meet gretchen gammell

all images courtesy Gretchen Gammell

Is it cheating that I first saw Gretchen Gammell’s paintings in a gallery just a block from my home – and that I had a wine glass in my hand? Regardless, I was quickly smitten. She’s got a graceful, evocative, deceptively simple style and a near-obsession with technique.

Painting has always flowed through Gretchen’s veins. She was a creative kid whose grandfather is a working artist and whose uncle is a children’s book illustrator. “In my family, it wasn’t considered completely crazy to be an artist,” she says. “I was comfortable with art as a career path.”

After completing a painting degree from the Oregon College of Art and Craft, Gretchen began exhibiting her acrylic and watercolor work in Portland. Soon, the Winsor Gallery in Vancouver, B.C. came calling, then the Hallway Gallery in Bellevue, followed by Whistler’s Hayden Beck Gallery. December will take her into SoCal with a show at L.A.’s Left Coast Galleries.

Gretchen now lives in Vancouver, Washington (the other Vancouver) and takes commissions from private clients and businesses, in addition to expanding her gallery roster. Like her hero, the late American watercolor virtuoso Andrew Wyeth, Gretchen is focused on mastering her chosen subject matter – the female form. She’s determined to improve her painting with every brushstroke.

She’s also a heck of a lot of fun. You’ll notice that this interview is a little long. That’s because we kept talking and talking. If only Gretchen herself lived right around the corner…

1. What fuels your work?

I’m obsessed with becoming absolutely adept at working with the materials. Trying to master acrylic and watercolor paint is my main focus. It’s not about the images – it’s about asking myself, how can I come up with the best color palette? How do I handle line? How do I handle paint? It’s almost a science experiment for me when I’m in my studio.

I want to be a really, really good craftsman and luckily, I also really enjoy coming up with subject matter and themes and there are lots of things that I love to paint and draw, but once I’m actually working, it’s so process-oriented. I’m a perfectionist and I want to be the best painter that I can possibly be – in a strictly manual sense.

2. How do you organize the business side of your career so you still have the time, energy and focus to paint?

I find it amusing how people think that being an artist is so glamorous. They imagine I’m on an existential high all the time – and it’s so not like that. The older I get and the more I branch out, it also increases the paperwork and schedules and details. It’s exhausting, but I make painting my first priority. That’s what comes first. I treat painting like a job, and that means I go to my studio for at least an eight-hour work day, and I work and paint for that time, just like anyone else with a 9-to-5 job. Then I take care of all the other things and I usually go back to work until I need to fall asleep. So, I just work all the time.

I used to work in a separate studio, which I loved, but now I work from home, so I have access to everything else I need to do. It’s totally boring, but I can do laundry, take care of my dogs, handle mail and I can take care of everything else that goes with it.

3. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?

No, but not because there aren’t people I would admire, but because I never make time to find out what’s going on with anybody else. That’s just how I am. I don’t know many other artists and I don’t really talk about business with many other people. So, I never know how anybody else is doing it. It would be great if someone would show up and say, “Hey, I have this fantastic business model! Try it out.” But, I’d need it hand-delivered to my doorstep.

4. How many revenue streams do you have?

Two. Gallery representation and commission work.

I’ve almost always had a part-time job on the side, too. There are a couple reasons for it: One, I’m super paranoid. I was raised by a father who wanted to make sure I was completely capable of taking care of myself financially, and being an artist is such an unpredictable thing that it’s nice to have one paycheck that you know is coming – even if it’s $90. Also, working from home as an artist can be incredibly isolating and your world can get smaller and smaller. Having a reason to get out of the house and be social and be back in touch with reality is really necessary for me.  Right now I’m working as a barista. I do that two days a week and I really like it.

5. What is your bread-and-butter income source?

Gallery representation. But, it does change from year to year. It’s very unpredictable. Some years I get a lot of commission work, and some years I don’t.

Where do your commissions typically come from?

Often people will see my website and contact me to request a commission. Other times, they’ll have seen my work at one of the galleries and maybe the piece they wanted had sold, so they want to talk to me about creating something especially for them. I’ve also noticed that a lot of businesses are starting to pay attention to artwork in their décor, so I’ve had a big increase in commissions from hotels and other companies.

6. Do you have a passive income stream?

No. I’ve thought about it, but I’m not ready to go there.

Why?

I don’t think I’m established enough to make prints. I’m a big fan of one-of-a-kind pieces. It’s really wonderful to think about someone having the only piece. However, I’m not against prints. I think they’re great, but I feel like I need to be at a higher level to image that my work justifies having editions.

I also think craftsmanship is a really lost component of art these days. I think that art – fine art – is a craft, just like carpentry. It’s something that distinguishes artists from each other. It’s really important for me to stand behind my work, not just conceptually or aesthetically, but also to know that I made it the best I could possibly make it and it’s not lacking attention to detail – even the details that people don’t know or care about.

7. What tools or opportunities do you think artists often fail to leverage?

I know there are grants and other funding sources out there. I hear about them, but I just don’t have time to look into those things and I don’t have the energy to convince someone to give me money to make something. Maybe I’m choosing the harder route by not taking advantage of those opportunities, but I know what kind of energy levels I have, and I can only put my energy into so many places.

8. What has brought the most opportunities and attention to your work?

Honestly, it’s people who are generous enough to support and spread news about me through word of mouth – even perfect strangers. I get a lot of emails from people who see my work and want to write about it, or post it on their Facebook profile, or they bought a piece and shared it at a dinner party. That’s how I’ve gotten attention over the years. I’m always amazed by how willing people are to advertise for someone they don’t know, just because they’re excited about the work – and that’s great.

9. What is the best investment you’ve made in your career?

I think there are two:

When I first started showing my work, for about four years, I would always send a note to anybody who bought a painting – just to tell them something about the painting that they didn’t know, or to thank them for coming to a show. As a result, I have this box filled with the most amazing letters that people sent in response. They would send me very personal letters about themselves and pictures and incredible stuff that they were entrusting me with, just because they had one of my paintings. It was so cool to have these private notes and I think at the time, it gave me a great perspective on how people react to art. I don’t have the time to do that anymore, and I wish I did.

Then, two years ago, I got divorced and was having a very difficult time. I was burnt out and struggling. So, I went to France. My plan was to stay for three months to paint and get in touch with myself again, and I ended up not painting for three months – which sounds like the antithesis of investing in my career. But, it was one of the best things that I’ve ever done for myself. It was the first time since I was a teenager that I didn’t touch any art materials at all. I just played the piano and shut my head off, and it was amazing.

At the end of the three months, I was supposed to come back to the U.S., because I had two shows opening and I needed to start working on them. I realized that if I didn’t make the shows there, I wouldn’t make them at all. I didn’t have a visa, but I had my materials sent over and I stayed another five months. I painted there and shipped everything home. It was really expensive and I was terrified that I was going to get deported – and I’m someone who doesn’t like to break the rules – but I just had to do it. And after those three months of not painting, I was so ready to work and something had changed for me. I was more focused than I’d ever been.

What has been the biggest waste of time and / or money?

It definitely wasn’t a waste, but art school was frustrating because I was very, very clear about what I was doing from a young age. My instructors all said, “You’re too young to know what your style is yet. You really need to start from the basics, then when you’re older and have more experience, you can start to develop your own style.”

I just knew that wasn’t true for me, so it was a battle all through school. I knew my style was young, but I just wanted to get a grasp on it and flesh it out and get better. I’m happy that I went to college. I met wonderful people and it was a good time to learn about materials, but it was difficult in the sense that I had to be kind of a brat in order to preserve what I thought was most beneficial to me as an artist.

10. Where do you stand on the “selling out?” debate? Do you believe it’s possible to sell out?

I don’t think that trying to make money from your art and treating it as a business is selling out. I don’t think you need to be starving and struggling all the time in order to be an authentic artist. Learning how to be a good business person, in my opinion, is a really smart move, because it’s all about protecting yourself and providing the means to be a better artist.

What I think of as selling out is taking your art in a direction that isn’t what you truly think it is. For example, because my paintings are so figurative and I use a lot of symbolism, they tend to get interpreted as having all sorts of deep meanings. But, I don’t have those kinds of thoughts, and I’m not super profound. If I claimed to have these really intellectual, deep, political, feminist theories behind my work, it wouldn’t be authentic and that would be selling out. People can project that onto my work as much as they want, and that’s fine, because it’s there for them to do so, but I can’t claim those things. That would make me a sell-out, because I’d just be pleasing what people want to hear.

Is there anything else you’ve learned and want to share?

The business side of being an artist is completely overlooked. I think it’s hard to balance being creative with being a businesswoman, because I’m not necessarily oriented that way. I’m very visual, I’m very color-oriented, so then I have to think about math and deadlines and being formal and it’s a very different side of me that I’ve had to train over the years. But it’s important, because you can get really taken advantage of. It’s not necessarily about making money. It’s about protecting myself and being in charge of what I’m doing. It’s about being self sufficient, and that’s really important to me.

Also, I think that simply making time to work is one of the most important things an artist can do. A lot of people don’t have the discipline to just work. When I was really young and thinking about an art career, my uncle said, “my only advice is that you go into your studio and you stay there until your work day is over – even if you just end up staring at a wall.”

Thanks, Gretchen!

posted 23 Aug 10 in: art, inspiration, interviews. This post currently has 9 responses.

9 Responses so far. Add Your Own.

Wow. Thank you for introducing this wonderful artist to me.

 

Gina — You’re welcome! Isn’t she terrific?

 

That is a fantastic interview. I loved reading it – especially the bit about her time in France. Sometimes we all have to grind to a halt and just be. Her artwork is beautiful – I much prefer it to Andrew Wyeth! I love all the swimming imagery in it.
thanks for this great read.

Jill / 25 Aug 10
 

Jill — So glad you enjoyed it. I love the swimming imagery, too. I should have asked her about that, but then the interview would have been even longer!

 

The article was so tastefully done. I knew Gretchen as a child. She has always been a very unique and gifted child/person. Her parents and family play a key role in creating a foundation for Gretchen to express her individual qualities and ‘be the person she is meant to be’. Gretchen is listening to her own voice, ideas, and being true to what she knows. She speaks out of values, beliefs and principles that are vital and life giving. Thanks for bringing out this unique and creative young adult artist in such a brilliant and expressive story.

em / 27 Aug 10
 

Gretchen is a beautiful person inside and out. I’m so fortunate to have three (four if you count the hand painted card) of Gretchen’s paintings. Everyday I wake up, I feel inspired by her art. Great interview!

Danielle / 27 Aug 10
 

Em & Danielle — Thanks so much for visiting and for sharing your personal connections to Gretchen. Her art obviously strikes a nerve with many people.

 

Gretchen is more than just a talented and amazing artist… She is a gifted woman whom many people should be blessed to have the experience of knowing. Great interview. Great answers. Love the images & appreciate the sharing of a wonderful art and more so, a wonderful person who produces wonderful art! Thank you both :)

 

J — I love that Gretchen has so many personal fans, in addition to the people who love her art. Thanks for your kind note!

 

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