Yesterday, I was asked, “I would like to hear your thoughts and those of other artists on the topic of our “body of work.” What happens to it after our demise? How do artists deal with this issue? It seems so overwhelming to me to think about… or maybe I shouldn’t be thinking about it at all.”
Thanks, Jacqueline. Artists should be thinking about it. At the beginning of careers, it seems a non-issue. For prolific or mature artists with a full basement it’s a cause of sleeplessness. Here are a few ideas:
Burn: Make a lifetime habit of getting rid of substandard work. No matter what a work’s virtue, if it doesn’t please you, burn it. Burning clears the air, gives fresh courage to your vision, refreshes your mind and builds your energy. Our world need not be polluted with work we don’t like.
Gift: While you live, assemble legacies in small sets and get them in the hands of your offspring, spouse, or treasured friends. Apart from love and memorial, it’s a wise inheritance ploy. It’s also valuable from an investment and tax point of view. A wide distribution guards against simultaneous dumping. After you’re gone, you hope that everyone doesn’t have a rainy day at the same time.
Control: It’s important that your executors and inheritors understand that the orderly and timely distribution of art maintains and grows value. Upon death, I recommend an immediate gallery and studio inventory. Recall of consignment works may be necessary. Generally, the best friends of an estate are those who were supportive during life. As supply becomes finite, your heirs need the power to re-balance distribution. Art is a form of immortality — you can have an effect on the progress of your soul.
Bequest: Make it possible for inheritors, friends, relations or associates to place your art in public institutions or charitable foundations. By merely becoming historical, quality work becomes more interesting. If you have a mountain of work, you have an opportunity to make a mountainous contribution.
PS: “Art is man’s distinctly human way of fighting death.” (Leonard Baskin)
Esoterica: An elderly friend, Ruby Shand, passed away a few years ago. She left over a thousand paintings to the local Lions Club. I was invited to sort and cull. I burned a few. With the help of local celebrities we held several annual TV auctions. Prices were low but spirits were high. The Lions also gave some of her paintings to hospitals, extended and palliative care units, nursing homes. I bought a couple of beauties and hung them in my boathouse so we could look at them every time we came and went. One night, discriminating thieves broke in and stole them. Ruby is smiling still.
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
The last picture show
by Nancy Larkin, Maitland, FL, USA
What a thoughtful message you sent regarding our demise! I really never thought of it, except that one of the nicest tributes I ever attended was a funeral reception for a fellow artist whose family displayed many of his works of art for all to see! It was beautiful!
Alternative to burning
by Catherine Pungente
Is there another way of disposing of unwanted works rather than burning? What about all the toxins that will be incurred by everyone concerned?
(RG note) For those of us with fireplaces, the burning of redundant work takes on a spiritual and sacrificial quality — a noble ritual so environmentally insignificant that the end justifies the means. Shredding and recycling are a possibility. Stretchers can always be reused, of course. I’ve noticed that painted canvas buried in the ground is humus in about ten years. Never simply throw work away. A friend of mine broke a panel painting into three and threw it into the ocean. A collector found it, reassembled the triptych, and hung it.
by Kathleen York, Point Arena Clean Air Project Director, Point Arena , CA, USA
I am aghast that have you recommended burning unwanted artwork as such a practice is destructive to the environment and it is also illegal in California. Smoky emissions from solid fuel burning even of “natural” wood causes global warming, heart disease, and cancer. The number of deaths attributed to particulate pollution exceeds the numbers of deaths from major cancers and exceeds the deaths occurring from auto accidents by more than 50%. It is estimated that 35% of fine-particulate pollution comes from fireplaces and wood stoves here in the USA. I know it is good to get rid of the art that doesn’t measure up but burning it does not seem wise.
(RG note) For information on the hazards and laws on burning please go to http://www.burningissues.org.
Arbitrary destruction of artwork
by John D. Vedilago, Göteborg, Sweden
I found your letter on “Body of Work” very difficult and chilling. It is especially difficult as I just spent the last month walking hundreds of people through our exhibition of 400 of the 1000 Self-Portraits created by ordinary adult shoppers last Christmas. I am often confronted with the same value judgments expressed in your letter about quality and value. I patiently deconstruct by pointing out and demonstrating to the people glibly making those judgments the value in each work and its particular right to exist. The process endears me to each and every work and I become committed to saving them as a validation of the person and the process even if they themselves felt it to be unworthy. It is one thing for an artist to burn their own paintings for whatever reason. But it is another for others make judgments as to value and survival of someone elses work. Vincent Van Gogh, Picasso and others have all expressed the desire for their works not to be selectively shown but to preserve the entire body as a complete record of the journey taken.
I find it chilling because of the logic and principles you used to determined what was worthy being saved and what should be burned are the same principles and judgments used to culturally determine who is worthy of saving and who should be burned.
by Robin Humelbaugh, Salem, Oregon, USA
I was privileged to inherit a small body of work from a man who painted his best in the ’50s and ’60s in San Francisco. As he grew older he simplified and finally became very childlike in his designs. I cherish all of the paintings. I have given some to my children. I know they will love and care for them. I would also like to find a gallery that is interested in these typical abstract designs from that era. I also have some of their furniture from that time. We have had retrospectives of his work in our town and may do so again at our local library. I hope that when I die the same might happen with my work.
Ginnie Fonda, Coos Bay, Oregon, USA
I, too, have been having the same thoughts about what to do with my stuff. I recently had a pacemaker implanted so I’m feeling really great in spite of the fact that I will be 80 in April. I’m still painting and taking lessons, entering juried shows, showing in galleries, giving some paintings away as gifts and to fundraisers. All my life I’ve been involved in one form of art or another, wood carving, pottery, flower crafts, pine needle basketry and so many more I’m ashamed to say, but painting and drawing in various mediums has been my first love since a very early age. My family was very supporting and provided me with a lot of artsy things to keep me experimenting.
We have a lot of yard sales around here every weekend and also quite a few estate sales. I’ve been toying with the idea of having my own “Estate Sale” while I’m still alive. Collections from the garage and art works. Then the buyers will always remember the artist who shared her art with them and was able to tell a story about its creation while she was still alive and kicking.
On the longevity of our work
by Jim Gola, Woodland, Washington, USA
Does it really matter what happens to our work after we fly away? The joy of painting, drawing or whatever we do is in the moment. Do you really think your great great grand kids will really dwell on your memory or in your work in later years? I doubt it. Let’s get real and quit thinking of all this museum archival quality stuff (unless we really like the surfaces it provides) and paint for the moment. To me that is what this thing we call “art” is really about. Take immediate joy in sharing with others your accomplishments while you are here to listen to the accolades or otherwise.
by Sidney Marsden, London, UK
My father left me over a hundred paintings that he painted during his lifetime. He was never particularly successful at selling them, but other people as well as myself think that they are interesting and could be valuable. Is it possible that I might re-introduce my dad to a market?
(RG note) This is an idea worth looking at. Particularly since the advent of the internet, heirs are empowered to do something with remainder art that deserves a second look. A good example is Dave Flather and what he has done with the work of his grandfather Donald Flather. Donald left several hundred paintings. By creating a synergy between several websites, brick and mortar dealers, and prestigious art auctions, Dave has been able to build demand and sell off more than a third of the estate. Donald Flather’s work can be seen at http://www.donaldflather.com/
Lack of imagination
by Joseph P Blodgett, Canada
Further to the Iraqi artist who recently wrote, what surprises me is the remarkable lack of imagination coming out of Washington. Have any creative ways of containing Saddam been looked at? Just because we have the brute force doesn’t mean we need to use it on the hapless people of Iraq. They have been through enough already. The USA seems to be ready to treat them to the “fry ’em as they flee” genocide of the first Gulf war. Not a pretty picture. I think we ought to be encouraging the UN to load Iraq with a couple of thousand inspectors — indefinitely. The nations should take off the sanctions and bombard them with love, medicine and food. Try showing them that the champions of freedom and democracy can be more responsible and compassionate. Our world also needs to become professional at monitoring hazardous material to and from rogue states. This sort of creative activity will help Iraqis and others to make up their minds what to do with their jailors. If Saddam fires off a serious “weapon of mass destruction” his country will be a crater in five minutes. Everybody knows that. He hasn’t used severe force in ten years, and, from what I know about human nature, he won’t do it now — unless he’s pushed to paint himself into a corner and he figures the game’s over. The way it’s going, if we were trying to make more enemies and more terrorists in the Middle East, it looks to me like Washington is on the right track.
(RG note) The plea from the artist of Iraq is at Your thinking words (scroll to the end) A half-dozen artists sent emails with a protest plan to send small bags of rice to the White House. One artist wrote to say that it was incredible that in the wealthy country of Iraq, 60% of the population currently relies on food rations from the UN. Two artists wrote to say that if the US doesn’t protect us, who will? Several artists wrote to bring our attention to humanitarian groups that are trying to do something for the people of Iraq. The groups mentioned were: The Fellowship of Reconciliation; The Norwegian Refugee Council; Quaker UN Office; The Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict.
Lessons in the statuary
by Roberta Loach, San Francisco, California, USA
I think it would be wise for people in government to look at what happened to the Roman Empire. Looking at Roman monuments during their heyday one can tell immediately how they glorified war and conquest, and how they had convinced themselves that the best path to peace was through war. This is the ethic that caused the demise of the Empire, which spent itself into oblivion trying to fight wars all over the world. It’s a chilling reminder. I only hope that wisdom will prevail and that wise men and women will find another way to solve this horrible problem.
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
A few years ago, I traded my usual routine of coffee, the newspaper and the crossword puzzle to coffee and twenty minutes of writing. I began the morning writing as an exercise introduced by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. I was teaching at a high school, and looking for ways to help the kids become less self-critical. The book is a twelve-week project, and although I normally avoided writing projects, I was willing to give it a try hoping to discover some stuff I could use with the kids. How could I tell them to write if I hadn’t ever done it? I figured I could at least do it for the twelve weeks.
The big surprise (after a very uninspired start, writing big on small paper) was how dramatically that twenty minutes of writing changed my energy and my productivity every day. The twelve weeks ended back in July 1995 but I still write for twenty minutes every morning, first thing. When I miss a day, I feel like a hamster on a wheel, running around like a maniac, getting nowhere. Morning writing centers me, clears the pond scum off the surface of my mind, plants my feet firmly on the ground and gets me out of my own way. Give it a try.
The Art of Looking Sideways
by Roberta Christianson, High Bluff, Manitoba, Canada
I think you must have a crystal ball. One friend always starts our conversation by saying that you must have been in her kitchen yet again because you are discussing just what we talked about the other day. It should not be a surprise that I am constantly referencing your letters to friends, family and colleagues and urging them to subscribe. No one has been disappointed. Thank you.
A book that our community may be interested in is The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher. It’s published by Phaidon. It’s a primer in visual intelligence, an exploration of the workings of the eye, the hand, the brain and the imagination. It is full of essays, images and quotes like “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” I’m currently recommending the Robert Genn letter AND this book to everyone I know.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.