Working Title, Working Artists
A painting show catches my attention last Friday so I go – ARTicles Art Gallery and Custom Framing has been holding shows in the Staybridge Suites lobby for the past year. I run into arts organizer Larry Biddle on my way up the road and invite him to the show, but he has to attend a beer event – he doesn’t love beer but he has to go. He’s walking his little dog and we’re by a canal and some bougainvillea – the southern fuschia flower whose vines can grow and grow and grow, as high as stacked houses, overtaking everything. Thorns.
This article is not about bougainvillea. It is about an art show in a hotel in a small Florida city with big dreams.
If you missed the opening, it’s up for the next three months, featuring painters from the Tampa Bay area and beyond who advertise or are featured in the art-catalog magazine Working Title, a project started by artist Michael Crabb.
I get to the show and lift a complimentary flute of champagne with a strawberry wedged onto the side of the glass. I’m a little early but soon it begins filling with people.
Crabb graduated from the Ringling College of Art & Design in 2001 and started the Working Title concept in 2011, but it was 2012 when he “bit the bullet,” as he put it.
“It was an initial investment with my buddy who became an anesthesiologist. He gave me around $1,800 to get it started,” Crabb said of his friend Dr. Erik Benton. “After that it was me hustling the streets, like going to Miami with no way to get back unless I make the sale. I say it only takes one person — a little bit of love from one person, like Erik, has changed, to a small degree, central west Florida with the publication. Just $1,800 from one person.”
The inaugural issue’s cover featured the late beloved painting professor Leslie Lerner, who managed to stoke the fire in a lot of Ringling art students with deep passion for art, painting and mission, including Crabb. He donates space to people who are close to his heart. “I’ve done that for professors that have passed away. So, I did one on Leslie Learner and one on Allyn Gallup but he was still alive.” Allyn passed away two years ago and his wife Sheila still runs their Sarasota gallery.
The fine art show is decidedly fine, with elements of luxury, open space, formal approaches as well as an appreciation for the randomized, one-time color use ethos of contemporary paintings. Nothing too boundary-pushing, though I do appreciate Rafael Angulo putting candy in his painting. His was my favorite piece because it’s like the beginning of many formations out of nothing within an open space of endless possibilities. It’s a painting I can look at for a long time if I want to, if I need to. Sometimes paintings are like people’s eyes — some you can gaze into for a long time pleasantly, some are too boring to waste your eyes on, some are seductive and exciting and you look away and back many times.
Crabb said that since his name was on the cover of the publication, people assumed he was doing well for himself, which he feels was not the case. He said it gets him down when a museum asks if they can get in for free, because working artists pay to have their work in there. It’s how he affords printing the magazine.
“That’s the biggest insult when people ask me for a deal or a break,” he said. “Every time someone with money asks for a deal, it takes away from when I could help a real artist who is struggling; it takes away from my ability to give the opportunity to someone who really needs a break.”
However, Crabb is happy to work with artists who can’t afford the full rates but want to do a work-trade barter to get in – they can help distribute or do some social media work, for example.
I’m sitting at a table and photographer Kyle Fleming walks by. “Kyle!” He saw everyone by the table except me. A couple people ask me that night if I’m working there because I’m wearing all black with a collar and I must look like waitstaff. Surprised to see me, he sits down. “Have you seen the show yet?” I ask him at the table. “What show?” I laugh because obviously I mean the show we’re at and someone else comes up to him. They chat a minute, then back to me. “Hey, are you writing that down?” he asks. “Don’t put that I said that, I just got here! I ate some food and walked by and sat down to talk to you.”
When he started, Crabb wanted to help people get into galleries and he did this by letting the general public know where they can view and purchase original fine art by distributing the magazine at 7,500 copies per issue, two issues a year. It goes all over Florida but has also been distributed irregularly in Chicago, New York, Beverly Hills, Atlanta, someone recently sent it over to London.
“I’d like to go national,” he said. “People with printers have been calling me and want to take it away from the printer I have now, but I like my printer, he’s phenomenal. When I’m in a relationship with someone, I stick, I’m loyal. That’s one thing I hate about the magazine. I hate taking money from artists because I’m an artist and I know how it is. I’m always looking for someone with deep pockets and artists could be in it for free. But I don’t hang out with those types of people because I don’t come from those types of people.”
“I like the work” says painter Richard Seidel, who wondered aloud if people just come to these functions for the food. “I think it’s a very nice variety of abstraction to figurative. It’s a nice representation of the artists’ works throughout the St. Pete art community. He’s been putting this magazine in Denver, all around.”
Crabb’s ultimate vision is to have a Working Title in different cities that highlight work specific to that region, like how Miami has Miami-style art and the Southwest has Southwest-style art. Crabb envisions having a Working Title in Indianapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, to name a few.
“I’d fund and highlight everything that’s great in that area and make people think twice about buying shit from Pier One or Wendover Art Group or anyone who does giclees because that directly affects the local artists,” he said.
I’ve since gone to another art show and returned, and it’s later in the evening now at Staybridge. I’m standing in front of Bassmi’s purple sensations, writing something down, when painter Katie Cassidy swashbuckles in at the speed of light to my right, proclaiming her love and excitement for Bassmi’s painting. She and I have never met. “Isn’t it amazing?” she gushes. I look up like a deer in headlights. She looks expectantly into my soul and I say, “It’s like a glass…flower….wave…of energy.” I’m not blown away at first glance by these types of paintings but maybe she’s more evolved than I am. She just met him and loves that he told her he starts his paintings off after a sustained meditative state. She says she is also a painter and that she did the gold and brown one.
“The one that looks like a Turner, but calm?”
“Yes, without the warships!” she laughs.
I like her.