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Speak Out: Art Roadie

By Randy DeVillez
ART TIMES January/ February 2012

The dark skies were scattered with dimming stars and the remaining glow of moonlight… a slight wind out of the west.  I was surrounded by a swarm of cars and trucks and minivans all jockeying for position near their allotted spots.  I let the sport ute idle as I followed the woman walking slowly in front of us, the woman with the serious face, the flashlight, clipboard, and huge mug of coffee.  Finally, she stopped and pointed at the lines spray painted on the pavement: space number 22... our “home” for the next twelve hours.
As I opened the back hatch and began to wrestle the pop-up tent from beneath the sandbags, I looked at my artist wife, Billinda, grumbled, “Had I known what being your art roadie entailed, I never would have signed up.”  I followed with a wink, likely lost in the early morning darkness.

“I love you, too, baby,” she said, beginning to unload plastic bins of prints and cards.  Within an hour, the sun was up, the tent was up, tables set up, our chairs in place, a mug of hot tea and hot coffee to satisfy our addictions.  Life on the road was good again.  Don’t tell my wife, but I love being her art roadie.  The experiences are varied; the learning never stops.

I get to meet people and travel: to art supply and mat and frame and glass and print and screen-printing shops.  I have witnessed some amazing machines and some truly gifted people operating them.  I have become fans of the counter folks at the state sales tax offices. 

I have learned new skills:  sport-ute packing, sport-ute unpacking (including in rain, in darkness, in high winds, and in one hundred three degree temperatures), matting, framing, gluing, tent erecting (not as kinky as it sounds), chit-chatting with strangers at galleries and art shows, swallowing my first reactions when a browser in our tent says to a friend, “Oh, Gladys.  Don’t pay that much for that.  You can buy a cheaper painting at Wal-Mart for your bathroom… and the frame will match your toilet paper holder.”  (I can’t make up stuff this good, trust me.)

I have learned new terms: pointillism, giclée, and sumi-e (none of which, for the uninformed, have anything to do with sushi).  I have also learned new uses for household items:  hors d’oeuvres-sized crock pots are great for melting wax, an autograph Sharpie is great for touching up a nicked metal frame, a safety pin is great for puncturing a sealed archival bag to reduce moisture build up on a hot-and-humid day from hell at a blacktopped-parking-lot art show, and blue painter tape is not a great substitute for affixing a print to a mat when the archival tape dispenser is empty and you have one print left to mat at two in the morning.

The best part has been watching my wife receive praise and compliments from the people who pass through our display.  From fellow artists to art lovers (like myself) to those just passing a lazy summer or fall afternoon, people stop and spend time looking.  They don’t all make purchases, obviously, but the majority of them pay tribute to the talent.  And that makes getting up at four, lugging two hundred pounds of sandbags, and setting up shop all worth it.

Sometimes, I even get to be involved with the creative aspect of my wife’s art.  Billinda and I are currently collaborating on a book manuscript of art and poetry, so working together on a creative level adds another layer of intimacy to our relationship.  She has work installed in co-ops and galleries in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln tourism is big business.  Most Springfield artists offer tourists something with a Lincoln theme.

Late one night, as we were about to kiss goodnight, Billinda said, “You know, I want to do something about Lincoln, but not the usual.”

I heard her, but didn’t reply except to say, “Sleep well… kiss you in the morning.”

“Rest well, dream even better,” was (and is) her nightly reply. 

I heeded her advice.  Upon awaking, I shook her, said, “Wake up.  I dreamt your Abe item.  Central Illinois is known for cornfields and Lincoln.  In my dream, I saw Abe’s hat hanging on a stalk of corn in a field of corn.”

She smiled, kissed me, said, “I like it….  I can see it,” and grabbing her robe, she was off to her desk.  It was not long before she showed me pen and ink with a touch of watercolor: my dream on paper.  I had dreamt writing ideas before, but never a work of art.

Abe Was Here/ Art Roadie

I now have my very own roadie shirt with this design on it.  Most roadies are not that lucky.

For me, the best part of art shows or festivals, juried or otherwise, is watching the patrons.  Some stand silently and stare.  Some very carefully look through cases of prints.  Some shuffle roughly.  Others talk a lot about matching, either the furniture, wallpaper, window treatments, upholstery, or, in one case, the dog and its collar.  I love when a person simply gushes, “I love that, must have it.” 

Another great benefit of being an art roadie is getting to view and study a lot of art, meeting lots of creative people.  Co-ops, galleries, and art shows are always alive with conversation.  It might range from gossip to business to technique, but the conversation is never dull.  And let’s be honest, all of us creative types are a little left or right of center, which makes us interesting and fun to be around.  Toss in some wine, a shot or two, and some cheese and crackers and it hardly seems like work…
…until it is time to break down and pack up.  At least this totally disorganized disaster occurs in daylight…usually.  I often say at least I can see who runs over me.  Of course, once we arrive home, we need to unload the truck one more time, store the goodies, take inventory for the next show, and prepare orders to replenish.  If I am lucky, I am treated to a wonderful home-cooked meal or taken out.  We roadies like to eat.  We should; we do a lot of work for a tee shirt… and love.  I often see artists who do it alone, without the help of a roadie, loving or otherwise, and feel like someone in those artists’ lives is missing a really wonderful experience.

The next time you attend an art festival or art show, after you greet the artist and compliment him or her, notice the person sitting in the chair in the corner… perhaps napping, reading, or simply watching the people.  Just walk up, quietly say, “Hey, roadie.  Nice job anchoring the tent with those sandbags.”

(Randy DeVillez, retired college writing teacher, poet, writer, and art roadie, lives in Athens, IL. He can be reached at papabear8648@aol.com; his wife Billinda’s artwork can be seen at billinda-brandli-devillez.artistwebsites.com/).