Monday, July 26, 2010

A Path of My Own

Sometimes, we’re our own worst critics. At least, that’s what my husband tells me whenever I’m convinced that my spare five pounds qualifies me for an appearance on The Biggest Loser, or scant comments on a favorite blog post makes me a lackluster writer. But every so often, a good stiff dose of criticism from the outside world can serve as some pretty good medicine for maladies of which you didn’t even know you were ailing.

Regular Readers know that I recently had the opportunity to swallow a prescription strength dose of denigration when a panel of art gallery critics decided that my portfolio of mosaic pieces—one of which was, at the time, ironically hanging on the walls of that very gallery as part of a juried show, but I digress—was not up to “gallery standards.”

I was unprepared for the negative review, particularly in light of the fact that a member of the board had actually requested that I submit my portfolio, and, as I mentioned, one of the pieces was already on display in their Hallowed Halls.

Family, friends from within and without the art community, and readers were quick to assure me that the gallery was way off the mark. I, however, was discouraged enough to have genuinely been at risk of never cracking tile again, had I not had an order to fill for my friend Gropius.

After a multi-day cooling off period, I took another look at the smaller of the two seahorses I was designing for Gropy. At the time of The Incident, I had been laying blue tiles across the seahorse-shaped board, but had not grouted anything in place. My initial assessment, Post Incident, was that I hated everything I saw. Before clearing the tiles off the board, I tried to put my finger on what was, exactly, wrong.

I glanced down at the sheet of paper on which I’d attempted to take notes on the gallery’s critique. Since I didn’t bother to document their opinion that I quit using wood bases, mixing different sizes of tile, and attempting any design not sanctioned by a beloved tome they referenced as The Book, I was left only with a single word…which I’d circled.

Elements. The elements of art: line, shape, space, color, value, texture…ingredients so key to visual art I have them painted across the walls of my classroom. How could I incorporate more of these foundational concepts in my seahorse design?

I quickly saw how I could use the varied shades of blue tile in a more unified configuration: light ones for highlights, and the dark ones in areas where my little guy would be in shadow, such as the inside curve of his tail. I also admitted to myself that the eye on my first seahorse was never quite the shining jewel I envisioned. So I chose a single glass gem on for the little guy, and a gem flecked by cut mirror, later, on his bigger counterpart.

I also decided to embrace my use of big and small tiles, but arrange them in an ever-narrowing path, from large to small, an idea that I never saw in a book, but made sense to me, design-wise.

My excitement mounted as I made the changes and my new design came to life, but quickly changed to horror when my daughter insisted that I show the new design to the gallery.

I didn’t want to show the new pieces to the gallery—for pride reasons as well as the fact that I’ve decided that I don’t want to work with the gallery. But I wanted to be a good example to my daughter. After all, I’ve always stressed the importance of not quitting, trying again, and other motherly mantras. Plus, she’d already caught on to the pride thing. I was left with little choice than to swallow hard and make arrangements for the board to take a look at my new pieces.

I sent them along with typed up artist statements which my husband and Second Son immediately pegged as “snarky.” I used a lot of art terms, and billed elements such as the disdained plywood backings as features (“the lemon/lime seahorse is designed as an indoor piece, mounted on 1/8 ‘’ plywood for lightweight durability”).

When I picked them up, I had a conversation with the gallery manager that went something like this:

“They’ve improved, but they’re still not gallery quality,” the gallery rep said.

“Oh, I am sorry to hear that you don’t like them.”

“Let me show you some online examples about how they should look.”

“Hmmm…well, I’m pretty happy with this work, and it’s already sold, so I’m not sure that’s necessary.”

“Oh, don’t be upset!”

“I’m not upset. I like my seahorses, and, like I said. They’ve already sold and I don’t have to share a commission with anyone.”

“Well, I still want you to see this,” she said, gesturing to a mosaic sunflower on her computer screen.

“Oh, wow, I’m really surprised that you’d show me this. It has a whole lot of large and small pieces. In fact, these two here look like they were squeezed in as afterthoughts,” I said, parroting the condemnation they rendered upon the small pieces in my prior seahorse.

“Oh, yes, those are terrible,” she said, quickly removing the image from the screen. “That’s a rather elementary work. Let’s find something else.”

She pulled up an image of a seahorse on a bowl. “See, this is more like it.”

“Oh, I’m really surprised you’d show me that,” I said. There’s no pattern here at all,” I said.

“It’s OK to have a crazy path pattern,” she replied.

“Really? Because you didn’t like that at all on the tray from the last portfolio.”

“The tray? Oh, no, we liked the tray!”

“Hmmm…I really didn’t pick up on that. I got the distinct impression that a pattern was better.”

“Patterns are good, but yours just isn’t quite good enough. Look at all the grout between the spaces!” she exclaimed. “It should be no more than 1/8th inch,” she said, her finger swirling around a grouted area of roughly an eighth of an inch.

“I’m really surprised you’d say that,” I said, “considering the only mosaic piece on display in this whole gallery is that mirror over there with several inches of grout separating broken bits of china.”

“Oh, we checked that mirror out today,” she said, obviously prepared for the challenge. “It does have a pattern. But honestly, no one knows why that mirror is here. It’s time for it to go.”

In closing, she showed me some highly valued examples, and I’ve basically determined that although the gallery rep claims at this point to like classical designs with Latin names, if I come in with those next month, she’ll be into large expanses of grout.

I began packing up my seahorse as she explained her hope that I’d make a few seahorses for the holiday show in November. “They would sell like hotcakes,” she explained. “Anyone would be happy to have them on their wall.”

“There’s one other thing,” she said. “I know it’s awkward, but I was wondering if you’d be interested in volunteering as a grant writer here. Wal Mart just rejected our proposal, and, well, we really liked your write-ups.”

You and I both know that it’s entirely possible that their grant wasn’t Wal Mart quality because they reject art that they know would sell. We also know that’s precisely the reason I can’t write grants for them, because I’m snarky enough to call that fact out.

So I continue on a path of my own design—although I may check in with the gallery from time to time for a good dose of motivational criticism to fuel my creative process. Maybe I’ll see what kind of twist I can put on some classical designs….

A note to readers: I love to design mosaics in a wide range of sizes, for all kinds of budgets. If you're interested in some custom mosaic art, please send me an email or post a comment. I'd love to make your ideas come to life!


MiMi said...

Those critics and gallery people sound pretty pretentious. And pretentious is not pretty.
Your art, however, is beautiful!!

Anonymous said...

Ok, those gallery people are too hilarious to imprison. They survive... for now.

5thsister said...

It's like a bad sitcom! Good for you for not letting them get you down and even better for you to having the clarity and patience to point out their hypocrisy.

Jen said...

Loved it!

Lisa said...

Ugh! You have GOT to be kidding. Anyway, I love the new seahorse and I would be happy to have it in my house. Keep doing what you are doing; you obviously have talent and people love your work. I am sorry friend that you had to go through this.

Kathy Gillis said...

Oh, to be a fly on the wall of that gallery!!! So proud of you for standing up for yourself and your beautiful work! This shows the difference between positive criticism for growth and negative criticism out of jealousy!!! Keep up the good work Cindy!

Tracie said...

How pretentious! And then they asked you to help with their grant writing! Aack!

I love these seahorses! The eyes really are beautiful and I like the way you made the pieces get smaller, too.

Julie Schuler said...

I like the new sea horse. It has a a feeling of movement, the way the tail contracts down into smaller pieces.
You can't talk sense with galleries.

Pines Lake Redhead said...

You go girl! Your improvements to the seahorses are genius. The gallery people are numbskulls.

Catherine Wannabe said...

The works are even more glorious in person!

Julia, the Thanksgiving Girl said...

What an ironic situation with the gallery!! This conversation with teh gallery lady is out of this world - I loved how you kept saying "I am surprised you'd do that and that" lol What spirit!!

Willoughby said...

I'm so impressed! Not only by your beautiful artwork, but by the way you handled the situation at the gallery. I don't find anything constructive about their criticism. The other commenters were right, it's pretentious.

I can easily imagine your seahorses hanging on the wall of any exclusive beach house featured in Coastal Living magazine (and I'm a trained interior designer).

Keep on creating your art your way and let them find someone else to write their grant proposals!

blueviolet said...

They don't know what they're talking about! Your seahorses are fabulous and you know I'm in for one when the time is right. :)

Anonymous said...

How sad.. to be so limited. Can you run a gallery and not see the beauty in individual artistry? Don't ever "fit" the pattern or copy the definition. It isn't you and it won't be real.

As to the request for grant writing.. I am speechless...really???


Margaret said...

Your seahorses are amazing! Good for you for standing up for yourself!

Brian Miller said...

i found myself smiling as you fed them their

Gropius said...

Oh screw the gallery!!! Hilarious about the grant writer offer and not "being up to standards!" Ha! Cynthia, those sea horses are BEAUTIFUL!! I just love them and appreciate all of the care you took with making them so gorgeous. For two people who moved away from the shore to hot, dry interior areas of our country, they will be especially beautiful reminders of the sea and all it contains. I'm so excited for them to arrive!

Dawn said...

you brave, brave woman! you went back?! wow. but i see, this time with an attitude of condfidence :) and... beautiful. their loss!


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