The Color of Monet

The word at Accent Graphics will never be in a museum. So what? It sells.

But overwhelming fools a lot of people. This is Cline's genius and the secret of his success. When he speaks of his staff artists, he describes them as "fine artists such as Richard Hall and J.D. Parrish." They may be unknown, even nonexistent, but when Cline pronounces them masters, they become so in the eyes of his clients. It's like the haberdasher, who while draping a suitcoat over the shoulders of a customer, turns to Freddy, the assistant manager, winks, then says, "This is the latest style by the famous designer Fredi. You read about Fredi last week in Time magazine, of course."

The customer always answers, "Of course."
@body:Harriet Hilburn, executive vice president of Accent Fine Art, says, "When you come here, you're coming to the John Douglas Cline school of art."

While lawyers with art collections can discuss the philosophy of compromised versus pure art from the comfort of their salaried positions, most working artists of any sort realize that the real challenge is to be creative within the parameters of a given format. In this case, the format is a business that produces artworks. Many artists never realize that one can have convictions and still work with someone else's ideas.

"It's better than flipping burgers and then going home and being tormented," says Jay Hall, a Phoenix Art Press principal artist.

Cline literally molds artists in the styles he wants. Starving artists are a dime a dozen; he can hire them at $5 an hour, watch them, shape them and discard those who don't want to take direction.

For example, Cline noted that he and Harriet Hilburn were recently talking about a promising new disciple.

"We've got his ego developed," Cline told her, "now let's start on his art."
Making it through Cline's basic training can be lucrative. Principal artists working on successful lines can make upward of $100,000 a year. Richard Hall, one of Phoenix Art Press' top artists, has been there for ten years. He had an art degree and had been selling his work at art fairs, and was so impressed with John Cline that he took the only job available at the time, in the framing shop. Now as a principal artist and art director, he commands a salary in the six figures.

But sometimes egos collide. One artist who left Cline's stable within the last year is grateful for the training he received and the money he made, but reluctant to let his name be used for fear it will ruin his reputation.

"I'd rather not have it known that I worked for the place," he says. "To the serious art dealer, it's kind of considered the prostitution of the art world."
But as Andy Warhol so unashamedly said, "Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art."

@body:"You have to have the right mindset," says Dennis Smith, a production supervisor for Phoenix Art Press, to produce "work that might go above a couch and have to match a fabric swatch."

Indeed, from season to season, Cline plans the line partially around the textures and fabrics that will be showing up in fashionable new furniture lines.

The content of the artwork is assembled from a repertoire of predictable elements as in those pornography factories in which a writer is handed a manuscript that another writer left off the day before and told to write 20 more pages that introduce a French maid and her poodle and use the words "throbbing" and "turgid."

"They would find a picture in a book and say we like this look, come up with something like it," says one former artist.

When principal artists leave, someone else just picks up the brush and the style. "There's a guy there that I trained and his work looks similar to mine," says one former principal artist. "And I've heard things to the effect that a client will order several of my works, and they'll just pack up this other guy's work hoping they won't notice."

When Teri Guy Skrdla got out of art school and moved to Phoenix, she found a job as an artist's assistant with Phoenix Art Press. She was excited to be working around other artists, and had never seen a supply cabinet so full as the ones she could take her materials from. She had assumed that she would be learning from another artist--then, to her surprise, found that she was essentially a copyist. Skrdla would work from a photograph of a work already painted, and learned to extrapolate from the muddier colors of photography what the original looked like. A number of signatures in the line are pseudonyms and represent not one artist's work, but a series of paintings with a particular feel, executed by a design team. In the company catalogues, each artist has a biographical page telling who he or she is; for the pseudonymous lines, the bio reads, "a studio-directed style designed by John Douglas Cline and a studio of apprentices." How the paintings from those lines are marketed beyond the wholesale transaction to a furniture store or gallery is anyone's guess. Several former artists claim that they routinely painted copies of the work of principal artists from start to finish under the artist's signature. "There were times when [the artist] wouldn't touch the canvas when I did it," one said.

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