|The questions I am asked most frequently about my work could be categorized as “what if it goes wrong” type of questions. “Tell me about the projects that crashed and burned.” “Does the artwork ever just not turn out?” “Do you ever disagree with your clients input? What do you do then?”
The answer is as you would expect: Yes. Humans on all sides of the table are messy and projects don’t always unfold exactly as planned. Every project is a learning adventure and there are always unexpected twists and bumps along the way to keep things exciting. For example? Read on…
The Poppy Debate
I often deviate from my original designs for lots of good reasons, but this approach did not work out so well for me in March when I painted a mural at Security Public Storage in San Pablo. I painted the poppies in the mural much smaller than we had planned in the design, and SPS requested I come back out to make them bigger. In retrospect, it was no big deal. However my “inner diva artist” (IDA) and my “inner business owner”(IBO) live in different zip codes, and there were a couple of phone calls where I accidentally let IDA answer the phone and she made things difficult. SPS had all their faculties in the same zip code and were extremely nice about the whole thing. In the end, I decided that poppies have caused enough wars, and these poppies could be fixed. Here is the before and after.
When I envisioned the main figure for my mural in downtown Napa, I imagined a beautiful, middle-aged woman, exuding both inner peacefulness and dignity. Because the scaffolding was set up flush against the wall, I was going to have to paint the top 1/3 of the mural to completion before I worked on the bottom half of the mural. This meant I was going to have to paint the head of my 14-foot tall heroine to completion before I painted the rest of her body. Note to self and others: I wouldn’t recommend this approach. However, I am an optimist, not a realist, so I thought this would work out fine.
On the day the scaffold was to be taken down I called my client and the tribal council contact out for final approval on the “head only” of the main figure. I won’t blame what happened on their suggestions; I was the only one holding a paintbrush. But after a few hours of “tinkering”, including changing my source image several times, I was fried and finished at “good enough” with the face. The scaffold came down, the mural progressed. The feedback was positive, so I moved right along until completion of the project. I was paid, final photos were taken, and I headed home for a well-deserved break.
That night, I woke up at 3 am, unable to sleep. I got up and started looking over close up photos of the project, and realized: it’s not what I was going for. Somewhere along the line, I had got off track. My heroine didn’t look calm and confident; she looked dazed and confused. I felt sick about it. Remember IBO and IDA? IBO wanted to go back to bed but IDA wouldn’t let it rest.
At 4:30 am, I started loading up my car for what I must do. If I left by 5 I could arrive by the first light of dawn. I had no idea if my 9′ ladder would reach high enough to even touch the face, and I would be at real risk of making it worse. I had to go. It was the zombie apocalypse, and I was the zombie.
Fortunately, that early in the morning there was no one around to witness me perched on the top of a leaning ladder, making up the last foot of distance between my hand and her face with the length of my paintbrush. I had a clear idea of the changes I wanted to make, and I went for it. It didn’t take long. When I stepped back to assess the damage, I was relieved. I saw she was improved, and closer to the vision I had of her. In that moment, I felt less like a zombie and more like the movie’s exhausted heroine as I headed towards home and a well-deserved nap.
The Great Highway is a 50’s themed venue for parties and events. They hired me to paint 40-foot wall with a scene of the famous Mel’s Diner along the entrance. The work environment was incredibly fun. I was having lunch next to Marilyn Monroe and the Doobie Brothers (well, their statues), oohing over an impressive vintage car collection, grooving to the oldies, and having a great time being blasted into the past. In the midst of the party going on in my head, I totally mismanaged the project. After I thought I had finished mural the client came back with substantial – and totally legitimate- changes for the artwork. It was a surprise for me and more difficult than it had to be because I (more specifically, IBO), up to that point, had been totally sloppy. I let myself get negotiated down too low on the deposit. I misjudged which of the partners was the primary creative director, so I wrapped up the project with the wrong point person. I agreed to paint other areas outside the scope without charging them for it. By the end of the project IDA (inner diva artist) was furious with IBO and ripe for a tantrum.
In the end, the drama was all in my head. There is always one easy solution: Do your best to fix it. I had put a glaze over the window areas of the diner to create the illusion of glass windows. I hoped it would make the scene look warm and fuzzy inside the diner. It didn’t read right for the client. They didn’t like it. I went back out and repainted the center section without distortion, and the problem was solved.
|I was painting for a design and build architecture firm last week and the owner asked me if taking feedback from my clients was difficult. I looked at her and the office full of architects and designers behind her and imagined that our experiences and client relationships would be very similar. We both aim to create beautiful environments in a collaborative way with our clients. The collaboration is like any relationship: it works best when there is mutual respect for each others ideas.
My professional work is full of the same risk, adventure and mishaps that everyone else faces. My strategy is probably the same as the architectural firm and most people in business: I pick who I work with carefully, establish a clear framework and expectation for a mutually beneficial outcome, and then take the leap. We work together until the end to make the project a success.
There are pervasive cultural beliefs about artists that I bump into around the issue of taking feedback. First, that “pure” art comes from an isolated individual, and that feedback will taint the work. Second, that making something that delights and serves others is selling out. I couldn’t disagree more on both points. I am the first to admit some of my best ideas have come from other people. Here’s an example of an unexpected collaboration:
The Puggle and the Vault
In March, I was hired by San Mateo Lock to paint a mural of a vault on the side of their building. The three co-owners and I worked out the content of the mural together. They paid close attention to ensure the technical aspects of the vault were accurate, but left the artistic interpretation of the composition up to me. The wall was along a pedestrian promenade, so I was peppered with the usual questions and comments while I painted. (“Why are there cookies in the vault?” Umm…those are supposed to be gold bars.) There was one older gentleman who would pass by with his bike at least once daily. I am not sure if he was homeless, but laundry definitely wasn’t his thing. He would stop by to chat about the progress of the work at least once daily, then leave me to my work. After a few days it became apparent he had a great eye for art. He said he always liked art, but never had a chance to pursue it. I encouraged his feedback and he would always point out a detail or two that could use a highlight, or further development. On the last day, as I was packing up to leave, he stopped by. His final feedback was, “that mural needs a little dog in it somewhere.” I thought, “This cake is baked. I’m headin’ home!” (That was IBO’s idea) but I said, “Great idea. We’ll see.”
I am ashamed to admit I never even asked his name, but he made an impression on me. I was struck that all his feedback was consistently spot on. A couple months later I was looking through the photos of the mural and realized, much to my chagrin, that the mural would be improved with a little dog in it. So, I returned to paint a Puggle looking back at the viewer. I’m pretty sure he’ll notice.
|As a commercial artist, I’m totally exposed when I mess up. But I am consoled by the bigger truth: Messing up is universal. And on the other side of the same coin: Making art is universal. We are all doing it in our own way. And it is always risky. We all face the same fears around sharing our ideas. What if “they don’t like my ideas or work? What if I it doesn’t turn out? What if I’m wrong? I think this applies across industries, regardless of job title.
For me, it would be more difficult to “hide” than to not climb that ladder (literally) or make that thing that I have wanted to try. Exposing ourselves to criticism or failure is a part of creating, whether it is something you say or build or paint. I’ve been doing this a long time and I don’t always get it right. I’m making mistakes daily. There will always be feedback and it might not be good. IDA and IBO might disagree. But I’ll keep trying. To me, it’s worth it. Taking the risk, and being willing to take a swing out on the dance floor is how I will grow and learn and get better.
Cheers to the dance!