The Strumstick Grand Tour of 2017
In the spring of 2017, I had been accepted to a whole string of excellent shows across the country, a Grand Tour if you will, and this is the story of that tour. By March the schedule was set;
3 shows in April (Houston, Fort Worth, New Orleans),
2 shows in May (Greenville SC and Reston VA),
3 shows in June (Columbus OH, Milwaukee, and Denver)
The whole project would require more than 8,500 miles of driving. The plan became:
I would leave my vehicle first in Dallas and later in Milwaukee to fly home for gaps in the schedule. After the last show in Denver I'd take 3 days in the Rockies before driving home.
The tour started April 3rd, and finished July 9th. But before the driving could start, there was the matter of the vehicle. The well used ‘03 Toyota minivan would simply not carry all my booth gear plus enough Strumsticks for 4 major shows in a row. After looking at many different vehicles, we chose a 2006 Ford E350 Extended Cargo van with 60k miles on it. After adding new shocks, brakes and suspension work it was ready to go.
I designed a storage system for inside that would hold booth display, canopy, floor pads, Strumsticks and accessories in separate cubbyholes. Besides making setting up a show easier, this allowed potentially wet items (floor pads and canopy) to be stored separately.
Given the extra space in the E350 I planned to switch from a fabric wall booth to a panel wall booth. I would pick up the Pro-Panels in Dallas before the second show. Therefore the storage system had to allow for the vertical storage of these panels. It took about a week to get that all put together.
Because of the great potential of these shows, we had to plan for major sales at 4 consecutive shows without restocking. With many different models/variations, with/without pickups, special inlay and decorated designs...that would be many boxes of Strumsticks to finish, prepare, pack and organize. Strumstick work was ongoing through the winter, and actual packing started at the beginning of March. By April we were ready.
I allowed extra days for driving for plenty of exercise breaks and not having stress on “getting there” for each leg of what we were now calling the Grand Tour. Driving south in the springtime is a special bonus; the leaves are just budding in NJ, full spring flowers through the Shenandoah and Tennessee, and then summertime heat by the time you get to Texas (well, northern summertime heat!)
The first show was Woodlands, setting up in a beautiful canal-side setting in a Houston suburb. Outdoor shows need attention to wind as well as rain; I supplemented the booth weights by recycling the old front brake discs from the Ford.
This show started the tour off with a bang, and met our high target for sales.
Woodlands Booth during setup
This was the last show for the fabric walled booth.
The van was great on the road, and in the course of the trip I began calling it the Millennium Albatross, with a nod to the great white seabirds that soar thousands of miles over the oceans. After Woodlands, I proceeded to Dallas/Fort Worth, left the Albatross at a roofed parking facility, and flew home for a week.
And then I flew back to do the Fort Worth Main Street Art Fair. I picked up my new Pro-Panels and hardware at the factory in Dallas (great folks there, and a fine product.) The show was great, plus, I won an award! It was a total surprise and very gratifying, considering all the effort we had put in to be able to do these shows. Note the new wall panels in pics:
Fort Worth Booth
I had a rear tire blowout as I was leaving Fort Worth for New Orleans. That added some excitement, fortunately not too much! The tread was good, but the sidewall was weak. The lug wrench I had added to the van's tools did not work with van's lugs (Doh!) but AAA was really fast, and I was on my way within 30 minutes...hats off to AAA!
First project in NOLA was new tires all around. I love New Orleans, and was staying with dear friends there, so Jazzfest is a treat to do
John, Zoli, helper Kim
Closeup of Pro-Panels, New Orleans Jazzfest Booth
I have had some amazing booth helpers over the years who have helped teach many thousands of people how to play the Strumstick. This year we had a reunion of three of the best assistants ever: Izzi, Kim, and my daughter Heather
The Strumstick A-Team
This year thunder, lightning and very heavy rain delayed the opening of the last day, and vendors and exhibitors hunkered down under the racetrack grandstand for several hours while the storm slowly passed over. When the lights went off it got a bit more cozy, and they came back on in an hour or so.
Rain at Jazzfest
With the loss of most of Sunday, the show results were only fair, but the previous shows had made up for it and we were still on target.
Next stop, leave the Albatross in Charlotte NC and fly home for a short break. While home I was able to finish a few more fancy inlay Strumsticks to bring to the next shows.
New Strumstick Inlays and process
Then back to Charlotte, drive to Greenville SC for Artisphere, where they have quite the gala opening and Artists reception. Greenville is a happening town, great public spaces and greenways, a lot of public art and a real sense of place to it.
Downtown Greenville, and Artisphere Booth
Art Dragons in Greenville!
Greenville also has, I'm glad to say, a broad appreciation of the arts. It was another good show, followed by a drive back to NJ to restock.
After a two day turnaround, I drove back South to Virginia. The two day show in Reston turned out to be only modest in sales, but included Superheros!
Reston Booth and Strumstick Superhero
Then a drive back home to NJ again for a break, a little springtime at home, and the end of the first half of the Tour.
Sweet Home New Jersey
The break included making some van modifications as a result of using it for several shows, and seeing how the design could be refined. A workable pattern of loading had evolved and dictated a revision of spacing and weight capacity of the upper shelf and the vertical storage for the pro-Panels. I had to solve a "painted-into the-corner" problem when the new upper shelf (which was longer and thicker) wouldn't quite slant through the rear door opening and rotate into place. Lopping a 10" triangle off the interfering corner solved the problem, with no loss of functionality. Sometimes the solution is not "get a bigger hammer," it's get a bigger saw!
Cutting a Corner...
When that was done, there was just enough time to finish up more Strumsticks and repack the van. The Millennium Albatross had proven a timely purchase already, and the longest drives were yet to come.
Next stop Columbus, Ohio. My booth location there is on a beautiful open bridge, downtown. Columbus is another city with a lot of pride and community spirit. I would say that was characteristic of all the cities/neighborhoods I travelled to in this grand tour...strong civic pride, appreciation for the arts, and a welcoming of people who make art in all its forms. At Columbus the hours were long, but the people were good, and the weather was cooperative, and I had a very satisfactory show. Business partner Evelyn got out of the office and was booth assistant for several of these shows, which is not her regular gig, and she did a great job. My daughter Heather and Strumstick veteran Kim Davis each helped at several shows too. This trip would not have been possible without all their help. Their presence made a big difference!
Evelyn sitting and booth setting up automatically.
On the Bridge at Columbus
From Columbus, a few days in PA and then out to Milwaukee for the Lakefront Festival of the Arts at the beautiful Lakefront Milwaukee Art Museum. The main gallery has "Wings" that open in the morning, and close in the evening, so the building itself is sculpture, and grandly situated on Lake Michigan.
Milwaukee Museum of Art
The art show takes place in a long semi-permanent tent over an entrance road, and it was nice to be under a sturdy rainproof structure that I didn't have to put up! That was especially appreciated during two brief but intense downpours on two different days. The rain pounding on a large clear vinyl section of the roof made some interesting video. The tent was quite rain secure, but had a few open sections, which allowed enough rain onto the roadway for the gutters to run full, and an opportunity for floating pick races.
Rain on Roof
Lakefront is another very beautiful Art show, and we did great there. The artwork on display at Woodlands, Fort Worth, Jazzfest, Artisphere, Lakefront and later Cherry Creek was right at the top, as good as any of the shows I have seen in 37 years of doing shows. Reston and Columbus were not far behind either. It was pretty amazing to have the opportunity to participate in so many top shows one after another.
Inside the Lakefront Museum
As Artists, we tend to see our own work "behind the curtain" so to speak, we see it rough and unpolished as well as dressed up and ready to put on display. All the other artwork we see at a good show is just as amazing to us a it is to the people who attend. Maybe even more because we have an experience of what goes into it. So when you find yourself in a really good show, there is a feeling of hey, this is pretty amazing work I am surrounded with, my little artwork is in very good company. Every artist I have spoken with about this expresses feeling this way.
Following Lakefront it was time to cross the plains to Denver. I love driving through the midwest. Some people think it is flat (it isn't) and boring (it isn't) and long (well, it is). The secret to long drives and seeing the beauty of places is to pay attention. Stopping regularly helps, too. Mile after mile of the same green farmland is not all the same if you are paying attention. Your scale of novelty has to adjust to the palette in front of you. There may be miles of green fields, but there are a hundred different greens. The angle of the sunlight, the clouds or dust in the air, things change by the moment. Many cornfields, but the ordering of the rows is different, the contours of the fields are different, the irrigation robots are different. If you shift to subtle gear, so to speak, and simply pay attention, it is a verdant wonderland. Driving through Iowa, Nebraska, Eastern Colorado is always fascinating to me, and the two day drive sped by.
A spectacular sunset thunderstorm decorated the evening of the second day at Keenesburg, 50 miles north of Denver.
The Cherry Creek Show in Denver was the last one of the tour, and it was a fine finale. The show was haunted by strange visitors from another planet, some of whom were very interested in the Strumstick. They arrived in a strange vessel seemingly powered by a naked singularity! It was hard keeping the Strumsticks from being pulled past the event horizon...
As a reward for our hard work, Heather and I took a few days after the show to camp and hike in the Rockies before heading back.
Even the Strumstick did a little sight seeing!
Crossing into Kansas on the drive home, we slowly caught up with an ominous "mothership" cloud crossing I-70.
There was no rotation and no tornado warnings via NOAA, so we continued cautiously until quarters and golfballs started falling from the sky. We pulled over as the hail onslaught began, rather than drive deeper into the band, and waited it out. The rhythm of the hailstones on the metal roof of the van was fascinating and also rather frightening as it built in intensity. Fortunately it peaked and then diminish before doing any damage.
Sample This Rhythm!
We collected a few samples and rolled on. At the end of the third day of the return trip we arrived in NJ, and the Grand Tour was finished! 6 excellent shows, 2 moderate shows, and a very satisfactory outcome for a lot of hard work.