One of the interesting things about Ed Hughes is the deal he cut with his dealer fifty years ago. The dealer was Max Stern of Montreal’s Dominion Gallery. Ed lives in a bungalow on the west coast of Canada. Ed and Max have only met four times. Their deal was done by mail. Ed is now 90. Ed’s deal was: “I’ll give you everything I make and you pay me a salary.” Ed’s a pretty slow worker — about a dozen paintings a year during his good years. Gradually, his annual salary edged up. Lately, there’s been a new Jaguar thrown in for good measure. Ed insisted on that. He likes classics.
In the meantime Max took control of Ed’s output. He took advantage of the natural shortage to create a demand. He placed Ed’s work into good hands. Prices went up. Two collectors bought most of his major output — about fifty canvases each. These two guys are the ones who have now reached into their pockets to pay for a spectacular coffee table book. This has led to an important retrospective in a major public gallery. Tonight. Ed’s staying home — he doesn’t want to show up. He doesn’t like arty crowds. He likes his paintings to speak for themselves.
Ed’s sitting on his vintage chesterfield. There are doilies on the arms — a faded Vermeer poster is tacked up behind. Ed’s gluing together one of his plastic model cars. It’s his hobby. Rolls Royce. Bugatti. Packard. Over there, his studio door is open. It’s a spare room, small, fluorescent, can’t be used at night because of the light. There is only one painting in there right now. He’s been working on this one for two months. In order to view it properly he has to stand in the closet. “Maybe you notice something about that painting,” he says. “No crows. Since my wife died I haven’t put a single crow in a painting.”
Over at the retrospective, everybody will be quite happy by now. The curator will probably phone later. “Can you imagine the prices they’re getting for my work these days?” Ed asks. I hand him his glue. Ed will stay up until eleven and then take the phone off the hook.
PS: “The main reason I’m not going to the opening is the worrying. I’d worry so much I couldn’t concentrate on my present painting.” (E. J. Hughes)
Esoterica: Curator Ian Thom says, “Hughes is an artist who thinks through his canvases with an obsessive level of detail. But his extreme depth of focus, his bright colours and the curiously lucid quality of his painted atmosphere brings to Hughes’ work the very accessibility for which he was reaching.”
E. J. Hughes
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Honour yourself first
by Linda Muttitt
What a brilliant and simple solution to that challenge that so many of us face with our paintings and facing the public with them. Here’s a humane answer — do what you really feel you need to do to honour yourself first. Thank you to E. J. Hughes for the grace of this.
Artist shows us how to see
by Pnina Granirer, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I went to see Ed Hughes’ retrospective today. It is a pleasure to see an artist who did not follow trends other than his own vision. But I have a hunch that his two faithful collectors had a lot to do with this exhibition. I hope and wish that this show will open up some doors for more such exhibitions, where there is so much to see and enjoy. After spending quite a bit of time among the bright colours of Hughes’ paintings, I went upstairs to see the exhibition there. It took me about 5 minutes. The space was empty of people, except for a few bored guards. The artist has an international reputation, which, unfortunately, did not seem to attract many viewers. Driving home, I looked at the water off Point Grey. The North Shore was glistening in the setting sun and I could swear that what I was seeing was a painting by Hughes. Wonderful, how an artist shows us how to see…
by David Lloyd Glover, West Hollywood, CA, USA
What a delight to visit my old home of Vancouver Island through the marvelous works of E. J. Hughes! I do miss those magnificent arbutus trees that crowd the shorelines of the Gulf Islands. I too have a similar arrangement of trust with a long time art dealer as does Ed. It is not a salary, but on a handshake agreement, my art dealer agreed to buy my entire output which is going on ten years now. One may not become staggeringly rich but it does allow you to go about your journey of improving your work without having to worry about staying abreast of the latest trends. I wish for my artist colleagues that there were more dealers like Max Stern who had the faith in good art enough to support them.
On another note isn’t it gratifying that we artists can continue our work as long as we choose and still be relevant. E. J. Hughes is 90 and painting as well as ever. You can’t say that about too many other professions that dump you as soon as the age issue rears its ugly head. I know too many actors, screenwriters, directors and producers in this town who are denied their livings because they made the ungracious mistake of getting older. My wife is a New York Friar and one of her club members was the incredible Al Hirschfeld. We couldn’t help but marvel at the vitality of this master who remained relevant and continued his output to the last day. We should all be so lucky.
(RG note) Al Hirschfeld had an exclusive relationship with one gallery for 33 years. It’s run by some of his relatives at http://www.alhirschfeld.com/
No worry to pay the bills
by Pamela Simpson, Connecticut, USA
Ed Hughes’ works are beautiful. They must be very large since they take him so long. It’s interesting that he draws a salary yet he still worries about the opening. I thought about if I would like such an arrangement with a gallery, but I think on some level I like more to be in control of my own destiny, even with the feast or famine pay schedule. I also enjoy all the other jobs that go with an art career. Or maybe have learned to enjoy them through necessity. I think my artist husband would be happy with a salary arrangement though. Too bad there isn’t anyone doing that sort of thing anymore. I’m glad that at age 90 Ed doesn’t have to worry about painting fast enough to pay his bills.
He had his fun
by Otto Lemke, Warsaw, Poland
I can understand the senior artist Hughes not being interested in attending his own vernissage. He is aware of the claptrap that goes with art shows. Art would be better if it was freed of all of the curators, docents, and other government clingers that take the joy out of the game. He had his fun. He had his life. He was paid. What more?
(RG note) One of Ed Hughes’ greatest pleasures was to sit in his Jaguar and sketch. Recently, he lost his driver’s license, so he now takes the bus. It’s not the same.
by Mike Lauchlan, Seville, Spain
The crime writer Spider Robinson recently wrote an op-ed piece stating his support for a bill that would increase the life of a copyright on artistic material from 50 to 75 years. He suggested that his support for the bill was ironic, considering that he won the 1983 Hugo award for his piece entitled Melancholy Elephants.
(RG note) Melancholy Elephants is a short story dealing with the possibility that we will run out of non-copyrighted works.
A real bore
by Roberta Loach, San Francisco, California, USA
Maybe Max Stern would be interested in my work… I wonder. It isn’t all political. We have a strange situation here in San Francisco… The gallery world is so tight and controlled by social register folks (who are the buyers) you just can’t get in unless a good collector, artist friend or curator takes your work in… It’s that tight. A good friend of mine took my work to Catherine Clark Gallery… She loved it and before she made a final decision she decided to whittle down to 12 artists only and handle their careers, which she has done and very successfully… I missed the boat on that one. Other galleries are just plain out of reach. I receive glowing letters with the added phrase, but we can’t handle any more artists just now, etc… It’s a real bore.
(RG note) Max Stern has been dead for several years. He’s gone to the big gallery in the sky where every artist works to an iron-clad contract, delivers on time, and keeps getting better. Where giddy, wealthy patrons line up outside in sub-zero conditions.
Facing your demons
by Linda Saccoccio, New York, USA
Mr. Hughes sounds like a person with strong conviction and his paintings also display this. There is a definite intention behind them. I am drawn to the quality of different moods of day and the use of clouds. What has inspired me to write though is the question of how much are we to hold to our artistic idiosyncrasies? I am mentioning this because I could have been the type to avoid openings etc like Mr. Hughes and just hold to the belief it’s only about the work and my purist heart would then rest easy. Instead I moved to NYC in 1989 to go to grad school and observed all the successful characters in the art world first hand. I felt it was part of my path to get over the stage fright. After all there are endless numbers of artists here and if I was not able to be there to help people access my work I would just be adding to the ridiculous need this city has for storage spaces. But seriously, what I am wondering is how much do we need to see the challenge of getting the work out there as an opportunity for personal positive change? Mr. Hughes stayed home the night of his retrospective. How did he get away with this? Was it the right thing for him, or would he have benefited from seeing people who admire and collect his work? Perhaps he even missed an opportunity for experiencing joy. Maybe it would have appalled him. I don’t know. I do know that I feel more balanced for taking the challenge of exposure as an opportunity to learn how to be comfortable in such situations. It has helped me accept others at face value and not take too much stock in it. It has been a good exercise in stretching my preconceptions. Still I am who I am, which is sincere, modest and a curious observer of humanity, but now I am more of an active participant. Perhaps it is just a part of my calling. I see it now as an opportunity to somehow affect society in a positive way. The rebel in me will preserve my integrity, in spite of this pull to be seen and available to buyers who need that. I would love to have your input on this topic, as I am still developing my personal stance in the world. It still takes effort and energy to be out there, as I am an introvert at heart. Perhaps Mr. Hughes is just conserving energy.
(RG note) No one knows what motivates Ed Hughes. He’s the kind of guy that appreciates not being in the limelight. He relishes the security of the salary. I have never noticed any bitterness in him about the massive profiteering that went on with his work. Often over the past few years single paintings have sold in six figures — which was more than his annual wage. One thing I can say about Ed: He knows himself.
What is fine art?
by Lida van Bers
Question. Does the shaping of bonsai trees belong under the category of fine art? A person I know who is a creator of the trees, says it does. This brought up the question, What does belong to fine art these days? There is such a fine line between craft and fine art. So, maybe you can define it or bring it up for discussion.
(RG note) As far as I’m concerned everything is a fine art. Bricklaying, bowling, bonsai, bubble-blowing, bellowing, bellyaching and bat-guano gathering can all be fine arts. But then there’s the really fine arts that interest most of the folks who are reading this. We think we’re special. We think we’re flirting with the gods.
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakville, Ontario, Canada
It is 11:00 a.m. here and I’ve already had my three cups of coffee. You are probably just rising. Some days I wish that someone would send me a message and say Mary Jean quit procrastinating and get on with that painting you have in mind. Sometimes my own energy gets stuck in the day to day running of the household. Now I have 1 hour to finish computer work so I can paint for 4 hours before kids come home. Gotta stick with the plan.
(RG note) I invite our community to bombard Mary Jean with anti-procrastination energy. A suggestion for MJ: Start working your brush before your first coffee. As a matter of fact, start painting on an empty stomach. It works. You can feed on art. Using this process I find my second cup of coffee is deserted, left half full, and cold.
The lure of the big city
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, Virginia, USA
We just had a hard day with our work and my wife said, “I think it’s time to promote your work.” I said what do you mean? She said, “It’s time for you to go to New York — you have mastered Jackson Pollock’s way of painting.” I said, but I don’t want to paint as Pollock. I want to do my own work. She said, “Well do it your own way then.” Pollock did live in Greenwich Village for a while after studying with Thomas Hart Benton. He jump-started his career there. So if and when I go I will let you know. But please continue your letters to me because I have become addicted to them. Only one thing worries me if I go: Where can I fish?
Runs his own gallery
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, B.C., Canada
While Ed Hughes has a phenomenal success story, it is not what artists are experiencing in this day and age. I have broken all the rules in the art world by running my own gallery. I show what I want, when I want. This was done out of necessity as nobody would carry my paintings when I graduated from Emily Carr College of Art and Design in 1988. I knew I had to get my paintings in the public eye and I wanted to have shows. I would produce my own exhibitions and rally huge media attention. I seeded the market by donating my art to numerous charities and fundraising events. I was bold as brass and made cold call after cold call to anyone I even heard was looking at art. It took me a long time and I am finding my way. I have never made the same mistake twice, but I have learned by every mistake I made. I learned to put deals in writing and that there is a phony and a scam artist around every corner. I learned it is best to not schedule an exhibition during income tax week. I also learned to cut the wine off at an opening at 9:00. The best thing I have learned was “Gumption.” I have been referred to by well-known art galleries as “The Gallery Owner’s Nightmare.”
Shipping art safely
by Susan-Rose Slatkoff, Victoria, BC Canada
I am going to have a show in Hudson, Quebec this summer, and I am in a quandary about how to get my works there most inexpensively. I have works on canvas (some framed, most not) and watercolours that are framed in gallery frames behind glass. Not knowing how much I will sell I hope to at least break even–what with air tickets to get there etc. Do you recommend taking as much as possible on the plane? Thanks.
(RG note) I prefer to send on well ahead by Purolator, Loomis, or one of the other couriers. This gives the dealer plenty of time to frame, pre-sell, photograph for the internet, etc. There’s great satisfaction in knowing that air express delivers overnight to all but the smallest places. When I get on the plane I want to be free of any thoughts or encumbrances of shipping and handling. It’s worth it.
Ship your work in corrugated cardboard (the best are called “Mirror Boxes”) Glass is problematical but can be protected with lots of bubble wrap. It takes a bit of effort to get everything tight. Wrapping and shipping is an art in itself.
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel
The last while you have dealt with the quality of our thoughts, their effect on our output and success. Yes, there is no doubt how powerful thought can be. Yet, can it be “controlled” and what level does thought arise from? Can we “will” thought, or is it the “thought” which wills us?
It seems to me that thought is the endless chattering of our mind as it works on the level of “ego,” generally discussing with itself its vision of one’s personal history and relating experience to the self-image that the ego holds so dear. Yet I would suggest that the ground of our awareness and being precedes thought, and at that level we are connected with greater energies and power than the narrow “ego” possesses.
As artists, we often tap into that level in the course of our work, when thought seems to fall away, and the passage of time takes on a different feeling or is not noticed at all. When we are in that “state of mind,” we are not thinking about our success, fame or fortune (or lack of it), but we are simply being and we are tapped in to the source of creativity. (Some say that this is drawing on the right side of the mind… maybe!)
Many people cultivate pure awareness and transcendence of the “ego” through meditation and other “spiritual” practices. I believe that these practices enrich our being, reinforce our creativity and strengthen our actions in life. It also seems to me that through these practices the direction of our thoughts will naturally be more positive and constructive.
As for “convincing” ourselves by adopting thoughts of our self-worth, etc., this probably has value. However, this “positive thinking” is probably coming from a more superficial level than the strong “ego-less” pure awareness of which I mentioned above. It is like grafting on a healthy branch to a tree rather than watering and fertilizing its roots to bring the entire entity to a better state. Since we are artists and often transcend the level of words (as I believe it is the purpose of art), let us remember this awareness that we all experience one time or another.
An early example of “Body Art”
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