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Surviving Berlin's art jungle

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Surviving Berlin's art jungle
Photo: Skye von der Osten for Exberliner
15:28 CEST+02:00
Creative minds from all over the world flock to Berlin in search of their own artistic haven, but being able to stay afloat financially can often be an enormous challenge. Exberliner magazine takes a look at some of their schemes for survival.

The Nomadic Buffalo

Berlin has a very appealing, almost Mediterranean flair: a mesmerizing current that catches the casual jellyfish who thrive on philosophizing bar culture. But the keener ones will use its power to push toward more productive waters.“I am, above all, a copyist. And I find joy in watching other people watch me work,” says Christiane Jessen-Richardsen. Five years ago, after a life of copywriting and catering, the Berlin-based ‘‘street painter’’ (as she calls herself) decided to turn her attentions to the surprisingly lucrative niche-discipline of sidewalk art. Jessen-Richardsen says she loves working out in the open, using the pavement as her canvas. A large chalk drawing takes her up to five days, and is done either on commission or as a street ‘begging job.’

For someone who claims that she doesn’t know a thing about the art world, she makes a remarkably good living off her - in the eyes of those higher up in the art world food chain – ‘questionable’ artwork. A garish portrait of Mozart or a cheesy Mexican landscape works just as well in the Cologne Cathedral square as in Rome or Verona (she regularly criss-crosses the north of Italy with her chalk box under her arm). “But Berlin is awful,” she says, disgruntled from another unsuccessful stint at the Brandenburg Gate. “The main problem with this city is that it has no centre, and it’s so awfully big that people don’t even walk past the same place twice - so they can’t appreciate what you’re doing and say ‘Hey, your work is still in progress!’”

As well as squeezing juice out of organized jobs for festivals across Germany, she is ready to take the next step. It’s a new style that turned the 2D street art world upside down. “I would say that nowadays, about 60 percent of sidewalk art is 3D, so I was forced to learn it,” she says. “I really don’t like it: 3D provokes the effect of surprise, even though the drawing itself might be unspectacular.”

When her nomadic days are over, Jessen-Richardsen will change direction, and start drawing portraits of animals with their owners. She points out at a framed picture of a buffalo hanging on her wall: it’s of a shamanic Krafttier, an animal that reflects the soul of the person being painted. It is, indeed, a zoo out there.

The Networking Spider

The times of the cavemen are not too distant: the art world is a male-dominated place. “Women often don’t know how to place themselves on the market,” says Hannah Kruse, coordinator of Goldrausch, a grant program for female artists. Two thirds of all art students are female, but the hatchlings in the highest-placed eagle nests are still testosterone-heavy. So Petra (not her real name) decided to take these matters into her own hands.

The 28-year-old UdK student plans to bushwhack a path of her own… even before graduating. Backed up by her best asset - womanhood - she has entered the social circles of art connoisseurs: collectors are, after all, where the money is, and if you must sell yourself, it’s best to bypass the pimp. Petra’s future already looks bright. She has sold a couple of paintings: €900 is, she says, what people will pay for a square meter of her canvasses. And when one gay couple who had bought a 'piece of her' invited her over to dinner, Petra dressed up - anxiously hoping to cut a fine figure, find the right smart things to say at the dinner table and generally play the part of the young, up-and-coming artist so well that her paintings would emit the right whiff of must-have sexiness….

The Night Hawk

When the sun sets, nocturnal species go about their diverse wanderings. Berlin’s vibrant, excessive nightlife is the sporting ground of queer folk and dubious sugar daddies. Californian Stevie Hanley’s story sounds surprisingly familiar: “I met this gay filmmaker from Holland in Castro one day. When I told him what I was up to and my plans to move to New York, he advised me to move to Berlin instead.”

The 25-year-old Berkeley Wunderkind majored in “Shame Studies”, as he defines it, just as he was discovering his artistic skills. “My parents were profoundly religious in a twisted way. They attempted to change my homosexual views by putting me in obscure Mormon re-education programs.”

Hanley has, however, grown more confident than many of his sexual contemporaries, and now aims his artistic arrows at religious and gender issues. “I tend to secularise religious thought, but in Berlin, they think you’re stupid if you are serious about holy matters.” Two and a half years ago, Hanley hit the Berlin gay scene, working at the Tuntenhaus and curating at the Schwules Museum. There, he met the owner of Rote Lotte, where his paintings are now sold -but they still don’t make him money enough for food and lodging, so a Schöneberg escort service keeps him out of the clutches of poverty. “My work is an inspiration for my art,” he points out with a sweet, contagious smile. “And I provide a sort of therapy for these lonely gay men who are ultimately seeking communication.” As he sits in his Neukölln studio, a big unfinished canvas of trees rises up behind him: these represent the Holy Spirit, and are intended to provoke questions about the fragility of the human soul. And, as twilight darkens the roofs of Sonnenallee, Hanley himself jumps up, ready for the next artistic challenge. You can almost hear his competitors howling with dismay.

Stevie Hanley‘s work is in The Devil Is A Loser And He‘s My Bitch at Galerie Studio St. (Sanderstr. 26, Neukölln, U-Bhf Schönleinstr.,Tel 0177 3686 343, Tue, Sun, 16-19, Fri-Sat 19-24) until Oct 23.

The Busy Beaver

All he ever wanted was to paint. Among the dynamic demands of a non-stop ‘2.0’ society, Edward B. Gordon, a 43-year-old native of Hannover, has discovered a working pattern that allows him to do what he loves most. Gordon’s parents are both artists: “Painting was something that ran in the family.” After a foray into acting, he gave in to his vocation: he lived off the rarely-sold piece, occasional commission work and his wits, until one day he thought up a gimmick that allowed him to do nothing but art, all the time.

For the past three years, Gordon has painted a work inspired by the streets of Berlin every single day. He then puts a picture of it up on his blog and sells it within 24 hours to the highest bidder - €150 is the minimum price. It’s not a bad idea: after all, even the hippest white-walled Mitte galleries sell almost all their art online. Gordon has managed to do what so many Berliners only dream of: he lives off his art – and nothing else. No nightshifts in bars; no language teaching; no tedious shifts at museums. “Of course, there’s the pressure of finishing a painting every single day,“ he says, “but I like the discipline it takes.” Gordon has found his niche: he has sold nearly all of the more than 1000 paintings he has produced - some for €151, some for as much €1700. And this year, major newspapers like the FAZ used some of his pictures to illustrate their stories. For this artist, it’s about staying in motion:physically and virtually.

Click here for more from Berlin's leading monthly magazine in English.

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