It’s a Big Deal: ‘Do-it-yourself’ the mantra when shipping large-scale artwork

By Lori Meadows

Glass artwork by Guy Kemper of Versailles is installed at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Glass artwork by Guy Kemper of Versailles is installed at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

For many people, purchasing art and handmade craft may seem to be an easy transaction. You go into a gallery, look around, select a work that speaks to you and pay the artist or the gallery director. That’s the case if you’re buying a painting or a piece of handmade jewelry, but larger pieces like metal sculptures, handmade furniture or stained glass panels require more finesse in getting from the maker to the buyer.

If the drive is no greater than 12 hours, many artists will transport pieces themselves and do installation, if necessary, on site. That’s the case with furniture maker Mark Whitley of Smiths Grove.

Whitley has operated his studio, where he makes handmade contemporary furniture, since 2000.

“I rarely ship,” Whitley said in a phone interview as he was driving home from delivering a piece to a client in Asheville, N.C. “It’s a real pain to crate it and to try to deal with it on a truck shipment. You never know what’s going to happen.”

Indeed, shipping an item almost cost Whitley a pretty penny when sending a piece to his alma mater, Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

“The university president commissioned a rocking chair that was school-themed,” Whitley said. “I knew I had to crate it and ship it.”

Whitley said he forgot to write the quoted price – $400 – on the bill of lading, so when the driver got to the university, he demanded that the president pay $1 per mile – $2,700 – for the shipment.

“That was two-thirds the cost of the chair. I got a call from the president. He wasn’t happy,” Whitley said. “He’s a guy I wanted to keep happy, but he wrote the check anyway.

“I thought I had to eat that, but I called the trucking company, talked to a nice person and they refunded the money to the president.”

Stained-glass artist Guy Kemper of Versailles witnessed his work nearly being destroyed in transit.

During the delivery of a glass sculpture to the Woodford County Thoroughbred farm of the late Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al Maktoum, the former ruler of Dubai, Kemper’s truck encountered a rushing wind.

“I heard a thump and looked in the rearview mirror.”

What Kemper heard was the crate coming out of the truck and landing on the road, catapulted out of the vehicle by a powerful gust of wind.

“Luckily, somebody stopped and helped me load it back into my truck. A couple of pieces were broken, but I was able to fix it and take it to his farm for delivery to Dubai.

“I’ve learned to pack it to death,” Kemper said. “When you put something in a truck, tie it down.”

Lexington stone sculptor Julie Warren Conn also believes in the do-it-yourself approach to delivering her art.

Though not as large as furniture, Conn’s pieces weigh between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds each. She adheres to the 12-hour drive maximum for delivery, renting a trailer and loading work onto it with a forklift she keeps in her studio.

“In all my years of doing this, anything I can do myself normally works out better,” Conn said. “You don’t have to worry whether someone is going to do what I instruct them to do. It’s under my thumb. When you contract out, you run a risk.”

When she has had to ship, though, Conn said she has only had one negative experience when sending multiple pieces of a larger work. The shipping company damaged the largest of the pieces.

Conn has gone the extra mile – or several – delivering to clients in the past. When she lived in Oregon, she drove her forklift across town to unload her pieces from a truck that had gone ahead of her and waited at the installation site.

“That’s not something I want to do too much,” she said. “They don’t go too fast and they’ve got no shocks.”

Whitley said transporting pieces, and the trials associated with that necessity, are the cost of doing business.

“If you’re going to be in business, you have to be where the buck stops,” he said. “If something goes wrong, I feel it’s my responsibility to fix the situation. I’ve made that a rule.” ■

Lori Meadows is executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council.

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