One of the most frequently celebrated events on the St. George peninsula during the summer is the opening of an art exhibition. Most weekends feature at least one new show heralded in by open invitations to the community. The opening reception, usually on a Friday evening, is the celebration of an artist’s body of work. Large crowds often attend these openings, causing traffic jams as drivers jockey for one of the precious few parking spaces. After filing through a narrow doorway into a crowded gallery or hall, folks are treated to a beautiful display of fine art accompanied by wine and hors d’oeuvres. Normally, these folks quickly make their way to the wine and food table, which is always enticing. Turning to the art, most take a look and then locate the artist to express their admiration and appreciation. And, all too soon, their backs are turned to the art as they feast and socialize for the rest of the evening. That’s only natural. After all, this is a community where friends and acquaintances abound. However, if we could look behind the scenes at how some of our local artists prepare for a solo exhibition and what it means to them, we might want to spend a little more time considering the art on display.
A solo exhibition of fine art is years in the making. In fact, when someone asks me how long it took me to create a particular painting, I like to say “all my life.” In truth, every work produced by an artist is the culmination of a lifetime of hard work and dedication to this discipline. Mastery isn’t achieved overnight. Creating art is only part of the equation. We also endure the struggle and expense of figuring out how to exhibit it. It’s complicated. Each painting selected for an exhibition is like a chapter in a novel. It must fit the theme, be displayed in a sequence that serves the narrative, and have enough chapters to complete the story. And, like any novel, an exhibition needs readers.
Geoff Bladon prepares for an exhibition by “thinking about the venue, size and number of paintings that would be suitable, associated costs like the venue fees, framing, reception, publicity” and any other responsibilities that fall to the artist. Bob Steinmetz adds that assigning prices to the works is another important factor, and that “it is important to me how well the show is hung and the overall quality of how well my work is presented to the public.” This means proper framing, expert hanging, and adequate lighting. As Bjorn Runquist puts it, this stage of preparation is “triage.” And, if you’re wondering how much all this costs, it can be, and often is, thousands of dollars.
But, an exhibition without patrons and viewers isn’t worth much to the artist. So, our advance efforts include photography, writing notices, creating posters, mailing postcards, sending out emails, and talking to friends. The majority of artists that I’ve spoken with would love to have a personal assistant to handle this. For that matter, we’d like them to handle marketing and bookkeeping as well. Only a select few artists have enough funds to afford this type of help, so we’re mostly on our own.
Once the exhibition is up and ready, the artist has only to deal with her emotions. What will happen? What do I hope will happen? What’s the worst that can happen? Anxiety sets in. As Otty Merrill puts it, exhibiting her work “is a blessing and opportunity, and a bit of a curse to show and get feedback. It’s important to remind myself often that my art is simply a product of my energy and point of view, and putting myself out there is a choice.” Therefore, a solo exhibition is an existential experience for the artist. We feel hope and anxiety beforehand. On opening night, we’re happy for the viewers who contemplate our work and offer us encouragement. If our work sells, we’re ecstatic and confident in our ability. Relief sets in when the exhibition ends, and then despondency if we take home most of the art that was on display. This leads to postpARTem blues as we doubt our talent and struggle to find the rationale that will send us back to the easel. Optimism and confidence eventually win the fight and we can again declare “I AM an artist!”
By now, you might be asking yourself why an artist would choose to have a solo exhibition. There are several reasons. We need the income to pay the expense of creating the work in the first place. That income also allows us to exclusively devote our time creating art throughout the year. Because most patrons don’t beat on the doors of our studios to see our work, we must bring it to the public. There is also the psychological aspect of why we make art. Merrill feels that “making art alone can be like singing in the forest alone…does anyone hear me?” Artists use their works to communicate with others, so it needs to exist among others. According to Runquist, “My hopes for a show have changed a great deal over the years. At first, it was hope for recognition, good reviews, etc. Now, it is more the pleasure that others will enjoy it as well and that some will sell.” Bladon feels “there is a sense of satisfaction in seeing a considerable amount of your work hung together. You feel like you’ve accomplished something. Sales, of course, indicate viewers support you by voting with their wallet, which is encouraging. But, meaningful positive comments from your peers whom you respect is probably the best outcome hoped for.” Therefore, communication and support are important motivators for artists who decide to hold a solo exhibition.
This summer, there will be dozens of artist receptions at venues dotting the St. George peninsula. Awaiting you is an artist who took a lifetime and great effort to create and display the works that you will view, and who hopes that you’ll spend some time in a meaningful contemplation. A solo art exhibition is much more than a cocktail party, it’s a culturally enriching experience that creates dialogue within a community and within oneself. It’s where we can discover our humanity.
—Katharine A. Cartwright