Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Gauntlet

The 2012 Amagansett Fine Arts Festival has started into motion, and with it comes all of the nervous excitement of another big product launch as all of the methods and motives have been developed and articulated. In some ways, I'm just a small human element in the clock-like machinery of the festival. Most things fall into place with a Swiss watchmaker's precision, while other things are grown and cultivated like the tomato plants that are now withering on the deck in the chill of October.

Here in my quiet little place in the woods, I'm actually part of a fairly dynamic and angst-ridden artist group. Together we have an informal series of artist crits, culminating with a series of interconnected open studios spanning two not-so-far points in Chester county, known as the Chester County Studio Tour. Initially it was described as a "ragtag group of arguing pseudo-intellectuals", which started as a "casual monthly discussion". After dinner last night with my fellow pseudo-intellectual Jeff Schaller and his wife and family, I realized how it all really began.

A long time ago, in an art show far, far away, Jeff and I were both on a fledgling flight in the center of Rittenhouse Square Park. Like frail little birds, we tested the breeze, our nubby little wings trembling in the crisp and cool air of an early morning in June. We were separated by a short walk past a giant statue of a lion desperately and ferociously pinning a writhing snake to the ground under its claws, both of them locked in a mortal struggle for dominance and survival. As each day of that first art festival dragged endlessly on, we started throwing punches. He had great hair, I had better jokes, when I started selling one painting after another, he berated me for using large black trash bags to wrap my work for the clients. Back and forth, on and on, our stamina to defy each other was relentless. By the end of the weekend, we had spent enough time squaring off that we realized the fight was on, the gauntlet had been thrown down, that we were just getting warmed up. Over the years, we've made a huge amount of noise, with our wit and humor being sharpened and refined to keep up with our insight and experience. While I'm endlessly mixing colors, he's running circles around me, layering concepts and textures. When I talk about balance and harmony, he's talking about jazz and cacophany. I say "make nice", and he says "there's no money in it". On and on and on, Jesus-God don't make me stop this car.

After only a few years of doing the Rittenhouse Square Art Show together, our paths reached a fork in the road. Jeff dropped his interest in outdoor festivals to pursue relationships with galleries, while I started driving further and further across the country, to explore more and more new outdoor festival markets. In the meantime, my galleries dwindled and gathered dust. By the time we were neighbors living in the same stretch of forest spanning Downingtown and West Chester, we would catch up less than once a month to compare notes between our jaunts around the country and across the world.

Just to create an agenda that had the potential to stir up some dust again, the Chester County Studio Crit was formed. In the guise of a true artist's critique, we squared off again, only this time the mosh pit of bodies between us provided a fertile foundation of thought-provoking carnage and tears. The underlying motivation for the crit was to create a forum for networking, in addition to the thinktank that seemed to create more than the sum of its parts. The very notion of the crit itself became a double-edged sword, and the spiritually maimed and wounded artists would thin out and replacements would wait in the wings for their invitation to join. Over the years we've learned how to approach hobbyists, mentalists, perfectionists and slackers. Some of the most amazing artists have taken part in some of the meetings, and each have enlightened us with their own versions of brilliance and accomplishment. The Studio Crit spawned the Studio Tour, some group shows, and an ongoing series of collaborative projects. But of course, we all just want more.

I suppose it's something in human nature, that we want to build something, and when it works, we want to make it bigger and better. As the Chester County Studio Tour goes into its fourth year, the next phase begins to develop. As the Amagansett Fine Arts Festival goes into its second year, I can't help but envision all the ways I can do a better job. When we built the studio tour, I realized how a festival is just an intelligent combination of the components of artists and promotion, and building a festival is just a more evolved version of the same formula. I'm not saying it's easy, but it sure is a good challenge.

We're acting a little more like grownups now, but Jeff and I still can get pretty loud when we start comparing notes. Here you can read Jeff Schaller's rant about the most recent artist crit.