The art factory


Dear Artist,

My letter on the work of Dale Chihuly brought gigabytes into this inbox. Some emails scolded his “factory art” and overuse of workers and assistants. Purists who decried the employment of so many elves were particularly down on his reported appropriation of his elves’ ideas. Historically, of course, artists like Michelangelo used assistants. Such was the demand for Rubens’ work that at one time he had thirty. These days there are painters like Mark Kostabi who are reported to merely “phone in” what they want done and spend their personal time enjoying life and hanging out in the publicity department. High in his New York workshop-archive, designer Peter Max interacts with a creative staff and pays particular attention to the licensing and copyright department.


“Spirit of Haida Gwaii”

Media such as glass, sculpture, bronze-work and printmaking almost demand the use of assistants. In sculpture, the time-consuming tedium of sanding and finishing are best left to others — while the Master (or Mistress) pursues the next conception. Often, interaction and consultation with effective co-workers adds excitement and ultimate quality to work. But in this age of rugged individualism, the ideal for most easel-painting is that every stroke be that of the master. The market, in all of its frivolity, would like to hold us to that shibboleth. Some painters, however, choose a methodology and a style that lends itself to the input of assistants. “Craft-like painting,” where a degree of amateurism, systematic technology or repetitious stylization can be tolerated, is valuable inasmuch as it may produce a larger volume of consistent product. The apprentice system has educational value as well. Rubens, who retained “final cut,” employed people who eventually became as skilled as he was. The carver and jeweller Bill Reid produced his epic sculpture Spirit of Haida Gwaii using helpers who “became better at it than me.”

My most valuable assistant has been the one who drags our cheques off to the bank. It’s a personal neurosis but it has served me well. I go nuts in banks, big-box stores and fluorescent supermarkets — haven’t been in one for decades. I don’t go there. It leaves me oh so pure, pure, pure.

Best regards,


PS: “Watts, if I could paint, and you could draw, what an artist we should be!” (Lord Leighton to G. F. Watts)

Esoterica: I’ve always looked at what we do as a personal, private activity. For many of us it’s this work in privacy that gives art its main appeal. Unlike Henry Ford, “division of labour” is not for us. The act of art is a joyous, ongoing, frustrating, engaging struggle to extract capability from inadequacy. But there are other ways to achieve joy. Captains of industry know other ways, and some artists are attracted to these ways. “You have to be part psychologist and part politician to work creatively and collaboratively.” (Nina Sadowsky)


Collaborative Artwork


“Fall of the Rebel Angels”
oil painting
448 x 291 cm
by Rubens


“Rock Candy”
painting by Mark Kostabi


“Without borders”
acrylic painting by Peter Max (b.1937)


“Parterre fountain”
glass installation by Dale Chihuly (b.1941)








 More Collaborative Artwork


“The Martyrdom of St Livinus”
oil painting by
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)


“Spirit of Haida Gwaii”
sculpture by
Bill Reid (1920-1998)


“Automatic Painting”
by Mark Kostabi








Dale Chihuly Artwork


“Mille Fiori”
glass garden installation


“Persian Pergola Ceiling”


“Venetian series”







Chihuly’s legacy
by Judith Schaechter, Philadelphia, PA, USA


“Bird Thief Strikes”
stained glass
by Judith Schaechter

Without Dale Chihuly there would be no Studio Glass Movement — he is almost solely responsible for the tremendous interest in collecting and exhibiting sculptural glass. Dale is responsible for starting the glass program at Rhode Island School of Design, the Pilchuck Glass School and the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington. These institutions have been nothing short of life changing for many. There are literally thousands of artists who have benefited from Dale’s career — from the people whom he pays (and if they have a gripe about recognition, I propose that they should launch a career of their own) to the students who are studying glass in college who may or may not have heard of him. Dale Chihuly is an artist of historical importance for these generous contributions — in addition to (or despite) his actual art.


Apprentice to a master
by Pan Wilson, Orange, MA, USA


“The Falls” first panel in the mural: Passing Again, Very near the Way by Pan Wilson

I have myself worked under the apprentice system with several different master artists. My intent was to get near the master by “sweeping the floors” to learn first hand. Rubbing shoulders so to speak. I was always surprised at just how much responsibility would actually be delegated. Sections of a mural might be left in my hands to accomplish within certain parameters and would not exclude using elements of my own style, subject in the end to master approval of course. In one case the entire text portion of a church fresco was executed in my own architectural handwriting. All credit went to the master in the end. I suppose like “found object art,” the art might be in the selection of the apprentice.

Fears lock us up
by Susan Gallacher-Turner, Portland, Oregon, USA


mixed media sculpture
by Susan Gallacher-Turner

I work alone in my studio and I work with others on designs as well as teaching. I see art as both a solitary process and a collaborative one. And unfortunately, it is the collaborative processes that are being stamped out today because of fear. When, once, a budding artist could apprentice to a master and learn by doing; today it is a TV show where people get humiliated and fired in front of millions of viewers. When, once an assistant was valued and credited with the important job of implementing a concept, design or idea, today that person is rarely mentioned, or even known. It is this fear of ideas being stolen, images copied, concepts used without the creators knowledge or credit. It is also fear of being seen as a mere cog in a wheel instead of the important instrument of creation that keeps us all locked into our solitary processes and away from the creative energy of collaboration.Think contracts. Think copyright infringement. Think gag clauses. Think of what has happened to artists whose work has been bought and locked away from the world, including the artists themselves. It is this fear on the part of the artist/creator and assistants/apprentices as well as communities, corporations and lawyers that keeps us from collaboration that could really move this world forward on all levels.There is creative energy in solitary and collaborative art processes. It’s a great loss to society, as well as to ourselves, that fear constricts free movement in and out of both types of process.


Needed: ‘Boy Friday’
by Anitta Trotter, Whitby, ON, Canada


acrylic painting
by Anitta Trotter

I’d like to have an assistant to make my stretcher frames, stretch the canvas as I want it to be, to do the framing, to gesso each canvas as many times as I want it done, to paint the edges and to do the final varnishing, as well as attaching the screw eyes and wire. As it is, I buy pre-stretched, pre-gessoed canvases. The painting is my fun time and mine alone. But I’d also be happy with an assistant to cut wood to my specifications, to do the sanding, and to do the cutting prior to my carving. And cleaning up! As it is, I sometimes use my mechanical assistants, Mr. Foredom or Mr. Dremel. But don’t tell the purists. Sometimes I even forego sanding by just burning the wood.


Only real test is time
by Larry Moore, Orlando, FL, USA


“Garrapata Creek”
oil painting
by Larry Moore

As artists we love to do three things — make art, look at art and judge art. But arguing the merits of one style or methodology over another is like ranking clouds. The only real test is time. It seems that the work that is remembered is either outright mastery (JS Sargent) or work that has completely gone against the grain and advanced the purpose of art (Pollock/action painting). And while it’s good to have an evaluation system for viewing art, a lot of notable works break every rule in the book. You may not like Damien Hirst, but you have to admit he has certainly ruffled enough feathers to go down in the books. Kostabi is Warhol with a staff. What’s the difference between Michelangelo and Norman Rockwell? (Michelangelo’s biggest client wore a large red hat.) I truly love good quality painting. Sargent makes me salivate. But when I discover someone like Andy Goldsworthy (see Rivers and tides), it rocks my world. In a Chihuly exhibit, I really don’t care how he did it; I just care about the new place it takes me.


Blindness of the ‘purist’
by Jerry Lucey, St Miguel de Allende, Mexico


original painting
by Jerry Lucey

How an artist decides to work is to me like the same decisions made by any other professional. Which way to go and still enjoy your chosen role in life is often dictated by factors not under our control. Here in Mexico you can still find excellent medical doctors willing to make house calls. We should know, my wife is a fine artist and also a Mexican doctor. Individual needs lead to individual decisions. The purist often fails to see the needs of the real world.


‘A manufacturer of wealth’ (Dali)
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czechoslovakia


cherry wood sculpture
by Norman Ridenour

Salvador Dali did not do any of his graphics after WWII. When I was living in Barcelona, 1969-70, a truck with 200,000 white sheets of paper signed by Dali was stopped a the border. Four years ago a similar incident with only 60,000 sheets was reported in the Prague papers, ironically during a highly hyped Dali exhibit.






Crapshoot in the jury process
by Jeanne Long, Minneapolis, MN, USA

More and more I am seeing that most works submitted to shows need to be judged by criteria such as your fourteen points because they don’t meet Tolstoy’s criteria of the direct transmission of emotion. If we are to select winners, we are left to judge by these other means, which focus on design and impact, rather than a higher emotional content. If we don’t have criteria such as yours then most competitions are just crapshoots, where winners are merely a reflection of personal likes and dislikes of one individual. To me that is a waste of time and money at least, and at worst, a misdirection of aspiring painters and the public.


Key to personal happiness
by Veronica Roth, North Vancouver, BC, Canada

Last July I spent my birthday at Kew gardens in England. I can’t describe how lucky I felt to find that Chihuly had decorated the whole garden with his glass sculptures. There were glass globes floating on all the ponds, glass flowers in the garden beds, huge lanterns and chandeliers over the light fixtures. The garden was transformed into a fantasy land. It seemed like a wonderful unexpected birthday present and I took away several hundred photographs and memories for free. It is my experience that an artist gives. Period. Gives visually, gives through courses, or with free advice, through generosity of spirit and through a need to share. Also it is my opinion that nature is neutral. Nature just doesn’t care how much money a person makes. Perhaps the key to personal happiness is asking oneself the question, “How can I give,” and not, “How can I get.”


Guilds formerly trained artists
by Trevor Sale, Athabasca, AB, Canada

We all have assistants, whether we realize it or not. In the time of Michelangelo, the artist did not simply go to the ‘art store’ and buy his stretched canvas or tubes of paint. Paint was made from pigment, powdered in the mortar and pestle, and combined with the chosen medium. Assistants were necessary in the studio. If it were not for the artists’ guilds training new artists, so much of the craft would have been lost.


Mother of all arts
by Robert J. Posliff, Brampton, ON, Canada

Architecture is considered by many to be “the mother of all arts,” yet every design is executed on paper by a team including not only the Architect’s staff but also many specialist consultants. It is then executed in the field by a team of construction specialists. Talk about the use of workers and assistants!


Apprentice and mentor benefit
by Don Getz, New Albany, IN, USA

A Cleveland Institute of Art student from Hong Kong was my apprentice one summer. Harvey’s job was assisting me at workshops – fresh water, etc, and painting and sketching on his personal work at every opportunity. He never touched my work, only observation and questions on his part. That summer he filled three sketchbooks and did twenty half-sheet watercolors and four acrylics. I had a ball! Harvey had a ball and we really got to understand and know one another. Upon returning to CIA for the fall semester, the department head asked Harvey to mount a show of his summer work — a display of ten watercolors, one acrylic and several drawings. A dean congratulated me on my work, believing that I had done it (I had a letter in the display discussing Harvey’s apprenticeship). He was stunned when realizing that Harvey Choi had produced the work and not I. This type of apprenticeship is sorely needed and so worthwhile for both apprentice and mentor!


Art or artifice?
by Elizabeth Concannon, St. Louis, MO, USA

It would be helpful to draw a distinction between those who actually use assistants (and assistance) in creating real original work — and those who mechanically duplicate a previously executed work and then hire someone (not an assistant) to make one random mark on it in order to claim it as an “original one-of-a-kind.” Of course, it would help if terminology were not so manipulated as to tell a lie to an observer or possible consumer as well. Is that art or artifice?


Artist ‘conducts’ studio
by Bee Hylinski, Berkley, CA, USA

Dale Chihuly’s “assistants” do all the work — he does none of it. As I am sure you know he lost an eye and has no depth perception so he cannot do the work. All he does is tell his people what he wants and then they do all the work, including installation. He is like the conductor of a Symphony orchestra — the orchestra does the work and he conducts. It would be much more honest for Dale to bill his artwork as: “Designed by Dale Chihuly” or “Dale Chihuly Studio.”


The jerk creates ‘aesthetic arrest’
by Angela Treat Lyon, Hawaii, USA


“At the Breakwater”
oamaru stone sculpture
by Angela Treat Lyon

Thanks for the picture of Dale’s tear-droppy things in the canal. Opening the image, it just struck me how delightful, whimsical and trés gai the glass was, bobbing up and down and winding down the canal. It caught me and made me a bit teary-eyed in surprise and pleasure. Took all my recent frustrations and held them at bay for a minute, and reminded me of what amazing stuff life is really made of. But isn’t that one of the things art is supposed to do? Joseph Campbell called it “aesthetic arrest” — where life stops for a second and you get whanged right down to your core-of-core. All those whiners about Dale’s work — how boring. So he makes a lot of money — so? He does amazing work, and he gets paid. Isn’t that what many artists wish they could do, too? The whiners should take the energy they use complaining and try making something of their own. So he’s a jerk — who cares when there’s that amazing, one-of-a-kind rainbow frozen in time?


Artists well employed
by Otrud Tyler, Oak Island, PA, USA

The truly knowledgeable art buying public is not large — I mean the ones that truly know why they are buying a piece, what they are looking for and why, can discuss the pros and cons of a piece, etc. There is a vast majority of people who sort of like the piece, but wouldn’t touch it unless it has also famous or infamous name recognition or some controversy attached. Can’t tell you how many times people asked me, when I still did tent shows (and in some pretty established and good places), “Are you somebody famous?” I developed some pretty snappy answers. Things in the art market are driven by some very different powers, the artist him/herself most of the time being the least powerful. Art schools release a flood of hopefuls every year and it is unrealistic to expect all of them to even make a part-time living off their talent. So it is a good thing that some well-known or financially able artists employ others in their work.


Art factory abhorrent
by Brenda Hofreiter, Winter Park, FL, USA


“Park and New England Avenue”
oil painting
by Brenda Hofreiter

Good Heavens! I find the mere idea of an “art factory” abhorrent. If commerce demanded that I could not live without producing mass-produced widgets that passed as art, then I’d rather do art in my spare time and make money in some other way. I do have talents that are marketable and probably would live a lot higher on the food chain if I used them. I know that most artists feel that producing art is a must, but for me it is more a way of life and describes a way of seeing and appreciating the beauty in the ordinary things of life. The way light falls on a stranger’s face, the glow of the late evening sun, the colors and shapes in a tangle of weeds are all things that art adds to the quality of my life. I need only to see in order to exercise my art muscle. But as artists who produce and exhibit work, we may never know when or how our artwork has served its purpose. Commerce is the only vehicle with which we measure success. It is a shabby scale for such lofty purposes.


Not personally painting pixels
by Rodney Pygoya Chang, Hawaii, USA

I am working on self-publishing some of my collaborative cyber-oils into a book. I cyber them and then I pay others to paint the tedious. I wonder if I can have your permission to print your letter in the book? Yes, certain media and scale requires assistance to free up the genius to be more productive with his time. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be painting my own pixels.

(RG note) Thanks Rodney. I hereby cyber you to use my stuff in your book.





Deserted streets

From the Untitled series of stylized filmic images
by Thomas Holmes, Santiago, Chile


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.

That includes Thelma Smith of Green Valley, Arizona who wrote, “The engravings by JMW Turner at the Indianapolis Museum of Art are done by assistants – some show the hand of the master. Those are the ones with corrections to be made.”

And also David Wayne Wilson of White Rock, British Columbia, Canada who wrote, “I am growing most weary of the dalliance of words that my computer enables. I will let Mr. Chihuly do his thing, as he lets me do mine.”

And also Janet Louise Faith Zavatto of The Bronx, New York who wrote, “Peter Max was trained by masters, and is a master. Now, he can do what he wants.”

And also Carol Chretien of the USA who wrote, “To have a team approach in this work just doesn’t seem right to me… unless everyone on the “team” signs their name to the piece. That would keep it honest.”

And also Banne Younker of Prescott, Arizona who wrote, “Those who don’t go into big box stores are missing a part of life that is really interesting, a huge part of our current culture, and success in action.”




Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop
No Featured Workshop

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.