Artist with the soul of an accountant

There are some unique lessons to be found in the detritus of our COVID-year returns.

Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Electrico, painted in my extended sojourn in Patagonia last year. Available.

I like to tell people I’m an artist with the soul of accountant. This isn’t really true; I’m just making fun of my painting. I hate bookkeeping as much as the next guy.

This time of year, my accountant friend Laura Turner is doing a lot of tax returns. She likes it because each one is a small bit of history. I don’t share her enthusiasm for slogging through the minutiae of the tax code (which changes constantly), but auditing your own books does take you back.

Last year I wrote a lot of refund checks—$4,550.40 worth, to be precise. These were deposits for workshops, and they all went in a flurry in late Spring, as we realized the world was not going to open back up again. They represented future payments as well. Compared to others, my losses were small, but for me they were painful.

Cliffs, painted in Patagonia last year. Available.

My computer tells me to whom I issued those refunds. More than 80% of them turned around and bought something else from me during 2020—another workshop, a class, or a painting. There’s a lesson in that, one we can learn from our retail neighbors.

Modern big-box stores are open and easy about taking returns. Buy it, take it home and contemplate it. If you don’t like it, return it. My late friend Gwendolyn used to call it “buying on the American plan,” which tells you it’s not universal. It’s possible here because these retailers work in volumes so large that the cost of this goodwill gesture is relatively small.

Powerhouse on the Rio Blanco, painted in Patagonia last year. Available.

That is not true for the sole proprietor, whose operation may include unrecoverable deposits and expenses. But it’s still a good idea to issue refunds cheerfully when you can. It establishes your integrity and goodwill.

I’m conservative by nature. I prefer to do business as I always have. But in April 2020, I was forced to rethink that. Every gallery I did business with was closed, either permanently or temporarily.

I made my first diffident step in buying a license for something called ‘Zoom’. By June, I was confident enough to convert that to an annual license. It was the best investment I’ve ever made.

Rain, painted in Patagonia last year. Available.

That month, I also bought a party tent and opened an ad hoc gallery in my driveway. I went on to have the best sales year I’ve ever had. Nobody is more surprised about that than me, but it speaks to a second essential truth: we usually have to be smacked upside the head to make positive change.

I think citizens should prepare their own tax returns so they have a notion of how the tax code actually works. My fellow Americans don’t agree; in 2018, only 43% of electronic filers did their own returns. Even those who use a tax preparer are responsible for laying out the bones of their story. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

I always hover above the ‘send’ key for a few moments, hoping I’ve remembered every important thing. Itemized returns are never perfect; there are always bits and bobs you mislaid and just don’t recall. But hopefully, I’ve written it more as a memoir and less as a novel.