Creator Spotlight with Architect Barb Siegel

Barb Siegel Featured in Creator Spotlight

This week we would like you to meet architect Barb Siegel.

What do you think is the biggest misconception in your line of work?

I don’t have a big name, so people buy my work because they like it. This makes it difficult to determine a fair price for the work.

People not familiar with fine art (and sometimes other artists doing realism) will want to know “How long did it take?” I quote Japan’s Living National Treasure (now deceased) Shōji Hamada 濱田 庄司. A person watched him make a pot and said, “This only took you a minute, and yet you charge so much for it.”  Hamada responded, “60 years plus 60 seconds is what it takes.”

When did you first become aware of copyright, and why?

When I was ten years old, I made a game for my little brother. My mom, who was a teacher, thought it had real promise. She hired an artist to create a board and wrote up the concept and got a copyright. My mom even got a game company interested in the idea, though it was never produced. I was impressed by the value she placed on protecting my idea.

Have you experienced copyright infringement and, if so, how has it affected you personally and financially? 

I am a registered Architect. Understanding professional practice is something we are taught in school and tested on for our professional exams. Like all creators, Architects automatically own the copyright to their drawings unless the drawings are considered to be works made for hire.

I had a developer who would hire me to draw houses, including construction documents. Even though I was paid by the hour my drawings were not works made for hire under the law. The developer ended up using some of my designs multiple times without my permission. His response was, “Aww shucks…” He was a cheapskate; his behavior was totally in line with who he was. If I had thought about it in advance, I would have been more explicit in our work agreement. I’m pretty sure he hired me for less hours since he was reusing my drawings. But it’s not something I could ever prove.  I didn’t (and don’t) have the kind of money needed to challenge him in court. Unfortunately, the bigger guy (almost) always wins. In retelling this story, I still feel hurt.  Copyright is not just about the money, it’s about the pride of ownership.

What is your biggest copyright-related challenge? 

Currently, I am working on a project that is big on ideas, some of them feeling very new. I only hope that at least I am credited with its creation since ideas cannot be copyrighted (just the expression of them).

In academia there is a long tradition of recognition for ideas.  In today’s social media environment there is none.  I know I should be aiming for making money, not just glory.  But the money in art is so little for people who aren’t famous.  And the only way to get famous is going for the glory. So, I go for the glory and a little bit of money, hoping eventually to make more money.

What is the best piece of advice that you would give fellow creators in your field about copyright and how to protect themselves?

No one is looking out for you better than you can look out for yourself. Not your gallerist, not your agent, not the people who buy your work. Try to think three moves ahead on whatever you do. Always register and retain the copyright and always expect payment. Before you release a work into the world think about how you can own it. Consider watermarking it.  Make sure your name cannot be erased from the image.

Read up on creative commons and learn a little about contract law. Read the graphic illustrators guide, as it contains a lot of good info.

Sometimes payment is not financial.  But you can have the client ‘pay’ you in non-dollar ways.  For example, a non-profit purchaser used my image (they had bought the original) for a calendar.  I was okay with that, but asked for multiple copies of the calendar. This was partly for my benefit (samples to hand out), partly for the education of the non-profit so they understood it’s not legal to take an original and use the image, and partly for me to feel they hadn’t gotten something for free from me.

What was the inspiration behind becoming a creator? I would love to learn why you became an architect and also how you got into painting.

There was no question that I would be a creator, as there was no possibility I could live happily and not be a creator. After creating a board game when I was ten, when I was eleven years old, a boutique started selling my jewelry. And while attending summer camp, I avoided sports and spent as much time as possible at the crafts building. I applied for and went to the Maryland camps for the arts when I was in middle school.

As soon as I heard that a person was expected to work for a living, I went looking for jobs where a person could work for themselves. My parents were very clear that artists can’t make a living despite having had the example of my mother’s cousin whose work is in museums around the world. Architecture seemed like a good compromise between fine art and practicality. After a few years of practicing, I realized that even though I was a pretty good architect, I wasn’t very good at finding clients.

Once I realized I wasn’t making much of a living as a sole-proprietor architect, being a fine artist made more sense. Life works out better when I am making art, and everything becomes easier. At first, I sold my art (pastels) at street fairs. Now, I cobble together income as a graphic recorder, and from teaching, grants, and occasional sales. My studio work right now is oil painting. I happily explore different media too; I try to understand the essence of a medium, looking at what can only be done in that medium and via no other.


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