April 17, 2011

Bob Keyes: Paul Brahms and his nifty fifty

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PEAKS ISLAND - Paul Brahms faced a dilemma.

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Paul Brahms in his Peaks Island studio.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Paul Brahms cast a cyber net for prospective buyers and promptly sold out a limited-edition run of 50 paintings before a brushstroke was made.

Additional Photos Below

Work that he thought he had lined up through the winter fell through, and he found himself with time on his hands that he didn't want. He needed a painting project to take him through the cold season out on Peaks Island and to replace the income he was losing because of the lost work.

He had rent to pay and supplies to buy.

Brahms, a popular Portland painter known for his seascapes and landscapes, came up with an idea that proved remarkable in its enterprise and success. Using Facebook, his own email list and an island-wide electronic mailing list, Brahms offered a large community of friends and contacts the opportunity to buy a small painting for $95.

The catch was, the painting didn't exist. Over the course of the winter, he would set about creating 50 small oil paintings. The first 50 people who committed would receive a collectible piece of art for a nominal investment.

Within 48 hours of posting his 50 Paintings Project proposal, he was sold out.

Fifty times $95 adds up to a decent sum of money for a winter's work -- $4,750 to be precise.

So satisfying and enjoyable was the project, Brahms offered another 50 paintings for spring. Those sold out too. So he offered another 50 for summer, and those are almost gone. He'll do the same for the fall to complete a 200-painting cycle of work. When the project is finished, he may compile the images in a book of some kind.

Over the course of a year, that's almost $20,000 in new income. Talk about enterprise. Give this man a gold star for innovation.

That money is over and above the commission work that Brahms normally does and the paintings he sells at his annual summer show at the Gem Gallery on the island.

The lesson learned?

"I was reminded how much interest there is in art," he said. "You can listen to the radio and read the news and let that bring you down, particularly when it comes to the economy. But the news that you hear may be misleading."

There also is a lesson in here about value and price points. The work in Brahms' 50 Paintings Project is small -- 5-by-7 inches, oil on panel, unframed. Typically, he sells these small works for $150 each. The high end of his price range goes up to several thousand dollars for large paintings.

For Brahms, $95 seemed reasonable, especially for work that people were buying without knowing what it looked like. Their purchase was an expression of faith in Brahms and his reputation as an accomplished fine-art painter.

The project has other benefits. For one, it has helped Brahms exercise his artistic chops. He feels better prepared to tackle larger paintings and other work that will be part of his summer gallery show on the island.

And then there's the challenge of staying busy, day after day. These paintings are small and quickly executed, but they are not trivial by any means. Each represents honest and heartfelt gestures of the artist to capture the winter scenes around the island.

The process stretched and challenged him, although he is somewhat surprised he didn't take more risks. Almost all are based on scenes within a quarter-mile or so of his house on the Back Shore of Peaks. He painted what was familiar, and most settled into the category of landscapes and seascapes.

But the project did satisfy a goal to better promote his work.

"I wanted to take a step forward to market my work, and I wanted to investigate the possibility of doing it online. I pay money every month for an Internet connection. I wanted a better return on that investment," he said.

Finally, it also connected Brahms with his community of fans and friends. Social media represent a powerful resource for all of us, including artists. For someone working in relative isolation, Brahms is in touch with people all the time.

When he began the winter project, he assigned a number, from 1 to 50, to each person who committed to a painting. The first person who sent a check got painting No. 1, and so on. As he completed each painting, he posted an image of it online.

People could see their purchase as soon as Brahms uploaded it. That created a sense of anticipation and reward, and strengthened bonds between the painter and his patrons.

Brahms, who grew up in Portland, is 47 years old. He has been making art most of his life. The work of such local painters as Joe Nicoletti and Bob Solotaire influenced him early in his development. He enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design, where he earned his degree in 1986. He has studied and worked in Italy and France, but always returned to Maine.

He's been out at Peaks since 1997. Brahms rents a small building far from the ferry terminal. It's quiet back there, and somewhat remote. Especially in the winter.

He calls it "my little Walden, except I have Internet."

"I think all writers and painters have a fantasy of renting a cabin in Maine so they can get away from the hubbub and hear their own inner voice better," he said.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Follow him on Twitter at:

twitter.com/pphbkeyes

 

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Additional Photos

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Paul Brahms' “Army Dock”.

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Promoting his 50 Paintings Project on Facebook and via email, Paul Brahms sold out his first series of 5-by-7 paintings in just 48 hours. Above is a self-portrait at his Peaks Island home.

 


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