How Not to Be an Artist

Advice on how to be an artist

The installation in its pristine state ...
The installation in its pristine state ...

Start With an Idea

In late August of 2013, Justine's Brasserie solicited submissions for an installation in its Infinity Booth, an open room just behind the restaurant with the ceiling and walls covered in mirrored tile (hence, "Infinity"). People wander in to take photos of each other, drink, make out, what have you.

... and getting trashed
... and getting trashed (Photos courtesy of Crawford Morgan Photography)

I brainstormed a quick idea and wrote Justine: "I'm imagining a psychedelic backyard BBQ. I've been experimenting with various colored laser pointers and mirrors. [I actually hadn't yet.] Add a mirror ball, and it's the Milky Way!"

I attached some photos I had Googled, including gilded lawn chairs and red AstroTurf, which seemed the perfect way to trip out traditional backyard scenery.

My submission wasn't accepted, and I forgot all about it. I told myself I was too ambitious anyway. I consider myself more of a musician than an artist. I had no idea how to create art installations – especially ones with lasers.

In February of 2014, my friend Jardine, who manages events at Justine's, called me. "We're ready to do your 'psychedelic backyard' for the Infinity Booth." I said that was wonderful news. What I didn't say was that I couldn't remember what I had offered to do. But what the hell. I was off ... off to ruminate and avoid getting started for the next two months.

Finding One's Seat

I couldn't really begin without a due date. Jardine suggested April 15 to "begin building," I didn't think I had much to "build," other than lay carpet and install a laser machine somewhere. Meanwhile, I found a beaten lawn chair frame at an estate sale – $5! Perfect! – and bought some gold spray paint at Hobby Lobby. I'd have to find webbing (which I didn't yet know the name of) and learn how to attach it. I hosed down the frame with the paint in my backyard and had to make two more trips to Hobby Lobby: once for more gold paint, once to return the gold paint I'd just bought and get other gold paint, as it appeared the paint I got wasn't the same color or something. (It was.)

Laying the Ground

AstroTurf is expensive. After calling a couple places that carried red AstroTurf and getting prices, I realized it would cost my whole budget from Justine's just to lay down the floor! But now that I had seen red AstroTurf, I had to have red AstroTurf. Eventually, I found a place online that sold it at a remarkable discount. I ordered 49 square feet for just short of $50. (I had measured the room in one of my earlier Justine's visits, where I paced about or stood in the room, trying not to catch my pained expression in every reflective surface.)

The turf was delivered quickly but in a container so small, I worried they got my order wrong. What if it was only 50 square inches? When I opened the box, I found that the reason it fit in that small box was that it wasn't AstroTurf, but some thin, shiny plastic fuzz, more suitable for a makeshift red carpet event than a psychedelic backyard. The excitement of the remarkable discount distracted me from the fact that this was "artificial turf," not "AstroTurf." "Astro" denotes a specialized style of turf. "Artificial" is, well, just artificial.

I left the box opened on my couch and complained to whomever entered my house about my mistaken purchase, but my friends insisted it would do just fine, so I let my anxiety rest and moved on to lasers.


I had no idea what kind of laser would be appropriate. I happened to own a little $5 red laser pointer from the how-to-annoy-cats section of Target. It was shaped like a mouse. Pointed at a tiny mirror ball I had balancing on a shelf in my living room, it looked okay, but a) it probably didn't deliver enough beams to turn a room into the "Milky Way"; b) the dots weren't white like the Milky Way; and c) it was battery-operated, with no way to keep it on and/or turn it off once it was on. I imagined instructing the manager on duty at Justine's to simply place a piece of tape over the power button each night and remove it at the end of the evening. This was not going to work.

Directed to Rock N Roll Rentals by a musician in a band that used laser lights, I discovered these little laser machines used all over the place by DJs and the like that weren't too expensive to rent. I ended up with one that shot red and green beams all about and cost $20 a month. Not exactly the Milky Way, but ... I stashed it in a corner of my studio for a couple weeks, while I pondered chairs and carpet some more.

Fenced In

At Justine's, Jardine suggested putting a picket fence in front of the doorway, which now had to happen. I brought along my girlfriend's friend Jordan, who was a "builder" at festivals like Burning Man, hoping he could teach me how to make a fence (or make one for me). But at what price, I later wondered, standing alone in the Infinity Room with my sweaty, overwhelmed expression reflecting at me times infinity.

I made four visits to as many Home Depots, combing the lumber aisles for picket fences. Most of the pre-made ones were actual fences – hardly the wimpy, art-sized version I craved. I'd crawl home in rush-hour traffic to my gold-framed chair and box of shitty red carpet and try not to think about them. But time was running out.

April 15 came and went (as did my taxes), and Jardine reminded me that I could start "building." She reiterated how excited she was. I said I feared presenting something they'd find laughable or embarrassing, which fell on amused but deaf ears. "I can do this," I told myself. I just need to finish the chair. And the rug. And the fence. Lasers.

Facing Fears

Soon after, I starting working, with help from Jordan and my friend Steve. I was grateful I could count on them to measure, cut, hammer, glue, tell jokes, and assuage my stress for the brief time they hung around. It was apparent that: Yes, I can do this, people believe in me, and I need to stop being a pussy and do it. Still, I panicked that I wouldn't get enough done in time and that Justine, Jardine, Jordan, and anyone else who witnessed the final product would judge me and thus hate me.

Nevertheless, I soldiered on. I found an old patio chaise lounge at Goodwill. All I needed was some way to disguise the shitty colors of the stringy webbing and inflatable vinyl pillow head rest.

How do you paint a vinyl chaise? On my 10th trip to Hobby Lobby, I was referred to Pep Boys (!), which carries a special vinyl paint for car seats that "didn't stick to people." I purchased a can each of black and white. It worked like a charm, and I enjoyed painting large white diamond shapes over the pre-existing, boring purple. It created a vintage, harlequin look and gave it some "bling." I didn't know how else to fancy up the chaise. More gold paint? Fur? Lights?

I purchased a roll of green webbing on eBay, and YouTube saved my ass with tutorials on fixing lawn chairs. By some luck of exhaustion and apathy, I randomly found another vinyl chair on Craigslist in "poo poo brown." I made a long trip to far East Austin in the rain and spent $15 for the best piece yet, especially when I gold-leafed the frame and painted the poo-poo vinyl black and added white diamonds, identical in design to the chaise lounge. But I still needed to think about the lasers ....


I complained about my great art opportunity to my friend Michael. At the mention of lasers, he told me his father had this amazing laser in his living room. "That's great, Michael. What laser?" "Oh, some thing, it's really cool. I love lasers." "That's great, Michael, can you find out about this really cool laser?" It turned out to be an LED Pinspot, which is a small spotlight, not a laser, but it did the trick.

I obsessed over the minutiae of unimportant details with the same ferocity and dread as the larger, important ones. I've never learned how to prioritize well, so buying two plastic insects and a lizard to stick on the wall took about three hours of pacing Toys "R" Us, as did selecting plastic vines at Hobby Lobby. The latter I spray-painted with red glitter in my backyard to match the color of the artificial turd-turf. In deference to my sloppy haste, I must say my own backyard has never known such an imaginative display of glittering colors! I should have just invited people over to my house.

Opening Gates, Fishing for Fixes

I gave up on buying a prefab fence that was two feet tall and four feet long because they didn't exist. I bit the bullet and bought 20 pickets at Home Depot, having learned by this time to just do it, if not do it "right." I put the fence together in no time. For once, I felt like King of the Hill!

The last idea I had was of a barbecue grill, painted to resemble a fishbowl, with a glass top on which people could place their drinks and an ashtray. Brilliant! I just needed to find a grill, paint, a plastic koi fish, and a piece of round glass. I suffered more trips to more stores, including a nearby aquarium for a tiny, ornamental plastic sea plant to keep the koi company. Details: the kind no one notices unless you point them out.

Getting it Together

Jardine and I agreed on May 30 to open the show. Justine's hired a photographer to take pictures of people hopefully not breaking the furniture. May 30 was less than a week away. I assured myself that I had all I needed, loaded up my Honda Fit with everything, and headed to Justine's one hot afternoon. Maybe two hot afternoons.

The space had accrued lots of trash – namely leaves and dust from storms earlier in the week. I vacuumed like crazy, laid carpet edging and glued vinery and plastic lizards to the mirrors like crazy, hung the mirror ball, added the furniture, and attached the lasers and Pinspot to the door frame. I was paranoid about the lights getting wet, especially the rented Galaxy 2000 laser machine, so I hastily nailed some black plastic sheeting to the outside of the door frame. Just then, it began to rain.

Congratulations, You're (Not?) an Artist!

By showtime, the photographer had covered my fence in white dropcloth and set up a bright light, rendering the lasers pointless. He made a noble effort at catching the surreal lightshow, but in the end, it was his night (at least for photos) and mine to enjoy people's reactions. An old CD jam box and lots of cheap beer and chips were added to the mix, diminishing the bling but accentuating the backyard feel. My favorite photo was with Jardine, Justine, and friends popping open bags of Cheetos all over the room and hurling them at the camera in reckless glee. That resulted in the room being trashed, not even an hour into the presentation. But I had to smile. This was art.

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More art installations
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This vast, ambitious solo show transforms the gallery space into a maze and a temple to art past and future

Madeline Irvine, Feb. 19, 2016

"Shrine of Inevitable Forces"
This exhibition in an abandoned church shows how time and pressure can reshape objects into rich new forms

Robert Faires, May 22, 2015


art installations, Adam Sultan, Justine's Brasserie

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