Monthly Archives: October 2009

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #13: One Big Break is All You Need

Myth: If only I could get into X Gallery/get Famous Person Y to see my work/get a website, I would be successful!

Reality: No one person, event or venue will make or break your vision.

When I first started showing and selling my art, I read these very wise words somewhere:

Every day you will find an opportunity to move your art/biz forward. Every day you will overlook an opportunity to move your art/biz forward.

I quote them now because a reader posted this comment on my blog recently, and with her permission, I reprint it here:

Hello, again! I get what you’re saying, Luann, I really do. But right now I’m really in a down space.

Filled with excitement, I opened up a space in Etsy back in September thinking that *there* I would find people who would see value in handspun hand-dyed yarn. They do, apparently–there are lots of other spinners on Etsy–but evidently they don’t see any value in mine.

Lots of looks, a few hearts, no sales.

One part of me is bugging me to get busy and make more yarn, but the other part of me is saying, “Why make MORE beautiful yarn that no one will want to buy? What’s the point of doing that, when no one wants what I’ve already made?”

I’m sorry for dumping on you my own pity-party, but I need someone who is an artist and “gets it” to vent to. ..

Maybe the Lord is trying to tell me to give up and become a boring housewife who grades papers and washes dishes and remembers when she used to make beautiful stuff. I don’t know.

Dear Reader, I give you permission to wallow for awhile. Things do get hard, and we all get discouraged. (See Myth #14 about this.) (Not yet, I haven’t written it yet!!)

But I can assure you wholeheartedly that the Lord is not telling you to stay small and regret your lost dreams. :-)

Sometimes we take that leap and many things fall into place. Sometimes we take that leap–and things stay hard.

In fact, that is the major purpose of my blog: To chronicle my journey pursuing my art, with honestly and self-examination. And hopefully, a huge helping of inspiration.

Because, as my husband pointed out to me a short while ago, we always hear about the instant overnight successes. (What I call the Cinderella stories.) And we also hear about the not-so-overnight success stories, where the hero struggles and perseveres, and finally gets a lucky break.

The point is, we already know how those stories end. We know the goal was achieved, because the tales are always told afterwards–not while the ball is actually in play.

My blog is all about the ball being in play. And sharing that process with you.

So here are some possible scenarios regarding this handspun yarn biz, but don’t take the “you” thing personally. These are just some things to think about:

1. When we stand at the beginning of our stories, we cannot see the end.

Sometimes, we can’t even see what our ultimate goal will be. Longtime readers may remember my sad little story about wishing my handknit toy sheep idea taking off.

And when they finally did, how I discovered how much I hated knitting toy sheep.

If your handspun biz where to be an instant hit, you could be locked into a business that takes too much time away from your other pursuits right now. Or you might find spinning is fun for a few hours a day, but not so much fun doing it all day. Maybe you’ll realize you like writing about the process, or teaching the process, more than making yarn to sell. (Although that piece of it will give you the insights you need to do the other stuff–writing, teaching, demonstrating, etc.) Maybe you’ll end up developing a therapy program with your skills. Who knows what the possibilities are?

So maybe right now you think your dream is to sell handspun yarn. But maybe even bigger things are in store for you.

2. We cannot tell what strategy will work, and which ones will peter out.

Etsy looks like a “sure thing” from the outside, but having an Etsy shop does not guarantee success.

We dream of getting into “that great gallery”, sure we will be successful if they would only represent our work. We dream of finding “the perfect show” where we will find all the buying customers we need. We know if only we had a great website, we would be flooded with orders.

In reality, there is no “perfect venue” or “perfect strategy”. There is simply another opportunity to try.

Maybe e-commerce will work for you. Or maybe your yarns would sell better “in person”–at small local shows, or certain events. (We have a big “Wool Tour” here in New Hampshire on Columbus Day weekend. People come from hundreds of miles to tour small farms, see llamas and sheep and angora goats and bunnies, and buy fleece, roving and finished yarns.) Maybe people need to touch your yarn to fully appreciate it first, and then you turn those customers into online customers with reorders.

Maybe a “new product release” about your yarns to a knitting or spinning magazine would bring interested buyers to your Etsy store.

3. We may be trying to sell to the wrong people.

Etsy is the biggest and best-known venue for handcraft. But it’s also a huge venue for vintage goods and craft supplies. And it’s a big shopping venue for other artists. So you may be inadvertently trying to sell to people who can make it themselves.

At a friend’s suggestion, I used Etsy as a way to sell to my current customers. I didn’t actually think I could join an already established, close-knit online community (no pun intended) and create a strong presence there.

Even so, I didn’t have a single sale on Etsy. I’m exploring other ways to sell online, and will use Etsy to offload my old supplies.

4. It just may take more time than you think.

Another reader posted a reply to the original comment, and it’s a good one. (In fact, I just realized I’ve repeated a lot of what Kerin said!! oops…)

And see item #1 above, where things taking time can be a good thing.

5. And sometimes it’s just hard.

It’s true–it’s just hard sometimes. There are days when we just feel like the universe is saying “no”.

But what does your heart say?

Because if you give up, there is only one thing that can happen: Nothing!

If you persevere, anything can happen. Including failure, but failure is not necessarily a bad thing. (Go back to the knitted sheep thing.)

#5: What is “success”, anyway? What does it mean to Y*O*U?

Right now you haven’t had any sales. Is that your only measure of success?

Have you learned how to spin and dye beautiful yarn? You’ve successfully developed a product.

Have you learned how to photograph it? Have you successfully uploaded images to a website? You’ve successfully done something millions of people have no idea how to do. (Since I lost my photographer, I’ve had to work on developing a whole nother skill set, and that learning curve is steep!)

Have you learned how to talk about it, write about it? You’ve learned how to pitch your product.

And have you learned how to create a unique product? Which leads us to….

#6. Are you telling your real story?

Sometimes, especially when we first start out making stuff and getting it out into the world, we focus on the surface of the process. When you hear artists say, “I just love color!” or “I just love knitting!”, we are listening to someone who has either a) not bothered to dig deeper; b) doesn’t know how to dig deeper; or c) or is afraid to dig deeper.

What is it about hand-spinning and dyeing that excites you? What does it mean to you? Don’t say, “Oh, it’s fun” or “Oh, it’s relaxing.”

Tell us why.

Here’s a perfect little example that Bruce Baker tells in his seminars.

A potter makes tiny little pots with lids, very charming. But so what?

She explains that her life is so hectic, so harried, that when she takes time to make these tiny wonders, she envisions she is creating a little moment of serenity, of quiet. “And then she draws up the tops, and makes a little lid, and there is a little moment of time preserved….”

Doesn’t that make you want to own one of her little pots? And when you are harried and frazzled, you can lift the tiny lid….and there is your own little moment of quiet and peace.

She told us the “why”. And when you purchase her product, you can have a little of the “why”, too.

7. If it brings you joy, you should not–cannot–stop doing it.

It’s hard when it feels like the world does not want our beautiful work. But remember when I said, “I have to do it anyway, or I’ll die?” That’s what got me through.

Yeah, I know I wouldn’t drop dead if I never made another little horse. But I know something inside me would wither away. And the world, whether it knew about the loss or not, would simply be a sadder place for it.

I want to believe in my heart that somehow, in ways I may not see or could even possibly imagine, that the world is a better place for me making my work. For me being in the world. I have to believe that. Because to believe otherwise is to give in to self-doubt, and eventually, despair.

And whatever we believe in, whatever our religion or creed or ethics, if we are creative people, then we have to believe that creativity makes the world a better place. That anything we make–a lovely skein of yarn, a useful pot, an inspiration movie, a beautiful song, a warm and loving home for those we care about–the world is a better place for that.

Or what are we here for?

So keep making your yarn, because it makes you happy. Don’t give up, but be open to where it leads you (because it may not take you where you think you’re going!) Take the opportunities you find. Let go of the ones you miss, and move on. Think about the deep “why?”, and don’t be afraid to share it.

And know that whatever happens, it’s all good.

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LOSING MY GREEN BELT

A teensy break from my “TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS” series…maybe.

I was hiking in woods above our home a few weeks ago, and lost my house key. Not too big a deal, under ordinary circumstances–our family seems to lose house keys like a six-year-old loses teeth.

But attached to the key chain was one of my most prized possessions–a little tag made from a section of a belt used to denote rank in the martial arts. In my case, green belt.

When I first took up Tae Kwon Do more than fifteen years ago, it was a struggle for me. I was over forty, I was out of shape, and I was never an athlete to begin with. But I fell in love with my practice and slowly worked my way up through the ranks. I had good instruction, and although I wasn’t fast or especially talented, my techniques were sound.

Green belt level always seemed ideal. It meant you were at that hugely desirable third stage of learning, able to competently demonstrate good technique with some thought. But training is not as rigorous as the next level (red belt). Maybe halfway to black belt–still a long way to go, but with hope it can be achieved.

It’s a good place to be.

Soon after I tested for green belt, I received two presents, one treasured, the other one I wish I could forget.

I was given a key chain with the aforementioned green belt, which I treasured.

And one of my black belt instructors severely damaged my knee while sparring with me.

And no, it wasn’t an accident, it was something a fifth-degree black belt should never have done to anyone outside of a life-or-death situation, let alone a student.

I call it that incident a “present” because my husband calls it “the gift that keeps on giving”. It totally screwed up my leg, and as a consequence, my lower back, my hip and my posture. I’ve had multiple surgeries to repair the damage, including an ACL replacement, months of physical therapy and other complications. I still struggle with compromised range of motion, swelling and discomfort.

The positive outcome? I left the martial arts, for good, I thought. But a decade later, I came back. First to Thai kickboxing and five years later, a new Tae Kwon Do school.

I’m even older, achy, ouchy, and even more out of shape. But I know now that, though my practice will always be a challenge, I will continue until I simply can’t.

I’ve learned to show up, even when I didn’t want to. I’ve learned to work through frustration and self-doubt. I’ve learned not to measure my progress against others, but to simply try to do a little bit better each time. And sometimes, I’ve learned to just stick it out “just five more minutes.” And another five minutes. And another. Until, miracle of miracles, the two hours is over, and I realize I’ve made it through another whole class.

And that has been a gift. Because I have applied these principles of practice to many other areas of my life, including my art.

The school I’m in now has a more aggressive, sparring-oriented approach, and my progress is even slower. I may never see green belt again.

So my little key chain was my constant reminder of how far I was able to go, once upon a time. A time where I could hold a little personal dream that I might at least achieve that level again, someday.

And now it’s gone.

I remember how upset I was when, trying to provide provenance for my past placement at this new school, I was told that “anyone could buy one of those key chains”, it didn’t prove anything. They’re right, I get that. Even now, I could simply buy another one. But anyone who knows me, knows I would never in a million years do something like that. It would feel like cheating.

I wondered why its loss feels so hard. Today I read an article by Lee Eisenberg, author of Shoptimism. (Okay, it was in today’s Parade Magazine and you can read it here.

I realized my little green belt tag represented something of value to me–of a time when it was physically possible for me to dream of being a black belt someday. Not as a goal, but as a culmination of a process, of dedication to my practice.

And now I have no such dream.

What I do have is the realization that black belt would be wonderful (after the training and the testing–it’s a brutal process.) But the dream of black belt is no longer my goal.

My goal is to simply keep going, and to keep on practicing, and to hope for incremental refinement and improvement. And hopefully, to continue my practice far, far, into my life.

So as painful as losing that memento is, maybe it’s just as well. Maybe it was actually holding me back. Keeping me in the past. Maybe it’s just time to let go of the need to remember stronger, younger days.

Or maybe I just don’t need a reminder anymore. Maybe just being me, and being grateful I can practice at all, is all the blessing I need.

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TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #12: The Muse Never Falters

MYTH: Creativity never sleeps. If you hit a wall, then you aren’t a real artist.

Truth: The Muse will come and go, but give her half a chance and she will always return.

Today’s myth was inspired by a blog post from Danielle LaPorte, whose website White Hot Truth…because self realization rocks is becoming one of my favorite reads.

“Life balance” is an insidious myth. Picasso, Oprah, Steve Jobs, Einstein, Maria Callas – they weren’t aiming for balance, they were aiming to rock their genius, and they’ve all had periods of burn out.

This was a little spooky. Okay, a LOT spooky. Because I got the old synchronicity thing going again.

Because a few days ago, for the first time in like two years (or more???), I sat down and began working on a new series of fiber work.

Danielle’s post today was actually the third or fourth synchronistic thingie. The second was her post from a few days ago, about kissing up to your muse.

I woke up in the middle of the night a few days ago with a great idea for next month’s column for The Crafts Report. At first I rolled over to go back to sleep. I’d just sent in my column and had a few weeks before the next one was do. I was sure I’d remember the great idea.

But something in me said, “No. Get up NOW. Just go write it.”

I went with it. And wrote almost the entire article in one sitting.

The spooky thing about that? It was the night before her post on don’t-dis-the-Muse. (Cue Twilight Zone music…)

The synchronicity thingie piece before that happened at dinner out with friends last week. Turned out one of our dinner companions is the daughter of another good friend who’s a painter. Her dad has a new series of artwork on exhibit, after a hiatus of many years from painting.

I mentioned I’d tried to buy one of his paintings a few years ago and he wouldn’t sell me one. She said yeah, he had a “thing” about not selling any until he had a body of work produced, even though he hadn’t even started his new phase when I’d tried to buy one. “He’s funny that way,” she mused. (Pun intended.)

Funny? Hmmm….. He wouldn’t sell his old paintings…. He’d stopped painting…. Now he had a new body of work.

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

I hadn’t made any new fiber work because it had stopped selling a few years ago. I don’t care what the newspapers say, artists and craftspeople know the recession started a lot further back than last year. Oh, I sold a few, but it was tortuous.

When people stopped buying, it wasn’t exciting to make more. And as they sold (slowly), I unconsciously held on to the ones I had left.

So that, if the muse never came back, I’d have something on hand to prove I really had been an artist.

I know it’s it’s desirable to grow and change as an artist. But change for change’s sake was not desirable (for me.) I was stuck.

Awhile ago, I realized that even if my fiber work remained what it was, and I never had a new idea, well, having that one really great theme in my life would be “good enough”. That cracked the door open again.

The remark that made me realize I was hoarding my old work opened that door a little wider.

Getting up in the middle of the night to write blew it open. Danielle’s post was like putting a door stop in it, to keep it open.

And then I sat down at my sewing machine and thought, “What if I just do some simple little pieces….? Just for me.”

Her post today was the final nail in the coffin. Er, door. Should doors be nailed open?? Okay, forget that metaphor, it stinks.

So being willing to be a “not very good artist” again (making the same old work) and realizing what I was holding on to (“I was once a pretty good artist!”) was enough to get me in front of my sewing machine once again. (Which is when I also sewed through my finger, but I’m not going to let that stop me, either, though I worry that my machine has now tasted blood.)

Danielle’s observation–that the muse may come and go, but if we care enough, we will just hang in there–was powerful. Letting go when the inspiration wanes, knowing we will come back, somehow, some way, even though we have no idea what that will look like, that feels like jumping off the edge of the world.

But now I know, as long as I persevere, it will indeed come back.

Because it has to. Or I’ll die.

It may be the same stuff. If so, then I will keep making it. I will rejoice and be grateful I had at least one really good thing to offer the world.

It may start the same and change. That’s okay, too. It will be what it will be.

What’s important is–it’s back.

I don’t care what it looks like anymore. I don’t care what other people think about it anymore.

I just have to do it.

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TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS: A Segue

oooh, I’ve always wanted to use the word “segue” in an essay!

In my last “Myths About Artists” post, a reader said there are some people who , feeling entitled, simply want to simply “be” an artist, with all the fame and glory and controversy they think automatically comes with it.

Several themes came to me after reading his thoughtful comments.

First, as a parent, a former teacher, and even a former child (yes, and please, no comments about not having enough fingers, toes or other digits to compute how many years ago that would be), this sounded very familiar.

We all have a desire for our work to gain some attention and respect in the world. And if you’re like me, you probably wish we didn’t have to constantly work so darn hard to get there.

This is a very human trait, after all. Yes, some people work very hard at becoming excellent at their craft, whatever it is. But many of us start out dreaming of an effortless success.

When I dreamed of horses, and of riding horses, I pictured myself riding fearlessly a beautiful horse, galloping wildly across a boundless plain under an open sky.

I did NOT dream of the long and often painful process of learning how to acquire my “seat”–how to sit comfortably for hours on a horse, how to balance instead of bounce (ow, ow, ow), how to control a horse (because atop a wildly running horse can actually be a frightening place to be.)

I did NOT envision the hours of hard work involved in caring for a horse, including grooming, mucking stalls and tacking up. And of course, boarding fees, vet bills and farrier costs never entered my pleasant daydreams, either.

No, it’s all too human to see the glory, not the grit, in our dreams.

But the person who believes they deserve an easy success? This is not the person I have in mind when I write these essays.

In my mind’s eye, I always speak to the person I used to be–the person who never believed that dreams can come true.

I was lost because I was too afraid to pursue my passion, and suffering because of it. I made the lives of my loved ones miserable, because I could be difficult to be with. (Er…still am, actually.)

In the words of my favorite bumper sticker, “Those who abandon their dreams, will discourage yours.”

Eventually, the pain of NOT being an artist surpassed the fear of failure. And that’s when I took my first steps to becoming not just an artist in name only–but an artist with gumption.

When I had the courage to take those first few tentative steps–and to keep on taking them–then I was truly on the path to becoming a more whole person.

That’s what it felt like, anyway. As my pursuit of art became more habit than daydream, my ability to love more freely, to judge less harshly, to be more fearless, to be more thankful, also grew.

Am I perfect? Heck no. I am still racked often–even daily!–by self-doubt, envy, fear, jealousy and sour grapes.

But I just keep on plugging away. Because I believe trying–making a true effort to attain our goals and dreams–matters.

A good friend sometimes says I make too much of this “thing about the horses”. She makes the case that if my current art changed, if I took up another art form, even if my ability to make any art were to disappear, I would still be me. I am not my art.

I get that, I do. But I am still pathetically grateful I had the chance to make this work, and took it, even so.

And every word I write is with this intention–to encourage even just one more person on this planet to do the same.

I encourage you to take the same journey, in your very own individual, inimitable way (of course!)

To paraphrase another friend’s words, I truly believe our acts of creation, by putting positive energy out there, by becoming a more whole human being….

By believing we can all achieve something good by making something that is useful, or beautiful, or both…

…is ultimately an act of peace, and makes the world a slightly better place for all.

Okay, I know I just quoted a hobbit here, but that’s what I believe.

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TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #11: Real Artists Paint!

MYTH: Real artists paint, or draw. And they draw stuff right out of their head! They don’t even have to look at the subject.

REALITY: Art is bigger than any box you try to put it in.

If I had to choose a myth that’s done the most damage–that’s created the narrowest limitations on what we see as art, and who we call an artist–it would be this one.

We can get very picky about what is art and what is craft. I remember a friend of mine who worked in clay. “I’m considered a craftsperson for making this”, she said, showing me an object she’d made. “But if I used this same object to make a mold, and had it cast in bronze, it would be considered fine art.”

Media and technique have always been strong predictors for saying what is art and what is not.

High praise is reserved for people who draw, or paint. I think it’s because a beautiful drawing or painting has something of the “magic trick” about it. A flat rendering of something that’s recognizable as a real-life object just seems….magical.

I’ve discovered recently that there’s even prejudice among painters and pencil artists about working from a photograph of the subject, as if that were a form of “cheating”.

Oddly, among who don’t draw at all, the highest praise is reserved for those who “don’t even have to look” at the thing they’re drawing.

And yet, drawing and painting are skills that almost anyone, with a practice, can acquire.

Look at the vast number of senior citizens who finally take up a long-treasured desire to paint. In past times, young ladies of certain social standing weren’t even considered “refined” unless they had acquired some artistic skill with a pencil, or needle, or musical instrument.

Drawing can be a valuable skill, of course. But it’s not the only artistic skill, nor even the most important one.

But that’s what we’ve been trained to believe.

Years ago, when I went looking for studio space outside my home, I met with the owners of a large local building being renovated for offices and studios.

They asked me what I did, and I said I was a fiber artist. I’d already won a national award for my unusual work with textiles and prehistoric themes. I was feeling pretty good about my work.

The conversation meandered and later, the same guy mentioned a local watercolor artist in town, someone with very modest talent.

“Now Bert, he’s a real artist”, he said. “He’s a painter.”

I tried not to wince.

I honestly don’t think the guy meant to be insulting, he was just expressing his admiration for someone he was in awe of. He heard “fiber artist” and thought “quilts” and he thinks that’s just squares of fabric sewn together.

But someone who can paint Mt. Monadnock….now that takes skill!

When I was a kid, I loved to draw. I was actually pretty mediocre at it, though, because I never developed that skill. And I rarely drew what I saw, only what I could imagine–running horses (of course!), puppies, cartoon mice, intricate doodles.

But that was enough to get me labeled “artist”.

When I returned to art as a middle-aged adult, it was with different media, one that many people do not recognize as “real art”.

Ironically, the first people who did recognize my body of work as “art” were….other artists. People who did shows and craft fairs, who saw a lot of art and craft, and saw something very different and very powerful in mine.

And the biggest irony of all?

Drawing is a skill set. And anyone can learn to draw.

Drawing is about seeing–really seeing–and being able to reproduce what is seen on a two-dimensional surface, without falling prey to any of the “tricks” and preconceptions our brain insists upon. Understanding perspective, observing how shadows truly fall and how they affect color… All of these are about truly seeing what is in front of us with precision and clarity.

The mind falls into almost a meditative state as we begin to process what we see in a different way. Not a “red apple”, but an apple with flecks and shadows and shine. Not a “puppy” but a living, solid form with musculature and bone, and fur that rises and falls, and those eyes….

I like to do things fast, so sitting still and simply observing was crazy-making for me. I can do it. But I don’t enjoy the process.

Not even all forms of drawing are considered “fine”. Cartoons, doodling, graffiti…. Most people would scoff at the idea that these kinds of drawing are “art.”

We are not born “knowing” how to draw, anymore than we are born “knowing” how to play the piano, or how to drive a car.

What we are born with is fearlessness and joy.

Almost every child I taught in preschool considered themselves an artist. And they were! They drew fiercely with pencils and splashed paint and molded little glops of clay with abandon. They were always very proud of their little creations.

“Look what I made!”

Slowly, that gets knocked out of us.

Some of us are better at making a dog that really looked like a dog, and they are “talented”. Some of us really love that state of mind that drawing demands, and we are “real artists”. Some make things that combined crazy colors and looked like nothing at all, or they become obsessed with one color, or one kind of object, and they are labeled weird, or goofy. (Now, of course, they are labeled “visionary”.)

We can’t even agree on what is “art”. (American version of the British TV show “Creature Comforts” so the lips don’t line up too well….)

My personal breakthrough to becoming the artist I’d always dreamed of being came with this statement:

“I have to make art, or I’ll die. I don’t even care if I’m a good artist or not. I just have to do it.”

I’d given up putting any qualifications on what I felt compelled to do. I just had to do it.

My life changed from that moment on.

There are people who would not consider the work of artist Andy Goldsworthy, any kind of art. Throughout history, there are huge periods of time when he would not be considered an artist at all. Yet a viewing of the movie Rivers and Tides erases any doubt in my mind. How about yours?

Good art. Real art. Great art. Appallingly bad art. Tasteful art. Fart art. (Did you catch that at the end of the video?)

Who can say? Who can judge? I have my opinion, of course, but nobody pays me for it.

We can’t even judge our own. When we do, the creativity stops. We’ve put a dam across the flow, forced the river between artificial embankments.

Art will not put up with this. We cannot control, nor barely see, where it goes once it leaves our hands.

Don’t compare yours to someone else’s. They have their journey. You have yours.

Leave the labels and boxes for others to worry about. There will always be somebody eager to apply those labels and boxes, but that is not our task.

Our task is to simply get it out into the world. Share it. Express it. Show it. Perform it. Play it.

Focus on making what brings you joy. Pay attention to what makes your heart sing.

Find what is in you that nobody else but can bring into the world.

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