Whatcom Artist Studio Tour creates a palette of marketing options for local artists
Sometimes we forget that artists are business owners, too.
We may be mesmerized by their paint strokes, hypnotized by the spin of a potter’s wheel or riveted by the inventiveness of their craft, but they can’t get as carried away. Most know that the starving artist cliché is no way to live.
Just like the rest of us, they need to make a living too, and for many local artists, the Whatcom Artist Studio Tour is an important platform to market their masterpieces.
A small group of 10 local artists started the tour in 1994 with a $1,000 budget and an informal qualification process.
Now, 13 years later, the tour has 52 participating local artists and a budget that has grown to about $30,000 from an assortment of city grants, business sponsorships, the Washington State Arts Commission and advertising sales, as well as the artists’ joining fee. The tour is now juried by three out-of-county gallery owners and art fair organizers.
Although the local nonprofit group Allied Arts acts as the tour’s official 501(c)(3) umbrella, most of the organizing is done by Chris Moench, one of the tour’s founding members.
He and a cadre of local artists thought bringing potential customers to artists’ studios, instead of a traditional gallery setting, would allow for greater understanding of how art works, as well as forge a lasting connection between customer and creator.
“The primary goal was to make it so that art was no longer a mystery, that it is not a rarefied, inaccessible gift only for those blessed with some divine talent,” he said. “It’s really about hard work and focus.”
During the tour, Moench demonstrates his process to make prayer wheels on a potter’s wheel. A trip to Nepal inspired the idea to construct his large decorative urns that sit on a spinning dais in their completed form. They are derived from traditional Buddhist vessels holding scrolls, which are used in meditation practices.
Moench created his first prayer wheel after the Olympic Pipeline explosion in Bellingham in 1999, and now creates them for weddings, funerals and other significant events. As many of his prayer wheels are custom designs, making connections with customers on the Whatcom Studio Artist Tour is an integral part of his business.
Those on the tour will drive down a long dirt driveway and pull in under a string of faded Tibetan prayer flags brushing their hood. Inside his studio tucked into the woods, a thin layer of ceramic dust lightly coats the tables and shelves and a hearty silver kiln heats up a corner.
Sometimes, he shows visitors how to throw a bowl on the wheel. They like to see the artists’ space and how the work is created, he said.
This intimacy serves more than just the purpose of education. It also allows for artists to directly market their pieces to consumers without the middleman of a gallery, some of which charge up to 60 percent commissions these days, although the going rate is 40 percent in Bellingham, he said.
For Moench, who is a full-time artist, about 15 percent of his annual sales come from the studio tour, but ultimately he figures it accounts for more than that as a result of the exposure and connections made with customers.
The value of the tour varies between artists, although most say it is an absolutely necessary venue. The following artists share their experiences with the Whatcom Artist Studio Tour, which lands on Whatcom County arts patrons’ itineraries Oct. 5, 6, 13 and 14.
Todd Horton, oil paintings
On one of the season’s first drizzly days, Todd Horton’s studio in the Waterfront Artist’s Studio collective is a refuge from the cars splashing by outside.
Horton has spent the last year painting Chuckanut Bay’s Dot Island in a multitude of styles.
“I’d never have imagined painting the same thing over and over, but I did,” he said.
He chronicled changes in light and weather by using either brush strokes or dots. He sometimes used a squeegee to emphasize the fog or a brusque short stroke to denote choppy waves. Many of these works will make up the 50 or so landscape paintings he’ll show in the studio tour.
The studio also houses a separate set of paintings of forceful animals in hot-colored hues that he will soon exhibit at the Whatcom Museum. But for the studio tour, the tranquil renderings of Dot Island are more the tone customers look for.
“The landscapes are definitely saleable,” he said.
Horton works part time as an artist and part time as Mount Baker Theatre’s events manager. Last year, the studio tour generated about half of his business as an artist.
“The great thing is the brochure,” he said of the tour’s glossy glossary of all the participating artists and their contact information that is sent out to about 25,000 people in the Puget Sound area.
“The marketing value of the brochure alone makes it totally worth it,” he said.
Last year, unbeknownst to him the new curator of the Whatcom Museum found him on the tour and bought a painting.
The encounter led to his upcoming show.
Patricia Morse, ceramic art
In Patricia Morse’s cheerily lit studio in the Geneva neighborhood, a sienna-furred chow chow greets visitors with a few affable nudges.
Morse welcomes them with a breathy, heartfelt hello and an offer of tea. She glides about her studio’s table displays of ceramic coiled wall platters, alters, rain basins and masks, demonstrating her artistic process.
Morse has been working with clay for more than 40 years. Before that, she was a painter, but during a teaching stint at University of California, Berkeley, she got stuck with a ceramics class as a fluke. Not long after, she married a potter and her career as a professional ceramic artist flourished.
In the early 1970s, Morse severely sprained her wrist and couldn’t use her left hand for a long time. That’s when she developed the technique of coiling clay around images to create large platters embedded with central figures.
“I have to say thanks for that accident,” she said.
Morse likes to think of the studio tour as an opportunity to educate people about the artistic process of ceramics. Many have the misconception that ceramics are just a craft, but Morse shows them otherwise in her studio.
She also gains a substantial amount of business from the tour, much of it from customers who come on the tour and then purchase pieces later on.
“For me, it’s been wonderful,” she said. “It’s a major part of my annual sales.”
Kathy Bastow, functional and artistic assemblages and jewelry
Kathy Bastow has a split personality represented in the converted barn adjacent to her home near Lake Whatcom.
The upstairs is used for her accounting business, Primus Services, Inc., the downstairs for her art studio.
Seated on a stool at the studio’s work desk, Bastow had no illusions about the economic value of each space.
“This is where I don’t make money,” she chuckled. “Upstairs is where I do.”
Bastow has spent her whole life trying to reconcile the opposing paradigms of her personality — the artist versus the accountant.
“One talks the other out of being who it is,” she said. “The artist says ‘just throw money to the wind.’ The accountant says, ‘who’s going to pay the bills?’”
Despite the dualism, Bastow has come to the realization that art will not be her primary income.
As a full-time accountant, Bastow creates the studio’s funky found-object lampshades, clocks, jewelry and sculptures in her spare time — usually on weekends or when she takes a “vacation.”
Her work is fashioned from found objects such as shoehorns, metal sun dials, dolls’ heads and old rulers, all joined together the old-fashioned nuts-and-bolts way.
For her, the art studio is a hobby business.
And the studio tour?
“It supports my habit,” she said.
For more information on the tour, visit www.studiotour.net.