Saturday, July 28, 2018

Let's Call it An Adventure

After five years of successfully showing my work at science meetings in various cities in the US, I decided to try showing at one in Europe. For the sake of vaguely plausible deniability, let’s call it the LENS conference, in Vienna. (To be perfectly clear, I have nothing bad to say about the “LENS” organization. They were friendly and professional and did just what they promised they would.) It was … an experience.

Before the conference, I spent months making new paintings and designing new scarves. I figured out what frame sizes were standard in Europe and found a source in let’s-call-it-Vienna that could cut mats and backing boards for me in those sizes, to be picked up the day I arrived. I spent weeks trying to figure out how to accept credit card payments in Europe without a Euro bank account. (Create an online shop account and then download an app that allows you to take cards at point-of-sale, as it turns out)

My old suitcase was too crushable for transporting art so I bought a new one. My scarf rack was too big to transport, so I got a European Amazon account and arranged to buy one that would be shipped to my hotel just in time. I was told my booth was “space only” so I figured out how to display my work without any walls. I rented an extra table for 3 days for 100 Euros. In short, I prepared, and prepared, and prepared. And although I was as careful as possible, I spent lots of money, which I figured was OK, because I expected to make lots of sales, as I had at similar conferences in the US.

And then I arrived, and things went downhill from there.

I was feeling pretty good on day one: I found my hotel right away, and though I was not able to check in, I was able to dump my bags and go off exploring. The art store people came through, and I picked up 400 Euros worth of mats and backing boards with no problem. I created a little mounting shop in my room and got all my paintings ready for sale.  Then I discovered that my scarf rack hadn’t arrived. No biggie, I still had a day before the conference started, and the concierge at the hotel helped me to contact the shipper to arrange re-delivery.

The next morning, I set off for the conference center to set up.  Exhibitor set-up started at 8 am. When I arrived around 10, I found that the furniture for the booths had not been delivered. Oh. Check back later this afternoon, they said.

I headed back to the hotel. Still no scarf rack. Shit. Amazon’s shipper claims that “the business was closed when they tried to deliver,” which is absurd because it is A HOTEL. I set off to the local shops to see what I could find as a substitute, and came up with something not too expensive.

Then I went back to the conference center, where I found hundreds of people milling around outside. The building had been evacuated because of a fire alarm. Oh. After 45 minutes or so, they reopened the building, and I went in and found my art exhibitor neighbors busy setting up. “Weren’t you evacuated?” “Evacuated? Huh?”

The exhibitor to my right, let’s call her Sophia, had a much more elaborate booth than the rest of the artists, with three complete walls. “Had I not received an email promising me a booth with three walls?” she asked. I had not. As noted, I was promised space only, so I was pretty delighted to get a back wall, the same as all the other art exhibitors. Oh well.

As we set up, I was amazed to discover that (let’s call her) Sophia had come from (let’s call it) New Zealand. She told me that her local arts council had paid for her booth. I thought “lucky her,” but figured that the cost of her plane ticket and expenses for coming from NZ would still have been enormous.

The next morning, I discovered otherwise. The art exhibitors had signed a contract to be in the exhibits hall from 9:30 to 5:30 for three days.  I guess I was the only one who actually read that, because around 10:30, I was pretty much alone when an irate woman with a “New Zealand” accent came up to my booth and asked me if I had seen Sophia. Not today, I said. “Well,” she said, “she’s my employee and I’m a bit salty because she’s supposed to be at her poster session right now. I paid for her plane ticket to come here and she never said a word to me about having an art booth.” 😮

When Sophia eventually turned up, I told her that the boss had come looking for her. She explained that she was staying with a friend in the suburbs and that the train service was interrupted. I mean, OK, things happen. But by now it looked like she had 1) extracted an extra-special booth from the conference organizers and 2) got someone else to pay for it, then 3) got someone else to pay for her expensive plane ticket without informing them that she would be spending most of the conference doing something else and then 4) blew ALL of it off, showing up hours late for both the art and the science.

At this point, I am just
 but I decide to ignore the whole Sophia situation. What could I do, anyway? 

I should probably mention here that I had personally urged the conference organizers to have art exhibitors, so I feel somewhat responsible for the whole thing being a success. I tweet photos of all the artists’ work. I show up at 9 and stay until 6. I don’t take lunch breaks because the lines for the food are enormous. But I cannot will success into being.

The exhibit hall booths are very far apart, with a carpeted “highway” leading from one poster area to the next, encouraging conference-goers to march right past the exhibits without looking. There’s a trickle of customers. People keep asking me if my stuff is available online (yes but it’s RIGHT HERE NOW and if you buy it online you have to pay to have it shipped from the US). It turns out that nobody cares that my paintings are matted for standard frame sizes (it’s a big selling point in the US). Nobody even looks at my large paintings. I had painted 24 A4 size paintings. I sold 3. 

By day 5, I am despondent. Amazon continues to claim that they have tried to deliver my package over and over. I send them an all-caps email explaining that I managed to find the hotel in 5 minutes on the subway despite having never been to Let’s-call-it-Vienna before, and that there is always someone at the front desk. They refund my money.

I have not eaten in a restaurant the whole time I was in LCI Vienna, instead getting food from supermarkets. I was planning to treat myself to a nice restaurant meal once I got into the black after expenses. When it becomes clear that it will never happen, I decide to splash out anyway, and make plans to meet two internet friends who live in town for dinner. The day of the dinner, they both blow me off, one because the World Cup was on, one because she “needed a nap”. I leave town without ever having been in a restaurant, not having shared a meal with another person all week.

The day I fly out, it pours. The elevator in the subway stop is out of order, so I have to drag my bag (filled with all the unsold work) down the stairs in the rain. When I get to the station where the airport bus comes, there is no elevator at all, so I drag it back up the stairs, as four people having a cigarette break stare curiously.  I am very happy to leave.

The next day, I go on Twitter and Instagram and post pictures about my European adventure, which went great.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Variations Opens June 1 at Artists & Makers

June 1-27 at Artists & Makers 1 in Rockville, MD

Opening Reception: Friday, June 1, 6-9 pm 

In science, a variation is any difference between cells, individual organisms, or groups of organisms caused either by genetic differences or by the effect of environmental factors on the expression of genes. In music, a variation is the repetition of a theme or musical idea with changes or embellishments in harmony, rhythm, or key. In my art, these two definitions merge. Inspired by my stay in a science lab in Paris that studies evolution in fruit flies, this exhibit of watercolors and ink paintings brings together work that explores the idea of variation in all its senses.

Artists & Makers Studios 1
11810 Parklawn Dr., Suite 210
Rockville, MD 20852
More information here

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Updated! Upcoming Art Events for Summer-Fall 2017

Looking to start or add to your collection of unique, science-inspired art? Here's where you'll find me over the next few months: 

July 12-16
State College, PA

August 26
Washington, DC

September 1 - November 1
Johns Hopkins University, Montgomery County Campus
Rockville, MD 

September 23
Hyattsville, MD

October 7
Alexandria, VA

October 16-18
Global Conference on Pharmaceutical Microbiology
Bethesda, MD

November 11-15
Washington, DC

November 24-25
Bazaart at AVAM
Baltimore, MD 

December 3-5
Philadelphia, PA

December 9
Crystal City, VA

And of course you can always find my work on etsy

Monday, May 22, 2017

Zone of Resistance

Apart from a few anti-Bush efforts way back at the beginning of my career, I've pretty much avoided making political art. But it was impossible for me, as an artist, an American, and a proud resident of Washington, DC, not to be affected by the political turmoil of the past year. I've been protesting my heart out, and eventually I channeled my anger, despair and hope into Zone of Resistance, a mixed-media piece (watercolor, plastic and resin), inspired by the pattern that forms when antibiotics meet pathogens in a petri dish. (i don't want to over-explain it, but that's pink power overcoming the harmful bacteria) I hope to show it at an exhibition in DC next month.

Update: Zone of Resistance will be on display at the DCCAH Eye Street Gallery from June 16-August 11, in the lobby at 200 I Street, SE in Washington, DC. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Thank Me for Coming

Let me say this right up front: none of this is a big deal. I know that. And I also know that what I’m about to tell you has happened to many people before me and will happen to many after. But it’s been a few months and I still can’t shake the hurt, so I decided to write about it anyway.

On December 10, 2016, midway between the national body blows of Hillary Clinton’s electoral loss and Donald Trump’s inauguration, I had a small, personal one of my own. That evening, a reception was held for my first solo gallery show in more than 10 years, and nobody came. Not one single person.

None of my hundreds of facebook friends. None of my thousands of twitter followers. Most painfully, though, not a single one of the hundreds of people whose openings I have attended in my 15 plus years of making art in DC. Not one.

I know there were some good reasons. It was a busy weekend. Several other art spaces were having events. Holiday festivities were no doubt underway. But all the same, not one single person decided that mine was the event that they would put first. And that hurts like kneeling on gravel.

I immediately decided never to go to anyone’s opening again. And then I decided to go to everyone’s, so it would never happen to any of my friends. But even with all of the time and the alcohol and the yoga that have passed since that night, I still feel a little bitter every time I show up to a bustling opening and am greeted by all the usual people. The people who didn’t show up for me.

Now I find myself seriously considering whether I should ever try again. I had already applied for a show out in the suburbs in Virginia, but hey! I got rejected, so I no longer had to worry whether anyone would come or not. A show at AU? Chances are a little better that some people might come to a show in DC, but hey! I got rejected, so I’ll never have to find out.

For every exhibition opportunity I have considered since that day, I’m adding an extra layer of dread on top of the usual likelihood of getting rejected. What if I am selected, and I work on a show for months, and once again nobody comes? There is so much effort and expense involved in putting together a solo exhibition, I just don’t know whether I can, or should, even bother.

For now, I’m sticking to festivals, where it’s someone else’s job to draw the crowd, and to the internet, where people seem to like the cartoon version of me. Who knows, maybe in three weeks, or three months, or another ten years, an amazing opportunity for a show will come up, and I’ll do it and it will be great. Or maybe it won’t.

In the meantime, if you should see me at your opening, thank me for coming. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Arctic Bride

Michele Banks, The Arctic Bride, Mixed Media, 2017 

With Arctic sea ice at its lowest-ever recorded levels, and the administration poised to roll back environmental protections, spring of 2017 seemed like a good time for a wedding. For my seventh appearance at Artomatic, I decided to show this piece, The Arctic Bride, instead of my usual paintings. This mixed-media piece (yes, that's a real wedding dress that I bought on eBay) considers the marriage of Ice and Carbon. I first had the idea for this piece when I was working with Jessica Beels and Ellyn Weiss on Voyage of Discovery, our climate-inspired show at the AAAS in 2014. Looking at pictures ice and snow in the Arctic, I was reminded of the thick, glossy, pristine white draping of a wedding dress, and all the concepts of purity tied up in that image. 

For that show, we ended up making a larger, much more abstract piece called Waning Albedo.

Waning Albedo, Jessica Beels, Michele Banks and Ellyn Weiss, Mixed Media, 2014

I decided to revisit the idea in this piece. I'll leave it for others to tease out the layers of meaning here, but I think we can all agree that this marriage will be dangerous and damaging for the beautiful bride. 

Artomatic, which features the work of 600+ artists, runs through May 6 at 1800 South Bell Street in Arlington. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Pay, Pay, Pay to Play

I don’t like to fight on twitter, but when somebody told me that, unlike scientists, artists and writers never publish their work for free, I had no choice.  Ahem. 


I’ve been a professional artist for over 15 years. Here’s how I make money: I put my work in gallery shows and art festivals and I sell it online. The first two, and to some extent all three, are emphatically pay-to-play.

With very rare exceptions, an artist who shows in any type of gallery gets no pay for actually making the work. She buys all the supplies, paints or sculpts, frames and mounts, and delivers ready-to-display work to the gallery. In many cases, the artist also pays for photography of her work, postcards to advertise the show, and even the food and wine for the opening.  In return, the gallery provides display space, hanging, publicity, back-office functions and, ideally, buyers, in exchange for a commission (usually 50%) on sold works. But of course, there is no guarantee that any work will sell, so many artists end up thousands of dollars in the hole for gallery shows.

Artists who show at festivals also pay upfront in hopes of making money. Most shows charge application fees ranging from $25-50, and booth fees ranging from $100-1,000, depending on the size and prestige of the show. Artists generally have to provide a display system, a payment system, and a bunch of finished work (not to mention tools, bags, business cards and usually a tent). If you don’t earn back your booth fee, do you get your money back? Hahahahahahahaha.

Even Etsy, where I make most of my money, requires upfront investment by the artist in terms of making, photographing and listing work for sale. Their fees are pretty low, but again, if your stuff doesn’t sell, you’ll be out some time, money and listing fees.

Now let’s do writers. Hey, maybe you wrote a great short story and you want to publish it. Say you’re already well-known and The New Yorker wants to publish your story. Sure, they’ll pay. But if you’re not an established writer, chances are you’ll be publishing that story in a literary journal for nothing.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

Just a note on the science side. Most scientists in academia who are publishing in journals are getting paid to do science. They get a salary or at least a grad-school stipend. Most science research is funded by grants. Part of the grant money is usually set aside for the publishing fees. Are the economics of scientific journal publishing profoundly tilted to the benefit of the publishers vis-à-vis the scientists? Probably! Does this mean that scientists who publish are working for free? Not really.