WHERE ARE THEY NOW
by Laura Lee Mattingly
Here we catch up with four experienced SF Open Studios artists to learn how the experience has helped their careers, what worked and what didn’t, and what advice they have for novice artists or those new to SF Open Studios.
How would you say open studios contributed to your art career? SF Open Studios enabled me to show my work to a large audience before I had gallery representation. It also enabled galleries to find me. I got gallery representation from four different galleries because they saw my work during SF Open Studios. I am still showing with two of those galleries.
How was your first SF Open Studio? I had an apartment on 19th and Guerrero where I was lucky enough to use a spare bedroom as my studio space. I got a lot of foot traffic from people on their way to or from Dolores Park. I think the first time I did SF Open Studios was over 14 years ago, and it’s always been a good experience for me. Early in my career, it was what I worked for all year long.
What did you do correctly, and what did you have to improve upon? In the early years, I made sure to have some small pieces that were under $100, in addition to larger works. I like to make sure there’s something for every budget. I used to also sell raffle tickets for $5 and raffle off a painting. This enabled me to get a lot of email and snail mail addresses for my mailing list and people liked being able to get a painting for around $5.
What are you doing now in your art career? I’m currently represented by six galleries across the U.S. I’ve had numerous shows and had my work published online and in print, and have been featured in videos and programs.
What advice would you give to artists starting out? Paint a lot. Paint all of the time. Don’t wait for inspiration. You need to do art as if it were your job, which means working on it on a regular basis, even when you don’t feel like it. Once you have a good body of work, show your work anywhere you can. Do SF Open Studios and juried shows. Post your work online. The more exposure you get, the more people see your work, and opportunities will start coming your way. But you have to do the legwork.
What did you do correctly, and what did you have to improve upon? I didn’t do anything correctly. I just got lucky. I did more things correctly in subsequent SF Open Studios, but for whatever reason, visitors were usually unimpressed.
What are the seemingly “smaller” things that you’ve done for your SF Open Studios that made the biggest impact later on? One thing I stopped doing was worrying about sales. The public is generally not looking for the sort of work I make and I almost never sell anything at an open studio. These days, I just present new work that I’m excited about. I invite specific individuals who I think are important to connect with. I don’t pander to the public’s expectations. I treat open studios as an excuse to draw specific groups or individuals into my studio so that it will lead to future opportunities.
Did you ever participate in any of the juried exhibitions? What was your most memorable experience? I was included in 30 Under 30 at Varnish Fine Art one year and in Selections 2007 at 111 Minna. I liked the way they displayed my painting at Varnish, suspended from the ceiling with chains. It was appropriate for the work and tastefully done. The painting included in Selections was the first good painting I ever made, and it was the first one you saw upon entering the space. So that was exciting.
What are you doing now in your art career? Things have changed tremendously since my first SF Open Studio. I have one or two solo shows per year and work with galleries that exhibit and sell my work. I’m most excited about a large-scale installation that will be funded and exhibited at the Brand Library Art Center in LA next year. It will be part of a solo show I’m having there. But in the meantime, I participate in group shows, I did a collaborative performance with Maja Ruznic and Rebecca Farr in LA in August, and I write a monthly column called “How To Give a Shit” for Venison Magazine. I am able to make art full time. My community here in LA is vibrant, ambitious, and generous. For that I am extremely grateful. It all takes time and patience.
What advice would you give to novice SF Open Studios artists, or artists at the beginning of their art careers? Focus on the art itself for a really long time before you start getting concerned about “marketing.” Go to shows, look at art, see what’s being done, and try to sincerely understand it. Don’t walk into a place and expect them to pay attention to you if you haven’t paid attention to them. The work itself really does matter. Read, talk, think, make. Give a shit about the world around you and reflect that in your art.
When and where did you have your first SF Open Studio? Out of my house in 2006... it was a disaster. I really had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even have business cards or a mailing list. I didn’t read the Artist’s Toolkit. My mom was in town and made entirely too much food. I did it without really going to anyone else’s open studios. After a several year hiatus, I came back with way more confidence thanks to ArtSpan resources like the Professional Development Workshops and staff.
What did you improve upon? Nowadays, I don’t focus on sales. I work to have victories on the things I CAN control, like getting people to sign up for my mailing list or putting out posters, postcards, and flyers. Talking with people like my neighbors and friends to get them interested to come see my work. If you do that work, the rest will fall in line. You can’t control what sells, so I try not to base success on sales at SF Open Studios.
What have you done for your SF Open Studios that made the biggest impact later on? A mailing list! I know it seems like such a boring detail. But collecting emails and getting a list organized digitally has seriously grown my supporters and helped make sales at galleries, my own open studio events, and gotten me several commissions. I can’t stress it enough.
What were your worst and best SF Open Studios? First one was the worst—no plan, no business cards, no mailing list, no signage. A few people came but two thought it was an apartment for rent! For the last two years I hired help, which was one of my best decisions. My assistant would make sure people signed the list and was available and knowledgeable enough to answer some basic questions if I was talking with someone. My assistant would also break in with an “urgent” issue if she noticed someone taking up too much of my time, therefore maximizing my time with the potential collectors.
Did you ever participate in any of the juried exhibitions or in the SFOS Exhibition? What was your most memorable experience? I had the honor of being in Selections 2015. I encourage people to do these shows and submit because if your work is selected, you get to meet really interesting people that support the arts in San Francisco, which means access to some of the major contributors to our culture and community.
What’s been the most notable long-term effect from your SF Open Studios? I look at SF Open Studios as a long-term event, not just a weekend sales fest. I want to make my open studio a place where my supporters and collectors can check in and find something new. And I want to make it a space where new people can see my work for the first time and get on board with my story. I have gotten long-term collectors, retailers, commissions, and gallerists to all support me in different ways due to SF Open Studios.
What are you doing now in your art career? This year I have two solo shows! The first was in July in Los Angeles. The second one will be here in San Francisco at Studio Gallery on Weekend 2 of SFOS. In 2015, I got to paint a 6,000 square-foot mural with my friends on the Journal Building where ArtSpan has 22 studios. That was a huge honor. In fact, when I got the call that my design was chosen for the mural, I totally cried on the phone. Also, lately I’ve been honing my skills with new mediums. Pen and ink has been pulling at me.
Anything else about how ArtSpan and SF Open Studios has helped your art career? SF Open Studios is a great event that we all need to keep pushing and growing. Volunteering for ArtSpan has been key for me. If you put in the hours volunteering and making our community stronger, it will pay you back. A rising tide raises all boats. So get out there, chip in.
What advice would you give to novice SF Open Studios artists, or artists at the beginning of their art careers? Learn to talk about your art. Be you. Tell your story. Make a lot of mistakes… and make sure you learn from them. Always work on getting better at your art, your presence, your business. And above all… get shit done!
What would you say you did correctly, and what did you have to improve upon? I didn’t edit enough or make things quite formal enough. Informality is one of the nice things about the format, but since an open studio is kind of like inviting the public into your home (the space feels that personal to me), it’s a good idea to set clear boundaries around what’s for public consumption and what’s off-limits.
What are the seemingly “smaller” things you’ve done for your SF Open Studios that made the biggest impact later on? Making it fun. Hanging the show well and taking your own work seriously. Mailing lists are always a good idea. And having your prices sorted out. Nothing’s worse when buying a piece of art than the artist being unsure about its worth.
What’s been the most notable long-term effect from your SF Open Studios? The ability to connect with an audience. Sure, plenty of people come through who just want free cheese and crackers and wine, but there are also lots of people who are interested enough in the arts to seek things out on their own. As an artist, that’s what I’m after—the people who really gravitate toward what I’m doing artistically. Fifteen years later, I’m still surprised by people who tell me they first saw my work at SF Open Studios and have followed it since. It’s flattering every time. Sharing your work with people outside of the gallery and museum setting is important.
What are you doing now in your art career? I have a small solo show coming up at Luna Rienne in the Mission, and I also have some work in current and upcoming group shows at the John Natsoulas Gallery in Davis. We’ll be doing a bigger solo show of my recent figure paintings, a body of work entitled “Garland of Hours” in 2017, and I’m doing a book in conjunction with that, which I’m really excited about. I’m showing at Abend Gallery in Denver as well.
What advice would you give to novice SF Open Studios artists, or artists at the beginning of their art careers? Work, work, work, work. Stay humble. Look at great art and respond to the inspiration it presents. Set a high bar for yourself. Don’t expect much beyond creating more work and hopefully getting better. Be resourceful, make your own opportunities. Be careful about how you define success. Build community. Have a dialogue. Studio visits with and from other artists are my absolute favorite. My idea of a successful career as an artist is that you continue to make work that has heart, that you can stand behind, and that communicates something human and real.