The phone call came on a quiet Sunday evening. My wife and I were sitting around watching television when I answered the phone to hear these three words: "Are you famous?"
No introduction. No niceties. Just the raw inquiry about my status in the world.
I did not know what to say. By most standards I am not famous. Not by far.
"In what category?" I asked the caller.
"We're sitting here with one of your paintings. And it's a pretty good painting. So we wanted to know, 'Are you famous?' "
Now that is a rather reasonable question, one must suppose, to ask an artist. Everyone in the art world holds hope that they might stumble on the work of a famous artist in their collection. But this was slightly pre-Internet days, and there was no way, as yet, to Google me.
Because if you do that nowadays, my name and work would show up as the first 8 or 10 name results on the first page. I've worked hard to build my brand reputation, for better or worse.
But lacking that type of information, this couple of dudes huddled around a landline phone in 1998 wanted to know if the piece of artwork they'd purchased that day was going make them a little more money than they'd spent on it.
"What does the piece look like?" I asked them. "And where did you get it?"
"So you're telling us you're not famous. Not really, anyway," the voice on the line replied.
"It depends," I told them. "I've got more than 1000 works out there in the market. But I'm not sure that makes me anything like a famous artist. I don't even know where 3/4 of them are. But if you have one of my paintings, tell me a little bit about it and I can tell what it sold for originally, most likely."
They described the painting, which was a prosaic scene I'd done of some geese coming in over a rural lake with a barn in the background. Pretty standard stuff for the late 1970s. I even remembered the couple that bought it.
So I mentioned that, and the callers were amused. "Well, they're splitting up now, and were having this garage sale. And we found your painting for sale under a table for $20. So did we get a deal?"
"I suppose so," I told them. "They paid $175.00 for it originally. But again, I was just a kid in college when I did the painting. But it's a pretty decent piece of work as I recall."
"Really decent," the caller enthused. "How come you're not famous?"
I explained that wildlife painting has long been a competitive industry. It takes a few breaks to get big as a painter, like winning some stamp competition or getting into one of the big wildlife art shows like Birds In Art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. And I'd just missed on the stamp competitions, getting into the Top 100 in the Federal Duck Stamp and the Top 10 in the Illinois duck stamp competition. Then I'd gotten sick of painting anal retentive pictures of ducks and moved on.
The callers were not happy I was not famous, but they were satisified they had a decent original on their hands, and had gotten a bargain. I don't remember if they said they wished I was dead. That always raises the value of an artist's work. I may have apologized that I was still alive. But I don't remember that part of the conversation exactly. Then we hung up.
It has happened more than once, the "Are You Famous" call. As the years have gone by I am less inclined to address the question as something literal. It is more like a fantasy question anyway. How do you even measure fame? There's no Fame-O-Meter anywhere on the Internet yet of which I'm aware. Google keeps shifting its algorithms so that even the truly famous have to black hat their status by posting their own naked pictures on Twitter.
But that's not art. That's simply self-promotion. Which is something that Andy Warhol probably perfected before the Internet age. So the lines are blurry everywhere.
All one can hope is that the calls keep coming, and that you keep pushing out work that raises the question. "Are you famous?"