Guerilla Story: Sylvie Explores the Secrets of the Artful Self-Promoter

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In 2001, I self-published a book of spoken word poetry called Hoxton Square Circles: Starfucking Tales of Sexless One-Night Stands. I didn’t have a clue about bar codes and ISBN numbers or anything else about publishing for that matter. I quickly recruited some fledgling graphic designers, sent the book to press, put out a CD, set up a book launch, did a lot of postering, had a film crew on site, and later distributed copies in stores.

Three years hence, I’m still paying off the line of credit used to finance the book and there are no new recruits to the Starfucker Press label. It wasn’t for a lack of interest–I just didn’t know how to finance or legally represent other writers. Number crunching showed I was actually losing money on every book I sold. And, after a contractual catastrophe with a Toronto artist whose sketches were about to go in my book, I realized without a good set of balls and the legal savvy to manage your talent and work, as an artist you’re up shit’s creek.

Yet along with this harsh reality came a lingering suspicion: Had I been more deeply rooted in a community of artists during my self-publishing experiment, I would surely have been more connected and, therefore, more educated about my rights and options. I would have had some helpful company while paddling up shit’s creek.

To test the strength of my theory in the pages of Guerilla, I spoke recently with a broad range of Ottawa artists–writers, zine-makers and photographers, visual artists and musicians–to find out what they knew about promoting their work locally. I wanted to hear about the pitfalls and challenges they have faced in self-promotion and, in the process, perhaps discover what makes an arts community helpful and supportive, and what makes it poisonous and debilitating.

A little help from your friends
My first lesson centred on the huge role community plays in encouraging and supporting art in Ottawa. This means that when it comes self-promotion, a friendly, sociable and genuine personality often wins the day.

“People who care about culture encourage others to keep bringing out things that are new and fresh,” says Rolf Klausener, The Acorn band front man and Recoilers bassist. “A sense of community is crucial to an artist’s development. Where people are aware of each other, it urges you on. It’s an energizing atmosphere. It’s competitive in a way, but as long as you feel you’re doing something good and not contrived, people will support it.”

So community rocks. But can you get too much of a good thing? When does community bleed into clique?

According to Drew the Drunken Dragon, promoter of the now defunct Spoken Word Broken Brushes, the key aspects of a community are individuals with inspiration and vision and how they hang out. “Cliques are uncool because of their exclusionary element. Part of art to me is openness and not about closing off,” Drew says. “It’s about sharing. It’s not about stodgy intellectuals who want to laugh amongst themselves,” he says.

Matthew Firth, Black Bile Press and Front & Centre litzine writer, takes it further: He can’t stand self-centered, egomaniacal writers. “There are already too many in this land, too many everywhere. 99% of the time I’d rather have a beer with the guys I play hockey with than with other writers I know.”

Neither Drew nor Matthew digs that air of superficial intelligence or superiority. “If you have powers, share them,” says Drew very diplomatically. “Don’t stand on a podium.”

And what about Ottawa’s literary world? Are “doing something good,” being kind, and producing some genuine art the keys to success here too? In my writing endeavours I’ve certainly come across some very helpful scribes such as Suki Lee (WestFest lit curator) or Kris Northey and Pierre Ringwald (founders of Step Up Slam), or Nth Degree and Megan Butcher. Their enthusiasm and down-to-earth approach are very cultivating. Events organized by these and other writers help shape and encourage the writing community–events such as Poattica, so named because it is held in the attic belonging to Wanda O, a 2004 CBC Poetry Face-Off participant.

“It’s competitive in a way. But as long as you feel you’re doing something good and not contrived, people will support it.”

Making a fat-ass impact in a face-value kinda town
When I reviewed Howie Tsui’s paintings more than a year ago for Toronto’s now defunct art magazine, Lola, I was blown away not only by his art, but also by his determination and assertive self promotion.

Shrewd as he is, Tsui had no stories about getting screwed over due to a lack of marketing savy or poor self-promotion. But he did have some input on the challenges of making what he calls a “fat ass impact” in Ottawa.

“The strength of the work speaks for itself, and if you’ve got some hype shit, word will get around and the local media and curators may get interested,” Howie says. His formula is simple. He suggests artists should try “working like a neurotic maniac on your art and worrying about business cards later.”

But aside from building a stellar collection of works to show, Howie acknowledges that personality traits can also be crucial to self-promotion success: “If you’re pretty introverted and shy, it may be tricky meeting people, making aesthetic links and discussing art with your peers. If you’re sociable but aggressive and creepy, that might not be too good either.”

Artist Jennifer Whiteford, a DIY queen and creator of, is the furthest thing from creepy and she happens to agree with Howie: “I’m not sure if this is true in lots of other cities or what, but I think you have to be very social to be a successful artist in Ottawa.” Being obscure and mysterious would not help here much because Ottawa is a “very face-value kind of town,” says Jennifer.

Jennifer was greatly encouraged by people such as Jim Munroe, he of the Perpetual Motion Roadshow and Ladyfest. Other cultivators who give golden opportunities to literary artists include the TREE reading series, Nichole McGill’s durtygurls events and Jeffrey Ross’s Subterran reading series.

Sweet Kharma and helping hands

For an artist just starting out, such as 22-year-old Ashley Stevens, “it’s about being in the right place at the right time,” she says.

Not long ago, Ashley was featured in a CBC report about making it as an artist in Ottawa. And since then, it has been a relatively smooth ride for this former Canterbury High School student. Even before high-school graduation she was commissioned to do a series of paintings for Kanata’s posh Brook Street Hotel.

In addition to the good fortune which landed her the hotel gig (which featured12 paintings of her pierced and tattooed friends), Stevens has made many important connections at her place of employment, the Mud Oven clay studio. Here Ashley was approached by JC Sulzenko, author of the children’s book Fat poems Tall poems Long poems Small. Sulzenko hired Stevens to create illustrations for the book.

“It’s all about kharma,” Ashley told me nonchalantly over breakfast. “What goes around comes around. I really haven’t come across anyone who hasn’t been a helping person.”

Sounds great. But is Ashley in for a rude awakening?

No more Mr. Nice Guy, hello DIY
Aside from being uber-talented, super nice, having a mentor and letting some things fall into your lap, getting your art out there often requires one other thing: good old fashioned hard work. But once you get it out there, then what? Earning a living by actually selling work is another matter entirely.

Even if you’ve produced tons of material, Tsui points out, “Who the hell are you going to promote your work to in this town–the handful of lame ass commercial galleries in the Market who sell landscapes to tourists and take a 50% cut?” Tsui feels Ottawa fares poorly when compared to the markets in Europe, and even Toronto.

There are similarities in the literary world, for instance, where most booksellers take a 40% cut of your book sales no matter where you live. 2002 CBC Poetry Face-Off champ and author of Shock Therapy, Matt Peake had a little fun explaining his own “screwjob by Chapters” when trying to market and sell his book in Ottawa through the book chain: “They wanted 80% of all receipts and wouldn’t stock the book unless I put a picture of Dr. Phil on the cover and packaged it with a World Music CD they could play repeatedly in Starbucks to demonstrate Seattle’s international flavour.”

Matt may be exaggerating for effect, but not by much. Depending on the accessibility of your art, there simply may not be a huge audience for it in Ottawa.

“Edgy stuff or work inspired by artists from a dense metropolis with a thriving subcultural community doesn’t register within the consciousness or aesthetic tastes of a majority of Ottawa,” says Howie. “The cliché of a conservative town surely holds true.”

Visual artist Diana Gaunt is another creative person helping to push boundaries but she too has come up against that conservative limitation. In 2003, Gaunt made her own nude body the subject of a photography exhibit called “Exposed.” Though the work was startling and well received, she, like many visual artists, had to utilize a local pub for exhibiting space.

“When I showed at the Manx Pub, obviously it’s a public space and it’s not really a private gallery of any kind. But because it was a pub, I figured generally speaking, everyone is 17 or older ”¦however, out of the nine shots in the show, only six could be shown.”

Another resourceful visual artist, Tanja Handa–whose works are literally pages from her personal, visual diary–recently made use of an even more unconventional venue: Her parents’ travel agency located in the Sparks Street Mall.

“I thought that the travel agency would work against me,” said Tanja. “This is no-man’s land. No one has shown at a travel agency before.” Handa’s bold foray led to the sale of many pieces in the show. (The modest success, however, didn’t change Handa’s plan to leave Ottawa this fall. She’s now in Switzerland.)

“Who the hell are you going to promote your work to in this town–the handful of lame ass commercial galleries in the Market who sell landscapes to tourists and take a 50% cut?”

Selling out, or just plain selling?
What is selling out versus earning a living? It’s a fine line.

For her part, Gaunt is not shy about charging the right price for her photographic works. “You have to value yourself as an artist,” she says. “If you underestimate your place, well, you have to sell it for what it’s worth. It’s a lot of time and effort.” Gaunt explains that she may spend an entire day in the darkroom and still come out with a lousy print. So, when she’s crafted a good one, it’s worth the price tag.

If sales are not paying the bills, the pursuit of grants and other funding can certainly help, but Firth is not a big fan of the funding frenzy. He simply doesn’t think that getting grants and funding makes a good writer. “Just because the Canada Council is here in Ottawa is no reason to go lusting after that tit; don’t start thinking that an artist is only someone who gets a fucking grant and quits their day job and removes him/herself from the real world and starts writing or producing masturbatory rubbish.”

Matt recognizes he may sound a bit harsh, so he clarifies: “I just mean, get your head out of your arse and stop trying to get government funding for what you’re doing. Stop trying to latch on to the government nipple and suck and suck. Make what you do viable on its own terms, make it viable for other reasons besides financial ones.”

But without public assistance, is it even possible to earn a living in a city which, according to Howie Tsui, so undervalues its local art? “It’s somewhat disheartening to see people flinch at a $200 price tag of an eight by 10 inch original painting, when in other Canadian cities you could fetch double.”

In music circles, says Steve Palmer of The Setbacks, “People don’t buy records or attend shows just because the band has a killer record alone… they need to let people know that their records is the best thing since sliced bread. But that costs money, a lot of money. Local Ottawa bands don’t have those kinds of monster budgets to compete with mainstream artists,” he notes.

Palmer’s suggestion: “You need to work creatively with the funds and resources you have,” including low-cost activities such as postering, getting your name out on the right web sites, and getting your album into the hands of community radio DJs.

Sandra Abi-Aad knows how challenging it can be to get yourself out there. The visual artist and SAW Gallery president feels “there is a moral crisis happening in the creative sector between making art and making a living. The two are very different and few have what it takes to do both. A lot of talented creators get left behind because they simply cannot think business or choose not to.”

All in all, the artists I spoke with didn’t think Ottawa was so bad a place to be an artist. Many local problems are merely the pitfalls of being an artist anywhere. And on the flipside, Ottawa has some benefits perhaps not easily attained in other places.

Chris Saracino was one of the co-founders and principals of Northern Electronic, the Canadian electronic label that put out internationally acclaimed records by Chameleonic, Rise Ashen, and Monodeluxe. Chris is also drummer for The Setbacks. He says: “I think Ottawa is a great breeding ground for artists, and it can be a great place to start your career.” But, there are limits: “There are only so many people that you can hit up here before you have to migrate.”

So where does all the foregoing leave me and my theory? By talking to many artists, I learned what I knew I had to learn: That remaining active (and socially active) in the arts community is essential to your development as an artist. That being artful or creative in your business approach is key.

And the strong reliance on peer support and respect confirmed my hunch that just like we have table manners and bedroom manners, we also have artworld manners. Feed the culture that feeds you and you’ll do fine in the Capital.

Practically speaking, legal and financial savvy wouldn’t hurt either. But where to begin? Let me conclude with an extremely handy list compiled by Sandra Abi-Aad featuring 10 simple things artists can do in a town where venues, market price, integrity, talent, and most importantly–community–are all key factors in successful artistic self promotion:

Ten Ways to Conquer Ottawa
by Sandra Abi-Aad

1. Have enough courage and self-confidence to take your work public and to be held.accountable should you succeed. Once people see and appreciate your work, there may be an expectation which can become overwhelming.

2. Be aware that once you become ambitious the perception can develop that you have “sold out” in some way.

3. Realize that art is 10 per cent art making and 90 per cent promotion.

4. Ottawa in particular has a very insular creative community, which can be a tough nut to crack.

5. Make sure you get recognition for your work when it’s used–it’s your calling card and can be more profitable than money.

6. If business is not your cup of tea, get a lawyer (via legal aid) to help you out.

7. Join CARFAC, a visual artist union.

8. Never do business without a contract, even with friends.

9. Verify who will own the copyright on your product. It is surprising how copyright law can work for or against you.

10. Make sure there are clauses in all contracts that protect you–especially when it comes to getting paid! Insert a clause that requires the client to pay interest on late payments, or one that states that the product does not get delivered until the last payment is received. And, there is absolutely nothing wrong with advance payment.

– Sylvie Hill