Jonathan Levy is a young, New York City bred artist who I met while visiting "The Artists Fair" at Art Basel Miami Beach in December 2008. I was struck by his style, which he calls "Style of Nature." He's a very talented artist and I asked him if he would consent to an interview. Starting off, I asked him about how he was surviving as an artist in this current economy. He sent me a really great, but long email that not only addressed that question, but several others. So, with his permission, I broke up his answer into the conversation that you see below. In short, I got creative, but this remains true to his voice. I think you'll enjoy his insight and his website at WWW.STYLEOFNATURE.COM but first, here's our chat:
MICHAEL: First of all Jonathan, thanks for talking with me. How did you start out as an artist?
JONATHAN: Six years ago when I finished up with school (Pratt Institute), I realized I needed to figure out two very important things. First, I needed to find a painting style that I loved to do and needed to figure out what to do with it once I found it. I was on the first plane to Hawaii in search of these answers. My search led me to Maui because I had heard it was one of the art capitals and I was in search of some serious inspiration.
MICHAEL: Hawaii sounds like a fantastic destination. What did you do when you got there?
JONATHAN: (Well,) that five-year hiatus proved to pay off. I landed on my feet, running as fast as I could. I applied to every gallery on the island for any type of work I could find. It was important for me to learn the business end of the "Art World" which I was willing to do anyway. After sending out nearly 80 resumes and receiving no response, I finally got an interview with a contemporary art gallery for a sales position. During the interview, I was told the only reason I got it was because I accidentally applied on four different occasions in a two-week span. Luckily, that was viewed as persistence and I guess they appreciated the effort.
MICHAEL: It sounds like you hit the ground running. What did you do?
JONATHAN: In five years time, I worked in three different galleries whose work ranged from $50 local Hawaiian style paintings to $500,000 original Chagall paintings. I worked in a wide range of positions such as (mainly) sales, administration, marketing, restoration, framing, crating and shipping. This experience taught me one very important thing. The business end and the art end of the art business are about as different as opposites can be. Unfortunately, I found it is just as important for an artist to be a salesperson as it is to be an artist. Two perfect examples of 20th century masters are Picasso and Warhol. They were adored personalities who everyone has a personal story about. These two gentlemen were more than just charming and charismatic characters. They were salesmen!
MICHAEL: You were all over the place. What are some of the more important lessons that you've learned?
JONATHAN: Primarily, I worked in art sales. I consider this to be more valuable to my career than my formal art education. I compare it to the epiphany I had when I was 4 years old and I first colored within the lines of my "Tom and Jerry" coloring book. It was made very clear that once you romanticized the artist, the buyer’s interest would increase substantially. I witnessed firsthand on many occasions that people who had a mere interest in a work could be transformed into enthusiastic art lovers in less than half an hour. Unfortunately, art does not sell art, people do! Another piece of evidence is "actor art". I'm not going to mention any names, but there are a few actors out there who have decided to switch to the fine arts. I'm no critic, but much of these works look like ragged canvases pulled from the back of the racks of a high school art class. Yet, they fetch up around six-digit prices. Why is this? People, more or less, want to own a piece of the artist. Who wouldn't want to brag that the original painting above their fireplace "was made by Moses"?
MICHAEL: Basically, what I hear you saying is that ART IS WORK. It seems as if the real work comes with sales and promotion. During work, did you meet many collectors?
JONATHAN: While on the gallery floor, I also met many collectors, dealers and art enthusiasts from around the world. They would start as clients, become friends and end up as contacts. This is why galleries value keeping old collectors more than making new ones. If you treat a collector right, they will be back for more. This concept is magnified ten times when the collector is dealing directly with the artist. People love to know the artists of the works on their walls and appreciate the occasional email or mailing of a "new release". People are a lot more willing to give their money to someone they like opposed to someone they don't. I know that as an artist, it is much easier to crawl within yourself than it is to poke your head out of the ground to see what’s going on. That mentality could be the difference between painting for a living and getting (another) job.
MICHAEL: Most of the art that I own comes from artists with whom I've had direct contact. I will never buy art from a gallery without first talking with the artist. It's simply the most soulful and gratifying part of collecting for me. I've always felt that contact with the artist is more important than acquiring the work itself.
JONATHAN: Another factor is that art needs to be seen in real life with real eyes! In my work, photos can never do the actual pieces justice. My paintings were not selling until I began to bring them to the people. A small postcard or digital image can never contain the energy or magnitude of any work of art. Unless the buyer is familiar with your style and quality of work, it is extremely difficult to purchase something you have never seen in person. People assume it is like waiting in line at a fast food restaurant. You never get the same burger you see pictured in the window.
MICHAEL: I also think that art needs to be affordable. While “affordable” varies from person to person, I think that nothing intimidates everyday people more than seeing art that is priced WAY out of their reach. Obviously, no one should try to take advantage of struggling artists, but wouldn't their art sell better if it were more accessible?
JONATHAN: Art needs to be priced to sell. I know that with many artists, they spend so much time making something that they have difficulty parting with it. This is clearly reflected in the price of the artwork. It is a wonderful thing for an artist to form relationships with their art, but not if they become unwilling to let it go. You may be able to find works of art auctioning off for close to a half-billion dollars, but that doesn't mean all art is worth that money. Sadly but true, you might have to give away your first few pieces until some sort of demand is created. I always thought it would be an interesting idea to send my 20 best pieces to the 20 richest people in the world as a gift. If one of them takes a liking to my work, it could make the whole shebang worthwhile. So, along with these concepts, the support of my family and friends, I have been able to make a living as an artist in this art unfriendly economy. But to me, the support from those whose opinions I value far outweighs all the rest. This extremely good fortune of having people in my life who I both love and respect has fueled my efforts and turned a seemingly impossible mission into short, simple steps.
MICHAEL: Fantastic! Thanks for chatting Jonathan.
You can see Jonathan’s work in person at International ArtExpo New York at the Jacob Javits Center, booth 532 from February 26th to March 2nd or check out his website, www.styleofnature.com