WHAT IS THE STORY ONLY YOU CAN TELL?

I’m often asked to speak about my art. I’m good at it, too. It’s been a long journey, but I’ve become extremely comfortable sharing what is in my heart.

There is one frustration I sometimes encounter, though.

That’s the people who come up afterward and ask, “Can I make horses, too?” “Can I combine fabric and polymer, too?” The woman who exclaimed, “Oh, I love that idea! I paint gourds, and I’m going to make cave pictures on my gourds, too!”

Or the people that don’t even ask. They just start making cave ponies.

It’s not that they took my idea.

It’s that they got the wrong idea.

I know we all “copy” to some extent. I consider it a spectrum, just like any other human behavior. It ranges the gamut, from being inspired by someone else’s work (“I love that shade of blue! Hmmmm…I could make a necklace…”) to outright hacks. (Like finding your design on a shelf at T.J. Maxx or Target, and yes, that has happened to artists.)

I know I don’t own the idea of horses, the Lascaux horse, or even ancient images. It would be preposterous of me to say no one else can use these images.

I DO own my story.

And if you’ve ever listened to, or read my stories, and really heard them, you know I’m not just making little plastic horses.

I recently had a visitor to my studio, a delightful person who collects my work. We talked about her work. It’s an unusual profession, and one where many people would pick up the “hero” aspect. (I haven’t gotten her permission to write about this, so I’m being very circumspect.)

Her take was different. Deeper. More sensitive. Profound.

And when she spoke, I felt that ring of truth, that recognition of passion, that little shiver that goes down your spine when you hear deep knowledge expressed by someone from their heart.

It was her story. And it was astonishing.

If you know my story, you know my little horses represent many things to me–a childhood desire to run free, to fly, to feel the wind blowing my hair as my horse and I course across a plain together. You know it’s about the beauty of horses, the thrill of watching an animal born to run, run with all their heart. Doing what they were meant to do. Being what they were meant to be.

But they also represent choices. The choice to be the person you were meant to be. The choice to overcome fear, self-doubt and the weight of adulthood, and try something you’ve always dreamed of doing. To step into yourself, to take up your dreams, and live them. To follow the call.

And the choice to create beauty and embrace hope in the face of despair.

It boggles the mind to think that someone can hear my story.

And then copy my work.

Not just because my work is so personal and so important to me.

But because they missed the whole damn point of the story!

It’s that in YOU, is a story that only YOU can tell.

Because it is YOUR story. It happened to YOU. And it changed you–how you look at life, how you look at yourself, where you fit into the world.

Your story creates a place where, when you stand there, you are powerful. And you are beautiful, and you are whole.

How…..can anyone want to ignore their own powerful, wonderful, incredible story? And try to substitute someone else’s??

Even when your story is not about something you do, or something you make, it is still a place that YOU came to, a crossroads, YOU found yourself at, a journey YOU find yourself on.

Example: Anyone can do hospice work. It doesn’t take a “special person”. It just takes someone willing to be there. Anyone could do what I do.

But only I can tell the stories that come to me by doing it.

I know a woman who translates for the rights of an indigenous people in Brazil. She has even spoken at the United Nations. She insists she does not speak FOR them–they speak THROUGH her. She is their pipeline to a world that needs to honor their cries for help.

But the stories she tells about how they found her are incredible, and powerful.

That is why envy, and jealousy, are so destructive to creative people. To ANY of us.

Because it means we cannot see the power of our own stories.

What is the story that only YOU can tell?

And how will you tell it today?

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32 Comments

Filed under 9/11, art, artist statement, choices, copycats, craft, creativity, envy, hospice, inspiration, jealousy, lessons from hospice, telling your story, What is the story only you can tell?

32 responses to “WHAT IS THE STORY ONLY YOU CAN TELL?

  1. Hi Luann,

    Great post (as usual). Any tips on how to respond when people do comment on how they are going to be making the same type item as you’ve worked so hard on? I think we’ve all run across that, but it still takes me off guard.

    Thanks so much.

    • Excellent question, Dawn! It’s a toughie…. I think I’ll do another article on that. I have a few responses, and I hope others will chime in with how they handle it, too. I try to never give in to anger or sarcasm–sometimes I think it’s my opportunity to encourage someone to take the next step in their own art.

  2. I do not think that I have ever heard this said so very clearly. You brought tears to my eyes. …

  3. Pingback: Polymer that remembers

  4. Hi Luann,

    I’m an artist and have been since I was old enough to hold a crayon, which is some 55+ years ago. Of course I have had formal, informal training. Blah, Blah, Blah. We all know that story but an artist, of any sort, is an expression of their life within. I was touched by your explanation but I would like to offer mine.

    I believe that we all are a culmination of everyone we have ever interacted with as well as those creators who are are no longer with us. Writers, artists, designers, all those who create extend themselves to others beyond the short shackles of a life that has been lived. For example, when I see Van Gogh’s Starry Night I felt an explosion of wild joy combined with hopeful anticipation and fearful dread. I have felt like that on a particular night in New Mexico desert. When I read a poem, book, or even just a news article, I take a piece of that creator away with me. It is the same when I hold a piece of needlework from 100 years ago or step on an antique hand knotted carpet. Perhaps the reason why our species so cherishes the individually created item over and above the mass produced is because we receive nothing from the mass produced.

    Like any other artist, I too, have had my work copied and quite frankly, it bothered me quite a bit. Then I realized, when my daughter copied a work of mine and I spoke to her about it. She said: “Well, you gave it to grandma but I wanted it because it I remember our stories there. Grandma never was there, but you and I shared that time. There are days when I miss our time together. Now I am continuing to share it with you but through your vision.”

    Now I think I understand a bit better. There is a difference between copying and stealing my works, which I never quite understood before. I don’t mind any longer if someone copies my works. I think of it more along the lines that the person wanted to experience for themselves the story which was me at that point in time and once they do that, then I am also able to share their story.

    • Welcome, Susannah, and thank you for such a thoughtful comment. I like your insight, about copying vs. stealing, and copying being about taking away the experience. It is a spectrum, a continuum. At one extreme is loving, respectful innocence, an understanding of why the deed is happening. At the other is, “She makes money making this, I can, too!” You are spot on–when people make a few horses for their own use, I don’t mind that much. Especially those that ask–because they are doing just that, asking permission. I tell them they don’t need my permission, if they are doing this to start their own journey. And I urge them to think of it as a practice run, to digging deeper and finding their own story. Sometimes people come back later–they got it!–and they show me where their journey is taking them. One woman brought an example of her work, and her entire family! That idea (or rather, her decision to act on it) had touched them all.

      That–was a special moment! :^)

      Stay tuned for more on this subject, because it’s a big ‘un.

  5. Hi Luann,

    Love this topic. Left a comment but I think I left it in the May 28 post section. I was so eager to ask a question and just started typing away …. Smile.

  6. Lovely post. I write about how I make my glass, and frequently get excited notes back, saying “I made a bunch of these exactly like yours, and they sold out at the craft fair last weekend! Thanks!” I have to admit, that’s a bit disconcerting…until I remember that there’s a difference between technique and art (or maybe story).

    Technique, design choices, etc., that’s the stuff that anybody can copy, and if it’s popular, sooner or later someone will.

    Nobody can copy your art. They might forge it, but since they don’t have your brain and your hands and your experiences, their work will never rise above the level of the last thing you did. They’re in the past; if you stay true to your art and keep moving forward, they can never catch up. And by copying, they automatically acknowledge your lead.

    That might not be much consolation when you show up at an art fair with your proudest and most successful line of handmade beads…only to find that six other booths liked your work so much, they’re selling them, too. But maybe it’s also a sign that it’s time to grow.

  7. RK

    Hi, Luann —

    I wanted to respond to this essay because your writing touches me so much and so often (I recommend your blog to loads of people, btw).

    Whenever I read you talking about “telling your story,” I always feel sort of wistful and sad. My automatic response is “But I don’t HAVE a story.”

    Okay, my mom taught me to knit when I was little, I can’t keep from doing stuff with my hands, and I learned to spin in Boulder during graduate school (Boulder’s just that kind of place).

    As Garfield would say, big hairy deal. There’s no story in that. Who cares when or how I started spinning? No one’s interested in that.

    I did find out and study how to do the “bone effect” in polymer clay, but for a different purpose. Some years ago, an archeologist named Günter Dreyer found in Egypt a number of tiny ivory tags with string holes in them, marked with what turned out to be the earliest extant form of hieroglyphs. I wanted to make faux-ivory in order to make *those*. As an experiment, I made little rectangular pieces about the size of Scrabble tiles, and engraved hieroglyphs in them. I gave them to friends in the Egyptian Study Society, and one of the members asked me for a tie-tack with his favorite pharaoh’s cartouche on it (I hope that’ counts as “inspiration” and not “copying”).

    I’d like to make other Egyptian pieces (cats, for example) but I would hate it if you thought I was poaching on your territory. At present I’m making buttons out of it. I figure buttons won’t offend anyone.

    I would guess that some of the people who DO poach, are poaching because, like me. they don’t have any special story about the meaning of their art–they just make whatever they make because they like to do it. Maybe they are hoping that the magic of your story will rub off on them. As you say, either they’re unaware of the power of their own stories, or they’re unaware that they even have a story at all.

    They, and apparently, I too, need to discover whatever the story is.

    • Spike

      RK–

      Respectfully disagree here. You DO have a story. It just sounds like you haven’t uncovered it all yet.

      What speaks to YOU about the Egyptians? Cats? What made you have to learn this technique so you could do *that*?

      What drew you to spinning? Where’s the connection between fiber and clay?

      See–there’s a lot here in your short post to play with. Best of luck in your digging.

    • You DO have a story. We all do. Perhaps you just have not learned to tell it yet.

      Good luck!

  8. Ann Larsen

    Hi LuAnn,

    Met you a few years ago at the ACRE show in Las Vegas through our mutual friend Diane Prekup. Still recall our wonderful conversation at that Indian restaurant near our hotel. Have long been a fan of your work, and have since taken up polymer classes with Karen Woods, a fabulous craftswoman/educator in the Tampa Bay area who teaches at the Pasco Arts Council. The more I learn, the more I love the medium, so thank you for your wonderful inspiration.

    I loved this post of yours because as director of an art center, one of our challenges is helping students understand that copying work of other artists is not not the point of their studies. Our excellent faculty work hard to encourage students to tell their own stories and translate their own stories, passions, vision, etc. through the medium they’ve chosen to study, yet so many simply want to copy pretty pictures. Often they show up for the first class with a picture from a magazine and expect to “paint like this” after a few sessions, as though art classes will turn them into human copy machines.

    A colleague and I teach a class titled “ArtBiz,” to help young artists learn what no one else is going to tell them about their work and preparing to take it into the marketplace. With your permission, I’m going to use your post as one of our discussion documents.

    Best to you, and thanks for your work and inspiration!

    Ann Larsen

  9. Luanne,

    You touched and verbalized a thought that was not yet clear to me….that of “Telling Your Story”. I am newly in a Gallery and getting much more exposure and recognition than previously-and hence selling more…and there has been this little grieving as I let something go; of course that is quickly replaced by elation that I sold something.

    Each piece has a little of me…a little of my story. It is so nice when I get to share my story with the “patron” – when I am gallery sitting and get to talk to the person who is interested in my work.

    And this all leads to a Film Recommendation…The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – at the core is the importance of telling stories. I just saw this movie this weekend (had heard about it on NPR a while ago.).Watch it with your friends and family….it is really about imagination.

    Keep Telling Stories

  10. A truly provocative and beautifully expressed post…the sad thing is that most people never get in touch with their own stories…they live without knowing those stories. You are fortunate that you have sought and found your story.

  11. Luann,

    I don’t think I’ve ever cried reading a blog post before. It especially started to pour when I read the comment by RK. I struggle, not with not _knowing_ my story, but with believing my story could be worth anything to anyone but me, and because of that (admittedly illogical) belief, I have a hard time finding the courage to really jump in and purposefully try to express something meaningful with art. I’m not a professional artist but I love to create. I’ve jumped around from medium to medium, craft to craft. I love trying new things, and my current obsession is polymer clay, which is how I found your blog — but the part of this post and its replies that really resonated with me is the idea of believing in oneself enough to willingly lay your heart bare, to share one’s story without (or in spite of) fear.

    I’ve always had a hard time believing artists who claim they only do art for “art’s sake” and don’t care what other people think of it. What’s the point in engaging in communication (which art undeniably IS) if you don’t want a reply? The fear of negative, derogatory responses to one’s work must be something every creative person has to deal with. It can’t possibly be just me, can it?

    Writing has always been my first and most terrifying dream. I’m trying to finish a novel that my family has been pressuring me about because they all want to know how it ends (which is gratifying). Of all the creative forms I’ve played with, writing is the one that makes me the most vulnerable because it’s the most important to me. My story will best be told through the stories I write, like yours through the horses you create, and I’m frightened of opening myself up like that — I let that fear stop me from reaching for my dream.

    Understanding, BELIEVING, that the importance of expressing one’s own story is greater than any technique mastered or possible financial gain, is a wonderful, inspiring concept that I think all creative people struggle with remembering. I know I certainly do. I thank you for reminding me so beautifully, and encouraging me to express what’s in my heart.

    • Charity, I apologize for not responding sooner to your post. I think I got overwhelmed getting ready for my “rilly big shew”.

      I apologize because you really let ‘er rip here, and I want to applaud you for it and cheer you on.

      Because you really got it.

      The best advice I found, when I was paralyzed by my own fears of starting my journey, was to “Act able.” PRETEND you aren’t afraid, pretend you have the courage and conviction you need. There’s a great book called “Fear the Fear (and do it anyway)” which is worth purchasing for the title alone.

      We don’t have to conquer our fear–we just have to set it aside, or ignore it, or squash it a little so we can get a head start.

      And never let it catch up to us again.

      • I’d gone back to reread this post because of the recent post about copying and stealing and only just now found your response. I’d have no call to be worried about it taking you so long to respond when I don’t even see your response for another five weeks! And you did send me that quick email right after I’d sent in my comment, too. :)

        Thank you, though, for responding. I’m going to look up that book (you’re right, awesome title). I spent about 8 months unemployed this last year, and during that time, I didn’t write a single word in my book, even though it would have been the perfect opportunity — plenty of time to spend writing! Since I started a new full time job five months ago, I’ve done more writing than in the last couple of years combined, despite the fact that I technically have less “free time.”

        I think this says a lot about self image and fear. When I was feeling pretty worthless, living on the charity of others, having just a pretty low opinion of myself in general, I found it too hard to even really think about writing my story. Don’t get me wrong — I’m eternally grateful for the help I received and I hope someday to be in a position to be able to help someone else that way. I just couldn’t do anything creatively important until I felt I was important again, and not even being able to pay my own bills made me feel pretty unimportant.

        My new job sounds pretty dull, so I won’t bother describing it, but what is wonderful about it, is the new friends, the fact that I’m good at it, and the sense of responsibility. It’s not one of those horrible jobs where anyone else could just step in, because it takes no real skill — if I’m not there, the job doesn’t get done, which makes me feel important, needed. My job requires little creativity, but it does challenge my mind, which is just as important to me. Feeling happier about myself in general like this, makes it easier to overcome the fear of failure I have about my writing, and makes it easier to enjoy sitting down and getting some more words onto the page.

        It makes me wonder how much being needed is related to the flow of creativity. So many artist who are parents talk about finding inspiration in their kids, and I have no doubt they do, but I wonder how much of it is just the wonder of children’s innocent wisdom and how much of that inspiration — which could be described as the opposite of fear — is more a sense of being needed, of connectedness, whether conscious or not?

        I’m sure there are artists out there who create in order to feel good about themselves which is wonderful. But I’ve learned that I can’t create _unless_ I feel good about myself. Which means I need to devote some time to being needed, being connected, if I want to acheive my creative goals, too.

        I think I’ve gone way off the original topic here, but that’s something I really appreciate about your writing. It helps me think. :)

        Charity

  12. Luann, wonderful post.

    THIS is why, when some ignorant person comes up to me at a show and says “Oh! I can make one of those, too!” I just smile and nod and respond with something like “Go for it.” or “You do that.” Sure. Someone could make a necklace identical to my “Ruby” necklace; however, it would not be the same. It would have the same energy, and it would feel “hollow” to people who “get it.”

    Only I know who Ruby is. I created Ruby. I could probably write a short story or book about Ruby. The person copying me could make a necklace that looks like mine. Big whoop. ;)

    I love your blog!

  13. This is really a post that made me think. I love the respect everyone are showing each other on this topic.
    I can´t call my self an artist. Whetever that is. But when I started to work with polymer clay I finnaly found a way to express myself in a way that I thought was impossible before. It made me so happy and pleased to carry on making my things and discovering this medium.

    I made my mouse design and it opened up the world to me. I found several times that others had stolen my design and called it their own. They haven´t asked me before they did it. I got so upset about it. And I find myself thinking about why it bothers me so much. It´s in fact illegal, but that was not really the issue.

    After reading your article I found that you have put words to it. I thank you so much for it. I made my story with my mice in polymer clay. I discovered that I can make something that others like. And the story is personal. It´s a big part of me deep in my heart. Why I did it, where they come from and what they mean to me.
    And when someone take it and just call it their own it´s not like they are stealing my bike. It´s like they are stealing a part of me. The very thing that make so happy and creative. That is mine and something that I´ve been working for. And it open up my mind and let the light inside. That´s why I think this article is very important. Because copying and stealing is not just something that don´t matter.

    It´s like trying to take someone elses story and call it their own. I don´t think my jewelry is as unique as everything else I see. But it is a very big part of me and I cherish my creative mind. It´s a gift and I respect it. I often think that what we put our hearts in is a part of our story. And it shows in our work. That´s maybe why people want to have it. To copy a feeling, a special gift or a heart they want for themselves.

    Anyway I love your blog – and that you put such lovely words to your art. It helped me so much.
    Bless you!!!

  14. I want to thank each and every one of you for contributing to the richness of this conversation. I LOVE reading your thoughts and feedback and personal experiences.

    It’s exhilarating to think that someone has been encouraged by what you’ve all shared. That you’ve helped make the world a little richer, by encouraging one more person to share their gifts, today.

  15. Mikl Gorges

    There are many Rock artist who copy old Blues artist. We wouldn’t know about Leadbelly without the CCR singin(yeah, they made money) his songs. And we’d have a limited spectrum of music if someone didn’t learn Beatles songs, go out and sing them, make money, and start writing their own songs.
    Don’t worry about the money, think about the blessings.
    I’m just sayin’

  16. Pingback: WAITING FOR THE COOL: That Copying Thing Again « Luann Udell

  17. Pingback: A RESPONSE TO “COPYING VS. STEALING” « Luann Udell

    • You all just keep saying things that blow MY socks off!!! I hope you all know and see how eloquent you are….. You’ve all reached such a wonderful place of understanding what is important to you, and where to go with that.

      Charity, I am humbled by your journey and your insights. Yes, I agree–there is a place for those artists who create only for themselves. But I plant myself, with you, firmly in the realm of making art because it is a way of connecting.

      And telling my story is part of that.

  18. OH!! P.S. If any of you want to know when someone responds to your post or adds to this conversation, I think there’s a little tab below it that says something like “Alert me when others respond to this thread”.

  19. I always have felt, that when we create something, either to give away or sell, that person/ new owner then literally takes possession of it and we must relinquish All strings attached and let our gifts/ creations have their new life away from us. Its better really to just release these things than to worry about or put restrictions or expectations upon the recipient.

  20. Lisa

    Luann (and Charity)–I’m struck by the idea of finding my own story, as I seem to be the sort of person that collects other peoples’ instead, (family history in particular). I also love to make things of all sorts, and have realized that when I have a problem to solve, preschool project to teach, docent class that needs an art project the creativity pours out–but not so much on my own. I am wondering how to get past that…

    • Maybe you are a collector of stories. That’s a fine tradition to practice!

    • Charity

      You know, it occurs to me that collecting family history stories is a way to learn about yourself. After all, the people who lived those stories are a part of you. Your story might be about THAT process. Why do those stories attract you? What do you get out of them? Luann was attracted to the stories of ancient peoples, and found her own story through that. Go up to the link above in Luann’s post about why she’s not just making horses, and read some of her very earliest internet posts. I don’t think you need to get past anything — it’s awesome that all those things (things that make you feel NEEDED, she thought with a smug smile) elicit all your creativity, and THAT’S the story you’re telling. Your interaction with the world around you. My guess is that your personal “story” is all caught up in the joy you find with other peoples’ stories, and because of that, it’s harder for you to recognize it as your own. But it’s there. :)

      • EXACTLY!!! I’m in the middle of a huge summer show (9 days!!) & couldn’t put my finger on the metaphor, but the first sequel to Orson Scott Card’s book Enders Game, SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD, that’s exactly what Ender did–he gathered the stories about the person who’d died, and eventually told them at a memorial service. He put those people’s lives into the context of their society, and the world at large. It was powerful.

        So, Lisa, this could be what’s pulling you. Or it could be a step towards something else. You won’t know unless you follow it with a full and willing heart.

        Best wishes, all!
        Luann

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