4 Types of artwork, and why I love them all

Last Light, Mt. Robson, Canadian Rockies

I had a thought driving down the road somewhere between Miami and Tampa last week. It occurred to me that there are several different kinds of artwork that people gravitate towards. Each type reinforces positive thought patterns in the viewer, which is why folks buy art in the first place. (I don’t know of many people who buy art that they hate!) And since I’m a photographer, I’m going to talk about three of them, in photographic terms. You can feel free to apply them to your favorite medium as you wish. I’ll get to the fourth in a minute.

Aspirational work — places you’d like to go, things you’d like to do. This type of work is often inspirational as well, providing some incentive to complete a task, or reach a goal. Climbing Mt. Robson, for example, or going to Italy. One of the reasons that the Tuscan photographers do so well on the art show circuit is that many people have strong desires to visit the places that the Italian guys photograph. Images of tall mountain peaks likewise inspire the armchair mountaineer in us all. We may never get to Katmandu, but we enjoy the view all the same. While hanging a picture on the wall is a poor substitute for visiting faraway places, it can provide a strong incentive to save those shekels and go.

Freedom of the Hills

Emotional work — by far, this is the largest category, and the strongest reason for buying a particular piece of artwork. Images that reach out and grab us by the heartstrings, or remind us of a life-changing event. Wedding pictures fall into this group, of course, but so do subtler images of places we’ve been. Conceptual images are also a contender in this arena, and often those pictures that don’t recall a specific place work better than those that do. These images tend to provoke a feeling, as well as recalling memories, and can be very effective as a reminder of  those good times. I often tell people “There’s no better image than the one you shoot yourself.” While my images may be better, if you were there and took the picture, that’s the one that will speak the loudest to you.

Images like “Freedom of the Hills“, on the other hand, don’t speak to a specific place or time, but remind us all of those moments where we were on top of the world, celebrating the joy of living, or the joy of being up high in the mountains.


Meditative artwork goes one step further, and is often abstract in nature. Patterns of natural elements, color fields, motion blurs — these can all conjure up peaceful feelings in the viewer. Sometimes a meditative piece works very well as a focal point in your living room. The non-specific nature of a meditative work can accent a color mood, or enhance a less traditional point of view. Sometimes you just don’t want a picture of the Grand Tetons hovering over your couch!

Functional art is the last category, and while photography falls outside of this boundary, many people like artwork that serves a purpose. Ceramics, glass vessels, wearables, jewelry — these are all examples of functional artwork. I know I like my everyday items to be designed well and to be beautiful to look at as well as serving the purpose for which they were designed. While you can’t hang functional work on the wall, it falls into a whole ‘nother category.

Personally, I produce all three kinds of work, for different reasons. I started my photographic career shooting pictures of landmarks in national parks, and have since moved away from what I call “drive by shootings”. Drive-bys are easy to do, common viewpoints that everyone sees, and everyone shoots — not too emotionally involving. I love pictures that tell a story without being “place speicific”: my recent ghost town work works on two levels, that of collective memory, as well as documentary of places in slow decay. I’ve recently started working on some abstract color fields that intrigue me and push me in a whole different direction — you can see these meditative pieces here. How about you? What kinds of artwork do you prefer? Drop me a line or leave me a comment.

The evolution of the Artanic

When I first started doing art fairs, I rented a van from Enterprise. We didn’t have a lot of equipment or art, so this worked out fairly well and helped to postpone what was to become a major investment. We used the rental van a couple of times, and discovered quickly that it was expensive. So I decided to buy a trailer.

Artie and the Jeep

The original art show trailer, parked in St. Augustine 2006

The first trailer I owned was a 6×10′ Wells Cargo, with a single axle and no braking system. It had a maximum carrying capacity of about 2500 pounds, including the unloaded trailer, which weighed about 800 pounds. We had it packed pretty full in no time. I built some racks to stack wide Propanels above the canopy poles, and another rack to stack the 30″ panels and still leave room for plastic tubs of matted work. When packed exactly right, the trailer was full top to bottom, back to front. It handled a 10×10′ Trimline canopy, 10 30″ Propanels, plus two rolling boxes that carried 20×26″ framed work, two bins that sat on top of the rolling boxes, another box that opened into a bintop box, two larger boxes that carried 30×40 framed work, and other miscellaneous grimble. It was a lot of stuff! I towed it with my old Jeep Grand Cherokee, which had over 150,000 miles on it by the time I traded it in.

We christened this trailer Artie. It was a Wells Cargo R/T trailer model, and also carried “Art”. I’m big on nicknames and anthropomorphizing just about everything here in the parkerparker household. Artie served us well for two years, until I decided that I wanted to start showing more and larger work, with a larger 10×20′ canopy. The new Trimline was taller, too, by 2 feet, so I was finally able to use the extensions for the Propanels, giving me a wall height of 9′, and an overall height of 12′. This new tent generates a lot of comments from artists and patrons alike, mostly favorable, and mostly geared towards its similarity to the Taj Mahal. We’re thinking of adding a VIP loft with cappucino and biscotti sometime later this year!

Comparison between the new and old trailers

Comparison between the new and old trailers

Anyway, Artie just couldn’t handle the additional artwork and weight of the new tent, so I ordered a new trailer. Same source, American Trailer Mart. American mostly sells Harleys and Big Dog motorcycles, but they do carry an extensive line of trailers that are good for carrying big bikes. Also good for carrying art. I got my new trailer in January, 2007, and made plans to build out the interior to be more efficient. The new box has enough headroom that I wouldn’t be banging my head on the door frame (a pet peeve that generated lots of four letter words), has a big ramp off the back and a side door to allow access from the street when parked. It’s a large beast, too. I wanted a V-front to lessen wind resistance because of the added height (78″ plus the roof vent), and that adds about 5′ to the overall length. I went with the Pace American Conquest, partly because of reputation, and partly because it was less expensive than the comparable Wells Cargo (the Cadillac of trailers).

Panel rack, and center aisle, looking towards the ramp

Panel rack, and center aisle, looking towards the ramp

First thing I did after getting the trailer home was to back it into the driveway. In doing so, I took out a good sized branch on the redbud tree next to our garage. Oops. Guess the trailer is a little bigger than I estimated. A lot bigger than Artie. Karyn came home, and after seeing that large branch on the driveway, said, “What did you do? Try to dock the Artanic?” And so the trailer was christened.

Got that squared away, and spent a few days building a rack for the Propanels and a cart for all of the tent poles. The cart slid under the panel rack, leaving most of the right side of the trailer free for other boxes. I also built another rolling box, which ultimately was scrapped. The two big magillas came later.

Panel rack and tent dolly on left, bin box on right

Panel rack and tent dolly on left, bin box on right

I got the trailer built out and loaded, and just about ready to haul to Florida for the first of six shows in a row. I backed the Jeep up to the trailer tongue and lowered the trailer onto the hitch ball. It weighed so much that it practically bottomed the Jeep out. It also made it impossible to unhitch the trailer again, because there wasn’t enough clearance to get the jack foot off of or back onto the trailer jack. This was a problem. The trailer brakes also didn’t work properly — there was something wrong with the electrical connector on the Jeep. I had to get a bottle jack and jack the tongue up again to free the trailer, and realized that driving 1200 miles and back with this rig would be, shall we say, unsafe. Planning is everything, and one thing’s for certain: life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

Called my buds at American Trailer Mart, and got a reco for a competent trailer place close by. Took the new trailer over to Howland’s Trailer Service, along with the Jeep and had a weight distribution hitch installed. They had to weld two supports onto the trailer tongue, as there wasn’t enough room to bolt them, due to the long v-nose. The Jeep took a heavy L-shaped bracket and two long spring bars that helped balance the load. They also fixed the electrical problem, by connecting the 7-pin to the pre-existing wiring inside the Jeep. These mods made a huge difference, and allowed the Jeep to haul the 7,000 pound trailer much more efficiently.

I drove this rig for a couple of years. It wasn’t fast, but it got me there. Slaved brakes on the trailer and the weight distribution system helped keep it on the road, and I averaged about 10 MPG on a good day. After four trips to Florida and two trips out to Arizona and Texas, I finally traded the Jeep in for a heavy-duty Toyota Tundra, which tows the trailer like butter.

The big art trailer is affectionately known as Artan for short.

The titanic art trailer (the Artanic) is affectionately known as Artan for short.

Stuck in Lodi again…

The unthinkable happened this afternoon on my way back home. Left Albuquerque about 2PM yesterday, and made it to the border between Oklahoma and Texas before I decided to pack it in. Found a convenient rest area, and pulled the rig in between a couple big trucks to catch 40 winks. Crawled in the back and slept soundly for about 6 hours, and then got back on the road again about 5:30AM.

What's missing here?

What's missing here?

Stopped for gas a couple of times, and while I was filling the tank the second time in Joplin, Missouri, I did my usual walk-around the truck and trailer. It had been raining off and on pretty much all day, so I didn’t do the check first fill-up. Grabbed coffee and went on down the road. But in Joplin I walked to the far side of the trailer, and noticed that something important had gone missing. One of the wheels had simply disappeared.

This is something that takes a bit of time to register. I looked again in disbelief. How does a 15″ rim and tire detach itself from the trailer, and, more importantly, why didn’t I notice it sooner? Luckily, the second wheel supported the rig so I didn’t go careening off the highway. Very lucky indeed. But it’s Easter Sunday, and the chances of finding an open trailer repair facility are slim to none.

I parked the rig, and walked back to the lube rack at the truck stop. Asked for recommendations on a trailer facility. Got one, but no answer and no machine at the number they gave me. Went back into the restaurant and had me some french toast and eggs. Drank a pot of coffee. After eating, I went to drop the trailer, and found a convenient motel next door. Checked in, and parked the rig til morning. Nice room, BTW, which was a blessing since I wasn’t gonna make it home for Easter or even the day after.

Detail of missing wheel

Detail of missing wheel with sheared bolts

Quite unbelievable. The bolts on the right rear wheel were just sheared off, but the brake drum still spins. The brake pads sound scrapey though. There’s still grease in the bearings, so it doesn’t look as if the bearings froze up. Very odd. The brake controller disconnected cleanly, too, leaving the connector and the wires. The fender was partly ripped away, too. Just unbelievable. I’m lucky, I guess, that the other tire didn’t give out. I only have the one spare, though, so I’ll need to get another rim and tire. All I can say is “YIKES!”.

25 Random Things…

On Facebook, the current viral thing is to make a list of things that is randomly interesting and then post it as a note. I thought I’d do it here on the blog, which will get picked up on Facebook in my notes section. So enjoy reading!

  1. I grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota. My father and my grandfather ran a dude ranch called Palmer Gulch Lodge. It was great growing up with horses, rocks and lots of other kids to play with. In the summertime. The winters were killer. There are some good stories about “The Happy Valley” going back 80 years, on dakotakid.net.
  2. I like climbing rocks. Especially the beautiful granite in the Black Hills. But I didn’t start using ropes and climbing technically until I was 50. Thanks to Susan Scheirbeck and my cousin HJ Schmidt, who showed me the ropes and dragged us up a few easy climbs.
  3. My favorite vegetable is the brussel sprout. Carrots ain’t bad, either. But I hate lima beans.
  4. My mother taught me to cook when I was in Cub Scouts. The first dish I ever made was meatloaf and mashed potatoes. 
  5. The best part of art shows is meeting other artists and talking with people who are genuinely interested in what you do and how you do it. The next best part is making the work that I take to the shows.
  6. I like Starbucks — the stronger the better. But I water it down with cream and sugar.
  7. No kids, no pets. My wife says I’m enough trouble.
  8. I play the guitar, and noodle around with keyboards. I have a small home studio that doesn’t get enough use anymore. Music has been with me since I was in sixth grade, when my mom gave me the choice between the piano and the trombone. I chose trombone. Played in high school band and orchestra, and pit for three years of musicals. Fun.
  9. I love Chicago. It’s my favorite American city. The people are urban without being snooty and the architecture is phenomenal. Plus you can’t beat the lake for visual impact. Chicago has the largest number of movable bridges of any city in the world — 35 in the downtown area alone. One of my projects is to document them all. If it had mountains to the west of it, it would be nirvana.
  10. I love to read. Currently I’m reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon”. I thought I had read this in college, but don’t remember it. My girlfriend at the time and I loved fantasy and science fiction. Ursula K. LeGuin, Roger Zelazny, Anne McCaffrey. The best fantasy books of all time are Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles. Read that again on my southwest expedition in 2007.
  11. My wife Karyn and I have been married for 22 years. We met at Ross Roy, an advertising agency where we both worked, in 1984. We’ve owned our house in Rochester Hills almost that long, but I lived in Chicago for five years, while she continued working in Ann Arbor and lived in RH. We commuted back and forth on weekends. It got old.
  12. I’ve owned over 15 Macintosh computers since they came out in 1984. I started using Macs in 1985, as part of a seed program that Apple started to try to get machines into ad agencies. My creative director hated them and said that computers would never amount to much in the creative world. He was wrong about many other things, too.
  13. I own one PC. I’m bi-putal.
  14. We can’t park our cars in the garage anymore. We have a big 2 1/2 car garage, but it’s been turned into a “temporary” wood shop. I built two large pieces for the house: a china cabinet and an oak bookcase, and while we’re renovating, it’s been very useful to have a dedicated space. I build all the rolling stock for art shows here, too. Bins, display stands, etc. Karyn says I’m good with my hands.
  15. I have an active interest in the history and cultures of the Southwest. Much of my work now centers around two themes — water resources and ranching. If you haven’t read it, now is the time to read “Cadillac Desert“. “Beyond the 100th Meridian” by Wallace Stegner is also fascinating and got me started on the subject.
  16. My totem animal is the alligator. 
  17. The first car that I bought was a 1970 Pontiac LeMans, for $200, from my girlfriend’s brother, who we called Peckerhead. Need I say more?
  18. One of my goals is to visit every state in the US. So far I don’t think I’ve even seen half of them.
  19. My favorite place is still the Black Hills. I know the trails and drainage patterns around Harney Peak pretty well, and there are rocks to be climbed. But any place with mountains will do.
  20. I’ve owned a lot of cameras over the years. My first camera was a Brownie Hawkeye, and I’ve used 35mm film, 2 1/4 and Polaroids, but now I’m 100% digital. I did buy a 20mm lens off eBay for an older Minolta X-700, which is a great manual 35mm camera, still available, though discontinued in 1999. 
  21. I climbed Elkhorn Mountain when I was younger, and got lost. I had to use my pants and my belt as a rope to lower myself off the rocks. Lucky for me, I was able to retrieve my pants. HJ, Karyn and I went back a couple of summers ago and climbed the route again. It was way scarier than I remembered it. We used a rope.
  22. I once worked with Sutton Foster, the Broadway star who won a Tony for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and her brother, Hunter. She was 15, and was the co-star of my short film “Mr. Terbillion’s Ambition”. The film was about a man who wanted to be a walrus. Sutton was, and is, an extremely nice and talented person.
  23. My favorite part of Christmas is wrapping all of the little stocking gifts and then opening them again. My brother and I used to do this two or three times a year — relive Christmas around Easter time.
  24. Pie. Lots of it, and alamode, too. Cherry is the best. Or Michigan Four Berry from Achatz Pie Company.
  25. I like to write. English was my best subject in high school. Can you tell?

Little gifts

Here it is, almost Christmas, and I’ve darn near got all my shopping done. Just a few things for Karyn and that’s it! We’ve been busy remodeling our kitchen, as December and January there aren’t many shows here in Michigan. Twenty-plus years since we moved into our cozy little house in Rochester, and we’d been saving up for this for quite some time. So we decided that would be our Christmas gift to each other this year. 

So as I was putting the first coat of mud on a doorway that I reframed, it struck me that every day is like Christmas somehow. Even the bad ones. There are always little gifts under the tree, if you just keep an eye out for them. Like this shot I took down in the desert near Lee’s Ferry — “Blessed Are the Meek“. 

Blessed Are the Meek

I was walking across the desert floor, and my eye just happened to catch the new purple blooms peeking out of the gravel. The dead mesquite branches provided counterpoint, illustrating the cycle of life. It was a gift, just a minor vision really, but I had the presence of mind to make a photograph.

Other gifts are even simpler. Like not running out of gas when your tank is on empty and you have just one more stop to make before the stores close. Or that good morning wake-up smile. Or having enough gas in your tank to make it to work without having to fill up first. We all have lots to be thankful for this Christmas — I know it’s been said before, but let’s be thankful for all the little gifts we take for granted.

Intuition and Experience

Evening Reconnaissance Mission

Originally uploaded by merlinmann

Merlin Mann, who writes an entirely engaging blog on the creative process, posted this shot on Flickr to illustrate a new post on the process of learning photography. Normally, I don’t post about other folks’ work, but Merlin’s comments struck a chord.

I mean, we’ve all been there. Driving down a freeway at 75 mph. Something catches your eye. You drive on, not sure what registered in your brain. And if you’re lucky, you turn around and go back to see. And photograph. Or you’ll be working on location. Concentrating on an idea that you had back in April. And something else catches your attention. Occasionally, you’ll be rewarded with a great photo that teaches you the power of listening to your inner brain. 

I’ve learned to pay attention to these little moments. Often, they’re the result of self-assignments filed away months earlier. A good example of this is my shot “An Aspen a Day“. I had it in my mind on a fall trip to Yellowstone and the Tetons that I was going to find and photograph the quintessential group of aspen trees changing colors. Every time I saw an aspen tree, it was time to stop the Jeep, set up the camera and tripod and make some images. As you can imagine, this slowed down the travel process a good deal.

By the end of the second week, I was getting more selective about where and when to stop. Karyn and I were driving north out of Yellowstone toward Beartooth Pass and we drove past this gorgeous stand of trees. I kept driving, as I didn’t see a good place to stop. Five miles up the road, the little nag wouldn’t stop. Finally, I turned around and went back. I spent almost an hour with this group of trees, and in the end was glad that I had listened to my intuition. It’s what helps me get better.

Merlin’s post reminded me that the process is what builds experience. Fear of failure or fear of looking foolish often keeps us from pursuing our goal of more creative photographs.