Monday, July 23, 2012

In Praise of Artists: Why I Buy Art

"Amsterdam Spring," Denise Ann Saldutti Egielski

After losing my job two years ago, I purged, getting rid of ¾ of my belongings. My remaining possessions: boxes, a few lamps, and a little bit of furniture, are still scattered in a variety of locations in Pittsburgh and New Jersey. Over these past 24 months and throughout my moves to 4 different locations, the only objects I have deeply missed (and continue to miss) are my books and my paintings.

I own a lot of artwork—mostly paintings, some photographs, and some pottery made by living artists. (As opposed to reproductions/plastic replicas/posters by dead artists.) Almost all but two of the artists worked at some point in their lives in my beloved adopted city of Pittsburgh.  As a woman who never made a lot of money—mostly, I have lived paycheck-to-paycheck with little to no disposable income—over the years, I’ve found myself defending my need to buy art. 

Wine Bottle, Terrance Hayes
I surround myself with art. My life feels more abundant, happier, and substantial when I am surrounded by art. I have never viewed artwork as a “frivolous extra,” but as essential for my equilibrium and my quality of life. Yet, I’ve often been astounded by how few people actually buy art and by how many administrators actually want to immediately cut art programs, when our economy begins to tank. (Personally, I’d rather cut the salaries of the bankers and financiers who tanked the economy in half, and take away their gluttonous bonuses, but that’s just me…) Art making and artists of all kinds are essential to the world and have been since the beginning of humankind.  

Years ago, John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" played a role in how I started to view reproductions of art. Although I've certainly bought and hung many posters and reproductions of Van Gogh's, Picasso's, Chagall's and Miro's work over the years, I just don't want to surround myself with them anymore.

Now, I want the texture and brushstrokes of someone’s painting. I want the scent of paint, the signature of the living artist, the flaws (if there are any), the palpable sense of the human hand at work in the art.  I like the knowledge that the person who dreamt up and executed this new creation is still at work painting or printmaking or etching something new. And I learn so much from so many of my friends who are visual artists, who are generous, vibrant, quirky, sometimes neurotic, creative souls, who deserve to make a living at what they do. God help us if our whole lives became about the merely “useful” and practical! 

"Tranquility," Martha Brouwer
And so, I am happy to pay for artists’ inspiration, creativity, time, and labor in making this object that makes me so happy as I drink my morning tea or come in from walking the dog or sit and comment on a pile of student compositions, while snow falls outside. These works of art evoke intimacy and mystery and inspire me to keep writing my own poems. They remind me that there are so many extraordinary ways to see the world we live in!

Simply stated: art makes my soul sing.  My home is buoyant with the creations of people, whose work I admire so much. I select pieces that resonate with me. I can tell, at this point, when I find a work that I can happily live with for years to come. I’m not a trendy gal, never have been, so I don't buy "trendy" art. Then, I find a way to purchase it. Working at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts certainly helped me begin to buy art—getting to know so many artists there, like the printmaker Francis Crisafio, from whom I bought my first etching.  I realized that most artists were more than happy to let me pay a work off in installments. One of my favorite paintings, which I acquired when I worked at the Center, was a work that my friend, the artist, Sigrid Shafagh, was going to toss in the trash. She had painted it the night before as a “demonstration” piece for her students. Luckily, I was walking out to the parking lot with her that day, when she dangled it over the trash can. I asked her if I could have it. Sure, she grinned, why not? It now graces my kitchen wall wherever I live and adds so much warmth, with its vibrant colors, to any winter day. 
"Ovation," Linda Breem

When people walked into my last “real” apartment in Pittsburgh, on Mount Royal Road, they would say they loved how alive the place “felt.”  Karl Mullen’s huge, whimsical PigDogDonkey painting on my living room wall  contributed to that energy (I smile every time I look at that work!), along with Seattle-based artist Martha Brouwer’s stunningly colored and textured painting “Tranquility,” which speaks to hers (and my) belief in the interconnectedness of all living things. John Sokol’s  amazing portrait of e.e.cummings created by using all the words from his Collected Works of poetry (my mother, on a visit with me, once, thought it was a portrait of Yul Brynner from The King and I!) added a note of wonder. Terrance Hayes' gift to me in graduate school, a painting of a wine bottle with graffiti scribbled in the background was part of that vibrancy. And Bill DeBernardi’s “The Ascension,” an earlier painting of  his, of a street at night—with a lone streetlight and one cloud lit and mysterious, moonbeam edging it—as the only points of light. Scott Smith’s photograph—of his old friend, the singer, Tom Waits, all of 19, half smoking, half laughing, his head a mop of curls—has become a favorite touchstone of mine. It’s not just that it’s a picture of Tom Waits; it’s also that Scott has an incredible eye for composition and an incredible talent for invoking place, time and mood in a photograph. My latest purchase: a print called “Amsterdam Spring,” which fairly bursts with new life—tulips, daffodils, pink blooms on the large black-limbed tree above—by Denise Saldutti, a dear friend and incredible artist from New Jersey,  is already a favorite. 
Portrait of E. E. Cummings, John Sokol

I’m also graced by the art work of some of my family members:  a painting of two terriers tunneling under a picket fence, given to me by my Grandma Fagan, when I was about 7; my mother’s delicate pen and ink drawing of a grove of trees, from one of her first art classes (as an adult); my son, Brian’s powerful photographs (he is a professional photographer) of a gospel singer down in Tennessee and of the old mental institution that was being torn down to make way for a Walmart on the highway out toward Sewickley; and his wife, Zoe’s lovely painting of my dog Rosie (the first Christmas gift she gave to me.) These are treasures that speak volumes to me, when I’m missing my family back on the East coast.

So, why don’t more people purchase art? You'll have to explain that to me. I honestly don't understand it, but I'm told all the time by Pittsburgh artists and Pittsburgh gallery owners that art doesn't sell in this city. 

William DeBernardi, Southern Allegheny Museum, 2012
I recently spent a wonderful day with the painter Bill DeBernardi, out in Ligonier, taking in his two art shows out there, one in the Southern Allegheny Museum (he has filled the whole museum with his wonderful work) and one at the G-Squared Gallery on the main street of Ligonier. His works are remarkable studies of light and shadow and discovering the threads (sometimes geometric/angles/lines) that connect a work together.  I have learned so much from him over the years. But, he said to me that day (I'm paraphrasing), "I'm aware that, in the grand scheme of things, art is more like a form of "entertainment." If I needed to be with people, who could help rebuild the world, for instance, I'd want to be with carpenters, masons--people who can build useful things." I love Bill, but I disagree with his statement (though I understand it.) Artists are necessary to this brave new world he imagines-- only their contribution cannot be measured out in rulers and graphs.

Karl Mullen, American Folk Art Museum, NY
Ultimately, it comes down to this: we invest in what we value.  I would rather own a new painting than a new cell phone or a new food processor or a new dress.  I don't need more "stuff" in my life, but more substance. I know how wonderful it is to live surrounded by such colors, such ideas and such life force.  

I love knowing the artists, who are talented and hardworking enough to keep producing such work.  I envy them their skills and tenacity and dedication and oftentimes sigh, thinking that words pale in comparison to being able to visually evoke the illusions of space, light, color, life.  In a world with all its ugly divisive rhetoric, shootings, and endless wars, we would do well to nourish our spirits, paying less attention to the screeds of the destructive energies, and paying MORE attention to our artists, surrounding ourselves with the energy of their joy and creativity. Start a personal insurrection: buy more art.


  1. This piece moved me to tears, Sharon, my dear artist friend. I love you.

  2. I went to a contemporary art fair in Shanghai recently, which was a real eye-opener. Chinese contemporary art
    has come leaps and bounds from the watery Zen landscapes to huge canvases of strange-looking beings. The
    prices being asked and paid were huge too.
    Oriental, if not Chinese, my print of Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting,,
    bought some time ago from, is as lovely as ever.