What Papa Taught Me About Selling Art from the Trunk of His Car

I’m in Great Falls, Montana, where my mother and her father, my Papa, grew up.

Family lore holds that, as a teenager working for the Montana Power Company, Papa used to watch Charles Russell paint when he stopped by to read the Russell meter. Russell was, and still is, a hero in Montana. In fact, you can drop by the C.M. Russell Museum next time you’re out here.

Papa was a fairly simple man who made his living as a traveling salesman. The last job I knew him to have was selling paper.

Charles Pannage Sculpture

My grandfather, Charles Pannage, sitting (oddly) with his bronze sculptures on the winter grass. The bust of Chief Joseph is now in my parents’ den.

My mom remembers Papa making “snow people” out of the abundant Montana snowfall and says “an over-sized bust of George Washington was his best work.” So, when Papa turned 60 and was about to retire, she gave him a slab of clay and sculpting tools.

Papa officially took up sculpture: bronze sculpture. I remember the green clay he formed into Western wildlife: bears, elk, bighorn sheep, and bison. He also used wax for this process. He’d hand some clay or wax over to us kids and we’d work alongside him.

The best foundry for Papa was the cheapest foundry, which doesn’t necessarily mean the highest quality castings. He didn’t take the time to learn about the “craft” of his art and how to makeĀ  it better. That didn’t interest him. He was a salesman through and through!

Whenever Papa was due at our house 13 hours away from his, we were on call. We knew he was going to ask us to come look in the trunk of his white Honda Accord that he had recently parked in our driveway. It was always filled with his latest bronzes and we were expected to Ooh and Aah at his accomplishments. We were adolescents and honestly didn’t appreciate them. Then again, no one appreciated them more than Papa did.

He would show a piece to us and, accompanied by a whistle, say, “Isn’t that a beauty?!” (“Yes, Papa, it sure is.”)

It’s guaranteed that there were driveway moments with unsuspecting targets whenever he traveled and wherever he drove. And we know he never took a direct route when he could go out of his way to add new collectors to his rolls.

Papa was able to apply what he learned as a salesman to promoting his bronzes. We’re certain some people bought pieces from him just so he’d stop pestering them!

Papa didn’t care for any art other than his own and didn’t know the “rules” of the art world. Heck, he didn’t even know there was an art world! Getting into a gallery never entered his thoughts. He just drove around with a trunk full of sculptures to show to people.

The Sales Lesson from Papa

Showing your art online isn’t the same as showing it in person.

Get your art out of the studio and share it! You don’t have to drive around with a trunk full of art like Papa. You just need to exhibit your art as frequently as possible. It’s a sure bet that no one is going to buy it until they see it.

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32 comments to What Papa Taught Me About Selling Art from the Trunk of His Car

  • This is so absolutely true…especially for me. My mixed media pieces are layered, on purpose, to create a dream-like feel. Dreams are often poorly lit and sometimes you’re not quite sure what you’re seeing! Up close and personal you can see worlds inside worlds in my work but even in the best, professional scans, which are able to capture the detail just fine, that ‘feel’ is gone…just gone. It can’t be captured,
    We have a local event – and by local I mean within an hour of here – that occurs numerous times during the warmer weather and me and my art are there as often as we can be.
    I haven’t sold anything there – that’s not what I’m there for; I’m there so that I can expose my art to those that respond to it and, better yet, to meet the people who are my audience in person, to talk with them, give them my card, direct them to my website(s) and become a living part of their personal experience. Nothing beats that.
    Oh, yeah, and I’m selling just fine…mostly commissions…from people who’ve seen my work.

  • I would like to comment on your beautifully written piece, “What Papa Taught Me About Selling Art from the Trunk of His Car”.
    The loving way you portrayed your grandfather allowed me to envision his enthusiasm. I immediately thought of my grandmother, who was an opera singer. Although after she married, she no longer sang on the stage — she always shared her beautiful voice. She sang in churches as a paid soloist, productions for radio and stage where she could share her voice and earn some money. She volunteered and sang beautifully sharing her gift.
    Thank you for a sweet piece that inspired me to show my work more, and most importantly remember my beloved grandmother.

  • Sari

    My grandfather & his bother drove to Chicago from Canada in 1919 to see the World Series…They took photographs of all the White Sox players…A week later, The White Sox players were charged with throwing games on purpose…Back in Canada, The Turofsky brothers sold the pictures to the newspaper here…Best shots! It made them famous…Today their sports photography is the founding collection of the Hockey Hall of Fame…Timing is everything…

  • Pam Regan

    Wonderfully written! I agree with the lesson of getting your artwork out to the people. I’m finding ways of sharing works of art outside of the gallery. Last night I attended a reception for a 1.5m condo that I was part of the staging team. I supplied, delivered, and installed the artwork. I met numerous people that are now interested in the gallery.
    This is just one example, but I believe my gallery won’t grow without creative marketing.

  • Thank you so much for your loving yet inspiring article. It is touching in so many ways to those of us who had a “Papa” or a “Bepa”, in my case…You are so right on in regard to getting your art out in the “real” world where people can interact with it close up and personally. It is very easy to hide behind the veil that the internet creates. Nothing can take the place of “seeing” a piece of art that the viewer can connect with, by “feeling” it with their eyes. This is how a true connection is made. I truly appreciate your insight Alyson!

  • What a beautiful story. It’s not only a lesson about art, it’s a lesson on being a better grandparent!

    • Allan: Papa wasn’t terribly loving, but he liked to have fun. He always made up games and stories for us. I think he enjoyed us more when we were young and didn’t know what to do as we got older. Or maybe we weren’t as eager for his affection – which is very sad, but happens to some adolescents. I’m very grateful he lived a long time and I knew him well as an adult.

  • When I was in my early 20s I sold my art out of my trunk. I was not trying. But when someone walked by as I was giving a commissioned piece to it’s owner that person just walking by, saw the painting and a drawing in the trunk. They laughing said, “Hey, Aleta are you an art pusher?” It was the 70s and a lot of people were “pushers.” I said yes and he bought the drawing right on the spot. No mat, no frame and it still had some eraser dust on it.
    I sold the painting for $75. and the drawing for $25. In that era it was almost a week’s paycheck. I went out that night after work! It was my best sale.
    I became the “art pusher” and got asked if I had any art in my car, a lot.
    I think that people seeing art without the artist is very disconnected. It’s great when they can at least see the person that created the art. It gives so much more. Maybe not a sale but more likely one if the artist is there.

  • Ugh! This is so hard for me! I need to learn to be a salesman like your Papa. I’d rather post things on the internet and then go hide. :/ But it’s also an inspiring story. You must have had a very interesting Papa. :)

  • What a wonderfully endearing story, Alyson and a great moral to the story.

    Since my work was inspired by my mother and her 14 sisters who were quilters, I can identify how precious this story is to you.

    Thank you for sharing your remarkable Papa.

  • Alyson, Thank you so much for this heartwarming story and post filled with a great message. I try to do both, show my work in person and online, but prefer the in person angle. My paintings have so much texture, layers and I use interference colors too, which just simply can’t be seen or appreciated over a computer screen. I have a truck, so I can’t throw them in the trunk, but you inspired me to “get out” and show my “beauties” like your Papa did.

  • I would never think of a car boot moment for my work but in line with your story, one of my own. At a art teaching conference, I was chatting to some colleagues – they mentioned that they had seen some of my work in a show. I work in small fold out, concertina books. It so happened I had some in a box, in the boot of my car ( really). By the end of the day there were two sales and two more later that grew out the conversations that day. I learnt, where possible have access to your work and share your enthusiasm. I love your story and your grandfather’s positive and creative spirit.

  • Alison,
    That story of your Grandfather was sweet!! Thank you for sharing it with us!!! He was a great example of what we all need to be more of…enthusiastic!!
    thanks Alison!
    Nina

  • I think actually SEEING the item kicks in impulse that is otherwise dormant when you are shopping online.

  • Such great lessons learned from Papa! It’s amazing how the simple and direct approach is usually the best.

  • Lucy Chen

    Can’t agree more. I think the originals look so much better than their photographs.

  • Alyson, what a heartfelt story and beautifully written.

    I also love the lessons to be learned from Papa as well.

  • This is a beautiful story and great picture. I love your writing!

  • Dina Scheel

    This is so true!! Every year our art department participates in Open Studios and I’m always amazed when the students say they won’t participate because they have an Etsy shop, etc. Over the last two years, I’ve worked with the staff to allow me to come in and talk about participating and getting your art in front of people, to learn how to talk about art to customers (its very different from the art critiques in class!) and how much people buy art when it has a personal connection.

    Can I link to this post from our Foothill Art Society page?

  • Thank you for the story about your Papa.
    Years ago I read an African proverb that says “The best way to sell your goods is to cry them through the streets.”

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