We went to lunch today at the very posh and extravagant New Orleans restaurant Commanders Palace. While my partner spent a great deal of his life in high quality restaurants, I have not. At 50 years old I've had very little experience with places such as this. If you asked me if I'd like the Duck Confit, I'd want to know why the duck deserved any comfort at all (yeah only certain people will get that joke). We laugh off my lack of knowledge of the finer things in life. I fake it well and I always let him order for me so I don't mess up the pronunciations.
I am not refined, But while I take a light hearted approach to such things I got thinking while I ate my roasted pear soup that this is a deeper issue. There are a lot of artists out there that are neither good at small talk, or comfortable in a high class situation. Some can bluff their way through it, but its not easy for some.
I cast my mind back to a friend I once had who was a glass artist. His work was so successful that by the time he was 25 years old he was being asked to do a show in a top New York City gallery. I remember him telling me that it ended his career because he was so totally unprepared to handle it. His self esteem crashed and burned and he never even made it to his own opening. He fled from art and the artists life for many years because he didn't think he fit in with the kind of people that would be at an opening for his own work.
It made me think of about my own discomfort in something as simple as a 4 star restaurant. Could I handle the pressure of being a top artist? Could I handle the rock star life that many hugely popular artists end up within?
It seemed a silly line of thought to be honest. When I look around my small studio and the works that I create and try to project that kind of a life and how I would handle it, it seems rather a fruitless thing to dwell on.
But I am not writing this to salve my own ego. I am writing it to give perspective to artists who may very well be facing this in their futures and may have a few fears about how they would handle it.
Being cast in the spotlight is never an easy thing. But to be a successful artist it is sometimes very necessary. I had a well known gallery owner tell me once that he chose his artists not just on their work but on how they would handle the pressure. The more trouble an individual artist is, the less he wanted to work with them.
Is this a good attitude to have? No, I don't think it is. I think an artist should always be judged on their work and because they are socially awkward. But this is the reality we live in as artists and it is something we have to consider.
It is likely that 99% of those reading this will never even have to worry about such things and that is sort of sad. But it is something that we should be prepared for.
If we really want our work taken seriously we need to make sure we are taken seriously also.
How we dress, how we act, how we answer questions, how we look from across a room. They all seem like pretty frivolous issues. To me personally I want to concentrate all my efforts on the form of my art, the color of my art, the impact of my art. In fact my typical uniform in studio is a tshirt and a pair of pajama pants. I want my body to be lose and as unencumbered as possible. I want all issues of the body set aside so my total focus is on my work.
And perhaps therein lies part of the answer of how I would handle a show. No I am not suggesting going to your opening in a tshirt and pajama pants. But I am suggesting that the need to be as unencumbered in spirit is a key to success.
Sure I will dress nicely because I believe that a rock star mentality is sort of necessary to become well known. I admit I want eyes on me when I walk in the room.
I did a RAW show a few years back (which I would never do again, but thats a story for another day). There were at least 30 other artists on display at this show and I took note that when I walked around to see the other artists work, it was nearly impossible to figure out who was the artist and who were the attendees of the show. I on the other hand was wearing ...well you can see in the photo below.
I didn't dress for success. I dressed to stand out. I wanted people to know instantly that I was the artist. It took no savvy to do so. I didn't worry about small talk. I stayed as lose as I could and stayed near my art.
A lot of visitors asked to not only photograph my art but to get photos taken with me. This said something about how I should handle future shows. In my own brain I was still wearing a tshirt and pajama pants though.
It occurs to me that I might be sending mixed signals here. One minute you say "be yourself!" The next minute you say "Be a Rock Star"!
I guess what I am saying is that it is possible to be both and still be yourself. There are some common sense steps you can take to present yourself in the best way possible and still retain your standards and stay relaxed and even enjoy your own opening.
Make yourself part of the art. Let me give you an example. I have a show coming up in March of 2016 with several other talented artists. I could just stand around, answer questions and do the douchy things expected of an artist at an opening. I know for a fact I will be miserable and uncomfortable just standing around for several hours.
So I am taking steps to make myself part of the art. I am going to bring in a naked model and I am going to paint them while the show is taking place. This will keep my hands occupied and give the audience a chance to see something a bit more unique than the artist standing around trying to look impressive. I may even dress the part arriving in a paint spattered doctors smock with paint brushes sticking out the pocket.
But I am making myself part of my art. I am creating some great photo ops for visitors. I am titillating the audience with a bit of nudity and most important I am keeping myself comfortable because I am doing what I do best.
The key to a successful show that doesn't destroy your mind is to not be someone else, but to still be yourself while giving the audience something to remember you by.
While some of you may be perfectly content standing and meeting guests at your show, consider if you will whether people will come away remembering both you and your art and work towards a way to make both happen while still keeping your integrity and your own peace of mind. It can be done.