How artists are fighting the inflation crunch

John Formicola does house painting when he needs to come up with some extra cash to pay his bills and expenses. Becky Young takes commercial photographic portraits. David Fertig has come to use cheaper materials for his work, and Philip Simkin has just gone deeper and deeper into debt.

Inflation has made almost everyone modigy styles of life or find new ways of making ends meet. What distinguishes these people is that they are artists and that the cost of art supplies and other essentials of their craft have jumped between 20 and 30 percent since last year, increases outstripping those of almost any other group.

The choices for them are to find the extra money or to cease being artists.

For most artists this problem is compounded by the fact that, unlike other industries, artists cannot simply pass along these higher costs in the form of increased prices for their artwork. Contemporaray art never sells very well, especially not now in a time of economic uncertainty.

The leaders in the rising costs of art supplies are paper and petrochemical products (such as oil paints) as well as almost all imported items. Peter Turabian, owner of an art supply store, stated that "imported items have gone up fantastically, may 40 or 50 percent and in some cases much more" due to the devaluation of the dollar.

England and West Germany are the major foreign suppliers of art materials, and they have generally been the first to increase prices. The most widely imported items are drawing instruments, brushes, and magnifiers, as well as certain pigments.

Cobalt, a pigment used in blue paint, has become increasingly scarce, as most of the world's supply comes from South Africa, Zaire, and Zambia, areas of the world where political unrest has upset the economies. Rebel forces in Zaire, for instance, have blown up railroads and bridges, making transportation of the mineral almost impossible.

Jeff Freeland, store manager of a paint shop, mentioned that prices of foreign-made products will increase "three or four times in a single year" with each hike averaging between 18 and 10 percent.

He noted that "when one manufacturer raises his prices, other manufacturers immediately raise their prices to approximately the same amount. You could call it opportunism: It's the American way."

Mr. Turabian said that he has discontinued certain imports because "people just can't afford them."

Manufacturers, he explained, are beginning to put out cheaper-quality products to keep the prices down but that "people are just coming in less and buying less. How can you keep paying at these prices?"

One way is simply to go into increasing debt, and a number of store managers have seen a small but perceptible rise in the use of credit cards and other delayed-payment plans.

Philip Simkin still owes $10,000 for the materials in a sculptural project he was commissioned to do for the Olympic winter games in Lake Placid, N.Y. He constructed seven large houselike configurations using aluminum and other metals and materials as part of the American art showcased at the Olympics.

Usually, Mr. Simkin noted, material will be donated by steelmakers and other manufacturers as a goodwill and public relations gesture. This time, however, companies were themselves too hard hit to contribute materials as a write-off.

"After the public relations angle didn't work," he said, "I tried to convince companies to just sell me materials at cost. That worked a little bit. But what can you do? When you need the stuff, you just have to pay for it, whatever it costs.The truss joints [structural supports] I'm still paying for and probably will be paying for the rest of my life."

Another sculptor, Robin Shores, began working with plaster and clay after he found he could no longer afford bronze and stone, and he still has problems paying for materials.

"Plaster has gone from $5.25 for a 90-pound bag to $9," he said. "Flexible mold material [a vinyl used in detailing] is a petroleum product and costs more every time I go to the store."

Fortunately, he has been able to get grants from private foundations, which cover some of the increases and supplement his income as furniture carpenter. But applying for grant after grant takes considerable time away from his work, "though it's better than owing a lot of money."

John Formicola, an artist doing mixed media works, has also found himself in debt -- "manageable debt, but I've never been in debt before!" To come up with extra money, he supplements his income as an instructor in art at Drexel University, by teaching an employee class in art at the Fidelity Bank of Philadelphia and, when he has to, by doing some house painting.

For him, costs of materials have "doubled over the past three or four years, and I just try to keep producing as much as I can afford to do."

One way in which photographer Becky Young keeps afloat is by doing more and more commercial portrait photography. "I used to resent having to do occasional portrait work as something that interfered with my own work," she noted. "Now I welcome it because I need it so much."

Her main source of income is teaching four classes in photography at the University of Pennsylvania. She pointed out that "equipment, film, development -- everything," has gone up 25 or 30 percent since last year, which has affected her classes as much as it has her.

"Students take these classes for fun, to do something different," she said. "But it's costing them so much that it takes away from the fun and the ability to experiment with a camera."

Printmaker Shirley Levy teaches art in the Braintree, Mass., public schools and is budgeted $5 in art supplies per pupil, an amount which buys less every year.

Noting that the $5 leaves "no room for any waste", she stated that she attempts to "raise the consciousness of the students to the limited resources, tell them the prices of everything, and then ask them to say what they'd like to buy to keep them busy for the next 40 weeks. that way, they don't keep coming up to you asking for more stuff."

Paper and the fluctuating price of silver (currently about $16 an ounce -- down from $40 an ounce in January but up from $8 this time last year) have wreaked havoc on photographers. Their choices are simply to pay more or take fewer shots. The situation is a little better for painters, who can use lesser-quality materials without appreciably diminishing their products.

David Fertig has found that he can no longer afford Windsor Newton paints, the top of the line in oils, and is using more medium-priced, "student grade" brands. He is also using cotton duck as opposed to prime linens for his canvas, cheaper brushes than the foreign imports, and adding "extenders" to stretch the life of the paints he uses.

"I simply will not pay $18 for a tube of blue paint," he affirmed. "I make the best I can of the materials I can afford. really, you either do without or make less pictures, and I'd prefer to do without."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.