By Ellie Reinhold
The night of my recent opening (DWELL) was preceded by an afternoon of severe thunderstorms, tornado warnings, and funnel cloud sightings. Only moments before the party began did the weather calm and a rainbow burst through. Perhaps it was a good omen, though it was already too late for all the cancelled Last Friday Art Walk outdoor activities to be reinstated. Poor weather + canceled events is not a good formula for turnout; low turnout is not part of the formula for a successful opening.
And a successful opening seems crucial to a successful art show. But it’s hard to to define “success”. I used to feel the success of a show depended on press; if there was press, a review, the work had been publicly acknowledged and somehow validated, making the effort worthwhile. Without press, and with attendance at openings (another gauge) often spotty and dependent on all kinds of outside factors, the event might end up feeling hollow and for naught; might leave me thinking of that old philosophical inquiry, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? At other times I’ve felt success was defined by sales, but sales are also fickle and may ebb and flow with no apparent logic.
These days I gauge the success of an opening not by number of visitors or sales, or by press coverage—though I admittedly still like all three, name an artist who doesn’t—but rather by the stories I hear and the questions I am asked. Openings have become a crucial moment for me. This is the one time I get to be in the room with both my work and my audience. It’s my chance to find the people who want to know more, who don’t understand and have questions, who connect with the work and want to share their connection, or who dislike the work. I’ve come to understand that these interactions are in many ways my best opportunity to come to know and articulate my own motivations, inspirations and goals.
I should say that I have not always felt this way. I used to want to do the work and slip it out to the public anonymously; then be a fly on the wall to hear the response; I wanted to be an exhibiting artist without ever having to talk about the work or face my public. Honestly, the prospect of probing or even basic questions about my art used to completely freak me out. An ever recovering shy person—to the point of muteness in my younger years—I am surprised now to find I have learned a great deal from talking with my viewers. They have given me a chance to know my own work in ways I had never imagined. Among other things, I have learned to articulate what I do largely as a result of the earnest questioning and responses of my viewers.
My ability to articulate—even to myself—what it is I want to do, I also credit the thoughtful and heartfelt responses of my viewers, whether they like my work or not. I have become less reticent; more able to speak about what I do, and more willing to do it, without fear or apology, no matter whether my path leads to an “approved” artistic endeavor or elsewhere.
At the DWELL opening on the 25th, I sold no paintings, got no major press, and attendance, though reasonable, was less than hoped due to weather. But I felt it a success because of the stories I heard, the responses shared, and the questions asked. Several viewers brought interesting stories to the work, describing to me how this painting or that spoke to them or made them feel. One gentleman told me about his friend, who had recommended coming to the gallery, saying that sometimes an artwork might leap out. He said a painting of mine did just that and went on to describe to me a period in his youth, working a traveling construction job, when he suffered from a bit of an existential crisis: who am I, where do I belong, where is home? He found my painting Major Reconstruction perfectly evoked the feelings and events of that period of his life. And he thanked me for it. And I thanked him back, for his story.
For me now, the gift of the opening night is these stories; the brief manifestation of connection they offer, the knowledge that somehow—whether by fluke or, hopefully, design—the work moved someone and connected us.
Clearly, viewers always bring themselves to the work. This is how it must be. And I while I want to speak to my viewer I know that I can only put myself in my work. This seems a contraindication for connection. To solve this puzzle, I have returned again and again to a quote by Alice Walker, paraphrased: if you delve deeply enough into yourself you are bound to rise up in other people. Hence my goal in my figurative work, as I have come to understand it from talking with and listening to my viewers, is to find that balance point where each image can hold my story very concisely and truly, yet remain open enough to hold the stories of my viewers as well.
As for the work in this show, my only child is on the verge of flying the coop so, naturally, part of the story I am telling in DWELL is the story of this shifting time for our family: I am pondering the fluid, ever-changing construct we call home. Always prone towards contemplation of the mysteries, losses, connections, illusions, and journeys we struggle with in life, I gravitated to the title DWELL partly for its duel meaning; living in and reflecting on. It suits the quandaries of this period of my life as well as the reflective and intuitive way I paint, often starting with a feeling and maybe a word or two, then seeking an image that will hold that feeling and, finally, a word or phrase that will hold the resulting painting. I record words, thoughts and phrases that drift by while I paint. As the painting develops, both image and words are refined and I eventually arrive at the final painting and its title. Always a lover of language, I have felt that my title and image together are the sum of the piece, that the image alone is not complete, and that the sum of the two is greater than the parts alone.
And so what I come to is this: even though a particular opening reception may not be traditionally successful (via press, sales, high attendance and so forth), these days I find openings are usually successful regardless. This recent rainbow-greeted Last Friday felt like a success because of the opportunity to connect with my viewers and hear how my work connected with them, allowing me to see once again it is not only my title and image that create the sum of the piece, but the stories my viewers share are part of the equation as well, making that sum exponentially larger.
DWELL runs through May 25th and includes work by Ellie Reinhold, Ali Givens and Nell Chandler.
See Ellie’s Artist Statement for the exhibit at her website.