Episode 100: Today I talk to David French, of David French Originals. David is a local celebrity around Charlotte, building an industry of precise, almost super-realist paintings of Charlotte landmarks. I had the opportunity to go to his studio for an “on-site chat” in what we call the “NoDa” neighborhood [North Davidson]. [I say it’s episode 101, but it’s actually my 100th episode!]
Good-bye Athens 1964-2006 8 oil on wood 36″x 80″ 2006 original in the private collection of Bragg Investments NC-17″ signed prints available
PENGUIN NIGHTS 2007 Oil on canvas 12″x36″ original in private collection. 17inch print available
Cabo-Fish Taco 2013, acrylic and oil on wood, 48″x24″ prints available, 17″ signed prints available
“THE NEIGHBORHOOD THEATER 2008″ NoDa Oil on canvas 8″x24″ Original in private collection Charlotte NC :17″ signed prints available
Goodbye Andersons 1946-2006 oil on wood 18″x80″ original in private collection of Bragg Investments, CHARLOTTE, NC–17″ SIGNED AND NUMBERED PRINTS AVAILABLE
Spring at St Mary’s 2008 original in the private collection of Bragg Investments NC Apr 08 36″x80″ oil on wood – 17 inch signed prints available .
I was able to actually go to the gallery to see the exhibition for myself. This emotionally charged show literally brought tears to my eyes as it shows a unique take on the nature of struggle and the beauty that can result.
Today I sat down with artist, Christopher Clamp, on site at the Jerald Melburg Gallery, in Charlotte, NC. It was fascinating learning about his process. He’s quite a thinker and adds many layers of meaning to every piece he does.
I was looking at your pictures & I was fascinated. I felt a little foolish that I didn’t ask you when i was here last [interviewing Jerald Melberg] if you did anything artistic. That would seem an obvious question. So when did you start painting?
CC: When I was in high school, I always drew pictures and did comic strips and things like that. But it wasn’t until my sophomore year in high school that I picked up acrylic paint and I just fell in love with the texture of it, and the smell and everything.
Initially I wanted to be an art teacher, so I was going to go to college to kind of pursue that route. But when I went to college I was able to pick up painting classes and that was when I threw myself into that.
Right. But this exhibit is with oil…
CC: Yeah….So when I was in college, it was primarily acrylic paint that were taught at Winthrop. But it was one summer…I was really interested in oil paint because many of the artists I was inspired by, they were working in that medium and I wanted to know more about it. But there really wasn’t anyone around me that was using it. So I had done this little project over the summer at one point and it gave me some extra money, so I went ahead and invested in some oils and just tried to figure out how to do it and picked up a great book by Ralph Mayer, called The Artist’s Handbook, and that really taught a lot about the chemistry of oil painting.
Awesome…Awesome. And I don’t know a lot about oil paint, I’ve never used it. How does it compare to tempera or any other sort of paint?
CC: So oil paint, to me, one thing I love about it is how flexible it is…and flexible in many ways. Physically, it’s very flexible, if you paint properly with it. But also the dry time. Because acrylic painting always seemed to me like it would dry before I even made a brushstroke.
CC: And I like to kind of work into the painting a little bit…to model the image or the object a bit more. But with the oil paint also, there’s something hard to describe, but with acrylic paint, it’s very flat, in terms of how it feels but also the depth of oil. I mean you can make a dark color in oil paint or a rich color in oil paint and it immediately just feels like it goes into the picture plan. That was something i just noticed initially. It had a whole other layer of depth to it. I was very seduced by it. And obviously the smell of it is really great.
Stories in Stillness
So I was really fascinated with this exhibition, Stories in Stillness. And they’re objects and antiques from your Grandfather?
Tell us about that.
CC: Ok. Well, I grew up in a small town in South Carolina called Leesville. Now it’s called Batesburg Leesville. My grandfather was a millworker, but he was also a farmer and he collected a lot of things from wherever he would see them, on the side of the road or wherever, so the barn was just full of this stuff.
He really helped raise me and my brother because my parents worked really long, strange shifts in mills just to help pay the bills. So I would spend a lot of time with him, just rummaging through the barn and just playing with all of these objects. They seemed to take on this whole other being to me, as a child. But also, now, as an adult, when I go and visit my parents, I’ll find some of these objects and they even have a whole other meaning to me now, looking back on things. I find it’s an interesting tool to use to kind of convey a story or something maybe related to a person I’ve known or a current event or something like that.
You mentioned in the brochure that they take on a whole new meaning if you take pictures, frame them and it truly does transform them to art and it is kind of like a different thing. It makes me think of Magritte’s pipe: Ceci n’est pas une pipe. And it’s not a pipe. He’s changed the physical object to a piece of art. And that’s what you’ve done with your grandfather’s antiques.
CC: Well thank you. I appreciate that. Yeah, it’s funny you mention Magritte and that’s a painting I’ve always enjoyed and I use that as a comparison when talking to people about my work or abstract work also. It’s not what it appears to be.
But with the paintings from this show, I guess it’s been this way with me and my paintings I’ve done through the years; In many ways I paint them for me. It’s almost a way for me to reconnect with that time of life that was very transformative to me.
CC: …reconnect with people, family that are no longer here. Or just reconnect with something…So many of the times the paintings are kind of done to kind of reach for something or explore something. I think it’s great that other people enjoy the paintings and like to look at them or share them or even take them home. That’s another thing that’s really special to me.
Yeah, that’s got to be such a high to have done all this work and be emotionally involved in this painting that reminds you of your grandfather and then have someone appreciate it so much that they buy it and take it home. Then they are appreciating it too, on a different level. I just think that’s got to be huge.
CC: Oh, absolutely. And another thing that’s really fun about it to me is I try not to talk too much about the work when I have an exhibition and they want me to talk, give a gallery walk-through, I try to stay somewhat vague because they have a whole other meaning to me that I don’t want to spell out to someone else because it’s very personal thing that I think I can be very unique to every individual. One thing I’ve been fortunate to experience is sometimes people will come up to me at an exhibition and maybe they’ve seen a painting of mine as an object in it and it just kind of clicks. It’s like a catalyst for a memory that they’ve just forgotten. They haven’t remembered this in forever….They just tell me this story about something that happened when they were a kid or someone they knew, and you can just tell that it’s very touching moment because their eyes are very twinkly and I LOVE it because that’s not my story. That’s their story.
I think it’s great because the painting served as a catalyst for this connection and I just love all of that.
Attraction, 2005, 2006
Yeah, there’s such transformative power in art…It’s just amazing.
CC: Yeah. This was several years ago, but I was fortunate enough to be included in an exhibition in New York state at this museum. The show is one that I had often followed. It’s called Representing Representation. They used three of my paintings and I was just blown away that I was included in this show. And about a month later or so, I had had a young girl reach out to me through my website in an email. They had to write some sort of term paper… They had gone to see the show with their high school group and had to write some sort of paper on a painting. So she asked me a few questions in the email. Just to elaborate a little bit, just to break things down a little bit, and I did that. And she wrote an essay, that was kind of a short story where the painting kind of came into part of it, but it was very autobiographical. She ended up sending it to me. I was just so honored that she picked my painting for that.
That’s amazing! I bet that was such a high!
CC: It was great!
So you have the Stories of Stillness, but then I saw you had Butterflies. Is that a different series?
CC: A lot of times with my work, I might have the object. I might start with THAT, and say I have to paint THAT. And I don’t know why. Maybe it just sort of tugs at me from something I remember…maybe I don’t quite remember, but it’s going to resurface at some point. So I start the object of the painting. Sometimes I’ll plan things out much more meticulously. So the first painting that that butterfly appeared in was this painting, Aria…
CC: And I just loved it with all the different colors…the vibration and lines, with the bellows and vents and keys. It just has this great vibration. I loved it and wanted to paint it, but I needed something above it to kind of interact with it, without interacting with it, at the same time. I wanted it to be organic to contrast this artificial object with…and I’ve used feathers before in this show and also previous shows. But I didn’t want to use that again. In my mind, as I was working on it, I playfully just called it Aria. Because I thought it was another contrast to this very informal object, using that formal term. Then…and I like that….so as I would continue to paint, another musical term popped up. And that was Madame Butterfly…
CC: And then I said, hey wait a minute, that’s something to think about…butterfly. So I did some research and I looked into different types of butterflies and colors and shapes and everything. That’s when I selected this one. I found the perfect photograph that I wanted to use, and I thought it was a great addition in terms of color and how playful it was….
That is great.
CC: And after that painting, I really liked that image, or that possibility. I’ve been doing a lot of research on butterflies while I’ve been working on that. So I had started to plan out this painting, Union. And I was carefully planning this one out because I really wanted this to be a much more elaborate setup. This one was dealing with a lot of current events that I wanted to focus on. So the butterfly here is the perfect thing to kind of oversee this painting and connect the shapes and there’s this triangle shape that now fulfills and this was an Eastern Swallowtail which is a very common butterfly that we have around here. This is a female butterfly, due to its markings. I liked that idea that you could use the butterfly, where it’s from…its gender… things like that to kind of tell a story…even if no one knows it.
CC: So this one, her wing is actually broken…
Right. What is the salt?
CC: Well the Morton’s Salt container, I’ve used before in paintings; and I love it as an object.
Yeah, it’s great!
CC: When I grew up there was all this old advertising stuff around.
LOVE that kind of stuff.
Union, 2016, 17
CC: Yeah, I love it too. My grandfather collected all this stuff. You know, the Sunbeam Bread girl….You know all this stuff. So the Morton’s Salt containers are something that was very dear to me. I wanted to use them again. I wanted to use, you know, there’s different labels from different years, with different illustrations, which I liked. So I decided to use this image again, using this ring of salt around them, which…
CC: …in many cultures is believed to be a protective barrier and I liked that. This is an old table top that I got out of my grandfather’s barn, actually.
CC: So here you’ve got these three girls here, because the butterfly is also female, the three sides of the triangle. I like to play into a lot of the symbolism that is numerology. But this one, you know it’s a painting about current events, but, to me, it was just a curious image that hopefully the audience can come into and keep seeing something different each time, maybe asking questions of the painting and continue in a conversation. Not just looking at it and moving on.
And then the third painting I did in the show was called Duality and this was one I was planning out while working with the previous painting, Union. Again, while I was researching different butterflies, I thought, wow, this is so neat. I can use it as another piece from my image bank that can represent so many things.
Someone once asked me what my pictures were about. In many ways they’re about relations or relationships. Like I was telling you earlier about trying to connect with someone. You know these objects personify someone to me. Or someone I’ve known…or would like to know someday. And sometimes it’s the relationship of the object to another object. Trying to examine relationships.
Some artists don’t seem as concerned with the audience. They’re more concerned with making their image…And that’s fine. I totally respect that. With me, I’m very much thinking it through, with the audience in mind because I want someone to come to the painting and it speak to them on some level and for the audience to spend some time with the painting and go through those layers, like you described and maybe discover something within the painting that is within themselves.
Carmella Jarvi is a former painter that has since evolved into glassmaking with kiln glass. It’s really fantastic looking- She invited me to her studio, behind her house, which is in my neighborhood!
–So I was looking at some of your stuff and it’s really exquisite!
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c. C. Jarvi
–How did you…I don’t know anything about…glass making…blowing…anything…
–How did you get into it?
So I’ve always had a secret love for glass. But as an artist, married to an artist, I couldn’t just pick up and change. I was a painter for decades, and just had drooled over glass and enjoyed other people making glass, but my inspiration is water. So from my birth, basically my whole life, my inspiration has been about water, chasing water and trying to capture it in paint. And finally we went to a family wedding in Mexico, and the tropical waters, and the underwater caves…I just came back and said “Paints are too ugly. I just can’t paint…i can’t capture water with paint. So I have to learn glass.” And that was six years ago.
Carmella & her Price Waterhouse Cooper’ commission, c. Mitchell Kearney Photography 2015
Wow! Ok, now what kind of paint did you use?
I did pastel painting. I did oil…acrylic watercolor. So I did a lot of different types of paintings. And if you actually Google me, the images, you’ll see a lot of women in water paintings. But I had a friend, Rose who is a glass artist here in Charlotte…and that clicking is one of the kilns…
The random clicking…I only have one going right now, so it won’t be too crazy…
So you know, Rose said, “Come on out, I don’t care if you can’t pay me. I’ll share what I know. And she was really generous with teaching me. And then I won an Arts and Sciences council Regional project grant. I had 20 sessions with her. And then I realized I really needed my own studio at home. As awesome as that was, it’s a community set up. I’m driving with all my glass. It’s down I-85, you know, twice a day, which is stressful. You know, by a prayer, “Please don’t hit me.”
[laughter] Exactly. Please don’t let me hit a bump…
But I’ve always been an artist and loved art, but I’m just driven in a new way since I switched to glass. It’s like a new passion and then even if I’m working a lot on some other business projects, I’m out here nearly every day. So I will squeeze in a couple of hours at night, or you know, last night I was out here until like, 9:30. And I’m out here this morning. And then, you know, before I showered…
So I really am trying to do as much as I can.
That’s cool that you can do that, though.
Yes, it’s cool sometimes, and sometimes it sucks. Because you have to walk past the checkbook, the yard, the laundry. You know, and I’m married to an artist. Although, it has its perks. It also has its downside. We’ve financed a lot of things; We’ve done without. Theres been many times we’ve shared a car…an old car, ridden the bus. You know, and luckily things have turned around. Not luckily, but thanks to God, and a lot of hard work.
A team effort. But you know, so it has it’s days where it’s wonderful and sometimes it sucks. Especially when the big bills come.
Yeah….What kind of art does your husband do?
He’s a painter. He does encaustic paintings. He’s been a painter all his life. But he’s really switched, made this transition into more abstract work, which is very exciting. So we’ve known each other for 25 years and been together for, like 22.
Yeah, so the studio you’re sitting in has half his, half mine. We have a little barrier in between.
Because we are married…You know
laugher. That’s wild! So what is it like being married to an artist?
You do have good questions. That was one of the things I liked about your podcast.
You do ask some good questions.
Well, let me start by saying, I’m not a typical artist.
I’ve always been an artist, wanted to be an artist, always been a practicing artist, even when I was a full time art teacher. Always did it on the side. We don’t have kids, but I like business. I’m very organized. I’m kind of half in the middle of the creative, verbal…So I’m very good at managing multiple of things. I do a lot of managing, marketing, grant writing. And I’m married to a super talented, yet more typical artist who hates it…
Right…I was going to say, most artists don’t like that…
He hates business. But I will say, over the years…I’ve been full time for about 10 years…a full time artist…and he’s been, he took the plunge three years ago to be a full time artist and he’s really worked hard to network and you know won like the CSA has an art pop billboard…you know…so he’s done some things that give credibility.
As artists you can get your MFA, you can even go and get a doctorate, but there’s not really professional endorsements that you get. It’s a little different than other professional degrees. And so as an artist you want to have collectors or galleries, or win grants, or residencies, because it’s, like, your professional endorsement. So if they are investing in you, then other people are more apt to invest. Especially when you get above the beginner or cheaper work. You know, when you are asking people to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars, you’re not just flitting from this to this. So that helps.
Yeah, that is so great!
I genuinely love business.
That’s so wild, because most shy away from that. But that’s cool, because you can do it for both you and your husband…
No. No. Because we’re married. We have negotiated…like…we do trades. He is really good at design. He does my business cards. He is my go-to guy when I’m trying to put words with images…
I will ask his opinion. You know, so I trade him his graphic design skills for some of my business consulting. And that works better.
Oh, that’s cool.
Because when you’re really good at something, it doesn’t mean you want to do it all the time. So as an artist, I’m still a team of one. So I would have to do my art, my other business projects, plus the stuff for him while he gets to be with his art. So… I mean, that’s…that’s not what he’s asking me to do, but that’s kind of why it doesn’t work out like that. I mean, I help him. I help other artists. I love helping other artists, but after being a full time artist for 10 years, I realize I was giving a lot of stuff away. And I have to pull back. This is expensive. This has been an enormous capital investment with the kilns and the electrical and the lights. You know, because we had to have the studio rewired, because he was running heat guns and all of the heating units and I was trying to run kilns and our electricity used to be run down the backyard. They kind of rig it, so when the air conditioner was on or you did laundry, you could not run a kiln at the same time. So we had to bite the bullet and pay for this to be done with new electricity. We have a business Duke Energy line. So it’s another bill. You know, but it’s great because we can run all the kilns and I think we’ve only tripped the switch once in two years and that was when we were both doing our little air conditioning unit. You know, it was the heat of summer and he turned his on and it popped it. And, you know, it was fine. We just can’t run everything but we can run a lot. So….
Well that was another question I had. I have no concept of what goes into melting glass, so if I’m asking a stupid question…
All good questions.
But, like, I’ve worked with clay…not professionally…someone else has fired it in the kiln for me…but is it kind of like that?
Uh, yeah. I have started with factory glass and I get it from Bullseye. Bullseye Glass out in Portland. There have been some controversial things that have happened with them and the practices. And if anyone has followed along with them. They’ve basically created some new filtering systems and things like that…but I buy my glass from Bullseye. It’s very pretty. It’s compatible. Because when you are melting things, you want them to be compatible. If I had a piece of glass that melted at one temperature, trying to combine it with glass that melted at a different temperature, it would actually crack and have, you know, internal stress. So you have to have glass that’s compatible.
Some people will use, will fire just window glass. It’s called flirt glass; and that’s fine, but that’s not your art glass. I use expensive, beautiful art glass. And I start with sheets or stringers or grit and basically combine the glass; melt it. What’s unusual about what I do, well…back up….there are so many steps…So I do kiln glass which is also called warm glass. So you think about your cold glass, which is stained glass and you don’t ever heat it. So that’s cold glass. And then you have warm glass which you use a kiln. It’ s kind of like a clay kiln, but it’s a little different with the shelves and things. And then you have hot glass, which is blown glass with the furnace. So basically with a kiln, you’re melting it as hot as you would in a furnace – if you want to – you can get it that hot. You don’t have to. So there’s a lot of science and math and a lot of learning. So I spent probably three and a half years, just learning a lot, making mistakes and learning from that. But what I do different is I actually cast the glass in the kiln. So I make a big form of glass and then I will cut it with a tile saw because you always use water when you’re cutting glass, or break it and recombine it with other glass. So I’m actually using the gravity of heat to move the glass. And that’s how I make these interesting forms.
–It’s like a science project…. Since this is completely new to me, I might not be asking the right questions, But I was interested in what is your inspiration? So, like for the bowls, how did you decide what color to make them, how did you decide what shape to make them?
So, water inspires everything. The whole reason I’m doing glass is because I’m trying to capture water. So I do a lot with the teals and the beautiful turquoise blues and things like that. But then I get tired of doing the same things over and over again and just variety, or doing a commission, using the colors of the business. I did a Price Waterhouse Cooper’s commission and I’m doing another corporate commission now. I’m using colors that fit with their… corporate colors, basically….
[Carmella swats a fly out of her kiln]
–Do they ever get in the glass?
No. If they did, they would burn out. That’s the downside of having a studio with the doors open and everything. And it’s actually pretty cool here right now. In the dead of summer, it could be 95 degrees. And when the kilns are going, it gets hot.
But all of the inspiration comes from water. Then I end up getting cool combinations of opaque and translucent colors or playing with the same elements of art, principles of design that every artist uses. So I can contrast between a duller color and a brighter color. And so I find things I visually like and I repeat them, experimenting with different colors and different steps. Different firings.
I’ve always been drawn to water. I grew up…my grandparents had a place on Lake Norman. So I literally spent my whole life in water. Never learned to swim. Never officially. Just have been fascinated with water. And then I discovered swimming pools and all the other water sources. Going to rivers and the beach. Even my name, Jarvi is Finnish. The pre-Ellis Island translation means “beautiful lake.” And my grandfather would swim in the lake year round. He was from Michigan, so even in the winter, he was out there in the water. There’s just something about it. So many levels to it. We’re made of water. So much…the earth. There’s a spiritual level, you know, baptism and just level after level after level and then it’s just beautiful…
–Yeah, I was going to say, it’ s just beautiful
Just yet the most simplest thing and trying to capture it is so hard. As a painter to try to capture it…and what was interesting as I was trying to go more and more abstract but literally splattering water and layering paint between clear varnishes to try to get the depth and then I went to Mexico and said, ‘ok forget it.’ And so I’ve been pretty much doing glass for the last six years.
—When I was looking at your website, I saw that you did what you call “public art.” And when I think of ‘public art,’ I think statues and things like that. So, do you do glass statues? How would you protect that?
So what I’m doing, I have been doing for the last probably 5 or 6 years is scaling up my work. So you have a studio artist, a painter who works solely in their studio. And you have a public artist who do work out in the public. It could be traditional sculptures, it could be paintings, it could be projective light. There is a lot of different types of public art. And you know, in Charlotte, we’ve been pretty blessed to have an Arts Council and people in leadership who understand it. Now not everyone loves every piece…
–Right, and they don’t have to…
Yeah, it’s very beautiful and there’s a nice concentration of it uptown. You can have privately funded public art or publicly funded public art. So basically I’ve been moving from very small scale pieces that someone will collect or a business will have in the interior of their office, to scaling up my work.
So the first time it happened in 2014, I got one of the ArtPop billboards. So my glass was put on vinyl and it was 14 feet by 48 feet.
Right, so that was the first time my little glass had been scaled up. So when I’m talking about the public art, I haven’t made it in the way that…so the thing about public art is you have to kind of get one in order to qualify.
So I’m at this point where I’ve had some cool larger scale; either my glass on a digital projection or the billboard or some larger pieces of glass, but not large scale like that
So when I’m working with small, I call them proto-types, working with mosaics, like taking glass and doing the little pieces of it and doing some cast glass. So that you can have a glass that’s outside. We’re not in Arizona, so it’s a little different. Because the thing about glass is, it’s a slow moving liquid. People think of it as a solid, but it’s its not really a solid. So if you go and do glass and you have a glass structure in a really hot environment, it is going to actually slowly change…
And I’ve had three pieces of my cast glass outside for a year and a half. So they’re out in the Charlotte elements, the heat of summer…the cold winter, and nothing’s happened. So I’m just, you know, there’s a precedence for having outdoor glass, but I’m pushing boundaries and testing myself.
And then there are other opportunities like public transportation. So there’s a lot of times artists will make small prototypes and then have someone else fabricate and install it. So, right now I’ve applied for something in New York with the transportation where they’re looking for emerging artists to create pieces of art that they will have then have fabricated in mosaic or other things and professionally installed.
And, you know, it’s a long shot, but you get the first one and then it opens up, you know, just like grants. It took me a while to get the first grant and then you get more. And then there’s the other public art application for my glass is having my glass on plastics or other man made materials. There’s a lot that’s being done with different types of not just vinyl… people think vinyl and billboard…and that’s cool but there’s a lot of really nice ventricular plastics where you can get multiple views, depending on the way that you look at it. So I really had some cool ideas with projective light, and not just the glass, but other clear and translucent plastics.
You know, so I’m at this transitional point where I’m still creating glass and I always will, but I’m looking for venues to scale it up and have it produced in other materials. So I’m not going to do a 20-foot glass sculpture for something. You know, I’m not set up to do it and even if I was, I wouldn’t want to do something at that scale. I would have someone else go and create it. I would help to manage it and my vision and that’s another cool thing about public art is you get to be more the administrator. Like you create the original vision and the original piece that it’s based off of, but then other artisans basically create it and install it. You know, pretty exciting.
—I’ve seen artists who have installations in museums and galleries and they have other people doing it. I’ve always wondered how they feel about that. How do they know that those people are going to do it right?
Right. Well so you’re an integral part of it, and this is where a lot of artists will say, “Oh, I wanna be a public artist, because there’s a call and it’s $50,000.” Well the actual part that the artist is getting paid out of that is much smaller and a $50,000 public art budget is tiny in the big public art scale of things, but the artists are just looking at the dollar signs, not realizing all of the meetings, all of the interaction with the players involved. You know, whether they’re neighbors or your community leaders, or the craftsmen and women who are going to make it. It’s a very tedious process. You know, it’s not easy money, but I’ve always been a risk taker. You know, like just quitting my safe teaching job as a high school art teacher for ten years. I just quit. I don’t recommend doing that, but ten years later, here I am…
—That’s awesome. Where did you teach?
I was out in Cabarrus County, at Northwest Cabarrus High School. It was a great program and I had an awesome other teacher that I worked with. So we basically started out with a very small art elective program. Like Art 1/Art 2; Pottery 1 and 2 and we grew it into Art 1 to Art 4 and there was AP Art, Fiber Arts, different clay. It was really cool. Some of the students I’m still involved with and friends with. It’s been a real blessing.
But as a teacher you keep giving and giving. So it’s nice to go, I’m not getting any younger, I want to be an artist too.
–Yeah, this is for me
And I kept giving it away. I mean, I loved it
–No, No, I understand
Especially high school
–So where on the timeline of teaching art did you make the transition from painting to glass?
That was after I quit, so I went to school to be an art teacher and graduated from UNC Charlotte, also with a philosophy degree. I love words!
I was philosophy senior of the year.
–Oh, I love that!
And I’m actually more proud of that because it was such a tiny program and very difficult. So I wrote, like, a 50 page senior thesis.
I mean, it was! I mean I never want to go back to school just for that reason. But you know, so I graduated and went straight into teaching public school art and taught for 13 years. The last ten of those, so from 96 to 2006 I taught out in Cabarrus County and I genuinely loved it but I knew I wanted to follow my own dreams. So I quit and continued painting and teaching. You know even if you’re a self-employed artist, you have to have multiple revenue streams…
If you want to pay the bills and you don’t have someone paying for you. That’s the way it is. So I continued painting and in 2011 we went to the Mexico trip and I said,
“I’ve got to do it,” and I switched.
–Good for you! So, I want to talk a little bit about that. Like, how scary was that?
Very scary. I mean, I’m still having dental work done. You know, so a teacher artist, married to an artist and then I’m just switching and I have another business endeavor that I’m working on. I’m probably going to lose a little more on the flats of my teeth. [laughs] It’s scary, but it’s also like, I had hippie parents which is both good and bad. The good part of it was I could do, they told me I could do whatever I wanted. You know, and the people in my life, I was always encouraged. So it’s scary, but I don’t want to get…I’ve seen so many people with their life wait and wait and wait until I get retirement. Wait until this happens. Wait until…well life’s a moving target. This get’s better and then this sucks. Now you may have more money, but then you lose your health, or your spouse or your family. I’ve spent a lot of time taking care of family. It was scary, but I had to do it.
–I’m with you. Life’s too short. You need to be doing something that you love. Everyone has these ideas of what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to have this job. You’re supposed to be making this much money at this time. And if not, something’s wrong with you. You’re supposed to have this degree and if you don’t, you can’t get this job and then, what if you’re stuck in something you don’t like and then you’ve wasted all this time getting that degree or working that job. I really admire you for taking the plunge. You’re my hero.
Awww. It was kind of crazy here. Life is uncertain and everyone takes risks in different places. But I think when you don’t have kids…that helps.
And an artist…you know…if we don’t have kids, why am I not doing this?
You know it’s different…we’ve discussed it many times, if we had had kids, it would be a totally different thing.
But it’s actually scarier to not do things. I’m one that if I get to a point; it’s not that I get bored; it’s that – so I painted women and water for years. And I genuinely loved it. I pushed it in different directions and I still sometimes miss it. You know, when I think about painting, I would still sometimes love to be able to do it. But life is so short, you know, you have to pick and choose…you have to pick and choose your friends and the beauty of getting older is you do realize that you don’t have to do that and artists actually get a pass. I realized, you know, I’ve been around a lot of people who had money and collectors and people. What’s interesting is that they’re a little envious of us.
So they are working hard in their life, for their kids to leave the nest, so they can retire. So they can sell everything and go live on an island or something like that. So it’s kind of interesting.
–Yeah, it is.
And even if you get a degree in one thing, it can help you in something else.
So, like my philosophy degree; my family was kind of like What? Why are you doing this? Because it did add extra semesters and it was really hard. I’m again, most proud of the philosophy degree and I love art and teaching and it wasn’t that it was easy but I really worked for that degree. But it’s helped me in grant writing. It’s helped me in connecting with people; When I write, when I speak. It’s helped me to be a better teacher. So all of those things that you would think, what’s a BA in philosophy going to do? Actually it’s probably served me quite well. Because basically, everyone in school was like oh, if you make it they will come. What a load of garbage. Then and now.
You need the business, you need to be able to articulate what you’re doing and share the excitement. You don’t have to be bubbly and verbose like me. It’s personality driven. You can be very flat and like British humor and still be very successful if you share that with people.
Artists are also entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs are by nature very positive. They don’t look at failure as bad. I mean, you want to make calculated risks and not be stupid, but entrepreneurs are a lot different from artists because artists are by nature very pessimistic, melancholy. And it’s a hard life. I’m not saying it’s easy, but in business it’s exciting when you do something and you take some risk – And big risk, big reward. If you never really take any risk then, yes, you may enjoy painting that painting for the 4 thousandth time, but you’re losing that joy.
I am excited about a new project I’m starting. It’s an internet based platform for artists where they can go and it helps them with their business. It’s like a digital assistant. So it would help them with their writing and help them with their images. It would help them with their web presences over all and applications.
–That’s really cool!
Now this is scary. This is the stuff I lose a lot of sleep over. Because it’s totally different. It’s in the tech world. I’m working on raising funds to get the website built, finding partners, which is interesting.
–Oh, that is so exciting!
And that way I can help artists. That’s the cool part
–I just love how you keep reinventing yourself and you don’t seem scared of it. You’re just like, this is what I’m doing.
Well it’s a natural segue way and I love people, so there are times I’m wake up and go, what have I done? You know, What am I doing? Especially something like this tech project. You know it’s going to be something like 90 to 150 thousand dollars just to get the website built. But that’s everything. You know the website is everything. I can’t have a friend of mine do it from their garage.
Even though I love technology, it frustrates me a lot. So I will go on call for entry and I’m doing a show for something and my Photoshop doesn’t work right, or whatever it is, there’s always a glitch in it. And it drives me crazy too.
You know, PC/Mac compatibility. There’s all kinds of stuff. And I have an understanding of technology so if my friends really don’t, it’s worse for them. And I know some really talented artists who don’t apply for national shows just because they don’t want to deal with it. They don’t want to resize their photos and they don’t quite know how to do this.
So that’s what’s really exciting is I’ve spent my whole life helping other people and a lot of other artists. As an art teacher, I was helping creatives and budding artists…
Yeah! creating creatives. So now I can help them with that, but it also means that I have to say no to things more. So now I’m just going to work on my glass and this project. I can’t have all these little things going on, or I will lose my mind. Some of it’s already gone.
–Haha. But that’s a good thing.
–I wanted to ask you, who is your clientele?
Who supports me?
–Do you sell to stores? Because there’s all these cute little art stores around town, or sell to individuals?
So, because glass is so expensive, I’m already at the price point now where I’m not making any money after investing all of this stuff. So backing up, a couple of years ago, I was with Sozo gallery, which is in Uptown Charlotte, and it’s a great little gallery and we had a good relationship. So I was selling little pieces. I make everything from what I call little mini glass trays, basically tiny little pieces of glass which someone can buy for 50 bucks up to doing commission pieces for 4 grand.
…And I’m happy to do more.
But I do try to make and sell some things are small, that people who are really on a tight budget or my artists and creative friends can get. But then I want some things that would fill that spot that’s needing the art in a larger home or business.
So at Sozo, she sold to a number of different people. I did get the Price Waterhouse Cooper’s commission through Sozo, but she’s in Charlotte and I’m in Charlotte and there’s an exclusivity clause, which a lot of galleries will have. So I could not sell my art anywhere else without giving her her cut.
Right, and I understand because it’s very expensive to be a gallery owner and she’s taking the overhead cost and all of that, but because I’m in Charlotte, it made it kind of difficult. I was at the McColl’s center for a fundraiser and I sold some work through McColl. Well, I gave half of what I made for McColl to the gallery.
So we decided to part ways. So I’ve been without a gallery for about a year and a half now. This past week, I dropped off some glass at a gallery called Coffey and Thompson, in Southend. It’s been around for a long time, but it was recently bought by a new owner and they’re doing some cool stuff. So it’s moving from what it was into something new and they’re wanting to show more art, more contemporary art. Stuff that’s a little higher caliber, if you will. They don’t have the exclusivity clause and I like the new owner, kind of the way she is thinking and her team is thinking in a more innovative way. So I’m taking some risk in putting some glass there. So I’m selling the small pieces through the gallery and then doing commissions and some larger pieces for an individual and for that business.
I did a crowdfunding campaign for a new kiln. I started planting the seeds. I got everything from a ten-dollar investment to up to five hundred.
I got three five-hundred ones! And they weren’t all family!
–Rock on! Oh my gosh!
But it was also very scary because when I did it, because if I didn’t raise the minimum amount, which was like $43,000, I would not have gotten anything and all of my investors would have lost their money too.
So my own mother wouldn’t contribute until the very end.
She said, “you know if you don’t reach your goal, I won’t get my money, and you won’t get it.” I said, yeah, but thanks for having faith.
But that was important because it made me really step up. Sometimes as artists we get lazy. And because it’s not given or this didn’t work…that happens in business all the time.
What do you do? You learn from it. You don’t repeat it.
Julie Eakes and the other ladies lead me up the stairs to the room where they are working on the Into the Forest installation. I really have no idea what to expect. I’ve known Julie for years through trivia. We’ve been friendly competitors, even teammates, on occasion. This is my first time meeting Emily Squires Levine and Laura Tabakman.
One minute I’m in Julie’s kitchen, the next I’m walking into a veritable forest. Julie’s studio has been transformed into a staging area for the installation before they head to Pittsburgh with trees, flowers, leaves, and animals all made with Polymer clay.
While these ladies are spearheading the installation, artists all over the world are contributing their Polymer flora and fauna to the project for a truly an international forest! They have, at last count, 15 countries represented.
I had never heard of Polymer clay. I was interested in why they chose it.
Emily says, “It’s a PVC based clay. So it’s a plastic clay that comes pigmented, in colors so it’s not earth…. It’s a sculpting clay, FIMO clay, the stuff kids play with.”
There’s an interesting story about Polymer clay. It was originally made to replace Bakelite, a more flammable plastic. In 1939, Polymer was given to the daughter of a German dollmaker named Fifi to play with as modeling clay. One brand has since been known as “FIMO” (Fifi’s Modeling compound).
“…And you can use a regular toaster oven. That’s what I bake my pieces in.”
I had seen the beautiful portraits Julie makes with her Polymer clay, so I was envisioning a more 2-dimensional forest. But Polymer is so versatile, there is a wide range of things you can make. There were all sorts of shapes and forms in this forest.
I was interested in how well it worked compared to other clay. Emily says “It’s very approachable. That’s why kids play with it. But then you learn and you can get more and more refined, it’s quite easy to start and you can get as involved as you want.”
Julie tells about all of the fun tools that more advanced Polymer artists have to work with. One of the early tools many advanced sculptors bought were pasta machines to form their clay. They soon realized they needed a stronger motor for the clay. This introduced the Dream Machine, which is actually made for Polymer. It left pasta machines for dinner use.
“It’s a workhorse and it’s not cheap. You can use cheaper ones, but they break easily, so it will cost you,” they advise.
“There’s also different brands of clay and some are easier to work with than others. And people use them for specific projects, for jewelry…for sculpting…” Laura says.
Emily tells how when she does shows, people will comment, I used to do this with my kids, but you take it to a whole new level. “It’s a big compliment, cause people will make little beads or figurines…my own children did that. And then they’re amazed at what can be done with it.”
Yeah, it’s just amazing, because you wouldn’t think that the stuff you played with in nursery school does this kind of stuff…”
“And that’s one of the things we’re hoping to do with Into the Forest is take it up to the next level…It’s been in galleries, it’s been in museums. We have a museum in Wazee Wisconsin that has a permanent Polymer clay exhibit and we’re all excited that we’re not just that kid’s product.”
And I was curious, this installation is all made of Polymer?
“Well, the feature is Polymer,” Laura tells me, “but we are using other materials to support the Polymer.”
But these are all Polymer artists?…How common is this?
“Well most people make jewelry out of it,” Laura tells me, “So this is taking everyone out of their comfort zone. So we are pushing people to think out of the box.”
“We have about 150 artists already, who sell this stuff.”
So how did this start?
There are Polymer guilds; at least 2 in North Carolina. They got together and made some things to donate.
“People have contributed things like leaves, pods, mushrooms, We generally just ask for organic things like mushrooms, things you might find in the forest. These are my things…you can see how flexible they are when they are baked.”
Julie shows me some very flexible leaves, flowers, and trees.
“So these are the types of things…But most of the things have been shipped to Laura [in Pittsburgh] So, Laura, tell her how many boxes you have waiting for you.
“I have 20 boxes waiting for me when I get home. I open every box, wrap everything…photograph everything, so everyone can see it online.”
And tag everyone…
“Yes, tag everybody. I want everybody to get credit who participates…”
This is a huge administrative task, which involves extensive documentation. Spreadsheets of objects/artists.
Since it’s an international project, they have to deal with different languages. they had to translate FAQs into different languages.
Julie came in late. It actually started with Laura and Emily.
Laura says, “The three of us met each other at a forum in Wisconsin several years ago. I’ve always been an admirer of their work. When I found out that the three of us were going to a this retreat in Colorado, at 5000 feet over the Rocky Mountains, I reached out to Laura and said, ‘Would you like to do a collaboration?’ And I was thrilled when she said yes, because I’m a huge admirer of her work.”
“So we were just talking about it today and how I came into the workroom…and this location is in the mountains, surrounded by aspen groves and late in August everything is going to dry and the aspens just do this butterfly effect with the shadows and the sounds. It was just amazing.
So I went to the room and I said to Laura, ‘What do you think about this?’ And it was just a little sprig of the aspen leaves.
“And [Laura] said, yes I thought, this is going to work out…I can see that we are of the same mind…”
“And this was for a little collaboration there at the retreat.”
So when you guys came up with the idea to have a collaboration, did you have any idea what you wanted the collaboration to be?
Laura tells me, “Well, she thought that was going to be the end of it. At the end of the week, we would have this little tree that would have this little leaf, very wonky. The day before we left, I told her, “What do you think about doing an installation…”
Let’s go big.
“She kind of panicked for a second…”
Emily tells me said yes, but then she panicked at the thought of the enormity of the project.
“I was scared because [Laura] knows how to do these things but I have never done them/”
“And she confessed to me today that she thought it was never going to happen…”
“So that’s how it started. We left Colorado, saying we are both in Pennsylvania. Let’s look for a gallery in Philadelphia and in Pittsburgh.”
“This is 2015…She said so 2017 we’ll do it. I said OK… thinking we have all the years to work it out….”
“And then [Emily] found a gallery in Philly that wanted it in May 2016…”
“And we said OK…and then we both realized that because of how busy our schedules were, we weren’t going to be able to have the time to install it. So it was pushed back to Sept. 1st, we install this Into the Forest early growth.”
“…In a beautiful room that’s 15 by 15 in a mid-century historically certified apartment building complex next to the Philadelphia Art museum.”
“The owners are trying to integrate it into the arts. It’s all being curated with art and we were the featured exhibit.”
They serendipitously found this space through a friend. The timing was to coincide with the Democratic National Convention. So they recruited Julie and a few other artists to help.
…And then Laura wanted to go bigger. [Emily and Julie start to fear whenever she says, I’ve been thinking…]
Laura found a gallery in Pittsburgh, The Spinning Plate Gallery. It used to be a car dealership.It was a huge space…much bigger than they had planned. That was when they got the idea to open it up to other contributors.
“And we, of course, thought of Julie, who had helped us with the leaves for the forest.”
Julie was eager to help. “I answering yes before the ‘do you want…’ was out.”
“We’ve been communicating through Google Hangouts, phone calls and texts.”
“We have weekly hangouts. We’ve been through illnesses and injuries…”
But you can still do it…
“And it’s a really special time…We are feeling the love from people who are sending us these things, and the amount of work they are putting into what they are sending us. It’s really moving,” Laura tells me.
How are you recruiting people to send stuff?
“In 2016, we had an international Polymer Clay conference in Bordeaux France, where people from all over the world came. [Laura] was doing a presentation there and so I presented this idea. People, after I finished, came back to me, very excited. So we open a Facebook group. People kept telling each other about it. Now we have close to 1500 people.
Julie says she was going to just reach out to Polymer people, but then decided to reach out to everyone, to tell them about it.
“That was when I decided to reach out to you.” she said to me.
I’m really glad you did! I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time!
So what do you want the end result to be, besides just a fantastic installation?
“The show will be up for a month. We are also organizing classes around it, working with The Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh. They are also going to be offering classes…
One of our goals is to introduce to the general public what Polymer clay is, how great it is. Also, there is the nature part of it, bringing the world’s forest into one entity so people can experience that…
Right, and from all over the world…
We have people from Indonesia and France, New Zealand, India, Argentina…
“People are also sending their thoughts and inspirations. So we’re going to have some of those quotes on the wall on how it affected them.”
“An installation of this kind has never been done in Polymer, so it really is a first. It will really be a big statement.”
“We really have our work cut out for us.”
Well that was something I wanted to ask. You said you had a design for the forest, but at the time, you really didn’t know what you had to work with. So how did that work?
“We had an original cut-off date of April 2nd. We knew all along we were going to extend it and we said, ok, now we have a cut-off date of May 2nd. So we knew we couldn’t really decide what to do until we saw what we got….and you know, [Julie] is the one who has this fear, we’re going to have 6 leaves and a 60×60 foot house. But that wasn’t the case, we got a lot.
“We didn’t really start planning til this weekend.”
“We got a little layout of the used car dealership that we have to fill…and it’s still a work in progress.”
“We’re going to get together in July next and have everything out and start thinking more seriously about how things work together. We’ve been thinking of ways of making trees but there’s nothing set in stone here. We’ve been throwing ideas back and forth to see what sticks.”
And the natural forests aren’t really designed…
Right, right. I’m gonna go with that…
How do your families’ feel about this?
They have to deal with all of the boxes coming in all the time. But I think they are really excited.
“I think they’re all really proud of us.”
“The good thing is that it is so new, that we don’t really care about rules.” They can be pioneers.
They will be doing the keynote presentation to the Polymer Clay Association in Pittsburgh along with a mini forest .
Polymer donated a substantial amount of clay to the project.
Episode 51: Brooke talks with Nancy Marshburn on-site about her Healing Power of Art series which are part of the Harvest exhibition at the Anne Neilson Fine Art Gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina. Marshburn uses her 20 year experience as a medical artist to combine art and science and anatomy and beauty.
Art has the power to heal. It evokes an emotional response, and emotions have an effect on the body’s physiological responses. Medical studies document the favorable therapeutic impact of visual arts: Looking at art can change brain wave patterns, the autoimmune response and neurotransmitters that shift the body from stress to relaxation. It also can modulate attitudes from fear to acceptance, from negativity to hope. Excerpt from Harvest exhibition press release from Anne Neilson Fine Art Gallery.
Episode 40: Second careers and bringing fine art to new audiences. Brooke goes to the Elder Gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina, to talk with founder Larry Elder. After launching three successful dot-coms, Elder took a leap of faith in order to pursue his passion for fine art. The Elder Gallery is celebrating 15 years of serving experienced art buyers, art novices, and artists at all stages of their careers.
Kathy Craig, Belted Swiss, The cow picture we were talking about.
Episode 26: In honor of my 26th episode, I did an on-site chat at the Jerald Melberg Gallery. I got to check out the Robert Kushner exhibit and chat with Jerald about the business side of running a gallery. We’ve decided that this will be the first of many “Gallery Chats.”
Jerald Melberg of the Jerald Melberg Gallery
Robert Kushner BLACK-EYED SUSANS 2014
Oil, Acrylic and Gold Leaf on Canvas
84 x 60 inches
Robert Kushner DIE HAUSFRAU 2015
Oil, Acrylic and Collage on Paper
10 5/8 x 9 3/4 inches
Robert Kushner HAWAIIAN POSTAGE 2014
Collage, Ink and Acrylic Mounted on Museum Board
10 x 8 inches
Robert Kushner HUNTINGTON LIBRARY CACTUS GARDEN II 2014
Oil, Acrylic, Gold Leaf and Collage on Paper
30 x 36 3/4 inches
Robert Kushner HUNTINGTON LIBRARY CACTUS GARDEN IV POLISH ARMY 2014
Oil, Acrylic and Gold Leaf on Joined Paper
60 x 22 inches
Robert Kushner JOHNNY-JUMP-UP II 2014
Collage, Ink and Acrylic on Paper
10 1/2 x 10 inches
Robert Kushner MIDNIGHT IN THE HUNTINGTON LIBRARY CACTUS GARDEN 2014
Oil, Acrylic and Gold Leaf on Canvas
108 x 132 inches