Friday, January 24, 2014

A Dispatch from the Road: The South Florida Fair

Welcome to West Palm Beach! I have been in Florida for a little over a week now and boyyyyy am I excited! 

Well, not really. This fair is terribly overpopulated with caricature artists. This year I am one of twenty--that's right, twenty picture-slingers--trying to grab a share of the market down here. It's nice seeing so many familiar faces, some people I know from the ISCA con, some I know as friends-of-friends, and of course the old colleagues I've worked with year after year. 

I'm bunking with Sara McMullin, one of my favorite carnies (sorry, whoops, she prefers carnival-American). Sara delivers a great likeness and is fantastic with people. When she and I get together--and I am not overstating this one bit--it's a no-holds-barred blue comedy fiesta worthy of two Oscars, a Tony, and six Emmys. And maybe a Grammy. No bodily functions, private parts, vulgar words, or taboo subjects are off limits. We have musical numbers, we have alter-egos, we do muppet voices and accents and jazz hands. This isn't a state fair, it's an 18-day celebrity roast when she and I get together. Long story short: we think we're HILARIOUS

Ben and Pete, the other half of our crew, may not always appreciate our humor, but it's not for them--the Sara & Celestia Show is all for us. Long story short: they probably think we're ANNOYING as all fuck

So many artists does unfortunately mean a smaller slice of the pie for everyone coming to the table. This fair is never a huge moneymaker. I luckily have a small handful of "be-backs" at this fair--people who become a fan of a particular artist and seek them out each year as a tradition. Plus, I think our booth benefits from the whole airbrush angle. We are the only airbrush caricature folk among a sea of artstix and one guy inside the pavillion doing charcoal portraits and $10 "cartoon drawings" that I hesitate to call caricature. Then again, according to the fair office, I'm not even doing caricatures. I'm doing "caricarure."
Outdoor airbrushing has its ups and downs. Florida seems to have two settings: arctic tundra and hot mosquito soup. This turns your bottles into little paint grenades when you open them up in the morning, as it's 40 degrees warmer than when you closed them up the night before. We haven't had flooding yet but that'll happen at least once. Our new location is probably going to be a lake when it rains: we are directly over a drain. We also face a big stage that has acts all day and night, including a four-day marathon talent show called "Stars of Tomorrow." Fitting, since before stars become stars, they are swirling masses of hot gas. And that's what most of these folks sound like. 

So far, despite the slow stretches, it's been worth my time. One of the benefits of so many artists in this environment (besides socializing and the 2 am parking lot frisbee sessions, I mean) is you get to mix things up a bit, see what new materials folks are using, what techniques might be worth stealing--er, I mean emulating. We have very different work walking by us every day, from artists influenced by the Beasthead movement and the hyper-surrealistic stuff Chris Chua and the California Boys produce to the pleasing yet stretchy cartoon likenesses that are the hallmark of artists trained at Kaman's. Nick Mitchell, of fame, even made an appearance and joined our merry band for most of the fair. 

Nick and Sean kindly surprised me early in the fair with an amazing zombie caricature (and it looks like I'd been working at a fair when I was bitten, judging by the apron, easy-hairdo braids, and contents of my vomit). I adore those boils. Definitely a fine addition to my collection. 

Speaking of collections . . . Sometimes we get a special breed of be-back. On lucky nights we run into that rare species: the visually literate  discerning collector of caricatures. These folks seem to "get" what we do and are the polar opposite of the annoying patron who wants all flaws removed and complains that it's cartoony and doesn't know what a philtrum is. 

Well, I got a collector couple last night. Awesome folks, and they had a Chris Chua / Cory Lally collaboration in hand. It was wilder than usual for those guys, and  when the couple showed me their cell phone gallery I understood why. Among their dozen or so caricatures, they had two previous Chuas, and he clearly was amping it up each year. After seeing it, I sheepishly told them I was way different in style and definitely couldn't pull off what the California Boys did, but I'd do my best. No problem, they said. He likes the crazy ones, and she likes the pretty ones, they explained.

Well, I hate throwing these together because it amplifies my blandness, but here they are. Chris and Cory definitely push the boundaries of live chair work, and you can see both pieces zero on on those ears and her smile--but holy balls do they produce a different species of work. Sometimes the radical cubist stuff doesn't fly with carnival patrons. We have had one or two people swing by and grumble, hold up an awesome drawing they got from a different stand and expect us to agree that it "doesn't look like them." Boy are they surprised when we study it and point out they have a remarkable piece of art they should treasure. It sometimes requires a little work from the viewer, you cannot digest a Chua drawing in a quick glance. I have compared it to corn dogs fried in truffle oil: it's mixing a carnival staple with valuable stuff, which can be appreciated by those gourmands who have cultivated a palate for it--however the average fairgoer just thinks it tastes weird. 

But gosh darn it, I am so pleased that caricature gourmands exist. And when collectors do visit the fair and show us a cell phone gallery of past work, it is delightful to find familiar styles and see who has already drawn them, and have a conversation about where else in the country (or in the world!) they have been drawn. Every artist I know will slow down, gather their caricature brain cells together, pull out the pencil and do preliminary sketching, and really try to do a nice job for folks like this. Inevitably, I end up feeling frustrated with myself that I couldn't do a better job. But collectors definitely get their money's worth! 
When it comes to the rest of the fair goers getting their money's worth, this fair provides a change of pace due to our pricing. Market forces act predictably: with increased supply, prices are held down. We are set solidly at prices that are quite lower than what I'm used to, and that kind of takes some pressure off. I have switched to marker for a faster, simpler product, and I find myself aiming for bold, quick linework rather than subtle nuances. I do try to always give folks a nice product, but--unless they are collectors!--I don't labor over it as much as I would normally. (Known sometimes as the "Screw-it-they-aren't-paying-much-for-it-anyway" approach.) We also throw some black airbrush onto the black & whites, which makes them pop a bit more than graphite--it's a quick way to lay down a lot of contrast, but it's also so much easier to wreck the picture during that last stage! Still, it's refreshing. It works a different part of the drawing muscle, seems like. 

I took a tip from the ISCA Facebook page (thanks guys!) and loaded up some crayolas with Copic ink using that handy-dandy marker maker. It's not a perfect tool but I'm digging it. Crayola nibs are wonderful . . . until they aren't. Paper edges can split little chunks off and suddenly that marker is only good for drawing hair. But so far most of my little hybrids are holding up, and I've already ordered refills. Thank you, Kamal, Nick, and Scott! (I think that's who originally posted that thread...)

Sitting next to a crew that I only get to work with a couple times a year also helps refill the ol' brain with tips & tricks & tool ideas. Benjamin, who worked with Rob and myself for years at the Excalibur, has a nifty little clicker that was marketed as a dog-training aid but works great as a baby-attention-getter. I'm seriously going to need to procure one of these.

Ben pulls out this little plastic box with a strip of metal in it and clicky click click suddenly the squirmy two-year-old is looking right at him, wondering what the unusual sound is. Seems to work better than keys or a toy, as it's a very unfamiliar sound. Even the adults look right toward the sound and are like "what is that?" 

I suppose it's best to not tell them it's a dog training tool. 

The tips & tricks stream flows both ways. Chris, one of the really talented t-shirt airbrushers, made a point of thanking me for introducing him to the iPad app ArtStudio.
I was playing around with that last year and showed him a few things in passing. He went out and bought himself an iPad and adapted it to his line of work. He and Dennis (the fellow giving Chris bunny ears above) showed me how they now can customize images quicker than before and wirelessly print a stencil template right from ArtStudio, sometimes even using something a customer provides. He says it has really improved efficiency and he's delighted with the added income that translates into. 

Yep, we are high-tech carnies, gosh darn it! 

While we are here playing with our iPads, we have a delightful array of foods to choose from. On a stick. 

This fair isn't quite as creative-food-oriented as the State Fair of Texas, but there are a few decent choices. The allure of fried stuff wears off fast, and this year we borrowed a crock pot and are actually taking turns making "campercooked" alternatives to the Fair fare. Pete made chili and I whipped up veggie lasagna. Benjamin says he might do "Slow Cooker Bourbon," which doesn't surprise me in the least. 

The residents of South Florida seem to have their own unique flavor--and I'm not talking about food. This fair always seems to have such interesting variety walking around. So far I have seen many New York transplants, quite a few folks in yarmulkes, one woman in a full burqa, a sprinkling of South Americans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Cubans, lesbians, Dominicans, a nudist colony resident, aerospace engineers, a couple of professional drag queens, some proud rednecks, rich assholes from Boca, morbidly obese people on scooters and morbidly thin people on meth, and an elderly stuntman who was Walter Matthau's double in Grumpy Old Men 1 & 2. 

Variety is the spice of life, and Florida is spicy indeed. 

There is also, it seems, a higher percentage of folks here that fit the categories of strange, trashy, currently on drugs, or recently incarcerated. The fairgrounds actually border a large correctional facility, so it could be that residents there get day-passes to come enjoy the fair once a year (but that's just my own little theory, one I formulated during my scenic razorwire view as I walked to the nearby Walmart). 

The first year I worked here, the police came around and handed us a three-page list of things we were not allowed to write on caricatures (the airbrush t-shirt guys got the same list). These were names and phrases associated with the local gangs--we actually were surprised at how long this list was, and how many non-thug-sounding monikers were on there. "Blueberry Dumpling Fellas" or something was one of the verboten phrases. Sara told me about one year when the t-shirt airbrushers got a request for a "RIP so-and-so" design with a death date commemorating a deceased guy, probably a gang member judging by the name and the thuggish clientele. Only after they made the sale did they realize the RIP message was actually post-dated. Uggggggghhhhh . . . 

Gang violence is no joke though--that first year there was also a triple shooting at the fair. It wasn't near us, but the authorities closed all fair exits for about an hour as swat teams descended upon the area . . . They never caught anybody but it sure created a weird vibe knowing we were all kinda trapped with the assailant. He was at least a bad shot--he hit three people but no one was killed. 

That said, I never really feel terribly "unsafe" at this fair. Maybe I just fit in with all the crazy down here. Even while walking through the far side of the fair, the vaguely third-world-ish jigsaw puzzle of trailers that serves as the ride-operator living areas (a colleague has described that section as "a travelling prison"), it doesn't seem too bad. Hell, I got two marriage proposals and a "hey beautiful" on my way to the laundry trailer this morning. 

Some women might have taken that as sexual harassment, but I am a carnival-American. We have thick skin and are not easily harassed. And if we do feel harassed, we give it right back. Harder. And on a stick.