Artist faces mountain of student debt

Abstraction, by Carol L. Douglas. Art can be done with nothing more than charcoal and newsprint.

Abstraction, by Carol L. Douglas. Art can be done with nothing more than charcoal and newsprint.
Alex Katz is famous for having destroyed about a thousand of his own paintings while he tried to solidify his style. “There didn’t seem much reason to keep them. The positive thing was what I got out of the painting, not the paintings.” That was on top of an already-prestigious art education at Cooper-Union and Skowhegan.
That was in the 1950s and it runs deeply counter to our current zeitgeist. Today most artists document every stage of every painting on social media. I’m a product of my times and I like the way we work today. However, I did think about Katz recently while counseling a younger artist.
I’ve known G. since she was doing her master’s in art education at a private (and pricey) school in Rochester. She worked as my figure model. For her, grad school was a terrible career move. It didn’t translate into a job. Combined with her undergraduate bills, her loans ballooned to more than a quarter of a million dollars.
"Submission," by Carol L. Douglas. G. modeled for this when she was an impecunious grad student.

“Submission,” by Carol L. Douglas. G. modeled for this when she was an impecunious grad student.
In response, she took the path of least resistance: becoming an economic non-entity. That was one thing when she was a carefree sprite, but now that she has a husband and a child, she wants to work legitimately. She will find this close to impossible in a nation with no secrets. There is a big hole in her work history from when she stopped working in the formal economy. In this age where new employees are subject to credit checks, her overwhelming debt makes her a non-starter.
(I’m seldom nostalgic, but there was something to be said for the past, when a person could hop a train and leave his youthful indiscretions behind. Today our histories are tattooed into some kind of master database. We can never escape them. Even the supposedly-judgmental God of the Bible is far more merciful than that.)
This is, of course, a personal disaster for G. In a way, it’s also a perfect opportunity. She has explored Etsy as a means to making money, but hasn’t had a lightning-bolt idea. Why not take the Alex Katz route and make art as a process of self-discovery? Art can be made with nothing more than a block of wood and a sharp knife. She has both, and lots more. I suggested that she produce and destroy many works. When she finds what she is looking for, doors will open; they always do.
A maquette from the days when I still had time to experiment. Not being able to make money in art is in some ways a great liberation.

A maquette from the days when I still had time to experiment. Not being able to make money in art is in some ways a great liberation.
I’m the last person to recommend that anyone drop out of the formal economy. But the need to be a productive member of society outweighs our requirement to follow rules.
A few brief mentions:
A reader pointed out to me that several studies have shown that some men do not change their underwear daily. Market research firm Mintel found that “one in every five males do not change their underwear on a daily basis.” UK retailer Marks & Spencer pegged that at around a third of men. And Clorox found that one in every eight guys wear their underwear multiple times between washings.
I’m not sure what she thinks I can do about it.
Remember my post about Britain scrapping the A-Level in Art History? There was such a public outcry that the course has been reinstated. As we were in the middle of an election here, I missed the news about how they mounted their protest. I can’t see art historians rioting at the Palace of Westminster; they’d be much too careful of the furnishings. But I’m sure glad they succeeded.

Etsy’s just another craft fair that’s now allowing resale.

Charm bracelet by Jennifer Jones Jewelry.
Jennifer Jones makes handmade statement jewelry from vintage brooches, pins, buttons, and the occasional Tabasco sauce bottle. Since she’s my former painting student and friend, we frequently talk shop. Recently, she’s been telling me that Etsy, the e-commerce website focusing on handmade craft items, has started allowing the resale of manufactured goods.
Maybe the New York Times can wax philosophical about the difference between ‘handmade’ and ‘mass-produced’ but we artists understand the difference. It isn’t about the tools and supplies you use; it’s about personally guiding the work through every step of the process.
Enamel flower necklace by Jennifer Jones. There is no way to mass-produce an assemblage of this nature. 
If you’ve done time on the art-fair circuit, you know that allowing manufactured goods is the kiss of death for a venue’s high-end craftsmen. It adulterates the brand, and it brings in the wrong audience—an audience which can’t distinguish the craftsmanship of a $500 piece from a mass-produced $50 copy. Nevertheless, it seems like sooner or later almost every venue succumbs to the temptation.
Freakonomics had this to say about it:
Etsy’s latest move is entirely in line with the history of handmade goods, a history that is more complicated than the simple term “handmade” implies. The artisans have run head-on into the problem that led to the Industrial Revolution: Making things by hand is slow. Really slow.
That’s kind of missing the point. We don’t live in an age where the major issue is making more stuff in less time. In fact, we are flooded in cheap goods. Right now, we Americans can’t compete in the cheap-goods market. Whether our craft is writing software or creating brilliant jewelry from castoffs, we are not selling a product but a process, one that frequently yields arrestingly good results.
Bracelet cuff made of vintage enameled pansies and some other stuff, by Jennifer Jones.
I had a designer friend with a unique and locally-popular line of clothes. She tried to scale it up, and she got lost in the vagaries of offshore manufacturing. When she was done, she had a product that would have been at home at Target—in fact, she didn’t even have that, because she was a rank amateur at the business of international sourcing. She sacrificed what she did best chasing a mirage, and her product line died completely.
Meanwhile, Jennifer keeps making these one-off items, and her market is worldwide. 


Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!