Bonfire of the Vanities


Dear Artist,

A man phoned while I was working in the studio the other day and announced that he had bought one of my paintings in a Salvation Army Thrift Store. To add insult to injury he told me he paid $7 for it. I asked him if he liked the painting and he said he had been following my work for some considerable time and this was the worst one I had ever done. Then he told me he had traded the painting to another fellow for a couple of “very fine early English watercolours.” Apparently this other fellow is more into my stuff, I thought. “That’s good,” I said. “Well,” said the telephone guy, “my friend looked at it for a month and decided it was one of the worst ones you’ve ever painted.” I put down my brush. “He ended up getting rid of it in the auction — got four thousand for it.” I asked him what the painting looked like and he told me it was a large square abstract, mostly brown. “Do you remember that one?” he asked. “I do,” I said, “very well.” We made a few more pleasantries, agreed to keep in touch, and I went back to work.

Several weeks previously one of my dealers had phoned to say there was an “early” one of mine in an auction and that it might be a good idea to “protect the price,” or perhaps even buy it to get it off the market. The dealer, who had better things to do that evening, attended the auction, overbid some courageous soul, and ended up with the lot in his 4×4. As agreed, my current check was docked appropriately. One day, out for a cruise, I dropped by the gallery, thanked my dealer, and took away the offending item. On the day the Salvation gentleman phoned the painting was pouting silently in the corner of my studio.

Shortly after that it found its way to the bonfire.

Lesson? When you paint — try to burn your bad ones earlier rather than later.

Best regards,


PS: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” (Alexander Pope)

Esoterica: Robert Henri, author of The Art Spirit, was a teacher who believed an artist had to pass through layers of growth and development in order to attain not only proficiency, but satisfaction. It was no slur that an artist might attempt everything and anything. “Every professional was once an amateur,” he said.

The following are selected correspondence relating to the above letter. Also, informative and provocative material continues to come in on the subject of online galleries.


Leaving tracks
by Andre Ascher, New York

The message of striving for quality at every stage of ones’ development at the risk of future judgement is motivating. Artists, writers and architects and other creative people leave a noticeable track record. Lawyers, brokers and many others can rise from the ashes unscathed.


Wood stove syndrome
by David Oleski, Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, USA

This is a relevant issue for me lately. I’ve been trying some different things in the past few weeks, and I believe I’ve spawned a few duds as a result. I’m always surprised with the works that some people fall in love with, yet I’m also surprised with the works that seem to pile up and never sell. I don’t like to easily turn to others for input on the success of my works, as it seems to corrupt what should be a subtle and private decision. Instead I will torture myself endlessly by trying to find acceptance of lesser works while they dry on the walls of the studio. Let’s just say that there are times when I miss having a wood stove nearby.


Chuckling at the naiveté
by Joan Justin

Burning the paintings which do not give satisfaction, the vignettes are thought provoking, the subtle narcissism a fascinating phenomenon, as it seeps, wings it way through the webs of the human spirit, when to burn, when to know that conviction and how to deal with the muse who dictates a self-involved adventure. I wrestle with ideas of the importance of all needs, and how ultimately one can see clearly the human responsibility and the selfish muse who chuckles at the naiveté.


Them’s the breaks
by Char Ediger, Canton, Georgia, USA

My friend had entered her painting of a colorful rooster at the state fair and it received the top award. She brought it to painting class and our instructor said, “That is the ugliest painting,” I explained that it was our friend’s painting that had won the award. Her reply; “Well, that just goes to show that the judges don’t recognize bad art.” We were embarrassed but we chuckled as this wasn’t a first for Margaret’s unsolicited appraisal.

I had some painted demos from my classes and put them in a garage sale as I didn’t think they were keepers and perhaps someone could do a painting over them for practice, etc. The buyer asked me to sign them and I explained that they were rejects being sold to let someone to use the canvas for workups, @2.00 each. As she walked away she asked my name, which I gave to her with my telephone number in the event she wanted more canvases. The LIGHT BULB clicked on, YES, she put my signature on the paintings. Later they were at an antique market for sale and a different person was selling them.


Comforting thoughts
by oliver, Texas, USA

To gain comfort I’d think about what you were paid for that painting in the first place. Much needed cash? A little needed recognition that helped build your current reputation? Is the fact that this is one of your bad ones, now recognition that you have improved? Did it help you learn what doesn’t work — often I learn a lot from my failures — or was it a blind path that wound up fruitless? Also, did you make contact with a couple of new collectors who may buy some of your newer better pieces? I would continue reflecting that many painters would love to sell their best work for $4,000 and be very happy that you have dealers, observing the secondary market for you, going to the auction and that you have enough sales that your next check will have $4000 deducted from it — and that apparently you can live just fine buying your work back at this price only to destroy it.


Discriminating connoisseur
by Richard (Trihue) Nelson, Maui, Hawaii


by Richard Nelson

I received a call several years ago from a friend who proudly boasted of being the new owner of two Nelsons. As the applause died down, I asked “And from which gallery did you purchase them?” “Oh, no gallery but the Pukalani dump,” she replied. I had just returned home after dumping two bad ones on the trash heap. She found it and wanted to have them restored in Honolulu at a considerable cost. I warned her against such action, but she pursued her plan. Months later and several hundred dollars, she had one of the paintings on her wall and invited me over to see it. Restoration cannot save a bad painting, so I offered to give her a painting of her choice on the condition she destroy the tramp. “Agreed!” she said and soon had one of my best and current works in the trunk of her car. Months later, while attending a party at her residence, I saw that she had hung this pricey new replacement beside the tramp.


For the environmentally sensitive
by Pam Wong, Muskoka, Ontario, Canada

Once a year in order to take stock of “where I’m at” I go through my studio with a ruthless eye, pull back pieces that have been “out there” too long. If they are not within range of my current work I take them out of the frame and “deal with them.” Pieces filed, I either liked for my own historical reasons or felt the idea could be tried again. If I don’t like them anymore they get torn up. There is something very cleansing about the process..:-). Friends/customers are often horrified. At the same time I reserve the right to give my work to close friends and family when I feel like it. I’d rather give it away than sell it for less than its worth! That way I know where my work has gone and can recall it for a show in future.


Burn nothing
by Peter Senesac, Gainesville, Florida, USA

I got a chuckle out this story but I think another moral is even your bad ones can be worth $4000.00 to someone. “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” I find that things I make that I don’t like sometimes sell first. I think “it doesn’t look like me,” but there are lots of people that don’t like “me” I was showing some of my watercolors to a friend and she liked one I did of a swimming pool. It was loose and expressive and “funky.” No one has liked it or made any positive comments about it since I did it last summer. In fact one of my art student friends went on at length about how it sucked. But my friend liked it the best and wants to buy it. A girlfriend of mine who likes to write and is quite good at it burned all her teen age diaries and letters in a moment of depression and low esteem. There was a lot of good stuff in those letters. Your story makes me want to frame everything and burn nothing.


All will benefit eventually
by Michael Don Fess

Except for an occasional exhibition or workshop, artists labor in solitude — depending on most of their inspiration from within. Attending museum shows, traveling exhibitions, learning about new materials and techniques requires extensive travel. I believe that external feedback and peer input is the stuff that helps give us inspiration. Stimulation from other artists helped spawn the cubist movement along with the Impressionist period and I feel that we all influence each other to various degrees. Art on the internet is a contemporary source of such stimulation. Internet websites offer international exposure for the artist on a basis never before possible. Now we can all see what is being done around the world and build on it. We can visit such virtual exhibits as the Red River Sculpture Society’s new Virtual Sculpture. While the sale of art on the internet is still in its infancy, I believe where satisfaction is guaranteed by escrowing purchase funds, it will ease customer fears of trying contemporary art in their home. With the new technical advances in web page design, better presentations of art on the internet is just over the horizon. I believe that we will all benefit at some level from art online.


New breed
by Denis Richardson, Saffron Walden, UK

The internet has brought out a whole new breed of artists who use the medium capably and exploit it to present their work to a wider public. The work, however, often takes a secondary place to the medium. They have the cart before the horse. There’s a popular and cynical attitude out there that success is based on slickness and promotion. It isn’t. Good quality work is still a rare commodity and is generally discovered rather than promoted.


Remote hope
by J J Martin, Antofagasta, Chile

There was a time when you had to go to New York, London or Paris to get into art. Now, with the advent of the internet — the global village is upon us. For those of us who choose to live in remote places where there is little commercial market, the internet is our great hope. Your ongoing inquiry will help me decide the best way to take advantage of it.


You may be interested to know that artists from 66 countries have visited these sites since January 1, 2001.

That includes Barbara Steele Thibodeaux who says, “I think we all have those paintings somewhere that would contribute greatly to the ultimate bonfire!”

And Denis Pellerin, who says, “I have at least 100 of the bad ones hidden in an attic somewhere! Yikes!” And Carol Costa of Mamaroneck, Westchester County, NY, who says, ‘There’s more than one lesson here.’ ”

(RG note) Several people wrote recently and asked why I’m doing this letter — and what I’m getting out of it. I realize now that I’ve done a lot of things for no particular reason — except that it felt good. I guess the main reason is that my intuition told me this sort of a project would be fun. This fun feeling confirms itself several times a day when I put down my brush and wander up to the computer and find companionship from people who are in the same boat. Our continuing idea is to pass on the best of this companionship and the information that comes with it. I sincerely hope you get something out of it. We try to avoid blatant commercial considerations; we will never take banner ads or ducks or penguins that jump in your face, and we will never, never sell your name to anyone for any nefarious or monetary purpose. None of this would be of course possible without Richard Thompson who manages the distribution and website. And my daughter Sara Genn who re-boots my head when it crashes. And then of course there are all of the volunteers who help with the Resource of Art Quotations and other projects of benefit to people like us.



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