Except for a six years when I was a college English teacher I have always been involved in making and selling art in one way or another. Sometimes the selling was at big city wholesale shows and sometimes it was at street fairs. Some of these shows were high class affairs and others were just a few booths in a small town park. So I spent a lot of my life on the street selling art. That made for kind of a different kind of life, but it was a good life and one I would never have traded for anything else. And it makes for some good stories.
I was a landscape photographer for about twenty years beginning in 1990. I took pictures of the great landscapes of the American west and sold them at high end art shows and on the internet. I did that for about twenty years.
Before I was a photographer, my wife and I were potters for over 25 years. We made wheel-thrown stoneware pottery that we sold at art shows all the way from Phoenix to Kansas City.
We fell into all this in the early 1970s.
We had spent the previous three years in Wisconsin where I taught English at a small branch of the University of Wisconsin. In 1970 we moved to Albuquerque where I worked on a PhD in American Studies at the University of New Mexico and my wife learned to be a potter. It wasn’t long before being a potter sounded a whole lot more exciting than being a young college professor in some nowhere college probably in someplace like Alabama. (Just as I was finishing my PhD, the bottom fell out of college English teaching jobs and I never did quite finish my dissertation.)
You have to remember, this was in 1973, just a couple years from the hay-days of the 1960’s, hippies and being a free spirit. My wife and I were young and living the free life of an artist sounded great. And it wasn’t a totally stupid idea. At the time there was a large demand for hand-crafted anything. Many young people like us were hot on going back to nature and living natural lives and all that romantic nonsense. And we managed to make a pretty good living.
But of course not everyone thought selling art on the street was such a great way of life.
I remember one day about twenty years ago when my wife and I were in the middle of our landscape photography career. We were at a very busy art show in Breckenridge, Colorado, where we were selling large photographic landscapes. I was taking a break on a bench a few yards away from my booth. A well dressed gentleman and and an equally well attired young son of twelve or so stopped in front of me and looked at my booth. The father pointed at my booth and said to the son, “And here is a good object lesson for you son. Pay attention in school and study hard or you may end up on the streets just like these poor folks.”
Back in the 70s, 80s, 90s and even up into the first ten years of the 2000s, thousands of artists earned their livings selling art on the street at art shows. As a matter of fact much of the best art in America was then sold not in galleries but at high-end art shows all over the country.
In those days doing art shows for a living was not so much a career as it is a way of life and life on the show road is rich in good stories: some funny, some sad, and all a window into a very different world than most of us live in now.
So here is a story about living on the art show road and about what it was like to earn a living on the streets selling art.
Art shows began in the late 1960s as part of the whole counterculture rebellion of the sixties: hippies, anti-business, anti-corporations, antiwar, peace, love, back to the natural, back to simplicity, authentic life styles, etc, etc. A lot of young people, mostly in their twenties and thirties, became very disillusioned with the way they were expected to live their lives.
The Vietnam war especially had a lot to do with this; after seeing the callousness, idiocy, and downright stupidity of big government, none of the establishment vocations had much appeal to many of us in those days.
Many of us were in the process of deciding how we wanted to live the rest of our lives, and the traditional paths of corporate life seemed like drudgery to us. And big government or big education or establishment anything didn’t sound very appealing. As a result, a lot of people turned to art as a more valuable, honest, maybe even a more moral alternative. Or so we thought anyway.
But there was a little hitch; how could you earn a living making art? This is where art shows came in. My route to the art show world turned out to be pretty typical of the route taken by a lot of people at that time.
As I mentioned above, while I was dealing with seminars and dissertations, my wife had gotten involved in hand-crafted pottery. She had a potter’s wheel and a small electric kiln set up on the back porch and was busy learning how to make coffee mugs and teapots and casseroles and cookie jars. And it turned out she was very, very good at this; in fact she was a natural. After a year’s hard work she was making very professional functional, stoneware pottery. So, as I drifted away from my dissertation on the novels of Joyce Carey in my last year of graduate school, I began drifting more and more into pottery.
My decided that she needed a real high-fire gas kiln that would create the reducing atmosphere needed for the rich earth tones of good stoneware. So I decided to build one. I tore down an old brick kiln for the cheap firebrick and built my first catenary arch gas kiln in the backyard of our rented house.
In order to get the gas pressure I needed, I quickly discovered how to illegally adjust the standard 6 oz. gas pressure at the meter up to a whopping two pounds. No safety equipment of course; we couldn’t afford that kind of luxury. The first kiln was a failure. With no idea of the correct proportions of a high-fire kiln, I made the flue (the hole out of the back of the kiln into the brick chimney) way too big and all the heat went straight up the chimney. After 24 hours of firing into the wee hours of the dawn, it was back to the drawing board.
The next model worked much better. After figuring out how to adjust our homemade burners constructed out of scrap pipe fittings, the kiln settled down to a satisfying roar. As we watched through the brick peep hole the whole inside of the kiln–pots, ceramic shelves and walls, the whole thing–gradually turned a dull red, then cherry red, then yellow and finally the blinding white heat of 2300 degrees F. After the twelve hour firing and another twelve hour cooling, we unbricked the front door and looked at our creations. Among the shards and rubble of pots that had exploded because we increased the heat too rapidly, there were a half dozen pots that, at the time, we thought were really beautiful.
After that, there was no holding us back. The dissertation got put on a shelf in my study, never to be worked on again. After the kiln, I moved on to high-fire glazes and my own high-fire clay receipes. I remember one university party where my distinguished dissertation advisor asked how the dissertation was going and I told him about the new clay body I had just invented and how wonderful it was to throw and how tough is was and what a beautiful golden buff color it turned after firing.
My advisor got a deep frown on his face and that was pretty much the end of my university career.
Joan taught me how to throw and I soon had my own kick wheel (all financed by my two hundred and fifty dollar a month teaching assistantship and my five hundred dollar a month GI Bill).
It wasn’t long before we had a sizeable batch of hanging planters, coffee mugs, soup mugs and casseroles. So we decided to bite the bullet and take our wares to two of the most prominent local galleries. We made a sale in each and ended up with $125.00 in hard cash.
“WHOA,” I remember telling my wife, “We can do this. We can earn a living as potters. We don’t need real jobs.” That night we called our parents and told them I was quitting graduate school and we were going to be potters. I can still hear my wife’s father in the background saying to her mother, “Oh my God, we’re going to end up supporting those kids.” I think my parents were slightly less sympathetic.
One of our next encounters with the art world was the very prestigious, New Mexico Summer Arts and Crafts Fair. People all over the state actually waited all year long for this event. Opening night was all high society tuxes and gowns.
We nerved ourselves up to apply and actually got accepted. Our first booth was a 2000 pound monstrosity built out of rough cut pine planks but we thought it was gorgeous. After a gruelling weekend of New Mexico heat and wind we finally managed to make $1800.00 which we thought was pretty much all the money in the world. And we met our first real art show pros, people who did nothing but make art and do shows and made good money at it.
After this, we were off and gone and never really looked back. Neither of us ever again held a “real” job or had a boss. Almost forty years later we were still making art and selling it on the street. We finally retires from the art show road in 2008.
Twenty-five years after beginning the pottery business it had turned into mostly a wholesale business and we mostly sold our pots in wholesale shows on the East Coast. And then it all got to be a bit much and we sold the whole business to a couple of business minded brothers. That first pottery of ours still exists several owners later and it still has our name on it.
After my wife and I sold the pottery business, we went right back to the street again, selling landscape photography in our old pottery booth. Life on the street selling art was a good life for us.
More on life on the art show road