The not-quite-starving artist
by Stew Mosberg
Around the Four Corners, and particularly in Durango, the phrase “starving artist” might just be a contradiction in terms. The number of successful artists living and creating in this and adjoining counties is much greater than might be imagined. Visual artists, musicians, performing artists, sculptors and others who fit the definition aren’t necessarily forlorn, forgotten and forsaken; toiling away in an attic studio or workshop.
An artist, according to Webster’s, is “a person who does anything very well, with a feeling for form.” That leaves a lot of wiggle room. What Webster neglects to say is that an artist, although very skilled, might not make a living from it. The difference between a professional and an amateur is described simply as one who earns money for their service, which also leaves some maneuvering space.
Many artists pursuing their passion felt the calling at an early age; the more gifted of them stayed with it regardless of the possible consequences. History, literature and even opera tell of tormented artists working in obscurity and claiming the world doesn’t understand them, or perhaps accepting a life of squalor as being romantic or a prerequisite to fame and fortune.
For artists to make a decent wage or better yet, to get rich at their craft, they must be seen, heard or performed in the “right places.” Gallery representation, a diligent publisher or a well-attended theater can provide the exposure needed to catapult a starving artist to notoriety. However, there being only a couple dozen galleries, few theaters and no principal publishing house in the Four Corners, it is a major challenge for artists to sell their work or gain exposure here.
In Durango, as in other communities, the names of certain artists are better known than others. Their work is frequently exhibited and written about in the local press, they are represented by the most visible galleries, and in some instances they preside over classes and workshops. While the talent of these ubiquitous practitioners may warrant such recognition, there are scores of others who are equally skilled yet not as familiar. How do they make a living? What keeps them motivated? Is there a bonafide art community in these parts to nurture and inspire them?
Rebecca Barfoot is one of those artists honing her craft. During her recent time as artist-in-residence at the Discovery Museum at the Powerhouse, she continued to experiment with an image transfer process on diminutive porcelain vessels. An oil painter too, Barfoot has exhibited at the Durango Arts Center, but not in other galleries here. On the other hand, she is represented in Pittsburgh, Oregon, Chicago and Houston. Working with ceramics for almost 18 years and on canvas for about five, the artist says she is not as concerned about exhibiting as she is about solving artistic problems. When asked about opportunities in Durango she replies, “Showing in restaurants depresses me.” Barfoot came here not because it was supposed to be art friendly, but because of her outdoor athletic pursuits.
Her objective as an artist is to “explore relationships between life and work, and (with) the larger community.” When asked if she believes there is an art community in Durango, she thoughtfully responds, “Part of an art community is artists themselves connecting, and part is the public supporting the arts.” To follow her muse in her formative years, she worked full-time. Today she manages to get by with 12 hours of part-time employment; which helps her between art shows and commissions.
Dave Claussen, an enterprising, self-taught, man of many talents, has found his current success in the creation of commissioned-only work.
His large-scale, patina-finished, outdoor metal sculptures grace developments like Edgemont Ranch and institutions such as the Pine River Valley Bank, as well as businesses around the country.
Beginning his art career as an itinerate art fair craftsman, he exhibited and sold his combined rock and glass pieces for more than 12 years. But after life on the road for so long, the desire to put down roots finally took hold of him, and the native Coloradoan settled in Durango where he found work as a custom homebuilder.
Always an inquisitive soul, and forever inventing methods to get things done, Claussen was given an art project lead by his sister Victoria Roberts, a local graphic designer. That opportunity exposed him to the welding and fabrication of wall hangings and metal signage systems. Focusing his energy and talent on that process pulled him away from construction, and art now provides him with a viable lifestyle. It allows him to turn down work he doesn’t want or have time to do. For Claussen, Durango is a “happy place,” and he is more than content to work here.
Cindy Coleman exhibited at “Local Expressions” in the Durango Art Center earlier this summer. A graphic designer, painter, and now, children’s book illustrator, the academically trained artist has been practicing her craft for almost 10 years but this is the first year she has been able to pass up other jobs “with some emotional and financial assistance from my husband,” she quickly adds.
Her perception of Durango as an art community is effusive. “I think Durango is fantastic for the arts. It’s out there, you just have to find it. I’d love to see some sort of co-op where the artists could sell their work wholesale and not have to rack up a high commission.”
Miki Harder, an oft-publicized local artist, takes an opposite approach from Barfoot’s by exhibiting wherever she can. Her art appears in many local restaurants and pubs, and can also be found at the Karyn Gabaldon Gallery. Gabaldon is renowned as a local artist, entrepreneur and staunch art advocate. She is also a resource for other artists in need of savvy business advice.
Harder believes Durango needs more “business art” people but also does quite well on her own. Her love of animals and birds (she studied to be a biologist) has given her an endless stream of subject matter, which she portrays in oils, acrylics and bronze.
In addition to these four nonstarving artists, there are scores of photographers, writers, musicians, potters, painters and sculptors in and around Durango who are creating art, some who are even exhibiting and selling their work and making a living. It is apparent when talking to some of them that they agree there is an art community in Durango. However there is a difference between an “artist’s community” and an “art community.”
That “artist’s community” includes a group of like-minded individuals connecting to inspire, nurture and share ideas with each other. Conversely, an “art community” is one where the public supports the artists living in the region, by viewing exhibitions, buying and selling their work, and creating an infrastructure to allow art and artists to thrive. That might mean developing an “art district” and perhaps creating an artist’s cooperative with living/working space. Other cities have been highly successful in their support of the arts, and in turn have benefited through an increase in tourism and tax revenues. Local artists agree that an “art community” could represent a win-win situation for Durango.