Sunday, September 7, 2014

Elliot Silberman Talks About 40 Years of Drawing Portraits and More

Elliot Silberman has many passions including fishing, making jug band music and Dylan. This interview focuses on his lifetime of drawing portraits at art fairs along with other related endeavors. Portions of this interview appeared in this week's Reader.

EN: When did you start drawing portraits?

Elliot Silberman: The early 70's, while working at Bethany Children’s Home. I had my own office with a piano, and started sketching the teens mostly, as they came in and out. That’s how I started. There were no Arts and Crafts shows then. Sidewalk sales, West Duluth Days celebration, the Folk Festival was really the only one. At some point then I approached the commander of Goldfine’s by the bridge, asking her if I could set up by the cafe upstairs and do 5 minute portrait sketches on weekends. Did that all summer, later trying the Canal Park area; I was hassled a bit by local police (“Got a permit, young man?”) Grandma's had a couple of barber chairs, and allowed me to sketch there for a spell.

EN: What kind of setup did you have?

ES: I don’t recall having much of a display back then. Just two chairs, and a small easel with one framed sample on it. I charged $1 back then, happy to get it. Never did make more than $30 a day at Canal Park. It never did turn on for me, don’t know why. Even the past few years, I tried the Lakewalk during the day when families were there, tried evenings when couples came out. Tried over by the blue bridge… never did a one. Over the years I tried the tourist boat, the tourist train. I would buy the local paper, and go thru it, looking for crowds. I hit a couple of realty companies twice a week, asking for apartment painting jobs, floor refinishing, house painting, stuff like that. During raising a family, with 3 kids, I taught some adult education classes, too. Guitar picking, water color painting. We had been living in a renovated, add-on cabin, with no overhead. I remember the first art show in Canal Park, I made $50 a day for two days. I said to my wife, "Honey, if I can make $300 a month, I think we can make it. Life insurance, health insurance, car insurance, what was that? We had a garden, too, and a retired nurse down the road who we could bounce health-related questions off of, explaining the symptoms from the kids being sick.

EN: How has the art show scene changed since those early days?

ES: Now, art shows have changed el mucho. The first 20 years were very exciting. Most are average people who wouldn't go to galleries to view art. They loved shopping in grassy parks. I was charging $2 or $3 a sketch at that time. I never would have ventured into public sketching if I would have started charging $5 or more per sketch. That way if I screwed up, which I did, I would give it 3 shots. If I didn’t get a sketch that had a resemblance, "See ya. No charge!" I took the hit.

It was hard not knowing what to expect from myself. Soon every mall had two arts and crafts shows. The two biggest malls in Minneapolis-St. Paul charged $15 for a four-day show. This was very new then, and brought lots of people into the malls. I did very well. Slept on a friend’s couch. I would sketch for hours, people lined up behind me. It was great. And I was improving all the time. At this time caricaturists started showing up everywhere. It became hard to compete with them... I’m still trying to outrun them as they venture out, like I was doing. I knew two caricature artists who started training others in their trade, sending them out by fives to high school parties, which I was doing. I found what I enjoyed most is casual portraits. That is, no fake smiles, no pressure.

About this time I got into the Minnesota Renaissance Festival as a peddler. Everything in a pack, on the hoof. It was embarrassing to wear tights, but I survived. November thru April, I did malls, and I did well. From Rice Lake, Wisconsin and thru the Midwest. I got spoiled.

EN: When did things begin to change?

ES: The art show was one of the greatest ideas brought forth. It gave the average person a chance to market their work, and the average person to buy art and crafts, especially functional pottery. The second 20 years was different. Some of us could see the writing on the wall, as more businesses threw in arts ‘n crafts into their sales as part of their marketing idea.

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PART TWO of this interview will be posted tomorrow. 

You can learn more about Elliot's music and art at his Icehouse Studio website. 

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