February 2, 2010

5" x 7"
oil on canvas
$500 (Until Feb. 14, 2010, $250 to Partners In Health for Haiti Relief)

How I Make My Living

This week I received a letter from President Obama congratulating me for having been awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Award. Included with the letter were two certificates – one for the Award and the other an acknowledgement from the National Park Service for 200 volunteer hours.

All of this came as a surprise to me. Who knew being given the opportunity to live in a picturesque, historic farmhouse in the middle of Sleeping Bear Dunes would result in such accolades? Having been chosen among many national applicants was honor enough for me. Plus, I had the time of my life painting in this gorgeous landscape. I worked hard. I aimed to give as good as I got and had a number of satisfactory paintings to show for it.

The President’s letter came after a busy week in which I held an Open Studio in my Vieques, PR location. I displayed my new work with recession pricing and a promise to donate 50% of proceeds to Partners In Heath for Haiti disaster medical relief. Lots of folks came and I’ve written a check for $1000 for the cause.

In addition to my portion of the sales, I not only had the satisfaction of showing my paintings to an admiring audience but also picked up some new art students. In fact, I’m starting to teach a lot!

It’s a good thing too. I learn a lot by articulating what I’ve learned from 7 years of painting hundreds of canvases. And my students have the opportunity to understand the work of art. After her lesson yesterday, one of them exclaimed -– as the realization was striking her for the first time – “You do this for your living, don’t you?!”

Most artists will tell you that they must make art. It’s not an option; it’s an obligation, albeit a sweet one. We paint because it’s our job, our employment in a universal sense of the word. We work to give our perception of beauty to the world.

But it’s work, not simply “fun”, to make art. Granted, it’s enjoyable work. But it is work nonetheless. At the end of the day, I am tired just like anyone else who puts in a day’s labor.

Work begs some form of compensation. For artists, this often comes in the form of the appreciative “ooohs and aaahs.” For some there are certificates of merit. And, yes -- the form of compensation that tends to be of greatest use - necessary funds. Artists first do what they must but working artists definitely aspire to be paid for at least some of what they accomplish.

Once I was asked how long it took me to complete a particular piece that was priced at $1000. As I seem to be incapable of deception (and have a certain pride in my ability to paint quickly), I told him about 4 hours. He walked off in a huff, after letting me know I was "lucky" to charge $250/hour for having fun using my God-given talent. Of course, he had no idea of the amount of time that went into preparing to make that painting. Or of the number of perfectly wonderful paintings I’d make (including that one) that would take several years to sell. It’s tough to get folks to understand that artists want to eat too.

(I made a lot more money as a minister depending on the donations of my congregants! People would pay $125/hour for my mentoring services! Some were mad at me when I stopped speaking publicly – it was my choice to stop earning money in that way.)

I’m sensing that more reliable income may be generated by teaching than selling, at least at this stage in my art career. Art is still considered a luxury for many people and in a tight economy, many will forgo the pleasure of a painting. However, I still eat food that costs money.

No matter. On behalf of my paintings, I try not to take it personally that all of my beauties don’t sell immediately, that people find it easier to pay me for my words than these images. I’m willing to start afresh -- I love teaching art almost as much as painting. Both are how I live now and how I make my living. And, regardless of the rewards, it turns out the real living is in the giving. That thousand bucks is going to buy a lot of medicine in Haiti.

No comments: