My Disastrous First Art Show

by Carolyn Edlund

Many artists had humble beginnings when they just started out. I can now look back humorously at my own first attempt to sell my work at a show.

 

Art & Craft Fair

 

Back in the early 1980’s, I applied and was accepted to my very first retail fair, the Long’s Park Art & Craft Festival in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It is currently a highly respected show and at that time was considered a great venue for artists, so I was very pleased to have had my slides accepted by the jury.

The show takes place in early September. I was expecting my first child at the time, so I would wake up, throw up, and go to the show. The thrill of being an exhibitor at my first show overshadowed my nausea however, and I brought my husband with me to experience all the wonderful sales I would be making of my work.

As a recent graduate, I was trying to reconcile my interest in both ceramics and fiber. Therefore, I created mixed media work which combined both. Problem was, ceramic vessels with wrapped fibers on them can’t be washed very easily, and wall pieces in fiber with ceramic elements didn’t work very well either. Undaunted, I made enough work for the show and pressed on.

Since I’d never before had an exhibit booth (and I’m not sure that EZ Up tents had yet been invented), we put together an impossibly awkward and heavy booth of hard panels that bolted together. They were covered with a felt-like fabric that was a nice neutral gray – but became extremely waterlogged and heavy when rained on (as we discovered on day two of the show).

We ran shelves along the booth panels and placed inventory there on display. It looked great until the walls were bumped, and ceramic pieces started falling. The worst part was that they tended to land on the asphalt below, which was quite unfortunate.

My husband had strung one cord from an outside panel to a stake in the ground to stabilize the whole booth. As shoppers walked out of the booth next door, though, they tended to trip over the cord, narrowly avoiding breaking their necks and causing more crashes and lost inventory in my booth.

Oh, and that booth next door – occupied by an older artist named Al with a sunny disposition who loved cigars and did a lot of demonstrations. He painted barns, barns and more barns. Out in fields and in the snow. Al was really fast at his work, churning out one piece after another during the show. He kept up a steady stream of conversation and encouragement as the days progressed.

My sales were slow. They dragged. Shoppers looked, and didn’t understand what to do with what I made. It was hard to explain, because I wasn’t so sure myself. Despite the stress and the worry, eventually some work did sell. I ended up at the end of the weekend with about $500 total.

I tried to rationalize that for my very first show, I hadn’t done all that badly. After all, I had earned $500 from my sales.

Until I found out that my husband had spent every dime of that $500 on a painting from our neighbor Al. Of a barn. In the snow.

Al shook his hand and packed his own booth up to leave. We struggled to get our heavy, soggy booth in the car and drove home in silence.

Afterwards, to my great dismay, I found that my husband had hung Al’s painting of the barn over our bed. There it remained, a bittersweet reminder of my very first – and disastrous – art show.

 

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Comments

  1. Normally I’m more of a list person vs a whole story, but your’s really grabbed me. I felt the dread coming through this post. I’ve had some bad shows so I relate.

  2. I’m so sorry Carolyn! That sounded dreadful! I think I woulda strangled my husband! Especially being pregnant at the time? I think it would have been justified! haha. Just kidding. That’s what shows a true artist — you had a tough time, but you learned from it and kept going! Thanks for the story! It was a good one!

    • Sue, believe me when I saw the painting he bought, I considered it. Luckily cooler heads prevailed. I did get that painting off the wall about a year later. Somehow, it “disappeared.”

  3. So, what did you learn from this experience? What did you do differently next time? How did your future shows go because of what you learned from this one? I’d love to hear the rest of the story. Otherwise, this is just really discouraging.

    • You might be a first-time visitor here, Crowgirl and not know me – but here is the rest of the story. I ran a successful production studio for over 20 years, selling wholesale into hundreds of stores and doing a total of about 300 retail shows and fairs. You can read more about me on the About page on this site.

      Many artists start with humble beginnings, horror stories and disasters, and I was one of them. That doesn’t mean it should be discouraging – on the contrary, today I can laugh and look back at the naivete and cluelessness that I truly exhibited as a beginner!

  4. I wish you could direct a mini movie on this one. I am serious. Wow!

  5. I spent about 5 years as a potter in the late 70s, early 80s. Had some real disasters, as a matter of fact, maybe did one or two that weren’t disasters. On our recent 33rd wedding anniversary, my wife reminded me that we spent the night of our first anniversary sleeping on the floor of a rented van, in the parking lot of the YMCA in Frederick, Maryland, because I was participating in the annual crafts fair there. Oh, by the way, it was one of the many times I didn’t recoup my booth fee.

    • That’s so funny, Wendell. I’ve been receiving emails from other artists too who shared their embarrassing and often hilarious stories of shows gone wrong. Makes me wish I could put together a whole collection of them!

  6. OMG. This was rather heart warming and funny. Glad I didn’t skip over it. Can’t believe your husband spent the profits from your show! If my husband (and I am not married) did that, he would be sleeping outside in one of those barns that Al painted…in the snow LOL. But Thank you for sharing your experience.

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