A day in the gallery life

>, stories>A day in the gallery life

Sometimes ya just gotta get a little French into your system. Arrived at my friend Becky’s gallery a bit early this morning, so I stopped off at a nearby cafe and enjoyed a leisurely peoplewatch with juice and brioche.

galleryfolkMy friend Becky’s out for a few days, so I’m babysitting her gallery (do you call that gallerysitting?) and writing this between sales lulls. Becky and her husband Len are lovely folk; their gallery, Fireborne, is in downtown Portland near Pioneer Square.

Fireborne covers the gamut in glass art, from highly functional goblets and chandeliers to wall art and candleholders, virtually all of it from northwestern artists.

Becky bullied me into putting some of my work here–I skim off my experimental overflow and stuff she saw on my wall and said “How about THAT one?” and drop a few at the gallery every few weeks. She obligingly hangs them on her walls with pricetags. Despite my initial misgivings, they’re actually selling quite well, which is fun.

(SHAMELESS SALESPITCH: If you’re into glass, just about ANY form of glass, ya gotta visit Fireborne–Becky’s prices are almost embarrassingly low. You should hear the eastcoasters ooh and ahhhh over the savings.)

In fact, between the glass currently residing at my Guardino Gallery show, and the Fireborne sales, I’ve pretty much stripped my house of my own art. When I get home tonight, I suspect I’ll start a firing flurry.

There’s something serenely intimate about an empty store–when I was a kid I used to have these fantasies about what the stuff on the shelves at Kmart did after the people went home. I desperately wanted to hide in a closet somewhere inside and watch. At Becky’s I turn on the lights, put on some music (Becky said I could pick, so today I’ve brought old folk instrumentals). Nothing’s moved since Saturday, so I open the door for business.

galleryearringsThree women scurry in, becoming my first customers. They’re late for work but desperate for earrings. “I dunno, I dunno, the red, the blue or the green?” frets the youngest, hopping up and down on one foot and trying on pair after pair.

“I don’t care,” snaps the second, “We are L-A-T-E LATE! Just pick, for god’s sake!” I’m already ringing up #2’s selection, probably the biggest, longest dangles in the place, festooned with dichroic and crystals and all kindsa sh… (Oops. One thing I’m learning as a fledgling salesperson: EVERYbody’s choice is excellent, whether their taste is crummy or not).

The third places her selection on the counter and turns kindly to the fidgeter. “I like the blue best, I think, or maybe the green.”

“I’ll take the red ones,” declares the fidgeter, and her companions roll their eyes.

gallerymywallI have clients in the next building and we’re screaming down a campaign deadline right now. I must have web access today but Becky’s wireless network won’t let me in–EEEEEK! So the gallery gets a temporary closure while I run up and down the streets looking for a 50-foot Ethernet cable (don’t ask). Twenty minutes, a plug-in and a tad bit of hacking later, and I’m finally connected.

Whew. Whether I’ll actually get any work done today is debatable; there’s a pretty steady crowd here, unusual for a Monday.

A large woman with the most beautiful art-carved citrine earrings I’ve seen in awhile comes in next. “Earrings! They told me this was the place to go for glass earrings!”

She’s buying a birthday gift for her best friend, “and I need something special. It’ll be our 25th consecutive birthday lunch. 25 years! Doesn’t have to be expensive…just special.”

Intrigued, I help her plow through rack after rack of glass earrings–Becky’s surely cornered the market on glass earrings–and she sets a dozen pairs on the counter. “We have the same taste, so if I love it, she’ll love it…hmmm” and she starts winnowing down to her final choice.

In the end, I box up a half-dozen pairs, including the ones that I (blush) had my eye on. “I’m not sure which I’ll give her yet, but I’ll just keep the rest for myself!” she says triumphantly, and marches out.

I sure hope I’m getting this cash register thing down pat. Amazing what they don’t teach you in engineering and journalism schools.

I’m finding people want to KNOW about the glass. I never need a reason to expound on this stuff (as many bored friends will attest), so it’s fun to be asked. I’m surprised at how much I actually do know about the work here and the artists, and customers seem to like hearing the “behind the scenes” stuff.

Most common question today: “Was this artist a student of Chihuly?” I gently explain that Chihuly mostly works with glassblowers, so it’s unlikely he taught the artist how to kilnform a plate. Unimpressed, the customers usually go back to the blown piece that WAS made by a Chihuly student. I need to work on my “why this is incredibly rare” speech.

A mother and her 20-something daughter come during lunch, on break from a conference on nuclear proliferation. “If you want to be bored out of your skull,” sighs the daughter, “Listen to 50 different people saying the same thing about encapsulation strategies.” Mom’s apparently a nuclear waste management expert, and she’s heard this before. She smiles indulgently at her daughter, then stops.


“What are THOSE?” she asks, pointing to the nail files. I explain that they’re made of glass, last forever and fit in a purse.

“They’re gorgeous AND practical. Just what I need for little presents!” She and her daughter study the little cups of nail files as if they were small nuclear warheads or something, and finally hand me five to ring up.

“And I want that glass lizard, and that little perfume bottle, and we haven’t even looked at the jewelry yet, Mom…” and the mother holds up a warning hand.

“Hang on–let’s go buy the clothes at Nordstroms first and THEN come back here for the jewelry. But right now I’ve got to get back to the conference; I’m speaking in 15 minutes.”

She turns to me. “Will you be here Wednesday around lunchtime?”




  1. Jerry Jensen April 13, 2010 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    Another part of the lecture was estimating the top price of a work from an emerging artist, and major collectors said it should not exceed $5000. That is based on what a collector is willing to risk on an unknown quantity like an emerging artist. That gives you a realm of consideration for how much detail can be in initial work, ie smaller and less complex is how I translate that. Yet you cannot disregard the price per pound concept. You can apparently commit artistic suicide by pricing too high. Still you know people are looking for bragging rights for getting “a good deal” or discovering the next great thing. So, come to Portland where glass is cheap. Now we just need to be patient and try to make a living or a name.

  2. cynthia April 13, 2010 at 12:45 pm - Reply

    Yes, it does, Jerry. I’m in the gallery again today, and a woman from Washington DC just left with a mother-of-the-bride gift. Her wedding is on Saturday in Portland (her fiance’s family is here) and her mom loves blown glass. Fiance told her NOT to buy in DC or NY but to wait until she got out here because “you guys are soooo cheap.” She bought a really exquisite piece for about $250, showed me a picture of something not quite so nice she’d been planning to buy back in DC for almost three times as much.

    So, I dunno. I suppose that’s a great marketing hook–“Come to Portland ’cause the art is sooooooo cheap!” but something about being the bargain basement of the art glass world makes me wince.

  3. Jerry Jensen April 13, 2010 at 10:59 am - Reply

    During Lani & Kate’s lecture the other week they made a comment about a well known glass collector with friends in tow exclaiming how Portland has the best pric per pound in contemporary glass. Well, that says alot about pricing and high dollar collectors.

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