Daryl Ramon Thomas Jr., AAJA JCamp 2023 — Washington D.C.
Washington, D.C.’s cultural and historic richness is bound to create and attract artistic types. The storied Eastern Market is an outlet for these people to share their work while profiting from their craft. But some feel that the market is not enough for an artist trying to survive in the city.
The Eastern Market will turn 150 years old later this year. Throughout the market’s existence, it has been home to hundreds of local businesses, farms, and creatives. Today, making a weekend visit to Eastern Market will take you through a festival of sights, sounds, and smells. Kids running, pets barking into their owners’ ears, fruits of every sort can all be observed on any given Sunday. Even in the heat of Washington summer, more than a thousand people will visit the market throughout the day, according to attendance figures sourced through local reports.
This large attendance makes Eastern Market attractive to D.C.’s artists.
“More than passion…,” said Cherif, a street painter who declined to give his last name. “Obsession.”
Cherif’s business operates at a loss, spending $100 a week to transport his paintings to and from D.C’s historic Flea Market.
“This has been in the art movement for a long time,” Cherif said with a heavy French accent. “White people have the gallery; we have the walls.”
Paint soaks both his chest-length dreadlocks and his white clothes. It lines the walls of his booth, covers the tables and speakers, floats in bottles and Solo cups, and rainbows across the drop cloths on which his paintings sit. It was a woman who first convinced him art was worth pursuing and brought him to the city.
Cherif said D.C. offers him the platform but isn’t the space for major success.
“I wish we were in a good place,” he said, adding he’s been a resident for 15 years.
Only a few booths down, Zachary Sasim has had a very different experience.
“It’s really a hard business,” he said. The Bulgarian-born Sasim worked in his home country for 12 years before moving to the United States to continue his work. Stepping into his station, his watercolor paintings of iconic architecture and landmarks of D.C. are transformed by Sasim’s unique style into a feast of colors and waves.
Unlike Cherif, Sasim livesoff of what he makes at the Eastern Market. He sells multiple prints of each painting ranging from $35 to $325 — which he learned was essential to surviving in the art world.
“That’s what everyone does unless they are [a] very famous artist,” he said. “That’s the difference between us here, at the market, and some people at the galleries. In the art world, you can sell this for $145 or $145k. You can’t make your name, unless you use the internet.”
Sasim said generating a client base online takes a kind of “genius.”
Sasim also attributed his ability to stay afloat to help from the local government. Alongside maintaining the Eastern Market year-round, the D.C. government created the Arts and Entertainment Venue Relief fund, which distributed $8 million in grants. The grant was instituted in 2021 and aimed to help the market regain its footing following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alton “Al” McDougle sold pictures taken by his partner of D.C.’s government buildings shot using toys as props. Darth Vader and a platoon of Stormtroopers at the Capital is Al’s most notable photograph, he said. But these are just one amongst a collection filled with Stormtrooper action figures offering free hugs, rolling around in sprinkles, or repeatedly writing “Vader is always right” on a piece of paper a-la Bart Simpson. “You have to have a sense of humor,” he explained.
From his booth, situated between Cherif and Sasim, Al faces a yearly conundrum. D.C.’s Holiday Market runs from mid-November to the latter half of December. Similar to the Eastern Market, Holiday Market offers a place for vendors of every sort, artists included. During this time, Al can leave his weekday job and sell art full time. But it’s only five weeks.
“If I got those Holiday Market vibes and customers year round, that would be great,” Al remarked with a giant grin on his face. “You notice this place on the weekdays, no one’s here.”
Al’s hope hits the soul of the market’s necessity. D.C. artists feel that they have no other place to go. So, to them, Eastern Market is an oasis in a doldrum desert. For these artists, it is a part of their lifestyle, be it by trade, by heart, or by faith.