On October 10th I decided to head about an hour from home into the horrible parts of downtown Houston. Rife with crime, homelessness, hipsters and art. Just kidding, we just think that’s how downtown is. Well, actually, all of those things do exist there but it was worth risking my life. I did a bit of research before I went down, as I recommend you do. Who is there? What type of art (you have to like it)? Artist history? Is it open to the public?
I have been looking to invest in some art for a while now. When I say invest, please don’t take that the wrong way. I wanted to buy a piece that I loved and 5% of me wanted to purchase it for investment reasons. Art can be an expensive purchase (though some can be had for $100, it can easily run into the thousands) and most people don’t generally purchase expensive things without thinking about what they can get back at a later time.
Let me set a rule here for all of you new or uneducated art lovers if you ever decide to buy a piece; buy it because you love it, not because someone tells you it’s an “investment” or some other reason. If it speaks to you and you have the means (and want) then go for it. We’ll discuss that today too because even this baboon of a man can finesse his way into a conversation on occasion.
The first thing I noticed earlier in the week when doing some research is that there is no shortage of fantastic artist here in the Houston area (even outside the city in The Woodlands, Tomball etc.). I decided to head to the Anya Tish Gallery (4411 Montrose Blvd.) and catch the “Scribble Morphings” *exhibit.
Wow, that’s all I can say. I have been to museums and art shows in the past but it has been a while. This gallery, though small, was beautiful in itself. An outside open walk way that lead to three different rooms, each housing a different artist. I checked out the main room with the “Scribbles” and just didn’t connect with anything in the room. Now for you playing at home: feel free to walk around, stand, stare, judge, think, take it in. There will be drunk people just rubbing elbows and networking and a small amount of people there for the art itself. Feel free to be either of those people. When I first started to just look at art, years ago, I had nothing to go on. What should I feel? What am I looking for? Do I look like I’m just stalking that pretty girl over there? What the hell is that a picture of? Let me tell you that it’s okay to not “get it.” Just stand still for a minute or 10 and just look at it. Look at the brush strokes. Get close (no touching without permission), stand far away to get perspective, look at the colors, try to see what the artist was going for, think about how you feel when looking at it. There is no wrong way to appreciate it. If it makes you cry, then cry (try not to sob because the guards will think you are a crazy homeless person). Makes you smile, then smile. If you feel nothing at all then move to the next one. I spent about 15 total minutes (in three passes) just staring at the piece I would eventually buy.
So after going through the main room I came across an artist by the name of Earl Staley who has had an amazing career full of ups and downs. He is in his 70’s and his art is getting better all the time. He really got started in the 60’s and also teaches here in the Houston (Tomball College) area. You should google him and read about some of the things he’s done. He has a rarely updated blog at earlstaley.com. I connected with his art right away. He uses bright colors which I personally love, the art flows and dances on the canvas. It just makes you feel good when looking at it, but the more you stare you start to see things. I thought it was just me, but after a conversation with him it is done on purpose. So there I stand in jeans, a t-shirt, with my motorcycle gloves in my back pocket and my jacket in my arm in a room full of rich men in suits just staring at art that cost as much as a car. I was approached by his manager (all the top dogs have these apparently) Zoya, a lovely but unfortunately married woman (she could have been her own exhibit), and she spoke with me about his work, asked me what I thought and just let me stare while she looked on with me. She clearly appreciates his work and isn’t just there for a paycheck. After we spoke she pointed to an elderly man on a chair and said “that is the artist, you can meet him if you want.” I made some weird noise and just kept walking around the room. I asked permission and took this picture of a piece I really liked.
After a few minutes the artist and I locked eyes and I thought “shit he is going to ask me about the art and start saying things that I have no clue about then I will have to sit there and nod in agreement.” So as I stand there fat and sweaty Earl asks me how I like it. I try to sound semi-intelligent and talk about the colors I loved (which I did) and the thick globs of paint on the ‘planets’ (oh please be planets). Though these were true I was talking to a genius painter who has been doing this for almost twice as long as I have been alive! I asked him “so why did you paint this piece,” and he just looked at me. I figured, oh no he is going to have some deep moral story about conceptualized depth with the struggle of modern oppression, or whatever the hell artist say about this stuff. But as soon as he spoke I knew he was looking at me because in his mind it was the dumbest question he has ever been asked. His response was an eloquent and hilarious “because I wanted to.” Sold! Not really but that cemented him in my mind as genuine and just an expert. I would spend a few minutes speaking with him about life in general and hear about his travels and divorces. I may have made a few quips about getting drunk while painting and possibly tripping, which he seemed open to or was just humoring me. The night was ending and he invited me to his studio “sometime” to hang out. Well he obviously doesn’t know me if he wasn’t sincere because if you invite me, I’m coming. I love adventure and this was a good one. Zoya set it up after I sent annoying emails late into the night, which I should probably have apologized for.
So today I wake up at 8a.m. (why the hell would an artist be up so early?) and headed back to downtown. I have no idea what to expect or what we are even going to talk about. I know (and they did) that I was interested in buying a piece, but I’m a working class schlub so I didn’t want to waste this mans time. He’s had gallery openings all over the U.S. for Christ sake! When I read up on Mr. Staley I got the impression he was a bit of a cocky artist that would just wave me off. I can tell you that in person nothing is further from the truth. He was welcoming, warm, and entertaining. I get there and his studio is above a gigantic art supply store. The hallway to his studio is an exhibit in itself. He took me around his studio and into the closet full of things all the way back to the 60’s to today. Some was “crap” (his words not mine) and some was painted to “prove a point” (again, his words). I enjoyed my time here. Zoya and Earl pulled out a few pieces that I had liked. But in my head I kept thinking about my “planet” piece. He had pulled out this (see pic below) stunning, absolutely stunning, painting that I wanted but knew I didn’t have the budget for. He took an old painting he wasn’t satisfied with and re-purposed it by painting over it, and it works. The man in the background is the original, the dots over the top take it to another level. It’s genius and it’s beautiful. I will think about picking this up in the future if it is available.
So after we talk about the money (dolla dolla bills y’all) and I am assured that I am just a baby art purchaser with a small bank roll (they didn’t say this, in case you are wondering but I know how us poor people are perceived in the art world) I just stared at my options (minus the one still in the exhibit). And I made my choice. I want planets. So I got me some damn planets. I won’t divulge the price but suffice to say it was worth every penny, and there was a shit load of pennies. Here is my purchase still on display at Anya Tish (they deliver them to you after the shows) if you want to see it. The buying process was fast, comfortable, and I got the sense they actually appreciated my small purchase. In reality they could have laughed the second I was in the stairwell, but I am sure they were just as happy to sell it as I was to purchase it, because I cared about the work and the man behind it.
When you look at it, you may see some colors and some circles, but when I see it I get excited, happy, and deep. And I never get deep. That’s the great thing about art, it speaks to everyone in a different way and that’s okay. Don’t let the snobs tell you how to feel when you look at something. So my day is over, I payed for the painting and was to be ushered out and forgotten forever because they had my cash. Well hold on to your bonnet my friend. Earl, being the most fun artist on the planet drops about 10 small pieces in front of me. They are all upside down and I’m told “you bought some art you get to pick one, but you can’t look.” Holy crap, I get free art with my art? Can I get this deal every time?
So I pick my piece, and it makes me feel cool (and superior, can I admit that?) that I have a piece of art that has been seen by so few and gets to hang in my house. It’s my reward for taking the plunge into the dark lake of art and it’s a thousand times better than any ice cream I ever got for being good as a reward (thank mom, because look at me now).
Buying art can be as easy or as difficult as you and the artist make it. I am more than happy with the adventure I had here and even if I had spent $20,000 on the painting I bought, the story behind it makes it worth every dollar. Thank you Early Staley (and Zoya) for making art fun and making this new collector a fan for life.
*An art “exhibit” is generally a show of a new, old, or a group of artist at a gallery. Or if you really want to impress it is “where the art meets the audience.” But be careful because saying that can make you sound like an asshole.
**BTW they did have free beer.