When Working Isn't Working


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I spent the past weekend exhibiting my artwork at the Gold Coast Art Show.  It was my sixth year participating in this show.  As always, the effort involved in setting up, exhibiting, and taking down my display was extensive.


On Thursday afternoon, Andrew and I left our three girls in the care of his parents while we loaded my rental van.  We packed enormous paintings, small and medium sized prints, display panels, stabilizer bars, a tent, a canopy, a desk, weights, a dolly, food, water, my director's chair, Andrew's chair, a toolbox, a ladder and all my marketing materials.


We spent hours setting up in Grant Park and arrived home late Thursday night.  Katie and Annie Rose were long asleep.  On Friday, my father-in-law took the day off of work to help my mother-in-law watch Katie and Annie Rose.  Since the show would run into the evening, we had arranged for our babysitter, Gwen, to take over watching the girls at 5:00 pm. 

Ten-week-old Cleo sat in the hot sun with me from 9:30 a.m. until the show closed at 7:00 p.m.  Throughout the day, I tried to talk to customers in between nursing and rocking Cleo.  When she fussed, Andrew took her for walks so that she would not be a distraction at the tent.  We changed her diapers on a park bench, since the only bathrooms were disgusting port-o-potties. 

We arrived home after the babysitter had put Katie and Annie Rose to bed, but Katie was waiting up to see me.


The show continued on Saturday and all day Sunday.  My in-laws brought the two girls to see me on Saturday. 

Within two minutes of arriving, Annie Rose tried to pull a 60 inch canvas off one of the panel walls.  Katie sifted through the food I had packed for myself that day and started to nibble.  Annie Rose tromped through a slippery pile of mud in my tent, courtesy of a violent rainstorm that had erupted overnight.  She became so filthy that my mother-in-law had to take her to a nearby fiber artist who was selling children's clothes and buy her a new outfit.  I decided it was time for the girls to go, even though I had only seen them for twenty minutes.  

Cleo stayed with us throughout the show, due to her extreme youth and dependence on my milk. 

Sunday was the longest day of all.  It started early and ended late, and it did not end well.


For the first time in six years, I left the Gold Coast show without selling a large original oil painting.  I only sold prints.  The combination of a weak economy and an expensive artist is a bleak one.  Other artists near me complained of bitterly disappointing sales too.  The artist on my left, who had driven from Texas to exhibit in the Chicago show, never sold a single item during the entire show.  The artist to my right did not even cover half her costs.


Cleo was an angel all weekend, but by Sunday at 5:00 pm, she had reached her limit.  She screamed nonstop as we broke down the tent.  She screamed nonstop as we loaded the van.  She screamed nonstop as I finally drove her home, leaving Andrew and his dad to finish.

When I arrived home at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday night, Katie and Annie Rose were a mess.  They had spent the first half of the day with my in-laws and the second half of the day with another babysitter.

I walked in the door with Cleo, who was by that time red-faced and hiccupping with swollen watery eyes.  Annie Rose and Katie were fighting, and Katie looked at me with daggers in her eyes.  For twenty minutes, she was rude and hostile.

"Look, Katie," I finally said, "I know you are upset because I have barely spent time with you for the past four days.  Instead of throwing me angry looks, just tell me how you feel.  It will work much better."

Instantly she dissolved into a puddle of tears.  I scooped her up into my arms, no easy feat with a girl who is more than half my size, and we collapsed onto the couch together.  The dam broke, and Katie began to wail, "I never get to see you.  It's not fair.  Cleo got to be with you the whole weekend.  Nobody gives me attention.  I wish I was a baby so I could stay with you at the art show.  Or I wish I was a grown-up so I could stay with you.  But I hate being six and three quarters because I have to be away from you."

She yelled and cried and moaned, all the time repeating variations of the above complaints, and I offered what comfort I could. 

Soon Annie Rose joined in, crying and yelling that she had missed me.  "My whole body missed you and I was so sad," she told me.

For the past six years, I have spent the summers doing art shows in and around Chicago. 

It used to be fun. 

It was easy to do shows when I had one child.  In the beginning, Andrew would watch Katie while I was working the show, and his parents would have her only during set-up and take-down. 

But with each additional child, it has become harder and harder to do shows.  Arranging the childcare is a logistical nightmare.  I can't ask my in-laws to give up numerous weekends each summer so that they can watch my kids while I do shows, and cobbling together babysitters for the number of hours we need coverage is too expensive.

Some shows have been very successful, and the financial rewards almost justify the emotional costs.  But other shows are disappointing, and it is hard to make the case that it was worth all the time and energy involved. 

Last night, as I surveyed the toll that the show weekend took on my family, I knew that working was no longer working.  I can't do shows and parent the girls adequately. 

Does that mean I am giving up my painting?

No.  But it does mean that I need to find a different way to do business.  Up until now, I have been reluctant to put work into galleries, because they take such a high percentage of sales.  I figured that it would be better to apply to juried high-end art shows, where I had to pay a booth fee but could keep 100% of my sales.

I have reached a point where that lifestyle is no longer feasible.  I don't have the time to do the painting and the selling.  Although I know I need to submit work to galleries, it is hard to let go of the control.  And gallery sales have been terrible in this economy, since artwork is about the most discretionary expense possible. 

It is a risk to stop doing shows.  Will my customers forget me?  Will my colleagues remember me?  How will I make up the lost income?  Will I be accepted  in galleries?

I don't know the answers to those questions.  But I do know that it is time to find out, even though it makes me a little sad to end that part of my career.  The kids understand that Mommy paints one or two days a week while the babysitter is here.  They do not understand why Mommy also disappears for entire weekends to do art shows.

My family has changed, and my life needs to change with it.  I will probably return to the show circuit in five years or so, when everyone is a little older. 

As Katie said, " You can always do an art show.  You can't always spend time with your little kids."

I hear you, Katie, and I am coming home.  

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