Last Sunday I made my debut into the world of illustration with my first solo show at Kichi-Ba Tea House in Brisbane. Gouache paintings dangled from the rafters by silver art clips and twine, tea-light candles twinkled in old jars on eucalypt tree stumps, the chilled, wet winter air smelt of jonquils, the Veuve D’Argent flowed into tiny mismatched thrifted glasses. Acoustic guitar hummed softly in the corner and my charming guests pored curiously over their pocket guides handed out upon arrival. The promised forest of paintings materialised.
Besides being an outrageously fun evening, it was quite the opportunity to learn a thing or two about myself, others, art and illustration.
Perhaps the most striking revelation was that people need to be led. In every way.
Since the show, I’ve run into numerous apologetic would-be attendees, who are sorry that they forgot all about it. This is not something an artist can do anything about, since I sent out many reminders in many different media, including face-to-face, text messages, personal emails and facebook reminders. No matter how conscientious your campaign, there will always be some people who simply forget.
Some guests are rumoured to have said, ‘It’s not as if I’m going to buy a picture of Sam to hang on my wall.’ This is a symptom of how difficult it is to convey to people what it is an illustrator does. Yes, my paintings were for sale. But these paintings are personal works, created to demonstrate what I am capable of. Some demonstrate my take on portraiture. Some demonstrate my ability to conceptualise. Some demonstrate applications for illustration, such as menus or product illustration. It seems this point was lost on many people, and could be emphasised more firmly.
My self-portraits, in particular, are an interesting point. To me, they are not self-portraits. I consider them narratives or depictions of knitted garments, in which I happen to be the model since this is the most convenient way for me to work. I hardly see myself in them, and should note that others in fact do, and that perhaps I should go to greater efforts to source other willing models. I don’t think they are a wasted exercise, though—at least those present could see the likeness and judge for themselves my portraiture ability. One guest was particularly taken by how I conveyed so many different aspects of my personality in the various portraits, which is an interesting thing to know about my work.
Showing people everything all at once and speaking with them individually is an amazing way to gather feedback about your work. There is no predicting who will like what, and everyone has a favourite, and it’s just lovely when they tell you about it. It’s not only revealing for the artist to display so many facets of herself for everyone to see. It’s revealing to learn who is attracted to the homely warmth of Ugly lamp 2, and to learn that little girls are enamoured of Death is dead. Never assume anything. Even your favourite little piece that most people overlook is somebody else’s favourite. Your niche is out there.
People love stories. I printed out little business card sized show guides, with a sentence or two on each painting. Everyone loves a little thing to touch and to keep, and they love to hear a little about the painting and feel like an insider. I spent a while talking about my Christmas in Paris to purchasers of some greeting cards of Sacré Coeur. Divulging little secrets to people draws them into your world.
Speeches: totally not mandatory. Michelle, the owner of the tea shop, and I talked this over. I thought it should be simple, to the point, and only include one thank you. Nothing worse than a sixteen-thank-you speech. Michelle preferred not to speak at all. We’re both more into personal one-on-one interactions, and don’t mind explaining the same thing several times over. We played it by ear, and in the end felt a speech would have interrupted the natural unfolding of the night.
You don’t need to martyr yourself financially. A wise businessman suggested that we charge entry. Michelle and I weren’t so taken with this idea, as we can be far too generous. On further consideration, we acknowledged we’d gladly pay entry to an art show with live music, French champagne, fancy snacks and a beautiful, secretive setting. If charging a little money can help you make a really memorable event, do it. It’s crucial to make your first event a true spectacle—word spreads, and people look forward to the next event.
While it’s more exciting for me to see my own paintings in print, as greeting cards and tea towels and the like, it’s more exciting for other people to see the originals. My no-bullshit Russian friend assured me she wasn’t so impressed by my paintings online, preferring the linework in my sketchbooks, but seeing them in person reversed her position completely. Allowing people to experience your work in more tangible ways can win you more fans. And you have my Russian friend’s word for it that the digital representations of my work do the real things ten percent justice. The ‘merch,’ of course, was a necessity, because while original art is beyond the reach of many people, it can be made accessible in more exciting forms than simple prints, and I know how hard it is to turn down cute stationery.
A heartfelt thank you to everyone who made this show possible, and to all who came and enjoyed themselves. x
In Edinburgh, I taught my friend Elizabeth to knit. We spent bright, sunny, ten degree Scottish summer days in The Meadows weaving wondrous creations. Elizabeth, ever ambitious, made her first project a dress–a clever amalgam of grey and white scarf-like rectangles.