Wednesday, September 16, 2020

On creating art and not knowing where it ends

When I was in Miami doing the Miami International Art Fair a few years ago, I received a phone call from a very well-known poet. 

Once he identified himself, he explained that he was calling because he was interested in using one of my drawings, which is in his collection, in his next book. The drawing, he explained, which he hangs in his kitchen in New York, has managed to be come a stern and vigilant observer of his daily activities, and he has written a poem about it. 

I was honored by both the request (to which I gave my permission) and also curious as to where he had acquired the piece, which once described I recognized as a piece that I did maybe a decade ago. 

He told me that he had acquired the piece at an auction in New York, where he resides. We connected rather well and spoke for nearly 30 minutes, and I promised to send him more images of my available work. 

But the point that stayed behind with me, and something that I’ve been mulling for years now, is the curious travels and life of a piece of artwork once it leaves the artist’s studio and is acquired by someone. 

I first started dispersing my artwork back when I was a teenager in Brooklyn. Around when I was 13 or 14, I lived in a six apartment brownstone in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. 

The building was owned by my uncle, and part of my duties was to sweep and mop all three floors every weekend. As such I had access to the basement, which was used mostly for storage and had a rather sizable assortment of old paint cans of all sizes and colors. 

Those paints, along with regular commercial paint brushes and cardboard were my first canvasses, and I used to paint imaginary landscapes on them, which then I would take to Manhattan and sell them in parks around 14th Street, across the street from Macy’s. 

Then when I was in art school at the University of Washington, I was one of the many artists who sold artwork at Seattle’s wonderful Pike Place Market. It was there that I sold nearly every one of my art school assignments as well as hundreds of watercolors and drawings created specifically to be sold.

 After art school I moved to Europe, returned to the US for postgraduate school, moved back to Europe, returned again for good, and all through that time began to sell work at gallery shows and art fairs, and by my own estimates I believe that by now I have sold, given away, traded and dispersed well over 5,000 paintings, drawings, prints, reproductions and sculptures in the last 50 years. 

Out of that rather huge number, I have no idea where 98% of them are, although all through those same years I have never, ever, stopped producing art. Even when I was in Beirut, in the middle of a war back in the early 80s, I never stopped drawing and creating art. 

Every once in a while, like the phone call from the New York poet, a work’s location returns to me, and with the emergence of the Internet, more and more have been making their way back to me as often their new or original owners want to gather information on the creator. 

I’ve had emails from Europe, Latin America and Asia, with images attached, as someone who has come across and acquired a Campello wants to know more about it, or confirm its provenance. Works have been donated to universities and other to institutions. Collectors have bought them at auction (oddly enough mostly in Europe), and people have even acquired them at antique shops and other stores - including Thrift shops. 

It’s a fascinating trek that the art takes and that occurs without the knowledge of the artist. I often regret that I never kept better records of where and who owns the work (I still don’t), but then again, I also like the fact that these pieces are dispersed all over the planet and will probably be still around for centuries after I am gone. 

Some don’t even have owners. 

Between 1975 and 1992 I created about 100 small figurative clay sculptures that I then buried underground throughout Europe (mostly in Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom). I wanted them to be “discovered” accidentally by future diggers. Some may never see the surface again. 

I’ve also done a “hotel art intervention” project where I would disassemble whatever hotel art was in my room and either create a new piece of art done on the back of the print or whatever was in the frame, or in the rare cases where a bad painting (usually one of those one of a million Chinese oil paintings), I would “add” to the painting, and reframe the work and re-hang it in the room. 

I did this dozens and dozens of times over the years and just did one during one of my last hotel stays. And in three instances, between 1977-1981, wearing a pair of white workman’s overalls, I installed three separate framed large watercolors in three different lobbies of three different skyscrapers in downtown Seattle.

I haven’t got the foggiest idea where any of that work is today. But they’re out there, most of them anyway, and years from now, when I’m no longer here, they’ll still be out there. 

It’s a good feeling.