With the American Crafts Council show behind me and a world of opportunities ahead, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the process of creating, whether its handbags, art, writing, or promoting a worthy cause. Art is a difficult business, which is not something I think anyone who attends an art show ever thinks about. And why would they? As you walk through the aisles of an art show, indoor or out, it can seem as if the artists have always been there, creating beautiful things for you to admire, and when you leave, and the convention center, or the street that just days before was filled with white tents and throngs of people is now home to parked cars and delivery trucks, it’s hard to imagine what went into making that event happen.
I start months in advance to prepare for an art show, primarily because I am the slowest painter on the planet, and if I don’t have a dozen or more handbags woodburned and in the “painting pipeline” I would show up at most events with works in progress and an interpretive dance entitled, “What I Would have Brought to this Show If Could Paint Faster”. I am in the studio 12 hours a day, seven days a week, in the months before an art show, with piles of work I am in the process of finishing, in the process of starting, and would really love to do if time allows. As the time draws near for the show, the categories become what I have actually finished, what needs to be finished, and there is no WAY I am EVER going to finish this. The studio is filled with handbags that are drying, with storage bins full of fabric that need to be cut and assembled for the linings, jars of paint and brushes that somehow seem to migrate across the enormous table I use to work on, despite my best efforts to contain them, until I can’t find anything I need because now the table is also stacked with bubble wrap and Elmer’s glue, and empty glasses of wine.
Two weeks before the show, I fill a cardboard box with bags that are dry and need to be assembled, bags that are assembled but need to be lined, bags that are lined but need a handbeaded handle, and drag the whole thing upstairs. The kitchen table is filled with hardware parts and beads, and a card table is set up beside the ironing board for the linings and handmade clutches. There are purses drying in the bathroom because its cold in North Carolina even with a wood furnace blasting 24 hours a day, and because I use a polyurethane varnish to protect the bags against water damage, they dry slowly. Because the show is less than ten days away, I don’t have the time to spend letting them dry naturally, and anyway the polyurethane stinks up the house so the faster it dries the better. It’s time to pack for the show too, which means all my panels have to have a coat of paint, I need to rent a trailer, and a hotel room, and take pictures of what is finished and update my website and send out an email blast to my collectors to encourage them to come to the show, and make arrangements for the dogs, plus I also need to pack my show clothes, and all my equipment, and then, its time to leave.
Move in is the day before the show, which means checking in, finding your assigned space, unloading the truck and trailer, hauling everything to your booth space, assembling everything and (in my case anyway) repainting half the panels we brought with us because somehow, despite my best efforts, they are scuffed all to hell and look like I found them in landfill. Faster than you can say, “its showtime” the hall begins to fill, and you keep your fingers crossed that you will at least make your expenses, which can run in the thousands of dollars once you factor in everything from booth fees to supplies. You get to know your neighbors better than members of your own family when a show is bad, or slow, and in the lull you trade horror stories with one another about rude customers and greedy show promoters. My favorite this time was the man who sailed into my booth with his camera out and pointed at a handbag. I asked him, politely, not to photograph the work, and he looked straight at me and said “you can’t stop me from taking a picture of anything I want”. I raised my hand in front of the camera as he started to take the picture anyway, and said, “actually, I can”. He stepped back and told me if I touched him, he was going to deck me.
It’s a hell of a way to make a living, and while I realize the economy is still bad and there is so much uncertainty right now, its an incredibly poor business model even under the best of circumstances. There is little or no job security either. I used to do an art show I loved more than words can say, as much for the people who put the show on as for the fact that they have insisted on keeping the event small, so everyone can make money. A majority of the shows revenues are reinvested in the community as well, and the show promoters encourage high school art students to pursue careers in art with scholarships to support their artistic endeavors.
Two years ago a fellow artist accused me of “violently attacking” her at the show, which, as anyone who knows me well knows couldn’t be further from the truth. I was put on “probation” for a year, then never invited back to the show, which I am the first to admit still hurts to this day. You can get accepted to a major show one year and start to develop an impressive and devoted client list, and not get in the next year for reasons that are never explained and watch those connections slip through your fingers, or watch your booth and everything in it blow away at an outdoor art show when the winds kick up and in spite of the fact that there are four hundred pounds of weights attached to it, or fight a chargeback that winds up costing you more than the art you sold in the first place, because someone forgot they bought something from you, and when you provide proof of the sale you don’t get the chargeback fees returned to your account.
I love art. I really do. But its incredibly hard work, and its both heartbreaking and terrifying when you get into a show and you don’t sell anything, or you don’t get into a show and have no way of selling the inventory you slaved over for months and invested your heart and soul in. I get that there are no guarantees in life, and that just because I am exceptional at what I do, doesn’t mean I am entitled to make a living at it.
And the worst of it is, I can’t stop. I want to make beautiful things, and write screenplays about people and stories that inspire me, like the Women’s Air Service Pilots script I just finished, or short stories about where I live and the cast of characters who inhabit this place, or blogs, like this one, about what motivates me, inspires me, frustrates me and makes me glad I possess both the talent and the drive to create even though I often wonder what the point is of having these skills if having them causes the kind of self doubt and fear I wrestle with sometimes.
Even so, creating gives me a platform to celebrate causes that matter very much to me, like the drive to raise money for a Rose Parade float commemorating the Women’s Air Service Pilots this New Years Day. The Women’s Air Service Pilots were a remarkable group of women who flew military aircraft in World War Two, and who are the subject of a screenplay I finished this past January entitled LUCKY 13, about 13 women pilots who completed bomber training at the Lockbourne Army Airbase in 1943. By 1945, the entire WASP program was unceremoniously disbanded despite their enormous success, to make way for male civilian pilots hoping to avoid being drafted into combat duty overseas. It’s an incredible story and the dream of my lifetime to see it made into a movie. In the meantime, I am pleased to be part of a fundraising effort to make the float a reality, so please visit http://www.fifinella.com/rosedonate.htm for more information on how to contribute to this hugely worthy cause.