Cover Story - Four local artists learn to adapt in trying times

When Wall Street’s house of cards caved in last fall, scores of Sunday morning spinmasters pinned the Great Recession on us as our rightful national comeuppance. For years we spent more than we earned, so someone somewhere had to pay the bill, right? But even as the rest of the economy had shifted into overdrive, the vast majority of those who make art for a living never had it all that easy. Now, with the demand for art screeching to the same halt as the demand for everything else, many Atlanta artists find themselves suffering a hangover from a party they were never even invited to.

Four Atlanta visual artists of various ages and career paths recently reflected on their practice, their prospects, and how they navigate the high seas of a rough economy.

The Dreamer: “We’re willing to create our own country.”
Printmaker Lucha Rodriguez always seems to be wearing something purple. Or violet. Or lavender. Her dark hair is punctuated with fuchsia stripes, and she rolls her feet in her gold lamé sneakers as she walks through SCAD’s mostly abandoned hallways.

“I’m gonna work on my group,” she says, describing how she’ll spend her time after receiving her MFA in December. “There are five of us right now. One from Mexico, one from Bulgaria and the rest from here in the U.S.” The art collective, still without an official name, plans to swap art ideas online and take on cooperative art projects. It's also planning a website and manifesto. “We’re willing to create our own country,” she says. The new art practice of the network generation.

Rodriguez’s art collective is emblematic of what she considers the most logical response to troubling times. “It’s a great time for artists to experiment,” she insists, “instead of just doing the same work and then leaving it in storage. It’s more of a community time and opportunity for building up relationships.”

Rodriguez, who’s originally from Venezuela, has been trying to heed her own advice. She’s just returned from an exploratory trip to New York, and like many young artists who set out for the great North, she discovered that doors slam a lot harder in the Big Apple.

Although the dose of market reality hasn’t doused her dreams of virtual nations and open communities, she’s also gotten a firsthand glimpse of the brick wall many of her classmates are steering directly into. “SCAD really helps you sell your work,” she says, “but they create this little environment for you to believe that you just hang your stuff and people will buy it right off the walls, and that’s not the case.”

While applying to “every possible artist residency and internship,” Rodriguez assumes that she’ll use her graphic design training to supplement her income after graduation. Teaching is also on the horizon, albeit motivated less by economic necessity and more by an abiding desire to “give back.”

But until any or all of Rodriguez’s alternatives pan out, the artist is willing to make sacrifices. “I’d rather have a studio,” she says, “than a bed.”

The Striver: “A more comfortable struggle”
For some artists already in the middle lane of the career highway, waiting out the economic storm by the side of the road isn’t an option.

Fahamu Pecou sits behind a glass desk in his office-slash-studio, a converted warehouse space in Castleberry Hill. The painter best known for imposing images of himself on the covers of art magazines is on a mission to single-handedly bring back the Gumby haircut — a brave move for a man in his 30s.

An enormous painting of a bespangled "Billie Jean"-era Michael Jackson hangs to Pecou's left. It’s a symbol of the artist's command-performance approach to art making. Less than a week after Jackson’s death, before the King of Pop is even in the ground, the paint on Pecou's tribute is already dry.

Pecou's work is all about the theatricality of art stardom. Still, he’s the first to use the word “struggling” to describe his own career. “I’m still working for money instead of money working for me,” he says. “I’m nowhere near putting my feet up.”

Although Pecou says he’s slowed down recently to keep from burning out, his studio is still crowded with unfinished paintings, studies, and the messy evidence of work in progress. It may be this work ethic that’s allowed him to stay afloat while other artists have foundered since it now takes twice the effort to sell half the work as was required 12 months ago.

“You really have to sell American collectors on yourself,” he says regarding the failing economy. His January 2006 solo show at Conduit Gallery in Dallas sold out without so much as a drive-by appearance on opening night. His gallery couldn’t keep his paintings in stock through most of 2007. Now, however, Fahamu says his U.S. collectors have become “gun shy.” A recent show at Conduit sold only half the work even after the artist made one of his signature theatrical appearances at the gallery.

Pecou finds a bright spot, however, in Europe. German, French and British collectors taking advantage of the discounts afforded by a relatively weak U.S. dollar snapped up Pecou's work at Volta 5, an international art fair in Basel, Switzerland. Sales, while not stellar, were better than anyone had expected.

In the meantime, Pecou takes advantage of Atlanta’s relatively low cost of living while the economy regains its footing. “Struggling in Atlanta is not like struggling in New York or Chicago or wherever,” he says. “It’s a much more comfortable struggle.”

The Hustler: “Have a backup plan.”
Struggle or no, an artist still has to eat. “I like to make crab cakes,” says painter Woody Cornwell. “But crab is expensive.” So he’s devised a plan born of necessity: For one of the painting classes he teaches, he’ll set up a lavish still life with grapes, cheeses and, of course, crab. As the students paint the scene, the crab will transform from mere food into an art supply, magically becoming a tax deduction in the process. It’s legit, too. Google Willem Kalf. How can the IRS argue with 400 years of painting tradition?

“Everybody’s hurting,” says Cornwell. And that includes his collectors. One of them, previously flush with cash, was a recent no-show on the promised purchase of a large canvas. Unfortunately, such cold feet have become the norm for Cornwell’s collectors as investment incomes shrink and 401(k)’s stagnate.

Cornwell is in his 40s, wears perfectly rectangular glasses and sniffs occasionally as he waits for his allergy medicine to kick in. His light-filled, airy bungalow sits in Capitol View, one of several Atlanta neighborhoods famous for hovering in the perpetual twilight of being "almost there."

Cornwell teaches drawing and painting classes at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center; sells ad space on commission for Art Papers, Atlanta’s glossy contemporary art magazine; regularly participates in flea markets and swap meets; and even sells a painting or two on occasion. But it’s still not easy making ends meet.

Art galleries are the mainstay of art-magazine advertising, but the industry is suffering a triple whammy: Galleries that spend money on the endless chain of national and international art fairs have less money for advertising; a dip in gallery sales means the marketing budget gets cut even further; and the decline of print media in general makes magazine advertising less appealing overall. Voilà. Ad sales plunge 30 percent, and Cornwell’s paycheck goes with it.

The income gap has also taken its toll on his painting. Cornwell admits that he’s not working as much as he’d like to due to spending so much time looking for other ways to pay the mortgage. “I’m going on 50 applications,” he says.

Of all four artists, Cornwell, one of the original co-founders of Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery, is least likely to think of his artwork as a primary source of income. “People in my family ask me if I’m really making a living as a painter,” he says. “No. But I’ve got these other jobs that are close. ... I’ve had three or four jobs for a long time.”

“But it does feel good not to be your own biggest collector,” he adds. “I don’t want to be my own biggest collector.”

The Pragmatist: “You’re just going to have to work harder.”
Painter Dixie Purvis would agree: “A painting is not going to sell itself propped against a wall in your studio.” That’s why she advises newly minted artists to get their work seen wherever they can. “Hang your work in a coffee shop,” she says. “And think outside of Atlanta.” Birmingham, Chattanooga and Jacksonville, for example, all have viable art markets for younger artists.

On the phone, Purvis is ebullient. One can imagine her eyes brightening up at key moments and her hands motioning in the air a lot while speaking.

Purvis has been making art for more than three decades. Although she‘s been a full-time painter in Atlanta for only the last 13 years, she majored in art in college and has always worked creatively, even while maintaining corporate jobs for 20 years.

For Purvis, surviving the downturn is all about the artist–gallery relationship. She’s represented by Sandler Hudson and sees herself as a bit of an outlier, having had a “good year” coming off a solo show in January. A solo show, she notes, always gives an artist six months or so of improved sales.

But the show’s sales weren’t a coincidence. The gallery worked with her to make sure small works on paper were available, as well as the large, abstract oils on panel for which she’s better known. She speculates that she may even have picked up new collectors for whom her $4,000 to $7,500 price range is more affordable now that retirement accounts are generally lighter.

Purvis also sites the meticulous follow-up and constant communication between artist and gallery that tough economic times have made de rigueur. “It used to be that the artist made the work and the gallery sold the work,” she says. But that line is becoming fuzzier as she helps the gallery sell with a steady stream of referrals. Meanwhile, the gallery lets her know what buyers are asking — and not asking — for.

As an artist, she says, “you’re just going to have to work harder.”

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