Sheila Cameron Goes to Hell and Sells Her Soul (in 55 Pieces) on E-Bay

On E-Bay, you will find a seller named hollywoodkit. She’s not selling anything right now. Her seller’s page is quiet. A dead calm. But a couple nights ago, her seller’s page had all the excitement of a Southeby’s auction. It was a flurry of screams, wails, and hollers. Sheila commented on her Facebook event in real time. Buyers reacted with their own comments. Chaos. A flurry of bids and more bids. And then silence. Exhausted buyers waited, out of breath, processing with other buyers as the E-Bay emails came back -confirmations of a winning bid or rejection because someone wanted what you wanted more. Buyers felt loss and gain.

This was her blog’s bark:

At dusk last night a little, yellow bird flew into our window. It clearly sustained a fatal injury but did not die quickly. I was home alone with my girls (5 and 7) who watched as the bird did horrific backward somersaults with a crooked neck trying to right itself. It seemed like a good time to go to the store for ice cream. The death acrobatics would be over by the time we got back.

It wasn’t. The bird twitched and contorted on its back for hours. The city girl in me couldn’t do the right thing. Going to bed was the only option, turning off my brain; not thinking about the right and wrong of it. Layla couldn’t sleep with the questions she had, “What if the bird is still alive in the morning?” ‘What does ‘let nature take it’s course mean’?” “Is there something we can do?” With Greg out of town, it didn’t take much convincing to let her snuggle up with me for the night.

I woke up this morning and looked out on the deck relieved to see the bird was gone. It probably got better and flew away!

You can tell yourself whatever story you want.

Auction ends tonight.

And so went the wounded bird at the tail end of a three month journey to hell. Jerry Saltz’ hell, to be exact.

It started when acclaimed art critic Jerry Saltz made a comment on social media, “Sheila Cameron, alright. You asked for it. Make 55 works with NO allusion to Fairytale. And experiment with various mediums and finishes and touches and surfaces and ideas-of-finish. Start today; you’ll be in hell by the end of this VERY simple challenge…See you in Hell …maybe.”

Never tell Sheila Cameron to go to hell. She will get a limo and invite everyone along. It’s a party for her. So, that is what she did. But instead of a limo and party, it was her blog and her facebook event.

55 pieces. Three months.

And somewhere along that road, she decided to make a statement so meta to her conversation with Saltz. She made her journey a fairy tale. A fairy tale that ended in the grand ballroom of E-Bay where she auctioned and sold every single piece at her “Five and Dime from Hell.”

The weather looks nice in hell...
The weather looks nice in hell…

I thought it best to ask Sheila a few questions following the format of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey:

1. The Call to Adventure: How did you get Jerry Saltz to talk to you? You certainly said something that caught his attention enough to give you such a challenge.

I really don’t know. I’d be curious to find out. Maybe he thought I was full of shit, maybe he thought I was interesting. You’ve known me for many years online so I’ll only say I was how I usually am on the internet. I’m not quite sure how I come across to other people but I think I’m fairly consistent. It was an interesting thread though and I have a link to it in the original FB invitation blog. I think you can go back and read the whole thing here.

2. Refusal of the Call: Was there any doubt you may not do this?

There was no doubt I was going to do 55 works based on his feedback. When someone like that challenges you, you would be an idiot not to run with it. How an artist wouldn’t be thrilled to be challenged by someone who sees so much art is beyond me. Even if you don’t agree with his take, he has a unique perspective based on the sheer amount of work he is forced to intelligently consider.

The truth is though, I created the FB event in 16 minutes of the initial post without giving it much thought. I just looked at the time stamp on the thread. He said it at 8:15, I posted a link to the event at 8:31. Putting the link up in the thread was my way of responding, especially since he said, I “asked for it.” I was initially just being snarky but knew once I hit “enter” I’d follow through.

3. Supernatural Aid: Who in your life was an inspiration to push forward?

Art itself is the Supernatural aid. What makes anyone write a song, paint a picture, make a movie, write a novel? What is that thing that makes people cry or laugh or sigh with recognition when they enjoy art? There is a connection we find in that elevated moment that doesn’t make sense. It is magic (a fairy tale?) and I have often said it is my religion. It is what makes me feel whole, where I find fellowship, practice, and guiding principles.

4. The First Threshold: First painting.

I was really tired and sunburnt and figured “I’ll start that tomorrow.” I realized, that thought was the first challenge. I wanted to challenge every single idea I had and push against it until I was forced to defend it or admit it was some faulty logic on my part. I ripped off a piece of scrap paper and used gouache. I hate gouache so I thought I would challenge that idea too.

5. Belly of the Whale: When did it start feeling like “hell”?

I think it felt like Hell when I had to face that my reality was extremely uncool and move forward completely myself, own my character. The biggest challenge for me was that my “character” on paper is not at all appealing to the Art World. A 41 year old stay at home mom, not represented by a gallery, living in a comfortable ranch home with 2 little girls, a husband and a dog. Someone who loves the internet too, how pitiful! It is all low hanging fruit for the very mean accusation of being called a “hobbiest”. I had to get to the place where I stopped apologizing for the beautiful life I built and the fact that my family and motherhood inspires much of my work. Just because I’m a mom does not make me less and just because I am an emerging artist who understands a lot about social media does not make me a hobbiest. And if it does, well then am I allowed to call someone bitching about not selling their $50,000 painting a capitalist pig? No I’m not, so I had to take big long look at myself as a mother and a writer and write about it. I did and felt a little sick when I posted it but the response from some very established female artists was amazing. I felt lifted up and supported in a really specifically feminist way when I finally just cried out about who I really am and what that means in terms of being an artist.

It was also awful to not write about the experience because I thought maybe that would weaken the work. I tried to not discuss it for about a week and then realized, blogging about this WAS the work.

6. Road of Trials: Biggest challenges to completion of the actual pieces?

Painting is my super happy place. There is nothing about painting that could be hellish for me. I think the hellish part was really coming to terms with what kind of artist I wanted to be and how I wanted to show-up. I am an artist of the Internet. I know that now. I have studied both writing and fine arts in school and both of those disciplines have a snobbery toward the other that I felt very crunched by in terms of my own work. Art world says, “don’t write to go with your art or you’ll be explaining away significance”. Writing world says, “you’ll never win Pushcart with illustrations!” Both worlds find television and the internet fairly suspect and mostly abhorrent. The truth is the Internet is the key to my art. I’ve been doing it a very long time in internet terms, Free Katie was my art, Project Greenlight message boards was my art. I make no apologies for that anymore. So everything I know about computers, painting, writing, art, television, film, print media, marketing it ALL matters and goes in to what I do. It was hard to just finally own it. Once I did, I was completely liberated.

7. Meeting with the Goddess: Did your muses ever change?

Yes very much. When I really started thinking about selling everything for nothing, I tried explaining it to my husband. I went on and on with lofty terms and ideals and got a little teary thinking about falling flat on my face. He didn’t get it. So I just said, “I have to go as hard as I can. Even if I fail spectacularly at least it will be interesting.” He responded, “Oh well that’s just punk rock.”

He and his friends from the bands he was in (SWA, October Faction) in the 80’s became a big inspiration then. I looked at how they presented themselves and their dedication. Some are rich, most aren’t but SST bands changed things because they showed up entirely on their own terms. Watching his friends in FLAG and the Descendents get out there again to such great responses was a huge motivator. I just kept thinking about kicking down doors with glass slippers, not always pretty but what else am I supposed to do?

I also looked at people like Macklemore and even LL Cool Jay and Brad Paisley who questioned norms of their own subcultures to mixed responses. I think Macklemore’s take on Hip Hop decadence pierced the cluttered and crowded message of that culture really well. “Accidental Racist” is a terrible song but I really admired what they tried to do by not shying away from calling bullshit on some stereotypes. There is a sort of aspirational WASP-y-ness in the art business where artists aren’t allowed to discuss pricing or even admit, “I have no idea if this worth something to you but it is worth something to me. You want it?” There are all sorts of false constructs set up for emerging artists to learn how to be aloof, inflated and overpriced. I don’t ever want to be like that and I am beginning to suspect that attitude doesn’t serve your career in the long run the way it used to.

8. The Temptress: What was your biggest temptation to quit?

The temptress wasn’t to quit, never quit but it was tempting to go down a more traditional path. People talked to me about putting together a show or contacting galleries at all sorts of levels and for a minute those ideas felt really good and safe. Ultimately though, they filled me with dread. To be away from my family, to ask permission to show my work, to walk away from the true support of my highly engaged internet friends just felt really lame and false.

9. Atonement: Did Saltz ever show up?

No not that I know of. He never said anything. A FB friend of his put a link up to my blog on his page and he kept it up instead of deleting it so I’ll take that as a sort of “That’ll do, Pig”…like in Babe. The truth is though Jerry Saltz was never really Jerry Saltz, I wrote him into my blog like a little “Sleepless in Seattle” montage once, super cheesy but the point being all of this is about our own inner critic. Who knows what he even meant in the first place but that guy showed up in my head all sorts of ways: the avuncular guide, the eye-rolling father, a stern task master. He became whatever demon needed slaying in the studio that day. It felt a little like what Charlie Kauffman did with the “Orchid Thief” and Susan Orlean.

10. Apeothosis: This is the part where Sleeping Beauty goes to sleep, right? Or Cinderella sees the clock strike midnight? Yeah, that sucks. When did you feel like you died…or you know, got really tired?

I died when eBay said I couldn’t put my work up for $1.5 million and shut down my account. My whole working thesis was show up, show up, show up. Learn the tools, don’t be a pussy and scream as loud as you can “This is art and it is always an all or nothing proposition!” I really thought there were no gatekeepers but I ran into one on step 1. Ultimately it may have proven my point even more when they told me to “google appraisers” in order to find the actual value of my work.

11. The Ultimate Boon: Of course, this is E-Bay! At what point in this journey did you decide to do the auction?

I have been doing Nibblefest on eBay for 6 or 7 months. It is a group of artists that sell their work for .99 every month. I love it. It makes me so happy; the gamesmanship and the pure joy of the entire exercise. Sometimes people don’t even sell their work for .99 and they still show up again. I feel that spirit speaks more to the artist I want to be than anything else. I finished the work in time but had about a week to figure out what to do. I cried thinking about it but then I pictured doing a show, pricing it accordingly and selling 1 or 2 pieces and packing the rest away in a drawer. That just felt too lame to consider. I don’t want my art to be saved for when I’m dead. I don’t want to be far away from the people who like my work or pay someone a percentage to tell me I may or may not suck. If someone pays $50 for a drawing when no one else was willing to pay $51, well then they most certainly deserve to have it.

12. Refusal of the Return: This would be E-Bay’s rejection and your lovely defense of your million dollar Buy It Now Option, “I know $1.5 million sounds like a fairy tale but I think it is some of my best work and would truly not end an auction unless there was life-changing money offered. “ So that happened. Every get a chance to explain to a real person at E-Bay? Any other objections from E-Bay throughout that email exchange with them?

I did talk to a few people. They were really nice but were talking to me like I was insane which I found funny because isn’t making art a little insane?

13. The Magic Flight: Those last ten minutes. What did you learn in the flurry? What were you thinking?

At that point I was thinking shipping is going to suck. I really won on the second day when everything found a home, even if it only got a .05 bid, someone showed up for me and said “yes” I want that in my life. That is a powerful connection. That is something of value; a moment where I feel lucky for making art and the other person feels lucky for experiencing art. That is the rush.

14. Rescue from Without: Any words of wisdom from the buyers? Any reactions that make you think about a different approach next time?

I would love to hear more about what it felt like on the other side. I never assume anyone reads my blog or follows my facebook feed. I would be really interested to hear how it was received. I did get some interesting feedback and my mind quickly thought, “oh that will be good for next time.” I wanted to kick myself because I knew once I thought it, there would be a next time. Not the same but I love playing online. This is my sandbox, I’m sure I’ll cook something up again.

I also confirmed that it was possible to create something with tension and entertainment value through social media. People seemed into it. I’m looking forward to getting feedback from people who bought art. There is something particularly fun about having a digital image manifest into reality via the postal service. Again, feels like magic.

15. Crossing of the Return Threshold: You dropped the mic. It’s done. How much did you make? Was it “life-changing money”? And if so, in what way?

I made $1948.75, not life changing per se and a pittance by NYC art world terms but the most I’ve ever made in one night and it went right into my paypal account. I didn’t have to buy a dress, or case of cheap wine or a plane ticket or hang a painting or get a babysitter or deal with any douchebags (even the ebay guys were nice to me). I call that a major win.

16. Master of Two Worlds: As a sold painter, how do you balance a frustration with the art “scene” and what may be a revolutionary way to sell art….the E-Bay Five and Dime Auction?

I don’t think it is revolutionary, I think it is getting back to basics. The love of art, the love of connecting with people who love art and want to buy it. Just because someone can’t afford a $10,000 painting or find time to read a novel doesn’t mean they are some kind of moron. People have lives and live in houses underwater and care for sick children and make all kinds of horrifying choices every day. Art should be allowed to be a part of regular life for regular people and uplift people. My work doesn’t do me any good sitting in my drawer with a lovely price tag…cliché but true if you love something set it free. I think my prices will go up but they may not. That isn’t up to me and I find that incredibly liberating creatively.

17. Freedom to Live. What’s next? Is there a Part Two to this fairy tale?

Freedom to live, indeed! The whole idea of dying for your art feels like something 24 year old dude would say. What about living for it? I love my family. I love my life and making my art. I’ll do what I know how to do to pierce the clutter and make the connection. I keep thinking that “POP” is the sound of art pushing through the limited means of distribution. With so many people able to distribute content, everyone is Popping, everyone thinks they’re Don Draper. The trick now is to “click”. How do we deepen the connection; find grooves that fit together and make sense, create moments that elevate instead of confuse? I believe we can do that by changing or just challenging the old narrative of what it means to be an artist and appreciator of the arts. I think women are particularly good at connecting on social media and expressing a vulnerability that resonates beyond all the “popping”. I really hope we use that power and technology to change the story about women, particularly mothers, and the arts.

UPDATE (6/23/13): A kind soul linked this blog to Jerry Saltz’ facebook page. And Mr. Saltz, also a kind soul, said some congratulatory words to Sheila Cameron along with some clarification. Godot does show up!

Sheila Cameron did magnificently…She accepted my challenge (advice) and her work got better. Much better. I do not think that she understood what I meant, however, by the idea that if she did what I asked we’d see one another in hell. When I say “See you in hell” I mean that all creative people court chaos and the unknown, and that is a form of hell.
A very very good place…
Congratulations Shelia…
I knew you had it in you….
Jerry Saltz

3 Comments Add yours

  1. erin says:

    Woo hoo, love Ms. Sheila, kudos to her!

  2. Thank you Justina! Thank you!

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