Making Art Pay

This story is part of a series profiling working artists as they try to make a living in the Triangle. We’ll talk to musicians, dancers, performers, painters and poets about the state of the Triangle arts scene and the possibilities for its future.

In Art, Sometimes Success Is As Simple As Getting Out of Your Own Way

Charles Chace doesn’t think he’s the right person to talk to about “making it” as an artist in the Triangle. Sure, he has some basic advice when it comes to practical matters: Work hard. Be nice. Don’t be afraid to ask for the things you want.

But as far as “the business plan thing” goes, as he puts it -you know, applying for grants, marketing your work -your guess is as good as his.

“I cannot make heads or tails of that kind of stuff,” he admits. “I should almost hire a grant writer.”

But Charles does have a somewhat more esoteric bit of advice for would-be artists: get out of your own way.

“What I do with my work, is I try to eliminate myself most of the time.” Charles explains. “It sounds like an artsy thing to say, but I get in the way all the time.”

Young artists have a tendency to ape the styles of other artists they admire, says Charles, and while it’s good to become fluent in other artistic languages, focusing too much of form can lead one to neglect the substance of what one’s art is supposed to be about.

“When you’re young you want to be known as someone who is super smart and brilliant. I would see painters who I thought were brilliant -who used lots of color, who were messy -and I tried to paint like that. And that was when I got in the way of myself. Because, sure, I found these languages that I could use -but then I would mess it up by trying to make it look important. But it wasn’t actually important”

These days, he prefers works where he can lose himself in the process of creating. Take his series of triangle collages, for example. The twelve pieces -the largest 6 feet by 8 feet -are composed of thousands of tiny paper triangles glued together. Charles says that after hours and hours of cutting and pasting triangles, he entered into an almost robotic state where it seemed that these glowing, kaleidoscopic landscapes of triangles were forming themselves.

“Everyone always asks, ‘Oh how do you choose what colors go next to each other? You must have to make the right decision or it all fails.’ But it’s not like that. You just get out of the way and let it happen.”

It’s an almost zen approach to art, and one that Charles says is much easier to practice in North Carolina than in other places he has lived.

Having spent most of his artistic career in Boston and Miami, Charles first moved to North Carolina in 2006 for an ill-fated relationship. He moved back to Florida a year later, but when he did, he found he couldn’t get Carolina off his mind.

“It kind of haunted me,” he recalls now. “Even though I went back to Florida and had a giant barn to do all these giant pieces in and had all the artistic freedom to do what I wanted, what I wanted was to move back here.”

Flash forward to 2011, and Charles did move back.  He now lives in a beautiful house in a leafy neighborhood in Carrboro with his wife, Tricia Mesigian, who owns Orange County Social Club, and their daughter. It’s a quality of life he couldn’t imagine having if he had stayed in Miami.

Much of that he attributes to Tricia.

“She’s my greatest patron,” he says. “I’d be in a ditch somewhere without her.”

But Charles also thinks there’s something particularly liberating about the Triangle.

“There’s a lot of freedom here,” he says. “It’s this weird world where everyone has said it’s okay to make art and music, have kids, and have a good family life. The community isn’t pretentious. It’s not solely focused on ‘the scene.’”

That freedom has allowed Charles to explore other forms of artistic expression aside from painting as well. He started up a free-jazz solo project that has morphed into a full-fledged band that will be performing at The Station in Carrboro later in the summer. He also collaborated with other local artists to do some avant-garde performance art involving some old mattresses and lots of paint (see video here).

So it would seem that Charles’ haphazard approach to “the business plan stuff” is working well enough for now -all of his triangle collages have sold, and he has plenty of time to indulge his varied interests.

But thinking back to the issue of grants, he is able to come up with one more piece of practical advice:

“Don’t be lazy!” he says while laughing.

“Seriously, if do you get some money from somewhere to make art, do something really f***ing good. That way, the next time it comes time for them to give money to artists, they’ll be excited about it.”

And remember, stay out of your own way while you’re doing it.