Guest Blogger: Callie Coburn Miller - 'Show Savvy'

April 27, 2016

Guest Blogger:  Callie Coburn Miller - 'Show Savvy'

I was raised as a show kid.  Now, before I lose you, let me clarify, I’m don’t mean a  “Toddlers and Tiaras” kind of show kid.  My mother made a living selling her art jewelry at contemporary craft shows all over the country.  This equated to my brother and I spending a large portion of our Summer vacations at these shows.  We were show kids.

When you’re lucky enough to have an artist for a parent, the show kid lifestyle is something that you may not even identify as unique until you’re an adult.  Summer vacations are something that all kids look forward to, but for my brother and me, there was a bittersweet anticipation for that last school bell to ring.  We knew we wouldn’t spend the whole summer hanging around the neighborhood with our friends, mowing lawns or going to camps...we’d be piling into the family car and heading to far off cities for the grand adventure that IS the art show world.  This was our normal.  

Getting to the shows was an experience in and of itself.  Living in rural Montana, our family had to drive great distances to get ANYWHERE, let alone somewhere with a sizable population.  Most people have a road trip from their childhood that is seared into their memory, for better or worse, but being a show kid meant that road trips were part of our lifestyle.  My brother and I were experts at torturing each other silently in the back seat while mile after mile of unfamiliar landscape whooshed past the windows.  My parents were skilled gamemasters, concocting hilarious diversions that incorporated our surroundings as we traveled, and challenged us intellectually.  Traversing the Western US en route to art shows is something that I took for granted.  Before I hit middle school, I had been to more states than many adults I meet today.  I was able to witness the transition of landscape from the Rocky Mountain region to the deserts of the Southwest.  I loved to watch the foliage change as we drove from the evergreen forests of Montana to the Seussian world of cacti in the saguaro forests of Arizona to the lush deciduous fruit trees of California.  Traveling became a second nature to me.  I realize now that my comfort in unfamiliar places is largely attributable to my upbringing as a show kid.

Art shows are a bit like a traveling carnival.  A temporary environment is created week after week, in countless cities around the nation.  Creatives congregate and construct a magical world of tangible imagination in venues that on any other day, are absolutely ordinary.  A colorful word pops up in these mundane places, and for a brief moment in time, you can be transported to a multitude of different dimensions by stepping into any of the 10’ x 10’ tents.  To witness the construction of these events was like having a staff pass at a realize that an elaborate display may be held together with straight pins and packing tape, and that it takes HOURS to assemble a simple looking presentation of your artwork.  Ultimately, the goal is to make money, and be able to support yourself as a professional artist, but when you’re a kid behind the scenes in this world, you experience a much different bursting with adventure, challenges, and empowered exploration.   

The shows mom was participating in were outdoor festivals, located on the streets and in the parks of exotic towns like Tempe, AZ, and Jackson, WY.   Upon arrival at wherever we were that week, we’d undo the masterful packing job that dad had done and set up the booth.  My parents’ best friends were also on the show circuit and had 2 kids the same age as my brother and me.  When we were at the same shows, we formed a fearless foursome that would concoct elaborate games, navigate the labyrinth of booths searching for familiar artists hailing from other states,  pummel the hotel pool for countless hours with a barrage of cannonballs and underwater somersaults, and compete to see who could make the most money offering booth sitting and food deliveries to other artists.   My parents trusted us to check in on the hour, but beyond that, we were given free rein to entertain ourselves in the streets of unfamiliar cities.  The barrage of sensory input we experienced on our own terms was exhaustively exciting...I remember my friend literally falling face first into her bowl of spaghetti at dinner due to exhaustion from our day of romping around the art show.  

There is a family that exists when you’re a show kid that you don’t even know is there.  I realize now that the artists who tossed me a dollar to watch their booth while they went to the bathroom, or waved at me when my posse rambled past their booth were part of an extended show family that watches out for each other.   When I thought I was completely unsupervised, roaming the blocks of booths with fellow show kids, there were multitudes of caretakers keeping a silent watchful eye over us.  This is a phenomenon that I believe is unique to the art show world.  There is an unspoken understanding that you’re all members of a club who look out for one another.   Granted, there are some artists who don’t want to be part of the club, and make sure to be abrasive enough to remain on the fringes, but, by and large, once you do a show or two, you meet an “old timer” who treats you like family, and just like that, you ARE family.  Being a show kid, you become part of this family before you even make a conscious decision to join.  There are artists I see at shows now, as an adult, who have known me since I was 8 years old, remind me of the time I fetched them a lemonade during a particularly hot show in 1988.  But they’re family, so of course they’d remember things like that. There is a comfort in knowing that my extended show family is constantly growing, comprised of people of all ages, skill sets, faiths, races, and identities, bound by the gypsy lifestyle of the professional artist.

There are life skills that can only be learned through experience.  As a show kid, I was given the opportunity to cultivate many skills that have served me well as an adult.  When you arrive in a new city, and your “home base” is a white tent in a row of hundreds of white tents set up on a sidewalk, you learn to look for landmarks to orient yourself, and quickly establish a cognitive map.  When a creepy stranger asks your friend to follow them, you learn situational awareness and how to casually remove yourself from a dangerous situation.   When you forget to bring an integral part of your display, you learn to improvise and think outside the box to problem solve.  When you want to buy a piece of artwork from another artist, but you’re $8 short, you devise ways to earn money.  Spending my summers in this crazy world was an unusual form of education for which I am eternally grateful.  

I never in a million years thought I’d become an artist myself. Being a professional artist is freakishly hard work.  I describe it as living the life of a rock star, without all the fame, money, groupies, or an agent. My mother put my brother and me through private colleges selling her work at art shows.  She was on the road more than she was home, and she worked SO hard, I thought it would be a disservice to her if I didn’t use my degree.  However, after graduating from college, I took a look at the business my mother had built over the years, and realized that being a professional artist is “baked in my bread”, so to speak.   I chose to come back to Montana to work with my mother and embrace the challenges of this career wholeheartedly.  Now that mom has retired and I travel to shows on my own, I still see some of the artists I met during those adventures of my youth, now nearly 30 years ago.  I see the next generation of show kids with a mischievous glint in their eye darting between booths, and wonder if decades from now, I’ll still be on the show circuit and they’ll remember me from the long ago days of their youth.  I hope they will appreciate how lucky they were to be show kids.  I am so proud to be a show kid in an adult body.  

Now, off to the next show!

Callie Miller

*Favorite 3Clothing Piece: Lined Tank