Smile Politely

Keeping Urbana Strang: A Downtown Urbana art walk

On the afternoon of Saturday December 12th, I met with local artist Phil Strang to chat with him and learn more about the art walk he’s created, “Keeping Urbana Strang”. Rather than make it a standard sit down and talk interview, we decided to take advantage of the unseasonably warm December weather (though this is central Illinois; a 60-degree day in December could actually be considered normal) and travel along the walk as we discussed his work, his reasons behind the project, and what he hoped that he — and local businesses — would get out of the show.

Smile Politely: Tell me about the art walk itself. Why did you make your project an art walk, and why put your work in local businesses?

Strang: Every year I do an exhibit of my work around my birthday in November. When I started planning this year and looking at the local galleries we have, they were all booked and there was nowhere to hold a show. After thinking it over a bit, the idea came to me: Why not use all of Urbana? At the same time, the Urbana Business Association had chosen one of my pieces to be in their painting on glass window display, and I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to use that as a way to get interest in the show just from people walking by. The walk itself doesn’t take a lot of time either, only an hour or two.

SP: What was the process of getting businesses involved, and how did you pitch the idea to them?

Strang: I first went to one or two businesses that I already had relationships with and asked if they would be interested in hanging a piece of my work. I told them about the show, and how it might help generate some additional business for them. And, the best part: it wouldn’t cost them anything! They were really receptive and liked the idea, so I started calling and visiting more businesses in the downtown Urbana area; I found that I really didn’t have any problem even talking to strangers about the project. Out of all the businesses I reached out to, only a few either didn’t get back to me or were unavailable to put up a piece.

SP: How did you choose where each piece of art went? Did the business hosting the work have any input, and did you limit the amount of pieces at any one location?

Strang: I put together a list of the ready-to-hang art that I had and separated it into general themes; portrait, western, abstract. After that, I asked each business what space they had so we could discuss what would fit; the art in the show ranges from 10 inches by 10 inches to a few that are 3 feet by 6 feet. Some locations took a look at the list and asked for specific items, but largely it was deciding what would fit in the space I was given. Most items in the walk are prints, however I have a few originals on canvas or glass that are placed in areas that are safer from the weather and theft. All pieces in the show are community friendly, as well; no nudes or anything like that.

SP: How much time did it take to plan and organize the show?

Strang: I spent the month of September planning and reaching out to the businesses, and then the month of October was for hanging all of the work. It took about three weeks to hang everything, and my son helped with some of it as well. I also made the flyers for the show myself, but I’m not very good with Photoshop; I had to get tips from some of the students I work with at the University. I decided to make buttons as well, and there’s so many out there that it looks like I’m campaigning for mayor. I even joked with the mayor herself at a recent ribbon cutting ceremony: “I’m taking over Urbana, hope you don’t mind!”

Below, some art is a little hidden, such as this piece upstairs at the Dancing Dog Eatery.

SP: The artwork is all for sale, and you’re giving 30% of the proceeds to the charity of the host business’s choice; why not a charity of your choice?

Strang: It’s a way to get the businesses more involved. I could give the money to a charity that I like, but when the business gets to choose it provides more incentive to be a participant.

SP: Pricing art can be notoriously tough; how did you settle on pricing for your work?

Strang: Art is very hard to price. When I first started selling my work, I went to several shows and chatted up the artists to figure out how they determined their pricing. What I quickly found out is that the pricing is all over the place. Also, unless you have a frame of reference for similar types of art, everything is unique and really hard to compare. I take a look at what it costs me to create the work: materials used to make the art, printing and framing, my own time. From there, I have created a standard set of pricing that I follow which is based on those costs and what percentage a gallery will take from the sale. I’ve found that some people really want to get their name out there and will send up selling their work at a price that’s sometimes less than what it took to make the piece. You really have to make sure that you’re not devaluing your own effort, and also remember that you’re doing all of the work yourself!

Below, Lascaux.

SP: What’s your favorite part of being an artist: creating the art itself or having it be seen?

Strang: It’s nice to have your work be seen because that’s what an artist wants, to be seen, but there’s always a big fear that people won’t like your art. Maybe they don’t understand the work, or maybe it’s just not something they like. I once held a show at the Illini Union and had a guest book for people to sign. On the very last page someone left an anonymous comment, “This is the worst piece of crap I’ve ever seen”. The negative feedback has the most effect, and is what I remember most. I really love the creation part of art more, and I really love when creating the art is not a struggle but instead is just a flow that I can work with.

Below, Biking in Trinidad, appropriately housed at Champaign Cycle.

After completing our walk with some additional discussion about artwork in general, I thanked Strang for his time and made my way back around to a few businesses to get their input:

Bill Mermelstein of International Galleries said, “I definitely give him credit for trying and putting his work out there,” while a co-worker quipped as she passed by, “It’s definitely pretty Strang!”

Phyllis Gingold of Dr. G’s Brainworks related that, “The reception has definitely been very positive. It’s creative and fun, and we’ve had a few inquiries about purchasing the piece we have.”

Caroline Smith of Art Mart noted, “We’ve had a few people stopping in and asking to see the piece we have.”

Keeping Urbana Strang runs through December 31st in a variety of businesses across downtown Urbana. You can visit the Facebook site for the event here for a list of the hosting businesses and how many pieces are at each locale. You can also see Strang’s gallery of work in general on his profile.

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