Artists Wes Magyar and Jonathan Saiz Smash Art-Biz Paradigms

Wes Magyar and Jonathan Saiz celebrate the kickoff of their 7000 Reasons portrait project.
Wes Magyar and Jonathan Saiz celebrate the kickoff of their 7000 Reasons portrait project. 7000 Reasons
Denver artist Jonathan Saiz is an optimist. Painter and professional photographer Wes Magyar is catching Saiz’s feel-good vibe, but he’s still the practical one. Together, the longtime colleagues and friends are exploring the new frontier of direct marketing for artists with 7000 Reasons, a collaborative portrait-painting project designed not only to be a money-maker, but also to just make people happy.

After becoming disenchanted with the strictures of showing in commercial galleries, Saiz has been experimenting with new art-marketing models for a few years now, first designing and self-marketing the Fountain Tarot deck with partners Jason Gruhl and Andi Todaro, which was recently picked up for distribution by Penguin Random House. Since then, he’s mounted other experiments in marketing affordable art at Leon Gallery and the Denver Theatre District’s Understudy creative incubator (for the latter, he sold $20 miniatures via a self-service kiosk, through a system based on trust).

The collaboration with Magyar is based on trust, too, but also on numbers: For 7000 Reasons, the duo is marketing seven-inch-square, hand-painted portraits via the Internet for a standard $143 price point. But it’s more than a material transaction, the artists say: They want to convey a measure of happiness in every portrait. “These are joyful and optimistic in a time when things have gotten so dark,” explains Saiz. “Contemporary art is something you wouldn’t exactly describe as joyful.”

One condition is that the original images be lighthearted, even silly, in nature. Their motto? ”We know life isn't all rainbows and unicorns, but 7000 Reasons will be!” Rendered in happy colors that pop out of the wall, each finished product represents an exchange of something more meaningful than mercenary. And they look even more beautiful in blocks — an incentive to get portraits made of whole families.

There’s a certain amount of skill involved in working quickly as a team, with each portrait passing back and forth between the two artists. After receiving a photo from a buyer, they digitize it and transfer it to a square board. Magyar, whose oeuvre is portrait painting, using broad, undetailed strokes to model the face, then lays down gestural shapes to capture the general form. For expediency, he tries to accomplish that in about ten minutes. Saiz goes in and adds line work and color cues for the finished product. “Sometimes, we have to ask each other for permission to let it be done,” notes Magyar. It’s a system of artistic checks and balances designed to assure that the work ends up looking polished.

So far, so good. They had a burst of responses for an $99 early-bird promotion that’s now ended. Saiz says they’ve already been able to pay rent for their studio space though June (the project is presumably scheduled to end after seven months). The overhead for materials is next.

Will they fulfill their lucky-seven goal of 7,000 portraits? The payoff is huge if they do, but that’s not the point. Either way, they’ll still have gained valuable experience, both as artists and as business partners, and they’ll likely make a profit, too. It’s a model where the artists themselves — and the time they put into the project — are their own biggest investments, and the prize is “finding a way to make the art you want to make,” Magyar notes. “It’s not a factory, but it does require us to be self-focused. This is the hardest work I’ve ever done, but at the same time, it’s not pretentious. And I’m going to be a much better painter when this is done.”

“Let’s find a way to fund artwork by making artwork,” Saiz agrees, eschewing the hit-and-miss gallery route that leaves little room for experimentation. “Some artists say it’s selling out, that it makes artists stay in line. You end up selling yourself into someone else’s dream. Why wouldn’t you want to avoid that?”

Saiz and Magyar have already agreed from the outset that they will stop at 7,000 portraits, should they reach that seemingly impossible goal. If it falls short, that’s okay. But it might not be the end of the project, Saiz suggests, recounting ideas they are considering, from making a happy portrait book to market when it’s over or creating a dedicated Instagram feed.

Want to give it a shot? To order a 7000 Reasons portrait, visit the website for samples and friendly instructions on how to send your photos and make payment for the work. Then you wait, until something happy drops into your mailbox. Just want to observe? Keep up with the project on Instagram.
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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd