“When we are in Charleston, you HAVE to see the Rhett-Aiken house” a coworker of mine insisted. So when I arrived in Charleston for business a day early, I found the directions to the house, slung my camera backpack over my shoulder, and headed out into the great city of Charleston ready for this adventure. The house was only a mile away, I’d walk it.
About four or five blocks into my walk I happened upon the Citadel Square Park (I think that’s what it was called). It was full of white tents full of art. What was even better is the fact that the show had just opened for the day, business was slow, so the artists had time to talk.
I saw Peggy sitting under an umbrella outside of her booth, and stopped to ask about the show. I ended up talking to her and her friends for a over an hour. I’m sad to say I didn’t make it to the Rhett-Aiken house, but I’m pleased to say that I met some terrific people that gave me a flavor for the Charleston area.
Peggy specializes in nudes. She says people ask her all the time how long it takes her to create a painting that sells for between $500 and $800. She pauses and smiles sadly, shaking her head. I can tell this question frustrates her. She looks back up at me and says “It took me 35 years to paint every one of them”. In essence, people that ask that are trying to take a lifetime of passion and experience and boil it down to “how much are you making an hour”. Maybe it’s unreasonable, but to an artist who loves what comes out of them, that kind of bean-counting hurts.
She told me many stories from her life – how her world had been torn apart by hurricanes, and she rebuilt each time. She doesn’t make enough to support herself through her art, so she rents rooms to Boeing engineers. She likes them, she says, because they make good money and they are quiet. That made me smile.
She wasn’t having a good time at the show. Her work isn’t selling as well as those in the booths around her. She points to a booth that is still closed – says she watches people come out of that booth carrying three or four pieces of work – the proprietor is a showman, a salesman extraordinaire. He’ll offer one for free if you buy just one more at half price. He’s stacking it deep and selling it cheap.
It’s painful for Peggy, I can see it in her eyes. She loves her work – she wouldn’t do it otherwise. But she’s only sold two pieces since she’s been here, and I think she’s given up selling any more. It’s like some sort of judgement on her work – I mention that she’s probably not reaching her true demographic here and she agrees. She finds that I’m in marketing. She asks me to help her – help her see a better way to market her work. That’s a question that is larger than the short time she and I will spend together.
I feel her pain. I “sold out” long ago. Went straight to the companies with the big money for marketing and produced “artwork” for them. I’d pour my soul into work that they would discard for something with 1/3 as much heart – or worse – sometimes just hire me to be a button-pusher. I’ve had clients tell me if they knew how to run the software they wouldn’t even be there, they had all the creative vision they needed, I was there to simply execute.
In my world it’s always seemed to be one of two extremes. The first is a project with a huge budget, but all the creative was already done. I was there to simply execute. But boy I could pay the bills. The second kind of project are the ones where there is no budget at all – they are grateful for anything they get – and I can pour my heart and creativity into them and make them my own.
I love the second kind best. It’s always been a struggle for me to balance between those two clients. I’ve never seemed to be able to put a big budget together with someone trusting me to do the right thing on their project… hmmm. Now that I type that I realize that’s not quite true. I find that as I reflect on my freelance career I learn more about myself with each passing day…
So all of these kinds of issues flooded through my head as I was talking to Peggy. She was starting to think the same thing – maybe it was time to paint things that people wanted to buy, instead of the things that she was passionate about. Such a sad thing to consider…
One of her friends owns a sailboat. He and Peggy are in the early planning stages of an epic voyage down the coast to the Caribbean. He will sail, she will paint, they will stop at various ports to sell her work. There’s lots of planning ahead, but Peggy thinks watercolors of beautiful beaches will sell better than her nudes – and she’ll be painting them in new and interesting places…
She wondered out loud about “selling out”, about “pandering to the masses”. While she wrestles with those weightier issues there’s the care of a home that she’s rebuilt from hurricane wreckage, there’s the engineers renting rooms from her, there’s a lot to consider before simply sailing away.