Art in Ashes

There’s bad luck, and there’s bad luck. Springfield photographer Keith Sikes was, not long ago, readying himself for a big exhibition of his work at the Bing Arts Center.

“I have an attic studio, and my prints are up there for storage,” says Sikes. “Then when an exhibit comes up, or something where I need to display the prints, I’ll take them downstairs, use some glass cleaner, touch up the paint. When I finish one, I put it on the back porch. In this case—this was a large exhibit—I had 60 prints. It was all going to go over in a van.”

In a terrible coincidence, the frayed cord to a dorm fridge on that back porch sparked a fire in the brief window of time when Sikes’ photos were awaiting transport to the Bing.

“It started on the porch and worked its way through the rear of the first floor. The siding of the back wall burned up and caused a lot of smoke damage and breakage on the second floor. There’s two types of damage—one is what gets burned, and the other one is what the firemen do when thy’re trying to put out the fire with the hoses and their axes,” Sikes explains. “It totalled up to a lot of damage. The prints that were going on display were all destroyed.”


Sikes has long been a fixture in the Valley’s print media, and is a key figure in its photography scene. He wrote some stories for the Valley Advocate as early as 1974 and, around the same time, started working for Palmer-based Turley Publications as editor of the Belchertown Sentinel, then became group editor for four newspapers. “I created a publication with Turley that didn’t go far—City Times,” Sikes explains. “I got a little more involved in the business side, but my job 60 hours a week or 80 was to get content into the newspaper and to oversee the individual editors of the papers.”

In 1979, Sikes moved to California, where he again worked as a group editor. After a few years there, he returned to the East Coast. “Tom Turley told me, ‘I’ll let you do anything but write,’” Sikes says. “I had talent in writing—won a couple of New England Press Association awards—but there wasn’t any money in it, and I wanted to do things like get married, own a house. So I worked in graphics, designing newspapers and selling printing services. Any time I had free, I would go out looking for colleges that needed their college newspapers printed. I went to Boston—Turley still prints papers from Boston colleges. On the side I still occasionally contributed to the Advocate and others.”

After his return, Sikes got seriously involved in photography in the Valley. At first, he says, he showed a few pieces in group exhibitions. “Then I got this wild idea. I was frustrated. [Showing your work] was nothing like it is today—any week, there’s a lot of photography being shown here. I wanted to put this show together to show the strength of the Valley. I was part of the Springfield Arts Festival committee, and my job was to come up with this art show. I made a serious effort to recruit photographers. We had space in Tower Square, and we ended up with 278 photographers participating. It blew everybody away—people didn’t realize there was so much talent.”

That positive experience led Sikes to eventually found the nonprofit Valley Photo Center. “MassMutual gave us the old Fleet Bank space in Tower Square,” Sikes explains. “It was huge, in terrible shape—desks piled high, dirty, no walls to exhibit anything on. I [used] some money of my own on the understanding the Center would pay me back.

“When I started the Valley Photo Center in Tower Square, one of the purposes was to give new artists a place to see their work on the wall,” he continues. “It’s been very rewarding to have somebody come in and they bring you a stack of prints or framed prints and they want to show you their work and ask, ‘What do you think of it?’ We’ll always find some way to get it on the wall, whether it’s a couple of images in a group show or a show devoted to them as an artist. To see that kind of growth is really rewarding. More accomplished photographers love to give it back—we’ve adopted newcomers and they’ve gone on to have their own shows and their own style of photography and it’s nice knowing you were part of that process.”


In the aftermath of the fire, Sikes has taken up residence in a trailer while work is underway to restore his fire-damaged home. But in his ongoing interactions with his insurance company, a big question has arisen: what’s the dollar value of an artist’s work, especially that of an artist who doesn’t make a living solely from art?

“We have good insurance and an ample amount of insurance,” Sikes explains. “If there’s any gray area, it’s the value of artwork. The insurance process is really dragging. [As of May 29] we haven’t even gotten our claim filed.

“It’s frustrating, because you want to know what you can spend. I want to resurrect the images, make new images where I have to, frame them, and get on with the business of being a photographer,” Sikes says. “I have to get the printing going, go through the boxes and stuff. I did have a lot of prints that were loose that were on the third floor. They didn’t get a lot of damage. In a lot of cases, though, they were second best. In a lot of cases I want to go back to the computer files, the negatives, and print the images.

“I don’t think they understand the value of art. Thre are two or three levels of compensation. If [a print] had $250 on it and somebody loved it, they’d buy it. But I don’t sell that many prints. Most photographers in the Valley—it’s an avocation, not a vocation. We like the fellowship between photographers in the groups that exist, and I’m a member of several of those. It’s a fun part of my life, and I’ve gone to great lengths [to pursue photography] as a lot of photographers do.

“That $250—that’s the highest value I could be compensated for. Then there’s what I would consider a fair compensation of both time and materials to recreate them. That takes it down to $150, maybe $125. Then bare-bones, less than it costs to reproduce them is $75. At that point, you’re really barely getting enough for the materials, not to speak of your time and equipment.”

When it comes to putting a dollar value on art pursued for its own sake, things can indeed get hard to pin down. What marks the line between hobbyist and professional? Is it artistic merit? Highest sale price? Number of sales?

“For the insurers,” says Sikes, “If it’s a hobby, then the retail value doesn’t exist. If it’s a business, then [they might say] you should have had a business policy. They come at you both ways—I keep my mouth shut. In the end, I want that $75-100 a frame. I don’t think that’s unfair. I don’t need to make a profit on it. I can use that money to get an end result I’m happy with. If they see fit to do that, I’ll be happy. They’re just moving slow.”

Sikes seems philosophical about his experience so far, though frustration leaks in some, too. For him, it’s an enormous individual tragedy. For insurers, a fire is everyday business.

“You have a fire, and there’s a couple of people that’ll show up,” Sikes says. “They’re from fire restoration companies, and they’ve got all the answers. I’m going to have a crew here, we’ll board it up, you can leave and we’ll take care of it. Then the adjuster says, ‘I’m going to be working with you hand in hand through this process—call me on anything.’”

“That fades quick,” Sikes says. “You realize you’re working with an adjuster working for the insurance company, and a contractor who does this on a large scale, does this with the insurance company all the time. In most of these cases, you’re going to be fending for yourself.”

Sikes goes on to discuss the second tier of professionals who’ve approached him, people who offer to help with the process in return for a 10 percent stake in his claim.

Somehow, in the middle of smoke-grayed rooms and the remnants of years of photography work, Sikes seems focused on remounting his exhibition at the Bing and getting on with what’s next. Still, he faces big challenges, and the destruction of so much of his work and his home can only take a toll.

“Unfortunately, I made the mistake of growing old in America,” says Sikes, who’s now retired. “The money isn’t there any more, and the health is waning—I had enough on my plate before this happened.”

Sikes’ fellow photographers quickly started planning for a fundraiser to help Sikes, and Rudi Scherff, owner of Springfield landmark The Student Prince restaurant, offered the use of his new beer garden, which is scheduled to open in the near future on Main Street in Springfield.•

Author: James Heflin

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