Elvis, first wave model     25 November, 2006, 04:26 pm
First wave artisans had to scramble to make ends meet in the early 70s. There were few organized shows, and for many that didn’t want to work out of the back of their VW buses, they often opted to open a retail shop. Chuck and Nina Harris had a leather store near one of my favorite musical venues, the Agora club in Columbus, Ohio. They sold to leather bags and jackets to members of rock bands Foghat, King Crimson, Procol Harem and others, but wouldn’t claim ownership of Rick Wakeman’s hat mentioned in an earlier blog.

However, having a shop implies the need for steady hours, a concept difficult for free-wheeling hippie artists. Bill Baldwin opened a leather goods store in Lynchburg, VA in 1972 that was only open on Wednesday afternoons. When he would return from long weekends in D.C. with his future wife Sue, he would find his door peppered with notes from enquiring customers. The store did not last.

Early first-wave painters had their unique problems getting their paintings seen, especially at outdoor shows. Works on paper were difficult to deal with in the days before canopies. The 1960 Three Rivers Art Festival was forced to close after 29 hours when violent wind and rain blew 10 paintings into the river. Mike Straley remembers exhibiting paintings on College Avenue at Penn State with no display, just pictures propped up against parking meters. St. James Court Festival in Louisville, recently ranked #1 by Sunshine Artists magazine, was the “St James Court Clothesline Art Show when it opened in 1957. Artists were assigned spaces on the clotheslines between trees.

The Baldwins, Harrises, and others were there at the beginning when there were no business models for success or failure. They were artists that believed in themselves and their art. They remade the famous Elvis story of his first recording session in Memphis. The following conversation took place between Marion Keisker at Sun Records and Elvis Presley, summer, 1953:

Marion said, “What kind of singer are you?”
Elvis said, “I sing all kinds.”
She said, “Who do you sound like?”
“I don’t sound like nobody.”
She said, “What do you sing, hillbilly?”
“I sing hillbilly.”
“Well, who do you sound like in hillbilly?”
“I don’t sound like nobody.”

Neither did the first-wave artisans “sound” like anybody. They weren’t part of the gallery-old-boy system; they were a counter-cultural phenomenon that created arts and crafts for the common person. Now the English teacher could buy something handmade; you didn’t have to be wealthy to be a patron of the arts.

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