Ira Glass, host of the weekly public radio show This American Life, has a saying about creative work.
Paraphrased, it goes something like this: All of us who do creative work get into it because we have good taste: But there’s a gap: At first we aren’t that good. But our taste is good. And that’s how we know that what we’re making is a bit of a disappointment. We fall short. The most important thing we can possibly do, Glass says, is do a lot of work. That’s the only way to close the gap. Eventually, our work comes to be as good as our ambitions.
Marc Gamache, a 56-year-old homeless man in Greensboro whose work has been displayed at the downtown public library and the Interactive Resource Center, once made art that a number of people thought was pretty good. But something happened in the past nine months or so: Gamache began hawking knockoffs of work by established artists that were little more than black-and-white prints with simple coloring reapplied and his signature added to give the pieces the false imprimatur of originality.
He reverted to that crucial element an aspiring artist must have — killer taste — while eschewing the work ethic that is required to become really good.
Gamache’s tastes range across the spectrum: the new-age fantasy of English artist Josephine Wall, the surrealism of Mexican painter Octavio Ocampo, the realism and political whimsy of Missouri fine artist Andy Thomas, the inspirational African-American portraiture of Wishum Gregory, the uplifting landscapes of Steve Sundram, the trademarked “painter of light” Thomas Kinkade and even the late Dutch master illusionist MC Escher.
What unites the disparate styles of art is an arresting use of light, unabashed sentimentality and marketability.
“I am always trying to find out what people are interested in and what they want to display in their homes,” Gamache told Greensboro Voice reporter Jonathan Fritz last October. “I’m trying to find artwork that is pleasing to a lot of people in Greensboro so I can hang my artwork in homes and show it off to friends.”
The front-page article displayed an original painting by Josephine Wall depicting a girl regarding a seashell containing a tiny mermaid that is credited to Gamache. The Voice is a monthly newspaper that primarily covers homelessness and poverty whose staff meets at the Interactive Resource Center.
Voice co-editor Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater said in an e-mail that the newspaper staff discovered after publication that the image was a copy.
Gamache’s hard stare, weathered skin, stooped shoulders and teeth in advanced stages of decay tell a story of hard living on the streets. A July 2010 entry in the Guilford County court record — two misdemeanors for 2nd-degree trespass and breaking or entering, common charges against homeless people, and both dismissed — give his address as 437 Arlington St., the location of the Beloved Community Center’s homeless hospitality house. A woman who works with homeless people, speaking on background, said Gamache lives in a tent along the rail line that demarcates the eastern edge of downtown.
He took a break from helping set up a BB&T Beach Music in the Park concert on a recent Thursday to talk about his artistic endeavors. He expressed gratitude when told his work had been seen on art websites, but the tone of his voice was flinty. He said he had never heard of Thomas and Gregory, two of the artists whose work his purported art strongly resembles. He insisted the work was his and then declined to comment further when it became clear that he was being accused of fraud.
In December 2011, Gamache opened a membership account on the DeviantART website and began to post copies of work by other artists including 10 pieces by Wall, and at least one each by Kinkade, Ocampo, Sundram and Thomas. The titles of Gamache’s purported works are frequently misspelled and often simplistic descriptions substituted for the more witty and profound titles of the originals.
For instance, Gamache’s “American Heros” (sic) is an obvious duplication of “Callin’ the Blue” by Andy Thomas in its fanciful depiction of eight Republican presidents gathered around a pool table for a relaxing game. The originality of Thomas piece is evident by its rich detail and use of light. Gamache’s copy replicates the line drawing, but the rudimentary coloring gives it a comic-book feel. The coloring Gamache’s “Dem. Prisdents,” a copy of Thomas’ “Callin’ the Red” (a Democratic counterpart) is even duller.
Similarly, the sparkling filigree of Wall’s “Magic Moment,” a depiction of a genteel dancer holding a fairy in his palm, is transformed into a drab rendition of solid panels of color in Gamache’s “Magicl Visit.”
Each piece bears the inscription “Copyright Marc Gamache” and enables visitors to purchase prints for $57 through PayPal.
When Gamache set up his account with DeviantART he checked off a box indicating the he had read the website’s terms of service, which include the following stipulation: “You may not reproduce, distribute, publicly display, perform or prepare derivative works based on any of the content” without the consent of the copyright owner.
A biography posted on DeviantART’s website bearing Gamache’s trademark misspellings further advances the fraudulent conceit that the work is his, albeit in words that appear to be cribbed from Fritz’s Voice article without attribution: “My work speakes volumes, Marc Gamache is a well-seaoned artist who began drawing at the age of 6 years old. He injoyes creating portraits that speak page of vibrant colors and scenes. Marc’s art is a labor of love that is crafted by steady hands and patients spirit. Marc doesn’t give the credit for his success to himself, instead he takes us back to the famous quotation taken from Leonardo da Vinci, ‘ God control my hands- He is the mater painter of life.’”
Over the ensuing months, Gamache would post dozens more copied images to ArtWanted and Fine Arts America, two other art websites that rely on user-submitted content. The terms of service on those websites are even more explicit. ArtWanted’s policy states that “posting artwork created by other artists to your own portfolio account will not be tolerated,” while Fine Art America warns members against posting copyrighted materials without prior written consent from the owners.
Thomas confirmed that the president images are his original, copyrighted work. Alison Kenney, the US licensing agent for Wall, confirmed that 15 of the images marketed by Gamache are copies of her client’s work. Klim Altman, Ocampo’s worldwide representative, identified two of the images claimed by Gamache as “Ecstasy of the Lilies” and “Woman of Substance” painted by his client more than a decade ago, while dismissing a third image as “junk.” Steve Sundram said one of Gamache’s images is a copy of his painting “Sunset Lighthouse.”
The Thomas Kinkade Co., which licenses the work of the late artist, could not be reached for comment.
“In a way it’s always a little bit flattering that you had an idea that was good and someone else thought so too and wanted to copy it,” Andy Thomas said when contacted for this story. “I don’t mind people taking the general idea, but to take something that’s not theirs and claim that it’s their own is not right.”
Dina Thomas, the artist’s wife and business manager, was not so forgiving.
“How does he sleep at night?” she asked.
A hallmark of Andy Thomas’ work is exquisite detail and the care in how he creates a scene portraying interaction among six former presidents is apparent. The artist’s son-in-law, who is 6 feet tall, posed for all the presidents.
“He’s six foot; most of the presidents are around six feet,” Thomas said. “LBJ is six-four. Nixon is five-ten. The hardest problem is painting the faces. Those involve looking through literally thousands of photographs. I’ll download and print them off for reference. I never find a photo that has the exact right lighting. I usually combine three different poses. If you can find 50 pictures of Jimmy Carter laying around you can pretty much paint Jimmy Carter.”
The Republican presidents paintings have been particularly attractive to counterfeiters. Dina Thomas said she learned that unauthorized copies were sold at the NC Republican Party Convention in Greensboro in early June. Someone at the convention forwarded a photograph and the vendor’s business card, and the artist’s publisher sent a cease-and-desist letter.
Dina Thomas said this is the first time she’s aware of someone taking credit for her husband’s art. Usually it’s a case of someone reproducing the work for commercial purposes without authorization. She patrols the internet once a week using different search terms to try to spot copyright violations.
“Our publisher will track them down,” she said. “People will say, ‘I didn’t know.’ ‘Well, Peter in China, you did know.’ They will cease and desist for awhile and then they’ll start up another website.”
Patrick L. Thomas, who handles sales and marketing for Andy Thomas (no relation) through Somerset House Fine Art in Texas, said Gamache’s misuse of the presidents paintings can be characterized as counterfeiting.
“He’s breaking the law,” Thomas said. “He’s stealing artwork. He’s a thief.
“It’s a $250,000 fine,” he added. “It is a felony. The trouble with those cases is that you have to get a lawyer involved. The DA doesn’t just take them and run with them.”
Public Information Officer Susan Danielsen confirmed that the Greensboro Police Department generally regards the theft of intellectual property or misuse of trademark or copyrighted material as a civil matter.
US criminal code states that trafficking in a counterfeit work of visual art is subject to fining, imprisonment for not more than five years or both. The law makes exceptions for what is considered “fair use.” Whether a particular use is fair or not depends on a handful of factors, including whether the purpose is commercial or educational, the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole, and the effect of the use on the potential market or value of the copyrighted work.
The FBI investigates art forgeries, said Shelley Lynch, a spokeswoman with the bureau’s Charlotte office.
“The level of our involvement may depend on how much forgery we’re talking about and the price of the piece,” she said. “It just depends on what kind of fraud-forgery we’re talking about.”
“The problem is the US government doesn’t find time to take care of the little fish,”
Patrick L. Thomas said that from his experience the US government doesn’t allocate significant investigative resources to violations against “the little fish,” adding that national law enforcement tends to pursue copyright infringement on behalf of the music and movie industries, which have powerful lobbies in Washington.
“It’s like someone taking a Louis Vuitton purse and getting a knockoff made in China, and then selling it in the United States,” said Altman, Ocampo’s worldwide representative.
Altman said he does not intend to take legal action against Gamache, because it’s unlikely Ocampo would recover any damages. The scale of commercial value between the two endeavors is worlds apart: Altman said Ocampo’s original watercolors sold for about $12,000 while a Gamache knockoff of “Woman of Substance” listed for $40 on FineArtAmerica.com.
Ocampo painted a portrait of President Jimmy Carter that was commissioned as a gift from then-President Jose Lopez Portillo of Mexico. He painted the front and back covers of the 1989 Cher album Heart of Stone. Altman said Ocampo’s work has been collected by Jane Fonda and the king of Spain.
Attesting to Gamache’s ability to find originals with mass appeal, Wall wrote in a note posted on her website: “I am thrilled and flattered by the number you that want to use my artwork, but due to the sheer volume of requests, I am unable to give individual permission for each use of my work.”
Sundram has enjoyed a similar level of success, and his paintings have been collected by Whoopi Goldberg, Kim Basinger and Carlos Santana.
“Of course, I feel terrible whenever I see someone ripping off my art,” he said by e-mail last week. “It seems to happen a lot these days.”
Chiseri-Strater said in an interview last week that she doesn’t know Gamache well. His background remains a bit of a mystery. She also said she doesn’t know the status of his mental health, but that many homeless people struggle with mental health challenges.
“Marc’s narrative as a homeless creative person is very attractive,” she said. “It’s The Soloist narrative. It’s the narrative of lots of homeless people. Often, it’s accompanied by some sort of mental illnesses. Maybe Marc doesn’t understand that you can’t copy other people’s art and pass it off as your own.”
The Soloist is a book by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez about his friendship about a schizophrenic and homeless musician named Nathaniel Ayers. The book was made into a movie in 2009 starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. In 2010, the Greensboro Public Library selected The Soloist for its “One City One Book” series of events.
Assistant Librarian Steve Sumerford said during the “One City One Book” series the library sought out homeless people to display their work in an exhibit. He said he was almost certain that Gamache’s work was displayed in that exhibit.
“We have been struck by the number of homeless people who, many of them as a way of dealing with the difficulty emotionally and the pain of this, they write poetry and they paint. We see that in the library because we see a lot more homeless people than the average person does. We’re proud that they use the library as a place to nurture their creativity.”
In January 2011, News & Record features writer Tina Firesheets interviewed Gamache for a profile piece in Go Triad.
“Oh, I love doing portraits for the simple reason of capturing the expression of the person’s face, when they’re sad or happy or disappointed or whatever it may be,” Gamache told Firesheets. “And then showing it to them and watching them have that big smile on their face once I’ve done it.”
Several people interviewed for this story who spoke on condition of anonymity because they wanted to avoid antagonizing Gamache mentioned his portrait of a friend named “Pops,” which the artist discussed in the Go Triad article. By all accounts, Gamache was making legitimate, original art at the time of the article’s publication.
“We had an exhibit about a year ago of Marc’s work in the gallery going into the meeting rooms,” Sumerford said. “I do remember there were portraits of people who used the library. Whatever happened in this most recent exhibit, it is a surprise to us because several of us in the library have watched him draw. We have seen portraits that could not have been taken off the internet.”
The Friends of the Greensboro Public Library, an independent group that operates the Book Lovers Café and bookstore near the entrance of the library, exhibited Gamache’s work in early June. The Friends hosted a reception for Gamache, along with two other featured artists Walter Martin and Betty Morrow, on June 3.
By June 19, Gamache’s pieces had been taken down following a complaint by a library patron, but a barista pulled out several of the framed images from behind the counter at a visitor’s request. She indicated they were available for sale.
“After we were alerted we did have someone who did some research specifically around the president,” Friends co-president Lora Bradsher told YES! Weekly. “It’s no longer in the shop and we took it down from the website…. It is his property and we should certainly get that back to Marc.”
An earlier exhibit at the Interactive Resource Center brought acclaim, and later disappointment.
“I think that people have admired his work,” said Chiseri-Strater, the co-editor of the Voice. “When [Gamache’s work] was hung at the IRC a colleague of mine said, ‘That is extraordinary. Someone should be writing about this.’ Then we explored it and found out that it was copied.”
Slowly but surely, the venues for Gamache’s counterfeit art have closed.
Sundram contacted Fine Art America on June 20 to notify the outfit that his painting “Sunset Lighthouse” was being sold and distributed through their website. “This is a blatant copyright infringement,” he said. “I look forward to your reply as soon as possible before I take legal action.”
Within seven hours, Gamache’s account on the website had been closed. DeviantART followed suit the next day.
Sumerford said the library received a complaint about Gamache downloading original artists’ images from the internet using library computers. He said everyone who uses the computers signs a statement attesting that they will not engage in any illegal behavior, adding that any legal liability would fall on Gamache rather than the library. He said he has not observed Gamache printing out the images that have turned up in his artwork.
“We really respect the intellectual property of artists,” Sumerford said. “I think we cross a line when we become police and when we start policing what people do with literature, the art or whatever people get from the library. That is the choice to use it legally or illegally in the same way some child or adult can come in here and plagiarize, copying something from Wikipedia — that’s where we would cross the line into invading people’s privacy.”
He considers the ordeal “a sad story about people trying to do the right thing” to support — he cringes at the term — “an outsider artist.” The library staff and the volunteers with Friends of the Greensboro Public Library have been soured by the experience.
“As surprising and as difficult as this situation has been I hope this does not deter us or Friends of the Library from helping homeless people or celebrating their art,” he said. “They are not only part of the larger community; they are part of the library community. We feel like they are customers and their housing status is irrelevant to the service we would give them. We know their housing status and we work to meet their needs. This one incident I hope will not in any way deter us from celebrating the creative endeavors of homeless people.”