“Shirley Elias is on Fire”
Colouring in the Lines
By: Morley Walker, Winnipeg Free Press
Photo by Phil Hossack, Winnipeg Free Press
Winnipeg artist Shirley Elias is on fire.
In the last five months, she has sold some 50 original paintings, most priced in the $3,000 range, and has taken orders for dozens more.
Her vibrantly coloured Cubist-influenced abstracts, many reflecting the musical themes of her previous career as a concert pianist, hang on walls as far away as Italy and India.
She is represented by galleries (which typically claim 40 per cent of a work’s retail price) in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. On Friday, she hopped a plane for Montreal to sign up with a gallery there.
Not bad for a woman who took up the brush, at least seriously, just three years ago.
“I never thought it would happen so quickly,” Elias, 48, whose work will be displayed in a group show opening April 17 at the Birchwood Gallery on Taylor Avenue.
“I’m almost at the point where I can make a living at this.”
Elias defies the stereotype. A visual artist, we assume, is: a) starving in a garret; b) holding down a “real” job; c) sucking up taxpayers’ money via grants; or d) being supported by a patient spouse.
And, sadly, there is much truth to these generalizations, especially points b and d. According to 2006 numbers crunched by the Hamilton-based arts researchers Hill Strategies, the average Manitoba visual artist (defined as those who spend at least half their working hours on their art), earned the grand sum of $11,200.
Still, a surprising number of people do much better. They may not earn millions like British superstar Damien Hirst (reportedly the world’s richest living artist) or even in the high six figures like B.C. wildlife master Robert Bateman.
But they pull down decent middle-class incomes and pay mortgages. Some even put their kids through university.
“All of our artists support themselves through the sale and promotion of their artwork,” says Shaun Mayberry, a co-owner of the Exchange District gallery Mayberry Fine Art.
“Some just get by, but many do very well and earn incomes that equal the quality of their work.”
Mayberry represents many of the city’s elite artists, people whose work is collected by serious art aficionados and exhibited in highbrow public galleries. Some have worked as university professors and others have taken arts grants.
But there exists another layer of artists who take a more entrepreneurial view of their role.
Elias falls into this category, as do the muralist Charlie Johnston and the figurative and landscape painter Larry Rich.
Arguably the city’s most successful is the veteran painter Barry Burdeny, whose bold abstracts and landscapes grace corporate boardrooms across the country.
“If I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d still paint and I’d still paint exactly what I do,” says Burdeny, 64, whose income has often risen into the six figures.
“I’ve done it on my own initiative. But I work on it every day.”
Besides talent and hard work, most artists agree, the key quality is the ability to promote oneself.
“I have to be my own PR person,” says Rich, 46, whose paintings will be included in the Birchwood exhibition.
“I think a lot of artists don’t go that route because they can’t deal with people or they’re not willing to pound the pavement looking for clients.”
Burdeny says he has long been comfortable selling himself to corporate leaders.
“When I hear of a new office building going up, I think ‘Aha — wall space!’ ”
Admittedly deficient in this regard, Elias has done the next best thing. She has hired professional help, in the person of a friend and former colleague, Jackie Adler, a marketing and public relations specialist.
“Jackie has made a huge difference,” Elias says. “I’m happy to talk about my art, but I couldn’t ask you to buy it.”
Many artists who survive in the commercial market, at least in Canada, live with an inferiority complex — that they don’t measure up to the standards defined by the arbiters of culture, or that they are somehow sellouts.
“It’s almost an embarrassment for some people that artists should make a living,” says the painter and gallery owner Terry Lacosse, who opened a solo show of his work Friday night at his Lilac Street gallery.
“There’s this hairshirt mentality that you should starve or suffer for your art. If it’s commercial, it can’t have merit.”
University of Manitoba art professor Sharon Alward knows where these views originate.
Those who come up through university art schools, or who make art within the publicly subsidized granting system, buy into the idea that the artist’s ultimate goal is “to move the visual language forward.”
When these people see art that’s unapologetically derivative or conventional, she says, they feel it “contradicts everything they believe to be true.”
But there is room for many types of art, just as there is for many types of music or novels.
“I tell my students that you’re not selling out unless you are doing something you don’t want to do,” says Alward, who maintains a practice as a performance artist and experimental filmmaker.
The role of arts councils, she says, is to support boundary pushers whose work will not find favour in the market.
“We need those people, too,” she says. “Some may in fact contribute something very important.”
Though he has a graduate degree in art, Burdeny has never applied for a government grant.
“You have to deal with committees,” he says. “That means too many cooks, too many fingers in the soup. No one makes a decision — I call it amiable impotence.”
Adds Lacosse: “Nobody I know paints to make money. They paint because they love to do it.”