Gratitude

As I wrote in my last post, this year I participated in San Francisco Open Studios for the first time, at the beginning of the month. This was my first time doing any kind of formal exhibition (aside from participating in group shows), and so I wisely dialed down my expectations.

If it was only my friends who came, that would be ok.

If I didn't make many (or any) sales on the weekend itself, that would be ok.

Even if nobody showed up at all, it would still be ok.

As long as I got a chance to practice talking about my art, or at least displaying my work, that would be enough. And, while I was waiting for 11AM on Saturday November 3rd (the official opening time), I looked around at all the art I've made this past year, and it felt really good. I had already pre-sold about a third of the original artwork, so I knew that this was my last chance to be near some of my paintings. Every painting carries a lot of meaning for me. Each is filled with memories of what I was doing and thinking and feeling at the time of its creation. It's a trite sentiment, but it's true: every painting carries a piece of me, and there is one kind of bereavement when it is finished, and another kind altogether when it is sold.

 Composite Landscape IV (2018); 9” x 12”, watercolor on paper (Sold: Somerville, MA).  References: Ithaca, NY; Shenandoah National Park, VA; Mount Davidson, CA.

Composite Landscape IV (2018); 9” x 12”, watercolor on paper (Sold: Somerville, MA).

References: Ithaca, NY; Shenandoah National Park, VA; Mount Davidson, CA.

As it turned out, that weekend comprehensively exceeded the expectations of my most optimistic friends. Every secret hope I cherished, when I wasn't busy wisely lowering my expectations, was left in the dust.

Friends (including friends and acquaintances I hadn't seen in over a decade), strangers, curators, and neighbors filled my studio for the greater part of the weekend. Orders from social media flooded in. One woman, who had done her research on my portfolio and who I had never met before, bought a piece of art that wasn't even up for sale: I had to dig it out of my closet and come up with a price on the spot. They came in waves. I was often so busy answering questions and making sales that my wife had to help. Altogether, about a hundred and fifty people stopped by. Given how far into the San Francisco residential boonies I am located, and how far away from any other artist's studio, I was amazed. I'm still amazed.

This wasn’t my first venture into selling my artwork. The tarot deck I created, and which was published via a Kickstarter in 2013, has continued to sell, reaching more than 36 different countries across all seven continents. I write each one of my customers personally, and they often respond, explaining why they felt drawn to my artwork, telling me about their home town or home country, and describing the creative ways they use the deck—in their psychotherapy practice, improv groups, performance art, theater troupes, retreats, workshops, meditative and creative practices, and the classes they teach. I've never managed to habituate myself to how touching and wonderful this experience is, no matter how often it’s happened. Every time a customer writes me back, even if it's just to say a quick thank you, I think about how they are using something I made, making it their own, and interpreting it and using it in ways I could not have imagined. I am humbled, I am grateful, I am honored, every single time.

 

Now the same things are happening with my paintings. Original paintings and limited edition prints are now hanging on the walls of friends, strangers, neighbors; they are now part of their home, their daily life. Frequently, I have gotten to meet these customers in person. As they integrate these pieces into their daily consciousness, discuss them with their family and friends, and share them with their children, my artwork will come to belong to them as much as to me. To me, this is the best thing about being an artist.

 Limited-edition prints of “Lacewing x Maple”, “Beetle x Rambutan”, “Flowers”, “Moth x Iris x Columbine”, “Cicada x Catalpa”, “Brimstone x Thistle”, “Mantis x Orchid”, and “Locust x Locust”. (Sold: Bodega Bay, CA)

Limited-edition prints of “Lacewing x Maple”, “Beetle x Rambutan”, “Flowers”, “Moth x Iris x Columbine”, “Cicada x Catalpa”, “Brimstone x Thistle”, “Mantis x Orchid”, and “Locust x Locust”. (Sold: Bodega Bay, CA)

To use a somewhat crackpot metaphor, seeing a piece of art that I really love is like finding a poem I wrote when I was nine (my first really good piece of writing, which I have never posted or published and probably never will), inscribed on a tablet in a ruined temple on the steppes of Mongolia. It has always felt like a miracle that someone I have never met and with whom I have little in common can reach right into my secret soul, through the exquisite meaning and beauty of a single piece of art.

I always try to learn about the artist, if possible, after I have seen their work. Sometimes I find an unrelatable personality, an ugly story, or an individual I wouldn't even like to meet. Maybe this sounds strange, but I am always pleased when this happens. It is rare, but I find a terrible person behind the art I love in maybe one case out of forty.

It is painful to find so much evil in the world. It is discouraging to be around people who do not share my values, and to read true stories in the news that are full of violence, hatred, and selfishness. Finding that a person who is otherwise hateful (say, Richard Wagner) has nevertheless produced a work of sublime beauty that has moved and inspired me is, well, comforting to me.

I believe it is a very human temptation to slide towards the annihilation of everything we find morally repugnant: ignoring the homeless, neglecting the ill, smugly denigrating the ignorant, or disowning killers, rapists, and abusers as human beings. Like many human temptations, this one runs contrary to the work I want to do in the world. Every wonderful work of art, music, or writing, every groundbreaking scientific discovery, every advancement we as a whole make towards truth and kindness and courage gives me hope. A person's works do not redeem their moral transgressions—the exquisite music Wagner wrote does not excuse him from mistreating the women in his life, nor from his contributions to Nazi ideology. However, it does remind us that we share a common human nature, which is, was, and always will be capable of the most hideous evil, world-changing accomplishments, abject cowardice, astounding strength, and profound love.