Monday, 25 November 2013

'Tis the Season for Craft Fairs: Niche Marketing Succeeds

Once upon a time, craft fairs were the stuff of church bazaars.   In other words, the hand made goods were created and donated with good intentions but little else could be guaranteed such as the quality of the craftsmanship or the selling price.  Fast forward a decade or two and you wind up in a field with a bunch of hippies selling oatmeal coloured pots, macramé plant hangers and stained glass sun catchers.  Actually, the first One of Kind craft fairs in Ontario started in a field but evolved into events with ritzy receptions and –gasp–people in evening wear.  The headbands and tie-dye got traded in for sequins and tuxedos.  Where will we end up?

In St. John's, I have watched with interest as craft fairs have divided and multiplied with alarming and/or promising energy - like some biological experiment.  We used to have two big fairs:  one at the Glacier in Mount Pearl and the other administered by the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador.  This later event was considered to be "the professional" craftsperson's domain, where quality was guaranteed.  Somehow, with the proliferation of retail venues selling craft (and this is my opinion only) the urgency to shop at the annual Christmas fair faded.  But craft fairs did not.

They splintered along lines of age, attitude and interest.  The first Fresh Fish craft fair stands out in my mind for its energy, focus on younger makers and the distinctiveness of its products.  I recall buying one of the first Andrew Harvey t-shirts with a "think more spend less" motif on it.  The shirt was second-hand from a thrift shop and the motif was applied using a stencil cut from recycled corrugated cardboard.  My other purchase was a business card holder made from a recycled plastic tablecloth. This was an example of a craft fair with social relevance.  It was in keeping with the times rather like the Fair Trade events featuring Zulu Threads.  Craft fairs, rather like other forms of marketing, have to sell an experience as much as a product.

Rather than decline, craft fairs are on the upswing. In the past two weeks, I have run out of fingers counting them.  The one I was most impressed with was The Printers Fair.  To me, it was a fine example of niche marketing.  In other words, it provided a clearly defined product to a qualified target group of purchasers.  People knew what was on offer and were interested in that specific genre of product even before they walked through the doors of the building.  Held at The Rocket Room on the second floor of the Rocket Bakery, it buzzed with positive energy.  Shoppers eagerly snapped up lithographs, hand made books, and cards.  They discovered new makers.  They were excited. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

What do you believe in?

Thanks for the loan of the catalogue Mary!  I understand it is for sale from the Agnes Etherington Gallery for $22.

This week through the good graces of Mary MacDonald at Eastern Edge Gallery, I learned about another tattoo project:  Bernard Clark's Tattoo Portraits.  It is an exhibition originated by Agnes Etherington Gallery in Ontario.  This gallery has always been of interest to me.  They've done craft, African artifacts and a number of things that have aligned with my interests and so I keep a watch out for their name in the gallery listings.  I recommend them if you are ever in their neighbourhood, which is Queens University in Kingston.  Bernard Clark has done a lot of work for Skin & Ink magazine (do you want to see the pile of tattoo magazines on my living room floor?) and even photographed Angelina Jolie.  Celebrity factor in spades.  I studied the catalogue for the show.  The essay was basically Clark's resume and the photos didn't impress me because there was much evidence of Photoshop to manipulate the images.  When I shared the publication with Ned Pratt, he observed that the backgrounds had been dropped in.

I have a growing concern about the photography of tattoo subjects.  Last year when I had the good luck to be in Chicago for the SOFA Art fair, I noticed this image:

Invitation image from the Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago.

I found it disturbing because, I felt (and you are welcome to disagree with me), they treated the tattoo individual like a sideshow freak. The image, at least in a version I saw, had really poor contrast and so was difficult to "read".  When I showed the photo to my son he commented simply, "Mom, they made him look like a toad".  It was a sensationalistic image that did not respect the fact that this was a man and not an animal.  Now, I know we are all mammals despite the fact that Socrates defined men as "featherless laughing bipeds".  But I do not want tattooed people to be laughing stocks.  I don't think it is fair; legal perhaps but not just.

Whenever subjects devolve into objects I get wary because it usually is an indication of disrespect.  Have you ever noticed how serviced has replaced served in the common usage of the English language?  Prostitutes "service" their customers, they do not serve them.  The auto mechanic services your car but he or she serves you.  Can you see the difference?  Sentence structure usually goes: subject, verb, object– with subjects being the doer and objects being the done to.  Language usage is a very clear indicator of held beliefs.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

All Things Tattoo

This picture comes from James Lane's Facebook page

James Lane, known as Jimmy, was important to my decision to do the Tattoo Project and was on account of him that I wanted to call it More Than Skin Deep.  Jimmy is basically a walking memorial to his late mother who was murdered in her home when he was only nine.  He got his first tattoo, with her birth and death dates, when he was fourteen and has accumulated a body's worth since.  Many of them are based on his own drawings.  I was really struck by the contrast between the vulnerability in his eyes and the swagger of his ink.  His is a story of profound loss and the struggle to continue to "never give up" as one of his pieces reminds him.  I think that was when I became convinced of the autobiographical nature of a lot of tattooing.  This is a culture more about people or subjects and less about bodies or objects.  That is also why I wanted Ned Pratt to be the photographer on the project because I knew from first hand experience that he has the sensitivity and the technical ability to capture and communicate that with a camera.

Oddly enough, I has seen very few instances of tribal styled tattoos in St. John's.  Three so far:  one from Montreal as a pair of sleeves; one locally produced on a Corrections Officer who told it was based on his own drawings; and one outstanding example of shoulder work.  The shoulder work had unusual authority and reminded me very much of Maori carved masks.  The red headed basketball player who owned them explained to me that he acquired them in Singapore but yes the tattooist had been Maori.

Apparently the Canadian edition shows more breast that the American edition.

All things tattoo has crept into my "leisure reading" as well.  I am currently reading John Irving's Until I Find You, which follows the narrative of a second-generation tattoo artist and her son.  It is a typically huge Irving saga of several hundred pages.  The details drawn from tattoo studios in a number of countries are interesting.  Expressions like "sleeping among the needles" to indicate sleeping in the studio as the young Alice does are interesting.  And one example of a Scots apprentice being given a piece of flounder to work on is curious.  I was also reminded of a kind of tattoo I have not seen since I was a child.  I remember meeting one man with my father in the ports in Montreal.  He was an old sailor and he had a carp that would appear to swim when he flexed his muscles.  You really never know what you will see once you start looking.
Thanks to Susan Lee Stephan for sending this image

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Oh those Celadon Greens –Emerging Artists Competitions and Studio Magazine

view of Amélie Proulx's winning artwork Jardinet Méchanique, which combines ceramics with microprocessors to create a moving gardenscape / photo Frances Juriansz

Some of you have been asking me about my reaction to how the RBC Emerging Artist Awards hosted at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Arts turned out, especially as my nomination Michael Flaherty did not win.  The winner was Amelie Proulx and I think she is deserving of the prize. Amelie's work caught my attention when I read a review written by Robin Metcalfe of her solo show that featured a floor work.  It was a ceramic carpet that moved and emitted sound.  Metcalfe's review was extremely sensitive and knowledgeable; he really did the work a service.  Anyhow, I could tell from the review that this was a ceramic artist whom I would have to keep on my radar.  And Proulx's work has never disappointed me since.

Maja Padrov of New Brunswick (who was one of my two picks for HOT MUD) admires Amelie Proulx's work, which is radically different from her own.  Put in a nutshell Padrov is "hard" and Prolux is "soft".  When I asked Maja about this she said, I'm often attracted to the work that doesn't resembles mine, there's some softness and gentleness in Amelie's garden, those movements and sound somehow perfectly match the visual part for me... 

Now, the way the Gardiner competition is structured with experts picking the best from their region, the semi-finalists so to speak, and the public picking the winner, quality is ensured.  Every artist who makes it into the competition is already worthy of being a winner, which is to say they are among the cream of the crop.  Anyone of them deserves the $10,000 award.

It was no surprise that just about everyone who was in the Gardiner competition would end up also being in the Burlington's 35th Anniversary show, HOT MUD.  And this is a real indicator, a double blind test if you will, of who is going to be in the "business" ten years from now.  Careers are being cemented, successful careers with reputations.

I had two thoughts provoked by these competitions and it will be interesting to see if I believe the same things once we see how the Schantz emerging awards at the Clay and Glass Gallery in Kitchener Waterloo plays out.  My thoughts were:  One, that emerging artists today are much stronger than they were a decade, or longer, ago.  And two, those emerging artists have much more distinctive styles compared with their predecessors.  Gone is the day when emerging artists were clones of their teachers.

Once upon a time, it would have been enough to master a celadon glaze (for example) and to have it grace an accomplished piece of throwing – a grand marriage of surface and form.  Not any more.  Amelie Proulx's work is often in celadon and it pools magnificently on the details of her forms.  But then there's so much more happening: other senses and ideas integrated.  The result is work that is subtle, engaging and thought provoking.  For HOT MUD, Robin Lambert had a piece that was an assemblage of suspended porcelain tiles inscribed "just for you" and suspended.  His glaze was also celadon.  What was daring and delicious was that he also hung a pair of scissors nearby.  The bold ones among us snipped a thread and took a tile.  It was a sculpture we were in essence being encouraged to take away.  Was this an act of artist generosity or vandalism on the part of the public?  Either way, it was a subversion of the "do not touch" maxim and the sanctity and latent commercialism behind the production of objects.  You can't sell what you are giving away.  It stood a lot of the ceramic world on its head.

This week my commentary in Studio magazine has also hit the stands and subscribers' homes.  This is my rant against art-speak and how it alienates and limits the size of our audiences.  Guess what, the cover is also celadon green.