Listening to a podcast recently, the author used the expression, “an eagle away, a crow at home.” This really got me thinking. As an artist, we are all, in some sense, eagles away and crows at home. What does this mean? Allow me to present my spin on it.
Everybody creates art (their art) in a local environment. Speaking for myself, I live in Cedar Park, Texas, which is on the outskirts of Austin, so my local market would be Cedar Park or the Austin area in general. Now, those of you who know me know that I sometimes do local shows. I’ve been known to show my work at “the DAC” as we call it (Dougherty Arts Center) or to participate in AVAA shows (Austin Visual Arts Association.) There’s also the Georgetown Art Hop and the local 5×7 art show and splurge at the local museum, which I participate in almost every year. (There are others too, but this is not really about making a list and checking it twice.) These local shows are great, I love doing them, and I feel as if they are a big part of me-a part of who I am as an artist. Heck, I can remember my “early days” (if you can call the time “circa 1995” as “early days” but, heck, work with me here. I am a photographer) when I was overjoyed to be able to get into an AVAA show or some of these other local shows. Now, I’m still happy and I still enjoy these types of shows, frankly, I’m happily surprised when my work is accepted into anything (most of the time I’m a bit taken aback when I find there are other kindred spirits out there who see the world the same quirky way I do) but most of my “show joy” (if you want to call it that) comes from having my work accepted into a new market. Places like Los Angeles or New York or Toronto or…wherever, but you get the idea. As an artist, I have exhibited my work globally. This naturally dictates that my market has broadened and my backyard is a little less exciting for me (on some levels.)
When you go into these “other” markets, something happens. You suddenly become “exotic.” I know this sounds strange, especially coming from a little old photographer living in rural Texas (actually suburban Texas-even worse!) but something happens. You are “special.” You become different. The rusted old barns, the fields with long horns stuck in them, heck, even the tired old bluebonnet photos suddenly become “exotic.” They don’t have fields of bluebonnets with grazing cattle in New York City, ok? Yes, it’s true, what you may take for granted, somebody else finds, *gasp* interesting. (Oh! Who knew?!?) This makes your work suddenly special. If you look at the course of say, a gallery in Los Angeles, why they have only shown so many pieces from artists based in Texas. They’re off busy showing work from all over the world. There are photographers from Dubai and Romania and Luxembourg and places we didn’t even know existed (rural Kazhakhstan, anybody?) When you stuff a Texas image next to an image crafted in, say, Luxembourg, you’re going to get something that’s…well…different, OK? You just will. Because of this, you suddenly become magical. And, I’ll be the first to admit, you never get to wear out the phrase “exotic” believe me, you just don’t. What might seem stale and tired to you suddenly has a “Wow!” factor to somebody somewhere else, and every place is “exotic” to somebody far away, that’s just how the entire “exotic” thing works.
Fast forward a few years and you see what starts to happen here. It’s easy to become a celebrity far away from home. It’s easy to play that “exotic” card and make good things happen to your work in far away places. Los Angeles or Seattle or New York or….whatever the locale you think happens to be “exotic” suddenly finds you (and by “you” I mean your work here) “exotic.” You’re special. You’re magical. You’re a photography titan from a faraway, magical, distant land and everybody wants to rub your sleeve because, well, that’s how this “exotic” thing works.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch….you’re still the same old suburban lady with the same bluebonnet images that everybody else seems to have. Nope, nothing special about her. She’s, why, she’s *local.* Oh the horror! You might as well call me vanilla ice cream and stab me in the eye with a spork! Over time, you can see what happens. It’s easier to milk that “exotic” label. It’s actually easier to build a following in your hometown by going far away and coming back. Seriously. You would not think this to be the case, but its’ true.
I once shots stills for a TV show called “Trading Spaces.” The host was a lovely lady named Paige Davis. An interesting thing about Paige, she always wanted to be…on Broadway! She never wanted (not once!) to become a TV star. So, how did she get to be a TV star? Easy. She went on audition after audition and got rejection after rejection. And then she met somebody who met somebody who knew somebody who told her he knew this guy who was casting for a pilot…for a “small TV show.” Thinking it might be good exposure, she auditioned and got the gig. One TV role let to another led to another until she became a bit well known in TV circles. Eventually, she did make it to Broadway but only after doing several stints of TV shows. She’s also on record as saying it was a lot easier to go for auditions on Broadway when she had a resume with lots of TV experience. She was, in fact, “an eagle away a crow at home.” It’s easier to go on a Broadway audition when you’re “that TV star” then it is to hire people who are already playing bit parts on Broadway (oddly enough.)
A few years ago, I had applied for a local art exhibition. Now, I didn’t think it was a big deal of a show, I had just read somewhere, maybe even online, that somebody was looking for work and I thought, what the heck, I’ll send in a few pieces for consideration. As luck would have it, I made it into the show. Since it was a local show, I actually got to the go to the opening reception. Since I’m a “local” artist, I know a lot of other local artists, in fact, I can hardly walk into an opening reception in the Austin area without bumping into somebody that I know. It just works that way-there aren’t that many exhibiting artists around and we all tend to hang out together. So, I walk into this opening reception and a local artist I know and respect (when I say “respect” here, I mean like really “RESPECT” as in, I’ve taken classes from her kind of respect and not just, “oh, yeah, I’ve seen her work and it’s pretty good” kind of respect) comes up to me and confides in me that her work didn’t make it into the show. I was a bit taken aback by this. I mean, how could this well respected artist not get into this show and yet there was my work sitting there on the gallery wall? Let me be the first to tell you, my work is *not* any better than hers, ok? No, this was not a question of quality, not by a long shot (if it had been left to quality, why, I’m the first to admit, I’d be sitting at the curb and they would have cleared the place out to hang up her stuff, ok? And I say that sincerely. She’s a damn fine artist.)
When I got home, I was still reeling from the experience, so I typed the show into my search engine. On the web page for the show, they had me listed as an exhibiting artist, as you might expect, and then there was a blurb about “…recently shown work in Toronto and New York…” Yes, it’s true, I had just come off doing a few shows in these locales. And, I have to say now that, in hindsight, it was not the quality of the work that got me into this show, no, it was the “eagle away crow at home” status of my work. Anybody who Googled me at that point would have come up with the words “Toronto” and “New York” and probably figured, “Hmm. She must be good,” even without looking at my work. I was “exotic” and had that going for me, even if there was better local work.
Now, I’m not against showing work in the local market, no, just the opposite. I think artists need to cultivate local ties. I’d be the first to admit too that local shows have, at times, kept me sane. It’s *fun* to go and see your stuff hanging on a wall, have a glass of wine, and hob knob with some local folks. It really makes for a nice evening, trust me on that one. You get wonderful feedback on your work, it’s easy, you don’t have to ship stuff, you can invite your friends to the opening. There are a lot of advantages here. But, you have to spread your wings too.
My advice to other artists is, yes, have roots. Participate in local shows. Network with other local artists. Invite local patrons into your studios and share your work with your neighbors. Have roots in your community, yes, but also, have wings. I think the most successful artists are just this, “an eagle away, a crow at home” or maybe it’s more accurate to say, yes, they have roots, but they also have wings.
Until next time…
PS This image from Port Townsend, Washington, taken with a walkabout lens and the baby Mark.