THE TIME-TRAVELLING silhouettist sounds like a character from a steam-punk extravaganza. I’d love to imagine I could be that man! Sadly, none of us can really travel in time. Yet curiously, the quirky craft I practice is beginning to make me feel like I’m doing just that.
My initial response to the current crisis was a fervent wish to travel back in time and make it go away. My subsequent, more rational response was to launch a new business. Called simply “@silhouettist,” I like to describe my new business as virtual street art. Essentially, I’m time travelling back to my Covent Garden roots and creating an e-commerce version of my old A-frame portrait stand. For the first time in over 25 years, I’m going to sell silhouettes.
For me, believe it or not, selling silhouettes is a truly revolutionary idea!
I don’t sell silhouettes
If you have ever heard me speak about my work you will have heard me say
“Silhouettes are not the product”
At first, it seems a bizarre thing for a silhouettist to say, but it’s true. The product has always been entertainment, not silhouettes. Few of my corporate clients really knew or cared much about silhouettes; what they cared about was their guests. They wanted each and every guest to have a fun and memorable evening, and knew I could help them achieve this. The silhouettes were essentially a by product, my own means of providing entertainment value at their event. The real product was myself: Charles Burns, artist-entertainer.
I enjoyed every minute of it, but that world seems now sadly gone.
My new business comprises a series of virtual studio days. The concept is simple: I stand in my studio and cut silhouettes. Customers visit my studio using Zoom and pose for a minute or two while I cut them out.
My new Covent Garden is Eventbrite and my A-frame portrait stand is now an online event portal with a list of upcoming studio days. Customers click though my portal and choose their preferred date and time for a private sitting with me.
I divided each studio day into ten-minute sittings, which is long enough to cut two cameos or one full-length silhouette. Couples just need a single 10-minute sitting, while families can book two or more consecutive sittings.
As each studio day passes I add more. My aim is always to have between four and six dates listed for people to choose from. Some of these are daytime events while others take place in the evening (aimed at the America market). A few are early-morning events, timed for late afternoon in Japan and Australia.
All of this requires me to think about time in a different way. It needs to be carefully managed. The international nature of my new business is making me acutely aware that time is all relative. .
My Inaugural Studio Day
My Inaugural Studio Day takes place tonight. To my surprise (given that it’s a on Monday evening) it has almost sold out. At the time of writing there are only four sittings still available. Many sittings have gone to customers in the US, where of course it’ll still be daytime.
Although this is my first public studio day – with sittings on sale – I’ve been doing a lot of rehearsal over the last couple of months. I’ve taken part in a number of private Zoom parties and held one trial studio day for friends and colleagues. It was during these events that I first began to notice a curious element of time travel in my work.
I seem to have been “discovered” by a wonderful circuit of American historical societies. Living mostly on Instagram, they dress up for Zoom parties and invite me to cut their silhouettes in costume. Working at such virtual events is a curious feeling. I’m using the most modern of technologies to cross many time zones and cut early-nineteenth-century-style portraits of people on the other side of the planet. In which direction am I time travelling, exactly?
I’m really looking forward to tonight’s inaugural event. Thinking about historical societies brings me to another element of time travel in my recent work.
Travelling back in time
I’m aware that many people regard my art as belonging to a bygone age. Yet, until last March I had always thought of myself as a contemporary silhouettist. I often hear silhouette-cutting described as a Victorian art (which it isn’t… ) but I’ve always resisted the “period-artist” label. I wanted my own presentation as a silhouettist to be modern, fresh and contemporary.
To achieve this I threw out a lot of old traditions. Georgian and Regency (not Victorian) silhouettists were fond of putting their silhouettes into ornate frames and adding pompously-worded trade labels to the back of them. Such labels, written in flowery language, always referred to past royal patronage and “begged leave to observe” that the likeness would be “superior to all others.”
Although endearingly quirky and fascinating, I chose not to follow this tradition. It wouldn’t have felt appropriate at a corporate dinner, so I threw out both frames and trade labels. Instead, I mounted my silhouettes on white, folding wallet cards with a corporate logo on the front and a short history of silhouettes on the back. Modern, simple and contemporary.
Today, I’ve travelled right back in time. Each of my silhouettes now carries a pompously-worded certificate of authenticity, with it’s own unique, stamped number. My silhouettes are now sold as collectors items and need to be presented as such. I’m even looking for a third-party supplier of frames and, of course, there’s my own royal patronage to mention…
I’ve spent a lot of time studying not just the art, but also the business models of past silhouettists. I’m now finding this really useful. Time travel pays off!
Travelling forward in time
For me, going back in time has always been easy. If only that were all I needed to do! Sadly, I also need to go time travelling in the opposite direction.
Although the concept of my business is simple, setting it up has been (and is being) far from simple. Ever since sketching my first business plan I’ve faced an avalanche of unreasonably futuristic questions:
- How do I manage time online?
- How should I conduct an virtual portrait sitting?
- What is e-commerce anyway?
- How do I condense it into social-media-sized chunks?
- Can I create virtual gift vouchers?
- What if customers don’t turn up, or if their wifi fails?
All this without ever touching anything so comforting as a sheet of real paper. How am I to cope? This future feels like a scary place.
I’ve tackled these questions by learning to use software I never imagined I’d need. Time travel is complicated and Zoom was only the start! Every stage of the process seems to require another piece of software. Each one seems to expect a commission or a small monthly fee (or both). It feels like I’m building some bizarre and expensive electronic edifice.
I realise the future has arrived. This is now our present-day reality.
A glimpse into our own future?
As lockdown eases and shops begin to reopen people tell me we’ll all soon be back at work. Likewise, when I first began experimenting with Zoom events, I thought of them as a temporary phenomena. They were something to “tide me over” the crisis. But today, I’m not so sure this is true, or even that I want it to be true.
I have two comment to make:
First, although my 2021 calendar is now filling up fast (mostly with postponed 2020 events) I’m assuming there will be NO real-world events during 2020. I cannot imagine any company will be running corporate dinners or 2019-style Xmas parties this year, for all kinds of reasons. For the tine being, my new business is all I’ve got.
Second, I’m really enjoying online events! By connecting with people in their own homes I’m being challenged in ways I didn’t expect. These new challenges are helping me to improve my own skill and repertoire as an artist.
An example this is the number of animals I’ve been cutting. In the past it was quite rare for me to cut portraits of cats or dogs. How many pets do ever see at a wedding or corporate dinner? But when people are at home, to include the family pets feels perfectly natural. On one occasion I was even booked by a group of Collie owners specifically to cut portraits of their dogs. Over the last couple of months I’ve cut portraits of three cats, innumerable dogs, two parrots, one lop-eared rabbit and a stick insect. This feels like a rich vein of new creativity which I’d love to continue.
My hope (it isn’t really a prediction) is that my new business will continue alongside the old next year. I plan to continue running virtual studio events alongside taking real-world bookings.
I even dare to hope there may be interesting ways to combine the two. For instance, I look forward to the day when somebody will book me to attend a dinner or wedding via a Zoom link. I’ll hold the silhouettes up to the screen for guests to take photos and afterwards post the originals to the organiser. Using this approach there’s no reason I shouldn’t appear at events all over the world; think of the travel-cost savings (not to mention the reduced stress to the environment).
If you’re a forward-thinking event organiser, I’d love to meet with you online, cut your silhouette and discuss the logistics of this.
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