name artists sold for fractions of their old prices. In time those old prices should return. The opportunities abound. Elderly couples are downsizing and divesting, their kids do not care or are ignorant about their collections, and great stuff is getting plowed back into the market through secondhand shops.

But your best bet is to go direct. Artists are selling direct on the Internet as their gallery connections disintegrate, and they can and will sell cheaper with no middle man. Artists are marketing through facebook, and starting to show up in unexpected places trying to connect with their audience. This puts the collector in the driver's seat. I have taken advantage of this art bonanza and made the best art purchases of my life in the past year or so.

If you still feel a little hesitant, I recommend a visit to http://www.invaluable.com/blog/how-to-start-a-fine-art-collection/ where there is a whole section on guidance for collecting art.

So now that you know all of this, be gentle with my compadres. They have been going through a rough time, and yet I believe they are the best evidence left for our humanity, and remember it was an artist that gave you these tips. Good luck!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Texas' Most Loved Artist... EVER

The Yellow Pages cover for 1968-69.

Growing up in Houston, Texas in the Fifties and Sixties was not exactly a hotbed of cultural enrichment. But there were some unique art influences which shaped my eye and my vision of my life. I have written about some of the others, like my private art teachers and my mother, an accomplished artist as well. But no doubt one major inspiration came from the... phone book.

That's right, and if you were from Houston in those days you know exactly what I am talking about. Every person in Houston was intimately familiar with one amazing artist's work. Every other year he released a new masterpiece, one more fantastic than the year before, and every year everyone gathered around the new Yellow Pages as if it were a precious relic, even if they had scoured over it before. 

 The Yellow Pages covers contrasted the infinity of a sprawling Texas city with quaint and comic urban melodrama. Often Pittens was the cause of much of it.

We little children stood around in an anxious circle and jockeyed for an advantageous angle to look over the shoulders of the bigger people who poured over every square inch of the Yellow Pages cover as if they were searching for valuable ancient secrets. They would find something and howl, and make everyone else see what they discovered. Days later us little kids might finally get to inspect the new Yellow Pages, and go through the whole process of discovery ourselves. No other artist ever had so many admirers and held them spellbound for so long. Yet most folks have no idea what his name was.

 In 1967 Hoefle featured the old Hobby Airport, then the latest in air travel convenience.

His name was Karl Hoefle. Hoefle was a Dallas commercial artist who, unlike most men in his trade, found a legacy in telephone book art. He would research and design complex, detailed views of various Texas cities which took hours for viewers to digest. Working on scratchboard, his trademark became Pittens, a mama cat who boldly led her kittens through the dangers of big city life. Hoefle subtly and expertly included hundreds of “creatures” and anomalies throughout his renderings, making every Yellow Pages cover a deluge of tiny discoveries. Each scratchboard took as many as six weeks to complete. Covers were replaced in Houston and Dallas every two years, giving him time to do covers for some smaller towns. A architectural illustrator of rare genius, his creativity in cartooning city life seemed endless. 

 The Houston Ship Channel was the subject of Hoefle's masterwork for Yellow Pages in 1971. Who else could have looked at that and found so much inspiration?

I'll never forget the first year the Yellow Pages was dropped on our doorstep without Hoefle's work on the cover. There seemed to have been a big mistake. This must be somebody else's Yellow Pages! They could not just STOP featuring his wonderful artwork. What in the world was the world coming to! It immediately made me wish I had saved the others... but I was just a kid and after all, it was just a phone book. 

How could the people endure such a loss.. such a hole left in their tradition? What would kids look at from now on when they had been told to sit down and shut up? What would teen-aged girls stare at while they flirted with their boyfriends on the phone?

 Some accused Hoefle of too much mayhem in his depictions of Houston or Dallas, and he would sometimes recoil with more conservative offerings...  but to me this is one case where there was never too much of a good thing. Note the Comanches attacking the train in the upper right...

Karl Hoefle may be the most loved and most easily forgotten artist of all time. He was the vanguard of the instant gratification and inevitable obsolescence we have come to know and love. I thought you might enjoy seeing these magnificent works again. You are seeing some of the parts exploded several times over. Through the Internet, genius like this has one more shot at immortality, and Karl Hoefle's city-scapes certainly deserve it!

An Early Houston Artist... With a STORY!

Thanks to Sid Van Ulm, my father was timidly open-minded about my being an artist. Growing up in southeast Houston during the Great Depression, it was my father's firm memory that his neighbor Sid Van Ulm, an artist and writer, had means and status when many other local men were unemployed and hopeless. Later my father worked for a short while as a reporter in Houston, and came to know his childhood hero as a professional associate. I believe that it was during this time that he begged off this wonderful watercolor from “Van.” He kept this sketch proudly among his things in his “cave,” and only years later did I learn the depth of the story behind it.

My assessment of the artwork now is that it is quite decent, as a quick newspaper illustration, and depicts something I have never seen illustrated anywhere else... the harvesting of wild Texas longhorns by Plains Indians. We know it happened, before and after the Reservation era, but Native Americans hunting buffalo has always been the image when considering their cultural hunting habits. Van Ulm offers in this watercolor an exciting and uniquely Texan moment which quietly fed my boyhood imagination... and my dad's positive disposition towards the arts.

But here is the rest of the story according to my father, author Ralph B. Cushman...

Sidney Van Ulm

by Ralph B. Cushman

Van was a family friend for us as long as I can remember. He was a lifelong friend and traveler with my uncle Palmer Woods. They migrated to Texas out of Boston shortly after WWI ended in 1919. Neither Van or Uncle Palmer were enthusiastic about a job which confined their roaming instincts.

Van Ulm earned a living writing copy for the Houston Press until it folded, doing mostly sports page reporting. Van's primary interests were golf and golfers. His buddy, Palmer Woods made a living for years hustling a golf game from persons bent on the same thing he was after... the other guy's money. For years it was Van's job to arrange matches for Palmer and tag along to keep tabs on the wagers, especially the money Palmer bet. Van usually picked up a buck or two when he helped to spot a “lame pigeon.”

Several years after Palmer took his own life, Van told me about his relationship with Palmer back in Boston. Van was taking art lessons and during his studies he came to a day when nude models were the subject of his painting. When he told uncle Palmer about the coming attraction, Palmer was suddenly stricken with an interest in art, and accompanied Van to art class. To keep from attracting undue attention staring at the nude, Palmer feigned reading a newspaper. There was a hole the size of a quarter cut out of the paper to afford him ample viewing. This was pretty much the extent of art education for his friend Palmer.
Van, as Palmer's closest ally, knew most of the array of characters associated with this legendary golf hustler. From Bing Crosby, to M. E. Foster to Gen. Hap Arnold to Leo Corrigan, Van said that riding with Palmer Woods gave him an entree to a world he could never have found or afforded.

Van was quite an artist, and he also had quite a story!