Friday, January 3, 2014

The Ruthlessness of Airplane Art

by Ron Cole

It was in the first minute of the first class of the first day of college.  My Business professor, before he even introduced himself, virtually shouted the following declaration that has stuck with me for all of these years:

"Business is war!"

After that class I was thankful that my career path would probably never put me into the position of being an entrepreneur.  I didn't think I'd have it in me.  It wasn't that I thought that I lacked the smarts or skills for it, but it was never in my nature to live my life like that; in a state of perpetual warfare with equally ruthless competitors; conjuring the sort of Devil within that was evidently a primary ingredient to success in modern free market capitalism.  I look for the best in people, not for a way to run them over.  I did not want to do anything with my life where that would be regarded as a weakness.

My career post-college was as an industrial designer, mostly in the toy industry.  If you bought anything 'Hot Wheels' or 'Barbie, My Scenes' between 2001 and 2007, then you are familiar with my work.  My favorite part of that period of my career was that I focused on helping people have fun.  Of course the business end of it was always there.  Mattell, the company I worked with most regularly, was more conscious of secrecy than IBM had been when my father worked there.  I was clearly in a business that was on guard against the ruthless warfare inherent within it; always going to every conceivable extreme to make sure they never surrendered an advantage to the enemy - their competition.

But I was happily working apart from that realm.  A rear echelon guy.

To help keep my wife in school we both started a small eBay business selling designer shoes.  I kind of happened upon the idea by accident, and to make a long story short we found ourselves a great secondary source of income.  After a while its profits vastly exceeded my regular income, and we discovered that we were among the most successful eBayers then selling online.

And that's when it happened.  That's when we became big enough to become a target.  One of the shoe designers, who's daughter actually went to the same private school as our own son, contacted eBay and falsely claimed that the shoes we were selling were counterfeit.  EBay took her word for it and de-listed everything that we were selling of her brand.  Every time we provided evidence to the contrary, and eBay then allowed us to resume selling them, she'd do it again and the process kept repeating itself.  The disruptions caused our sales to drop almost 15% for several months, and the effort and anxiety expended to combat it all was sometimes overwhelming.  Surely she knew what she was doing.  She was fighting her war.

Aviation Art: Just Another Battlefield? 

I more or less fell backward into being a professional aviation artist.  I had a jumble of experiences and some talent that collided with my life-long interest in historical aviation and military history.  I used to build scale model aircraft.  When we left Los Angeles to facilitate my wife's higher education and her career, I was left adrift to find a new means of income that didn't rely on living next to Mattell's corporate offices or access to designer shoe trunk sales - all of which stayed in LA.  I'd already discovered that I could run a profitable small business.  From out of this potpourri of ingredients fell my new career as an aviation artist.  My business grew quickly.

And that's when it happened.

I might have expected to be attacked by our old relentless nemesis from the designer shoe world (she was that driven by spite, in my opinion).  At the risk of sounding naive, I simply didn't think that the genre' of aviation art - made up in large part by professional and semi-professional gentleman (and some very talented ladies, too) who almost always treat each other as respected peers, if not friends - would give birth to the ruthlessness of the business war.

As had happened in the shoe business, the attack came from a surprisingly successful and well known person; the kind of individual you'd think would be above resorting to dirty tactics to subvert their competition.

They contacted one of my clients and business partners, a non-profit aviation museum in England. This fellow artist advised them, with feigned but apparently genuine-sounding concern, that I was a fraud who stole all of my 'so-called artwork' from other artists and sold it as my own.  No evidence was provided.  The museum contacted me and told me all about it, except that they didn't reveal his name to me. While they clearly did not take him or his accusations seriously, they also did not want to be in the middle of a fight.  All I could do was take measures through my own marketing channels and online to indirectly combat the accusation.  I revealed 'snap shots' of my works in progress that proved the accusations false, and I fumed and brooded and worried endlessly that some mysterious person was trying to hurt me in the most insidious and back-handed way possible.  In addition to being concerned for my own business, I also wondered who else this unscrupulous aviation artist was trying to maliciously undermine.

There are several very troubling aspects to this form of attack.  It's extremely hard to detect.  An artist relies exclusively upon his client or partner to bring it to his attention.  Very often the artist/client relationship is fleeting by nature and isn't based upon a long social history.  In today's cynical world any hint of potential scandal can scare off otherwise fair and objective businesses and individuals before any explanation is even sought.  Even when a relationship weathers the storm, even when your partner sticks by you and your work -  does there still remain a seed of doubt that effects the relationship?  How many clients, or potential clients, have aviation artists lost due to back door attacks of this nature?

If you're an aviation artist and this guy regards you as competition, you might already be a victim and not even know it.

After a long period of hearing nothing, another client of mine was contacted - not once but twice - over the course of the Christmas holidays of 2013.

This time I was lucky, because my client also happened to be a good friend of mine who knew me very well. I received this person's communications filled with completely invented accusations.  He claimed that I was a fraud, again, this time insisting that I stole copyrighted photographs, mirrored them, added a 'simple' Photoshop effect, and sold them as 'art'.  In his second communication, after he'd failed to receive a response to the first, he went so far as to try and intimidate my client by suggesting they could be held civilly liable for doing business with me.  Most important of all, however: I got his real name.

And I was shocked.

I did send him a long letter that I hope appealed to his sense of decency.  I explained that I respected his work, which remains true.  I congratulated him on a new commission that he'd just had published.  I warned him in the strongest possible terms that if he ever tried to spread false rumors, or subvert my business by contacting my clients with invented accusations again - I would sue him for Business Defamation and refuse any settlement on principle.

It should never have to come to that.

It is because I refuse to fight this 'war' like a vengeful combatant that I refrain from revealing his identity at this point.  I thought long and hard about that, though, because the only thing more shocking than who he is, is the fact that I do not know him. That makes it all even more disturbing to me, and the temptation to reveal his identity and sound an alarm within our community was great.  This article is the end result of a compromise that I think strikes a fair balance.

I write this as an appeal to the aviation art community.  We can choose what our genre' will tolerate.  We can establish the rules of war for ourselves, and let it be known that, even in some instance when an accusation might have some kind of merit - there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things in the aviation art world.  As for me, I'm going to continue to do what I love to do more than anything I've done with my life so far - I'm going to keep painting pretty airplanes for a living.

- RC


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