An Art Show Tribute

I have been working for most of the year on an art show that would honor my late wife’s talent and courage, and demonstrate how the arts can be a powerful mode of healing. Below is the press release written for this show. Writing a press release about your own life is a little awkward, but I think I pulled it off.

Art Show Honors Local Artist’s Battle with Cancer and Reveals Healing Through Art

- Husband Pays Tribute to Artist Wife in Show at Mt. Airy Garage in October –

Philadelphia, Pa. (September xx, 2012) — After his wife lost a long battle with cancer in 2010, Mt. Airy resident Andy Trackman wanted to do something that would honor his wife as an artist, provide inspiration to others battling serious illness, and show the healing powers of art. Thus the decision to go through the emotional and logistical challenge of producing an art show of her work was made.

“Michele Courchene Trackman – A Life of Art, Love, and Healing” will take place in the Solomon Levy Gallery at Philadelphia’s Mt. Airy Art Garage, 11 W. Mt. Airy Avenue, Philadelphia, PA, from October 12th through October 26th.

Michele Trackman was a Mt. Airy resident, mother, wife and artist. She graduated from Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts) in 1980, and received her MFA in Photography from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore in 1987. The show is a retrospective of her work, starting with her high school years at the Wooster School in Danbury Connecticut, her undergrad years at PCA, graduate thesis work at MICA, and finally her work as part of the Cancer Support Center of Greater Philadelphia’s Open Studio classes. The show will combine works from all these periods, plus displays of examples of some of her passions, including her large cookbook collection.

First diagnosed with cancer in 1998, one year after the birth of her daughter, she was again diagnosed with a second primary cancer in 2004, which recurred in 2006. It was during this second diagnosis that she discovered, through her work with the Open Studio classes and instructor Caroline Peterson, the power of art to heal.

While this show includes a variety of her important early work, such as oil painting and black and white photography, it is the color oil pastel, pencil and collage work that demonstrate a true expression of her journey to deal with and fight cancer.

“She never stopped being an artist, even in her final months when she was confined to a hospital bed and unable to walk,” said Andy Trackman.

Towards the end, she created small marker drawings she called “doodles.” Her intent was to mail them as thank-you cards to those who sent her get-well wishes. Sadly, she died before she could mail them, but as a result, they are still in Andy’s possession and will also be displayed in the show.

Trackman knew he would need lots of help, and he has gotten it from his family and friends who are also in the arts. “This show has been a group effort of our friends and family,” continued Andy. “I felt this show was something I had to do to not only showcase Michele’s talent and spirit to her loved ones, but especially to provide inspiration to anyone who is going through a similar struggle.  A primary goal of the show is to help those battling cancer find the strength that Michele had to open up and allow the power of the creative and artistic processes help them in their own journey and permit healing to occur.”
In many ways, this show of how one woman used art to heal and get through the ultimate challenge of life, illness, and death, was a way for Andy and his community of family and friends to heal as well.

There will be an opening wine and cheese reception on Friday, October 12 from 6pm to 8pm, and a closing reception on Friday, October 26 at the same times. The Solomon Levy Gallery hours are Thursday through Saturday, 12:00pm to 6:00pm, and Sunday 12:00pm to 5:00pm. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted. While the original work is not for sale, arrangements can be made to order prints.


Inspiration vs. Perspiration & Vice Versa

Apparently, Thomas Edison was the originator of the quote about genius; that it is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. The percentages allocated to each seem to change, depending on who’s quoting, and for what purpose. But the one thing that remains constant is that the percentage of time needed to make an inspiring idea a reality weighs heavily in favor of the perspiration-the grunt work. Last year, when I decided to embark on this journey of having my own business and foregoing the standard work search routine, I was invigorated and excited at the prospect. It seemed like a great idea at the time. And today, it still does. However, now I am faced with the reality of all the nitty-gritty, nuts-and-bolts stuff: forms, templates, engaging legal and financial help, marketing myself, implementing plans. In other words, focusing my energies on making it all work. The initial “falling in love”-type excitement has evolved. The honeymoon’s over; I’m in a committed relationship now.

These kinds of activities, the “blocking and tackling” if you will, are not exciting or glamorous, but they are incredibly necessary to make my dream come true. They are, however, testing my abilities, focus, and drive to move forward with my project, that is to say, my new career and work life. I have accomplished a lot over the past seven and a half months. I have moved from a corporate environment into an entrepreneurial/non-profit one. I’ve moved from telecommunications/IT to arts/culture. And I’ve moved from having my work day and schedule dictated to me, to having to do it myself. That kind of complete life and career forklift is not easy, and has taken a great deal of energy. Now that I am approaching full emersion into my new role, I see there’s no turning back. I MUST plow through. The perspective I’ve gained from what I’ve gone through, and what I am going through now-the initial inspiration and current perspiration-is something my clients will benefit from.


Rubbernecking the Phillies’ Season

I am not in the habit of writing about sports. In fact, this is the first time. But the Philadelphia Phillies current season has finally moved me to say a few things. Disappointing just does not seem to cover it. To go from being the best team in baseball last season to this year being one of the worst. And to see some very talented players who have been part of so much success sent packing. And to see their replacements; people I’d never heard of. There’s a very surreal feeling to the whole thing, and I really have started not to care a whole lot. But I still keep watching. I don’t want to watch and pay attention, but I have to. Which makes me think of that human nature trait of looking at traffic accidents. You want to look away, but morbid curiosity draws you in to keep looking. They lost again tonight. I had a feeling they would. As I listened on the radio, and the familiar announcer called out very unfamiliar names, I kept listening. I wonder how many other fans feel the way I do. All I can say is wait til next year. For baseball, anyway. There’s lots of other things to do in the meantime.


Is Selling Art Selling Out?

Last week I attended a lyceum, hosted by White Pines Productions’ Elkins Estate home, entitled “Should Art Be Sold?” The first part was an exercise in which the attendees were given play money and were pitched for donations by three artists. Two of the artists’ pitches consisted strictly of their performance, of their work. The third was a playwright who laid out a very thoughtful and reasoned story on what he was doing, what he wanted to accomplish, and why it was different and worth funding. After the exercise, an even more interesting conversation took place amongst the host, the artists and audience.What was interesting was that the artists in the audience all thought their fellow artists’ pitches were “refreshing” and different, and that they weren’t just begging for money. I found their pitches confusing, and though entertaining, I had no idea what I would be giving money to. The playwright got my donation mainly because he told a really good story. Which, if a playwright can’t do that, he shouldn’t be asking for money since he shouldn’t be in the business of story-telling.

I raised my hand to be called upon to explain my reasoning for giving money to the playwright and for not giving to the other two. The woman behind me got called upon, and she said exactly what I would have said. It turns out, she was White Pines’ marketing and communications consultant. As a fellow marketing pro, she naturally knew a good story when she heard it.

The discussion continued about the nature of a financial transaction, versus a gift. There were those in the room that felt that with a gift, there was a more personal involvement between the two parties, and that a financial transaction had much less, if any personal involvement. An artist wants to have it personal, and money can somehow get in the way, as some in the room that night would believe. But art requires a lot of hard work to produce, and to have it given away without any compensation for that work is devaluing the work itself.

The lesson I learned that night was that artists has to have a good story to tell about their work, why it’s important, and what supporters will get out of it. The work on its own may be worth supporting in the form of a one-time purchase/transaction, but if greater support is needed, more is needed. This all reinforces for me the value of what I can do for artists. It’s always nice to get validation. So is selling art selling out? I don’t believe so. But it is important for artists to tell their story in a convincing way. and do so outside of the artwork itself.


The Work Ahead

In Chaim Potok’s book, In the Beginning, the first line is “All beginnings are hard”. That line has always stuck with me, in how true it is. This truth can make one shy away from doing anything new, from attempting to start something from scratch, to carve out a new chapter, a new work, a new path. No one wants to really start doing something that’s hard. It’s uncomfortable, a bit painful, a lot is out of your control. In other words, hard. But much like the first agonizing plunge into a cold swimming pool on a hot day, or the initial prick of skin when getting a vaccine, you adapt and start to move on. The “beginnings are hard” concept, if seen that way, becomes an encouragement. The beginning was hard. But things should get a bit easier.

I am reminded of all this as I start as a board member of a new non-profit community development organization in my section of the city. As in any business start-up, all of the nuts-and-bolts of getting an organization off the ground is a painful process. It’s painful in that it is boring and tedious and frustrating, and has nothing to do with the whole reason you wanted to start the organization in the first place. And as a Board member, even on a working board, there is much that you cannot (or should not) do yourself, but rather help create the system that will allow the stuff to get done by others. Also, more frequently, you have to work with other people who have their own ideas and visions of what should happen, and that conflicts or differs from your own.  The challenges of working collaboratively with other people are present, but the fact that you all are there for the same reason helps get through some of the sticky situations. You learn how to agree to disagree.

I’m looking forward to the time when the difficult beginning portion of this “project” has passed, and the real work of reviving and developing the community can begin. Of course, I need to be careful what I wish for. The real work I’m longing for will also have its own hard beginnings. But it will only hurt for a second.


Death Marketing

As of late, I find myself collecting cemeteries. Not to own, of course. I have enough trouble keeping up my own yard, let alone acres of grass and stone. As part of my effort to cultivate a consulting practice in the historic preservation sector, I have been meeting with the leaders of cemeteries in and around Philadelphia. This area has some of the oldest, most historic, and most interesting cemeteries in the United States, if not the world. The ones I have visited are in various states of upkeep. Laurel Hill Cemetery is probably the best known and best kept of the ones I’ve visited. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should add that my wife is buried there alongside my own plot). It was one of the first, if not the first, “rural” cemetery built in the US. Prior to its construction in 1836, most people in cities were buried in church yards. Once they got filled up, new alternatives were needed; hence the construction of  landscaped parks outside the city, that now became the burial grounds. Laurel Hill has a huge assortment of Gilded Age monuments and mausoleums. Famous people are buried there. Landscape architects designed it. This was designed to house the dead, but it was also designed to host the living and allow the enjoyment nature in a park-like setting. Back in the 19th century, this was common and accepted. People came there to picnic, relax, and enjoy themselves amongst the dead.

That changed, and people began to avoid cemeteries. They became places you only visited to pay respects to lost loved ones once or twice a year. Not coincidentally, these grand gardens fell on hard times. However, in the last few years, interest in these places has started to increase. One main reason is the rise of the Friends of Laurel Hill. A separate organization from the entity that actually deals with the burials, the Friends have brought new life into the cemetery through brilliant marketing. Organizing themed tours, creating an audio tour, building a museum and gift shop, hosting live concerts. This group encourages people to come in, and, of course spend money. They are now an international model on how an historic cemetery can become a cultural institution.

The other side of this coin is Mt. Moriah Cemetery. It is, by some accounts, the largest cemetery in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It spans two counties. It has two sections dedicated to war veterans, and maintained by the VA. And yet, it has fallen so far, that large areas are completely overgrown. Not with weeds, but with woods; picture large tombstones and monuments in the middle of forests. This cemetery also has a Friends group, whose herculean task is to make sure the portions that have been cleared of vegetation remain visible. And they do it, despite no money, legal issues with a bankrupt cemetery company, and a constant battle with nature. They are becoming more visible, and over time will begin to see some success. However, I would recommend visiting Mt. Moriah in its current state, as there is a fascinating beauty about it today.

So what does all this have to do with marketing?

Having recently buried my wife, I can attest to the fact that all aspects of the death industry engage in marketing. Funeral homes do. Although my experience was one of kindness and compassion, the funeral home never missed a chance to try and sell me something. Grave stone makers do;  I was tele-marketed by a few of these folks, which did not annoy as much as fascinate me. I imagined the telemarketing rep being given this list of names to call. Cemeteries do too. Part of what a cemetery does is promise “perpetual care”, which implies that the grave site will be maintained forever. As the Mt. Moriah case attests, that’s not always the case, as normal human fallibility interferes with those intentions. Plus, in many cases, the very people who might push to keep things up end up dying too. So many of the dead in these neglected/abandoned cemeteries have no one to speak for them any more. It’s not like you can easily change cemeteries like you change cell phone carriers. Your kinda stuck. So it’s incumbent upon all of us living folks to ensure the dead are honored, and visited and partied with. Cemeteries, especially the old ones, are great places for the living to visit.

Others on my list: