I wanted to be the Julia Child of the art world. I would bring fabulous art and artists into your living room — inspiration was on its way! How hard could it be to get an art show on television? It was an obvious omission and a tremendous opportunity. I had a spot for my Emmy picked out.
I started my research, and after a five-minute Google search (“San Diego television art shows”) found that San Diego had no such show. Easy breezy, I thought, and formed a game plan: I would start out locally, just like Julia, get a following, and put the art of San Diego on the map. After local (and immediate) success, I would then move to a national/international audience, all the while never forgetting my roots and pimping out our great city. I would be the artist from San Diego discovering art wherever it might be, making the art world accessible and enlightening all. I would be an ambassador for art. Soon enough, I’d be on Dancing with the Stars.
Ten minutes’ more research and I discovered that I wouldn’t be breaking new ground after all. There have been two previous successes featuring art on TV at a worldwide level. Rather than being disappointed, I decided to take this as exciting news.
The Oprah of the TV art world was Bob Ross. Mention art and TV in the same sentence and without a doubt the “man with the afro” will come up. Bob Ross was a legend; his PBS show Joy of Painting reached 93.5 million households. With his calm demeanor and smooth voice, in 26 minutes he would miraculously paint happy clouds, pretty mountains, or some other picturesque scene. Bob died in 1995, yet Bob Ross Incorporated is still successful: his art kits, video lessons, T-shirts, and instruction books sell very well.
The other tour de force was Sister Wendy, the art-history world’s favorite nun. Her BBC series Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting was a hit, and she had a large following in Europe and the States. Sister Wendy left the world of television in 1997 and now lives a life of solitude.
So, with the main competition no longer alive — and Sister Wendy focused on her prayers — I saw my opening. Painting with Prudence would take the TV world by storm! The show would make art exciting and fun. I’d travel the world looking at great art; I’d talk to artists, visit museums and galleries and fabulous locations — oh, and I’d throw in a few art tips and lessons along the way. Like Julia, I’d be a charming snob, one who would educate the world and make the arts cool.
I assembled my team. My friend Jim had recently moved from San Diego to Dallas, his head spinning from a recent divorce. Lacking a full-time job, he jumped right in. Jim came with over 20 years’ experience as a writer and creative director at top advertising agencies.
My 75-year-old mother, who lives in Boston, was also on board. In her late 60s, my mother had enrolled in a Dreamweaver web-design course at Harvard Extension. During her first class, she called me up and whispered into the phone, “I am the oldest one here — older than the professor.” I pretended shock, then instructed her to stop messing around, turn off her cell phone, and focus on the class. When she completed it, she called to proudly tell me that other students had dropped out, but she had prevailed. With credentials and no salary demands, my mom was our official web designer.
I, of course, was the “talent,” an MFA from Pratt Institute, a professional artist “with an eye for adventure,” living in San Diego. With no money, no salaries, and basically no clue, we three set to work.
Jim and I educated ourselves by purchasing a “TV Pitch School,” home-study course (pitching is Hollywood-speak for presenting and selling a show concept). The 15 audio CDs from Mark and Jeanne Simon taught us “how to pitch like a pro.” From the audio CDs we learned that a sizzle reel was mandatory.
A sizzle reel is similar to a short commercial and is used to present a show concept to networks, producers, production companies, and agents. We needed a sizzle, and we needed it soon.
Jim jumped at the chance to leave Texas. He flew west for five days of location shooting. I expanded the team and called in two additional friends to help out — Chip Halsey and Walid Romaya. Chip had graduated from UCLA in 1980 with a minor in Film Studies. He wrote, directed, and co-produced his own feature called The Groundskeeper. Now he works in real estate, and with the market moving at a snail’s pace, he had time to kill. Chip was great at keeping us focused, asking pertinent questions such as: “Exactly what are we doing here?” and “What is this all about?”
Walid, also a businessman and want-to-be reality-TV person, has a show and business called The Prince of Wines. Walid came with an abundance of reality-TV chops and graciously shared his expertise. Most importantly, Walid came with a camera.
Let the games begin.
Day 1. We began filming in my teeny tiny 250-square-foot studio in Little Italy. With three men and me in the small space, it was beyond cramped, and the men had to take turns in the studio. Jim was keen on showing the romance of being an artist. He wanted to capture every inch of the space; lighting and sound strategies were discussed and analyzed. They filmed paint tubes, brushes, paintings, and books. My terrace garden was sure to be a highlight and selling point, so the team climbed out my window and jumped onto the not-so-stable tar-paper roof to film. Horticulturists, don’t get excited: my garden consists of a few potted plants positioned to break up the monotony of the gray rooftop and cinder blocks. But Chip and Walid were pros, and they had the ladder out, shooting film from all angles while Jim kept an eye out for incoming aircraft. He shouted, “Cut — incoming!” often. I was busy perfecting my enthusiastic and welcoming hand movements, sort of a ta-da! motion meant to imply, Look, sitting on tar paper under the flight path is fabulous. Fun fun fun!
I was feeling great about life until later that night when we sat down to watch the reels. Reality hit me, and I went into shock. Seriously, what was I thinking? I looked like an idiot. I was an idiot. Obviously, I’d failed to think this brilliant idea through. I wasn’t even remotely comfortable being on film. (Jim said, “Wow, high definition is not kind to you.”) Here’s a Hollywood secret: little people with big heads look great on film. I am an average person with an average head — disastrous! What we needed was a hot 20-year-old who could step in and take over the role.
Jim, despite his far-from-comforting observation, wouldn’t hear of it. He’d determined that my whack-a-doodle life was the story and that was what we were going to sell. There was no time for my insecurities and angst. I put on a brave face and prayed for softer lighting. The team was counting on me. In the future, I would not be so easily flustered. I would forge onward and channel Julia.
Day 2. We hit the road. Jim liked to film what he called “eye candy.” He wasn’t referring to me — we popped up to La Jolla. We did shots of driving down Prospect Street, sitting at the Children’s pool, and chatting it up with tourists. We shot scenes at the MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) and La Valencia. Chip was angling the shots, while Jim told what to say and do. We filmed the waves, me painting the waves, me talking to the seals, talking to dogs, me waving while driving, me eating, me sitting and laughing — we did it all. I changed outfits in Gaylord, my Miata, so that every shot looked like another day, another time. Day two went very well, and I was gaining a bit of confidence, I was wondering what designer I would wear for my Good Morning America interview.
Day 3 brought glitches. Like any production (I assumed), things did not run smoothly; my experienced volunteer San Diego crew had to get back to their paying jobs. The camera went with them. Jim, who’d declared himself producer and director, took charge, bought a camera. Filming continued. Next stop, Old Town. Jim’s theory was that Old Town had a similar look to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Never having been to San Miguel, I couldn’t dispute this. So I was filmed walking around random buildings, shaking maracas, and pretending to be in Mexico. Frida Kahlo would have been proud.
From there we moved to Balboa Park, where we filmed the fountains, the rose garden, statues, and the cactus garden. It was during the cactus-garden scene that Jim said, “Your shirt makes you look like a disciple of General Mao.”
Another Miata outfit change, and we filmed more of Prudence painting, Prudence chatting, Prudence laughing, Prudence walking, Prudence driving. We took enough footage for ten complete episodes.
The next challenge was to transfer the film onto the computer, a task that was out of my league and that baffled Jim. I enlisted a former student, Jake. Jake’s mom let us hang out at her house while Jim and Jake toiled away. I made food and soda runs.
Day 4. It was time to work on the voiceover. This was trickier than expected and gave me a whole new appreciation for TV commercials. Jim found his directorial mojo and had no trouble voicing his opinion. Apparently, I am Sybil and have multiple voices. Jim yelled, “Get rid of Little Debbie! Sound normal!”
It was painful to repeat lines such as “My new TV show is a fun mix of painting, travel, and adventure to entertain and inspire you.” It had everything but the kitchen sink. Jim kept his patience; I kept (some of) my sanity. But it was taxing all around.
Jim took the material back to Dallas with him. At this point, my ace producer/director unleashed a bit of a bad attitude and started whining. Granted, he hadn’t expected to have to learn computer-editing and sound skills. We couldn’t find a film editor on craigslist who wanted to work for free, so I told him he had to figure it out. I tried to be as supportive, even sending off a book on the basics of film editing. Still, Jim moaned and groaned for three weeks straight. I wasn’t expecting to have to edit this stuff…I don’t know how to add music to a video. Blah blah blah.
Meanwhile, I was busy living my life as an artist. We needed my story. I may have had only the one title, but it was a crucial one.
Miraculously, Jim figured everything out. He took over ten hours of film and pieced it together into a two-minute, 30-second sizzle reel. Jim also wrote a “one sheet” (Hollywood-speak: a one-page advertisement for the show). He came up with catchy slogans. “How far will she go to inspire you?” and “Enjoy the ride!” I feared that these made me sound like a hooker looking for action, but Jim was proud of his work. Who was I to question my producer/director/editor/marketer? He’d put in long, hard hours with no pay. So I went with it.
Back in Boston, my web-master mom secured and created a web page. She was a champ, and survived me and Jim giving her orders left and right. There were a few hiccups. YouTube was new to her; putting a video on the site was a challenge. She called in her team, neighbor Tom and friend Dave, and they all worked it out. The web page, with its YouTube link, was up and running.
Another lesson learned from the 15-CD home-study course was the importance of attending conferences: these were necessary to sell the show. The conferences come with a heavy price tag — a $500–$600 entrance fee per person. Our commitment to the project was solid, so we anted up. Armed with a working web page, catchy business cards, folders with personalized labels, and new shoes (for me), we felt prepared and confident.
Our first conference was in Santa Monica. We had done our homework and knew who we wanted to meet and pitch to. We targeted various companies and networks. But as soon as we walked in the door, I felt as if I’d landed on Mars. I actually lost my breath. I was sure I’d throw up. Not only was I universes outside my comfort zone, I was clearly out of my league with these Los Angeles TV-types.
Jim, on the other hand, in his Versace shirt, strutted in as if he owned the place. He was in his element. “I am with my people,” he said. Then he said, “I am going to make more money than you are, because I have more titles.” A Hollywood tycoon was evolving before my eyes.
Again, I tried to channel Julia for support, and then some dude from the Kardashian clan walked past me, and I had to sit down. I mulled over my options. I could throw up, smack Jim on the head, cry, and go home. Or I could rally.
I rallied. People need art; it was my duty to move forward. For two days, we pitched to anyone and everyone. We attended every talk, cocktail hour, and informational meeting. We met executives at top networks, production-company owners, agents, and interns. Jim stalked an Oprah person in the men’s room. We worked every angle. The feedback we got was tremendous. Great show, wonderful idea, great story, best pitch ever! It was a love fest, and although we had no offers, we felt giddy and proud.
One of the lessons of the business is that a “no” is better than a “maybe.” In Hollywood, “taking a pass” means a no. We had very few no’s and many “re-directs” — we repeatedly heard “It’s made for PBS,” “Go talk to Bravo,” “Have you hit Discovery?”
We followed through on everything.
We also had our share of people trying to redefine our show. A woman from Style Network told us that their most popular show was Ruby. She explained that Ruby is an obese woman and “If Ruby eats, Ruby will die!” The Style woman eagerly looked at me. “What are you going to do? Where is your life-and-death drama?”
When I said that I wasn’t prepared to chop off my ear, Jim jumped in. “The airplanes fly very low across her studio. It’s just a matter of time before one crashes on her head.”
Style Network took a pass.
From the beginning, Jim and I differed in thoughts about where the show should be marketed. I was keen on selling it locally, especially trying for KPBS, while Jim wanted to hit it out of the park and get a national network. After that first day of filming, I didn’t feel ready to deliver a show on a national level; I wanted to get more — or any — experience and build from there. “This is our first painting,” I said. “We can’t expect it to go straight into the MOMA. First, we need to get into a local group show.”
Jim didn’t see where he fit in on the local level. But after attending our second conference, we still had no buyers, so Jim took a closer look at PBS. They were offering a national competition for a new TV show under something called the Diversity and Innovation Fund. I am an educated white woman. I play tennis and summer in Maine. There is nothing diverse about me. But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t talk Jim out of this one.
Jim’s neighbor in Dallas, a lesbian, had produced a show or two on PBS, and he got her on board for the project, awarding her several titles. So now our “diversity” consisted of two educated, white, straight people and an educated white lesbian (from Texas!) and a show about art. Jim put everything on hold to wait for the results. When the rejection came, he was devastated. I was shocked he was shocked. He wanted to try to continue to work with his neighbor, but she stopped returning his calls.
Three conferences later, we were all the wiser, a bit beaten up…and still not on the air. The sad lesson we learned was that the arts are a tough sell, not a priority for television. If I could gain, lose, and again gain 300 pounds while painting, well, that is a show that might sell. Or maybe I could participate in a death-defying stunt while in a museum. Apparently, my life needed to be in danger.
The mother of all meetings, which Jim worked hard to get, was with the Discovery Channel. Jim had visions of Painting with Prudence airing right before Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. The Discovery Channel said that they would not touch art or a female host. One network executive told us: “Look, art is a gamble. We’re all praying to keep hold of our jobs. Right now no one is thinking outside the box.” Jim lost a bit of steam. He headed back to Dallas. I headed back to my apartment under the flight path.
Deterred, stymied, discouraged, but not beaten, we hold our heads high. Jim had to get a paying job and was unable to put more time, effort, or money into the project. I needed to focus on painting, on selling some paintings so I could pay my rent on time and stop relying on friends to feed me. When I met up with Walid, Prince of Wine, he gave me a sympathetic look: he understood the toll of putting yourself out there and trying to succeed in a crazy TV world.
I am still under the flight path, still loving my life as an artist. As for Painting with Prudence, once in a while I throw it out on a local push. Just the other day, I sent our package to the Oceanside channel, KOTC. PWP could start there. Who knows?
Check out our handiwork (paintingwithprudence.com) and make sure to click on the sizzle reel. Maybe one day the TV world will tire of the Housewives of New Jersey and be ready to celebrate the arts — with or without me as host. My mom is standing ready to update the web page.