I have inadvertently found a niche for myself doing commissions—creating custom, original works for a variety of people, organizations, and situations. Being a mixed media artist, I revel in finding new materials and potential fodder for collage. Commissions have provided unexpected outlets for new materials, concepts, and much-needed revenue!
It probably helped that my first commission experience was a good one. It fell into my lap in graduate school, when I was barely making ends meet. A very good friend who had the means to collect my work referred me to a colleague who liked my work and wanted something neutral and textural for her new home. At the time I was working monochromatically and exploring various processes that resulted in low relief textures, so it wasn’t a stretch for me. In fact, it completely overlapped with what I was working on. Would I do it? Why not! At that point it was kind of exciting to know that the materials for my next piece would be paid for! I told her I could surely make something to fit her space and palette, but that it might have more meaning for her if some of the materials I used were hers. She hesitated at first, but after some brainstorming we came up with a list of potential materials to use: sheet music from her first piano piece, seeds from the garden, her grandmother’s lace. I took home all of her ephemera, and used about half of it (not the Santa collection though). The couple was quite happy with their piece, and it was later featured in a guild sourcebook article on the evolution of a custom design.
Many years and commissions later, I find that when I relate these experiences to other artists, I can sometimes see them visibly cringe at the thought. I certainly understand the reluctance. There is definitely more pressure in pleasing someone else besides yourself. But I titled this “Consider Commissions” for a reason: You shouldn't accept every commission offered you—you should consider it. If you have an established body of work out there, clients can see what you’ve done in the past and should not expect you to do something radically different. Most people approaching me for a commission are already familiar with my work and share my affinity and respect for nature. If there's an overlap in our interests and aesthetics, then I consider doing the commission. If they ask me to do something that I am not comfortable with, I turn them down. Here are two examples of how commissions developed.
I invited a teammate of mine to an open studio in 2000, and to my surprise she came back the next day and purchased a painting. She has been collecting every since. She had commissioned smaller pieces as gifts, but upon moving into a new home, she wanted to commission a piece for her and her husband. Their new home overlooks a marsh, and they were fascinated with all the species of birds that visit or inhabit the wetland. Their ornithological interest is reflected in the imagery of the work: silhouettes of sandhill cranes bask in the silhouette of a swan, grouse feathers float throughout, and a flock of Canadian geese flies overhead. The underlying layers of imagery feature things specific to the collectors, like maps from the towns they grew up in, their street address, and the survey plat of their new home peeking out from the under layer. (Click here to view this commission.)
While researching art possibilities for a Franciscan hospital, a local art consultant found my website and contacted me because she thought my work would be a good fit for the Franciscan order. (St. Francis is the patron saint of animals and plants, and both of which figure prominently in my work.) Three years and two proposals later, four large feature commission pieces came to fruition last year for the OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Illinois. The theme of each floor is based on a portion of St. Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures that addresses different aspects of the environment: Sister Water, Brother Wind, Sister Moon, and Brother Water. Although I could definitely connect with water, moon, sun, and wind, I had never created work geared to appeal a younger population. It had to be accessible, durable, uplifting, and, educational. "Accessible" meant representational imagery, so I developed a method of layered low relief in which to render fish and other species. "Durable" meant a five-year-old could not destroy it, which led to the discovery of a new modeling compound that can live outdoors and is virtually indestructible! (And also quite heavy, I came to find out). "Uplifting" meant employing a lighter and brighter palette. "Educational" meant I wanted to be accurate: I filled Sister Water with species that were indigenous to the Illinois River that flows through Peoria. I worked with a paleontologist to find specimens that would have lived in the area to encase in the riverbed. I researched and found NGC346, an emissions nebula, to include in Sister Moon because it’s a stellar nursery, or a birthplace of stars—fitting for a place where kids are born everyday! (Click here to view this commission.)
Commissions do require additional steps that would not be necessary were you painting what you felt like on any given Saturday afternoon. I highly recommend that you do not start a commission unless you have met with a client, established some common ground, and had them sign a contract that gives you 30–50% to begin. (See appended sample contract.) If they are not willing to do that, you should not consider the commission. Try and put down on paper at the beginning any givens: materials, timeline, palette, or who is responsible for delivery and installation. In my experience, if it is discussed and put into writing at the beginning, it does not end up being an issue. Try and convey, as clearly as you can, what you need and when you will need it by. If possible, create a rough sketch of the piece that can help communicate your vision to the client, but do explain that there should be leeway during the process to allow the piece to develop. If possible, pad your delivery times to account for unforeseen delays.
Once reluctant to take on commissions, I now welcome the challenge of the collaboration. Interpreting a person or company’s interest, perspective, and history in my own visual language has been an invaluable exercise. It has enabled me to add new materials, concepts, and techniques to my “artistic arsenal"... and delivering a piece to a client who is overwhelming happy is a bonus that I didn't count on!
Cheryl Holz grew up in the country, collecting moss, bugs, leaves, and to her
mother’s chagrin, snakes and salamanders. Her rural upbringing had a
big influence on her aesthetic sensibility, and most of her work today
is a homage to nature’s strength, beauty, and diversity. She has an
undergraduate degree in art education, studied drawing and painting at
California State at Northridge, and received her MFA from Northern
Illinois University. Cheryl has received local and national
recognition for her work and shows in galleries, museums, and juried
shows throughout the country. Her work is included in many corporate
and hospital collections. She has completed eight residencies at the
Ragdale Foundation and I-Park, and has received numerous arts in
education grants from the Illinois Arts Council. When she’s not working
in her studio overlooking the Fox River, she enjoys tramping around the
local forest preserves with her dogs in tow.