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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
The Arts

Strategies for survival

From moonlighting to the hard sell, local artists do whatever it takes to get by

As the bumper sticker ruefully says, “Moonlight in Vermont — or starve.”

It’s hard to put a price tag on a quality of life, but it’s easy to put one on rent, food, heat and gas.

As Brattleboro struggles to redefine itself as an “arts economy,” the many artists living here are working hard to keep their personal art economies afloat. Their strategies for survival are as unique as the artists themselves.

Moonlighting is one tried-and-true method, and in Windham County, it doesn’t only mean waiting on tables.

Just nosing around the Brattleboro area turned up a potter and musician who ‘daylights’ as a doctor, a sculptor who owns a retail store, a quiltmaker and sculptor who is an award-winning professional chef, a printmaker who teaches art in the schools, a painter who builds houses and another painter who works on the railroad.

Organization

An excellent survival strategy used by many artists here is organization. In 1989, under the umbrella of the Arts Council of Windham County, a group of artists formed a nonprofit collective, the Windham Art Gallery, that held monthly group shows on Main Street in Brattleboro. Sadly, because of the down economy, it closed in 2009.

“I think WAG had a huge impact on my work,” said painter Petria Mitchell. “It was a community driving force, and for me, personally,  it gave me a good support system. It helped to keep me focused.”

Now the trend seems to be organization by location. For example, July 17 and 18 marked the 18th year that the Rock River Artists of  Williamsville and South Newfane opened their homes and studios to visitors. (www.rockriverartists.com) During the rest of the year, they exhibit their work together at the Four Columns Inn in Newfane.

“I always have a good weekend on the Rock River Tour,” said printmaker Kim Hartman Colligan. “I sell a lot of stuff, especially to people from Connecticut and New York.”

The artists often find that someone who has visited them on the tour comes back later to buy a piece.

Another group, Brattleboro West Arts, formed last year and will have its second tour in September.

Mitchell is a member.

“It’s a good strategy for selling,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be involved. Also, I miss the hell out of WAG and wanted to be part of a community again.”

A Brattleboro success story

Mitchell, 54, who landed in Putney in 1977, has been supporting herself with her art since she was 18.

“I like the independent lifestyle, just relying on myself and my wits to figure out how to sell,” she said.

Her work is shown in galleries in Boston, Martha’s Vineyard and Stowe. She has a one-woman show opening at the Harrison Gallery in Williamstown, Mass. on July 30.

“I can’t handle any more,” she said. “I’ve had to leave a number of galleries.”

Mitchell began her career with scrimshaw — engraving on ivory from mammoth tusks and fossilized Alaskan walruses — and sold her work in juried crafts shows all over the country.

However, her choice of materials — some of it thousands of years old — caused controversy when people confused fossilized ivory with ivory taken from living mammals.

So, she changed to painting — although she still makes scrimshaw that decorates handmade musical instruments.

Once she shifted from crafts to art, Mitchell needed to find galleries that would sell her work. She researched galleries and museums, called and made appointments, and started developing relationships. She felt that was a more professional way than “walking in cold with a portfolio under my arm and expectations.”

Gallery owners appreciated her approach.

Artists need to recognize that galleries are a consignment business, Mitchell said.

“So many want representation, but maybe in the beginning they don’t really know that you’re going to have to give up 50 percent of the value of your work. But the galleries are doing the marketing. They pay for the lights. They deal with the public. And they help expand your career. Then other galleries become aware of you — especially because of the Internet. And of course you’ve got to keep your prices absolutely the same, whether you’re selling in Japan or New London. On the Internet, that will be found and discussed.”

The down economy has made it difficult to be a working artist. Many artists have had to give up their studios, and Mitchell has moved her downtown Brattleboro studio to take advantage of cheaper rent.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had such few sales, but things are starting to pick up,” Mitchell said. “People are saying that throughout the fine art market. I’m living off of principal, money I’ve put away from the really good years and good sales. I’m really fortunate. A lot of artists can’t say that. I’ve always been able to make a living from my work. but it’s a scary time. We just don’t know what’s going to happen. Living with the unknown is very unsettling, and this is all I’m trained to do. This and the volunteer work.”

Art and commerce

Being creative, many artists find ways to twist and turn their art into commercial forms. For fine art photographer Christine Triebert, a member of the Rock River Artists group, a gallery show in Provincetown last year “sold really well and was well received.” But her pictures have also been made into note cards and calendars.

“I make my money lots of ways,” Triebert said. “I have people who publish my work regularly.”

She sells her work in the framed print market. “Usually it’s my older work, my landscape work, which is very appealing to people,” she said. “So I have a publisher in San Francisco and I’m always giving him new stuff. They publish it and I make royalties.”

Triebert also does commercial photography.

“I’m using my skills and doing the thing I like to do, but it’s for someone else’s business,” she said. “It’s doing your craft, but it’s not really your art."

Most recently, she and her partner, graphic designer Carol Ross, built a cabin on their property and opened a retreat for women artists.

“Carol and I were thinking about what we want to do as we get older,” Triebert said. “At this stage of our life, we have so much experience and we’ve done so many different things in art, design and photography. We love the work, we love to do our work, we love our property and being at home, and we love to share what we have with other people. So we came up with the idea to bring people here.”

The retreats will offer classes in drawing, painting, photography and printmaking. Triebert and Ross started advertising in May and have already booked several weekends.

“Everyone of us who is surviving here comes up with an idea and makes it work,” Triebert said. “This new thing that we’re doing is our own personal creative economy.”

Reaching out

Landscape architect Ahren Ahrenholz had always been a sculptor, but he decided to do it full-time about three years ago. To find the high-end galleries he wanted to show in, he had to be aggressive.

“I did a road trip in March a few years ago,” Ahrenholz said. “It was a horror show. I had a CD full of pictures of my work.  I was well dressed. I just walked in cold, said hello and handed whoever the CD. In San Francisco, I handed the CD to someone and said, ‘Can you please give this to the person who is reviewing work?’ She said, ‘Currently, we’re not reviewing work.’ I said, ‘Does that mean when I leave you’re going to throw this in the trash can?’ She smiled and said, “You’re not going to make it to the door.’ A good gallery gets 300 to 400 submissions a month. Everyone can make CDs now, and everyone thinks they’re a world-beater.”

Eventually, Ahrenholz’s work was featured in several Brattleboro Museum and Art Center shows; after that, the galleries found him. He just had a one-man show at Carol Stein’s Cumberland Gallery in Nashville, located in the “most high-end mall I’ve ever seen. It has valet parking.” To get the show, he again had to be aggressive.

“I’ve been with them for a little bit more than two years,” he said. “Last fall, I made an appointment, loaded up my truck and drove down there. Carol selected some pieces from that and told me to send additional images. She ordered some of those, and I repeated my trip to Nashville. She probably carries 30 artists, and unless you step up you’re not going to get the one-person show.”

Shows are “a gift to the public,” Ahrenholz said.

“The real action takes place behind the scenes,” he said. “Carol did the Miami art fair and took some of my stuff. She did the Los Angeles and Chicago fairs. While I’m setting the show up, she’s on the phone nonstop. In almost every case, she’s talking to answering machines. ‘Hi, I don’t know if you’re in Nashville or London, but Ahren Ahrenholz is having a show.’ Or ’This is just a head’s up, but you saw Ahren’s show at the Los Angeles Fair and asked me to tell you when he had more work.’”

Not one piece sold during the run of the show, but sales picked up a bit afterward. By continually networking and reaching out, Ahrenholz is selling enough to keep him in his studio.

“I’m doing this seven days a week,” he said. “It’s pure joy.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #59 (Wednesday, July 21, 2010).

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