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Many Pittsburgh-area artists take well-paying commissions to fund own work

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Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Artist Peter Johnson of Lawrenceville works on a piece of spalted maple wood in his Wilkinsburg studio Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Artist Kathleen Mulcahy sits for a portrait in front of one of her glass and metal works at her studio in Oakdale on Monday, Oct. 27, 2014. The piece is part of a series that incorporates the glass drops down a rippled panel of glass and treated metal. Mulcahy was drawn to make the works after getting caught in a rainstorm while canoeing with a group of women on the Susquehanna River. Three months after, Mulcahy says she woke from a dream and saw these pieces in her mind. 'Little by little I found the right people to make it beautiful,' she said.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
A detail of a glass and metal work by Artist Kathleen Mulcahy, photographed at her studio in Oakdale on Monday, Oct. 27, 2014. The piece was commissioned for a specific space in a home in Ohio after the owners saw Mulcahy's work in a book.
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Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Artist Peter Johnson of Lawrencville works on an abstract doodle piece made of ambrosia maple wood in his Wilkinsburg studio Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Artist Kathleen Mulcahy stands for a portrait alongside of one of her glass and metal works at her studio in Oakdale on Monday, Oct. 27, 2014. The piece is part of a series that incorporates the glass drops down a rippled panel of glass and treated metal. Mulcahy was drawn to make the works after getting caught in a rainstorm while canoeing with a group of women on the Susquehanna River. Three months after, Mulcahy says she woke from a dream and saw these pieces in her mind. 'Little by little I found the right people to make it beautiful,' she said.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
A glass and metal work by Artist Kathleen Mulcahy, photographed at her studio in Oakdale on Monday, Oct. 27, 2014. The piece was commissioned for a specific space in a home in Ohio after the owners saw Mulcahy's work in a book.

When Lynn Epstein and Craig Otto set out to renovate the kitchen in their Bellevue home, they wanted a different look for the tile backsplash behind the stove.

They began by checking out the usual suspects — big-box home-improvement stores, as well as boutiques that sold ceramic tile — without finding what they wanted.

“We saw a lot of gorgeous tiles, but you end up seeing the same things everywhere,” Epstein says.

It wasn’t until they attended a gallery show of Stevo (Steve) Sadvary’s mosaic art that inspiration struck.

“He was experimenting with a different look and we thought, ‘Hmmmm, that would transfer nicely,’ ” Epstein says.

They commissioned Sadvary to create a one-of-a-kind piece tailored to their space and taste.

The idea of commissioning art sounds like an activity for wealthy people or international corporations. It conjures up images of ancestral oil paintings hung over the fireplace or a serious sculpture that’s the focal point of a large garden.

Artists are happy to do that.

But they also can be commissioned for smaller or more commonplace projects, such as designing an ornate stair rail, a garden bench or the ceramic tile surround for a shower stall.

A surprising number of local artists at a variety of price levels are happy to take on commissions, says Joy Borelli-Edwards, owner of Borelli-Edwards Gallery in Lawrenceville

“Some artists do not, but 90 percent (of the artists she represents) want to have commissions,” she says.

For some, it’s an additional source of income that buys an artist time to work on their own works of art.

Peter Johnson, a Lawrenceville-based sculptor who works in wood, estimates that 50 percent of his income comes from commissions for individuals, corporations and institutions. The other half comes from the sale of his art in galleries, shows and from his studio.

Sure, a handcrafted wooden table or a stone bench will be more expensive than one you buy at Ikea or Target and assemble yourself.

But you’re paying for an artist’s time, talent and expertise, as well as the raw materials needed to create a one-of-a-kind object — a bench or stained glass window or fireplace surround — created just for you.

“There’s something lovely about having a unique work,” says Kathleen Mulcahy, a nationally known glass and metal artist who lives in Oakdale. “People do want to have that connection to who makes the work, not just buy it off the wall.”

Yes, an established artist such as Mulcahy can ask and get $32,000 for one of her large glass-and-steel wall works. Others have smaller price tags.

Sadvary estimates that many of his glass or tile mosaic commissions cost between $50 and $125 per square foot. “It’s buyable art,” he says.

Artists might consider price adjustments on a case-by-case basis, such as when there is an excess of materials left over from an earlier job or when a simple-to-execute project will help pay an unexpected bill.

But other factors also play into the decision to accept or decline a commission.

An artist preparing for a gallery show might want to devote all her attention to that. Alternately, an artist might revise his calendar or change the price if the project intrigues him.

“If it’s fun, it’s going to be cheaper. If it’s boring, I’m going to charge what it costs. If it’s fun, I’m going to give you a discount,” Johnson says.

It never hurts to ask, Mulcahy says.

If the price is beyond your reach, artists or gallery owners might steer you toward a less well-known artist with similar skills and aesthetics.

If you’ve got a project in mind, one of the best places to start is by checking out area galleries and other spaces that exhibit works by local artists. You’re unlikely to find a chair of coffee table that’s just what you’re looking for. But, like Epstein and Otto, you might see pieces that are similar.

And, you will get a sense of the artist’s workmanship and whether her taste and vision is compatible with yours.

The gallery price sheet should offer insights into the artist’s potential price ranges for a similar work.

Gallery staff members can match potential clients with artists, explain or negotiate prices and help with details of installation and scheduling.

Not all artists have their work on display at any given time, and making the rounds of art galleries can be time-consuming. Fortunately, Internet tools make it easy to browse the work of local artists without leaving home.

Gallery websites offer displays of works by artists they represent. A good, comprehensive starting place is the Pittsburgh Artist Registry (pittsburghartistregistry.org) created by the Office of Public Art.

“People don’t always know what they are looking for,” says Kate Hansen, project manager for the Office of Public Art. That’s why the office created and routinely updates the registry.

The visually driven database can be searched for a specific artist and/or by genre (furniture, light, mixed media) or medium (wood, stone, glass) and limited to those who have experience with commissions. You’re re-directed to an artist’s page with photos of artworks, a link to the artist’s website and contact information.

As you narrow choices, you can create an account and save links to artists you want to investigate or contact.

“It’s like a shopping cart for people you want to collaborate with,” Hansen says. “It’s free and user-friendly.”

Alice T. Carter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808, [email protected] or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib.

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