Tanner Lawley on how he found his calling as an artist and his philosophies as a gallery owner
Interview by Lee Mergner
ABN: How did you get into the business side of the art world?
TL: I went to college for business and got a degree in business administration with a concentration in finance. When I got back to Dallas, I got a job working as a handyman for a fine-art gallery. I became the owner’s right-hand man. I mixed his paints, I built the studio, I hung the artwork, I painted the walls, I sold the artwork, I delivered the artwork, I installed the artwork, [and] I ran the staff. I was the utility player. He [gave] me the fire.
One of the first pieces I did was an itty-bitty one. It was terrible. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t understand the medium. He looked at it. We had an honest relationship, and he said to me, “Tanner, I don’t think this is your strength. You don’t really have a talent for this. You can’t learn this. It’s something you’re born with. You’re very talented, and you can do a lot of things, but this isn’t one of your things. You’ll never be an artist.” He didn’t know me and my God very well. I am a very faithful person, and I believe in positivity. Faith is believing that things that haven’t happened yet are going to turn out in a positive way. Fear is the exact opposite: Things that haven’t happened yet turn out in a negative way. I always choose to look for the positive and believe that I can do anything that I put my mind to.
ABN: Tell me about your painting “How Deep Is Your Love?” that has attracted a lot of attention at this show.
TL: This one was a big 5-by-5 [foot] canvas, and, for three months, I took all the paint that I could scrape off the other paintings as I was painting them, and I would put it on the background of this piece. The very first thing I painted on this piece was “LOVE” right across the middle. And I started building background, background, background. I use high-energy music when I paint, like electronic dance music, and as I was painting that heart on the piece, a song by Calvin Harris came on, called “How Deep Is Your Love?” While I was painting the heart, that song was just jamming, and, when I finished the heart, that song ended. Knowing that “LOVE” was the first thing I painted on there months ago, I thought that was the perfect name for the piece: “How Deep Is Your Love?”
ABN: How have your experiences as an artist shaped your approach to running a gallery?
TL: They’ve made me a better gallery owner. [Artists] want to get paid a fair wage. We want people to deal with us honestly. When [galleries] sell something, let us know—those types of things. I’ve made certain rules because I represent my friends who are artists, and I pay all of my artists a higher percentage. They get between 55 and 75 percent of the sale. I share my gallery list with them, so whoever owns their work gets a copy of the invoice, so they know exactly who has it. I love for them to be able to get in contact with those people. I pay them immediately. Those are three simple things that I think are a big deal in the art world.
I pride myself on being a gallery for the working artist. Every one of these artists is out there hustling and working. I know their families. I’ve played with their kids. For me, that’s my motivation.
ABN: You were an Artist to Watch in Art Business News in 2010. Who would you name a current Artist to Watch?
TL: A guy whose work I’m selling a lot of is Pete Tillack. He’s an Australian artist [who works in] San Diego. He’s got great scale, proportion, [and] color theory. He does these city scenes, but he puts living-room furniture in the middle of places you wouldn’t expect it—out under an oak tree or in a vineyard or in Times Square. It’s really nice high-designer-type furniture—couches or chairs. I’ve got [his work] in my front window, and every day someone comes in and looks at it. His stuff is so hot right now, I can’t keep it in the gallery. He’s shipping me 11 new pieces because I’ve sold out his inventory just in a matter of two months. He would be one of my artists to watch.
Here in Miami, I’ve seen so many people that have blown my mind, and it makes me realize just how little I am in the world of art. But I’m OK with that. I’m only seven years in. I haven’t been doing this forever. That’s what I love about coming to a show like this. I’ve seen a ton of artwork that I would love to sell, and, before the end of the show, I’m going to talk to some of the artists. I may not know them yet, but I’m going to get to know them. You see that level of expertise at this show. I’ve heard over and over that this show compares with any of the big shows out there. People seem to like this one more. It’s more for us. It’s more for the residential buyer. It’s more attainable. Having all the artists here makes a difference. You go to a lot of those bigger shows, and the artist isn’t there. That’s very important when you’re purchasing or acquiring artwork for your home. You want to get to know the artist. It makes such a better story. It makes it something that they’re going to pass down to their kids’ kids because they have that personal connection.