This is part three of a four part series of articles about my personal life. My wife and I used to be potters; in this business, we sold hard crafted stoneware pottery in gift shops and galleries all across the US as well as art show, mostly the Western US. We did this for almost twenty five years between 1973 and 1995. After we sold the pottery business, we became landscape phototographers. In this business we sold large framed photographs in high end art shows from Phoenix to Oklahoma City and lots of places in-between. We were photographers from 1995 to 2010.
This article is about some of the spectacular disasters we had on the art show road.
Most art shows take place in the great outdoors, in local parks, parking lots or on main street. All artists use flimsy aluminum and nylon tents to show their wares and most of these tents are chock full of costly art works, sometimes worth as much as several hundred thousand dollars worth of art in one small tent. As you might imagine, this is a disaster waiting to happen. Wind is usually the culprit. Most artists are pretty well prepared for rain, heat, cold, hail and snow, but wind is something else again, not to mention hurricanes, tornadoes, and violent thunderstorms, all of which have hit most artists at one time or another.
The basic space that artists buy at art shows is a 10’x10′ square or pavement or grass, so show tents are that size also, unless you rent a double space which is 10’x20′. No matter how you cut it, a nylon and aluminum box 10’x10’x10′ is pretty vulnerable.
There are all kinds of show tents that range from very, very, very vulnerable to just plain vulnerable. One of the tents in the first category is the Easy Up which pops up from a compact bundle the size of an elongated suitcase to a full blown tent in about five minutes. Of course there is a down side to this ultra-fast set up: Easy Up tents very soon came to be known as Easy Downs since they were always the first tents down when even a mild thunder storm blew through.
After our show tent blew down in the very early stages of our career we moved up to the heavy duty Cadillac of show tents, the Craft Hut. These tents have a solid steel frame, many individual, small, strong, steel and aluminum parts that unfortulately take about two hours to set up. The long setup time is a huge hassle, but it is worth it since Craft Hut tents are much less likely to blow down.
Over the years artists have devised more and more sophisticated ways of storm-proofing show tents. The first tents had no sides at all and so every one would have to completely take down and re-setup every day of a show. It wasn’t long before artists were wrapping tents in forty foot long sheets of plastic so they could leave them safely overnight. After a few years of this, zip-on sides began to appear and now-a-days, at the end of a long show day, 99% of all artists zip up their tents in just a few minutes and head for the nearest bar or restaurant. This was all very cool, but the downside was that now you had 200 tents full of very expensive artwork, which were vulnerable to every storm and which were left unattended all night long. Soon there were lots of horror stories of more and more blown down tents.
So, the next thought was how to keep these lonely tents from blowing down in the middle of the night in the event of a storm. The obvious answer was more weight, so artists started tieing all kinds of objects to their tent legs: cement blocks, sand bags, water bags, solid cylinders of steel, body building weights and PVC tubes filled with concrete.
This worked pretty well until one day a huge storm came along and picked up the weighted tents and threw the weights through the sides of their neighbor’s tents and into the windshields of nearby cars. Oh yes, this has happened many times. Then people started nailing tents down to the asphalt in parking lots with cement nails, driving two foot long steel stakes into grassy show sites and screwing those corkscrew dog leash fasteners into the sod of parks. The latter two tricks worked great until too many people pounded their stakes into sprinkler system lines and flooded the whole park (and the whole show) in the middle of the night when the sprinkler systems came on. And that was pretty much the end of stakes.
All of these precautions helped greatly, but it’s impossible to tame Mother Nature forever and some pretty spectacular disasters still take place every year. Certain areas have gained a reputation as fearsome places to hold an art show. There is a long running art show held every spring in downtown Fort Worth that has a wide-spread reputation for high winds. And high winds have been a part of every show I’ve done in Fort Worth . I have seen a whole row of tents tumbling down the middle of the street like tumbleweeds in a spring dust storm on the Texas plains. I have seen tents hanging from stoplights suspended over a busy street corner. I have seen tents impaled on balconies three stories above the street. After a while it got so bad and the losses so high that the show promoters set up their own tents made of two inch steel pipe and weighted down at all the corners with fifty gallon drums of water. These tents definitely didn’t blow away but they were so leaky that artists had to pitch their own small tents inside these larger tents which made an already difficult setup twice as hard.
Oklahoma City is another place for awesome weather in the spring. This show is right at the end of April, right in the middle of tornado season. All through the show the management broadcasts regular tornado warnings that keep everyone on edge for the whole six days of the show. Everyone is so worried about tornados that many artists have an ad hoc tornado shelter picked out that they will run to in case a tornado actually shows up.
Our favorite tornado shelter at the Oklahoma show was a concrete lined stairway that led to the underground entrance of a nearby building. The Oklahome City show promoters, like those in Fort Worth, also supply their own leaky tents held down with 55 gallon drums of water. Unfortunately these tents are not large enough for artists to set up their own tents inside, so we have to line the entire inside with plastic that never keeps the water out.
One year at the Oklahoma City show the rains and winds got so bad that everyone made trips to the local lumber yard and jerry rigged huts and porches and awnings to the tents until the whole place looked like some transplanted third world shanty town. We did keep dry until the show promoters finally made us disassemble the whole ugly mess. And then we got wet and lost pictures. Some some of the artists got into such violent altercations with the management over porches and booth additions that they were booted out of the show never to get juried in again.
We do a lot of shows in Colorado and even though the storms are not quite as ferocious as the spring Midwest storms, we have gone through some doozeys there also. One of the most memorable was a freak dust devil that went through a Breckenridge show one afternoon. One jeweler’s entire tent got picked 30 feet straight up into the air, spinning and tumbling and scattering silver and gold jewelry over a 100 foot area. Finally the whole tent, now empty of jewelry, flew over the entire show from the far rear corner to the very front of the show, over a hundred yards, whirling higher and higher into the sky. It finally flew over Main street, in front of the show, over a two story house across the street and lodged on the top of a house in the next block. I don’t think that poor jeweler ever did find all of his jewelry.
Once in a while water can be a disaster all by itself. I remember one show in Fountain Hills, Arizona many years ago where it rained all Saturday night and the next morning the wide boulevard where we were set up was full of eight inches of brown, muddy, swiftly running water from curb to curb. A lot of people who had left artwork on the ground lost everything. One photographer friend had taken all his pictures off the walls in preparation for the high winds that had been predicted and stacked everyone of them , bottom edge to the ground on the floor of his booth. He lost every single picture he had: framed pictures, matted pictures, everything. I’m sorry to say that storm put him out of business.
Our most complete show disaster happened in Carefree, Arizona eight or ten years ago. It had been a cold, windy March Saturday all day long. At closing time we zipped the tents shut tightly, tied on extra weights, nailed down into the asphalt pavement and went to dinner with friends. I can remember looking out of the window in the restaurant, watching the palm trees bending and whipping in the wind. We all commented on the wind, but no one was too worried; we were all veterans of storms far worse than this one and had good heavy-duty tents that we had a lot of confidence in. After dinner we walked home along streets littered with palm fronds and overturned garbage cans and walked past our tents. All was well, we were surviving the wind fine.
Joan and I and a friend returned to our pickup camper, turned on the heater, broke out the wine and popcorn and our friend, a very good egg tempera painter, played folk songs on his guitar. As he sang and played the camper rocked from side to side as strong gusts of wind smashed into to it every few minutes. About 10 PM we heard a banging on the door. When we opened it an out-of-breath friend shouted over the wind that the show was being destroyed. “Half the show is gone already, there are a hundred tents down, we need help, now, fast,” she said. We didn’t believe it. We thought she was exaggerating. No way could half the show be down, maybe a tent or two. But we promised to help and and got our coats on and went out into the dark.
When we got out there it was apparent that Judy wasn’t exaggerating. Half of the show was down. Joan and I ran to our booth but it was holding up. The heavy polypropylene sides were bowed in four feet on the windward side and the picture panels had been scooted several feet sideways, but we were still there. So we went to help other people who had smashed tents and blown-away tents and all sorts of disasters. I was helping another photographer pick up framed pictures off the ground and trying to salvage what we could when another friend ran in and said, “Fred, your tent is down, flat down. You better get over there quick.” When I got back to my tent I saw that it had blown completely over. This was a 10×20 double tent nailed to the pavement and held down with almost four hundred pounds of weights. The weights on the windward side of the tent had been completely picked up and flung over the top of the tent when it went over. Unfortunately there was a car parked on the back side of the tent and the weights had crashed into it, smashing it pretty much into smithereens.
One of the worst aspects of the disaster was that in those days we framed all our pictures, even large 40″x50″s in glass. Now-a-days we don’t use glass; we laminate all of our pictures instead of using glass.
That night all of our pictures were on the pavement and much of the glass was broken and many more pictures had massive damage to the frames. In fact the whole tent was a mass of rubble about a foot high with broken pictures poking out of twisted and broken tent-frame members and shredded nylon. And then, to add to our misery, it started to rain on top of the rubble. Luckily, many of our show friends who hadn’t lost their tents showed up to help. I pulled our truck and show trailer right next to what used to be our show tent and everyone helped load what was left of our pictures, mangled show panels and equipment into the trailer.
The next morning we heard that the show had been hit by a series of mini tornados with winds up to 70 mph. Our tent was located at the end of a long straight street facing directly into the wind that had howled down a street which had tuned into a huge wind tunnel. We had been OK until all the tents in front of us blew down. The last tent in front of us to go was a huge, heavy, super-stable triple tent that had sheltered us for a long time. But when it finally went down there was nothing left to protect us and in the next gust our tent went down as well.
Even though we did lose a good number of pictures, we were able to go with the show the next day as we had a spare show tent that we could set up. So, we had a dent and scratch sale and sold many of the pictures that were damaged in the storm. In the end we actually had a good show. The guy whose car got pulverized by our flying weights was completely reimbursed by his insurance. Our old tent was cannibalized by friends for the few undamaged parts left and the rest went into a huge pile of junk show tents that was sent off to the dump in a very large dump truck. We bought a new and even stouter tent and life went on.
So goes life on the show road. You never know what new disasters the next show season will bring, but it’s all part of being an artist doing shows on the road.