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Artist Unknown

August 29, 2011

Over the weekend I heard from a friend who had received a gift of art from me two years ago when I was moving out of state. It was a beautiful drawing done by an artist in his student days. The piece spoke more to her than it did to me, so I gave it to her.

My friend emailed me this weekend, curious about the artist and wanting to know what more I knew about him. Unfortunately I had lost track of him over the years, so I decided to do a google search. I knew he had been an award-winning emerging artist and later had spent a few years teaching art in a community college. But I had neither heard nor seen anything about him for several years since.

Google turned up almost nothing at all past the year 2000. Even before that time, while he was selling his art at outdoor shows and winning awards, there were no websites showing images of his art, nor any indication of galleries or media publicity. It made me a little sad, and also made me wonder just how many artists leave so few clues to their art careers and their work progress. I suspect there are many. But in this era of blogs, social networking and free art websites, it’s difficult to imagine an artist staying below the radar.

I am happy that I have two more pieces of this artist’s work in my collection, and they give me pleasure every single day. A few years ago I had wished I could afford more of his art, but then suddenly he stopped doing shows and apparently is no longer teaching. This doesn’t change the way I feel toward the works that I have, nor my pleasant memory of the person who created them. But what will happen to them after I’m gone? Will anyone care?

What does this say about artists and how we publicize ourselves and document our work? Do we have a responsibility to the interested public, our collectors, our families? Does it even matter whether or not we leave clues about our art? Is it enough that we just do the work and hope someone treasures it?

Personally I’m not a big fan of Certificates of Authenticity. They are worth just about the same as the paper they are written on. But we can be sure to place a consistently recognizable signature on our works. Dating them is a good thing too, even if we have to change the date later after alterations to the work. And the signature means something only if your artist biography is out there in the public domain. The internet is invaluable for making sure your work is connected with your name over time.

Your art may be more valuable than you think, but it takes a little effort and planning not to become “Artist Unknown.”

Here’s a fun quiz for you to choose which images are done by famous or unknown artists. Good luck!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2011 3:52 pm

    Martha two of my favourite and most influential art teachers are almost in a void online. One is Glenn Howarth whose work was thankfully shown by the Winchester Galleries this spring The other is Shelia Timmins whose work has been collected for a gallery in the new Hobson History Museum in Vanderhoof. So it seems that eventually some of these pre-internet artists will eventually find their way online.

    Do I feel it is important to be online as an artist? Yes, today it is. It is also I think important to keep good hard-copy records and to employ some kind of inventory system. I didn’t set this up until last year and much of my earlier work is gone to new homes without a trace of of a record on my part. I regret this today but it is too difficult to start tracking down the work and recording it now. I have made a commitment to do so going forward though.

    Excellent points you raise and at the very least worth pondering by artist regardless of their decision.

    • August 29, 2011 4:05 pm

      Terrill, if we sell through galleries we don’t always know who our collectors are. In the US the laws vary from state to state whether or not galleries are required to supply collector lists for their artists. I believe they should do so.

      The steps you’re taking are good ones. And yes, I agree that before the internet there were only hard copy records, but even then, many artists were lax about them. And now, even with the ease of the internet, not all artists are readily located online.

  2. August 29, 2011 9:14 pm

    Good post Martha. As I have mentioned before, I am new at this painting career. I say career because I work hard at creating and now trying to make myself known to people. Thank goodness for blogs and websites……I have learnt so much reading your blog as well as other artists. My new website gives me credibility and makes people see that I take this art making serious. I use these two tools every chance I get. I would love to think that someday my work will be out in our big world. Thanks again.

  3. August 30, 2011 5:51 am

    A website makes me think of the question, which came first the chicken or the egg. I have had a website since my teaching computer days. It has evolved, and now focuses on my art endeavors. I too learned from a master John Fitzgibbon, who does not have a website.

    One speaker at our annual “Thomas Hart Benton Festival”, said that a website is either for profit or recognition. What do you think? Has it been profitable for anyone who isn’t already recognized in their field?

    My art too is evolving, and brings me much joy and therapy from my recent stroke. I have been invited to exhibit again at our annual Harvest event. This is the second year. It is purely for fun! Not one artist sold enough last year to make it profitable, so I don’t feel so neglected and unappreciated. However, I have been invited to show in Branson, MO (kind of a Las Vegas of the midwest), in October.

    I visited creativepotiger, and was very impressed with her site. Maye she would explain how to properly document art and progression. I have always taken a picture of anything painted, and usually list them when I have a exhibit, but nothing formal. Thanks again for the inspiration, and daily thoughts.

    • August 30, 2011 1:46 pm

      Caroline, it doesn’t have to be complicated at all. You’re doing the basics of what needs to be done. The more you come to think of it as a business, the more involved you can get, such as with databases and such.

      My website is strictly for showing anyone interested what my current work is. And I use it as a kind of portfolio when I want to inquire with a gallery or design firm. I never sell work from my website. But you could. So many ways to use one.

      • August 30, 2011 8:37 pm

        I think about this a lot because my late uncle (Maurice Bernson) was a fairly important, but unsung, Texas regional artist. I’ve posted a website for him because I want to be sure people have a place to find basic information and understand the value of his work. I get contacted regularly by people doing research on a painting that they’ve inherited, found at an antique store, etc. It’s really interesting to see pieces our family has no record of (he couldn’t always afford film/processing).

        Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to flesh out the website — can barely keep up with my own! But over time, I’ll get there.

        Anyway, it’s made me very aware of the importance of leaving a legacy, and the more accurate the records, the better. (I’ve worked with collectors and gallerists trying to reconstruct his timeline and inventory — a lot of guesswork. He would never have guessed that anyone would care.)

        Today we have such a unique opportunity to speak for ourselves as we educate people about our work online. An online presence helps with marketing, and in the long run, I feel it’s truly a gift to our families and collectors to take full advantage of these tools/opportunities to leave a record of our artistic endeavors.

      • August 31, 2011 5:59 pm

        That is wonderful, Janice! What a fabulous way to honor your uncle and your family in this way. Reminds me how much I’d love to have done the same for my mother, who died 8 years ago. She was fairly well-known as a local artist, but as you say, her work was never properly documented. There aren’t many photographs either. Words to the wise!

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