Feature: Artistic Temperaments (V4)
Stimulus for Artists?
Despite early signs of improvement in some sectors of the American economy, there is no denying we remain in recession. When unemployment is on the rise and houses are threatened with foreclosure, luxuries like collecting contemporary art often take the first hit. For this reason, I asked three artists – Peter Everett, Kindra Fehr, and Russell Wrankle – the following questions:
• Has your studio practice or creative process changed?
• Are you using the same materials, making budget-conscious decisions, perhaps ‘recycling’?
• Are you producing smaller, fewer, cheaper artworks?
• Are galleries granting longer or shorter shows? Fewer/more solo or group shows?
• Do you have any advice to offer others?
What happens in the marketplace has very little impact on what happens in my studio. Art has never been practical for me, nor has it been about money. While I do sell work, this exchange has always been unrelated to my creative process.
Many creative disciplines seem to share and benefit from this separation from the practical or directly instrumental. Where would we be if science, poetry, or philosophy were required to always be practical? For me, art is independent of economics—it is about play, curiosity, and exploration. There is a leap of faith required of artists and the culture that supports them, a commitment without a guaranteed return. A confidence that good things will come from an engagement with the arts.
I feel lucky to work in higher education—the university system has been a generous patron for me. It facilitates my work and exploration in return for my mentoring and teaching students. Of course universities, including my own, have been impacted by the economic downturn in serious ways, but my art has not. I believe artists need to buffer and protect their creative process from the pressures and influences of economic swings. A day job, a patron, savings, or just a general disregard for the sale of work can do wonders.
In terms of galleries, I largely work with non-profits and art centers where I have greater freedom to pursue ideas and work of interest to me. These spaces have been hurt by our economic woes and need the community to support them through the lean times.
A silver lining to our current economic situation is that it has shaken out some of the artists with marginal commitment to what they do and those more interested in fashion and money than art. I have seen a difference in my students—many are still going into art, but it is a decision of the heart more than ever. The leap of faith is large and I believe the work being made will have more soul because of it.
How has this recession affected my creative practice? “Out of necessity comes creativity.” In many ways it has forced me to be creative in a different way than one would think.
Right before this economic downturn hit, I had made a shift to painting larger and returning to my first medium of oil. Bad timing. It was only a few months later that representing galleries informed me that they have noticed a turn in the price point a collector will pay. Now they want small $300 to $400 works.
I’ve practically eliminated framing. As much as I really want to support my local framers, I cannot afford to pay for a frame that may sit on a painting for who knows how long before I recoup my investment. Gallery-wrapped canvas has replaced the beautiful frames I once purchased.
I tried to lower my monthly studio expenses, so left my studio of 12 years to share space. Once moved, we both realized that we each truly needed that space for what we wanted to accomplish; hence another move and higher rent which defeated the original intention (but has turned out to be good). The real creative solution came for me in creating teaching opportunities out of my own studio. Creating classes that were more than just an instructional art class and more of a full day experience – including art history, food, and very specific subject matter. What I have experienced is that for all the people who say they would love to come to these, many adults won’t give themselves the time or money. Yet, my children’s classes are full. As parents, we are more willing to pay for our kids to learn than for ourselves. (I say this as a parent, guilty of this myself). With this observation, I have also created more children’s art camps and holiday classes.
Yes, this economic downturn has been felt and I’ve had to adjust in numerous ways to stay afloat; but, at the same time, I feel grateful that despite its uncertainty, I am in a profession that allows me to be creative and can morph what I do into something that works. Many other professions are at the mercy of companies, and can be lost at a moments notice. I’m used to uncertainty, and that—in and of itself—has provided strength while weathering the storm.
We moved to Toquerville in southern Utah 9 years ago. I took on a part-time job driving the shuttle in Zion National Park, and have maintained that job ever since. When the downturn hit, I inquired about teaching part time at Southern Utah University, and landed an adjunct position teaching 3D design. My Master of Fine Art degree paid off in being qualified to teach at the university level. Teaching and shuttle driving creates the financial space necessary to continue on the aesthetic path that I’ve been on from the beginning of my art career.
My studio practice hasn’t changed much with the downturn. I’m still focusing on developing my craft and making the best and most meaningful art possible.
I’m doing more solo and group shows since I received my MFA. There are shows that do well, and others that could be better. I love it when a collector or anyone else purchases my work, but my motivation with art-making has never been money. When an artist derives their legitimacy as a maker from how much they sell, they run into the difficulty of making “market-based work.” And when that happens, the work gets watered down and becomes meaningless. I make work that resonates with me personally and if I’m successful, my work will tap into the elemental commonality that we as humans share, and hopefully there will be a “market” for what I make.
I recently had a solo show in Denver and the gallery owner encouraged me to make smaller, less expensive work. I made a few pieces within the lower price criteria and consider them reasonably successful. However, as one idea informs the next, these less expensive sculptures evolved into more complicated, time-consuming and expensive art. I would rather have my work available for various exhibition venues around the country than sell it at a price below what I think it’s worth.
:: on this article
Marxism and Dinosaurs
The fanciful art of Gerhard Ernest Untermann
Fanciful naïve art.
I doubt any of us would be able to connect these three terms were they to appear on one of those comprehensive college entrance exams requiring you to conclude how they are all related. But I like that they are all connected, probably because having been a Mormon Democrat all my life (and therefore a bastard in each circle) I have been used to conflicting identifications.
I became acquainted with the art of Gerhard Ernest Untermann [1864-1956] -- the answer to the quiz --
this past year as I read Painters of Utah's Canyons and Deserts, authored by good friends Donna Poulton and Vern Swanson. Untermann’s Dinosaur Quarry Area, 1947, |2| attracted me immediately because of its naïve but powerful treatment of the area around Utah’s most famous fossil location. Breezing through the narrative I came to a “quick stop,” as my driver’s ed teacher used to say. His distinctive art was reason enough to pause but learning that Untermann came from a Marxist background and had been an active Socialist, held my attention.
Untermann came from Brandenburg, Prussia and graduated from the University of Berlin having studied geology and paleontology. Like many students today Untermann couldn't readily find work in his field of study so he became a deckhand on a steamer, and later on several other ships. Three of these vessels sank, his final experience seeing him nearly meet his maker. It was while sailing the high seas that Untermann began sketching and painting in his off hours.
He eventually emigrated to the United States and became a US Citizen in 1893, and became involved in encouraging Socialism in his new country. The young idealist also authored a number of books, articles and translations in the field of Socialism and Communism. He is credited with translating the first American version of Das Kapital, the central authority for Communism by Karl Marx. Along the way, Untermann became a good friend of Jack London (of Call of the Wild fame), Eugene Debs, Upton Sinclair, and John Reid. Untermann co-founded the American Socialist Party and subsequently became the Socialist candidate for Governor of Idaho in 1910 and for US Senate from California in 1912. Untermann’s radical years ended when he decided that he was too much the pacifist to be associated with some of the violent paths his radical associates were taking.
Having left radical politics,
Untermann took a position with a Chicago mining company. They assigned him to survey a company-owned mine located in an area north of Vernal, Utah between 1919 and 1921. He absorbed the surrounding rugged area of the Uintah Mountains and started painting the primitive areas. He also began associating with Early Douglass, a Carnegie University professor. It was Douglass who first developed the quarry in Vernal, now known as the Dinosaur National Monument. The pair became close friends, sharing their passion for paleontology.
In the early 1930s, Untermann determined to create paintings and illustrations of the areas located in the vicinity of Vernal. The paleontologist, artist, and radical had an ongoing correspondence with Upton Sinclair and in a letter written in 1930, Untermann described his renditions of the rugged area of the Uintas: “When you look at it [his contemporary landscapes] you have to but realize that you see the Jurassic, Triassic, Permian, Pennsylvanian, and Mississippian, that prehistoric plants and animals are hidden in the rocks and under the sagebrush and juniper, and that you are looking at infinity at something whose beginning and end no mind can ever know, no matter how may qualities it develops.”
Several years later, Untermann, in another letter to Sinclair, lamented “Although at times I have not enough money to buy canvas and paints, I am going on with this work and will not exhibit, until I have a really worthwhile and representative collection. I sell a landscape now and again to some stray art lover who happens to come my way. And I sell at any price just to be able to go on with my work.”
Dr. Donna Poulton, co-author of Painters of Utah’s Canyons and Deserts, reports that Untermann journeyed to California and Oregon, living on the West Coast for about ten years until his final return to Vernal in 1943. On the occasion of his son Ernie’s appointment as the director of the Old Museum of Natural History, Untermann elected to spend the remainder of his life in Vernal, painting and studying the world of dinosaurs.
I find Untermann’s transformation from Marxist radical from Germany and urban cities in the east to the sedate, grandfatherly surroundings in Vernal, Utah. Poulton concludes that, “his charming landscapes of Utah and Colorado make him the first important artist to reside in Vernal until Valoy Eaton.” A number of Untermann’s estimated 250 paintings and murals remain in the museums in Vernal.
In a 1951 unpublished typescript, “Art Through the Ages,” Untermann summarized his feelings in this way: “As for the art of the future, I am convinced that the art of beauty which inspires people to higher aims, gives them a clearer idea of their position in the universe, and leads them forward to more power over the uncontrolled forces of nature and society, will do the most good and will last longest. It will be art for the community, not just for a few rich patrons. It will make a constructive appeal to the intelligence as well as to the esthetic senses. It will be understood by everybody without an interpreter.”