unplain jane studio

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On being a sophomore. Again.

I’ve recently returned home from a business trip where, for the second time in two years, I spent weeks selling my fine art photography at art festivals in Florida.

The first time feels like a lifetime ago. Way back then, in 2016, I was an ingenue (can an ingenue have laugh lines?) in the festival circuit. Lost in the forest. So, like Snow White, I decided to eat the apples one bite at a time and do my best to avoid the poisonous ones. As I chose festivals and festivals chose me, I figured I’d learn and practice the rules until I gained supreme mastery over all.

Wouldn’t I?

Today I understand that festival rules fall into two categories: rules that govern your wedge of the festival pie and rules that govern access to your wedge. They dictate the size of your wedge (usually a 10’x10’ tent); where to park (or not); requirements for weighing down the tent (Florida is prone to storms that rotate); and the dog-eat-dog process of loading in and out at the beginning and end of each show.

Amy 2017

Rules, as it turns out, vary from promoter to promoter and festival to festival. To further complicate things, artists as a species aren’t particularly inclined to follow rules. Last year, I spent at least half of my mental energy on something akin to trend analysis (if X are the number of rules and Y are the number of artists…). The rest I spent learning how to set up my tent (so many parts!) and how use my POS (swipe, dip or scan?). Meanwhile, all of the artists around me seemed to allocate no more than 10% of their time to the rules, whether it be to follow, ignore or protest them.

Being new to the festival circuit was just like my first year in college. For me, going to class was the one, safe constant of being a freshman. Rules I can follow. Everything else was so utterly, incomprehensibly new. I felt like I spent my entire freshman year steadying the ground beneath me.

But wait! There’s good news! If you measure festival time by the academic calendar, I’m not a freshman anymore. Here ye, people: I’m a full-fledged sophomore!

Here ye, people: It sucks to be a sophomore.

Sure, I now have a couple dozen festivals under my belt. I’m fully versed in “pie wedge” rules, tent construction and credit card readers. I’ve met a lot of nice people and feel more comfortable talking about my work. I’ve also sold some art.

What I’m really saying is that I’ve mastered a whopping 10%.

The other 90% is much more complex. The artwork itself notwithstanding, the 90% is guided (not governed) by adages (not rules) that are passed from artist to artist. There are adages about everything, such as: how to be a good neighbor to other artists; which festivals draw “your” kind of crowd; which promoters are the best; the right way to set up your booth; the sociology of the Festival Crowd; and the psychology of the Festival Goer.

Weaved within the telling of each adage are biases. When a fellow artist gripes to me about a sub-par festival promoter or a frugal crowd, for instance, it can be hard to distinguish the bad apples from the ripe ones.

Nowadays, I feel less like Snow White and more like a squirrel, shoveling in my mouth every acorn that’s fed to me. Collecting adages, but not swallowing them whole. When I get back to my nest I spit them all out, then try to sort out which ones to discard because their cores are rotten.

This is the curse of the sophomore. By now you’re expected to know stuff, and you do know stuff, but you don’t know nearly enough to be discerning. The truth is, as a sophomore, you’re much more like a freshman than you are a senior.

Measured in dog years, my art career has the maturity of a twelve year old. But maybe in art festival years, I’m still a puppy. In fact, I’ve talked with several artists who’ve shown at festivals for over 20 years, and most of them admit that they are still figuring it out. If that’s the case, it’ll be a long time ‘til graduation. And for the first time in my life, I’m OK with that.

While I was in Florida this time around, I met an artist who was showing her work for the very first time. A true freshman. She asked me for advice, and I passed along a couple of my favorite festival adages. Then I told her one of my own: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

My contribution to the 90%.

This story was originally published on March 13, 2017.