The Last Season
I feel like I’ve waited 15 years for it to be Spring. Sigh. This winter was longer, it seemed to me, but I don’t track these things officially.
So, does anyone think the colors are off on my artwork?
I mean, I know, you read that and think, “How would I know what the colors look like to you?” But, I looked at my website on my daughter’s computer just now and the color, everything really looks different. I’ve checked my website on my laptop, tablet, and tv over the years and everything checks out. So, you can imagine finding out my colors have been “off” all this time would be staggering to me.
All this time.
It’s really been a long time now that I’ve been working on painting. I won’t go all in about the minutia of this and that, but I will say this journey’s been all uphill — 80% or more of the time I’m still struggling with my brushwork, 11% of the time I’m still battling color mixing, calculating for acrylic color shift that doesn’t happen until the day after the painting is finished, and the remaining 9% of my creative time is still spent waging an ongoing war of picking out exactly what I want to paint.
And, just when the tightness in my chest had started to relax and I thought, “I think I’m finally getting a little better with my painting,” this is 1, 2, 3, 4…13 years after I started painting, I’ve hit that horrendous financial wall almost every artist everywhere hits, sometimes multiple times, sometimes sporadically, or sometimes continuously like in the game, Pong, when the square ‘dot’ gets stuck in the corner and the sound it makes goes from a single ping to a continuous, stuttering drone.
I have no more money.
This is probably the point I should type out a quick good-bye, hang up the paint towel, and figure out how to refresh my dormant resume, if only to prevent the edema I’d get from standing at the easel typing out a long post airing out my thoughts…all because of my not wanting to let go, let alone having to say, while facing the end, the end.
Of course, there’s a million things I would still like to do, and wished I’d done differently, or never done at all. But, everything boils down to one result. No one’s bought any of my artwork. I’ve worked hard to sell my heart out all these years, but it never happened for me. Not once in 13 years of painting has someone ever bought anything whatsoever to do with my paintings. And, I really have no more money.
So, maybe my colors are off?
I know, it’s uncomfortable to read about this on an unknown artist’s website. It’s considered irrefutable by society that artists are always broke unless they’re instafamous or have celebrities or spouses who take care of them. I’m also told that talking isn’t necessary, I need to ‘raise money’ at a real job, and when I come back to painting ‘one day’ no one will have noticed my absence because painting isn’t a job, and it doesn’t earn an income, and no one cares what the hell I’m doing. Tree. Fall. Forest. Quiet.
“So,” my daughter said to me, resting her forearm on her desk while she leaned all the way back in her desk chair, “your only visitors are bots that come to your website, download your artwork to their servers, then leave. None of them ever buy anything.” Yes, I stammered, my eyes widening. I’d been elated to have web traffic other than my own, but now I was crushed.
Why is that? Why are some artists able to sell their art and others aren’t. Why is it so stressful for some and so rewarding for others? I’ve shared my art throughout my development as a painter to prevent establishing the thinking that I had to reach a ‘level’ or wait until I was comfortable to start sharing and selling my artwork. I’m not part of the Art world, I have no aspirations to try to raise the level of my art to sell millions in the secondary market. Just the thought makes me guffaw. I want to be able to paint pictures well and I want to do that by developing an instinct to create rather than rely on something as unreliable as inspiration or by following a ‘formula’ for making art that sells fast…
So, I’ve been sharing my artwork online for over a decade and thought something would sell; and nothing has ever sold. With no traction whatsoever on social media, or anywhere else. I was floored Facebook disabled my profile SIX hours after I created it, while I was setting it up. I thought, everybody’s a critic.
Do people search for me? Do they know to do a web search for ‘Ann Mi. St. Louis artist’? Or, do they give up like I used to do when search results for Ann Mi. turn up pervasively for a town in the northern state I wouldn’t dare keyword here. Not even the other Ann Mi, the one that owns the .com domain can be found easily. Google search lost me. Yet, I’ve continued painting and sharing my artwork because I genuinely paint. This isn’t something I just do for the internet, or because there is an internet. I actually paint. Mechanics work on cars. Sommeliers drink wine. Does this make sense, or do I just sound…bitter?
When someone I know comments about my pricing being too high, I want to blurt out that I keep paying shipping on top of retail, but I don’t think anyone understands that and puts everything together — when art doesn’t sell paying retail plus $6-$9 shipping for the materials to create with is one thing, but then paying retail for prints plus $8-$13 shipping and retail for custom framing plus $9-$50+ shipping is not a ‘rewarding’ part of the process, it’s a soul-sucking and expensive expense that is only affordable for artwork that sells. So, when my artwork doesn’t sell, the cost of making art over thirteen years time becomes overwhelming, not just financially, but emotionally, as well.
Unfortunately, I don’t just buy all my art supplies at retail art store prices then go off to a corner and paint wildly successful pictures of cats and sunsets while counting out my stacks of ‘rip-off’ money. I look over my shoulder at the barely used medium format printer I can’t sell because the manufacturer discontinued making ink for it.
I’m struck that people still think buying materials are the gambling part of what artists do, not the value part of ownership, and are still willingly undervaluing art.
I know. It’s uncomfortable. I shouldn’t air this all out, here or anywhere; but I will.
There’s much more to working as an artist than creating art, at least online — I know that for sure. Learn WordPress, I had to learn how to make a nice WordPress Portfolio theme with a catalog, too, because back then WordPress was essentially about running a blog and creating content, not displaying multiple or fullscreen imagery on a single page, or running an ecommerce site — so I had to research and learn about code for building in ecommerce or decide if I should just use PayPal’s individual buy now buttons for my 82+ items because they wrote the code for you and were easier to make than figuring out databases and what code went where — and Woocommerce didn’t exist back then.
But, there were the marketplaces for anyone who didn’t want the hassle of auctions, or learning to code or use PayPal buttons, etc. I signed up with Etsy, 1000 Markets, Art.com’s Artist Rising, and Imagekind, but as every other artist out there has done I researched all of the others, too, weighing their pros and cons.
By the time Jigoshop, I think it was called, became Woocommerce I stopped coding my own themes and bought a premium theme that I customized myself. Woocommerce looked essentially the same then as now, but it’s a more stable and ‘mature’ plugin now, full of facets coded in over time. But, back then, it was…still so much more extensive and robust than anything else out there — it did databases for you, and to be a free plugin? Mind blowing, game changing for understanding and implementing ecommerce on a much broader scale across thousands of WordPress installations, including mine, at a less complicated, entry level.
So, taking the above into consideration, the learning curve of being online wasn’t ever extreme, simply a slow process of development as the essential tools are developed, too. But, it wasn’t ever overnight implementation, either, it was hours, and days, and months and years of doing a finite amount of web and design work and then creating artwork, too, trying to push forward and balance everything all at once — for years. Thankfully, I learned Lightroom early on as a beta tester so teamed with my Photoshop skills learned in school I could develop a good workflow early on.
Did I spend too much time on the web and design? I don’t know. Not enough? The amount of time put toward doing all of this was crazy, so crazy. None of my paintings ever sold.
I’ve been introduced as ‘still unemployed’ and ‘unable to find work’ with a subtle, ‘she doesn’t want to work,’ thrown in throughout…
Why didn’t I quit sooner? I can’t tell you how many times I thought quitting was the answer I needed to make my life not just better, but beautiful. Easy. I kept telling myself to push through the barriers, though, that I was getting through the challenges and becoming stronger and better over time. And, I kept myself motivated by painting a picture and saying this painting would look good with this one from last year, or this painting needs to be hung in a kitchen, or these two belong on the entry wall space, or this one should look good by a marble vanity. If I painted a hundred paintings, then I’d have created a hundred reasons why someone out there would want to buy one of them for themselves.
Why are some artists able to sell their art? No, it’s not that their art is ‘better’ or more ‘legit’ or ‘worth’ more, or maybe it is at this point, but it seems to come down to one thing — the people the artist shares their artwork with and how they value art, the artist, and the process of making the artwork.
I’ve learned the obvious: not sharing art with people who want free artwork on their walls to brag about getting free artwork — especially artwork given to them by the artist; and saying no to anyone who thinks that a custom framed, original painting is equivalent of a couple bucks; and resisting anyone’s opinion or advice that the struggle to learn to master anything that’s challenging and difficult isn’t actual, real, or unbelievably stressful work, or that it isn’t significant to you, or that you’re not allowed to take time to work for what you want, or to go where you want to go so you can get to where you want to be…
Because who on Earth doesn’t know that just telling the universe to make stuff happen doesn’t make stuff happen. As if. If telling the universe anything actually willed it to happen, at the very least my bills would all be paid off, and I’d already be the smartest, most capable human being ever to walk on land because I’d read all the books I’ve saved to all my reading wishlists. [What’s the best invention for humanity? Apps that let you check out digital library books wherever you are, whenever you can!] And, on the subject of willing the universe for something to happen, I don’t think I need to list all the social changes that we’ve needed to have changed or those ‘delicate’ changes that more than a quarter of humanity would have willed for themselves to have happened by now, too. It’s not just artists out here in the æther trying to will good things from the universe to happen!
When were the great things that happen to us so easily achieved?
Despite there being ‘plenty’ and ‘more than enough to go around’ in our modern world, it’s not my imagination every odd is against beginning, specifically, in the field of arts, let alone succeeding. Because art is looked at as a privilege rather than a vocation in much of the world. Little is known about creativity, I think. About having something fleeting like a thought or idea, and then taking all the necessary steps to create, build, develop, make or realize that thought or idea, often times doing all of that work, the process, alone. Do that. That’s one rep, lol. Do 600 sets of 100 reps.
What was it that I read Elon Musk had said? That he didn’t want to hear ideas for things to make, he wanted to hear what their plans are to make them.
Artists can make things happen.
But, rarely do people want artists to stay in the studio and succeed, especially if these artists are not strangers, but are people they know, or are related to, or have gone to school with, etc. And, not so disingenuously, those who do want artists to succeed (and who are trustworthy about it) are the same people who buy and support art, encourage artists, and do the most good for the potential of art.
A lot of people look at buying art valued below a hundred million as a financial risk, an investment in ‘goodbye’ dollars. How do we manage financial risk? Most of us have to buy insurance against the risk of paying thousands out, right, but that’s for things like cars and medical costs. You can’t purchase insurance against losing or not making a profit from an investment. And, somehow, the more accessible art becomes the distance grows greater between two polar assumptions, either setting a low value on works of art to prevent new work from selling and becoming a necessary part of the art market via process, or, on the other end, making art seem to have an investment risk in the multi-millions of dollars to devalue accessibility and increase the value of the investment. This measurement often makes spending $900 on a couple of little framed paintings hung side-by-side over the bed or spending very little to see a really obscure independent film created from hours of home video (I mean, really obscure, shown in a gymnasium and voiced over live by the filmmaker — winks to those who ♥ this filmmaker and his work) seem too much to risk, as if it’s become a risk of ownership rather than enjoyment.
Does art need to create or provide access for it to be needed, or valuable?
We don’t hear people lose it after dropping $900 or more on their smartphones and service each year, or a couple grand on a laptop and internet, or several hundred to several thousand every two to three years on a tv with digital cable, hundreds on the dvr plus streaming, or just a car my phone can connect to, you know, with Bluetooth, one will say, or just a watch — a nice one — for work, because few of us in the free world can resist the ‘potential’ of technology, especially now. Most of us, if we’re honest can admit to having increased our technology spending ceiling 1000’s of times over what we spent or were willing to spend 10 years ago, or even five years ago.
How much is your technology spending limit for this year? No, not to share, just to keep in mind while you’re thinking about your investments and wondering when buying better technology became one of the food, shelter, water, and clothing essentials.
But, even in technology there are plenty of examples where a small selection of manufacturers are able to sell far more easily and at greater appeal to the masses than an unknown maker even when the technology is the same, such as with Bluetooth adapters. That, notwithstanding, if you ask the people around you, or simply sit in your chair and look online at YouTube reviews or sift through the trove of social media bling, you’ll easily come across people still buying expensive tech products they know will break to either say they bought it or that they got ‘x’ when it first came out, whether it’s for the story or for the item itself. Yet, rarely do we find people just as willingly investing in an artist who’s begun making or releasing art. Because when asked plainly if they invest in art, people most commonly reply, “What, real art? I can’t afford it,” or “I want to, but I can’t afford it,” or “No, I don’t have the space to hang art.” And, renters are quick to reply without thinking, “Oh, we rent, we can’t put anything on the walls or else we’d lose our deposit.” And, when asked, each assumed investing in art equaled buying an over-sized painting by artists like Rothko, Damian Hirst, Thomas Kinkade, or Dali, or other popular artists or celebrity, including those made famous on social media, even when they are hardcore fans of other types of art, including street art, ballet, or handmade, one-of-a-kind books.
Rarer, still, has anyone set an annual investment budget of at least the cost of the average smartphone with annual service plan ($600 or more) for purchasing any type of art, for pleasure or for commodity, and not just fine art purchases like installations, sculpture, paintings or photographs, videos or plays, but also pop music and movies, too — and these are two incredibly successful industries that can afford to support a vast amount of original creators, an amount far more mind-boggling than they currently work with, simply by releasing new work from a diverse group of makers on an almost continuous, streaming, or daily basis to an appreciative public and private fan base. Yet, these two industries, dependents of the curated arts, are still rigged with a pervasive desolation that makes it impossible for the majority of creators to earn an income and publicly release their work, creators who will largely remain unknown despite having something to contribute.
When looking back to our era in history, there are a lot of superhero stories, which are great works of art, too! But, we live in an era where a lot of art is edited out, marginalized, ignored because it isn’t what the public wants to buy en masse, along with buying the smartphone and cell plan, for instance. Which hurts, not just because it’s artists through media, gesture, rhythm and story who often remind us to — hello! — let go and stop taking ourselves and our setbacks so seriously, but that art/life is more complicated and more valuable than the amount of money or credit anyone has or can earn. And, that by letting others decide who is and isn’t allowed to be a creator, a tide of story, large parts of our lives, how we lived them and through them are no longer prioritized as having value and worth sharing.
Of course, I’m not pointing a finger. I’m taking what feels like my last chance to say what I feel before the chance is gone. None of this directly explains or is the reason why my artwork never sold. Although I had been prepared to go the long haul, I think the reason I never sold art was that no one ever needed me to, wanted what I worked on, or cared about what I worked for. The art I made became more about being alone, taking risks, and growth, and maybe that made my art more right for me than for others.
I’ve reread and rewritten this dozens of times, and so I realize my words, or my tone throughout this article have the indelicate tinge of, ‘I desperately need money for my art,’ ring to them. I’d like to think that I don’t just need money, but that I worked for it, that I invest with it, and that only now when I stop making art have I become a lost part of our economy.
And, I’m not ashamed I don’t treat my artwork as a gift or an experience meant to give away and share to help others, or ashamed I made my art into a tangible item with a monetary value — or ashamed to point out that I set a value that only just barely allows me to continue, and yet, ironically, it’s still unachievable for me.
Nobody ever drives away from the gas station yelling, “Sell out!!!!” Or, walks into the grocery store, sneering, “Well, look at this palace.”
Yes, now it seems like I’ve reached the end. I’m slow to let go, though. I’d like to, if possible, keep working privately, just keep going. I can’t help feeling bitter, resistant to knocking down my studio equipment, packing everything I worked for away, while having to accept the bold outcome that never once in thirteen years did I paint a picture anyone bought.
The birds still call outside, although the sun sits behind a thick layer of clouds and will never shine through today. It’s always humbling, the thought that right now, somewhere in this very same city as me, there is
a composer struggling to record the sounds of today into their conscious mind;
a writer whose story turned somber after writing an overcast sky into their paragraph;
a quilter who sat a little closer to the fire all afternoon, appreciating it for it’s light and warmth;
a chef who mastered souffle long ago, and who now looks into his refrigerator for the ingredients that will celebrate a late afternoon sky filled with cold, dense atmosphere;
a fashion design student who discovered the best cold gray to use in their final project;
an urban sketcher whose unzipped anorak jacket leaves them room to move their arm across the pages of their sketchbook, despite the breeze coming up from the cold, muddy river beside them;
a team of aspiring screenwriters are ready to take their coffee break, and stretch their legs out, and let their eyes blink while they work the story around a little more among each other;
a dancer stretches tight muscles, preparing for the busiest night of the week;
an actor rehearses lines with their cat, walking back and forth as they emulate the mannerisms of their fourth grade teacher, the stare of the dental assistant from three years ago, the intensity of a hockey player about to take a shot, and the indifference of the woman who stood in front of them in the elevator last night, slowly building a character for Monday’s audition ;
a sculptor walks away, rubbing the arthritis in the joints of their fingers as they think about warming parts of the cold clay;
and, me, too…a painter until Monday, tapped out and reeling in, I guess, the pain of self-righteousness right now knowing that my plans won’t work out, moving around like everyone else on the planet who compulsively shows up, spends their time consciously unraveling, making and working despite the worry and the uncertainty of their world.
Do you ever stop on a moment and wonder about what’s going on outside the window, like that?
I’m wondering right now how I distill how I feel and what I’ve been going through. And, how I will choose to apply all this toward the rest of what I do from this point on. It’s still too early to stress.
At the very least, I hope this new beginning is filled with the sweet success of making a living from the work I do, working less and way better hours, and finally taking time off and having a vacation…
No matter what I did, it always seemed possible — just out of reach.
**** I know, I’ve edited my thoughts to death, but I needed to fill in some background without making the whole thing sound horrible and bitter and lose it’s and my original point. That point being that I don’t want to quit painting when I’ve gone through so much already. I hope I can learn from this setback of letting go to establish a foundation I can still create from, if only privately.