If you’re an artist who works on paper you dread frames. I’ve paid hundreds of dollars for a few simple wood mouldings, cut glass, a window mat, and some foam core more times than I can recall. In many of those instances, I sold the artwork for just enough to pay off that expense; sometimes, not even that.
You can save perhaps 20% of a typical custom job by going to a u-frame-it place. There, a tired, often sarcastic framer will give you materials, maybe pound in a nail or two, then leave you to it. I once spent a full three days at the Great Frame Up assembling twenty or so pieces for a show. It was exhausting and a little crazy making and at the end of it I was still out a couple thousand dollars.
I’ve always been a frustrated perfectionist in matters of craft. Tasks like picture-framing bring out some very negative personal qualities. All I see in my efforts is the flaws and mistakes. In my mind I should be a master even though I haven’t put in enough time, nor possess the natural coordination, to even be a competent journeyman. The gap between expectation and skill is a gaping maw. I can see myself chainsmoking on the Broadway sidewalk, trying to calm down enough not to go back into the shop, aiming the framers point gun at my forehead rather than some cursed piece of wood.
There’s a domino effect too with how I price my pictures. Obviously, a drawing in a $400 frame has to be what? $600? $800? Now a thing that seemingly has nothing to do with drawing or painting is having a significant influence on the very important process of getting artwork out of my life. It’s hard enough without extraneous hurdles.
I’ve gone to thrift stores, yard sales, resale and junk shops for as long as I can remember. I like looking through dead people’s things. They have a patina or aura that a new thing never does. Scuff marks, rips, and yellowing would be a flaw in most stores but are selling points here.
At some point in the past decade I decided to ask much less for my pictures than I used to. The time left has become more and more of a factor in my thinking. The idea of an apartment full of art destined for thrift store or dumpster is not an appealing one. I’m very aware while flipping threw the rack of frames and canvases at Unique on Halsted that each of these pictures was made by someone and likely hung in someone else’s home. It had pride of a place. Was chosen with a particular person in mind. Now it’s worked itself through its lifecycle and gotten spit out the other end a little worse for the wear.
Now I never spend more than $20 on a frame. Usually, it’s under $10. I trim down the painting or collage to suit the frames I have on hand rather than building or buying one to fit the picture. Oftentimes, especially if I’m working on a commission, I’ll measure the paper to fit before making a single mark. Unique has become an art supply store as much as Blick. When I find a good one, I start thinking of what I can put in it. The dread of the frame shop is gone, replaced by the creative possibilities of the thrift store.
On my last visit, I found a large wooden frame with metallic trim and a beige mat. Inside was a hideous drawing of an 80s woman done in pink and rose pastel. She was rendered head-on and in profile. The orange price-tag on the back said $19.99 but the cashier rang it up for half-price. I wonder how much the original owner paid? Balancing it carefully on the back rack of my bike, I rode home slowly, thinking what picture I could use it for. I found a collage called Dream from a couple years ago that was the right height but the wrong width. I looked at it awhile, then trimmed it to suit the new frame. I think it’s a better composition now. I wouldn’t have revised it without the trip to Unique. I never felt that way in the old days after running up a credit card to make pictures ready to hang. There was never any creativity involved, only debt and bad feelings.
I like this new way better.
—I reviewed documentaries on a Chicago school and musician Courtney Barnett and wrote about Joe Meno’s forthcoming Chicago-set novel and talked to West Virginia-based writer Scott McClanahan. Look out for the episode with musician Brian Case (FACS/Disappears) this Wednesday.