Category Archives: public art proposal

THE QUAGMIRE OF CUSTOM ORDERS

I’m struggling to finish my last custom order from my big big retail show in August.

On the surface, it wasn’t a difficult order. The customer, new to my work, fell in love with my aesthetic. She asked me to create a necklace featuring a treasured natural artifact.

We discussed colors, style and price range. I took all her contact info. I promised to have it done within a month, at the most six weeks.

It’s been a heckuva lot longer than that.

I’ve had a difficult fall–a death in the family, new injuries, not a few distractions. Enough to bump things like this custom order a little further down the priority list each week.

Fortunately, I must have sensed the potential for trouble, so I didn’t take my normal deposit for the work. At least I haven’t taken money for work I haven’t done (though I do have her precious artifact in my care.)

And fortunately, I’ve found my creative jones again. I’m slowly envisioning what this piece could look like, and I’m halfway through the design process. I’m hoping that free express shipping, and a healthy discount on the quoted price will help offset the customer’s frustration on my lateness.

But I’m struggling with the why. Why do custom orders so often throw me for a loop? Why do they seem so difficult?

I’ve written about possible pitfalls with custom orders (the Design Diva scenario, for example.)

I know the drill on how to make sure custom orders go smoothly: Decide if you’ll charge for the actual design process. Get as much input from the customer as possible (size, price, color, etc.) Get a deposit upfront (to ensure the customer is committed.) Get them to sign off on the design stages, even sending images, if possible, of the work in progress. And get everything in writing.

And I’ve enjoyed success with most of my custom orders. Customers seem to be thrilled with the finished products, and often come back for more.

But there are still sticking points. Today, in the wee hours of the morning, I woke up with a better understanding of what those are, and why I struggle with them.

When a customer falls in love with a piece I’ve already made–at a show, in my studio, in my new Etsy shop–that emotional connection is palpable. And immediate.

They see it, they react to it, they buy it–and they’re happy. Instantly.

There is that astonished moment of recognition–”This is the one!”–a moment that is the culmination of my creative process. I made something I think is beautiful, and someone else agrees. They trade their hard-earned money for my time, my energy, and my vision. The transaction is complete.

I love that moment.

With a custom order, we both get partway there. But then that final moment is postponed. It becomes nebulous.

I go back to my studio after the show. There’s usually a significant amount of downtime. I have to recuperate, physically and emotionally, from the stress of doing the show. There is inventory to be put away, booth paraphernalia to be stowed, paperwork to be completed, sales to be recorded and deposited.

The excitement of the show dissipates. The memory of the actual encounter fades. (I’m getting older, after all!)

I can’t read my own notes on the transaction, or I don’t understand what my sales assistant meant by her notes.

The desire to make that customer happy is still overwhelming. But
the energy has faded, the details have become hazy.

Doubt and second-guessing sets in.

She said blue. But which blue? Sky? Turquoise? Baby? Cobalt? Copen? Capri? (Yes, I have all of these blues in my stash.)

She said handmade ivory beads, but not too big. What does that mean??

She said she didn’t care, she trusted my judgment. But the seeds of self-doubt have been sown. I don’t trust my judgment anymore.

I’ve become paralyzed trying to anticipate the desires of a customer who’s no longer in front of me, and whose heart is not known to me. (Geez, I struggle making things for people I’ve known intimately for years….)

I’ve moved the center of my creative energy from pleasing myself, to pleasing someone else.

I care deeply about being successful, yet I begin to question every design decision.

It’s not the customer’s fault. It’s just the nature of the process, for me. I struggle with this particular dynamic.

I don’t mean to sound presumptuous, but I sometimes wonder if God felt this way when he created Eve. “Hmmmm, yes, I’ll make him a companion, sort of like what I did with him but a little different. Dum de dum de dum de dum da….. Wow, that’s pretty good! Very nice. VERY nice. Wait….what if he doesn’t like brunettes????”

One thing I know for sure: I have to figure this out.

If I move into making bigger fiber wall hangings, if I hope to work with interior decorators or do commissions for public works, I’m going to have to get over this hurdle. Because these will all be “custom orders” in a sense–site-specific, made-to-order, the whole shebang. And the bigger the work, the more money involved. And, I assume, the bigger the risk of not pleasing the customer.

I realize it is this fear, this huge issue of self-doubt, that is holding me back from that next big step in my professional art career.

So how do I get past this?

It may simply be a process of learning to trust myself, completely, with full heart and steady resolve.

After, my customers did.

And maybe once again, my life situation and my art are closely intertwined. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, just as I’m realizing my next step in my martial arts practice, a log jam in my creative process is slowing breaking up.

All I ask is, I wish it would hurry up.

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Filed under art, business, choices, creativity, mental attitude, public art proposal, risks

LOSER

I submitted a proposal for a public art commission a few months ago. I got really excited about it. It seemed like a perfect fit for my work. I poured my heart into my proposal.

A friend who was familiar with the venue vetted my ideas. She thought it was a good proposal. She warned me, though, the competition for this particular venue would be tough.

Sure enough, I didn’t get it.

I “lost”.

I’ve been thinking about the process, though. I realize that in many ways, I won. I learned good stuff along the way:

1) It’s good to be ready.

It’s a lot of work to submit a proposal. This one came up fast, too. I found out about it less than a week before the deadline.

Fortunately, I have tons of slides and digital images of my work. I have artist statements ready. I have reprints on hand of my publicity.

I was able to pull my proposal together in a couple of days.

2) I work well with guidelines.

I liked the idea of the commission–enough structure so I didn’t have to start from scratch, enough leeway to come up with an extremely original design. I liked having guidelines I could challenge and stretch ever so slightly, too. My proposal would have asked people to step just outside their normal expectations of an “art quilt”. And it would have encouraged them to think about the national park in a slightly different, more intimate way.

3) I play well with metaphors.

My friend said the metaphors I provided in my proposal–balancing the “big grand feature” of the park with the smaller intimate moments that are just as important to those familiar with the park–was perfect. It’s nice to know I “got” that when I read the project guidelines and thought of ways to connect my work with them.

4) I learned what could give me an edge in future proposals.

(Hint: Especially in areas of limited opportunities for artists, they might prefer to award these proposals to local or regional artists.)

5) I think I’d like to do more.

This had a different “feel” than many other promotional and sales opportunities for my work. I realized I liked everything about it: The potential for “winning” the commission. Having a big chunk of time (and money!) to devote to it. Having to make ONE THING instead of an ongoing body of work (for an exhibit or a gallery, for example.) The start-and-finish aspect. The idea that thousands of people from all over the country–and the world–would see my work.

I realized I’d like to submit more such proposals!

6) The parts that were hard are the places I need more work.

I realized I would need to finally master my new big-format sewing machine in order to create the pieces. So I need to get going on that, if I want to make those bigger works.

7) I found the passion in my work again.

It was challenging but fun to put together the proposal. And I found myself excited by the idea I proposed.

I realized that the notion of my work having a home, BEFORE I even finished it, was exhilarating. It’s been hard finding the right way to market the fiber. So I often feel it’s hard to devote a lot of time to something that may not sell for several years (as opposed to filling orders for jewelry and sculpture, which need to be done NOW.)

Knowing I was working to make a piece for a specific place, a specific purpose, with enough guidelines to get started but enough creative leeway to be interesting, really fit the bill.

It’s funny sometimes, how much you can learn from losing!

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Filed under art, business, mental attitude, organization, proposals, public art proposal, taking chances

WHY, WHY, WHY?? How to Write a Stronger Artist Statement

I’ve just finished the final edits for an article I wrote for FiberArts magazine. You can learn more about the magazine here.

The article is about exhibition proposals–the “pitch” you make to a venue for a solo exhibition. It’s scheduled to run in the September issue, so put it on your calendars!

I think it’s going to be a slightly different take on similar articles. I actually went “behind the curtains”to see how such proposals are evaluated. I got to see firsthand which ones had pizazz and which ones didn’t–and more importantly, why.

Coincidentally, I also just finished my first proposal for public art. When a federal building project is budgeted, a certain percentage of the money involved is dedicated to providing art to decorate it–an amazing concept, and one that has long interested me.

You can read more about public art here.

Usually the scale is out of my league, and many designated sites are not conducive to fiber (outdoor installations, for example.) But this one was of manageable size. Best of all, I instantly felt it was a good fit for my artwork.
Why? Good question.

I’m not being facetious. When it comes to submitting a great proposal, writing a press release, or creating an astounding artist statement, WHY? is the very best question you can ask.

I found this out a few years ago while teaching a workshop on press kits.

My message was, the whole point of a press release is telling your story and getting it published in a newspaper or magazine.

So how do you tell a compelling story? I started with the 5 W’s (who, what, when, where, why, and how). That’s easy for most people.

But everyone was getting stuck on “why?”

They couldn’t get past the cliches we fall into when we are afraid to dig deeper.

“Because I just love color.” “I just love fabric.” “I dunno why I do it, I just like doing it.” “It’s so much fun!”

Even more telling, no one got WHY the “why” is so important.

I had a flash of insight.

Why?” is “Why do you care?” And “Why should I care?” (Sounds harsh, but true.)

To temper the process, I would just keep asking “why?” until I got a strong answer.

So I just asked “why?”

I asked “why” over and over and over, until we got to the heart of their story.

It’s simple. And it works.

I’m reading a terrific book called MADE TO STICK by brothers Chip and Dan Heath http://www.madetostick.com/ I was delighted to read the same technique recommended to get to the “core idea” you are trying to sell to people.

I use “sell” loosely, because whatever your product is–a movie, a car, a cleaning service, a painting, a charity–you have to make some connection with your audience in order for them to want it.

That connection, that “story”, can be about value, prestige, entertainment, convenience, whatever.

For most of us, “Why?” will get you to that story faster than the speed of light.

Here’s one example. Years ago, a friend who works with young adults with special needs complained about one former client he worked out with regularly.

His complaints were funny and amusing. But his experience sounded like so much trouble, I wondered why he continued to spend time with this young person.

I kept asking him why. He kept making vague excuses, none of which made sense. I kept saying, “But if this person is SO ANNOYING, why do you continue to do this??”

Finally, our friend burst out, “Because these people are different. They’re a little weird, they’re a little goofy. It can be scary if you don’t understand. In our culture, this tends to set them apart–they get marginalized, they get put aside. “

But the conditions that make them seem “odd” also give them amazing qualities. They have strengths and opportunities to offer us. Their “differences” are just part of the full spectrum of being human.”

I’ve always felt that, if only we could learn to be a little more understanding, a little more tolerant, then all our lives would be so much richer.”

As I heard this story, I felt myself determined to be a little more understanding, a little more tolerant.

The “why” had come through. My friend had made that connection by sharing that true story.

FWIW, in my book, one powerful story comes when we are motivated to be the best kind of person we aspire to be. To see common ground with others, and thus chose to act out of love, courage, passion and grace instead of fear and hate and pettiness.

So here I was with my first public art proposal. I found many of the same principles I’d learned from my research on the exhibition proposal article applied. But the biggest hurdle for me, as I said, was simply “why?”

WHY was my artwork a good fit for their proposal?

Once I answered that question to my satisfaction (and hopefully theirs!), I felt I had a good, strong proposal. I sent it off knowing I’d made my best effort.

Try this, the next time you need to really connect with an audience. Before you write your next artist statement, or submit your next exhibit proposal. Before you do your next show. Before you are interviewed by your local newspaper.

If this gets hard, ask a trusted friend to ask you, and tell them to push until they get the real answer.

Ask yourself “why”.

But ask it more than once.

Keep asking yourself “why?” until you get to the very heart of what motivates you.
Don’t stop til you reach the truth.

Trust me, you will know.

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Filed under art, artist statement, business, exhibition proposal, marketing, public art proposal, self promotion, writing