On December’s First Friday, an early crowd fills Little Bar in South Philly for a night of punk-rock music and artwork titled “Useless Scumbags.”
While everyone else chats over beers and tacos, exhibiting artist James Anderson bounces around the bar, his nervous energy increasing with the steady flow of friends and supporters pouring in to check out his work. “I started drinking at 10 this morning,” says the 24-year-old scruffy-faced Boston transplant.
Anderson’s humorously demented works—crudely nailed to the bar’s red-lacquered walls—compliment the quirky decor of the dimly lit space. “I Kissed An El Bar Girl and I Liked It,” reads a poster of a man with a can of beer for a head. In another, cheesesteaks protrude from the head of a zombie donning a leather jacket. Both pieces are a part of Anderson’s ongoing “Weirdadelphia” series.
His newer work, on the other hand, is a little more true to life.
“These Overdraft Fees Are Killing Me,” reads the type scrolled across a colorful graphic of an ATM keyboard. “I’ve got like 10 dollars in my pocket and have to walk to work,” says Anderson (who was laid off from LTL Prints in Old City a few days after the show at Little Bar). “I’ve been living in an abandoned building illegally rented out by some sleaze ball and I’m way behind on my student loans and taxes.”
It’s Anderson’s second exhibition at Little Bar and having been cut off by the bartenders the last time, he’s happy to be invited back. He’d choose a bar over an art gallery any day. “Skipping out on the gallery scam is what I am all about,” he says. “Because I really could never afford to pay the insane overhead fees that some galleries want to charge.” Plus, Anderson adds, “I don’t want no snooty Old City person looking at my stuff and being like, ‘Oh, let’s really analyze this.’ That’s why I do [shows] either at bars or people’s houses, like DIY stuff. That’s the people I’m trying to get to.”
With seven art shows under his belt within the last year and a half, that approach seems be working for him.
It’s an attitude shared by many local artists—both by choice and necessity. For one reason or another—the high-ticket art work, snooty clientel and money-grubbing owners—many local artists see the traditional gallery scene as an outdated commercial system. Or, as Anderson—also known by his guerilla art name “GRIMGRIMGRIM”—calls it, “touristy art shit.”
And they want no part of it.
Feeling ostracized, marginalized and mistreated by the mainstream gallery system, many local artists—and more of them—are taking alternative routes to creative success.
“Artists in Philadelphia are taking the art back,” says Christian “Patch” Patchell. “It only makes sense that this city’s artists work outside the mainstream gallery system. We utilize shops, friends, craft shows and the city itself as our gallery space. It’s an interesting time to be living in Philly and working as an artist,” he says, emphasizing that waiting to be “accepted by some gallery” isn’t going to get you anywhere.
Patchell, a Chestnut Hill-based illustrator and cartoonist with years of gallery experience behind him, says he “was really into the art scene in Philly, like 10 years ago.” But then he started encountering recurring issues such as not getting paid in a timely manner—if at all. The 37-year old says the final straw was when one Old City gallery ripped him off about seven years ago. “Because of my dealings with them, I stopped showing artwork at galleries.”
To fill the void, he spends up to 40 hours a week freelancing, lending his art to comic books, greeting cards, T-shirts and even a line of zombie teddy bears. He recently released a book chronicling his battle with tongue cancer titled, “I Put the Can in Cancer: A Journey Through Pictures.” He also teaches illustration at the University of the Arts, and design at the Antonelli Institute in Glenside. “I tell [my students that] artists today need to do everything,” Patchell says. “You cannot dismiss any avenue … any means of creating an audience for your work. With the economy being the way it is, it makes sense to do a print; it makes perfect sense to do a T-shirt,” an option he notes is frowned upon by a lot of high-end galleries.
Fellow illustrator and cartoonist Bob Dix agrees. “No gallery coordinator or art director or critic should be the reason we fail. That we didn’t think of a way around them is why we should fail … it takes true creativity and ingenuity to find a new way, a different track to success—however that’s measured.”
The 40-something art vet has done a little bit of everything during his 20-year career: making balloon banners for his father’s hot-air balloon company; teaching illustration; designing brochures and postcards; and currently, bartending at Bob & Barbara’s.
Dix also has a long list of bad experiences —from stores losing his artwork and companies giving it away for free to designing the logo for the popular ’80s band Bricklin without ever seeing a dime for it. “That’s just sour grapes at this point,” he chuckles. “For every good job that’s out there, there’s 10 bad ones.”
He looks back fondly on his days as a member of the Well Fed Artist Gallery, one of the many artist-run co-ops in Old City that catered to unknown artists and a younger audience. As more businesses began moving into the neighborhood and rents soared, Well Fed and other artist-run spaces were pushed out. “There hasn’t been a good gallery down there in years,” Dix says.
The result is that artists like Dix and Patchell have been forced to seek less traditional venues. They both praise the support they get from comic-book stores like Brave New Worlds in Old City. “They promote the crap out of whatever you’re doing,” Patchell says. “If we sell our artwork for under $20 and someone doesn’t pay with a credit card, they won’t take a commission.”
Dix points out that the slew of craft fairs and festivals that have sprung up in the past few years have been a blessing. “One summer I did like 20 festivals,” he says, adding that at the Punk Rock Flea Market this summer, he made his entire month’s rent in three hours. With his illustrations focusing on monsters and fantasy related stuff, Dix does particularly well at what he calls the “odd-ball festivals” like Monster Mania in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Blobfest in Phoenixville. “They’re picking up the slack,” says Dix, who is working on a mutated Alice in Wonderland series just in time for the slew of upcoming holiday craft shows.