Painting

The Digital Wheel: Mab Graves Shares Insight on Balancing Social Media and Creating Art

August 08, 2018

In part 2 of the Digital Wheel, Andrew Hosner of Thinkspace Projects gave us valuable insights into how his gallery has adapted through technology and social networking to better serve his program. For part 3, I decided to highlight an artist whose stellar talent, relentless work ethic, business savvy, and undeniable charm, has taken the Pop Surrealism/New Contemporary scene by storm.

The first time I encountered the work of Mab Graves was just a few years ago while curating a group show at Red Truck Gallery. I had spent some time observing her work, and could tell its quality was well within the lineage of Margaret Keane, Robert Williams and Mark Ryden. Except there was something else there, something fresh and fantastic. Something sweet, with a little darkness underneath. Some new, ancient magic. I also quickly began to notice her strong social network presence. Her dedicated fan base, her willingness to open up, sharing her inner thoughts and feelings, and her fearless ability to give folks a glimpse into her world, completely fascinated me. She was exploring new territory, in the way an artist relates and connects with their audience in real time, on a daily basis.

To say that Mab's fan base is passionate is an understatement. It’s more like Beatlemania. They are in awe of her work and enamored by her ethereal beauty. They identify with her personal struggles and will travel across the country to a show, if they know there is a chance of meeting her. Anyone who has ever worked with her understands this, because of the hundreds of emails, DM’s and phone calls you receive when her fans catch wind of a new available piece or exhibition. I’ve never experienced anything like it as an artist or a gallerist. In a world oversaturated with imagery and self-promotion, Mab Graves is a fucking Superstar.––Gabe Shaffer

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Gabe Shaffer: When did you start using social networking platforms to promote your art, and what format did you begin with?
Mab Graves: I started using social media in 2009 when I came “out of the closet” as an artist. I had been a secret artist, showing no one my work, up until that point. I started on Facebook.

What platforms are you currently active with and why?
Well, I have a pretty wide gamut of platforms: Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter etc, but the latter three are all set to auto-post limited content from my Instagram. Instagram is really the only platform I'm active on, and it has about 50% more content than the others. I think each platform has its own feel and comfort. It's such a beautiful platform for pure content and discussion. It's both intimate and safely distant, you share only what you choose and you don't have to fill a profile with your entire life's history. It has the HUGE benefit of not having time-swallowing links and click-bait headlines that pull you down rabbit holes (ahem. Facebook.) Instagram is just the people you choose to follow, posting their daily lives and inspirations. Some nights I feel literally giddy after scrolling through my feed; completely overwhelmed by the sheer awesomeness of art entering this world, and humbled by the fact that I’m witnessing it.

Was it easy for you to figure out how to interact with at first? If not, how did you improve?
No! Not at all. I didn't grow up with computers, television, video games or really any media besides books. Finding a way to communicate outside of imagery did not come naturally or easily to me. Writing was a new medium for me, and it took me several years to eventually find my voice.

I developed a complicated balance of not overthinking things too much, while at the same time very carefully thinking through them. On social media, one misstep, misspelling or poorly worded thought can drown you in a firestorm of notifications, so I take my time, often composing a single post over the course of a day or two. I edit and re-read to make sure what I’m saying is both worth saying, and said right. I do a lot of advocating and gentle discussion about difficult topics on social media, and if you want your words to be heard, it's very important that you deliberate extensively.

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Was there a moment when you noticed a tipping point with how many followers you had, or was it a gradual build?
It was pretty fast for me, but honestly, I very purposefully keep things like follower counts/likes/hearts and that kind, to a mental minimum. I think it can get pretty distracting fast if you place a value on it. Social media is a brilliant, beautiful tool, but it can be dangerous and destructive to your creative spirit if you allow yourself to place significance on arbitrary things like social media.  I've seen artists obsessed by their numbers who second-guess their own creative impulses because of social media interactions. It's something I try to keep in its place, and it's been easier for me to do because I didn't grow up with social media. My cerebral cortex was fully formed before I was exposed to it, and it was never a source of validation for me. I think it has to be really hard maintaining mental and emotional boundaries for artists who have been exposed to social media their whole lives. It's definitely something we all have to be aware of.

Do you think social networks are important for emerging and mid-career artists and why?
It is important for sure. The art world has completely changed with the dawning of the Digital Age, and our job descriptions have changed with it. Social media is part of being an artist now.

It's important to do a lot of reading and a lot of listening to others who are trying to find their own genuine, unique voice. It can be a huge hindrance to your career if you don't invest in teaching yourself things like writing and taking really good pictures. I have literally cried out loud at my phone when I've seen a brilliant artist posting a crappy, nighttime shot of a gorgeous piece they're working on. In my head I scream "WAIT! Why are you posting that NOW? Wait till the morning and take a good shot in natural light!" All the hard work you've done will get scrolled straight by if you don't use the tools you have to help people see it. That's in your hands and it's your responsibility.

Learning how to talk about the work is just as important, and it also takes a lot of practice. For me, painting was instinctual. I just did it but I couldn't talk about it. I sat down, and it came out of me without having much understanding of why. I had to learn how to self-analyze and how to ask myself the questions I needed to contemplate so I could verbalize my own creative motives and choices. The answers were all there already, they just didn't have shape in words. Questions like: why am I constantly drawn to painting little monsters and lost creatures? Because I have always felt completely alien. I painted them for years before I even thought about why I chose that subject matter and how deeply it speaks to me, or how much it shows how I feel about myself. Learning to ask yourself those questions while you are working will help you grow as a writer and help you engage your audience.

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Has social media affected your process or studio life? If so, how?
Not really, but I do try to stay mindful and take occasional breaks to photograph things to share. I also do a lot of mental writing when I'm painting, working through thoughts on things that I'll put into words later. Other than that, I post maybe once a day and check my feed/ answer questions for a few minutes, a few times a day. I try to really limit the amount of time I allow myself to get distracted with it!

Do you sell your art directly to collectors on social media?
Of course! I don't think an artist can self-support and survive if they don't.

What are some positive effects that social media has had on your career?
Pretty much every positive effect possible. Social media is amazing and I feel SO lucky to be an artist in this day and age. For the first time in basically the entire history of art, artists have the power. We don't have to wait for a gallery or an art dealer to notice us and reach down to give us a shot. We can do it all. It's a whole lot of work, but it's possible and in our hands.

What are some of the negatives? Are there any horror stories?
Oh the usual ^_^ I've had a couple stalkers and a few over-obsessed fans egregiously cross boundaries. I try to be very careful and very deliberate with the content I post. I post pictures with my partner and pictures with my nephew so it's very clear I'm unavailable. For the most part, I've been very lucky. I have really amazing, passionate, respectful fans and I've created some of the deepest friendships in my life thanks to social media. My personal rule is: Even if it's a hard post, about a tough topic, I always end with positivity. If I'm not in a place where I'm emotionally able to do that, then I wait until I have more perspective and understanding on the issue so I can. There is enough negativity clawing blindly in this world and I don't want to add to it.

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Has your success on social media had an effect on your relationships with the gallery system?
Yes. My job entails soooo much more work than artists in the past. I have to create the work, talk about it, answer questions, create promos, photograph it, promote the show, frame the work, package, ship, compile collectors lists,... by the time it arrives at the gallery, it's already sold to one of my collectors. A lot of galleries are still trying to take the same commission rates that they took a generation ago, when 2/3rds of those things were their jobs. It's ridiculous. I own and run a gallery, and I am not in any way minimizing the amount of work it takes to produce a show, but I also know from first-hand experience that producing a show pales in comparison to the amount of work that goes into creating it. I've been largely unimpressed with a majority of the galleries I've worked with, they either seem to be unaware of the changes in their job description in the Digital Age, or they are just trying to get away with not stepping up to the plate. Galleries asking for 50% commissions in 2018 seem to be out of touch with the industry. I'm hard on galleries because working with them is a partnership, and it gets frustrating fast if your partner is only putting in a small percentage of what they should be.

Do you think galleries are still relevant if social media and the internet exists?
Yes... they are, but they have to change. One of the huge reasons we’ve recently lost so many big galleries is because they’re not changing or not adapting fast enough. One of the biggest risks we face in losing galleries is that we could lose installation artists along with them. Installation art needs a physical space to be experienced, and galleries are an important component for that. There are already so few galleries that support and show installation art (because the focus is experiential and not widely monetize-able.) and we can't afford to lose them all. I'm afraid if galleries don't step up and redefine their roles in the art world, they will go the way of bookstores and become charming novelties. Galleries need to have well-organized, easily navigable websites. They need to have resources like printers, sticker and enamel pin-makers that they can offer to artists to help merchandise their work, and they need to have eCommerce pages where collectors can purchase work easily. They need to be active on social media and posting content consistently. Galleries also need to invest in advertising their artists and events, not solely depending on the efforts of artists they show. Galleries that don't do these things won't survive, and we still kind of need them. A lot of artists are overwhelmed by all the business and marketing aspects of the job, and having galleries help bear the load could enable artists to focus more fully on what they do best and survive financially while they do.

Dinokitty Rex Scales and Whiskers in a Purrasic Paradise Mab Graves

Do you have any advice for emerging artists just starting to promote their work on social media?
I think people place too high a value and get too distracted by the pressure to attain followers, "likes," and that kind of stuff. It's really pretty meaningless. The best thing you can do for yourself is to focus on your art. Focus on growing, honing your craft and pushing yourself to be a better artist. When you are ready, the galleries, fans, and collectors will find you. Seriously, the best thing you can do is focus on your work and don't pay attention to the noise. That being said, I do have a few social media rules: 

 ~ 1 in every 10 posts needs to be another artists work. And not just a quick repost! I post an artist whose work I really love, and then I talk about why I love them.  

~ 1 in every 10 posts is about something I love or something that inspires me. It could be a book, a shell, a weird toy... just something that helps lend context to the world that I create from.

~ I think it's also important to be personal. Post pics (not too many!) of YOU and talk about things that are important to you and fuel you, that might give a glimpse into why you create.

~ Don't over-post too many progress shots or unfinished pieces. Post the best of what you do, then shut your phone off and keep doing it.

~ Take really good pictures. No nighttime shots. Shoot in natural light and don't use photo filters on your work.

~ Be an active member. Whether you’re on Instagram, FB, Tumblr, or what-have-you, make sure you are staying current on what's going on in the art scene and are involved in it. Liking and commenting on other people's work is mandatory!

~ The MOST important one. The Two Thumb Scroll Rule: When a viewer checks out your feed, you have about 2 thumb scrolls to get their attention. If they see stuff they like, they will follow. If your feed is boring, they move on. It's an interview process. Keep your feed clean! Go through and delete old posts that don't need to be there forever. Some posts are just to give people info and don't need to be in your feed “portfolio” for more than a few days or a week. Delete them! Keep your feed about you and your art if that's why you want people to follow you. Unless these things directly relate to your work and why you create: NO food posts, No flower/landscape posts, No vacation or workout posts, Minimal pet posts. Keep on message. Make a second personal account for friends and family to post all that other stuff ^_^