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Calgary Expo – The Wrap-Up 2019

The Calgary Expo wrapped up on Sunday and it was one of the most unique and unexpected results in the six years I’ve done this show.

At the beginning of the weekend, I was thinking this might be my last one and said as much in my previous blog post. While I stand by all I said in the most recent post, and there is a lot of room for improvement on the part of the organizers, I had great sales. With just a couple more prints out the door, I would have beaten 2017, which was my best year.

So, on that front, I’m very pleased with the results.

Let’s start with what I didn’t like about this year’s event.

Informa, the company that now owns the Calgary Expo cast out the soul of this show, in my opinion. Plenty of people I spoke with, both vendors and attendees had choice words to describe the shortcomings. The attendees weren’t happy with the guests this year. Sure, they had Michael J. Fox and the Back to the Future cast, but they had them last year, too, except Fox had to cancel, so it was almost a repeat. Other than that, only one or two I spoke with were excited to see some of the other guests.

Communication in the run-up to the show was poor, especially compared to their predecessors. I could elaborate at length, but it would be boring. Let’s just say they’ve got nowhere to go but up. Clearly efforts to slash costs, a lot of little corners were cut.

There were quite a few empty booths at the show this year, so much so that I know quite a few vendors who got to expand their own space into the empty areas beside them. That’s unheard of for this show, but since I was one of those who got to add two feet to my booth and have some storage beside it, I was happy to take advantage. A number of vendors told me that this was their last year. Some attendees said the same.

The weather. This one is just bad luck, nobody’s fault, springtime in Alberta, what are you going to do? Saturday is traditionally the busiest day and we got walloped by a BIG snowstorm. Shonna usually drives in from Canmore for the day to help me out on Saturday, but since the weather was accurately forecast, I called her that morning from the hotel and told her not to come. It just wasn’t worth the risk.

It was a good call.

She would have been driving home right around the time that buses, semis and cars were careening into the ditch on the Trans-Canada. They closed the highway as a result. Walking the six blocks back to my hotel that evening was an adventure, horizontal snow and stinging wind, right in the face. I took a cab back the next day as I couldn’t roll my little suitcase through the snow and the sidewalks were skating rinks.

With people heading home to beat the storm, it got real quiet the last couple of hours on Saturday. That no doubt hurt sales, but they were still quite good.

The upside? There was plenty of that, too.

My booth location was the best I’ve had. I was right by a main entrance to the other building, a perimeter thoroughfare close to the exit from the Corral where the events were held. I really couldn’t have picked a better spot. No doubt that contributed to my great sales. Last year, some of my regular customers had a hard time finding me. This year, quite a few said I was one of the first booths they saw.

The vendors around me contribute a lot to the experience. When setting up, tearing down, when it’s slow, or you just need someone to talk to, the people around you can make it very dull or really fun. This year, it was most definitely the latter. My neighbours were all talented artists, each with their own unique styles. More than a few times, we were crying from making each other laugh.

It’s always great to see vendors I’ve known for years as well. When they found out I was alone, one couple came by a few times on Saturday and Sunday to watch my booth so I could take quick bathroom breaks. I had brought plenty of good food and could steal quick bites at the booth, but getting away was tough. So that thoughtful courtesy was greatly appreciated.

Patrick, Dani, Jamie, Marvin, Sebastian, Brock, April, if you’re reading this, thanks for making a tiring weekend a lot more fun.

The new product was well received and it was great to have such a variety to share. In addition to the usual prints and canvas, quite a few magnets, coasters, calendars and aluminum art pieces went home with customers and many remarked on the great quality of the goods from Pacific Music and Art. Quite a few people mentioned they’re seeing my stuff in different places, too, a result of that new license. One man said he recently saw a display of my work in The Banff Springs Hotel. I’m looking forward to checking that out.

Last, but certainly not least, I enjoy the people who come to see my funny looking animals.

There are so many return customers who buy my prints year after year, some who rival my parents in how many prints they have and they keep coming back. Many of them follow my newsletter and gave me positive feedback about videos I’ve recorded, stuff I’ve written about, told me animals they’d like me to paint, and were just great to talk with, often more than once over the weekend. More than a few of them greeted me with warm handshakes, hugs and big smiles.

It’s a pet peeve of mine that I’m so good at remembering faces, but not names, even though they all forgive me for it every year. As they’re fresh in my mind right now, I could run down a list of people I was happy to see again, but that might invade their privacy and I would invariably leave some out.

If any of you are reading this, hopefully I adequately conveyed my great appreciation for your continued support when I saw you in person. And even when you run out of wall space, as some of you have and many are close, please continue to come by and say Hello. A purchase is not required.

You are the best part of my Calgary Expo experience.

As the price of booth rental only went up a little, and I was guaranteed my same booth space if I renewed at the show, I put down the deposit for next year with hopeful, but realistic expectations.

My neighbour Jamie put it well when he said that our current Expo grievances, while well founded, might also be a simple case of resistance to change. Nothing stays the same and even though there’s plenty with which we’re not happy, there’s still good reason to hang on a little longer and see how it turns out, give Informa and Fan Expo the opportunity to listen to the complaints and try to make things right.

I’m willing to take that chance, at least one more time.

Cheers,
Patrick

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The Start of Calgary Expo 2019

If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you already know that the Calgary Expo has been my biggest undertaking of the year for the past six years. For people who do trade or gift shows on a regular basis, this sort of thing is routine, so the big deal I make about it each year seems like nothing to them. If I did these sort of shows a lot, I would easily see it from their perspective, but it’s not just the show that’s a challenge, it’s getting away FOR the show.

As half of my business is editorial cartooning, which requires following the news for  a living and producing satirical illustrated commentary almost every day, taking five days away to focus on this show is more difficult than getting away for a vacation. My newspapers still have to be covered and when I get home exhausted late Sunday night, I’ll still be up at 5am on Monday morning drawing cartoons.

Managing the logistics to prep for this show is a lot of work because I also have to keep my papers supplied with cartoons while I’m away, which means drawing more in the week before and hoping no news of great importance breaks while I’m gone, because I can’t just abandon my booth or drive back to Canmore to get a cartoon done in between the show hours.

I’m also an introvert who spends most of time working alone in the comfort of my home, so this event takes a lot out of me, having to be ON for five days, surrounded by a lot of people.

That being said, it’s usually a fun show. Once I’m there, I really do enjoy it, even though Sunday will be a very long slog of a day. I rarely encounter somebody at this show who doesn’t want to be there and few who aren’t having a good time. Each year, my booth gets better, I learn something new for the next go ’round and streamline the process.

I recorded a video this past weekend which showed the booth set up in my garage, offered some thoughts on why I set things up the way I do, and shared it with my newsletter audience. You can watch it here if you like.

Here are some images of the prep this week. Beginning with the two sides of the booth set up in the garage, this is something I do every year to make things easier when I’m on site. With no time pressure, I’m free to leave it set up for a couple of days, nitpicking print placement and trying different things. Then I take photos of the setup and refer to it when I’m on site.


Once I’m happy with it, I pack it all up, go over the checklist and have it all together in one pile, ready to load. The snowshoes stay home.

My trusty Pontiac Vibe may not be the most flashy or cool car around, but you can sure put a lot into it. The cargo capacity on this thing is impressive. There are two six foot tables in here, four 2′ X 6′ pieces of gridwall, two 1′ X 6′ pieces of gridwall and everything you see above. That being said, there is no room for anything else.

“Is there a problem, Officer?”

Once on site Wednesday, I set it all up, made everything nice and tidy, ensured the lights were working, in order to leave as little work for myself as possible when I returned on Thursday.

All that remained was to hang the canvas and aluminum, put the prints in the bins, the magnets on the board, the floor down and turn on the lights. It took about an hour yesterday to finish getting it show ready, the result below.

As I’m writing this in my hotel room Friday morning after the first evening, I was pleased with the first day’s sales, all things considered.

On the positive side of things, quite a few of my repeat customers I’ve gotten to know over the years came by to add to their collections and just to chat and catch up. That really is my favorite part of this show. Some of these people have been buying my work since my first year and I’m always grateful for their support. When more than a few customers greet you with a hug, you’re doing something right.

That being said, there is initially a different feel this year, confirmed by my fellow vendors and some attendees I know pretty well. It doesn’t appear that they sold out of exhibitor space this year which is a bad sign. Usually this show is FULL early on. There used to be a long waiting list.

This year, there’s actual empty space between some booths, you can see that in my above photo. When I arrived on Thursday, my neighbour on the right side of the pic had moved closer to me and said I could take advantage of it as well. I moved my far wall another two feet.

Having extra space at Expo is bizarre. We’re usually fighting for every inch. I know a couple of other vendors in the hall who had the same luxury.

Fan Expo bought the Calgary Expo a couple of years back and while changes were evident last year, the old familiar faces were still around and on the team. I haven’t seen anyone in administration that I recognize this year, so clearly they were obligated to be part of last year’s transition. In my opinion, it was those hardworking folks who made this con what it is and set the tone for the culture.

While clearly a commercial venture on all sides, there was always a feeling that we were all in this together, vendors and organizers. I’ve seen no evidence that exists any longer. Even the announcers sound bored.

Fan Expo (a subsidiary of Informa Exhibitions) doesn’t seem to be popular with the fans. At one time, I had considered doing the Edmonton, Regina and Vancouver Expos, but vendors talk with each other and there’s no incentive for me to give that any more thought. Many have become dissatisfied with those experiences and are abandoning them.

While my sales Thursday night were good, comparable with last year, I credit that to my great location on a main thoroughfare near an entrance, because there were noticeably fewer people in attendance. Thursday is usually quieter anyway, but this was the quietest I’ve ever seen.

Rumblings among the vendors is that the best days of the Calgary Expo might be behind us. One of my close friends, Michelle, a loyal Expo attendee, decided to skip this year. I’ve heard a couple of my neighbouring vendors say that this is their last year and depending on how the weekend goes, we’ll see how I feel about rebooking when Sunday comes.

If this good thing does come to an end and I bid farewell to the Calgary Expo, I’ll be disappointed, just as I was when I stopped attending Photoshop World for very similar reasons. But hanging on, expecting it to become what it used to be would be myopic, foolish and just bad business.

That being said, I still plan to have a good time this weekend, try my best to help others do the same, and I look forward to meeting and greeting my customers, both old and new.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Peaceful Panda

One of the things I value most in my profession is the relationships I’ve formed over the years.

Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, The Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation in Coaldale, Archipelago Wildlife Cruises in Ucluelet, and of course, The Calgary Zoo. I’ve made friends at all of these places and remain grateful for their generosity in allowing me to get close to so many critters.

Some of my best work wouldn’t have been possible without their assistance in gathering the reference I need to paint my whimsical wildlife paintings. Whenever possible, I’ve tried to ensure these relationships are quid pro quo. I’ve created artwork for them, made donations, or have simply tried to promote the conservation work they do whenever I can.

My prints have been sold in the various gift shops at The Calgary Zoo for more than five years, along with licensed images on other products. During that time, I’ve become friends with the Retail Manager. Kathryn has given me invaluable marketing advice and has always been supportive of my work, helping me put my best foot forward.

In the spring of last year, the Calgary Zoo received four pandas from The Toronto Zoo. The two adults had been there for five years, on generous loan from China, with two cubs born during that time. As per the agreement with China, the remaining five years of the loan, they’ll live in Calgary, although the cubs will be returned to China sometime next year.

While I’m not a professional photographer, I take some decent photos from time to time and she needed some for her own marketing purposes to promote the pandas. The deal was, I could get into the habitat early, in exchange for some of my photos.

The Calgary Zoo is strict about no behind the scenes photography, so I should clarify that I was still only allowed in the public areas, just a couple of days early.
Early one morning at the end of April, Kathryn took me over to the brand new Panda Passage habitat and aside from a couple of keepers, we had the place to ourselves for a couple of hours. Of the four residents, I only saw Da Mao that morning, the adult male. He was active and accommodating, which is a rare treat when it comes to pandas. They spend a lot of their time sleeping.
I ended up with a LOT of nice photos, a couple of dozen I shared with Kathryn, and many others that will serve as good reference for paintings. I’ve already done one painting from that session (above) , and it became a popular acrylic magnet that sold well at the zoo. My previous Panda painting has been a best seller over the past year in their gift shops and I’m hoping this new one does equally well.

While I don’t often share the reference photos I use for paintings, I’m making an exception here to show that my work is more of an interpretation of the reference rather than a copy. This photo wasn’t one of the best quality I took that day and would have been of no use for promotional purposes for the zoo.
It was shot through glass, with a bit of a glare I couldn’t compensate for, not even with a polarizing filter. But with Da Mao climbing up on the log and looking right at me, the pose was a gift I couldn’t pass up. I used other reference for some lost detail, especially in the face.
This is one of the reasons I like to take my own reference. The pose is the same in both photo and painting, but both images are mine, so a photographer can’t say I copied their composition. When I buy stock photos for animals to which I can’t gain access, I try to create an image different than what the photographer took, but when it’s my image in the first place, it hardly matters.
This won’t be the last panda I paint; there might even be another this year. I’m pleased with how this turned out because it’s a full body image but still has that whimsical quality inherent in the rest of my work.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Prints and Prep for The Calgary Expo Holiday Market

With the Calgary Holiday Expo next weekend, I’m busy preparing my prints and booth hardware, wondering once again if I’ll be able to get it all in the car. It’s a valid concern, especially when I change things up, as I always do.

A few years ago, this sort of thing was a significant source of stress, as it adds quite a few hours of work to an already busy week of the usual deadlines. This time, however, it just feels like business as usual, which is a pleasant surprise.

I have a spreadsheet checklist of things I need to bring and everything I had to order has arrived with plenty of time to spare. As expected, the more you do something, the easier it gets.

The only thing that could throw a wrench into the gears is bad weather, poor sales, and myriad other unexpected possibilities, none of which I can do anything about. Usually I’d worry about it anyway, but this week, I’m not.

As my grid wall setup is changing yet again, I will spend an afternoon tomorrow or Tuesday setting everything up in the garage, just to address any issues ahead of time. It’s not a task I look forward to, but one I think is necessary, given that I don’t want to find out I’m missing something on setup day. I’d hate to have to give up a good parking space to make a run to Staples or Canadian Tire.

Now that I’m using a new printer for my giclée works, I have to order larger numbers to keep my costs down. Instead of ordering 5 prints of a particular painting, I have to order a minimum of 20. This means more of an investment each time, likely holding on to prints for a longer period of time.

For example, I don’t expect to sell 30 Smiling Tigers next weekend, but likely more than 10. Since I only had 9 left in stock, I had to place an order and now have 29. I had to stock up in similar fashion for a number of my better selling prints, which means when looking at overall numbers; I have a couple hundred more than I need.

That does make me a little nervous, because it means I’ve invested money now that I normally wouldn’t have until later. On the positive side, however, prints don’t expire when cared for properly.

After completing a full print inventory and swallowing hard at the total, I have twice as many individual images in stock than I’d like. Between 8X10s, canvas, acrylic, poster and matted, I have prints of 45 different animals. On one hand, that’s an impressive number of paintings. On the other hand, it’s far too many different images to stock on a regular basis, especially since a third of those are not big sellers.

Even though I have fond feelings for every one of my paintings, it doesn’t mean they resonate with everyone else. I’ve already been weeding out certain ones as I run out, but will be much more aggressive in that practice over the coming year. I sold the last matted Raccoon Totem print online this week. As much as I like it, I won’t be ordering any more. There are about a dozen others that will meet the same fate when the last of each sells.

Many times, after I finish a new painting, I’ll get an email or a private message from somebody telling me they want a print. On more than one occasion, those folks have disappeared or told me they’ve changed their mind after I’ve invested the money to make prints available, when I might not have done so had they not expressed interest. Take that as a cautionary tale for both artists and buyers. Talk is cheap.

Then, of course, there are my reliable regular customers who ask for a print of a new animal, and even though I want to be able to make one available, I have to ask them to be patient until I get around to doing a print run. These are the folks I hate to disappoint since many have been supporting my work for years. Thank you, you know who you are.

I’m always painting new animals and if I want to stock prints of some of those, I have to start letting many of the others go. It also means that when I do paint a new animal, I have to think long and hard about whether or not I’m going to have prints done right away.

Or at all.

The Calgary Expo Holiday Market runs next Saturday and Sunday, November 25th and 26th in Halls B & C at the BMO Centre. Tickets available online and I believe at the door as well. Here’s the link. You can find me at Booth 414. Come by and say Hello.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Conservation, Conviction, and Commerce

It came to my attention last week that the Calgary Zoo has allowed the Calgary chapter of Safari Club International to book their annual fundraiser at the zoo facilities next year. In the wake of the recent shooting death of Cecil the Lion, there has been a lot of focus on the trophy hunting of animals both at home and abroad. Unfortunately with our rapidly changing news cycle and our thirty-second attention spans, we as a society are prone to outrage one moment, apathy the next. Online, it has often been referred to as slacktivism.

For most, it costs nothing to rage against the Calgary Zoo on Facebook and Twitter, and then move on with our lives having raised our voices with righteous indignation but ultimately that’s the end of it. We rage on one bandwagon, wait for another to come alongside and climb aboard.

Unfortunately this issue has been literally keeping me up nights. Glancing at the clock on my computer, it is presently 12:53 AM as I write this sentence. I’m normally up at 5 AM to get my editorial cartoons done, so tomorrow will no doubt be a very long day.

The dilemma I’m having with the Calgary Zoo is that I spend a fair bit of time there, taking reference photos for paintings and enjoying the animals. When people have challenged me on supporting the zoo, I’ve long defended their conservation record and have explained the societal value of a well-run humane zoo, that it educates the public about the plight of at-risk and endangered animals world-wide.

A couple of years ago, the zoo started selling prints of my whimsical wildlife paintings and I’ve been proud to announce on social media whenever I’ve delivered another large batch of my poster prints or when I’ve visited the zoo to take reference photos.

I wrote an email to the Calgary Zoo expressing my disapproval of their decision to allow Safari Club International to use their facilities in an official capacity for an event. SCI will actually be auctioning off opportunities for their members to hunt some of the very animals that are featured at the zoo.

As an aside, I should be clear that I do not object to subsistence hunting or those who choose to feed their families with wild game rather than the meat available at the supermarket. I’m a meat eater and we are part of the food chain. Hunting for food is something every species does with the tools they have available.

My objection is to trophy hunting.

Zoo
In the zoo’s official response to the negative publicity (seen above) and no doubt plenty of emails and letters from their own members, the zoo says that they have no relationship with Safari Club International. They then go on to talk about all of the businesses that book their venues and say that they won’t discriminate against anyone wishing to book their facilities.

I would agree that it is unreasonable to expect that an ethical panel be convened anytime a company or individual is presented as a potential client. Nobody has that kind of time or money to conduct such an investigation. I don’t do background checks on everyone who buys a print, nor have I done extensive investigations into every newspaper I work for or gallery that sells my work.

But in the case of Safari Club International, the Calgary Zoo fails to make a credible argument with their response.

From the zoo’s own website, one finds the following, “Your support will connect the community to the natural world and inspire visitors to care for it, all while giving hope to endangered species.”

Additionally, “Education at the zoo builds a legacy for future generations – a love of nature and a commitment to conservation. Your support provides visitors and students of all ages with engaging experiences that connect them with the natural world. You can inspire the next generation of environmental caretakers. Help put our future in caring hands.”

And finally, “The future of your zoo is centered on animal welfare and a proud history of saving species. Inspiring Change, the zoo’s 20 year master plan, will set a new standard for exhibit design, connect the community with nature and continue important endangered species work locally and globally. Help us inspire change and join us on the journey to a brighter future for wildlife and wild places.”

Safari Club International’s mandate is to kill animals. Their argument that they aid in conservation is window dressing, a pretty frame for the dead carcass or disembodied head they take as a trophy. Anyone truly interested in conservation wouldn’t feel the need to kill the animal they claim to protect.

Most venues with facilities for rent should and do have a line in their application for use that reads something like, ‘we reserve the right to refuse bookings at our discretion.’

When a client’s image is so diametrically opposed to the mandate of the Calgary Zoo, it isn’t discrimination to politely refuse the booking and to suggest that perhaps another venue might be more appropriate, especially since there is no grey area or hidden agenda with regard to Safari Club International’s purpose as an organization. The zoo doesn’t need to do any digging to find out that SCI exists so that members can kill animals.

So I’ve been wrestling with this moral dilemma. Do I simply wag a finger at the zoo for allowing this event, but continue to use my annual membership to take pictures? Can I criticize them for doing business with this organization I find so despicable, but still happily deliver prints to their retail outlets to be sold there? Or would that make me as big a hypocrite as I’m accusing them of being?

I’ve been having a hard time with this. I had a long discussion with a friend about it while camping this weekend. My wife and I went back and forth about it this evening before I started writing this post. In all honesty, I’ve been looking for a way to keep selling my prints there while still occupying the moral high ground. I’m a self-employed artist. Removing my prints will be voluntarily cutting a portion of my income. Conviction comes at a price.

I’m just getting started on this journey of painting animals and I enjoy it a great deal. I plan to be doing this for many more years to come and if I start compromising my integrity at their expense in order to make a few more dollars, I’m as bad as the people who go out and shoot them under a bloody flag of conservation. When you get comfortable compromising your values, it will become a habit.

I am hopeful that their many other clients, patrons and regular guests will apply pressure to the Calgary Zoo, to urge them to deny Safari Club International the venue next year. I am hopeful that the outrage I saw online when this story broke wasn’t just hollow talk without action. I would like to give the board at the zoo time to realize their error in judgement and I will be happy to continue to support the zoo if they come around to the right decision.

If not, I will no longer supply any more of my prints to the Calgary Zoo and will cut up my membership. I have to sleep at night.

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Gathering Reference

    DSC_0534 I always look forward to visiting the animals at the Calgary Zoo. While it’s true that I can easily justify spending two or three hours at the zoo to take photo reference, it always feels like I’m getting away with something, because it never feels like work. Almost like I might as well be slacking off to go see a movie.  If I lived in Calgary, I’d spend a lot more time at the zoo, I’m sure, but the drive there and back takes just under three hours in good traffic, so I usually try to combine it with errands that are bringing me to the city anyway.  Fortunately, yesterday’s errand was a meeting AT the zoo, which was pretty convenient.  Or planned.  I’ll never tell.

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Yesterday, I took a few hundred photos and ended up with about ten that I wanted to keep. The beauty of a digital camera is that you can just keep shooting and sort them all out later, knowing full well that the vast majority will end up in the trash. I usually try not to have an agenda, so I make the rounds knowing that the best photos will be the ones where the animals are cooperating.

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It was a hot day, so the lions, tigers and bears (oh, my!) and other large animals were either hiding in the shade or just being lazy and lethargic in the sunshine. Who can blame them? So, weather does factor into it.  One Totem I really want to paint in the future is a red panda, and even though they were out and active enough, and I took a lot of photos, none of them were good. Same situation with a few of the other animals I was after. Bad angles, bad light, bad photographer.

But I did manage to get a few that I like, including the ones you see here. While none of them are good enough to be the prime reference for a finished painting, I plan to be doing a lot of sketching and painting studies in the future and these will do just fine for those. It is my plan that before too long, I’ll be able to create a book of my animal work, which means I’ll need to draw and paint a lot more of it.

Any excuse to go to the zoo.

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