Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self. - Cyril Connolly
Monday, May 28, 2007
What is Art?
My friend in Beijing, Liz, and I were discussing the issue of the emerging fine arts market in China, prompted by this article the other day in the BBC.

With China's booming economy, and an emerging class of noveau riche, they are beginning to spend their newly found disposable income on art. Asian art. Honk Kong is now the third most important art market after London and New York.

I would love to buy something when I go to Beijing this fall, but I could never hope to learn enough between now and September to buy something intelligently. As with most of my favorite pieces, they are small in number, and high in sentimental value. I'll probably get a good limited edition gallery print that I like from a private gallery.

One of my favorite pieces is a pen and ink drawing I bought in Australia depicting a classic Queensland house in the Outback. I bought it when we stopped to refill our caravan of SUVs at the edge of the outback in the middle of nowhere, Amby, Queensland, population 90. I was on my way to spend the better part of a month helping my college roommate who was getting her PhD in wildlife biology at the Univ. of Queensland, and who had twisted my arm to come down and help her put radio tracking collars on wild red kangaroos in a state park the size of Connecticut. Idalia National Park. Established in 1990, at the time we were there, it was closed to the public. You had to be a researcher and have government permits to work in the park due to it's fragile and unique ecosystems.

Anyway, back to the art. The roadhouse was a place straight out of a Mad Max movie: Monster road trains in the parking lot, two and three trailers long; corrugated tin roof; concrete block; neon beer signs everywhere; and a decor that only Quentin Tarantino could love.

I ordered a steak sandwich topped with a fried egg and beets (very traditional Aussie lunch), and a XXXX. Of course, I got an entire, HUGE, bone in steak, between two hopelessly inadequate pieces of bread, a big ol' fried egg and beets. Since I was a Yank, and female, I was an immediate curiosity / VIP. The owner's wife, who couldn't have been more than thirty (and he had to be fifty), asked if we would like to see her "art gallery". Thinking to myself, crap, I'm going to have to buy a black velvet painting, I smiled weakly and politely said "sure". It beat getting stared at by the toothless wonders at the bar.

She took us around back into what used to be a chicken coop. On the way, there were at least five mangy junk yard dingo half breeds chained in a dusty yard, and at least that many children, ranging in age from 8 to a toddler in dusty diapers, playing in the dust on a few dilapidated old toys. I quickly realized, they all had to be hers, and that in addition to being an outback bar - this was also their home. The poverty and isolation were permeable.

She opened the door to the chicken coop, and my demeanor took a nose dive. It was lovely. She had white washed everything. It was clean and neat, with gingham curtains, and there were rows and rows of carefully rendered, beautiful pen and ink drawings depicting every day life in the Outback of Queensland. But although she depicted HER everyday life, her drawings had a way of cutting through the poverty, dust and isolation to show the stark beauty of the people and their life as it truly was, not as some snobby yank saw it. I was immediately blown away and humbled.

Here was someone who was probably 5 or six years younger than me at the time, whose life was over. All her hopes, dreams and possibilities ended before they had a chance to begin when she married a man 20 years her senior in as isolated a place as I have ever been. I'm sure she was a local girl, and her options were limited, but still, the difference between her life and mine were simply incalculable.

Despite that, she had managed to express her talent and her desires through her artwork and display them with elegance and tremendous dignity. They were absolutely wonderful. She could have sold them anywhere, in any gallery. I picked out three of my favorites and asked her how much she wanted for them. She said "$8 US". I gave her $40. She beamed while she carefully rolled them in paper and put them in mailing tubes for me to take with me.

When I got home, I thought of my Mom and Sister who are both artists, and had them framed for them. The framing cost far more than what I paid for the drawings, but the drawings more than deserved the expensive frames.

You don't have to invest large sums of money in art. You can find the most valuable pieces of art in the most unlikely places if you're willing to look for it.
posted by Broadsheet @ 12:00 PM  
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