"WHAT IS IT?" they usually ask.
"An art work," I usually reply.
Most passers-by, I have found, are intrigued by what I do. It used to just be called abstract art, but that's becoming passe'. Now it's "nonrepresentational art" or "contemporary expressionism."
At any rate, I was installing a large outdoor sculpture last year in a park area near the National Archives just off Pennsylvania Avenue. The thing was about 25 feet high, made of metal pipes, and resembled a jungle gym gone berserk. Others have looked like teepees or collapsed fences.
I've done this sort of thing before and have talked to quite a few folks in the process. A brief response to the what-is-it question seems to be enough for most people. They usually look strangely at it and me for varying lengths of time and go on their way.
But sometimes people will ask a few more questions. The next one is generally, "Why are you doing this?" I usually answer in two parts. Part one: "I enjoy making things, working with my hands. Maybe I should have been a carpenter or butcher or something. I played with blocks a lot when I was a kid." Part two begins: "This is one of several outdoor works being set up as a part of (some festival), an exhibition sponsored by . . ." etc. etc. The et ceteras are usually the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities or the Washington Project for the Arts, and often include some of the private galleries around town.
The third most popular question asked is: "How much does it cost?" The answer: "I'd rather not say." And I don't. Could it be, I quickly think to myself, that this person is a junk dealer waiting for some dark night when the street lights are not working to drop by and haul it all off to be sold for scrap? Or is this person a reporter from Art in America, working on a story for the next issue? My skepticism and paranoia subside slowly. Junk dealers and hustlers, I have found, look intently at the work, examining it carefully while talking and tap on it with their fingers or ask how much it weighs. Reporters look you in the eye, at least part of the time. Curious onlookers just glance around casually and avoid eye contact.
There are the good times, usually after making a sale, when I feel I should say they are priceless. But there are also times when I would just as soon trade my whole studio for a good lawn mower. And I expect that most artists who put so much of their lives and emotions into their work know what it's like. Determining the value of an art work is a complicated process that is widely misunderstood, even by some artists. The last outdoor work I did was worth what its materials could be sold for (used, a few hundred dollars). All these things, of course, I don't say.
What I do say is that the work is temporary, that it will exist for only a few weeks and after that be taken apart and stored in my studio. By this point, most inquirers get bored and I begin to get fidgety, so I try to ease myself away and get back to assembling. If they seem genuinely interested, I add an explanation about the $500 to $200,000 it would take for a sculpture like this to be permanently installed depending on the materials used and who does the work.
The next two questions usually come together in some way: "What will it look like?" and "How long will it take to finish it?" Let me answer the second question first. Most works like this recent one take a day or two to assemble, but they take something over a week or two of time spread out over several months to get the materials together, plan its construction, communicate with the sponsors and otherwise generally arrange for its existence.
I put the first of these two questions off because it bothers me that people always have to know what it will look like. It doesn't matter if I have just finished the whole project and am lounging on the grass with a paper cup in hand or driving away, taking pictures as I go. People will invariably ask, "What's it going to look like?"
People always seem to expect something more--perhaps something they can identify with. Maybe the problem with abstract art these days is not all that different from the problem a lot of people have with art in general--appreciating the unfamiliar. Maybe the problem is just the old "but-I-don't-understand-modern-art syndrome."
Occasionally someone who apparently has had some contact with the art world or who is trying to keep an open mind will ask, "What does it represent?"
"It represents just what it is," I usually say. I used to say that it didn't represent anything but that sounds a little huffy, and, anyway, for my purposes, it is another way of saying the same thing. A big mistake a lot of people make is trying to "understand" art. A lot of art is not intended to be "understood," just appreciated for what it is.
A few people will ask more than five questions, usually inquiring about more personal matters.
"What did you say your name was?" they'll say.
"It's Shaffer. I've been doing art work around Washington since the early '70s. I'm a sculptor and painter. Most of my work involves grids of some kind--intersections . . ." (I get interrupted with looks of puzzlement.) "You know, criss-crossing things like grilles on cars. You see them a lot on Chevys and Cadillacs. I use lines when I do paintings, and boards or pipes when I do sculpture."
"Do you live around here?"
"I live in Maryland, out toward Frederick. My studio is in Rockville."
"Do you do this full time?"
"I wish I could. I mean, I wish I could make enough money at my art to live. No, I work for the government in my spare time."
About the last question I get is, "Do you sell your work?" It is a sensitive subject, one I usually try to avoid talking about. My reply is: "I sell a few things now and then. I've been known to give things away to certain people."
Sometimes I offer excuses about how much time and effort it takes to sell work and that it's hard to find the time to make it and sell it, too. Another thing I say is that I don't really need to sell my work to live, so I can do what I want and what I think is important, not necessarily what people want to buy.
I remember talking to one guy about the several thousand dollars I spent last year keeping my studio going.
And there was the time not too long ago when I spent two days setting up a large, temporary outdoor piece, only to have it collapsed by the combination of unwitting children and the rain-soaked ground beneath it. There must be some kind of unknown force in nature that keeps artists (like the ants) going despite untold odds.
Very few people have ever asked me a 10th question, but I remember the few times they have. I remember because it has done a lot to build up the confidence I have in my ability to keep going around in circles. It was the same as the second question.
"Why are you doing this?"
Only this time, I realize they are not just being curious about who has allowed me to do it or why I would want to; they are questioning my sanity.