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Let the (art festival) games begin…

March 2, 2010

“I’m going to die.”

This is how Woodcut Artist Maria Arango begins her description of the downside of the art festival life.  In her book “Art Festival Guide”, she says “this was the feeling that came over me when I first started putting up my tent, unloading and hanging art, sitting outside in heat and cold for two days, tearing down the tent, unhanging art… pain and agony all over again.”  She pulls no punches.  “The point is that art festivals are hard on your body.  The weekends of the festivals are extremely intense, often starting out before the sun.  The work is hard, loading, unloading, and building a tiny art gallery within a time limit.  Then there is the exposure to heat, wind, rain, cold, whatever the elements throw at you.  I’ve sat in sandals spraying my face and head every hour with cold water, and I have sat in full ski jacket gear with a blanket over my shoulders.  There is no refuge.”

“You can add broken fingernails, pulled muscles, bruises in the most unthinkable places, sore necks, bad backs and twisted ankles to that equation.  Long drives precede and follow the festival…”  She concludes this part by saying “try not to make any major life decisions during setup, or teardown, or during a bad festival…”  So very true.


So we’ve had the winter off.  A good thing, because we are not winter people.  The phenomenon of an unusually snowy February in Dallas wasn’t exciting for us.  It was miserable.  We could only sympathize with people who live in the northern part of the country… and wonder why anyone would live there if they had a choice.  Yes, snow is beautiful, but…

And now we begin to thaw out and look forward to spring… and weekends similar to what Maria describes.  Our season begins with four shows scheduled in March and April.

The artwork is packed for the first trip.  Some forty or more pieces of work that I’ve labored over, poured my heart into… bundled up and ready to load.  When seen this way it seems kind of insignificant.  It’s far more than we’ll put up, of course, but for once we have room to carry extras, to allow for those “gut choices” when the booth is up and the work is being hung.

We spent the last year, 11 shows, hauling our entire booth setup in a Trailblazer.  It was so packed that, on the five hour trips to Houston, the dog had to sit on the passenger’s lap.

Lest there be some doubt whether we’re in this for the long haul, we decided to ease our workload this year, bit the bullet and bought a 5×8 cargo trailer.  The beauty of the trailer is that we no longer have to load and unload everything before and after every show.  It just sits in the garage loaded and ready to go.  We are looking forward to returning from the first show, backing the trailer into the garage, and simply walking into the house and crashing.

There is now ample room for the entire booth setup, along with several tubs of artwork.  The trailer size will allow us to add another tent and maybe some additional Propanels if we decided to someday opt for larger booth spaces.  For now, we’ll stay with a standard 10×10 booth.

Neither Maria Arango, nor I, want to give only the negative side of the art festival life.  She also says “The ultimate thrill in this business is a booth full of folks that saw your art in the two seconds it takes to scope out your entire booth, loved your art, and now stand in line fighting with each other to buy your art.  The look at you with respect and awe.  They say things like ‘you are so talented.’  They make predictions like ‘you are going to be famous.’  They stroke you and ask you to keep them in your mailing list.  They say a lot of things that will make you feel very good. ”  She talks about the ever present fantasy of the Perfect Festival, which is what drives us to try harder, and to make better art.

She cautions about not defining success in specific monetary terms… “Just don’t define victory at $30K to start out or you will be disappointed for sure.  Count the small victories… the first time you make the entry fee, the first time you sell a big piece, the first time you go over $1000, the first setup under two hours, the first time you sell more than one piece to one person…”  Amen.

This is not for everyone.  So why do we do it?

There’s an adrenaline rush when one arrives at the venue and sees tents going up.  At that point, one smells the morning air, hears the sounds of activity… and checks the time.  Two hours until showtime.  Two hours to unload and build your little 10×10 art gallery, go park the car, and find a cup of coffee.  The crowd doesn’t show up at start time, but there are always one or two people who show up early, as they did in Mount Vernon, Ohio (pictured) last August.  And one of them bought a piece of art.

And then you wait.  And meet your neighbors, like the pottery folks next to us at Mount Vernon, who made the entire weekend more fun as well as a learning experience.  They had been at this for several years, and shared good advice as well as great encouragement.  They cheered for us with every sale we made.

And you find yourself acting as a momentary mentor, encouraging young people to stick with their art studies, explaining your methods, talking about materials.  You get the opportunity to point them to specific websites for more information, or to suggest other artists whose work they might want to study.

These are the things that keep us energized.  Yes, we’ve done unbearable heat and painful cold, and wind and rain.  But when your booth is lit up and full of interested people who want to talk about your work, and somewhere on the grounds there’s a band playing old time rock and roll, or blues, or jazz, all those things are forgotten for the moment.

It’s just you, your art… and the public.

And so we begin again.  Another year of hopes, dreams, aspirations… but mostly, another year of adventure.

Wouldn’t have it any other way.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2010 2:08 am

    Thanks Ralph! I’ve wondered what it would be like to try and sell at the art shows like you’ve done. Some friends of mine like to go to rendezvous and shoot muzzle loaders. They have a big wall tent, larger than 10’x10′, and they have a wood stove that they take for cold winter nights. I’ve been in that tent, and it was warm. it would take up a little floor space, but could you put up a small wood or charcoal stove at the cold events? Put up a sign, “Come on in, it’s WARM in side” and see if people come and look and buy.


    • March 3, 2010 7:51 pm

      I suppose you could, Don, but I wouldn’t do it. Keep in mind that your goal is to have as many people as possible moving around inside your tent. They step around, back up, and rarely just stand still. And the last thing you’d want is for someone to brush up against it and get burned or dirty, especially a child. You’d also have, if not a lot, then at least some smoke, even if you had a tent with a top flap – which you’d probably want to keep closed in cold weather anyway. That tent’s going to smell like smoke all year. People probably expect that and accept it at a rendezvous or pioneer festival, but not at an art festival. We’ve got a real small propane heater that I thought about using… until I read on the instructions that it should not be used within two feet of any fabric. It just won’t work under these conditions. And electric heaters aren’t always acceptable to the promoter, because they use so much electricity. Once you get set up at a show, with at least one table, which you often really need, 10×10 is a lot smaller than you realize. That floor space is very, very valuable. We find that, in the hot weather, just placing a small floor fan in a reasonable place takes some thought, but at least a fan can be placed next to the tent or the panels and out of the way. Cold weather is what it is, and you just have to dress accordingly.

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