Compliments & Restraining Orders

I still remember the first time I saw a painting by Max Strauss.

I was 18 years old and fairly ignorant when it came to fine art. I had already spent a number of years working in advertising and graphic design and had been educated as an illustrator and designer. In my circle of commercial artists, we mostly just made fun of the fine artists and assumed they would either starve to death or be forced to get a real job. But I clearly remember seeing this painting hanging over the desk of one of my co-workers. And I loved it.

It was a painting of toys. Those incredibly simple, small, plastic Fisher Price characters. To this day I can see that painting in my head. At the time I had never seen anything like it, and I knew I loved everything about it.

As it turned out, it was a painting by Maxfield Strauss. It hung over the desk of the woman he was dating (and whom he would later marry). I didn’t know what to do about it, so I did the only thing I could think to do. I wrote him a letter and told him how much I liked it. All these years later, I have no idea what I said (and I’m sure I would be mortified to find out), but it felt like I needed to do something.

I think it’s important to acknowledge work that you love. Who doesn’t want to receive that kind of feedback about their work? Since that early letter to Maxfield, I have contacted numerous other artists whose work I admire. Over the years I have reached out to artists like Robert Mars, Todd Sanders, AlbanShaun RichardsJane MaxwellKim Cogan, and many others. Most, if not all, have responded with kindness. Some, over time, have developed into genuine friendships. 

With Robert Mars at his show opening in Laguna Beach, CA - complete with giddy fanboy smile (mine, not his)

The truth is, many artists never hear compliments about their work, or what it is exactly that resonates with buyers/collectors/admirers. Aside from show openings or studio visits, it’s actually rare for an artist to watch people interact with their work or explain what they love about it. It is a unique privilege for an artist to get complimentary feedback on their work.

I would later find out that Maxfield kept the letter that I wrote to him. Nearly ten years later, we found ourselves working together and have since become close friends. It was a friendship that began with a painting and a compliment, and continues to this day. Maxfield is what I would call a ‘real’ artist. He has a profound respect for art and artists, and has greatly expanded my understanding and appreciation of both. 

 Just as a point of clarification, it’s okay to contact an artist. It’s not okay to stalk an artist. You aren’t writing to ask them to be your best friend. I don’t suggest that you contact them so they can review your work and give you advice (though to my great embarrassment I have done exactly that). Writing with an agenda is different than offering a compliment. My suggestion is that you write because you love their work, and you feel they deserve to hear it. 

 Perhaps you are still hesitant. If it helps, artists who don’t want to hear from you or don’t care to receive correspondence simply won’t respond. Or perhaps they will create a contact page with a submission form that never works (I’m looking at you, edruscha.com). That’s okay too, and particularly understandable for higher profile artists. But what do you really have to lose? 

 So go ahead and reach out to those artists who inspire you. You just might end up with a lifelong friendship … or a restraining order.

- Dennis Bredow

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