Sunday, July 28, 2013

Woe be the path of the polymath

Welcome to another installment of Blog Carnival, where an international selection of artists provides their perspective on a common theme. This month it is “Businesses you have started”. For artists this is a distinct and separate question from “Businesses you have finished”. As all artists know, a work is never finished - it’s only abandoned.

Artistic discipline (or lack thereof) aside, the real point of all this is that artists tend to be polymaths. That is a ten-dollar word meaning a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. Artists probably aren’t born polymaths, but become such in a life-long quest to make a living while hopefully staying as close to their art as possible. In plain English this all means that artists do a lot of things to get by. This often results in a rather curious effect, when charted out, of the artist’s career bearing a strong resemblance to the path of a pin-ball. Artists will often remark that the effect in real life feels very much the same.

We like to look at artistic economics in geological terms: many little streams come together to make a mighty river. This perspective has generally worked out well over the years, but occasionally results with us ending up a creek without a paddle. We passed through distinct phases on our way to fame and fortune; “Empire Building Mode”, “Get Rich Quick Scheme of the Week” and “Black Market Über-Lord” are just a few that come to mind.

The odd part is that we have started, operated and sold so many businesses over the last 30 years that we are now by definition serial entrepreneurs. Here’s a peek at some of the businesses that got us here…

One Hit Wonder Bong Factory.
This was many years ago during our ceramics period. This seemed like a natural extension of our manufacturing capabilities. Based on our extra-curricular activities at the time we also had a built-in distribution network. The world needed more artistically designed bongs and there was a distinct moneyed niche that was willing to buy something unique. The business prospered, but the product R&D proved to be a real impediment to efficiency. We eventually sold the business to our partner when we became interested in other media.

The King of the Bar Nude.
Small town USA, particularly throughout the mid-west, is generously populated with old bars and saloons. Many of these places are left-overs from the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. They haven’t changed much since the day they were built, which either adds to their charm or designation as a “shit-hole” bar depending on your point of view. We are hopeless romantics, so we thought these places quite charming.  We were actually doing research for a book, “Guide to America’s Shit Hole Bars” when we began to notice that more than a few of these places had old paintings of nudes hanging over the bar. More often than not, these painting had degenerated into state of very poor condition. Sitting, drinking, thinking at one of these bars, it occurred to us that WE paint nudes and were totally capable of reproducing historical styles (thank you old school art training). This had opportunity written all over it. We approached the bar owner about either repairing or replacing his bar nude. Bingo - Our first sale! This led to a five year run and hundreds of bar nudes. We eventually burned out and just stopped taking orders. Never did finish the book.

Gingerbread Taj Mahal.
One of our artistic hallmarks is embracing a wide spectrum of media. For many, many years we were into playing with our food. Not content to build mountains out of mashed potatoes ala Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we took food sculpture to a whole new level. It was an instant success, and on an international level we had not experienced before. The recognition, money and offers came pouring in. Frankly, we were not prepared.
This eventually became a pivotal experience in our careers and our lives. Prior to this, we had a vague idea of what “fame and fortune” meant and an illusion of what the lifestyle would be like. It was all that, and a whole lot more. Unfortunately, that “more” part was stuff we really didn’t like. In fact, we hated it. As the saying goes, “be careful what you ask for, you may just get it”.  We were doing television, traveling with royalty, making more money than we had ever thought possible and were utterly miserable. How can this be you ask? Another saying goes, God says, “You can have anything you want in this life, all you have to do is pay for it.” Meaning everything comes with a cost – to your metal stability, health, personal relationships etc.  Sometimes knowing what you want is defined by knowing what you don’t want.

Over the years there have been many, many more businesses that we have started and run. All have been more or less successful. We have made money, but more important, we have learned. We have learned to be comfortable with who we are, and we have learned that the best things in life aren’t things. 

We currently own four businesses that operate internationally and constantly fight the urge to make it an even five. We have learned that entrepreneurialism is addictive.