The class in drawing is almost over, and the instructor, a young Washington artist, is moving around the room, talking. And talking and talking, for when he gets excited about art, which is often, the words pour out and his voice goes up a notch or two.
He lets one student know his grasp of anatomy leaves something to be desired, but -- remembering the first commandment of his teaching philosophy -- he finds something to praise before he moves on.
As the bell rings he is standing next to the easel of one of his most talented students. He holds her with his voice, his tone of concern. Although the girl is only 18, she is married, and the instructor is worried about her future as an artist. Gently, he warns her not to let the pressures she will surely face as a wife, and perhaps also as a mother, keep her from her art.
The instructor knows this pattern, has seen it happen all to often before, to college and graduate school classmates and friends. If there is one thing he cannot stand to see happen, it is to see another artist give up.
The instructor's name is Shankman, Gary Shankman, and although be is not yet 30, he knows a lot about not giving up. He's been doing that as long as he can remember.
There are an estimated 2,000 visual artists in the Washington area. Of that number, probably fewer than 10 -- .5 percent of the total -- make a living strictly from the sale of their art. Several dozen more make a living by a combination of art-related activities, the most common of which is teaching. But beyond that smalll coterie, there are scores, perhaps even hundreds, who aspire to that plateau, and who have reason to believe they could make it.
They all have recognized ability. Most are shown in respectable (if not elite) galleries and have strong art backgrounds, through formal education, experience, or both. They do not necessarily want to get rich, they just want to live like others of their age and background.
Gary Shankman is one of these footsoldiers. He has enough credits, enough of the stantard credentials, to justify his aspirations.
Each year, however, it gets harder. And he ses more and more of his artist friends drop out to take 9-to-5 jobs and become weekend painters. He knows they will not be back. So, by virtue of staggered and staggering work schedule (and two highly supportive parents), he continues to pursue the dream full-time. He paints and he teaches, nothing else.
Unmarried, Shankman lives and works at home. His studio is a first-floor laundry room with northern light, and his painting classes are held there. It is not pretentious, but then neither is he.
'When I was nine years old I went to a friend's house, and he was drawing with pastel crayons. 'Hey,' I said, 'that looks like fun. Let me try that.' If I'd known where it was going to lead, I might have had second thoughts about it.
"My friend said he was taking a Saturday morning class at the Corcoran School of Art, so I asked my mother if I could take it too. She said yes, and that was the beginning."
After studying privately throughout high school, Shankman went to Boston University (almost a coin-toss choice; his father had gone to its law school), which he found to be, "one of the last 19th-century art schools in the country" because of a traditionalistic approach with a heavy emphasis on drawing.
"I've always enjoyed working from life and interpreting what I see in a painterly manner. By that I don't mean making it look like a photograph. What I do looks, quite simply, like paint on a canvas. Many of today's abstract artists don't even know how to paint a hand or a face, especially those who studied in the 1960s. That was the time when 'happenings' were all the rage here in Washington, and the piece de resistance at one local show was to wrap a Volkwagen in aluminum foil."
In addition to learning to draw at BU, Shankman also learned what to expect. A New York gallery owner lectured Shankman's class about the the realities of life in the pre-eminent art scene, New York.
"Let's say you're just out of graduate school, age 24 or 25, and you show up at my gallery and I like your work. I look at it and say you're a fine artist, but you're not ready yet. So I will keep you on tap for about 10 years, and then maybe I'll put you into a group show. And maybe by the time you're 40, I'll give you your first one-man show.' We looked at one another in shock -- wait until we're 40 for our first one-man show? He made us very, very nervous.
"If it was the faculty's intention to scare us and to weed out those who weren't dedicated enoguh to become painters, it worked quite well because many of the students then went into art education or advertising. They didn't have the stick-to-it-iveness -- or the craziness. Whichever way you want to look at it."
Shankman, however, went on to graduate school, enrolling in the Master of Fine Arts program at American University -- only five minutes from his parents' house -- after having met AU's Robert d'Arista, who had been a guest professor at Boston.
"At BU their idea was you spend 12 hours a week for three weeks on one painting, but my trouble was I'd finish the painting in a day and a half and then I'd just kill it by the end of three weeks.
"In graduate school, Mr. D'Arista simply took the painting from me. 'You're finished, Gary,' he would say. 'Put it over there and do another one.' Now I do a painting in two to three days, working three to four hours a day as long as the light is consistent."
Shankman's academic studies did not end with the MFA. In early 1975, he learned that he had won an ITT Fellowship to study in Belgium at the National Hoger Institut en Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten, the same academy where Van Gogh had been a student -- "for one month, and then he was expelled for getting paint on the floor. They were still just as strict when I studied there."
Aware that when he returned he would have to face the hard reality of making a living, before he left Shankman mailed out 400 applications for teaching jobs. He knew the chances of supporting himself form the sale of his art would be infinitesimal; unfortunately, he did not yet know that his chances of getting a teaching job were not much better.
In the fall of 1976, Gary Shankman was back in the States. He had an MFA in painting, had studied in Europe for a year on fellowship, and that summer he'd been in three shows -- a group show of five ITT fellowship artists at the ITT Building in New York, a drawing show of recent area graduates at the Corcoran and a three-person show at a gallery in Alexandria in which he was the only painter and during which he sold five paintings. He had a fine background amd maybe even a fine future. His only prbolem was the present. He had no job.
Of the 400 job application letters he'd sent before going to Europe, only half brought replies. And of that half, only 25 said there were -- or had been -- positions open. The jobs had been filled while Shankman was in Belgium. And had he been available for interviews, he probably could only have gone to one or two because none of them paid expenses. So it hardly made any difference that he was all those thousands of miles away -- 250 would have been enough to eliminate him.
After the culture shock of returning to the United States had worn off, the blues set in, and although his parents continued to encourage him, and he continued to paint, it was "a very bad period." In the spring of 1977, he was so discouraged that he went back to the National Gallery and got his old part-time summertime, student-type job back in the bookstore.
He continued to send out job applications, and he got one call typified the quandary in which he found himself. "A man called and said he was the head of the art department of Lafayete College in Pennsylvania. His first words to me were, 'You're a hell of an artist!' We talked for a while, and finally he told me, bluntly but not unkindly, 'I like your work so much, but the trouble is you have no teaching experience.' That was the refrain I would hear from then on."
At about this same time Shankman made his first foray into the grown-up world of Washington art by trying to find a gallery that would show his work. He tried a brand new Dupont Circle gallery, lugging a dozen paintings up the second floor only to have the owner (whose knowledge of art did not impress Shankman) take off on a 60-minute tirade against them. Being so new to the game, Shankman didn't know if he dared to defend himself.
"For all I knew, if I got mad he would be on the phone as soon as I left, blackballing me with all the other gallery owners, and then I'd never get shown in Washington!" A year later, when the place went out of business, Shankman shed no tears.
Next gallery experience was no better, but at least it played out of town.
"A friend convinced me to try Baltimore. The first gallery we went to had a single picutre in the window, a painting of a picket fence with four pickets, each one painted a different color -- red, yellow, blue and green. I shook my head, and said, 'There's no way my work is going to go over in this gallery.'
"I set up my painting of apples and landscapes and figures, and the woman in charge looked at them for all of 10 seconds before saying, 'I'm sorry, they don't hit me.' I took it pretty well, but my friend didn't calm down until we got back to Washington."
In the spring of 1977, Shankman tried the Washington galleries again, and this time his luck was much better. In fact, and characteristically, he didn't realize how fortunate he was.
He surveyed the profusion of local galleries and decided that those on P Street, for the most part, favored only abstract art or name artists. He settled on three galleries to begin with: Franz Bader's (whose owner, the venerable Mr. Bader, had opened Washington's first -- and for a long time its only -- art gallery in 1939), Adam Davidson's in Gerogetown, and the Mikelson Gallery at 7th and G Streets NW.
He called for an appointment at Davidson's and got one, but decided to try the other two galleries cold. At Bader's they were quite nice to him, suggesting that he come back with some more work in the fall, and that if they liked it they might put him in their group show the following summer. ("My immediate reaction was: I don't want to wait that long! Now, of course, I realize that most galleries are booked two and even three years in advance. But in those days I though you could just walk in and if they liked you, boom, they gave you a show. I had forgotten they had to make a living too.")
Next he tried Mikelson's, again going in "Cold, and very nervous." Jean Gulyas, the young gallery director, looked at this slides and said, "Yes, this is the type of work we sell here, but I'd like you to bring in a couple of the actual paintings so I can see if the slides are lying."
(She was not bieng unkind. While the use of slides saves everyone concerned a great deal of time, their quality, and thus their accuracy, can vary to a surprising degree. Shankman puts it bluntly: "Slides can kill you. Once in a while they look better than the actual paintings, but most often they look worse. I've had slides of paintings that made them look icy cold when actually they were very hot. The wrong slide can destroy you.")
When Shankman brought in the paintings, Gulyas said she liked them and would put them before the committee that had the final say. Two weks later, while Shankman was still checking out other galleries, Mikelson's called to say he could be one of their artists.
"So, there didn't seem to be much point in running around from gallery to gallery. Besides, on the day of my appointment at Adam Davidson, my car broke down, so I had to call and cancel the interview."
Shankman was prepared for the normal cost of doing business through an established gallery -- the 40 percent gallery commission -- but not for the "abnormal" cost he incurred during his first year as a gallery artist.
"I had two painting in the summer show, which was almost over when one day Judge Beard [Edward A. Beard of the District's Superior Court] came in. He liked my work and offered to buy both of my paintings. That was the good news. The bad news was that he didn't want to pay the full price. One of the paintings was priced at $450, the other, a much smaller work, at $150. The judge offered Mikelson's $200.
"I was kind of upset, but as Sidney Mikelson said, 'Gary, you've got a choice: You can sell the paintings for $200 or you can take them home and let them sit in your studio.'" (Shankman did not tell Mikelson that his studio would hold no more paintings, or that the overflow was already engulfing the empty bedroom of his younger sister, who lives in Hollywood and pursues her own impossible dream.)
"But Mr. Mikelson also said that it would be an honor to have my paintings in the Superior Court Art Trust, and he reminded me of how many people donate their work to such places as the National Gallery, or try to , so they can put it on their resumes. So, after checking out the collection, I sold him the paintings."
When September rolled around again, and he still had not lined up even a part-time teaching job, Shankman became noticeably discouraged.
"If it hadn't been for my parents, who didn't charge me for room and board, I would now be working at the Post Office or the National Gallery bookstore again. That would have been it."
Then came a break which, while decidedly welcome, served to reinforce Shankman's growing sense that progress in the art world often had little to do with talent and a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time. A friend recommended him as her replacement for a class in portrait drawing for students ages 11 to 16 at the National Portrait Gallery.
"In January of 1978 I stood before my first class. Total terror. Complete terror. I'd always known in my heart that I could be a good teacher, and I had prepared thoroughly, but that didn't help much. When the class began I was really nervous, but that turned out to be good because when I get nervous I end up talking all the time. I just, talk talk, talk, talk, which is great for a teacher! When that first class was over, little 11-year-old Kathy Hawks -- God, I'll probably remember that name the rest of my life -- came up and said, 'I liked you a lot. You were really good. And the reason I liked you is that you laughed a lot and you were nervous.'"
That class was the first in a series of part-time teaching jobs, most of which Shankman still holds despite the fact they take him allover the metropolitan area and infringe on his own painting time. Within a year of that memorable first class, he was teaching:
Water-color painting to adults at the Smithsonian.
A painting class to older adults in the institute of gerontology of the school fo continuing education for older adults at the University of the District of Columbia.
Private classes, both "home and away."
Classes in painting, drawing of design at the Woodbridge campus of the Northern Virginia Community College.
However, just before he began to teach at Northern Virginia in the fall of 1978, Shankman had another distinctive learning experience. He won a half-tutition scholarship to the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculputre in Skowhegan Me., and for two months he was a student again.
"It was a great experience, because I didn't listen to the teachers, I just painted. Oh, I listened, but the trouble was that most of the teachers were abstract painters and three-quarters of the students were figurative.
"There was one representative painter on the faculty, but he painted either erotic art or Washington Crossing the Delaware in Day-Glo. Also on the faculty was another rather strange gentlemen, a totally abstract painter, who took one look at my paintings of cows and landscapes and said, 'Why the hell do you want to paint like that?' The only answer I could give him was, 'Because I enjoy it.'"
On the way back from Skowhegan, Shankman stopped off in New Jersey for a friend's wedding, but only until he received an excited phone call from his mother, telling him that Northern Virginia Community College had called to see if he might like to teach a class or two at the Woodbridge campus. He was out the door and in the car before he realized he still had the champagne glass in his hand.
The classes at Woodbrige made it a very full week, one with only three days, three good days, for his own painting. The money was not great, but he barely noticed. He loved the teaching, even loved the pace. Still, he soon noticed the vast differences between a university or college art department and one at the junior or community college level. While the former may be far more desirable becaude an artist has time for his own painting, such positions are about as easy to get as a clear title to a Mark Rothko painting. At the community college level, where someone like Gary Shankman at least has a chance at a full-time job, not only are the posts almost equally hard to get, but the jobs themselves are also far more demanding. The class load is heavier and the category of "art teacher" is elastic.
"One school wanted me to teach oil painting, watercolor painting, drawing, design, sculputure, photography and jewelry-making! Another wanted me to teach art and coach basketball. The sad thing is that I applied for both jobs and didn't get either one."
Shankman's current schedule requires that he move around a good deal. He doesn't mind that as much as he minds that the series of part-time teaching jobs does not add up to a full-time rate of pay. Nonetheless, he considers himself fortunte to be teaching at all. (Shankman makes so little money that the IRS has always refunded in full whatever amount was deducted from his wages. This year, for the first time, he may actually have to pay some taxes.)
On Mondays he paints during daylight hours and attends and helps run a drawing workshop at night. Tuesday morning he teaches a private painting class at his home from 9:30 to 11:30, and then after a fast launch heads for Woodbridge to teach a class from 1 to 4 p.m. and another from 6:30 to 9:30. He considers it a good day if he gets back home by 11 p.m.
Wednesday mornings find him teaching a painting class that meets at a Presbyterian church in Southeast Washington; in the afternoon he does class preparation work or paints if the light is good Thursday is a repeat of Tuesday, but without the morning class (a hole he has been trying to fill); and Friday is much like Wednesday but the morning class is taught at the University of the District of Columbia.
He dreams of a full-time teaching post, but the closest he has come on any list is eighth. Yet he continues to send out the applications, trying each time to be more realistic, more practical, which gets harder each time you send off a letter to another school you have never even heard of before. "Recently I sent applications to Hattiesburg, Miss., and to McMinnville, Ore. Not exactly in the mainstream of the art world, but . . ."
Whenever he sells another painting that is cause to celebrate, at least until he remembers how much of his own money and time went into the painting just sold.
"A six-yard roll of preprimed linen canvas -- which would last two months if I painted every day -- is $150. Normally, I prime my own canvas to save money. That means you take your linen and stretch it on stretchers, those wooden boards on the back of paintings, and then you put rabbitskin glue on it. That's very expensive, $4 dollars for a small can. You put the rabbitskin glue on to protect the linen from the oil, otherwise the oil would eventually burn a hole in it. Then you take lead white, Fredrix's lead white, which is about $4.50 a can but that lasts for quite a while, and put the first of two coats on.
"Now, I could avoid all this if I painted in acrylic [plastic-based paint] instead of oil, because then I could use gesso to coat the canvas. Gesso is a 20th-century product and a lot less expensive. I used it when I was a student. You just take the gesso, rub it on the linen and you can paint on it in an hour. But I do it the way I do because that's the traditional method, the way all painters did until gesso was invented.
"They say that gesso is perfectly safe, but some people will tell you that unless you use lead white your painting could fall apart of crack. I don't want somebody coming back to me in 10 years saying, 'The painting you sold me fell apart.'
"So I have to buy the best paint, too. For example, a tube of Grumbacher cadmium red, student grade, an eight-ounce tube, is about $3.25. And that, or London oil, which is cheaper than Grumbacher, is what I bought when I was a student. But now that I am a quote-unquote professional artist, it's $9.50 for a tube of cadmium red. I mean, it's enough to put you away.
"When I was a student I even went so far as to try making my own paint and my own stretchers. But, as one of my teachers said, 'You'll end up being a great craftman, but you won't have any time to paint.'
"Recently, Mikelson's sold a 14-by-17-inch painting of mine for $225. They took their percentage and sent me a check for $135. But the painting had a $30 frame on it, so that reduced the so-called profit to $105. And then if you deduct for the paint, the stretchers, and anything else that went into it -- the brushes, the lead white, the line -- it's way below $100. And that painting had been on the wall for a year.
"People just don't realize when they look at the price tag of a painting, how little of that actually goes to the artist. And those costs are just the basics. Mikelson's has been talking about giving me a show next year, a solo show, which means I have to have 25 to 30 paintings, each of which should have at least of floater frame -- at $70 per painting. Sidney Mikelson once told me my paintings would look especially beautiful if I had them framed with a linen liner, like they did a hundred years ago, and I agree. They would look fantastic, but that's another $30 for each painting. So, with 25 to 30 paintings, that's $2,500 to $3,000 just to get the paintings ready, and that wouldn't even include supplies, and my share of the cost of the reception, the wine -- Mikelson's serves only champagne at an opening -- printing and mailing of the invitations, all of that.
"So you're talking about me spending $5,000 to have a show, and the only way I could possibly make that back is for every painting to sell at $400 or $500. And then if they don't sell, I've got these gorgeous frames on paintings that may sit in my studio [or his sister's bedroom] for 25 years! Like I said before, the costs are enough to put you away."
Granted, these are boom times for Washington art, and therefore for some Washington artists. Still, with all the activity, with the Washington area now having more galleries than it used to have artists, how many artists are making enough of a living that someone like Gary Shankman should or could be encouraged about his future?
Here are opinions from people in a position to know.
Leon Brekowtiz (artists): "I suppose in Washington there must be thousands of artists, but I bet there aren't five who are doing extremely well. I Think you have more of a chance of success in art just straight throwing dice. I think there are, per capita, more successful gamblers than there are artists."
Walter Hopps (adjunct curator of 20th-century art, National Collection of Fine Arts): "No artist in his 20s or 30s can expect to make a living solely from his art. They should be able to expect that, but realistically they cannot. This is a national problem, but there is an additional problem in that there are a number of young artists here in Washington who tend to use a period of time, say 1964 to 1972, as the example of what they can expect to happen to them in their careers. But that is unrealistic. Those wer the go-go years ecoonomically, the years when careers in art were made overnight. Today the situation is quite different.
"The propects for success for a young artist today are similar to the old saying, 'Situation hopless but not impossible.' Still, as bad as it is today, and despite what I've said, I remain strangely optimistic."
Jack Rasmussen (owner of the Jack Rasmussen Gallery): "I'd say there are between five to 10 artists in Washington who are making a living from their art. If you include income from other sources, like teaching, that figure goes much higher.
"Gene Davis, Sam Gilliam and Leon Berkowitz, all of whom do teach, could make it form the sale of their art alone. I don't have anybody in that category. My most successful artist is Reginald Pollack, who sold $35,000 worth of art at his Movember show. But that works out to be about $19,000 in income, and he's had about $14,000 in expenses this year, if you count upkeep on the stuio and materials. So that very successufl artist maybe cleared $5,000 this year."
Lillian Mones (one of the owners of the Plum Gallery in Kensington, which recently gave a solo show to Patricia Friend, anotehr of Shankman's former MFA classmates at American University): "We don't have any artists who make a living just from their painting or suculpture. None of them can make it without an outside job. Yet the National Endowment for the Arts keeps giving its grants to known artists, which I think is unfortunate because it's these unknown artists who really need it, and who would benefit so much from a year in which they were totally free to paint. Worrying about making a living a is very stifling to creativity."
Frank Getlein (art critic): "Jack Perlmutter is probably the leading example of a local artist making a living, and he does it without selling through a gallery. But that's very rare.
"A guy like [Gary Shankman], as a painter of still lifes, here in Washington would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. But now it is quite legitimate for him to paint the way he does. The prospects for young painters are infinitely better today, and the fact that there are so many now is what makes it better. It's fundamental marketing -- supply creates demand."
At the moment, Gary Shankman (like several dozen other painters, sculptors and graphic artists who have had a fair degree of recognition but no "breakthrough") would welcome a greater demand for what he can supply. How long he can reamin on that cusp is to him the key question. To an outsider, it might seem simple (though) in reality it would be simplistic): Is he good enough to make it?
Jack Rasmussen, who has known Shankman since both were MFA students at American University, puts it this way: "I look at a lot of artists' work, maybe six to eight people a day, so let's say that out of 100 I see maybe 20 people I think are really good, and all are on a similar level of quality. But because of sheer numbers I can only choose one person out of that 20. So what do you go on, everything else being equal?
"You really have to look beyond the actual pieces and try to figure out where that artist is going, what their attitude is toward their work, and are they going to be able to persevere long enough to become a mature, good artist. Because you're really talking about an artist maturing in his or her 40s. Portfolio is important, but I look much more at the person.
"I think Gary is a gifted artist. I know 20 people in the same situation he is: out of school and pursuing his work. Really, nothing means anything unless he can survive another 10 years. That's the test. Perseverance is everything."
Jean Gulyas, Mikelson's gallery director, has seen too many artists to make any rash predictions. "I'd like to say that in Gary's case, 'Yes, in 10 or 15 years he will make it.' But if you ask, can he look forward in 10 to 15 years to feeding himself and a family from the sale of his art, I couldn't promise you that.
"What Gary's got to do is get some exposure, which he is doing now. And he is certainly working. And then, to his benefit, get some exposure outside the city, too. I know that's hard to do, but that's what he faces."
"What the artist is looking for," says Leon Berkowtiz, who stands at the other end of the journey Gary Shankman has just begun, "is something not easily found -- the unknown. Yet these young artists are absolutely right about taking that chance. And they are happy doing it. I don't feel sorry for the artist who has to struggle. I feel sorry for the artist who gives up the struggle, because he'll never feel fulfilled."