Festival Network Online Newsletter
June - 2002
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A note from the editor.....
Whether it's arts, crafts, music or food - no matter what we sell at festivals we all encounter many of the same experiences. Here's an article from a fellow gypsy that will give you a chuckle, and help you remember that you're not alone in this crazy life of show biz.
As always, keep on - keeping on. Diane :-)
I Was an Outdoor Art Festival Artist:
A look into the twilight-zoney world of outdoor shows
By Dana Lise Shavin
When I was a teenager, I went to every installment of the Piedmont Arts Festival in Atlanta. Every year there was something new in the way of fine and funky artwork, but every year I was most entranced by the same old thing: the artists themselves. From their outlandish dress to their odd behavior, they were works in progress with ever-changing form and function. They wore long flowing linen sets that made them look like gurus, dangling unkempt beards and braided hair, multi-strap sandals and beads, bikini tops and dance clothes. Some perched in tall chairs and watched us file past, some read studiously from thick paperbacks, and at lunchtime they all ate mysterious-looking food, dipping furtively in and out of an assortment of plastic bags and Tupperware. Some even left their booths to stand in the middle of the surging crowds. It was at this festival that I had a vision of my future life: I wanted to eat mysterious food from a variety of surfaces. I wanted to sway to the rhythm of a surging, pulsating crowd. I wanted to perch in a tall chair next to things I had made and tuck money into a low-slung fanny pack. I wanted to be an Outdoor Artist.
And in my thirties, I became one. But I've learned a thing or two since my days as a spectator - namely that art shows aren't for the faint of heart. What looks on the outside like a life of creative ease, like funky clothes on sunny days, like fast money in leather belts, is just a facade. Beneath the facade lie days of physical, emotional, and sometimes even spiritual drama that can nearly kill an artist in the unfolding. Stories of poor sales, poor treatment by show promoters, inclement weather, hostile customers, and wild children abound. These aren't the things you think about when you are young and your one desire is to dress strangely and receive your buying public. They are ALL you think about once you've done a few shows and you're headed off for another.
As a teenager I only went to the Piedmont Art Festival when the skies were bright and the temperature pleasant, so I didn't think about the artists who were there when the skies were black and the temperature plunged. The artist in the tie-dyed bikini top takes on a different glow in forty-degree weather, dodging the rain running off her tent and working to keep her paper bags from blowing away. I once spent an entire day at a show hanging from my own tent pole to keep my booth from levitating. As I hung there, the flap from the other side blew into my shelves and tilted them forward, spilling six meticulously hand-painted pots onto the asphalt with a resounding shatter. It was a low moment, but not as low as the next year at the same show, when I spent another wind-blown day in freezing weather dangling from my tent pole and watching an ambulance rush away with three people crushed by the weight of a tree that had fallen on their booths. These are the extremes, of course, but extremes are the norm at art shows.
At a show in a happening neighborhood in Atlanta, a friend found himself assigned to a booth space in front of a house belonging to a couple who took a profound interest in monkey grass. Just as the show was getting underway, the couple flew from their house and into his booth.
"You stepped on the monkey grass!" they said excitedly.
"What monkey grass?" he said.
"THAT monkey grass!" they said, pointing an accusing finger at the greenery in question. One square foot of monkey grass stood perkily, obviously untrampled. Nevertheless our friend agreed to be more careful. Ten minutes later the couple flew from their house.
"You stepped on the monkey grass again!" they said. "Move your booth!"
"I can't move my booth!" said our friend, "And I haven't been near the monkey grass!"
"You can't leave the inside of your booth, then," commanded the Artist Police.
The next morning they were pecking around his booth like chickens.
"Are these your cigarette butts?" they wanted to know. He assured them they were not. "We found eight," they said in unison. "Two were in the monkey grass!"
Meanwhile, down the street, another artist friend found herself adopted by the residents of the house behind her booth. She had bathroom and kitchen privileges, and even an invitation to dinner. She drank fresh ice water lavishly, ate home baked goods, and urinated gleefully in a toilet not made of molded plastic. It was like the difference between living in a war-torn country and riding down the street as Queen Mother on her birthday.
Bad weather and inclement people aren't the only challenges an Outdoor Artist faces. There is the simple phenomenon of the Bad Show. The Bad Show comes under many guises. Sometimes it masquerades as The Good Show, or at the very least, the Worth Doing Show, but an hour into the doing of it, you know, unmistakably, that it is The Bad Show. The Bad Show can be bad for many reasons. It can be a show where customers combine their refusal to buy with a refusal to make eye contact. Or where the weather and your menstrual cycle collude to make you look and feel like you've been living in a tent eating monkey grass for the last seven years of your life. It can be a show where you have mined your creative depths to present work that embodies your pinnacle artistic self only to find that the booth beside you is selling bird houses made out of recycled lint and they can't keep them in stock. That particular show activated a dormant insanity gene in my brain whereby, on the way home, I became convinced that my teeth were dying, and no amount of reassurance could make me believe otherwise.
I once drove eight hours to do a show in Florida, which promised $10,000 in corporate sponsorship. It turned out the show was held in the parking lot of a tiny, impoverished community center and even the corporate sponsors didn't show up to spend the money they had committed. It rained for both days of this show but fortunately for the artists in the booth beside me, the demand for funny animals made of machinery parts is huge, and we watched reverently as they sold approximately $8,000 worth of merchandise. At one point, after I had purchased my own railroad-tie praying mantis, I invited the artist to stand under my tent to get out of the torrential rain. She gratefully took cover and proceeded to conduct business from my booth. My own merchandise went unnoticed as her customers jockeyed for elbowroom.
In our haste to pack up before an approaching tornado hit, I lost my grip on the zipper of my tent bag and plunged my own thumbnail deep into the recesses of my eye, causing it to erupt. Soaking wet and bloody, I ran to the bathroom to change clothes. In the process I left behind the only pair of sandals I ever really cared about, and several vials of retinal blood that in my quiet moments I still miss. As we sped away from the show I looked back through the haze of my fogged glasses and one functioning eye and in the flashes of lightning I could see our artist neighbor still conducting sales from the back of his pickup truck. I would have cried, but the tears stung the gash and so I rode home sullenly, periodically checking to see whether vision had returned to the eye. A Bad Show indeed.
So the next time you pack up for a festival, remember: whether it is a Good Show or a Bad Show, if you are in it, it is Your Show. And when the monkey grass wilts, and the buying public ignores you, remind yourself that at some point you had a vision, and that vision sustained you. If you aren't swayed by the occasional Bad Show, the occasional Bad Show won't sway you. On to the next Good Show!
Dana Lise Shavin
Dana joined the art show circuit in 1996 with her pottery and paintings.
Her website is Barkinghorse.com, and you can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Diane Elliott Bruckner
Diane@festivalnet.com - www.dianebruckner.com
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