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Don’t let our artists grow up to be freeloaders

Essay by Mark Matthews

The Art Scene – March 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

BEFORE I BECAME A JOURNALIST, I was a sculptor. While living in Maine, my work dominated the floor space of many galleries from Kennebunkport to Portland to Blue Hill. After moving to Montana, I had shows scattered across the West, in Seattle and Spokane, Wash., Santa Fé and Truches, N.M., Palm Desert, Calif., and Big Fork and Kalispell, Mont.

As I sometimes chatted incognito with gallery owners, I often overheard art browsers enthusiastically comment on my lyrical elongated ballet and flamenco dancers, French-Canadian fiddlers, yodeling cowboys, and occasional great blue heron, coyote, or bison.

But few people shelled out the $2,000 to $6,000 the gallery owners asked.

I finally sought a new livelihood when I faced an empty bank account and a winter’s residency in the back of my pickup truck. I remember the night I made my decision to give up on art as a living, New Years Day, 1991. I was watching Dances With Wolves in a theater when the movie stopped and an usher strolled in, warning us we should all go home.

A fierce snowstorm was blowing in from the plains up the Blackfoot River Valley. Temperatures dropped from forty above to twenty below in about half an hour. I’d been homeless since summer. Most of my friends knew I slept in my truck, but I made it clear it was my choice. I didn’t want any pity or any handouts. I chose to spend my time making art, thinking that someday soon my work would begin to sell. But the storm killed that fantasy.

I usually parked on a dirt road up Pattee Canyon, but there was no way my small pickup would negotiate that steep road in the snow and ice. Plus, I didn’t want to be stranded there in frigid weather.

I tried seeking refuge at the sculpture studio at the University of Montana where I worked, but it was locked. At one intersection I stopped to help a stranded motorist, chipped thick ice from her windshield, and got her on her way again. I had to bite my tongue to keep from asking if she’d take me home with her. I finally swallowed my pride and ended up crashing on a friend’s couch for three days. So much for being an idealistic artist.

MANY ARTISTS ACROSS THE WEST face similar struggles, although most are able to take better care of themselves than I was. A few lucky ones receive grants to keep working on their art. But I can’t go along with that.

Knowing my history, many friends are surprised when I tell them I am against the National Endowment for the Arts, at least when it comes to doling out money to individual artists. I’m all for supporting local museums, National Public Radio, and even a stage company here and there. But no handouts for artists. That’s just a form of welfare. No other workers are ever given handouts to pursue personal happiness. So why should artists? Let us earn our livelihood like the rest of mankind.

And don’t feel sorry for us. Artists are usually intelligent, capable people who will most likely become successful at something else. And sometimes being an artist means not having the temperament for working a real job. That’s when art becomes artifice.

I realize now my big mistake was not my medium, vision, or style, but the way I marketed my work. Rather than showing in upscale galleries, I’d go about it differently now.

At a Christmas craft fair in Missoula last year I ran into an acquaintance who is a ceramist. She still creates the brightly glazed, funky shapes reminiscent of her MFA graduate school days. But all the pieces are functional ashtrays, bowls, and clocks, not to mention, moderately priced.

When I asked if she did any art pieces, she shook her head no. “And I finally got to the point where I don’t feel guilty about it,” she said.

She added that most of her former MFA classmates were also surviving by making crafts.

That’s not something to be ashamed of. Artists turned craftsmen is a return to a tradition that prevailed before art became big business. Craftsmen carved gargoyles on medieval churches, threw vases in ancient Greece, wove Navaho rugs.

They put art into the community to be enjoyed by all, not just the rich. And they didn’t need handouts. Only a fair wage.

Mark Matthews lives in Missoula, Montana, and is a regular contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News.