Conventional wisdom suggests that when we are faced with a challenge, we should "think outside the box," right? • Matt and Rebecca Sexton Larson are breaking through their challenges by staying inside that box. • About two months ago, the couple, both 51, launched a concept in showing and selling their photographs, most of which use historic processes that give them a vintage look. They named it Boxfoto, in part for the boxy shape of the Airstream trailer they purchased to house the project. Think of it as the fine art version of a roving food truck. It's packed with their work. And their work is packed in — you guessed it — boxes.
Both are award-winning photographers who met 32 years ago in a darkroom when they were students at the University of South Florida. Rebecca Sexton Larson is probably better known in the fine art world, having cultivated a following for her large-scale works using a pinhole camera to create prints she embellishes with paint and thread. Her work is in several museum collections. Matt Larson has made his name using toy cameras, producing moody images he, too, prints using traditional darkroom methods. He also shoots with a Polaroid. Both are experts in rarely used processes such as tintype, bromoil and cyanotype.
For most of their careers, they have exhibited in galleries owned by others. They sell well but still need day jobs. She is the assistant curator and registrar at Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs. He is the community partnership manager at WFLA-Ch. 8. Between them, they have more than 40 years of museum and marketing experience.
Several years ago, they felt the need to cast their net a little wider, beyond gallery exhibits, and believed they could do a better job managing themselves. Boxfoto is the result of their desire to find a new model for showing and selling their work. And it has an educational component they feel most galleries can't provide.
"We're not antigallery," Rebecca says. "But we just felt that many galleries can't give individual artists the promotional help they need because they represent so many. And you wind up paying them 50 percent of any sale. Here, it's just me."
"Here" is a 23-foot Airstream Flying Cloud that functions as a classroom, gallery and beautifully appointed home away from home.
"Most of my sales are out of state," Rebecca says. "I do a lot of teaching and lecturing out of state. This is the most awesome thing to travel in."
They intended initially to go the traditional route of starting their own gallery.
"We had been looking for a building for five years," Matt says. "We looked in Louisville, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Charleston, all where we spend a lot of our time, and, of course, Tampa. But we couldn't decide where we wanted to live. And everything was so expensive to rent or buy. Then, since we both work, you also have to hire someone to manage it when you're not there. And the ongoing cost of keeping it open."
They had long wanted an Airstream for travel and recreation, but it was a luxury they couldn't afford. The possibility of using one for a mobile gallery began taking shape because of its relative affordability compared with a building. They liked the fact that they could take their art wherever they wanted.
About two years ago, they fell in love with a used Airstream that was in great shape and bought it. Its pristine condition was actually a drawback at first; they had planned on buying one needing a complete overhaul so they could redesign it with lots of wall space for hanging photographs. This Airstream, a model of efficiency, had almost no unused square feet and was too charming to gut. So they didn't have a clear plan about how the gallery idea would work.
"It just came to me one day about six months ago," Rebecca says. "I mean, duh. I make pinhole cameras from boxes all the time and I work with archival museum boxes in my job every day. I thought we could create these display boxes for the photographs and sell them that way."
They bought acid-free cardboard boxes from a museum supply source in a simple brown with black metal edges "that have a fine art rather than a craft look," she says, and are of archival preservation quality. The boxes were perfect because most of the historic processes lend themselves to small formats.
"We limited the size to 11 inches by 14 inches at the largest," she says, "because that's the size of the trailer's closet."
The boxes aren't just storage. They're small environments, holding photographs organized by type that can be purchased individually starting at $25.
Some boxes are sold as collections. Rebecca, who makes her own pinhole cameras out of a wide variety of materials, used some of them to create a unique group of photographs with each camera, then packed both camera and the images from it into a box. The prints are made without negatives so each is one of a kind. The sets sell for $800 to $1,600. And the camera, which can be made out of anything from a paper drinking cup to a vintage metal Band-Aid container, is usable.
"We wanted this to be more than just sales," Matt says. They will soon offer weekend classes and workshops out of the trailer for six to 10 people using pinhole and toy cameras, parking the Airstream in interesting places for photo shoots (they're working with Lowry Park Zoo, for example), taking the cameras to one-hour developing while everyone has lunch, then critiquing the work. They already have a list of institutions lining up to offer the classes with the Larsons.
"I'm hoping Boxfoto will be a game changer in how artists represent themselves. We plan to invite artists to show their work here, too. We still would love a gallery with a footprint someday," Matt says. "But we'll always have the Airstream that can take art to lots of different places."
When not on the road, the Airstream resides in the Larsons' back yard, where it seems to have become a beloved family member (along with their two dogs).
"It's a backyard office," Matt says, "and my man cave. I watched the Super Bowl here."
One thing it isn't is a guest room.
"We had some friends coming to visit and someone said how great, they could stay in the Airstream," he says. "Becky said, 'No way. They can sleep in our room. We're sleeping in the Airstream.' "
They like staying inside their box.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.