I think of myself as a good customer, not really any trouble and certainly not an irritation in a coffee shop. Then my son, who used to juggle his work as an illustrator with work making coffee*, pointed out a few unexpected things I should and shouldn’t do that make all the difference for the staff. Here are a few pointers along the same lines that make an artist’s life a little easier, based on a few things that I’ve experienced and know other artists encounter as well.
‘I did that at school.’ As a complete sentence, this isn’t a winner with any artist. As part of a sentence, it can be. Every Japanese person that’s ever watched me demonstrating Japanese woodblock printing has said ‘I did that at school’. The big difference, and part of why I miss Japan so much, is that they’ve then gone on to add something like ‘so I think I can see what you are doing’ or ‘but I only worked in one colour’ thus turning the phrase from one of dismissal at my childish antics into an engaging conversation starter. Though when I think about it, school’s a place where there are so many things to try. Thus we could be saying this to so many more people. I might try it with an accountant, biologist or journalist next time I meet one.
If you wouldn’t ask your plumber, don’t ask an artist. Here I mean those personal questions outside of our respective skills set. It’s surprising how many people feel fine asking artists some pretty invasive questions. Some I’ve fielded include ‘Do you actually make money at this?’ ‘How much money do you make in a year?’ and ‘So your partner’s the one paying the bills?’ Just because we artists are a bit of a mystery with a business plan that runs along the lines of ‘so I’ll make some stuff out of my head involving some colours and shapes and strangers will pay me’ it doesn’t mean we’ve forfeited our right to privacy and a little respect. Besides we’ve probably all had our fill of such questions hissed in various tones of anxiety and exasperation by our mums and dads, back when we were filling out forms for art school.
No need to make creative excuses for not buying work from artists. Artists who sell work directly quickly become realists and we all understand that not every encounter results in a sale. I can relate to this one because, back when I was an awkward teenager (this was so long ago that the local clothes shop concerned had staff who took an actual interest in me as a customer) I found it almost impossible to leave empty handed without concocting a polite excuse usually involving my needing to ask my mum – a teenager? Seeking advice from mum? Really? Not having space on the wall is, I’m afraid, a similar polite evasion familiar to all artists and hopefully we receive it with the same kindness as the ladies in Teen Jean.
Buying a lovely piece of art at a show is a thrilling experience. Share that with your companions, tweet about it, post a selfie with it, or break the news gently to your accountant. Whatever else you do, refrain from rushing back to another artist at the event and sharing the moment with them. No artist, however much they love, support and generally want the best for their artist companions, will share the joy of you having bought a piece of work from someone else. We may be the best qualified to understand the work and the value of your purchase, but we are usually a bit tired and a bit stressed from selling our own work and most likely not really pouring our entire heart into sharing the moment. When this happens from time to time I try just to put it down to overriding excitement and tell myself it’s charming really…
‘How long does it take you to make it?’ is a trick question, or at least it has a trick answer. It’s not a great question for an artist because making art really isn’t the same as turning out cans of beans from the factory. Anything other than a specific time based reply sounds pretentious, but would be the most fair. While I try to avoid the nauseating ‘a week to make and a lifetime of experience’ that’s actually a pretty honest answer. No piece of art exists in a vacuum and a single print, it is always prints in my case, is really a follow on from the things I learnt before and the things I intend for the next one. It may take a week to design, cut and print, but that’s just the mechanics. It takes no account of the time it took me to reach the level to make the print in that week. Reducing work to the mechanics of production with no account for the artist’s skills is to miss the point a bit. Besides, we’re usually rubbish at gauging time when we’re making something. I tend to tell the passage of time by how many clean socks are left and if there’s any milk.
I hope, like Jim’s explanation of what not to do in a café, this helps. I know my coffee breaks now give the staff a break as well as a result of his advice. But not to worry if you’ve said some or all of these things (OK, worry a bit if you asked ‘So your partner’s paying the bills?’ That one was rude). We’ve heard it all before and we’ll hear it again and we understand how easy it is to just say the first thing that comes into your head when you have to say something to a stranger and an artist at that. But dodge the things on this list and we’ll be in a much better position to give you some interesting answers.
* Incidentally Jim’s neat answer to very rude customers was to take the time to perfect his decorative milk pouring skills to the point that he could create a penis design to top the coffee in question. Short with the staff? Might be worth checking that flat white…