Friday, December 12, 2014

Artist as Migrant Worker

Photo courtesy of Life Magazine
The LIFE photo archive of more than 10 million pictures has been made available on Google, free for personal and research purposes. Copyright and ownership of all images remains with Time Inc. A majority of the images have never been publicly displayed before. They appear among the results of any Google search, or are available separately at

The 1950s photo above shows a caravan of Airstream trailers, camped out for the night.  Back when I was a very young boy living in rural New Jersey, I remember seeing something like this.  Once a year, and literally overnight like mushrooms, a camp would spring up in a nearby vacant field.  The sleek, shiny Airstream trailers seemed to be a party that I very much wanted to join.

I envision something like this today for painters - plein air painters on wheels.  Maybe not so many, though.  Maybe three or four like-minded artists (early to bed, early to rise and serious about our craft) in a mini-caravan composed of trailers with each being a complete artist's studio.  We would travel with our spouses and partners and a like-minded dog or two, camping and painting wherever the spirit takes us.

But for a working professional who depends on his art for a living, this poses a problem.  It's hard doing business while on the road.  For the past several years, though, I've been doing exactly that.  I'm a migrant worker.  I move to where the money takes me.

I work in the Canadian Maritimes in the summer and in Arizona in the winter.  Why?  As beautiful as the Maritimes are in the winter, students won't come for workshops, collectors won't come to buy paintings, and although I do like the occasional foray into the snow to paint, it's not my preferred method.  So, I head to the southwest for the winter, where it is warmer and everything is possible.  My friends say I have the best of both worlds, and I completely agree.

But the traveling life has perils.  It is difficult to be part of a community in either location.  You are either treated as "not really a resident" or as an interloper.  Although you can make friends, I tend to be a solitary sort, and it's hard for me to do that.  Galleries and collectors also have a hard time categorizing you, and if they can't, they move on to someone they can.  As an example, a local writer asked to profile me for a book she was writing about Sedona area artists.  Well, once she found out I am in Arizona for less than half the year, she disqualified me.  Yet, I probably paint more paintings in Arizona than I do anywhere else all year.

It's also tough to enter shows.  Quite often, shows seem to have deadlines that fall on or around my travel dates.  (It usually takes me three weeks to go east or west because of teaching workshops along the way.)  It's inconvenient to lug around a large, framed painting and box halfway across the country and then ship it when the shipping time comes - or not ship it, if it doesn't get juried in.   And of course, there is the whole tax issue.   I file multiple tax returns for multiple tax jurisdictions including two countries.  You can't imagine how much time and effort this takes.

Still, it works.  It's a living, and I enjoy it.  And, thanks to modern technology, when I travel my main phone number gets forwarded to a cell phone, I check e-mail at hotels and coffee shops, postal mail gets forwarded, bills are paid automatically through Bill Pay, and my magazines are digital versions that get download to my tablet.  When you contact me, you don't know where I am.  (I turn off the location services on all my devices.)

Some day, I may find it not necessary to sell paintings and teach workshops.  When that day comes, look for me and my friends on the road, coming to a vacant lot near you.

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