Author: ZAPP Team
Date: July 18, 2013
Guest Post: Looking in the Rearview Mirror on a Road Well Traveled
This is a guest post by watercolorist Larry Stephenson.
Shooting Line, watercolor, copyright Larry Stephenson.
Art fairs are a truly American phenomenon. Some say that the concept of art shows grew out of the hippy movement of the late sixties and early seventies when young people rebelled at the very thought of working for the “man.” I came of age during that little bit of history with an art degree under one arm, not knowing exactly what to do with it. Little has changed in the four decades since I graduated from college. Universities are notorious for teaching young artists how to create without explaining how to apply their talents in the marketplace.
Back in the day, many young talents like myself were left to our own devices. The seventies were a time when weekend art festivals thrived on a very local level. It was a time before artists owned commercially produced display panels or tents. We put up our displays by day and took them down at night. Most shows were known by word of mouth only and travel was limited. I can remember the first painting I ever sold was in Fredrick, Oklahoma at a one-day show where artists leaned paintings up against downtown shops on a city sidewalk. I sold that single painting for $175.00 and my wife and I drove home absolutely giddy at the idea that there were people out there willing to pay cash for original artwork. That is how it began.
Eventually, artists began to network and the knowledge of the better shows began to leak out by word of mouth. This was before desktop computers were in every home. Cell phones did not exist and the Internet was on the minds of no one.
At first I had a “real job,” and did local shows close to home.
In 1978, I made the decision to travel longer distances to shows and make art a full time business. By that time a few manufacturing companies were making aluminum display racks for painters and the concept for portable artist tents was born. I teamed up with another painter that I had met at a painting workshop and we traveled together to shows while sharing expenses. We often camped overnight and I remember him asking me one night as we sat around a campfire if I really thought that we could make a living with our vagabond lifestyle. Little did we know that our business would evolve into what it is today, a professional culture that is both demanding and extremely rewarding.
One of Stephenson’s more recent watercolors. Morning Coffee, copyright Larry Stephenson.
Being a traveling artist is not for everyone. It takes a special person to jump into this lifestyle with both feet and be successful. It’s risky business and nobody ever told me that making a living while selling art would be easy, because it is not. The hours are long, requiring self-discipline and the knack for solving problems on the fly. I have often said that I have met the most interesting people on the road while doing art fairs, and some of the smartest people as well. As a group, we are some of the best read, and most innovative capitalists in the workforce. I cannot help but think that most of my artist friends could have chosen to become doctors, lawyers, engineers or teachers if that had been what first tripped their trigger. It certainly was not about the money, though I have made a decent middle class living and own a nice home in the suburbs with the mortgage nearing payout. So, why did I find myself dedicated to traveling town-to-town, state-to-state in search of the holy grail of art shows? The rewards are many, though not always fully appreciated by those who do not experience this lifestyle for themselves.
People measure success in different ways.
I will never be at the top of the fortune five hundred, but I consider myself a very rich man. I have experienced and seen things in my travels that I would not trade for any amount of riches. As a traveling artist I can plan a schedule that links business with pleasure. Each summer I personally make time to fly fish in between shows and plan the art fairs that I participate in around the finest fly fishing the lower forty-eight has to offer. I have another artist friend who has made it his life’s mission to visit and explore the best hot springs throughout the West. The world is our oyster. Aside from enjoying the travel, there is a certain satisfaction that comes from doing it my way. I am my own boss and I wake up each morning knowing that life is what I make it.
Never lose track of the fact that selling art for a living is a business. It requires a degree of marketing and business acumen. ZAPPlication has made much of this easier for me. Researching shows and their individual requirements is now at my fingertips. I began doing shows when a local jury looked at photographs or held up slides that were sent snail mail. Today we can easily store digital images in one place that are sent for jury with the stroke of a key. While this has made things a bit easier for the artist, it has also made things more competitive when it comes to entering and getting into shows. I feel that competition is a good thing. Shows have become better in quality which translates into a much more educated buying public. Because the cream generally rises to the top, fine art shows now compete directly with art galleries for savvy art-buying customers. As a painter, I have made a conscious decision to sell and market my artwork at art fairs rather than selling primarily through galleries. This is a choice that I made long ago. I like meeting my buyers personally and dealing with the business side of selling art. There is a certain satisfaction that comes with selling direct to the public. I like to think of it as living to paint another day.
Stephenson in his booth with a few of his works.
There is little doubt in my mind that shows will continue to evolve. They always have. Whether they improve or fall into the abyss is as much up to the individual artists that participate as it is to the directors who organize the events. It is up to each and every one of us to set the bar high and realize that it is not only “art for art’s sake,” but also a business. Without the business side of things there would be no “living to paint another day.” I would encourage any youthful talent contemplating about joining our ranks to take the challenge and carry our banner forward. The rewards are many.
Having come of age in the 1960’s, one of my idols was Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol once said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and good business is the best art.”
–By Larry Stephenson
A native Oklahoman, Larry makes his home in Andover, Kansas with his wife and two Labrador Retrievers. His favorite pastime is fly fishing, a sport he was first introduced to by another artist. Larry is a five-time award winner in Watercolor USA Exhibitions. He is an elected signature member of the American Watercolor Society. Larry graduated with a BA in art from the University of Central Oklahoma in 1972. You may visit his watercolor painting at www.LStephenson.com and see his new digitally created direct-to-disk images and show schedule at www.LarryStephenson.org.