Tuesday, February 25, 2014

I am trying to learn a new business skill: saying "No."

According to my husband, I have been saying "No" quite well for years, but in this case I'm talking about business.

It started becoming apparent to me that I was unpracticed in this job skill while I was juggling things on the road. Working a fair can be taxing, as you must be there every day, sometimes up to 14 hours, drawing people and doing other odds n' ends a booth requires. Not a great time to take on extra work, right? Ha! I already had some extra work lined up before leaving. And as I stayed out there, thanks to the marvels of smartphones, my workload just seemed to increase. I agreed to design two logos. I took on seven or eight digital caricatures. I drew up contracts and sent emails to contacts and went over my schedule a zillion times. I downloaded a book I had arranged to proofread for my old publisher. The wonders of having an iPad!

One of my coworkers told me I was like "one of those crabs." It was a muddled metaphor at first, but he described what it meant. You know those crabs that, by instinct, grab bits of gravel, seaweed, and refuse, and stick it all on their backs, to create camouflage? Well, he told me, you're like one of those crabs, except you are sticking jobs to yourself constantly, it's like instinctual for you.
Oh, sure, I can add that to my schedule. No prob.

Dammit, I don't want to be a crab. Not forever. Earlier on it was necessary. Freelance jobs weren't easy to find, income is never a guarantee in this business, and by golly, I wanted to get a good stable of regular clients so that work kept coming in! Now my stable is full, and more are banging on the door. I slowly started saying "No." Especially last month. With a website revamp, our traffic is up and folks are calling in more often than before. And I'm grateful! But I need to learn that new skill or else I will be burning my candle at both ends while also submerging it in hot lava. Screw that. I'm forty years old. As one gets older, and more skilled, the idea is to work less and earn more for the time you work, right? Right.

So why is it so bloody hard for me to turn down projects??? Lord knows I have a list of my own stuff that I've "been meaning to get to" for ages, when I have a "spare moment" or "time between projects" to sit and develop them.

Does anyone else have this crabby little problem? No one wants to come off as desperate for work--and I don't think I do--but it just feels wrong to turn down clients outright. Unless the potential client is a complete jerk . . . and although folks like that make for great stories, it really is (luckily) a rare thing to encounter a complete asshole. Usually it's just nice folks wanting my help, and I feel guilty not being able to accommodate them (and take their money).

Some decisions had to be made, and a process had to be put in place. Organization is key. My first job out of college was as an administrative assistant, and my main job on Tuesdays was typing up "the Edsum." This was short for "editorial summary," an updated list of every single book project in production, with notes on what had been completed and when. Nowadays, I have a similar thing on my phone documents: a summary of all calls that come in asking for freelance work, what I quoted (if I quoted a price) and what stage things are in. This at least allows me to prioritize, and to see at a glance what I've got on my plate and when various things are due.

I made the decision that I didn't want to book out other artists and take a fee off the top. Believe it or not, that feels like more work to me, and more stress, than I want. I will continue using a few select folks when Robert and I need more that just us two for a particular gig. But being a booking agent was never on my life's list of goals, no matter what the profit margin. Happily, I was able to tell a few people that we were booked on the day they were inquiring about, and here's a few phone numbers of colleagues that might be interested in the job. And that was that, problem solved.

Likewise, there are a few folks who contacted me regarding freelance side projects that I will have to turn down. That book I need to proofread sits on my table now, and I need to--no, I want to--get to it. That's another swell thing about having some experience and being "semi-retired"(in that field, at least). I can choose proofreading jobs based on my interest. This one is about the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs boson. I would probably read it for free, but please do not tell the managing editor that.

This should feel like a great time, a crossroads, a marker that the business Rob and I have worked hard at for a decade now is really hitting a nice stretch. It goes against my better nature to sit back and "relax" though. Maybe it'll last, maybe it won't. We'll see. The waters out there are fickle, and tides change.

I may be sticking things onto my shell frantically by next year. But for now, I'm practicing "No."

Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Collection 20 Years in the Making & Bidding Adieu to Florida's State Fair

Well, the State Fair of Florida has wrapped up, and I'm headed back to Vegas as you read this (if you read my blog the instant it uploads, WHICH YOU SHOULD). 

One of the real highlights of an otherwise slow, weather-challenged fair was meeting a family of true collectors. Forget cell phone pics, these folks brought a PORTFOLIO of their former caricatures, and even carried the portfolio around in a protective zippered sleeve. 

They kindly let me take some photos and boy did I feel like I hit the mother lode--inside their case they had TWENTY caricatures, dating from 1994 and highlighting their history as a dating couple, married couple, then a family. The styles and likenesses (and skill level) varied, but I recognized a few. What a collage it all added up to!
A roller-coaster background by Alex Hughes and the soft, expert color stylings of Vlad Kolenic stood out as highlights (to my eye) as I paged through. Seeing them all arranged like a quilt, it does make one wonder--how to stand out versus how to provide a reliable, consistent product? Is getting a good likeness enough, especially when so many others out there struggle with just doing that . . . or once you master likeness is the battle really just beginning? What makes a piece "pop" as opposed to just sitting there, fading into the rest of the caricature quilt? Color, composition, expression, energy . . . all of the above? Studying this collage really makes me wonder how I can get some mojo into my work so that one day I might stand out, a little, in someone's 20-year collection. 

Collectors like this provide such a unique opportunity for retail caricature artists. (We are kind of the opposite of gallery artists, who display their body of work and hope some of it sells--we sell our work piece by piece, it goes off into the world, and every once in a while some of it comes back in a "traveling show" such as this so we can see it again!)
The lovely Kathy Samek, a seasoned fair artist, drew up the family's 2014 addition. And judging by the blank sleeves left in their portfolio, they will be back in years to come. 

Working a fair with so many other artists means that sometimes people who are not collectors walk up to the stand and show you the caricature they purchased from around the way. Now, I swore that I was never going to use this blog to badmouth other caricature artists. That's not cool. 
But this guy isn't a caricature artist. 

The folks who got this were experiencing some severe buyer's remorse (as you can tell by the handy commentary one of them is providing as I took the photo). One of the charcoal portrait guys who typically inhabits NYC had set up here and in West Palm, and he had a sign up for $5 "cartoon pictures." With the mat, this couple paid $20 for this, and they are probably still trying to figure out why. 

It was past closing time, I was tired, but gosh darn it, I at least drew them noses rather than identical straight lines. Plus I threw in a free protector and took a few bucks off since they kindly let me photograph them for my blog. Kudos to them for not giving up on caricatures forever after one lousy experience. 

Before I leave the carnival scene, I wanted to share some more fun midway art. And to spice things up (and because I've had time to play with my text-on-photo app), I've arranged them into some caricature "Do's and Don't's" for your amusement. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

New Week, New-ish Fair: Crackers, Giant Rats, and the Art of Patter

Well, the South Florida Fair has ended, and I'm now at the Florida State Fair in Tampa, some couple hundred miles northwest of where I was last week. 

I rode over in Benjamin's van, and really had the "deluxe traveling artist experience"--which includes very little sleep, driving behind a disassembled roller coaster on the highway, grooving to some Dave Matthews tunes, detouring to visit caricature pal Michael White, enjoying some alcoholic beverages, a hot tub, ooohing and aaahing over vintage comics, a few more alcoholic beverages, ending up sleeping at Michael White's, having coffee in a treehouse, going to a Waffle House in the same clothes I'd been wearing for 30+ hours, detouring to see sleeping manatees, then arriving in Tampa. 

Sarasota artist Michael White is the consummate host, by the way. His home and back yard are amazing, complete with expertly designed Koi pond and fire pit, and his cat is friendly and adorable (just like its owner). We had a fantastic time and he didn't roofie either one of us. 

Here in Tampa, we see many of the same names & faces, just in a different arrangement. Imagine someone upended your neighborhood, put all the buildings in a Yahtzee cup, shook them, and spilled them out in a new random pattern. There are a few new additions, and a few missing pieces, but it's familiar enough. 

We still have a tasty array of food on sticks:

TJ the Painter and Spencer (mentioned in my last post) are here, and I have spotted a few different funhouses with TJ's fine airbrush work adorning them. 

The Wacky Shack was a particularly fun find-a-caricature exercise. 

The West Palm fair has an old-timey space filled with trees and folks in antiquated garb, called Yesteryear Village; here in Tampa there's a similar place, it's just called Cracker Country. I'm not kidding about that. 
So if you're far enough down South, bear in mind that "cracker" is not the offensive term it is elsewhere in the country. Or maybe it is, except for the few history buffs manning their stations in Cracker Country.
It really is a beautiful area, with historic pine buildings and huge live oaks draped in Spanish moss. Little demonstrations on Cracker cookin', rope-makin', plowin', carvin' and other handicrafts missing the letter G take place all day.

Caricaturin' can be found closer to the midway, and (sadly), just like in West Palm we have loads of artists at this fair. Apparently the Florida fairs are always overpopulated by vendors because of the timing--no other shows are going on during January and February, so people try their luck down here knowing full well that there will be a load of redundancies.

For instance, we have two tornado-themed rides just steps from each other on the midway.

But wait . . . there are two rides called "The Enterprise" as well!
And then there's two rides called "Super Himalaya" (and you guessed it, we also have a plain old "Himalaya" too).
Bloody Hell, there are TWO different giant rat exhibits at this fair! On the same aisle even!
Just when you think you've hit on a specialized niche, right?

We are a bit unfortunate this year in that our neighbors are a couple of barkers trying to sign people up for time-share presentations. You know the sort. A word to the wise: If you are considering plopping money down to work a fair, FIND OUT IF TIME-SHARE ASSHOLES WILL BE NEXT TO YOU. And if so, avoid that spot at all costs. Your revenue will be cut in HALF because time-share barkers destroy neighboring businesses. By the time people walk past us they are doing the time-share hustle: shuffling quickly, avoiding eye contact, and saying "No thank you!" as the jerk with the clipboard pursues them with questions like "Are you part of a couple that lives together?" "Can I give you a free vacation?" "Are you two married?" 

I hate them. Almost as much as they hate themselves, I'm sure.

There is a more colorful brand of barking that I far prefer--not that the time-share people have the wit or showmanship to ever pull it off. Yet again, I have to mention my colleague Benjamin, who is a delight and a menace all in one package: he has the carny barker thing down. During slow days he cracks us up regularly with his patter. I have stolen a few lines from him, though I cannot deliver them with the same lilt or gusto. 
Here's a stream-of-consciousness paraphrasing of what spews out of Benjamin on a daily basis:

STEP right up get-cher CARICATURES here...Oooh look at that couple, they look like their Polyjuice potion is wearing off!...Right here folks, step right in we'll make ya look like a DRAWING!...Get-cher pitchers here, pitchers folks...Let us diagnose what is wrong with your face!...C'mon in folks, get yer pitcher draaaaaawn...Uh oh, that couple's in a hurry, there's a spaceship waiting for them in the parking lot!...Step right up folks, every face is a work of ART!...YES, ma'am, I CAN make you pregnant!...I can draw ya that way too, heh heh heh!...Get drawn today, we make ya look funny!...Who's ready who's next?...Come and let us show ya what you'd look like if ya weren't so gosh-darn ugly!...Who's ready who's next?...Look out, we'll do a number on you folks--a number two, heh heh heh!...Yessir yessir get-cher CARICATURES here--ya can't spell it but I know ya wannit!...Step right in, everyone's a winner!...We draw FACES, if you gotta face, this is the place! 

Delivering good patter is tough, and not everyone can do it. Not everyone should. Benjamin has been described as a three-year-old wearing a grown man costume: he just has a way about him that seems to deflect any actual ire from customers and passers-by. I once told Benjamin a line I FELT like using but would never have the guts to, when annoying helicopter moms tell you the list of flaws they want you to "fix" on their child. Sure enough, the next day he cheerfully delivered that line to a live customer: "Well there are a lot of other, more attractive children here at the fair today, ma'am--if you're not happy with how your child looks maybe you can borrow someone else's child and I can draw them instead?" And he got away with it, thanks to his baby blues and an impish tone. He describes this as a friendly verbal "fuck-you" and said some customers need it from time to time.

I have seen many caricaturists incorporate good, bad, or just plain dull patter into their business. I firmly believe that we are selling an experience, not just a drawing, and inside many caricature artists you will find a budding comedian. Judging from the caricaturists I've seen really be able to pull off good patter, it takes a high degree of intelligence, a quick-mindedness so as to always be ready with a comeback, fearlessness coupled with humility (so as to always be ready to be the butt of your own joke), and the ability to read people quickly and detect little behavior and facial cues. I'm talking about the type of person who, if less scrupulous, might do really well as a psychic giving cold readings.

My first boss in this business, Irv "Quickdraw" Finifter, was quite a showman--and he could talk anyone into the chair. And, true to his self-given moniker, he was fast. Whenever I would sheepishly try to call out and entice people to get a drawing, and they would walk on by, my coworkers would snicker "Irv would be putting it in a bag for them by now." Engaging the public (and the sitter) with good patter WILL actually influence how they like the drawing. Not just that day but permenantly. It ties the drawing to an experience, and every time they look at it they will recall the feelings you gave them as you drew their picture.   

Make it a fun experience, not a timeshare presentation! Learn a few lines from insult comics, carnival barkers, and improv comedians--and your friends and colleagues who are good at patter. You can stick with the safe, reassuring lines about the person having a nice smile . . . OR you can go out on a limb and see what you can get away with. Those can be memorable times, and you can be rewarded with belly laughs. And you are only spending ten minutes with people but some of them will remember you for the rest of their lives. How fucking cool is that?!

Sometimes what Benjamin does is tantamount to brainwashing on a small scale. Or therapy. Last year I heard him convince a guy that if he didn't like the drawing that meant it was actually more valuable. As he drew he explained, "Oh yeah, if it offends you then that's the best possible outcome--if we hit a nerve that means we have connected, we have produced a true caricature, and the ones that piss you off make the BEST conversation pieces, you can put it up and talk smack about the artist for decades to come, and ALL your friends are gonna have opinions on it." And on and on he went. By the end of it, Benjamin revealed the finished drawing and the guy loved it--but I think he was slightly disappointed that he loved it.

Last week, one couple in West Palm came at the end of the night, when the fairground was pretty empty, and remarked that Ben reminded them of Hunter S. Thompson (he does bear a weird sort of resemblance). Without missing a beat, he stuck a cigarrette in his mouth, dangled it just so, popped on his bucket hat, and proceeded to verbally berate the couple with abuse and obscenities as he drew them. 

They loved it. 

I hope the day will never come that Benjamin has to pitch time-shares, but if he ever does it sure would be fun to watch. 

Well, until next Tuesday, my crackers . . .

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Carnival Arts

There is a school of American performance acts known as the "Western Arts" that includes whip cracking, trick-roping, knife throwing, and all those other circusy side-show type entertainment you'd see at a carnival or a State Fair. I would argue there is also a brand of visual art, wholly American, called the Carnival Arts, and it comprises the good, the bad, and the weird stuff you see as you trawl up the midway at any traveling show. And yes, even though caricature's tendrils reach out into respectable museum art (even Da Vinci drew "grotesqueries" after all!) we caricature artists are definitely members of this club. 

Another member of this club, a t-shirt painter named Spencer, introduced himself this year, said he liked my style, and sat for a drawing. It was a rainy day, my materials weren't performing well, and I was revising the drawing in my head even as I finished it--so I'll try again in Tampa. But he was a fun fellow and longtime crewmember of the circuit, and he was well-aquainted with the other artists in my crew. In the off-season, Spencer also works with a few of the other t-shirt painters doing black-light glowing murals for roller rinks and bowling alleys and the like. I was blown away by his t-shirt airbrushing abilities when I visited his stand later on. 

We will return to Spencer in a bit . . . for now, I want to take you on a tour. Any place you go can be a museum if you pay attention. Let me be your carny docent as we walk the hallowed halls of carnival art . . . 

Be careful, some of this stuff might show up in your nightmares later . . . 
These clown head garbage-can toppers in particular are memorable. Warhol would have liked them. (Sorry, Ben, I only had eight photos, so you get to complete the grid. Warhol would have liked you too.)

A lot of the hand-painted work doesn't bother worrying about copyrights or trademarked characters . . . 
I mean, calling Spiderman a Tramp (on a sign for the bungee trampolines) is one thing, but it does take an extra-big set of cajones to put up some bootlegged mouse art in Florida, for Pete's sake . . . 
And in this artwork on a ride called "The Fighter," we see the painter simply copied a topless photograph of MAD artist Tom Richmond without even crediting him as the model . . . 
The nerve. 

But seriously, airbrushing is still alive and well at the carnival. Big and small examples of airbrush art are everywhere. 
Did I say alive and well? Maybe not altogether well. There were some not-quite-ready-for-prime-time pieces here and there, but even the awful can be fun to look at. Like this spacey scene, starring the hovercraft-driving love child of Napoleon Dynamite and Buck Rogers?
Orange space codpiece for the win!

But hey, it's hand painted. As an airbrusher and carnival arts connoissuer, I frown upon the cut-and-paste jobs. 
This haunted funhouse had monsters lifted from (I'm just guessing) Heavy Metal and other sources, just writ large--you can't see it from these photos but the resolution was so low that it stood out like a sore thumb, screaming "I was googled and screen-grabbed and printed way larger than I was ever meant to be!" Ughhh. 

But this one hurt my head. 

"Avenger Kids" showed slightly more effort--someone went through the trouble of pasting headshots (of their relatives, from catalogs, who knows?) onto bodies of Halloween costume models. Not sure what bothers me more--the reappropriation of child models or the implication that Supergirl and Wonder Woman are Avengers. 

But several attractions were, indeed, works of art. The "Enterprise" ride had been my favorite since I saw it last year. 
I apologize, the lighting is never great for photos, as the ride is highly reflective, and I do not have proper authorization to climb up and get close-ups, but the thing absolutely takes your breath away in person. Colors are vivid, the likenesses of Nimoy, Pine, and Quinto are spot-on, and it's just FUN

Some of the funhouses have been repainted over the past few years with some clever work. 

Check out that lion's expression. That was done by a cartoonist who gives a shit. That's a proper lion. Great use of guard rails to look like a cage, too. 

More great airbrushing stuff. The light touch of anime on the dame in the lower right panel makes me wonder if it was done by some gang of younger artists, but it has a lot of other markers that tell me it's done by someone old-school. 

Hmmm. Wait a second. I walked back and saw that all the really great funhouse paintings were done by this TJAho/TJ the Painter guy (or gal). My admiration and curiousity grew, and I vowed to google him (or her) later. Something about the work made me wonder if this person worked as a caricature artist previously. 

Later on, I asked Benjamin if he had any favorite carnival art that I should scope out before the whole thing pulled up stakes. "Anything by TJ" he told me. Ah yes, I agreed, I really liked the ones by TJ I had seen. Wait--you sound pretty familiar, the way you said that, have you met this guy? I asked. "Well yeah, he's right down there, he's Spencer's boss. He did the Enterprise Star Trek ride too." Ben smiled. He knows I love me some Star Trek.

HOLY SMOKES, this incredible painter is right here, just down the row from us, spraying Spongebobs on shirts the whole time??? 

I walked over after the midway lights shut off on closing night, and introduced myself. He gave me a hearty handshake and told me he'd seen Spencer's caricature (I winced). 

TJ is really nice guy, just as I'd been told, and he was happy to share his story (and okay with me sharing it here). Turns out he had been a caricature artist down in Opryland, back in the eighties, and he'd gotten his start in that using the lecturer's chalk pallette and glove--just like I did, a few years later in Baltimore. We sat there naming names for a while, seeing if we knew any of the same people from back in the day. We didn't hit on any right away, but this business is like the Kevin Bacon game--given enough time, you discover connections. 

He told me of his many years mentoring with Bill Browning, a legendary carnival and sideshow painter. He does standard brushpainting and airbrush too, and he said Bill taught him some special tricks for getting the carnival look just right. Bill is a painter of some repute, he lives in the "carny town" of Gibtown, FL, and he is getting on in years, suffering from Alzheimers from what TJ had heard. We both exhaled a small lamentation on that--it is a sad and familiar feeling to lose a mentor. He offerred to run up to his loft and grab a painting Bill had gifted him to show me (his loft was in the trailer that his airbrush operation was housed in, just yards away from us), but I told him I didn't want to delay his closing procedures any further, and maybe I could check it out in Tampa. 

I do not know if Bill Browning had anything to do with these sideshow signs, but they were the "sideshow art" I saw at the South Florida Fair. Certainly a niche all its own. 

I googled Bill Browning and went down some dimly-lit channels of the internet. Photo essays, some writing done by sideshow performers, a few regional articles. I am nosy, and the internet is vast, but there wasn't a whole lot out there. Still, the carnival is its own internet, and "famous" in the carnival doesn't necessarily mean "famous" on the internet. As I said, my "research" on TJ consisted of walking half a block and shaking his hand. He says he has a facebook page but ignores it, and his website is in woeful need of attention but he hasn't found the time because he's so busy getting work by word-of-mouth. 

You can see TJ's site at http://tjthepainter.com/
in the meantime, or keep an eye out for his signature at the next carnival or roller rink you visit!