The Business of Art

A weekend guest was talking about how one of her relatives acquired so much of Norval Morrisseau's work. The creator of such strikingly original images also had a drinking problem for part of his life and would sell his work to support it. The same pieces are now worth many times what Mr. Morrisseau sold them for.

Raven, by Richard Shorty
I pointed out the raven on my wall, and told the story of how I had one morning been walking down Commercial Drive in east Vancouver and passed an art supplies store. A guy stood outside offering prints for ten bucks. He needed to buy some ink, he said.  Richard Shorty was young then. Engaging. As a free-lance writer with an uncertain income, I appreciated the deal, too. When I googled him yesterday, I found that Richard Shorty put that ink to very good use. His work is now a staple of aboriginal and northern art galleries, and his limited edition prints sell for ten times what I bought my raven for. At the time, I didn't know he had come from Whitehorse, in the Yukon, but the story of another work that hangs in my house involved the Yukon as well.

Matthew Watson's Store.
Jim Robb
The years when I worked as a newspaper editor in Whitehorse there was no shortage of material for feature stories. The place was then, and probably still is, crawling with characters. Some had formed a community of sorts along the Yukon River, where they would be displaced by a new bridge and a park, and eventually the Territorial Government Building. Northern-style gentrification. But while the squatters/campers were still resident in what was called Whiskey Flats, a toothless Wigwam Harry, in his seventies, lived among them.  Jim Robb - who was every bit the character as the cast that made up his "Colourful Five Percent" series  of photographs -  Jim offered to introduce me to Harry so that I could get some of his stories on tape. Oh yes, tape. The olden days. I think I offered to buy him coffee at the Regina Hotel coffee shop. We had to meet somewhere, and the Regina was quiet in the afternoons. So I got Harry's story, including how, when he worked as an excavator, he had filled a basement right back up with old mattresses and anything he could find, when the man who'd hired him wouldn't pay. When sober he was no rambler, but he would talk if you asked the right question. Jim Robb wanted that recorded interview for his collection and offered to trade me a print for it.  An easy deal to agree to, which is why "Matthew Watson's Store" has been hanging on my wall ever since.

This month being income tax time, those transactions got me thinking about the line on the form concerning revenue from "business" activities and how the "business" of art sometimes gets done.