Arts & Life

One Artist's Secret To Success

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Most artists struggle financially during the best of times and now they face an economy that's bad for everyone. But one Denver artist is confident he'll weather the current economy the same way he's thrived for 40 years.


All right. Maybe not everybody at once. Art is a luxury item. There's no way around that. Many artists are worried that during this recession people just won't buy. NPR's Alison Bryce reports on a Denver artist who insists that he has found the secret to weathering the financial crisis.

ALISON BRYCE: Bob Ragland survives by being a tough can do kind of man.

MR. BOB RAGLAND (Artist, Denver, CO): I get up everyday and give my art career the best that I can give it. I may not be the best artist, but I give my art life the best effort.

BRYCE: He wears a button that reads, "Non-Starving Artist," because he got tired of people always asking him what else he does to make money.

Mr. RAGLAND: I said, I don't do anything else. I said, my whole life is about art. I instructed, I make the art work, I read about it, I eat and sleep and breathe it all the time, and I said it can be done.

BRYCE: Ragland is in his 60s and for the last 40 years he's worked solely as an artist. How does he do it? He's a disciplined and creative businessman. He markets himself to anyone who will listen. His work is respected, but affordable. He lets people buy his art in installments and he doesn't show in galleries. He says he can sell his art a lot better and faster than any art gallery can.

Mr. RAGLAND: I've never had anybody wake up one day and say, Geez, we're out of Raglands. We better go get some. That never happened.

BRYCE: And Ragland has worked to cut his overhead. He paid off his mortgage years ago, in one afternoon by announcing that if people came over with $300 in their pockets, they could choose any two pieces of his work. We're in his home, which is also his studio.

Mr. RAGLAND: We're going to go upstairs to the second level.

BRYCE: Books, boxes and paintings are crammed, four feet high in every room.

Mr. RAGLAND: There you go. I got stuff hanging on the door and all that, and I'll turn the light on here if I can. Oops!

BRYCE: Wait Bob, what's this, "The Artist Survival Handbook"? Ragland put together a pamphlet 20 years ago giving tips on what to do to survive as an artist. He wrote short paragraphs about the importance of handing out business cards, collecting cardboard, bartering and understanding taxes. He flips to find his definition of recession.

Mr. RAGLAND: People will spend money no matter how hard times are. And that was my whole thing about recessions, I think. Recessions - oh, here it is, people buy less, but they buy better.

BRYCE: He means that people tend to invest in one piece of art that will hold its value instead of buying cheaper pieces that may not. Bob Ragland's art can sell for high prices. His art is in the collection of the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art in Denver.

Three of his life-size found object sculptures stand in the Kirkland Garden and his oils, watercolors and charcoals are sprinkled throughout the sprawling museum. Hugh Grant is the director of the Kirkland Museum and picks up Ragland's painting of a shack.

Mr. HUGH GRANT (Director, Kirkland Museum): Well, this one, it's a very small watercolor, but it looks very wide-open and spacious, and there's some kind of black birds flying around, and there is this gray sky with just traces of red and orange sunset.

BRYCE: The painting is a good example of his style. He takes a humble object or scene and turns it into a dazzling piece, and Ragland writes on the back of all of his paintings. Again, Hugh Grant…

Mr. GRANT: He says for instance, I always liked old buildings and shacks. They have a history. I painted this from memory, testing my ability to work big in watercolor. So, he is constantly testing and reinventing himself which you need to do if you are a really fine artist.

BRYCE: For Ragland, part of being an artist is teaching. He teaches art at a technical high school in Denver.

RAGLAND: I'm going to make your foot go that way. OK. You are wide there. OK?

BRYCE: Ragland shows Esmeralda Oriostiky(ph) how to draw a real looking leg. Before she took his class, she didn't know it was possible to make a living as an artist.

Ms. ESMERALDA ORIOSTIKY: Being an artist doesn't mean you're going to, like, be poor or anything. It just means, like, you got to find the right way to work.

BRYCE: The way to work is what she's learned from Ragland. You've got to spend half your time creating art and half your time marketing it. Ragland says he learns to be a better businessman and artist every day, and he never listens to art critics.

Mr. RAGLAND: Rejection has made me everything I am. I just eat rejection in a sandwich, and it makes me stronger. You know, tough times never last, but tough people do, and I'm in the latter.

BRYCE: During this recession, Ragland is holding what he calls shoebox art fairs, selling small pieces for less than a hundred dollars. Alison Bryce, NPR News.

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