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Sonoma County artists and businesses enter NFT world of digital art

Kenwood painter Lisa Ledson snaps an image of her black-and-white abstract painting hanging on a wall inside St. Helena’s Christopher Hill Gallery.

She hits her iPhone’s Photoshop application icon and changes the image’s saturation and colors before using another app to shift its resolution.

The end result: An image that art lovers and investors are collecting much in the same way sports fans would collect baseball cards.

The artist is getting ready to turn her painting into an NFT, or non-fungible token, an irreplaceable digital file that’s stored online and can be sold and traded for thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency. The “non-fungible” part means they’re unique and not interchangeable.

NFTs have been around for eight years but didn’t become prevalent in Sonoma County until last year.

NFTs date back to 2014 when Brooklyn artist Kevin McCoy designed the first-known NFT called “Quantum” — a pixelated image of an octagon that hypnotically pulsates in fluorescent hues. Today, it’s worth over $1.4 million.

Yes, $1.4 million. But artists don’t get all that money. They receive royalties instead, a percentage of sales whenever their NFT is resold to a new owner. The average royalty is between 5% and 10%.

“The NFT space gives artists control. They aren’t at the mercy of these galleries who sometimes take a percentage out of what they pay artists,” said Paul Wedlake, a San Carlos crypto NFT consultant. “These artists can earn royalties forever.”

Some say the release of NFTs could potentially compare to the magnitude of when dot-com domain names were first released in 1985 or when social media became popular in the early 2000s.

“It’s an emerging market, so you’re going to see a lot of craziness and a lot of speculative buying right now. Give it a few years, it’ll start to settle down,” said Steven Cuellar, an economics professor at Sonoma State University.

Before I move on, you should know this: NFTs are digital files stored in a blockchain, essentially a digital filing cabinet where receipts and transaction records are stored.

Leveling playing field

Ledson’s original painting displayed in St. Helena’s Christopher Hill Gallery is now listed for over $20,000 on OpenSea, the largest platform for buying, selling and trading NFTs. Ledson shares the listing with her 5,000 art collectors and followers on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook hoping someone will decide to buy it.

The artist has sold seven NFTs so far, and in the future she’s thinking of including an NFT with every purchase of one of her paintings.

Through this process artists are receiving more money for their work than they would if they simply sold them on their websites.

Mike Winkelmann, the digital artist better known as Beeple, sold his NFT, “Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” at an auction for more than $69 million in March 2021.

The piece is the third-most expensive NFT ever sold by a living artist.

In October 2021, Ledson released 15 NFTs in her first collection — abstract paintings from the past five years. On Oct. 8, Ledson sold her first NFT, “Golden Wave No. 1,” a vibrant yellow and blue abstract painting for nearly $1,900.

She sold the physical painting for $1,000 to a longtime admirer of her work, Ledson said.

“We’ve never empowered artists like this,” Ledson said. “Now, we can hold up artists in our society. We’re leveling the playing field and allowing people to be involved no matter who they are. You don’t need an MFA, you don’t need to go through galleries — you can be anyone.”

“What does the world look like when we are empowering creatives?” Ledson added. “What does our culture look like when creatives are empowered financially?”

NFT fomo (fear of missing out)

When a close friend, an art curator from Los Angeles, reached out to local artist Ricky Watts in March 2021 about an NFT opportunity, he couldn’t resist. His friend asked him to provide an art piece to go with San Francisco music producer Mike Relm’s 15-second music beat.

The NFT, a 12-second video, features Watts’ abstract art piece — an animated psychedelic styled sunset called “Flat Earth Sunset.” The sunset moves as a music beat plays in the background.

It sold for nearly $2,500 in March 2021. Now, that 12-second video is worth over $5,000.

A 12-second video that features local artist Ricky Watts’ abstract art piece “Flat Earth Sunset” and a music beat. This NFT is worth over 5,000. (Ricky Watts)
A 12-second video that features local artist Ricky Watts’ abstract art piece “Flat Earth Sunset” and a music beat. This NFT is worth over 5,000. (Ricky Watts)

Watts, who has 32,000 followers on Instagram, has since released 19 NFTs of original abstract art featuring vibrant fluid shapes and psychedelic color patterns.

He said his NFTs have surprisingly not received the traction and feedback he expected.

“I have somewhat of a following in the mural and painting world, but when I enter the NFT space — I’m nobody,” he told The Press Democrat. “There are so many artists trying to sell their work as NFTs right now so it’s as if I’m starting from the bottom again.”

“I feel like I’m missing out or being left behind if I don’t try and evolve and adapt to what is happening culturally and how things are shifting more towards digital platforms,” Watts added.

A new found hobby

In March 2021, Sondra Bernstein, former Girl & the Fig restaurateur, announced she was taking a step back from the restaurant’s daily operations.

After 24 years as a restaurateur, Bernstein has begun creating NFTs and metaverses in her free time.

A "Home Goods Store" metaverse filled with paintings, picture frames and rugs up for sale in one of eight of Bernstein's metaverses. (Sondra Bernstein)
A "Home Goods Store" metaverse filled with paintings, picture frames and rugs up for sale in one of eight of Bernstein's metaverses. (Sondra Bernstein)

“I asked myself, who am I without the restaurant? What do I love?” Bernstein, said. “The NFT space has given me something to focus on in my transition. The space really captured me.”

She created a virtual version of the Girl & the Fig in November 2021. As an experiment, she plans to sell the restaurant’s famed Sea Salt Chocolate Chunk cookies in the restaurant metaverse next year.

Metaverse version of the Girl & the Fig, 2022. (Sondra Bernstein)
Metaverse version of the Girl & the Fig, 2022. (Sondra Bernstein)

“These are tests,” Bernstein said. “It’s another way of marketing. You have the naysayers and then you have the people saying this space changed their lives. But it is also the wild, Wild West.”

Four months ago, she joined SearchLight, a team and organization that helps artists enter the world of NFTs.

“The metaverse is what life could be on a digital plane,” Bernstein said. “People can include things in their metaverse they think they lack in the real world. You get to create the world you want to see.”

Artists ready to ride NFT wave

In November 2021, The Press Democrat spoke with local mural artists MJ Lindo-Lawyer and Joshua Lawyer. The founders of The Mural Project, a Roseland-based nonprofit, said they’re brainstorming ways to implement NFTs into all their businesses.

That includes their annual Mural Festival, in which a group of artists create multiple murals at the same time in one location.

The couple’s idea is to create and sell an NFT of each mural.

“You get an NFT to sell, trade and collect but you also get to fund this mural project that gets to pay artists that create artwork for communities in the real world,” Joshua Lawyer explained. “We’ve been slowly educating ourselves on what this all means. It’s a hard concept to wrap your head around.”

Wedlake, San Carlos crypto NFT consultant, also advised Ledson on how to turn her paintings into NFTs.

“People who are entering into the NFT space now are considered a pioneer,” Wedlake said.

Joshua Lawyer said artists often feel they aren’t being paid enough for what their art and time is worth. However, he noted that the NFT space brings agency to an artist.

“Artists of all forms have gotten the harshest end of the stick,” Joshua Lawyer said. “Musicians make the music but the label gets the money, sorta deal. This space allows artists to own their art and have control over it which is always hard to do the moment you start gaining success.”

The Lawyers are each planning to release a collection of NFTs in the next few years but are searching for the right team to help them do so, MJ Lindo-Lawyer said.

Local brewery’s non-fungible tokens

In a 31-second video, a close-up recording captures a person pouring “Dope-alicious,” a beer from Santa Rosa’s Shady Oak Brewery, into a rotating glass and a description of the beer.

Though short, this video is one of five NFTs that Shady Oak released and sent out for free in November 2021 for the taproom’s third anniversary.

Shady Oak's NFT
Shady Oak's NFT

At the event, they put up a sign-up sheet and friends and regulars in attendance were sent the file for their virtual wallet.

Steve Doty, the taproom’s owner explained that including an NFT with every beer sold is a way to engage customers.

“I have zero idea what’s going to happen with the NFT space in the future,” Doty said. “We just hope it remains an extra thing that can be a part of what we do. It’s a way to engage with people and for people to be a part of the company.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at mya.constantino@pressdemocrat.com. @searchingformya on Twitter.

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