Archive for June, 2013

Sometimes, you may find an artist whose work you admire, but have trouble finding the exact piece you want to buy. Or maybe the artist is selling privately, and few of their works are available on the open market. In such circumstances, you might consider commissioning a piece – but be sure you know what you’re doing before you go ahead. The financial arrangements, the decisions about the subject matter, and how and when the finished work is delivered all require careful thought before the commission goes ahead.

You can commission art either through a gallery, or directly from the artist. Going through a gallery gives you the advantage of expert advice, and could make getting a refund easier if too many problems arise. It is also considered proper etiquette to go through the gallery if it has introduced the artist to you.

However, one problem with commissioning through a gallery is that you will usually pay more overall. Some galleries, too, are so anxious to preserve their position as go-betweens that they will will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent you from meeting the artist, even with a gallery employee. This attitude means that deciding the subject matter is much more difficult. In fact, in one case, it caused the artist and I – both of whom were originally perfectly willing to observe proper etiquette – to make our own arrangements.

By contrast, a direct commission usually takes less time to arrange. You may receive a price closer to the wholesale price – but don’t count on it. You may also have trouble contacting the artist, although these days so many are on social media that is less of a problem than it was a few years ago.

But the most serious problem with a direct commission – for both you and the artist – is whether you can trust each other. Bad faith and outright theft sometimes happen on both sides of a direct commission, so before any money changes hands, you should learn what you can about the artist’s reputation (if they are experienced, they will be doing the same about you). After all, you could be spending thousands of dollars, and, if something goes wrong, your only recourse may be small claims court.

Whatever way you approach the artist, the subject and the design should be a balance between what you want and the artist’s interests. Personally, I see no reason to commission a standard mask such as a Hamatsa raven or a sculpture based on Raven’s theft of the light unless you have an interesting variation in mind. For me, the whole point of a commission is to get something unusual, and to give the artist a chance to do something the market might not otherwise allow them to do.

For that reason, I like to suggest a general subject or design, and hope that the artist will be intrigued enough to develop it in their own way. If possible, I ask for sketches to approve before the final work begins. What I am looking for is something that both intrigues the artist and will satisfy me.

Before the commission begins, you also need to discuss the financial arrangement. Some artists may expect no money until the commission is finished. However, a more common arrangement is for the buyer to pay one-third when the deal is accepted, one-third when the artist finishes, and one-third after any final adjustments requested by the buyer. This arrangement minimizes any possible loss for the buyer, and compensates the artist for their time if the buyer walks away from the deal.

Another matter you should specify is the approximate delivery time. Despite all the jokes artists make about “Indian time,” an increasingly number of artists these days take a professional attitude and do their best to meet their obligations, but, even so, the emphasis here is on “approximate.” You are dealing with art, not utilitarian manufacture, and by definition artists are perfectionists. As a result, a strict deadline would be almost meaningless even if you insisted on it. With the best of intention, slippage may happen, and, so long as you are kept informed, shouldn’t be a matter for concern unless it drags on indefinitely.

Even if completion is delayed, you may be content to wait. One commission took two years to complete – so long that I sometimes concluded that it would never happen. However, I felt reasonably sure that the artist meant to meet his obligation, and, in the end, he delivered a piece that I regularly describe as breathtaking.

As I said, it all comes down to how much you and the artist trust each other.

Speaking of which, it can’t hurt to write down the terms of the commission and have both you and the artist sign it, especially if the two of you have never worked together. In many cases, though, a commission is a verbal agreement, aside from any receipts you may receive from any gallery involved.

With all these considerations, commissioning can be an exhausting experience – and, sometimes, a harrowing one. So why attempt it? The answer is simple: a commission is a mental collaboration. As the buyer, you may not raise a carving tool or dip a paint brush, yet seeing the completed work can be an exhilarating experience. It gives you a small taste of what the Medicis must have felt as patrons of Renaissance Florence – a mixture of pleasure and pride that, indirectly the piece of work in front of you would never have existed except for you. Despite the many setbacks that can happen, that is an addictive feeling that you can easily come to want again and again.

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My long-awaited Arts and Crafts keyboard arrived yesterday from Datamancer Enterprises. Its copper and white leather, plus the Celtic knot-work design on the space bar is exactly what I envisioned. But what surprises me is the way the sound and feel of the mechanical action of its keys affects my writing.

It’s been years since I thought I needed special tools for writing. A professional writer, I maintain, ought to be able to work with whatever is at hand. So, while I have my preferences, over the years I have written on everything from a Palm pilot in its graffiti alphabet to the keyboard of a smart phone to a notebook. The point has never seemed the hardware, but preserving the content as quickly as it comes to me. Everything else has seemed pretension to me, like the various software tools that are supposed to help wannabes (Vim or a basic text editor is usually enough for me).

Still, I didn’t always feel that way. As a young adult with poetic aspirations, I was convinced that my writing was somehow tied to the muscular movements of a pen. The words I wrote by hand seemed to have a deeper, more thoughtful tone than things I attempted to write on a keyboard, and possibly a richer vocabulary as well. But somewhere in the first years of the millennium, I learned to do all my writing in front of a computer, and if my style suffered as a result, the damage was not enough to stop me from publishing regularly.

However, as soon as my fingertips connected with the new keyboard, I was aware of a change in how I was writing. It wasn’t that I had to press the keys slightly harder than I do on a cheap keyboard. Rather, I seemed to be paying more attention to what I was doing. What came next seemed to be blossoming in my mind earlier and quicker than with a cheap keyboard, and I was more likely to go back as I was writing and make changes in wording and structure, rather than leaving such changes for my revisions. The right word seemed to come morre easily. On the whole, I seemed to have a greater understanding about what the item I was composing needed.

At first, I thought the change was the result of the louder click alone. That surprised me, at first, because previously I would have imagined that I preferred a silent keyboard. But the sound of my new keyboard is the sound of progress being made – a sort of mechanical cheering to encourage me to keep going.

But that doesn’t seem to be whole of it. The action of the keys seems to be involved, too. The slight extra pressure on the keys seems to make a difference, and not just because at the end of yesterday my fingers felt like they had had an extra workout. Instead, it’s more like the connection between me and the words that I used to feel with a pen has been re-established.

After some thinking, I now wonder if the low-end keyboards I’ve used until now make typing too easy. Their keys are so sensitive that they require little effort on my part. That may sound like a desirable trait, but the lack of effort seems to severe my sense of connection. Now, entirely by accident, that connection has been restored in a way that I never thought possible (let alone necessary) with a keyboard.

Or, to put it another way, my new keyboard is like a bicycle: It extends my capabilities, but by supplementing the movement of my fingers instead of replacing them. By contrast, standard keyboards are a like a car, reducing my muscular actions to no more than a signal, and replacing them with its own actions. The slightly greater effort required by new keyboard is just enough to make me aware of what I was doing.

I’ll have to see how I feel as I’m settling down with the new keyboard. But, for now, I’m convinced that it is bring me closer to what I am doing, engaging me in a way that other keyboards do not.

It seems to me that this is what the best technology should do. Instead, many machines seem to reduce the need for human action. The result is that we are subtly alienated from our production, even when doing something like writing that is supposed to be creative.

All I know for sure is that I already I seem to detect a different cadence in my writing, and a tone that is closer to my speaking voice than most of what I create on the computer. I look forward to using the new keyboard, because it seems to be one the rare tools that really will help me to write more effectively.


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Mitch Adam’s “Dancer” is an example of how art keeps surprising me. I first picked up the piece (which fits comfortably in the palm of my hand), while having a late breakfast at the Northern Motor Inn in Terrace, and it immediately changed my mind about what an argillite piece could be.

Before seeing “Dancer,” I would have said I had firm ideas of what an argillite piece should be. It would be unpolished. It should be in a traditional style, and as detailed as possible.

Almost immediately, I saw that “Dancer” was none of these things. Yet, just as quickly, I realized that I wanted to buy it.

However, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Adams’ “Blue Moon Mask,” which is among the favorites in my collection, is an unusual piece as well. Moreover, Adams regularly produces surprises. Miniature masks in which laminated woods take the place of paint, functional carved pipes, yellow cedar sculptures with more detail than you would imagine the wood could take – through all these pieces, Adams has shown a knack for innovative designs and uses of media. I expect the unexpected but apt from him.

So why does this piece succeed against my expectations? Since I received the finished piece a week ago, it has been sitting just below my computer monitor, where I’ve been studying it at odd moments when my fingers pause on the keyboard, trying to figure out the answer.

The answer I’ve come up with is that the piece is sculpture reduced to its essential lines. The flight feathers are represented by three feathers that differ only in size and position, the feathers on the head to overlapping circles reminiscent of scale armor. Simple, unadorned ovoids join the wings to the body. Turn the sculpture around, and it is mostly unfinished, except for an ovoid with four tail feathers, each decorated by a simple T-shape.

Left to themselves, such decoration would be unexceptionable. However, they are not what the eye notices. Instead, what viewers notices is the strong lines of the piece – particularly curves – that I’ve noticed before in the best of Adams’ work. The top of each wing is matched by the curve of the beak on each side, forming strong but obvious crescents on each side. The shape of the head is an approximation in miniature of the half circle formed by the shoulders and the wings, and the bottom two wing-feathers on each side diminished echoes of the top one.

In addition, there is a strong center line. Initially established by the beak, it remains so strong that you still see where it should be in the empty space below it. Cleverly enough, that empty space forms an arrow, pointing up to the beak, and drawing the viewer’s eyes with it.

In the end, these lines and the negative spaces they create are what makes “Dancer” work. Like a successful formline, they draw the eye around the sculpture, keeping it moving. Since the polishing emphasizes them, it, too, is justified. A natural finish would de-emphasize both. Instead, by polishing, Adams has made the curves stand out, and the negative spaces look darker, to the benefit of both.

“Dancer” is a strong piece at its size. However, over the week that it has graced my townhouse, I find myself repeatedly wondering how it would work at a much larger size. My guess is that, with its lines, it would be an outstanding piece at any size.



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