Saturday, November 6, 2010

Good Advice from a Real Professional Artist: Susan Lenz

Above: In Box LXXV. Unframed 15" x 11";
framed 19 1/4" x 15 1/4". By Susan Lenz

  Not long ago I emailed Susan Lenz with the subject line: How Much!? I wrote:

Hi Susan,

I want to own a piece of your art. I saw your post about your boxes series and wondered what price range and sizes for pieces in hat series. You know I adore everything you make and I want a piece of your work hanging in my house. So tell me how much so I can start saving up. A REAL price! You know what I mean.

She replied with what I thought was an excellent response that all artists and quilt makers and crafts persons should read. With her permission I have posted it here.

Susan wrote:

(Above: Window XVI. Unframed, approximately 11" x 9 1/2";
Framed, 17 3/4" x 15 3/4".) By Susan Lenz

This is so sweet and so complimentary that I don't even know where to start this email message. Wait a minute! Yes, I do! I'm forever telling myself to try acting like the artist I want to be....professional! (Okay, the cat's out of the bag! I have always suffered from low self esteem issues and my lack of a proper art degree is one of my worst stumbling blocks!)

 Anyway, I'll professionally answer the question! My "In Box Series" come in two basic framed sizes: 19 1/4" x 15 1/4" for $225 and 35 1/2" x 23 1/2" for $ tax and obviously plus shipping. These are the same prices that are charged at the Grovewood Gallery in Asheville. The "Faux-stained Glass" pieces come in two framed sizes: 17 3/4" x 15 3/4" for $265 and 64 1/2" x 24 1/2" for $1200.

Susan and Stephen Chesley

 Ten years ago I forcibly down-sized my still growing custom-picture framing business in order to pursue art. Despite the fact that I had created just about nothing and had no background in the field, I already had an artistic mentor. 

The mentorship started the day after I fired my head mat cutter. I went to him for advise....questions about "how to become an artist." He was one of my framing clients....and still is. He paints incredible, impressionistic landscape oils from memory, not from actual locations unless he's "in the field".

His name is Stephen Chesley and his studio is now across the hallway from mine at Gallery 80808/Vista Studios. He's been self-supporting for over 25 years.

Open studio in Stephen's studio
When I asked Stephen about "becoming an artist", his answer was, "You already are one". Then he advised me to "do the work". It was that simple; it is that simple.

In a sense, we are all artists by the fact that we are alive and must make creative decisions everyday. Some people decide to make art; they are professional artists. Some decide to get an art degree, but that piece of paper doesn't make one an artist. It is just a statement of fact about a field of knowledge.

Stephen Chesley and his art
Being an artist, a REAL PROFESSIONAL ARTIST, is a lifestyle of doing the work. "Doing the
work" is a priority which becomes as essential as breathing or eating. For me, it is also a spiritual practice.....doing the work that God meant for me to do. Lots of people now say that I'm very prolific....but....I'm just DOING THE WORK.

At that very first mentorship meeting....sipping tea over Stephen's kitchen table....he also gave me a few brochures for rather local and state-wide juried exhibition opportunities and showed me his inventory book. He told me to keep track of everything I ever made in an ordinary ledger with a thumbnail sketch, the date, the price, the measurements, a catalog number, and any other notation about interesting materials or shows a piece has been in. Fortunately, I took all his advise.

Susan Lenz at Grovewood Gallery
Two years ago my husband Steve and I went to the National Gallery of Art to see the Hopper show. I walked into one of the rooms and saw a large, table-sized pedestal covered in a Plexi-Glas cap. Inside were three ordinary ledgers with thumbnail sketches, date, price, measurements, a catalog number, and notations about the final sale of each piece. I was stunned.

The next week I told Stephen about this. He laughed and said, "Did I forget to tell you that I keep a ledger like this because, 'if it were good enough for Hopper, it was good enough for me' ?"

Then I laughed...because I had been doing this because "if it was good enough for Chesley, it was good enough for me"! So....I'm unwittingly part of Edward Hopper's legacy....not bad!

It's So Hard to Say Good-bye, Grave Rubbings series by Susan Lenz

Chesley's advise is always RIGHT ON TARGET. There's a constant stream of local artists who just happen to come by Chesley's studio to "sit and talk".....get advice, get inspiration, get "on track"....whatever. Our studios are divided only by partition walls. The ceiling is another eight feet above the top of the I can hear just about everything said in Stephen's studio....because neither of us listen to any music when we work. We both prefer total silence.

Anyway, I once heard an artist complaining to Stephen about gallery commissions. Stephen said, "You know, if you can't afford to pay the gallery the commission they worked for, then you simply need to improve the quality of your work."

The artist was indignant, of course.....but Chesley is right. A good gallery is WORKING for the commission. To sell the same sort of piece for less is undermining your own representative....sort of like "biting the hand that feeds you!"
Sister Support from Decision Portrait Series by Susan Lenz

Stephen went further and said, "The artwork itself should determine its own price, not the framing, not the hours spent, not the supplies.....but the quality of the artwork itself. Clients should be able to buy with confidence."

There are always lawyers and other big shots coming through our space saying things like, "Chesley, I should have bought one of your paintings when they were only $600." Stephen replies, "Well, when I was charging $600, they were worth $600. After another couple years, I got better and the price went up. Now, I sell them at $1000 because they are worth $1000."

Chesley only gives a discount of 10% to former clients or when more than one piece is being purchased.....period. His oils are priced exactly the same in the galleries in which he's represented. Clients may buy one of his paintings from anywhere....for a consistent price and with confidence that they aren't getting ripped off. It is a good that many first rate galleries (like the Grovewood Gallery!) insist upon and have their artists sign a contract with these stipulations.

Basically....I only have a "real" price! Quality, professional artists SHOULD only have a real price. I am so very, very lucky to have a mentor like Stephen Chesley.