Our Last Picture Show

“Everything has to come to an end, sometime.”
       L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz

Pat and I have exhibited my photos in a number of outdoor art shows, or festivals since the summer of 2009. We did only the one show every summer until 2017, when we exhibited in Arts in the Park in Kalispell, MT, sponsored by the Hockaday Museum, followed two weeks later by the Sandpiper Art Gallery's Flathead Lake Festival of the Arts (FLFA). Both were terrific shows for us and we did them again the following year. We'd planned to do both again in 2019. It's been said that man plans, God laughs. Whether a higher power's involved might be debatable, but the plan was blown away this year, and nobody's laughing.

I submitted to the Hockaday's jury as usual, received the acceptance notice, and started putting together a list of photos to display, preparing frame orders, and generally getting into the work of “doing” these kinds of shows. The show's logistics present some challenges, the worst being the parking situation during set-up (and tear-down). There's almost no parking nearby; most is a considerable distance away, with a busy roadway between the parking and the park. It's a long way to carry the canopy frame and walls, the corner weights (220 pounds of concrete blocks in my case), the display/mesh walls, several tables, easels, and other bits and pieces of “infrastructure.” Once that's moved and set up on our space, part two is carrying all of the pictures from the car to the canopy. It's a lot of physical work, but to make up for that it's typically hot enough to fuse beach sand into glass. I should also mention the park is 50 miles (80 km) from home, and we make that round-trip four times, two of those with two vehicles. It all makes for some very long and exhausting days. Think of this the next time you're browsing an outdoor art show. These people work hard just being there.

Art show booth, FLFA, July, 2019

Our Flathead Lake Festival of the Arts exhibit before things got ugly.

I couldn't do this set-up job by myself; Pat has always shared the burden and not complained (very much), but she is no longer able to do this kind of work. I was humbled and grateful when friends offered to help, but I couldn't accept; some of these offers came from artists who'd be doing their own set-up for the show. How could I ask them to help when they already had so much to do? I showed some good sense (uncharacteristically) by canceling our participation in the show and forfeiting our lovely space in the shade.

I had also committed to doing the FLFA this year. This show has what must be one of the prettiest venues in the outdoor show circuit. It's held in a grassy, tree-lined city park on the shore of western Montana's Flathead Lake. Many of the artist/canopy locations are in shade for at least part of the day. The event draws great crowds, and they seem ready to buy. The Sandpiper provides a number of artist amenities including a motorized cart and driver plus additional help to haul things and set up. The gallery staff does much more to make the show a great experience for the artists. (Disclaimer: I'm a gallery member and former gallery Director, former Web Master, former graphic designer for publicity, you get the idea—it's a 'many hats' kind of organization.) This show is also just a few miles from home.

Because it's easier than the Hockaday show we decided we'd do the FLFA this year. I'd do the set-up of the canopy and walls myself, carry the pictures to the site, and Pat would help hang things and “man” (person?) the booth.

Lake Wind Advisory

The Saturday morning crowd at the FLFA show, July, 2019

The morning crowd at the 2019 FLFA show on the shore of western Montana's Flathead Lake. On Sunday it looked just like this, minus all the people.

The weekend weather forecast called for hot-and-dry, typical for late July in western Montana. I went down to the park early Friday morning to help lay out the tent spaces, a job we completed before noon. “Official” set-up time started at 3:00, but since I and the other set-up helpers were there, with not much to do, we jumped the gun and started setting up our spaces. I unloaded my car, which carried the above-mentioned infrastructure, all the display stuff. When finished I called Pat to come with her car, into which we'd loaded all of the pictures. She also brought sandwiches. We got everything hung, closed up the tent, and went home.

Saturday morning we went down around 9:00, sampled the coffee and muffins from the hospitality tent, gabbed with folk, helped some people cart stuff around, like that. Show hours were 10:00 to 5:00, but this being an open city park, people were wandering around looking at things before 9:30. I sold my largest piece that morning. We had lots of traffic, a really great crowd. About 12:30 a breeze came up, very typical for the lake shore. The National Weather Service posted a “lake wind advisory” to warn people to be prepared to get off the lake quickly if things changed. They did, and by 2:30 we were in trouble. Our canopy faced the lake, with nothing in between the little break wall bordering the park and the open front of the tent. The wind blew directly in and inflated the tent like a parachute. I had 55 pounds (25 kg) of cinder blocks on each corner, and still had to stand on the front corner that wanted to lift. By 3:00 the situation was untenable, with the tent walls flapping like crazy, the pictures flapping along. We took down most of the pictures and stacked them vertically in the middle of the tent. I left only a few of the smallest photos hanging. A bit later I unzipped and removed the outer walls and pulled them downward, and raised the edges of the top to make air gaps for the wind to blow through. The wind was so strong it pulled apart the Velcro corner straps of the tent walls. I couldn't pull them together so the front could be zipped on. Opening up to the air flow seemed the only thing to do.

During the wind the FLFA show, July, 2019, after we opened up the canopy

During the worst of the wind we took down most of the pictures and opened the canopy's outside walls. This allowed the wind to blow through the mesh walls used for hanging. People still picked through the piles and made purchases.

A funny thing: in all that chaos, the wind blowing so hard it became difficult to have a conversation, a woman came in and bought two framed pieces and one 16x20 matted one. Another small framed picture and several more matted ones sold, making our Saturday sales pretty darned good. Even in the wind the crowd never slackened. If I could have displayed things properly until 5:00….

Most of the artists buttoned up their displays for the day at 5:00 and left. No way we could have done that, since I couldn't close the tent, and feared letting go of the front corners. We decided to wait it out even if it meant staying until midnight. About 5:15 a potter who'd set up across from us, such that the backside of his tent faced the lake wind, and downrange from us maybe 20 feet (6 m), was trying to attach his walls. His canopy was identical to mine but he did not use side walls at all during the day, having only the roof in place. He got all four walls hung, and was zipping the first corner pair together, when I glanced over and saw both back legs of his tent lift off the ground. Standing and zipping at a front corner, he had no clue that was happening. I raced over but was too slow. The tent blew completely upside down. Most amazing was that the two cement blocks he had on the back legs lifted right along with the tent, flew over the tent, and crashed down on top of the front two blocks, leaving the potter buried under the piles of tent wall material. I dug in under all of that to pull him out, and by then another person had come to help. The potter was fine, just a little skinned up. His tent wasn't, with some of the plastic parts broken, one of the aluminum cross braces for the top broken, and a bunch more terminally bent. We were able to fold the thing and get it out of the way, and then tied down the tent top over his display for the night. Fortunately he'd packed up all the pottery in lidded plastic bins before things got airborne, so nothing got broken except the tent, and maybe his pride a little bit.

We returned to the park early Sunday morning. Everything had stayed secure. We opened up, rehung everything, got tidied up as if nothing had happened, and waited for the crowd that never showed. Zero. Hardly anyone in the park all day. It was hot and still, but no people, no traffic on the roads. We sold nothing, and that was true for nearly all of the exhibitors.

Sunday I walked over to see how potter was doing (fine) and offered him my tent. The guy (and his wife, who is actually the potter) do a dozen shows a year all over the west. They have another tent, but I saw an opportunity to get rid of mine without even taking it home while at the same time benefiting someone else. So that's what we did.

Never say “Never”

In the end the show was OK sales wise, which is quite a surprise. A couple of days after the show I had everything cleaned and back in the usual storage place (many pieces were filthy after collecting lots of wind-driven grit).

If I ever do another outdoor show, after getting my head examined, I'll get a new canopy. Right now that seems about as likely as the polar ice increasing. I'll miss the community these shows create, and the opportunity to meet new artists and talk with artist friends. But I won't miss all the hard work and anxiety. We will, of course, continue to pursue opportunities for gallery and other indoor shows where the wind doesn't blow so hard.

August, 2019

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