Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sutro Tower, our “Locals Only” Icon

The other day I was eating lunch.  Across from me sat a woman with an eight inch tall Sutro Tower tattooed on her arm. It is a very cool tattoo.  I’ll add that as one of the options on the if-ever-I-get-a-tattoo list. 

The tattoo got me thinking more about Sutro Tower.  San Francisco has iconic images that are recognized around the world like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Pyramid and the row of Victorians on Alamo Square.  Yet, when people visit our City from all over the world, most barely notice Sutro Tower. You won’t find it on many postcards and there are no miniature Sutro Towers for sale in Chinatown. 

For San Franciscans, even if we take it for granted, most of us have a certain love for Sutro Tower.  If anything, the tower lets many of us avoid paying for cable.  With a bit of looking or a visit to any local craft fair, it does not take long to come across products with images of Sutro Tower.  Maybe they should be called staycation souvenirs?  Sutro Tower could be called our “Locals Only” icon.   

Sure, the tower has its detractors, and I have even come across a few fanatics who really hate the tower. But, well, San Franciscans do love to obsess over a cause.  For the rest of us, we’ll just look up and see it peaking through the fog.  And a few of us might secretly suspect the tower has another purpose — as an alien spaceship docking port. 

As for products – get some!  Like many of my fellow citizens, I have at least one t-shirt with our iconic tower.  My favorite t-shirts (shown below) are the ones from Glug, but I only have seen those in kid sizes.  I found some temporary tattoos (shown below) from  I think I need to place an order.

Many local artists have used Sutro Tower as a subject.  One my pieces for the 2011 Project is shown below, also Shannon Cope O’Rourke’s cityscape with our tower.  One could easily start a collection based on Sutro Tower art.  You might begin with Michael Wertz’s print and then this appropriately named Sutro Tower – Unlikely Landmark print from Minor Thread.

Nothing says real San Francisco like the Sutro Tower.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Single Best Piece of Public Art in the World

For a city of its size and stature, San Francisco has very little public art.  Part of the problem is, as the expression goes, we just can’t have nice things.  When Zhang Huan’s amazing Three Heads Six Arms was installed in Civic Center in 2010, it was repeatedly vandalized.  The Keith Haring sculpture at Moscone Center was just removed for a refurbishing that sadly has to include graffiti removal.  After a sunny weekend, parks like Dolores Park and Fort Mason are literally trashed.  I love my City, but at times, San Francisco is the City of Bad Roommates

The other challenge public art faces in San Francisco is public backlash.  We are the city where NIMBYism can be everyone’s favorite hobby.  Sometimes it’s for good.  My very own block was among those to be torn down in the 1960’s, all to make way for a never-built freeway that was supposed to cut through Golden Gate Park.  To see the other side of public opposition, one can just visit the Sculpture Meadow at the di Rosa Preserve in Napa.  Many of the pieces were intended for public art in San Francisco and other Bay Area cities.  They were stopped due to public outcry.  A small group of self-appointed “art critics” often manages to prevent plenty of good public art form being installed in San Francisco.

Perhaps we can manage without more public art because we have, what could be called. the single best piece of public art in the world.  Of course I am speaking of the Golden Gate Bridge.  I never take it for granted.  It still impresses me every time I see it.  This year our bridge is celebrating its 75th Anniversary.

Yesterday I visited the California Historical Society and saw the exhibit A Wild Flight of Imagination – The Story of the Golden Gate Bridge.  I thought I knew a lot about the bridge and had seen most of the photos.  It’s a fantastic show filled with photos, architectural drawings and art that is not published in most of the books about the Golden Gate Bridge.  The exhibit also explores the opposition to building a bridge across the Golden Gate (public opposition is nothing new).  80 years ago many people could not imagine a bridge spoiling the Golden Gate.  I can see their point, but it’s hard to imagine San Francisco without its bridge.  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

An Homage Lost Luggage

Homage to Lost Luggage, mixed media, vintage luggage tags, on canvas, 10”x10”

This is the sort of thing that can happen when you buy 50 unused, airline luggage tags at a vintage paper fair.  

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Making Art in Japan(town)

When I first moved to San Francisco, I lived on the corner of Divisadero and Eddy.  I loved my apartment but the neighborhood was rather bland.  Today Divisadero is full of life, but in the 1990’s it was dull.  Back then my closest commercial neighborhood was Japantown.  It was five short blocks to Safeway and just across Geary to Japantown.  When I first arrived, Japantown seemed “exotic.”  But exotic is always a relative term.  I grew up on the East Coast in places with few Asian Americans and Asian immigrants. 

My first Japanese experience was a visit to a Japanese restaurant on a family trip to San Francisco.  I was 11.  I was disappointed that we couldn’t be in one of the rooms where we would have had to remove or shoes and sit on the floor.  My 80-year-old great-grandmother was with us and, as adventurous as she could be, she was not going to sit on the floor.  For the rest of her long life she remembered that restaurant as that place where we had to fish for our food.

Eventually I moved to the Lower Haight and have lived there since.  Japantown is still only a 20-minute walk away and I always end up there a few times a month.  It’s been a long time since I thought of Japantown as exotic.  Japantown is part of my everyday life.  As I look back on so much of my art I begin to see how living near Japantown has influenced my work.

The 2011 Project had a number of pieces with their origins in Japantown.  There were the pieces using origami paper from one of the dollar stores.  There was the sushi map and the Tokyo piece.  Both used maps I bought in Japantown.  The Western Addition Branch Library also serves Japantown.  It has a good collection of Japan-related books in both English and Japanese.  In 2009 I randomly picked up a book on Japanese Textile Patterns that lead to an entire series of new mixed media, map collages. 

I still have not been to Japan, and I am sure when I arrive, it will all seem exotic to me.  Then again, years in Japantown have probably prepared me a little bit.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Business of Selling Art Online – 2012 is not 2002

Mosaic Canyon Rockfall and some related products.

I have had my own art website since 1997.  Soon after that, I started to receive offers from various start-ups and dot.coms.  It was the late 1990’s and everyone was trying to sell everything online, including art.  I dabbled with a few sites that didn’t cost anything.  I ignored many of the other offers.  Most of the early websites were poorly designed and looked awful.  They usually had business models where artists were supposed to pay for various levels of membership, etc.  Having my own website, I did not see the need to pay additional fees to show my art online. 

When I did join a few of these sites, I was able to track how often they sent traffic to my own website.  It was only a handful of visitors per year.  None of these early, art selling websites generated sales for me.  Mostly they lead to other sites contacting me with sales pitches.  They also put my name on the list for countless schemes like the ones asking me to pay hundreds or even thousands of Euros to be listed in artist directories.  Directories no one will ever see.  My junk mail box still gets a few of those offers a week.

Since the very beginning, my website has always generated a few sales every year. I have always seen my site as more of an online portfolio.  When people ask what type of at I do, nothing is more effective than handing someone an interesting looking card with your web address on it.

By 2001, as the boom was spinning out of control in San Francisco, I had written off selling art online.  If it happened, I saw it more as something by chance.  It was an era when there were so many outlandish ventures trying to sell everything online. 

A Decade Later

Recently I’ve noticed a real increase in online sales of my work.  I realize it might be time to revisit selling art online.  Quite a few things have changed since the early days of ecommerce. 

Many technological advances have changed the rules for artists.  The improved quality and affordability of digital cameras and scanners has made it easier for artists to get images of their work online.  The idea of submitting slides to galleries is all but obsolete.  Nowadays, nearly all submission guidelines call for digital images.  The improvement in browsing speed and the quality of monitors has had a major impact. The quality and accuracy of images is crucial to selling art online.  An excellent digital image is now possible and it can give potential art buyers more confidence than ever before. 

Printing technology has also changed the art market.  The quality of on demand printing gets better as the prices keep falling.  Most of the online art sites now offer prints and other printed products (i.e. note cards, laptop cases, etc.).  The artist actually receives little for these printed products.  Personally, I still see them as a good deal for artists.  An artist should not expect on demand art prints will earn significant money for them.  But, on demand products give art sites a source of revenue and the good ones no longer charge artists for other costs (i.e., memberships, listing fees, etc.).  It’s become a commission-driven business.  From an artist’s perspective, I see offering my work for on demand prints as free advertising.  It gets my work out there and may potentially lead to more serious sales.  The better sites allow for artists to have profiles which can link to the individual artist’s website. 

Consumer attitudes to online shopping have changed.  We all tend to buy things online we would never have considered buying online ten years ago.  In many cases it is out of necessity.  As small, specialized business tend to disappear, I find myself looking online for things I used to get at local shops.  In San Francisco it is even becoming difficult to find a bookstore. 

Art galleries are being squeezed out of communities.  As rents and other costs increase, galleries disappear.  The only galleries that tend to remain are the extremely commercial venues and the very high-end galleries.  Galleries with moderately priced art, the galleries that truly partner up with emerging artists, these are the ones that have mostly vanished in cities like San Francisco.  The art buyer with a modest budget has fewer places to find art.  I believe this is what is helping to increase online, art sales.

Where is the best place for artists to sell work online?

Each artist needs to review a lot of sites and determine which ones will work for them. 

Some artists have done well with eBay.  The relatively low costs can seem appealing.  The problem is you’re selling fine art in an online flea market.  There you are next to the guy with the piles of tubes socks.  Now, maybe if you paint pictures of tube socks…  

And then there is Etsy.  I had a little success with Etsy.  There is a lot of good work on the site.  It is best for small, very affordable work.  The problem is it just disappears among the thousands of things on the site (good and bad).  Most artists, who do well with Etsy, do so by driving buyers to their own Etsy page.  It is particularly frustrating that Etsy does not allow artists to add their own website to their profiles.

Recently I’ve joined two art selling websites.  Society6 and Saatchi Online.  They’re a couple of well-designed sites, ­no financial risk to artists and relatively easy to use.  Saatchi Online is set up for selling both original art and on demand print products.

I think that no single site is going to do it for an artist.  It’s better to find a combination of sites.  Ideally, that will include your own site.  Now that PayPal has become so well established, I find art buyers are even more confident purchasing from artists directly online.

When it came to selling at online, I might have said never ten years ago, but that was before I started making all these trips to the post office to ship art.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Public Transportation

Public Transportation, mixed media on canvas, 24”x24”

I’ve lived car free since the 1980’s.  When I am feeling broke, it’s fun to estimate how much money I have saved over the years by not owning a car.  I do drive and rent cars for road trips and also use the car sharing service zipcar.  There are times I want to do suburban shopping errands as well as other times when a car makes life easier.  Living in a compact city with decent public transportation makes it all possible.  Out of both necessity and some genuine admiration, I love public transportation. 

When I travel to different cities I always seek out the adventure of public transportation.  There is something magical about emerging from a subway station in a strange city for the first time.  I still can remember the moment I emerged onto a Barcelona street and beheld Gaudí’s la Sagrada Família.  Many of my dreams play out on public transportation.  I often dream about stations and trains over and over for months before I first see them.  This has happened for me in places like Frankfurt and Washington, D.C.

This new piece is made up of public transportation maps from around the world.  From my familiar MUNI and BART to DC’s Metro, to London’s Underground and many more.  You also might spot a few bits of MUNI Fastpasses, transfers and BART tickets.  I also have a DC Metro Ticket with President Obama on it.  That one stayed on the refrigerator door.  I couldn’t cut that one up.

Prints and other goodies based on Public Transportation are also available from Society 6.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tulip Mania on Instagram

Until yesterday I pretty much ignored Instagram.  Well not entirely, I have friends who’ve been posting their images on Facebook and Flickr.  I’ve seen some good stuff, but in most cases. My reaction is something like — It’s still a good photograph without Instagram.  People with a good eye and some talent for taking pictures have done some nice work with Instagram.  Years ago I started experimenting with a program called Painter and soon moved on to Photoshop.  I confess that I can spend hours goofing around with Photoshop.  With that in mind, I really had no interest in Instagram.  But if others are having fun with it, well, good for them.

If you saw any news yesterday, you probably know that Facebook is buying Instagram for $1 Billion.  Yes, $1,000,000,000!  How can one ignore that?  I know I am not the only one, but Tulip Mania immediately came to mind.  I felt compelled to download the app.  Alas, the user name tulipmania was already taken on Instagram.  I’ve had to settle for tulipmaniac. I’ll rarely use Instragram, but if I do, I am committed to only using Instagram to post photos of tulips.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Foxen Canyon Road

Now that we have had a blast of rain and April has arrived, I am itching for a little road trip.  I’ve been going up and down California for years.  I like to get out the map (yes I am old fashioned and prefer a map to GPS) and look for new roads to try.  I prefer using the detailed Delorme road atlases.  A few years ago my “discovery” was Foxen Canyon Road.  It parallels the 101 between Buellton and Santa Maria.  It’s a windy, car commercial road, through lush green hills covered with poppies.  The little trip inspired some small paintings, including the ones shown above.