Connecting Across the Con Table
I began tabling at conventions in 2016. When you’re just starting off, each new tabling experience is new and exciting; I was hungry for feedback after waiting so long before getting my work out there in that way, and seeing people come across my table for the first time and react with enthusiasm is so rewarding in itself. But each convention takes a lot of time and energy, and it takes no time at all to become aware that you’re going to have to decide which cons you want to keep doing and which ones you don’t.
I began considering how I valued conventions through two factors. The first, of course, is the financial return— my net profit at a given show. The second is the emotional resonance and vulnerability I was able to achieve with people at the table. These two usually correspond positively, but if the second measure is especially strong at a given convention, then that’s potentially more significant than my profit margin.
The second measure is hard to quantify or pin down in concrete terms; it’s not supposed to be easy to measure because people aren’t supposed to be easily measurable. They should not feel fungible. And while I can only speak from my own experiences and values, I think that every artist should have some way to verbalize or quantify what the most important and treasured sort of interaction at their table looks like for them: examples of what they can reflect back on and think, ‘Yes, that interaction I had with that customer was the epitome of what I can only hope for in experiencing people connect with my work and myself in the way that’d most aspire for them to.’
"a place of concentrated vulnerability and struggle and hope."
For me, this manifests as people connecting to the full weight of where my most important work is coming from— a place of concentrated vulnerability and struggle and hope. The most important work I do is a series of paintings featuring trans and non-binary people both as the emotional narrative of the piece, as well as the actual models I shoot for reference in my painting process. My goal for each piece to to encapsulate an experience which many people can relate to, such as ‘the constant hum of pain becoming so expected as background noise that you come to accept it as your base reality’ or ‘the complicated relationship present in accepting and embracing yourself as beautiful and cherished, in spite of other’s expectations of you’. These are things which many, many people struggle with and can relate to, but which become magnified and given intensified context when told as part of a transgender narrative. I use this crossing of experiences to cultivate empathy and understanding.
For me personally, this means that I value someone crying at my table and us being able to have a heartfelt moment which that person needed, but them spending $0 - $40 at my table, is ranked on par or sometimes more crucial in value than someone not saying much but dropping $300 on a canvas print.
Wait, so how I can I justify thinking that way as a business person? That seems financially nonsensical. But really, it’s crucial to my big picture. Conventions aren’t just about immediate sales, they’re one of your best opportunities to make an impression with your work. And not just to others; having these sorts of meaningful exchanges reminds me of why I’m doing the type of work I’m doing. When I’m getting too far into only leaving time for commissions, it re-centers me to the importance of my personal work.
"having these sorts of meaningful exchanges reminds me of why I’m doing the type of work I’m doing."
Sometimes it does this so directly that I find myself in a position of immense responsibility. I’ll find myself in conversations with people who have recent grief brought up, or for whom the subject matter in a piece is a little too close to their reality. The most intense of these interactions have suicide as either a direct or indirect part of the conversation. Last year, a woman at a small local LGBT Geek & Gaming convention bought a canvas print of "Holding Back Birds" in memory of her closeted transgender wife who had taken her own life at the beginning of the year. At that same convention this year, a different woman told me that when she’d taken a print of that same piece home the year before,
"it had saved her child’s life because the child was able to say ‘This is how I feel’ and have the visual expression of that painting convey something for which words had failed them."
In these moments, the feelings are complex. I feel I have a duty to recognize the person where they are and offer comfort without overstepping. Depending on the situation, I may offer them a hug, and often just that gesture of crossing from behind my table for a minute or so is powerful enough that they feel recognized. But it’s a complicated thing, seeing someone grappling with something difficult but also them expressing being grateful for finding that hurt or solace or acceptance expressed in artwork. I’m honored when these moments come, because I value the trust given in their sharing these things.
And as an introvert, pretending to be an extrovert for the three or four days it takes to get through a convention is exhausting. Even the interactions I deeply value take some of what I can manage for the day, but the really meaningful ones give me something in return that I can’t get elsewhere. They restore my soul in a deeper way each time.
I’m not saying that everyone needs to be expressing some sort of a deep experience of humanity through their work. But you should at least be able to verbalize what you would hope for someone to take away from your table. Even if your work is all fan art, it should be work done because you care so much about how, say, Yuri on Ice was a show that brought you a lot of joy to experience, not because you heard it was the hot new thing and want to cash in. Or maybe you do paleoart because you’re still just as excited about feathered dinosaurs as you were when learned about Archaeopteryx when you were seven years old. If your work is coming from a place of caring, then when the right person comes to your table, you’ll be able to nerd out together and recognize each other as people with a shared value of that thing.
For some artists, such as my friend Allan Panakal, this can be something as up front as an appreciation for impactful illustration; maybe your combination of a unique style and technical impressiveness is something you’re proud of? Maybe you want to create artwork where you define a successful piece as one which conveys a single mood in a very definitive and immediate way; you get excited about seeing those feelings coming across and seeing artwork perform the magic of manifesting an emotion in someone.
But how does it tie back in to making ends meet at conventions?
Alright, so that’s all great for feeling good. But how does it tie back in to making ends meet at conventions? Well, normally I don’t have to choose between financially significance and emotionally significance in either my individual table interactions nor in selecting my conventions. Usually, these things wind up being symbiotic. For my own work and intentions, the conventions I’ve done the poorest at were ones that focused first and foremost on entertainment and showcasing celebrities. I find the tone set by the event itself, and in some cases the city the event is set in, can be huge factors.
For example, Emerald City Comic Con is my best show two years running, but C2E2-- which is run by the same company-- is on record as my worst show outside of tiny hometown events. I found that the people in the Artist Alley at ECCC had a deeper value for art (and usually careers which allowed them to invest in their love of art), whereas I had trouble getting people at C2E2 to engage with me at all. Now, someone with a different focus to their work and a different context might find the inverse to be true-- you have to know your own work and the inclinations of the people who are the most likely to respond to it.
I find more engaging conversations to translate into more involved fans and potential friends, too. I’ve had several instances where nerding out with someone at my table resulted in them just taking my business card or buying a print in the moment, but which months down the line came back around as the purchase of an original or a $1000+ commission.
It’s important to note that you can’t force these interactions to happen unnaturally, if someone doesn’t have the shared values or interests you’re trying to express. But you can put yourself out there and demonstrate your excitement. As long as you’re creating things that are true, the right people will respond, and they’ll be glad to know your work is out there for them to see themselves in.
Having a clear awareness of the strengths of my own work to connect to people, I was able to show up new to the convention scene and gain attention in an immediate way. Between my professional setup and the directness with which I was able to deliver a meaningful and poignant narrative, I did well for just starting out at conventions. Especially given I had no prior reputation and only one piece of recognizable fanart in my entire body of work, it was great to feel people’s relationship with your work develop in real time in front of you, and I’m still excited every time that happens.
Sasha R Jones is an independent artist and illustrator exploring the intersections of nature, fantasy, gender and queerness, and mythical creatures and beings. The central tenant of his work is to create empathy and connection through wonder and beauty. Raised in Austin, he now resides in Santa Fe, NM. You can see more of his work at http://www.sasharjones.com/