19 Artwork that Connects
Artwork that Connects
It seems I’m frequently talking with other artists and a common topic is what kind of work sells. Well, if you’ve been getting Art Calendar for a while you probably already know that art that people connect with is art that sells best. The question often is, “What connects with people?” How do you tell? Recently I was reviewing portfolios of emerging artists at the national conference for the Society of North American Goldsmiths and this issue came up often. I would be looking at the artist’s work and trying to guess what was most saleable. One particular artist, Kari Rinn, had a great portfolio with a wide range of work. There were two pieces in particular that really stood out to me. Talking with her about how others have responded to these pieces I realized my reaction to the works was not unique. When many people really respond to a particular work or series that’s a very good sign. Something about it is making a connection. Later I noticed a similar thing occurring with a painter I know, Nick Antonakis. It occurred to me that this would make a good topic for an article, so here it is. I’ll get to both Kari’s and Nick’s work later, but I should first start out with how I’ve used the reactions of others to develop marketable pieces myself.
In my career thus far I’ve had a few different series of work I’ve taken to the marketplace. I think what might be the best example for this particular topic are the books I used to make. They were blank books for use as diaries, sketchbooks, journals, guest books, etc. Now I didn’t look at the marketplace and decide there was a need for this. This body of work, like all my bodies of work, began quite differently.
I was still in college and one of my drawing professors got a former student to offer a book binding workshop for those of us in class who wanted to learn how to do this. It was interesting that he had taught this student bookbinding, but then forgot the technique himself, hence the reason he wasn’t showing us himself. I’ve always liked books so this sounded pretty cool to me. I learned a basic binding called the scholar’s stitch. My professor recommended that if we really wanted to remember how this was done we needed to bind a few more books right away. Otherwise, we’d likely forget like he did. That made sense to me.
I’ve loved books for quite a long time. When I was younger I would usually be reading science fiction/fantasy novels all the time. It seems the massive old tomb filled with ancient knowledge frequently played a role in these stories. I realized I could now make such a book for myself. I have a habit of doing these massive, over the top type projects. This became such a piece. I wasn’t a writer at the time, rather I was constantly drawing instead so I planned this to be my new sketchbook. I was also taking a metalsmithing class and had access to the woodworking shop in the sculpture area. Secret compartments also fascinate me. I incorporated all this into my planning. It was a huge book filled with heavy weight art paper. The covers and spine were constructed of oak with decorative metal panels formed through techniques of chasing and repousse, along with a type of reticulation I stumbled upon once while ignoring instructions. The covers themselves are pretty thick so within them I created secret drawers. Some of these were also decorated with metal inlay and other techniques. I wanted to highlight my abilities, and push my skills farther than I had before. This book was to be a showpiece.
Well, after countless hours of labor this book came together successfully. Even before I presented it at the class critique people were responding to it. Several students started calling it the “Book of David”. I found this amusing, but it also seemed to suggest to me that others did catch on to the inspiration for the piece, that being the massive old tomb of knowledge. It was well received in the critique as well and anywhere I brought it to draw in.
The question came up as to how much it would cost several times. To be honest I didn’t really expect this. Generally speaking when someone asks how much a piece would cost this tells me there is genuine interest in owning it. Now I knew that most of the people asking me about the price of this book weren’t seriously looking to buy it. They were mostly just curious, however, if the price was something they could afford I have little doubt the book would have sold instantly. The price would have to have been thousands of dollars initially due to all the labor involved. Also I made it for myself and wasn’t really interested in selling it. I wasn’t about to offer any crazy good deals. As I’ve filled it with drawings it’s become priceless to me. I wouldn’t even consider selling it now.
Yet the fact that so many were fascinated with the book and were curious about the price told me others connected to it. Could I figure out what elements of the book drew everyone else to it? Could I then develop a more scaled down version which had these elements and was affordable? The interest of others seemed great enough that I gave it a try.
I feel like what I had created was a romanticized image of the idea known generally as Book. It harkened back to a time when books were precious not just for what was within their pages, but as an object in themselves. At one time all books were hand made, and hand written or illustrated. They were valued so much one might find them literally chained to a table. Books were beautiful. Books were knowledge. Apparently this idea or sense of a book appealed to others. Many connect with this. I saw this as the prime character I wanted in books for the marketplace.
When others saw my first big sketch book another common questions was, “How heavy is that?” I might also hear comments about my getting a work out lugging it around. These comments and questions gave me more important information. Weight was a concern. If the books were too heavy this would inhibit sales.
So for the next semester or two I tried various other ideas for books. I was thinking about production now. How could I design them to be efficiently made, of a smaller scale, and yet maintain the same character everyone was responding to? How could I keep them affordable? At first I made the books smaller in scale with a less expensive art paper. I still did the decorative chase and repousse panels and elaborate metal hinges. These fit my salability criteria better but still seemed too time consuming and costly to me. So I refined it more. I went to a size that used standard 8.5 by 11 inch paper and got cheap copier paper. In critiques the cheap paper did not go over well at all. The quality of the paper was an important element it seems. I learned my lesson. Don’t skimp on the materials. I stayed with the 8.5 by 11 because the size seemed good, but found a supplier for much nicer acid free paper of a decent weight that felt good. It was more expensive but worth it in the end.
Still I had too much time in the creation of each book to keep the retail price reasonable. I kept refining it, playing with different hinges, wood laminating, and other things. I had to shed the idea that I was a metalsmith. You can see the final results in the illustration. It became about the wood covers. The hinges were reduced to a few copper strips and leather straps nailed in place. I found people really connect to the beauty of wood and the gorgeous colors and grain patterns it can have. I would seek out knots and squirrelly grains.
Did I still have a book others connected to? Would this line of work sell? Again critiques and general feedback from others told me I was on the right track. I just keep watching to the reactions and listening to the comments. During one critique I showed about a half dozen “failed” books, ones that didn’t quite work out. They looked good but had functional problems. I don’t remember how it came up, but I offered to sell them basically for the cost of materials if anyone wanted one. A flurry erupted. They were literally sold faster than I could take the money. I was kind of shocked at such a strong response, but it confirmed for me I had maintained enough elements people were responding to in the first book.
Once I had the design for the book worked out I created 10 or 15 of them to sell. I had the price down from several thousand to $40. They started selling right away. I wasn’t too surprised at this now. I had started from a piece created to meet only my desires, yet appealed to many. Then I developed the new body of work to maintain that appeal yet become marketable.
Since some of you might wonder what became of this body of work I’ll give you a little epilog. I made these books for many years and sold hundreds of them. I didn’t stop listening to feedback and watching reactions. I kept tweaking the design to improve them both in terms of construction and appeal. I developed a smaller size book with a smaller price. I switched to a different book binding technique. Eventually the prices went up to $50 or $60 and still had strong sales.
This body of work served me well when I was mostly selling directly to customers. Here I was getting the retail price. As I began working more with galleries and stores, getting half of the retail price, I realized it wasn’t economical for me. The price was too low. After my materials cost were deducted from the “profits” I was only making about 4 or 5 dollars an hour. I wasn’t sure if the markets I was in would support the price being $100 to $200 a book. I decided to stop making them and moved on try other types of artwork. Would they have sold at the higher price I really needed to make a living from it? I don’t know. They provided a strong supplement to my income while I was in college. I was happy with that, but it was time to move on.
That’s probably my clearest example of recognizing when a broad group of people connected to a piece of mine and then developing a body of work to meet this. Let me now turn to the examples of Kari and Nick. In these examples I can only speculate what exactly the connections are. Yet, hopefully this can help you look to your own work and the feedback you’ve received to find where the connections are being made.
I’ll start with Kari first. She is a metalsmith focusing on jewelry. Like I said I was reviewing her portfolio during a SNAG conference. Kari was aware of the idea of producing different types of work for different markets. She had some extremely conceptual pieces. Additionally, she had a line of jewelry designed for quick production, allowing lower price points. Kari also produces some beautiful sculptural art jewelry, works that can be worn, but aren’t likely to be worn on a regular basis. Her leaf ring shown in the illustration is an example of this. Also in the realm of what I see as art jewelry were two tree house rings. These two drew my attention and held it.
Kari told me a story about the tree house rings. Upon graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University she offered a friend and fellow jeweler the gift of one of her pieces. He could pick anyone he wanted, except the tree house rings. She wasn’t willing to give these up yet. He thought about it and gave a counter offer. He really wanted the two tree house pieces. In return for those Kari could pick anything of his, including some pretty major works. Since Kari had the rings when I met her I’m guessing they worked out another arrangement.
When she told me this story I saw something else. I saw the signs of an artwork that connects to people. Kari liked the pieces so much she didn’t want to let them go. Her friend valued them more than any of his own work. I already knew I was drawn to them.
I asked her more questions about these little tree houses. It’s no surprise that they were well received in class critiques. Kari also learned that these pieces were instrumental in her being awarded a much sought after fellowship at the Ox-bow School of Art. Recently, of all her work they were also the two pieces specifically selected for an invitational show put on by a regional arts council. This all only serves to reinforce quite firmly that people respond to these works. Is her other work bad? Were these rings just a fluke of luck? I’m hoping you can see from the image of her leaf ring that this is not the case. Kari does beautiful work, yet there is something extra special about the tree houses.
She shared with me how these pieces came about. While she was in college at VCU a local jewelry store, Schwartzchild Jewelers, would regularly hold a competition with the metals students. Each time it was a different theme and pieces were judged on several criteria such as marketability, craftsmanship, etc. This particular year they were to work around the theme of historical architecture. Kari decided to interpret this a bit differently and chose to do architecture from that historical period we all have. The one known as childhood. I’m not sure she realized it but right there she was directly selecting a theme many could relate to in their own past. The fact so many of us can relate to having, building, or playing in tree houses is why she could present it as “historical” architecture for the competition.
She tells me that when the awards were being announced at the show’s reception, 2nd and 3rd place were announced initially. Then they were to announce the first place winner. Most everyone looked at her. The general consensus of the crowd was that she would be the 1st place winner. Hence most were baffled when another jeweler was awarded the honor.
Was this a sign of failure and rejection as a jewelry artist? In such a situation many might be inclined to feel that way. I would probably have felt that way initially were such a thing to happen to me. Yet I feel something happened far more important than the honor of wining 1st place. Kari got positive feedback from the majority of the crowd. They all felt her tree house rings were 1st place material. They had expected her pieces to win and thus looked to her when the award winner was announced. They connected with these pieces.
Kari has since speculated, accurately I believe, that those rings did not win because they didn’t score high on all the criteria of the competition. In particular, the marketability aspect. These pieces are beautiful and generate a strong viewer response, but like my first mammoth sketchbook, they aren’t extremely marketable as they are.
The question now is, what is it that cause people to connect to these rings so strongly? What is preventing them from being saleable to a wide enough audience. Then, how can these understandings be used and represented in a more marketable way?
My suspicion is that the extra special element in these works is the general subject matter of tree houses. She selected this theme based on the childhood connection so many of us have to this architectural phenomenon. When I was growing up I made earthen dugouts, forts, teepees, and that pinnacle of youthful craft, the tree house. My best was a three story enterprise with a large second story deck built up around 5 or 6 trees. I can remember the days of bliss just sitting way up high on that third floor swaying with the trees in the wind. There was also great joy in finding any scrap 2 x 4 or hunk of plywood I could add to my structure. I know I wasn’t alone. My neighborhood was filled with such architectural wonders popping up, being torn down, scavenged, and rebuilt again. For me memories of tree houses are memories of long summer days of freedom. They are days of discovery spent in the woods or field near my home. They are days of wonder seeing my efforts and plans take shape as physical objects, large objects that could shelter me. They were great days. When I see Kari’s rings these wonderful memories are invoked. I would propose these are the sorts of things her rings invoke in others. If I were Kari, I would keep the tree house theme when looking to develop a more marketable series.
So what is preventing these rings from being saleable? First, I would have to say the fact that she hasn’t been willing to part with them. I suspect she could find a buyer for them if she wished. Many of us have a reluctance to let certain pieces go. We invest so much of ourselves in our art. For me a way to overcome this is simply to make more. If I have six wonderful pieces in a series then selling a couple doesn’t hurt so much. The entire series isn’t leaving my presence. The profit from the sales then funds and inspires me to make even more. Eventually I realize the essence of the series is within me. I don’t lose it. I just spread the wonder of it around to others.
Yet, I don’t think there is a broad enough buying audience for tree house rings to fully support an art career. I don’t think there are too many people willing to spend the kind of money these pieces are worth for a ring that isn’t terribly functional as wearable jewelry. When the average person buys a ring they expect wearability to be a primary design quality. With these rings wearability is secondary. I feel like this is the issue that needs to be overcome.
I think she might be able to do this in a few ways. Perhaps she could design a tree house ring that doesn’t have so many pointing, branches that snag on things. It seems to me it would have to be much more compact than the expansive works these are. Could the tree be represented by a single branch that curls around itself to form the actual ring shape? Then she might be able to mount a small tree house on top of this like a gemstone. What if Kari moved away from the ring form and tried out the theme as a pendant or broach? I don’t know if any of these ideas would work. It is just speculation I’m presenting here. This is how I would be approaching the problem.
Another approach might be to cast off the requirement of these pieces being jewelry. If this tree house theme were approached as sculpture I believe most of the factors hindering the marketability fall away. If the works didn’t have to be worn they could also be developed in different ways. I’m sure reworking and presenting these as sculpture brings up another host of problems and issue to work out, yet it may ultimately be the better route.
Kari is already working along these lines in that all her rings presented here exist as small scale sculptures when off the finger. The one tree house ring pictured on the hand also comes with a small stand in the form of a ladder that supports it when it’s not being worn. Her leaf ring, as you can see, comes with a stand as well. That stand is designed to visually and mechanically support the ring. Together they are as aesthetically pleasing as the ring alone.
Can she have her cake and eat it too? Can she make jewelry that is extremely sculptural as she is doing, and yet have it highly marketable? Maybe, I certainly don’t know for sure. However, I think she would have more success if she was able to market these same pieces as sculpture first with the jewelry aspect being an added bonus.
Again, let me reiterate I’m presenting this as how I might approach the issues. There is never a guarantee of success. I’ve had my share of market failure with bodies of work, but I’ve had some succeed as well.
For another real world example I’ll present the work of the painter, Nick Antonakis. Nick is the head of the visual arts department at Grand Rapids Community College. I’ve seen his work at the various regional shows and competitions for years. Recently he started a new group of paintings, his “Amtrak to Chicago” series.
As long as I’ve known Nick he’s always been a good painter. His painting, “The Prisoner”, is an example of Nick’s other work. He would frequently work with the human figure in some way. His paintings were often allegorical.
With the Amtrak to Chicago series I noticed something new, the proverbial red dot on the title card used to indicate it was sold. Nick has been consistently getting paintings from this series in the regional shows and competitions. He has also, for the first time, been consistently selling his works out of these shows. You don’t get a much clearer indication of achieving a marketable series than this.
I’ve talked with Nick some about this new series of work and it’s inspiration. A few years ago he took the train from Grand Rapids, MI to Chicago, IL for the first time. This is the Amtrak train known as the Pere Marquette. He was intrigued by the sights along the way. From the train you see the cities, towns, and road intersections from a perspective that’s just a bit different from where we normally are in a car. Homes and businesses are often designed to have “curb appeal” when seen from the perspective of cars. Trains, however, tend to see behind the fences and facades to the often more gritty working parts of a town. Trains also go through some of the most beautiful sections of the countryside.
Initially Nick was taking a few photos of his journey by train simply for his own pleasure. Then looking at them later he realized these images could make great paintings. So on his next trip to Chicago by train he took even more photos, this time thinking of them as references for a series of paintings. He wanted to try and capture through a group of paintings the wide range of landscapes seen from the Pere Marquette on it’s daily run. This train goes through small towns, rural agricultural regions, undeveloped landscapes, and heavily industrialized regions. It really shows a wide range of land use and scenery.
At first Nick was almost dismayed when his paintings would sell from the shows. His goal is to create a substantial body of these paintings and find a gallery or other venue to show them as a group. Individually they are all wonderful, but as a group they tell a larger story. I suspect that similar to Kari, and many other artists for that matter, there was also a reluctance to let go of artworks he was really happy with. Nick has since told me he’s gotten over this and realizes he can just paint more. In fact, it’s getting to where he now finds he has a feeling of expectation that he’ll sell work when it’s in a show.
It seems pretty clear to me that this “Amtrak to Chicago” series is connecting with people, myself included. Again, the question we then need to try and answer as professional artists is why. What is it about this body of work people respond to so much more than Nick’s other work? As I was preparing to write this article he had several pieces on display in a faculty show, during which he again sold another painting from the series. Anyway, I went to the reception and directly asked several people who were interested in the works just what appealed to them most. The responses I got were about the way he’s handling the paint, the energy in the brush strokes. There were also frequent comments on his use of color. In the industrial setting landscapes especially people would really be struck by how he captured the atmosphere such regions have. I feel like all this is true, but I don’t see it as being that different from Nick’s other work. I was trying to figure out what made these paintings extra special. Why are they connecting so well that they’re selling regularly while the previous work wasn’t?
When I stopped asking people directly what they liked in the pieces and just started listening to the comments they were making to friends about the works I heard something else which reinforced what I was thinking myself. I’d hear comments about the train, how they were scenes from looking out the window. The paintings themselves don’t always immediately suggest this, but people were pointing out the little clues and indications. You might see a edge of window in one, or really get a strong sense of the movement in another. The series title, “Amtrak to Chicago”, was intriguing to viewers. People began looking for details of the train or would start talking about trains. In my opinion the theme of passenger trains is the source for the strong connections being made.
I feel like Nick has stumbled upon what I suspect is a rapidly growing trend, this being a resurgence of interest in travel by passenger trains. When I asked him if he had been taking the train to Chicago for a long time he said no. His first time was about three years ago. This is about the same time I had my first journey by train. I enjoyed my trip and was intrigued by many of the same things that inspired Nick to begin painting this series.
It’s interesting that as I was exchanging emails with Kari in preparation for this article I mentioned in passing that I was going to be taking the train to get to the Sculpture, Objects, and Functional Art (SOFA) expo in Chicago. She didn’t know anything about Nick’s paintings or how the train was figuring into this article, yet she responded indicating that she was jealous that I got to ride the train. Now being newly aware and quite curious as to people’s feelings regarding passenger trains I asked why she had commented so. Her response in part was, “I think everyone loves trains. There is something very nostalgic about them. You get to people watch, listen to conversations, see how people interact, all while the world is passing by in front of you. Watching the countryside or the city lights whiz by knowing that out there people are living there lives, going about there normal business paying no attention to the group of people on the train peering into their lives. I don't know, I am probably just rambling, but there is definitely something about the train, maybe its the rhythm or that it is on a set track with a direct destination, it could be many things, or all of them together. I love them.” I think Kari expressed the experience of riding the train quite well. Without knowing what Nick’s paintings were about she also touched on aspect of traveling through different sorts of landscapes that intrigued him. Her comment about getting to peer into scenes of others lives I feel is also related to how Nick observed that we get to see what’s behind the “curb appeal” façade. From the train I have the sense of really getting to see the true life of a town. So Kari has expressed things she connects with regarding trains that support what Nick is presenting to us.
Kari and Nick both have commented on a nostalgia regarding trains when I’ve directly asked about their feelings regarding them. I think this is true for many, however, I think what is being missed, and what is making Nick’s series so relevant today, is the resurgence of interest in traveling by train. Nostalgic thoughts are all well and good. I think that’s a great deal of the appeal of Kari’s tree house rings, but I believe passenger trains are becoming increasingly relevant and directly connected to people’s lives today. Why did Nick and I both begin taking the train a few years ago? Are we alone in this? I actually began writing this piece while riding the train to SOFA Chicago. In fact, I was taking the Pere Marquette, that “Amtrak to Chicago” train that is the subject of Nick’s paintings. I asked one of the conductors, an interesting character affectionately know as “Rambo” who regularly works this route, whether he has noticed an increase in the number of passengers in recent years. He agreed that he certainly had.
What might be driving a new interest in travel by train? Is it a short term fad or a new trend in transportation? I don’t know for sure but here are my speculations. With all the new security hassles in place at airports I personally prefer to avoid flying in planes all together. I doubt I’m alone in this. Trains don’t have the same security risks and thus don’t have all the hassles to ride. As awareness of the looming Peak Oil crises grows many are strongly recommending we rebuild and reinvest our public wealth in the railroad system. It is a sensible response to mitigate the trials and travails likely to come. You may or may not agree with this, or even that Peak Oil is a real issue, but it is driving the actions of others and thus affects what they connect with. I suspect many aren’t aware of Peak Oil, but are none the less responding to most visible signs of it, this being the rapidly fluctuating, yet steadily increasing cost of gas. I know that for me, even with my relative fuel efficient, low cost per mile car it’s cheaper to take the train to Chicago than to drive. This is especially true when I factor in the cost of parking in downtown Chicago! The issues of global warming/global climate change, and broader environmental concerns are also important to many and increasingly so. It is my understanding, and so I would imagine that of others, that trains are one of the most efficient forms of long distance travel. This is another reason I chose to ride them when I can. It is my suspicion that for these reasons, and probably others, that passenger trains have been becoming a new trend in our society and collective thoughts, though it seems to be largely unrecognized. Looking at where we are and where we are likely to go, I suspect this trend will only grow.
Without realizing it, I believe Nick became a part of this growing trend to ride the trains. Being an artist he is trained to observe life and present it back to us, the viewers. I think that what he is seeing in his journeys by rail and expressing in his paintings are what others respond too as well. He’s making a connection with those who ride the train or are interested in riding trains. This may have once been only been a small niche market of people, but as the interest in trains has grown in society so too has pool of potential buyers for this series of paintings.
When I presented these thoughts to Nick he agreed that this might be a reason why his “Amtrak to Chicago” series has gotten so much more attention and increased sales. He has basically just been showing these works within this region. More and more people from this area have been riding the Pere Marquette on this exact route to Chicago and back, thus seeing and connecting to these same sights. I think it’s fairly clear he has a marketable body of work with this series right now without doing anything different. However, I would be interested to see how changes might affect things in order to determine just what elements are really driving the connections that are driving the sales. So far these paintings have all been small in scale. Nick plans to use them as the basis for mid sized and larger sized works. He recently finished the first mid sized piece and had it in the faculty show. People liked it, but still most were more drawn to the smaller scale works. He’ll have to do more larger works to really see if the size plays a significant role in the attraction. Another question would be how regional this interest is. He’s showing images of a train route within the region of that route. Is the interest the train in general, or the scenes of the specific route? If he showed this series in California, or New England, for example, would it get the same strong response? What if he took a train trip in one of those other places and showed paintings of those landscapes in West Michigan? How would people in this region respond? Personally I suspect these paintings are not just of interest to the specific region, because I believe the subject matter of train landscapes is what’s making the selling connections, and I suspect for all the reasons I gave earlier that this is a growing national trend. That said, I do believe he’ll have the strongest response to the “Amtrak to Chicago” series in the regions that train route covers as people can connect even more directly to the imagery. In fact, Nick told me that one of the first buyers of work from this series saw the particular scene of the painting all the time and was especially struck by how well Nick captured the atmosphere of the place. That sale happened because they knew the exact location in the painting.
Let me try and recap what all I’ve been trying to show in this article. To sell work we need our art to connect with people. In my experience we don’t generally begin a body of work knowing it will connect or recognizing what those connections are. Rather, we make work that pleases us and speaks to our lives, interests, and observations. To see if this sparks interest in others we need to get that work out there to be seen. Then you have to carefully, and objectively observe the reactions of others. What do they express interest in? What do they ask questions about? Is this reflecting broader trends in society? If there seems to be a lot of interest but not sales what might be the problems? With this I find people will rarely tell you directly, rather you have to deduce the problems by questions asked or comments made. Once you have this information you can go back to the studio, make a few changes based on what you’ve learned, and present it again. Hopefully, you will eventually have developed a marketable body of work and sales can really take off. However, to stay on top of things you will always want to remain aware of how people react to your art. Just because you’ve gotten that great body of work that’s selling like hot cakes doesn’t mean you can quite paying attention. Our work naturally changes, grows, and evolves. To remain professional artist’s we need to make sure it evolves with the market and not away from it.
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