I have yet another pandemic art show in full swing! I’m the featured artist at the Loft at Midnight Sun Brewing Co. for the month of January! Indoor seating capacity is limited to 25% until who-knows-when, so I’ve created a virtual art show for those of you who don’t feel comfortable going to the venue in person right now. If you’re interested in any of these pieces, give the Loft a call at (907) 344-6653. Even if you live outside of Anchorage, you can still nab a piece, and I will personally mail it to you within the U.S. at no charge. All of these are one-of-a-kind, original oil paintings. They are all framed in natural wood frames, except Winter and Autumn, which have dark brown frames. More paintings and prints are available at my Etsy shop RealArtIsBetter.
Each holiday season I receive many requests for commissions that need to be done and delivered in time for Christmas. One of my favorite parts about working on these custom pieces is hearing people’s stories behind the painting concepts. Usually they send me a photo of a special beer they enjoyed with a best friend, or loved one, along with another photo of a place that is significant to both people, and then I combine the photos into one composition. Each detail has a meaning, and I am always glad to be part of creating a one-of-a-kind piece for a person who is caring enough to order a custom painting for a friend, spouse, or significant other. So, each year I publish a blog post to show you all the commissioned paintings I completed during the holiday season. Signed prints are available of Bourbon Paradise, and A Deal with the Devil paintings at my Etsy shop.
Can you think of anything unique, and significant to you that you’d like me to paint?
I’m currently having my second art show during a pandemic! The first one was in June at Midnight Sun Brewing Co., right after the brewery was allowed to open for on-site, indoor dining/drinking following the first shutdown. Right after that show ended, the Mayor limited restaurants and breweries to outdoor on-site consumption only. So I got pretty lucky on my timing. The show was surprisingly successful given the circumstances!
Fast forward six months, and I’m doing another art show during this pandemic, this time at Turnagain Brewing Co. I didn’t get as lucky on my timing for this one, because during December, we’re only allowed to drink beer outside per the latest hunker down order. Despite this obstacle, we decided to go ahead with the art show, but scaled it down just to the downstairs wall of the taproom, because people can still see the art while they go inside to order their beers. I hung original, one-of-a-kind oil paintings on the wall, and brought limited-edition prints and Beer Art Coloring Books to sell at the brewery. So far, I’ve actually sold some books, and prints, which is more than I was expecting.
I could have used this new hunker down order as an excuse to cancel the show, but I decided to push through this thing, and keep doing what I do, because I still can. Drinking beer outside by a fire pit is nothing new for Alaskans. Most of the breweries adapted quickly to the new restrictions, and put several fire pits outside, in festive beer gardens. I’m about to have my third pandemic art show, back at Midnight Sun Brewing Co., but in January I expect everything to open back up at reduced capacity, so maybe everyone can admire my art while eating and drinking inside.
~ by Maria Benner
In business school I was taught to react to a crisis that affects one’s business, but none of the case studies ever described a drawn-out external threat to the business that lasts nearly a year, like the current pandemic. Making and selling art for a living is already considered a risky career option, and people often remind us of that with their pessimistic and inappropriate questions about our finances when they find out we make a living from Scott’s art. So, when the pandemic hit, I felt especially vulnerable at first. We had art shows lined up at local breweries, and other than that, we were selling art online. When everything shut down at the end of March, we were pleasantly surprised as our Etsy sales more than doubled compared to the same time period last year. People were bored at home, and they were shopping. The building where we lease our studio was locked to the public, but we were still allowed to go into our studio, so we kept mailing orders, and Scott kept painting commissions, and new pieces for his upcoming art show in June at Midnight Sun Brewing Co. When everything opened back up, we swooped in and had a successful art show, despite the pandemic, before the brewery was closed again for on-site consumption for the month of August. Orders kept rolling in all summer, and we kept working.
I took advantage of having extra time to learn HTML and CSS, and built a new website for Real Art Is Better. I also combed through all the Etsy listings, making sure photos looked good, descriptions were correct, and keywords were optimized. There were a couple requests for proposals announced for public art in Alaska. I applied for two, and we were granted one, and Scott is a finalist for another one. He’s working on his final proposal right now.
We spent most of the summer in McCarthy, where the majority of businesses were open, including the gift shops in McCarthy and Kennecott. We sold art there all summer, and sales were only a couple hundred dollars lower than during normal summers. We also fulfilled a wholesale order for a book shop in Haines, and I now plan to build a wholesale program for the business.
We maintained our social media presence, posting updates every weekday, and sending e-newsletters every other Friday. Since we can’t travel, Scott has had extra time to work on oil paintings. He decided to paint a few pieces on canvas for a change (he normally paints on wood panel) and completed a large painting that sold right after the election. Having more time to try new techniques has been valuable to him. He also kept teaching painting lessons at the studio.
Then the Mayor of Anchorage announced a third hunker down order for the month of December, which is when we usually do in-person sales events like craft fairs. This year the craft fairs were cancelled, so I set up live painting/pop-up events at two local breweries. When I heard about the shutdown, we contacted Anchorage Brewing Co. and were able to reschedule one of the events for the Sunday before the emergency order went into effect. We also were able to go ahead with another event as planned at Odd Man Rush Brewing. Since the shutdown does not apply outside Anchorage, we scheduled a live painting/pop-up event at Bleeding Heart Brewing in Palmer for December 19.
Tonight we are hanging oil paintings at Turnagain Brewing, eventhough the taproom is closed for onsite consumption, but is open for to-go orders. The art show is scaled down to just one wall, but we’re still doing it.
There are several lessons I learned during the pandemic about running an art business.
- Keep working; making new paintings, posting on social media, sending e-newsletters, blogging, applying for public art projects, doing art shows, going to the studio every day. We didn’t cancel anything, were pro-active about contacting venues, and were available when people asked us to work on projects.
- Have a strong online presence and SEO.
- Be safe, but also show up whenever you can.
- Offer excellent customer service, including curbside pick-up, and free shipping.
- Be flexible enough to re-schedule events, or adjust how they happen so everyone stays safe.
- Just keep going…
During these crazy times we all need each other’s support. Everyone is saying we should support our local restaurants, small businesses, independent artists, but when times are this uncertain, saving money is also a good idea. Maybe you don’t need art, or certain services at the moment, but you may need them in the future, and that’s why we want our local businesses to get through this lean period. So, how can you support all your favorite businesses without going broke?
• Follow your favorite businesses and artists on social media, and sign up for their e-newsletters. Do you love a picture they posted? Then like it, share it, comment on it. The more engagement a post has, the more likely other people will see it, and then the small business won’t have to spend as much on advertising to be seen.
• When you need to buy something, don’t just automatically go online to look for it, take a few seconds, and try to think of a local place that may have what you need. They already spent the time and money to get products delivered to their store, so give them a call, or go to their website and see if they have what you’re looking for, or maybe they can order it for you. Amazon will definitely survive through this, but isn’t it nice to have local brick-and-mortar stores around, in case you need something immediately?
• Post pictures of the food you are about to enjoy, or your favorite piece of art by an artist you follow. Tell people why you love what they do.
• If you can’t afford to spend money at every business you want to support, then tell your friends in real life about why you love a certain shop, or restaurant, and maybe they will try it for the first time. Attracting new customers is much more difficult than keeping existing ones.
• If you hear of an opportunity for artists, don’t assume that all artists know about it, forward that e-mail, or text the info directly to the artist. I have had several friends text me about opportunities that they thought are a good fit for me. Most of the time I find out about them eventually, but it’s nice to know that I am top-of-mind for some people, and I also appreciate having the extra few days head start on the application process.
• If you have a blog, or are a freelance writer, feature a small business in your next blog post, or article.
• Write a review on Facebook, Google, Yelp, etc.
What other ways can you think of to support your favorite businesses?
People say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a community to have a thriving local economy. We can get through this if we are creative about how we do it. Lastly, I want to thank my patrons who have continued to purchase my art online and in person. You make my art career possible!
Today is already the middle October! I’m so sad that I haven’t been able to have open studio gatherings to see you all. We’re going to figure something out for the December party we normally have. Since, I think we can only have about 5-7 people in the studio safely at once, we may schedule visits if you want to come in to sample a little homemade brew and shop for holiday gifts. I will announce that possibility as we get a bit closer, and depending on the status of C-19 cases as winter weather sets in. We haven’t even gotten through Halloween yet, so I assume most of you aren’t in the right mindset for that as of yet.
What I do want to talk about right now is COMMISSIONED artwork. I have had a nearly perfect record with successful commissions. I just finished a piece for a local fire fighter who works just down the street from my studio. He wanted a painting to commemorate a trip with his girlfriend to Orca Island in Resurrection Bay. The painting was supposed to be a surprise, but he told his girlfriend about it when she was having a bad day, and she cried! The only problem with commissioning a painting for a holiday gift is I run out of time to get them all painted, so getting in early is better. In 2016 I completed 24 individual paintings that my patrons commissioned for holiday gifts. I felt like an elf that year, and my beard started to twinkle with a bit of varnish by December 15, the last day possible for paintings to dry in time for the 25th. I suggest you look through the pictures of your favorite trip this year, or last year (considering a lot of us have been hunkering down and not going anywhere since March). It always brings a smile to see people so excited to give the gift of a special painting! Cheers, and I look forward to seeing what you bring for me to paint!
Recently I started painting on canvas again. Last year I had to build a giant painting (12ft x 6ft) for a clinic in Bethel, and decided it would be best to paint it on canvas, roll it up, then fly there to rebuild and re-stretch it. I was pleased with the results. The end product was quite different from the hardwood plywood panels, but I found it to be easier to put certain details into the painting. The finishing work required to put a painting on the wall — framing or painting the sides, has always been a hurdle for me, and I remember one of my college professors praising my paintings, but criticizing my shoddy frames. I often see paintings framed poorly, and I have striven since those early college failures to produce professional looking pieces. I still have some of those old canvases rolled up, but fortunately I did away with the garish frames. In my defense, I was framing them on the catwalk balcony at my dorm room, because the sculpture professor wouldn’t let me make frames in the state-of-the-art sculpture lab.
A finished canvas without a frame needs to have a full wrap so the edges may be painted. I didn’t make canvases that way until I was taught how to do so in class. Frames need to have a lip that covers the front edge of the painting so you don’t have a distracting gap. Previously, I used to laminate a piece of hardwood to the edges of a painting and sand the edge back to make a finished looking box, which is impossible with canvas. That also takes a ton of work, since I am without a wood-shop, just like in the old dorm-room days. Operating a table saw and a chop saw outside in the snow and 10 degrees is not my idea of fun. Nobody ever told me being an artist was going to be easy. In fact, I was told a successful artist works harder than most people. I don’t know how hard I actually work, but I do seem to always be out of time. I don’t really like power sanding, so I ordered a case of professional grade canvases. I’ll give them a try and maybe I can just paint the edges and skip that snowy outdoor time with the annoying power-tools.
Painting on a canvas is completely different than the techniques I have been using on the hardwood panels. My gold and red underpainting doesn’t work the same, so I have gone back to a traditional painting technique I haven’t used in a decade. I was always about getting the colors to scream on the surface, but I am now more interested in getting a more accurate depiction. I am now making an underpainting that represents the grayscale values, and not the primary colors I always used previously, which makes me like using canvas way more. Canvas paintings reproduce better as canvas prints, since it is the same material used to begin with. The gold and red painting surface that I have been using, looks great as an original, but always misses a bit as a reproduction. I am switching over for completely practical reasons. It seems very few people purchase original paintings. I sell 20, or more prints and then maybe one original. Even though my originals are pretty affordable, and I price my prints a bit higher than average.
Painting on canvas takes more time as I am forced to work with layering techniques. The alla-prima technique looks lackluster without the red and gold underpainting. It is necessary to build up layers to completely cover the canvas and fill in the little white spots that form around painted objects. This takes more time and requires mixing mediums. I will probably have to charge more for originals, since it takes way longer to make canvas paintings. I originally started painting on the red and gold panels because it worked so well in a Plein Air (outdoors painting) environment. I could start and finish a painting before it started to rain, or the sun moved too far, changing the shadows. I was also making smaller pieces. Are the red and gold panels to be retired forever? Of course not! I will still make some pieces using my signature technique, but I also have bought two large canvases and want to see where these traditional materials lead me.
We recently returned from our cabin in McCarthy to the metropolis known as Anchorage. Maria and I both experienced small culture shock from the peaceful surroundings of our ten acres near Wrangell – St. Elias National Park compared to the industrialized buzz of the Anchorage city scene. At the end of a two week stay all the treats we stockpiled to bring to the cabin start to run out and pretty soon you are making a lentil casserole from leftover ingredients. At the cabin the birds were chirping and the loudest noise in the area was ourselves. In Anchorage, the place where supplies are plentiful, we ordered sushi the night we arrived to our condo. It was crazy to hear sirens, neighbors’ doors opening and closing, and the garbage truck.
We returned because I have an art show at Midnight Sun Brewing Co. starting this Friday, June 5th, and lasting for the whole month. I have been working hard to get a new group of paintings together for this show. The new pieces represent the four seasons of nature in Alaska’s Boreal forest, and I think they turned out pretty well. Alaska is still experiencing over a dozen new cases of the Covies each day, but the Governor said we can start socializing again, so the show will go on, but don’t forget your mask. I’ll tap the firkin at 5pm, and last call will be at 8pm.
Upon returning to Anchorage I was pretty stoked to go into MSBC and have a beer with my friends again. MSBC didn’t get to celebrate its 25th birthday on the 5th of May the way it normally does, so this week the brewery is having a small celebration by offering some serious barrel aged beauties on draft. Yesterday I stopped in and they had Arctic Devil barleywine, Sloth imperial stout, Bar Fly smoked imperial stout, the 25th anniversary barrel aged quad, and the Grand Crew Brew all on draft. The walls at the Loft were bare when I got back Sunday, so I hung some paintings Monday. I will hang the remaining 33 paintings tonight, and I will see if those barrel aged beers are still on draft.
Tomorrow is one of my favorite nights of the summer when I get to host the First Firkin Friday for June. If the barrel aged delights are no longer on the menu, never fear, because there will be a special cask of Sloth aged on blackberries! I will be bringing my craft fair table and will be selling art cards and stickers while sipping the tasty brews around my face mask. It has been since 2013 that I have been enjoying MSBC’s hospitality in June, and I can’t think of a better way to spend the beginning of summer than sharing a small glass of Sloth with you! So don’t go hiking at 5PM tomorrow, because you won’t get back in time, the brewery still closes at 8pm. This isn’t a problem in the winter, but during summer, sometimes you have to set an alarm to make sure it doesn’t get too late for fresh beer at the tasting rooms! I look forward to seeing all your sparkling eyes, if I miss being able to see your big smiles under your masks tomorrow! Cheers to summer!
Our studio is inside the 4th Avenue Market Place, which is right on 4th Avenue, about a block from the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. So, since 2016 we’ve been transforming the studio from work mode to pop-up gallery mode, and opening it to the public when everyone is on 4th Avenue to watch the race. Each year I paint a new dog-mushing oil painting, and it usually sells on the day of the race. A lot of people who come through the studio that day are tourists who came to Alaska just to see the Iditarod. This year I painted this piece of Martin Buser, and then featured it in an e-news to my subscribers, and it sold before the open studio event!
So Maria took a photo of the painting, and printed prints of it to sell during the Iditarod start at our studio. But she also displayed the original, with a “Sold” sticker on it, and she had the brilliant idea to write on the sticker that I accept commissions, and could paint a custom Iditarod painting similar to this one with “your favorite musher.” Well, several people took her up on that offer, and suddenly, I found myself painting dog teams for the next three weeks! We were supposed to go to Washington, Hawaii, and Australia, but those trips were cancelled due to COVID-19 hysteria, so I ended up having plenty of time to work on these paintings. I just finished them last week. Who’s your favorite musher?
We’ve had our studio inside the 4th Avenue Market Place for almost five years now, and each year during the Fur Rondy winter festival, and the Iditarod race start we’ve been turning the studio into a pop-up gallery, and opening our doors to the public. The studio has large windows facing north, with a great view of the carnival. Yesterday the carnival rides showed up in the parking lot across the street, which means the festivities are right around the corner!
The timing of the winter festival is perfect. By late February, most Alaskans are fed up with winter, and start experiencing cabin fever. The best cure is to head downtown to watch sled dog races, outhouse races, check out snow sculptures, ride a couple carnival rides, and maybe even participate in the blanket toss. There are so many activities starting Feb. 28. Here’s a link to the entire schedule.
The Real Art Is Better studio will be open both weekends. Stop by to warm up, enjoy freshly-baked cookies, and check out the view. We’re inside the 4th Avenue Market Place in Suite 4, which is in the NW corner if you walk in from 4th Avenue. 333 W 4th Avenue.
Open Studio Hours:
Saturday, February 29, 11am – 5pm
Sunday, March 1, 11am – 3pm
Saturday, March 7, 10am – 6pm