Tuesday, March 10, 2009

John's Stimulus Plan

"You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” (Winston Churchill)

Spring Tulip (c) 2009 John AshleyWe just returned home from our first “Spring” art show of 2009 to find our tulips starting to bloom -- in glass jars on the kitchen counter. Just beyond the kitchen window, it was 14 degrees with 9 inches of fluffy new snow. Ahhh, spring in Montana. Just trying to walk the dogs can be downright stimulating.

I’m hopeful for some of the stimulus plans springing up these days. I think they will help melt our fears and frozen finances, and accompany us into the halcyon days of summer. Currently, none of the plans target artists. But if I was handed a pile of money, I would just double-down and produce even more art until all of the money was gone. My goal has never been to become rich and famous, and I am pleased to report that I’ve been quite successful so far. I just want to spend a quiet, introspective life that enables me to share the wealth that I create. But wealth is not the same as money. Therefore, I used the last few days to hatch my own stimulus plan.

This past weekend, thousands of people paid good money to walk around an art show. They explored the islands of creativity, looking at artworks that may or may not stir their emotions, and visiting with artists who would otherwise never cross their paths. Art changed hands, and friendships were born. But after touring the show, half of the people walked out empty-handed. Did they get snookered out of six bucks? Hardly.

Artwork on display creates emotional responses, and people soak it up with various degrees of thirst. Most of the time, people who seek out and enjoy the artworks only “pay” the artist with compliments. A careless and insincere compliment becomes a hurtful insult, but one heartfelt compliment can be a gift that makes an artist smile for weeks. We brought home a little money and lots of compliments, and we’re still smiling and a little perplexed.

At almost every show I hear some version of, “These are the most creative photographs I’ve ever seen!” from people who get momentarily lost in their emotional response to an image, only to watch them walk away without buying a print. This can be perplexing behavior to see from the artists’ side of the relationship. One minute you’re sharing your wealth and the next minute you’re just part of a circus, dazzling their senses while they eat handfuls of popcorn.

At art shows, we’ve handed out thousands of business cards that feature our most popular image on the back side. We could have left it blank. Only once (that I know of) has our business card led to a sale of that particular image. This small gift is a net loss for us professionally. But personally? What is the value of making a total stranger feel good for a moment? If someone in my booth breaks into a belly laugh, but walks out without buying a photograph, our interaction adds nothing to the GDP.

'Peaceful Lamb' (c) 2009 John AshleyBut just how much is the laughter worth to that person’s health? And what is it worth when Tracy and I get caught up in their infectious delight? What about the next time they stumble across our business card, and turn it over to smile at the image again? This doesn’t help us feed our dogs, but our “net loss” must be generating some amount of wealth in the human ecosystem. We might make the same amount of money by selling fewer images at higher prices, but then our little emotional response generators would hang in fewer homes, and thus generate a little less wealth.

Therefore, the question becomes one of somehow balancing wealth and money. This can become a twisted conundrum. To me, art should be a soothing balm for the masses, not reserved for the uppity income brackets. By and large, artist are gawd-awful salespeople. We live too close to the heart, and our creations can sometimes end up worth more to us emotionally than they are worth financially to others. The vast majority of artists never even dare to try and sell their works. Many of us would much rather give our creations away to those who "get it," those who respond emotionally -- if only we could still afford groceries. Hence, the "starving artist" stereotype. I’ve met one or two salesmen who happen to be good artists, and they always seem to do well, but I know scant few artists – myself included – whose salesmanship equals their creativity.

(Personally, this relates to the reasons why I don’t photograph the same old rented bears and captive birds that every other wildlife photographer sells. I don’t want to take those same old images, even though they sell well, because they hold no emotional value for me.)

So I spent the weekend hatching a new plan to carry us through. It is brilliant in its simplicity. All I really need is one curious patron who is rich but wants to become wealthy. And all they have to do is share enough pesos to keep us in beans and rice (and to keep our dogs in dog food). That, in turn, will allow me to share every bit of wealth -- in the form of art -- that I can wring out of my remaining days. This is my stimulus plan, such that it is. We are currently accepting applications.

Such were the thoughts rumbling around in my head as the art show was winding down. And that’s when a neighboring artist walked into my booth with a gift for me -- a cartoon drawing that I had “paid” compliments on earlier. In a simple act of kindness, he chose to share it with me instead of selling it. In that moment he gave up a future sale, but his warm generosity made both of us feel wealthier.

These days, during this stubborn economic winter, we need to be brave enough to spread a little bit of money around. But more importantly, we also need to spread more kindness and real wealth around with the people we meet. If we can afford a little bit more of this behavior, then spring is sure to bloom a little bit sooner.

"Laughter is the closest distance between two people." (Victor Borge)

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