Art of Business, Business of Art

By Manseen Logan

A typical day for Denice Bizot begins with an hour-long drive to a place full of items that nobody wants – a scrap yard. She might spend three to five hours sorting through corroded car hoods and other metal debris.

“I love spotting something from far off, then finding out it’s not what I thought it was when I get close-up,” Bizot says.

When Bizot moves her plasma torch, the 1600-degree flame reflects every movement of her wrist as she lures a lace pattern from a rusty old shovel blade. In her hands, rusted metal transforms into colorful art, imbued with meaning – the shovel becomes a lace sculpture, light passing through the curlicues casts black tattoos on the wall. A wisp of four-sided aluminum painted turquoise and mandarin orange echoes a steel bridge beam, pocked with raw amoeba holes the blowtorch leaves in its wake, silver shards still clinging.

The Chattanooga-based metal sculptor has successfully made art her business, creating unique tabletop pieces, free-standing sculptures, garden creations and more.

When she’s not hunting for metal scraps, Bizot buys copper and aluminum sheets, hauls them to her studio, slips on her gloves and gets to work.

“The art business is not just about creating something beautiful. It’s about creating work people want,” Bizot says. “I always ask myself: ‘How can I create pieces that people want, but have not yet seen?’”

Bizot certainly demonstrates marketing acumen. Her sculptures inspire people in homes, buildings and offices from New Jersey and Amsterdam to Chattanooga’s Mountain City Club and the Hamilton County INCubator, managed by the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce.

Local art curator Gail Rich selects pieces for the INCubator, which supports local artists by displaying and selling their work without taking a commission.

“The art business is not just about creating something beautiful. It’s about creating work people want,”

Chattanooga’s Association for Visual Arts (AVA) also supports the local art scene with an annual Gallery Hop (Saturday, Sept. 12 this year) featuring galleries throughout downtown. Guests meet local artists, enjoy special exhibitions and learn more about the creative processes.

At Area 61 Gallery, a stop on the Gallery Hop, owner Keeli Crewe observes steady improvement in Southside’s art scene, especially in the last two years. Area 61 pieces range from handmade soap to custom-designed speakers that fetch as much as $36,000 - Bizot’s art blends tastefully into the loft-y space. A reef-like sculpture erupts from a glass table, light bounces off a triangular aluminum sculpture and edges reminiscent of Spanish moss drape another artist’s painting with shadows.

While Crewe installs art in tantalizing locations, pulling patrons in to study details and hopefully to buy, what she really excels at is making you feel like her new best friend. Welcoming walk-ins and encouraging them to explore what they encounter works for her as well as for those she represents. “I’ve noticed that artists who attend events and connect with guests do much better selling their art,” Crewe says.

She brings years of client experience to her endeavor, from advertising to corporate trade shows to promoting awareness of Tennessee’s organ donor and transplant program.

Like other local gallery owners, Crewe runs the cost-benefit analysis in her mind constantly. And - despite the combined efforts of art consultants, galleries and artists – sometimes art does not find its way to new homes, leaving businesses with tough decisions.

“We just could not figure out how to sell enough art on a consistent basis,” gallery co-owner David Jones said in a Facebook post. After closing the Northshore Gallery of Contemporary Art, Jones’s comment remains online - a digital echo of business struggles over the last several years.

Balancing artists’ ambitions with what clients will buy presents a tricky business equation. Crewe says Scenic City visitors account for 80 percent of her sales. She encourages area residents to support Chattanooga artists by extending the buy local movement to the artist community and installing local art in their homes and businesses.

Crewe recommends First Friday Chattanooga as an opportunity to engage with local artists − galleries and studios extend hours for featured artists or open house events on the first Friday of each month. 

At In-Town Gallery, one of the oldest cooperative galleries in the United States, Bizot sells her work alongside more than 30 other local artists who collectively own and operate the gallery. These gallery partners keep a large percentage of their sales.

Once created, art pieces travel through the risks and uncertainties of the creative market. For artists like Bizot, the art business is a balance of learning what to create and how to sell it. The cost benefit analysis includes the choice of where to display, how much to pay the promoter and when to devote more time to marketing and less to creating.

Bizot’s pieces undergo a long process from the scrap yard to the studio where she bends and torches the metal into bizarre perfection. She approaches her work bench not knowing what she will create or where her creation will end up. But that doesn’t faze her at all.

“Not knowing the outcome is the best part,” Bizot says. “Imagine how boring life would be if we knew how it ended.”