Tag Archives: craft

What Animals Are REALLY Thinking

You can read my latest column for The Crafts Report magazine here:

What Animals Are REALLY Thinking (About Us Craftspeople)

Enjoy!

Tuck as a puppy with his innocent look.

Bob, the very nervous guinea pig.

One of our many birds.

Chai, the world's funniest cat. Also the sheddiest.

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Filed under art, craft, funny, humor, The Crafts Report column

OPEN STUDIO

People have been asking for pictures of my last Open Studio, so I published an album today. You can see it here

The next sunny day we have in Keene, NH, I’ll take more pics and add another album.

My next Open Studio is Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 6 & 7, 2011, as part of the statewide NH Open Doors event. Hope you can come, and til then….

Enjoy!

Little clown bank.

Dolls

Vintage button jewelry.

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Filed under art, cleaning the studio, craft, display, inspiration, jewelry, jewelry display, open studio

LESSONS FROM GRIEF WRITING: A Candle to Light Our Way in the Darkness

Writing is another way art can help us heal.

I’ve been leading group writing workshops for people who are grieving–grieving the loss of their mom, their dad, their wife or husband, their child, their sister or brother or best friend.

For this project, I’m ‘on loan’ to the bereavement section of the hospice team. A social worker runs the group management part, and I handle the writing part.

It’s scary space for me. I was terrified I would delve too deep in my prodding, and drive someone into a frenzy of grief. I ran to my hospice supervisor for help. She reassured me. “People are pretty tough,” she said. “You’re not going to break them!”

She’s right. Yes, sometimes the writing assignments bring tears. But tears are good in the grieving process. And people are amazed at the places their writing is taking them.

There’s something about the actual physical act of writing that is very different than speaking, or even typing or texting. It accesses a different part of the brain, thus allowing the brain to process grief in a different way. Many assignments start off on one foot and firm ground. About halfway through, something else comes through, and the writing enters new territory.

It’s startling and new. It’s powerful. It doesn’t ‘fix’ grief–nothing can do that–but it seems to set the healing process in motion. It’s like having an injury that hurts and hurts, persisting through time, until a physical therapist shows you what muscles to soften and what muscles to strengthen. The cycle of inflammation and pain is broken, and true healing can begin. That’s what grief writing can do.

Of course, social workers know the group thing is important, too. Sharing loss with others who are in the same boat is hugely helpful. No matter how shy or reserved we are, we are all still social animals. We suffer in our own unique way, and we feel so alone.

We may suffer in solitude, but we need not suffer in isolation. Being able to connect with others who empathize, connects us to our human condition.

I still believe the writing is the match that starts the candle burning. It’s a flare of energy and insight, making the light that lets us see into the darkness.

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Filed under art, craft, grief journaling, lessons from hospice, writing

COLLECTING STAMPS & MAKING ART

Trust me, your artistic self is just as powerful as a postage stamp. Maybe more.

Fresh off my first Open Studio tour of the year, and boy is my studio CLEAN! I love open studio events for many reasons, but more on that later this week. I have something else on my mind that has to come out today.

As you may know, my soapbox speech is about finding out what makes you, and your work, unique.

We hear all about how no two snowflakes are identical, and how our fingerprints and DNA are unique to us.

You’d think, with all this unique-ness pouring out of us, we could a unique way to talk about our work.

I’ve been in a lot of group shows this year, seen a lot of lovely work and talked to a lot of passionate artists. What strikes me is how everyone says the same things about their art.

We talk about our compositions. We talk about why we love pastel, or oil, or clay. We talk about light and shapes.

If I hear “I just love color!” one more time….. Well, it won’t be pretty.

So let me share an ‘aha!’ moment I had years ago.

I was doing a mail art project, and wanted old postage that would reflect the theme of my piece. I found an older couple who ran a stamp collecting business out of their home.

As I scrabbled through the trays and books of postage, we talked about stamp and the stamp collecting biz. They shared stories about stamp collectors. I asked her what kinds of stamps people collected.

The woman said, “You know, in fifty years of selling stamps and doing shows and talking to collectors, I’ve never seen two people collect exactly the same thing.”

Never?

Now think about that a minute.

There is no creativity per se in collecting stamps. Collectors don’t make the stamps, nor are they handmade by other people. Stamps are produced en masse, and have been in production for years.

Collectors simply….collect.

But how they collect is so strongly individual and personal, each collection–each act of collecting–is as unique as….well, the human being who put it together.

Some collect by country, or region or language. Some collect by subject matter. Politics, places, people, animals, plants, themes, designs, plate designer…. There is simply no end to the possible combinations of appeal.

If we could get away from the mundane–what our materials are, the fact that we love certain colors or lines or compositions…..

If we could dig a little deeper and think about why we make the art we do….

If we could tell a richer, more personal story about our art…..

If we were willing to go the scary, deep place of who we are, and who we yearn to be in the world…

People would see our work as the miracle in the world it truly is.

Sharing ‘unique’ processes, ‘unique’ inspiration, ‘unique’ love of color/shape/style, separates us from our audience.

Discovering what makes us tick as a human being, sharing what is truly in our hearts, connects us with our audience.

Be brave. Be YOU.

Some of my postage stamps

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Filed under art, artist statement, body of work, craft, creativity, inspiration, marketing, press releases, telling your story

AT THE FAIR: Muscle Memory

Sometimes we could–should–listen to our hearts instead of our bodies.

It’s been a long, wonderful week at this year’s League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair up at Mt. Sunapee Resort in Newbury, NH. Busy! So busy the time seems to fly by. Lots of new faces, and familiar ones, tales of happiness and sorrow.

My heart is full when I come home, but my body is racked with pain.

Last night, I had a session with a chiropractor, who, like me, has a martial arts background. I mentioned I was thinking of returning to my practice. The hurdle is this: Usually I return to classes to get in shape. As I age, I should really be in better shape before I attempt to do that.

He said it was a wise choice. I’ve had a lot of injuries and another surgery in the last year, and things–alignment, balance–are out of whack. “If you return now, without letting your body heal, your muscle memory will kick in. Your body will try to do the things you used to do. But you can’t do them right now, and you’ll injure yourself trying.”

Aha! That’s why some of my ‘returns’ have been so short-lived!

That phrase–muscle memory–stuck in my mind, and helped me understand where some of my discomfort at the Fair comes from.

Most people think we artists and craftspeople are like a big family. Well, that’s more true than you know. When I first joined the ranks, I felt like I’d found my tribe, my true heart’s home. It was a shock to realize it really is like a big family. (I have personal experience–I’m the oldest of seven children.)

Some of us don’t speak to each other. Others come to us for support and comfort and inspiration constantly. Professional jealousy rears its ugly head constantly. And there are others who cheer us on with every step.

Set-up is the hardest. One minute you’re offering someone your precious stool, and the next you’re snarling at them to move their junk out of your booth space.

Sometimes too much has passed between you. Then there is no opportunity missed for a caustic remark to be made, even as you win an award. Some cannot even bring themselves to greet you as you pass on your many trips to the bathroom or Fair office (or the bar at the top of the hill.)

For these times, there is muscle memory: Your body, remembering the acts of unkindness, shrinks when you see them, and you cannot bring yourself to even pretend to be polite anymore.

But there is a way out.

Over the years, I’ve learned that, 99% of the time, someone who is causing you anguish, is carrying their own tight anguish inside their heart. In short–it’s not about you. It’s about THEM. You happen to be a convenient target.

And sometimes it’s us. We’ve done somebody wrong, and it’s time to admit that. Take responsibility for it, and say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me. And if you can’t, I understand.”

Then try to live with the fact that we, too, are imperfect people.

I have done things I’ve had to ask forgiveness for. And sweet Jesus, I received it. I have others who have asked forgiveness from me, and I am overwhelmed by their humility–and courage. It takes real courage to apologize. I know. I’ve been there.

In the end, we have to trust the work of our hands, and the work of our hearts. We live in this tribe, in many tribes, actually. We live in this world.

I like to think if we could trust the muscle memory of of hearts and spirits, a little more than the muscle memory of our bodies, just a little….

Then maybe someday we could even have peace in the Middle East.

Okay, that last line is a family joke, and perhaps not even a very good one. (“I hat you” is also a long-standing family joke.)

But that’s what families are for–a place where we can work out our little dramas and big heartaches, and ultimately find a place where we can stand and say, “You’re a poop, but I love you, and yes, I forgive you. Seventy times seven.”

And cross our hearts and hope for the best.

May you be able to forgive, seventy times seven. And may you also be forgiven, at least ten times as much.

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Filed under art, courage, craft, finding your tribe, jealousy, life lessons, LNHC Craftsmen's Fair, martial arts, mental attitude, myths about artists, professional jealousy

AT THE FAIR: A Girl’s First Real Necklace

Being a part of someone’s life, because of the work we make, is a powerful thing.

Today is Day 4 at my big retail show, The League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair. It’s been exciting, exhausting, enervating, exhilarating, excellent and entertaining. Sort of New Hampshire’s own Big E.

Years ago, a mother and her young daughter came to my booth. The girl–around 9 or 10–fell in love with my horse jewelry, and begged her mom for a necklace.

“No way!” exclaimed her mom. “You always lose your jewelry. You lose everything!”

The girl pleaded her case, promising she would cherish the necklace. There was a little bargaining involved, I found a horse necklace that was a little less expensive, and both of them left with their Luann Udell horse.

Scene: My booth, one year later. A girl and her mother walk in the booth. The girl is wearing–my horse necklace!

We hug and laugh. Her mother tells me the story: “Every night, before she goes to bed, she takes off her necklace and places it in the gift box you gave her. And every morning, she puts it back on. It is the last thing she does before she sleeps, and the first thing she does after she wakens.”

I was so moved that she loved my work so much. I told this story to a friend. She said, “Do you realize, Luann, that YOUR jewelry is her first piece of ‘grown-up jewelry’? Your necklace took her to the next place in her life–you’ve been a part of her growing up.”

Now they come back every year. Sometimes the daughter buys a pair of earrings, sometimes her mother buys a necklace. Sometimes they pick something together, agreeing to share it between them.

It is beautiful to watch them.

They came this year. The girl is a young woman now. There is talk of college, maybe even a gap year program. As always, the love and warmth between them is obvious. She picks a pair of earrings, Mom picks a beautiful necklace–with a promise to share. They may be back for the girl to pick another ‘big’ piece for graduation. As they leave, I feel tears coming.

Yes, their purchases over the years have supported me as an artist. They are lovely people and I’m honored they love my work.

But even more, I am humbled at the idea that I am now a part of their family story. My work, from my hands, graces their lives. It encouraged a child to take her first steps to adulthood, and greater responsibilities. It’s been part of her life for almost a decade now, and will be with her on her first steps out into a bigger world.

I have been a witness to this. I’ve been invited to be a part of this. My art has been my ambassador, and I am astonished and grateful.

Today another young girl and her mother came to my booth for the first time. The girl begged her mother for a horse necklace. I shared this story with them. They laughed, the mother looking thoughtful. They looked and tried on a few pieces, then moved on to see the rest of the Fair.

I have a feeling they’ll be back.

As hard as it is to do this show, these moments, these precious moments, remind me of what the world asks of me. They remind me that my gift serves others, sometimes gentle, sometimes obscured, but always with purpose.

It is why I am here, today, at the Fair.

A little girl's first 'grown-up' jewelry!

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Filed under art, craft, creativity, inspiration, life lessons, LNHC Craftsmen's Fair

DON’T ERASE–EMBRACE!

Some things in life–kids; dogs; art–just don’t much much sense. Until you look back and try to imagine your life without them.

My husband and I, we weren’t too wild about kids–until we had kids.

We weren’t too crazy about dogs, either–until we got a dog.

So what, you say? What does this have to do with art?

I’m saying there are some things you can’t make a rational decision about. Until you jump in and embrace them fully.

Kids. Dogs. Art.

Stand on the outside, and it doesn’t look very practical. It’s all very well to say “Follow your bliss, and the money will follow.” It’s another thing to wonder just how you’ll pay the mortgage with that fancy art degree you just got.

If you’re on the outside looking in, it’s very easy to say, “Well, there’s just no way.”

Some people take a quick peek, but say, “Well, it’s just not a good time. Maybe next year.” To which my mother wisely said, “It’s never a good time to have children.”

This was some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. Because once you step inside that world, you will somehow find a way to make it work.

Because you have to.

Some of us cobble it together. We work part-time at our art, and have a day job somewhere else. We take on other creative ways to generate income: Teaching, writing, consulting. Or we work full-time at our craft while a spouse, hopefully following their passion, carries the bulk of the financial load. Some of us do a lot of production work that pays for the big intuitive projects, the ‘big art’, that may or may not ever sell. Some of us actually hire other people to help us get our vision out into the world, and we end up running a real business with real employees and sick days and benefits packages.

It’s all okay.

The important thing is, we knew deep down inside we had to do this–and we do it.

Something inside said, “If you don’t do this, there’s a chance you won’t miss it.

But there’s a bigger chance you’ll passed by the opportunity to experience something really, really important.”

Art isn’t for everyone. Just like kids and dogs aren’t for everyone.

But once you embrace that destiny, there’s a good chance you’ll find you can’t imagine your life without it.

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Filed under art, choices, creativity, life lessons, taking chances

COMMITMENT

It’s been a busy month, with a week-long gig at a glorious old grand hotel as artist-in-residence (and marriage counselor); our son moving into his own digs (it’s time, it was expected, but Oh God, it was still hard….) and my daughter Robin announcing her engagement to a very nice young man named….Rob. (He told me earnestly last week, “Mrs. Udell, when you say ‘Rob’, I can almost always tell which one of us you’re talking to!”

So marriage, and committment is on my mind today. Mine, my daughter’s, and the delightful woman I spoke with at length during little artist workshops I gave at The Balsams.

How on earth did I end up advising a perfect stranger about marriage?? It started when the woman corrected me when I referred to her partner as her husband. “We’re not married, but we’ve been together 10 years,” she said. I asked why they hadn’t married. It was a sad story of a difficult first marriage, and fear about making that kind of commitment again.

We talked over several days. It was obvious they were both good people and cared deeply for each other. She said she had no doubts about him–”He’s a good man.” But still she was afraid of history repeating itself.

I finally said to her, “Don’t make decisions out of fear.”

How long does it take for a man to prove to his beloved that he is the real deal? That his love is real, and their relationship is based on respect and love?

It’s like saying, “When I have a lot of money, then I’ll feel safe.” Then you have a million dollars, but it’s still not enough. “When I have TWO million dollars, then I’ll feel safe.” True story, from Martha Beck.

If 10 years is not enough for someone to prove their intentions, what will another 5 years mean? Another 10? A lifetime?

And you’ve essentially said to this person you love, “Actually, ‘never’ is good. Is ‘never’ good for you?”

Of course, I immediately felt I’d overstepped myself and apologized.

But the day I left for home, she told me she was starting to change her mind.

Later that same day, my baby girl told me Rob had proposed to her, and she had accepted.

My only concern was they hadn’t known each other for years and years, and began dating each other only recently. Did they have enough evidence to make this decision? What if it didn’t work out?

Then I realized I’d decided about Jon in just about as much time.

And I realized there is no way to be absolutely sure about love. We make our best guess, based on the evidence that matters to us.

And we take that magical leap of trust, and hope.

She posted her relationship status change on Facebook, and my husband had this to say:

It has been a wonderful thing to behold. Rob and Robin are highly self-aware people who are smart enough to know the right thing when they see it, and strong enough to work through a process that will take some time and adjustment. I was quite unprepared for how happy this has made me!

My post? “Plus he’s funny & SAYS he thinks we’re nice!”

What does this have to do with art? Plenty. Why am I writing about marriage here today?

Because so many of the things that really matter in the world are based on this leap of faith.

Pursuing your passion. Making art. Getting married. Having kids.

Even pursuing success, when I deconstructed my desires for it, came from a need to show my love and commitment for my art; to hope people love it–and me!; to create a teensy bit more love and hope in the world with the work of my hands and my words.

Whether we mean it or not, whether we sought it or not, or found it or not, love has been by our side every step of the way.

Sometimes we are surrounded by people who cannot show their love very well, or even by some who can’t love very well.

Sometimes we have to create for ourselves the love we can only imagine.

But it’s there. And if we are lucky, and if we are open to it…

When we find it in some small measure, it is a treasure.

And when we find it in abundance, it is a blessing.

The more times I sit by a hospice bedside, holding someone’s hand as they they go out on the tide of their life, the more I know the truth of these hauntingly beautiful words…

…Time has transfigures them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

by Phillip Larkin, from “An Arundel Tomb”

In all that you do, in all that you make with your whole heart, may love find you there.

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Filed under art, craft, hospice, inspiration, lessons from hospice, life, living with intention, love

WE ARE MAGICAL: Know That What We Do Is Not ‘Ordinary’

I’m in a tear trying to get ready for a jam-packed weekend. Our 29th wedding anniversary is Sunday, and that’s actually #5 on our list of things to do.

On Monday, we stuff my booth into our car and drive four hours north to
The Balsams, where I’ll be doing a week-long artist-in-residency for the hotel guests–teaching classes, demo-ing, displaying and (hopefully!) selling my artwork.

This kind of thing is really hard on a perfectionist like moi. Trying to do everything perfectly, preparing for every contingency, planning on providing the perfect artistic experience… It’s easy to get lost in all the mundane details of getting everything from here to there, retrieving artwork from other exhibitions today, trying to figure out where my beloved Claudia Rose rubber stamps are. (They’re perfect for the make it & take it workshops I do at The Balsams.)

I know we’ll get all the way up there and I’ll realize I’ve forgotten some critical piece of display or equipment. There will be tears and late-night searches for duct tape and twine, and wondering where the heck I packed the bug spray.

And like a little feather of hope falling gently into my life, came a little card in the mail today.

It was from someone I’d done something nice for a few weeks ago. Short story, part of the nice was a little pair of handmade earrings I threw into a package at the last minute. It wasn’t even my signature polymer work. They were pearl earrings accented with hand-soldered and shaped sterling wire accents, very pretty and organic. But, in my mind, nothing extraordinary at all.

What stopped my buzzy brain was this line:

Luann–the earrings are beautiful! I’ve never had a piece of jewelry that was made by someone I knew. I will wear them often & think of you when I do!

This woman–an intelligent, multi-degreed, active and attractive woman–has never owned a piece of jewelry made by someone she knows…. And she is astonished.

That tiny little gesture I made on a whim, has shifted her whole perception of handmade jewelry. She now owns something she deems doubly–no, triply precious: they are beautiful, they are handmade, they are handmade by me, her friend. Her mind boggles.

How often do we diminish our gifts?

How many times have you thought, “Well, yeah, these are cute. But I’ll never make anything as cool as so-and-so, world-famous artist person.”

How many times have we underpriced our work, certain that no one will think it’s actually worth the time, the skill and the creative vision we’ve put into it?

How many times have we hesitated about entering an exhibition, or approaching a gallery, or doing a new show, certain that no one would really be interested in our work?

How many times have we secretly squirmed when a customer admired our work or even bought it, wondering what they’d think if they knew how easy it was for us to make it?

I do it all the time. Even when I set a reasonable price for my work, I often find myself apologizing for it.

No more.

What we do isn’t easy, except that we’ve gotten very good at doing it.

What we do isn’t ordinary, except that it is so familiar to us.

What we do isn’t unworthy, because it comes from the skill of our hands, the judgment of our eyes, the passion in our hearts.

What we do is just….amazing.

Sometimes, it takes another person, someone whose life works on other levels, in other circles–perhaps even one who saves lives, as this woman does–to see the beauty, the astonishment, the miracle in what we do.

Simply put:

We are magical.

(With apologies the the delightful blog Hyperbole and a Half by Allie, whose post about her simple-minded dog made me laugh til I cried, and inspired the title of this post.)

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Filed under art, craft, creativity, inspiration

BIG PUPS

When your life is full of poop, it’s time to stop and smell the roses.

We had a rough week. Nothing serious, nothing even very exciting. Just one of those times where you feel out of it and out of synch. You feel your battery draining instead of charging, and your feet drag for no good reason.

We also picked up two more Potcake puppies from Logan Airport in Boston. And for the next two days, I was frantically thinking, “What have I done??!!”

The pups seemed overly shy and anxious. To make it worse, they’re BIG. Much bigger than any pups we’ve fostered. And heavy. It’s hard to keep up with two puppies to begin with, let alone two you have to chase, and hoist with a big ‘oof!’ and even then, I could only hold one at a time. Twice as hard to manage.

I complained loudly to anyone who would listen. The woman at the rescue operation on the islands they came from; the shelter contact we’ll be delivering the pups to soon; my husband. And myself, in a running chattering dialog of “What-was-I-thinking-I-can’t-do-this-these-pups-are-awful-who-knew-such-a-small-critter-could-hold-so-much-poop-dammit-get-back-here-oh-my-back-OMG-he’s-peeing-AGAIN-help-help-HELP!!!!”

Having kids was like this. And starting my art career. And doing my first show. Come to think of it, doing all my shows. Learning how to shoot my own photos for my online shop. Teaching my first workshop for artists. Teaching my first grief writing workshop.

Get it?

Everything that’s worth doing comes with some dog doo.

Two days later, the pups have calmed down. They’re on a schedule of eating/outside to eliminate/play/sleep. Rinse and repeat.

My sanity returned. Time for damage control!

I wrote a contrite letter of apology to my island contact and another to my local shelter contact for my overreaction. I eased up with the pups. I made peace with my husband.

I realized the gift these puppies are to me.

They’ve traveled a long way from home, through scary airports with complete strangers, without food, in tiny carry-on bags. They arrive to a place with snow (yes, we had snow on Easter Sunday!) and a suspicious older dog and a houseful of grumpy teens and adults.

If that were me I’m not sure I would have been on my best behavior, either.

Marriage, kids, puppies, and yes, art, come into our lives with much romance and excitement. Eventually this is overshadowed by the sheer drudgery and weight of custodial care. You and your spouse have to agree on who’s turn it is to do dishes, and who gets to go into their office and shut the door for a few hours. Kids need custodial care the first few years, and emotional care forever. Pups and kittens sometimes seem to be a conduit of poop from another dimension. (Well. Human infants, too.) With art and career and writing come days of discouragement, missed deadlines, disgruntled gallery owners, difficult customers, sagging sales.

When everything goes wrong, we’re very quick to complain. We want to bail. We wonder if we made the right choices. And is a quickie Mexican divorce really that simple and inexpensive?

When I feel this way, I know it’s time to stop. Breathe. And think about what has to change.

Sometimes we really have barked up the wrong tree. (Dog pun. Sorry!) If everything about what we’re doing is draining our battery and never recharges, then maybe it’s time to consider a new direction.

Maybe we need to change our way of doing things. What’s worked for us in the past may need to be tweaked now. With teens, we learn to choose our battles. At shows, we find ways to streamline our set-up. With big puppies, more structure and containment is necessary.

Sometimes we just need to see beyond the poop for a moment. We need to stop and smell the roses. We must remember that the most fragrant and beautiful roses–antique roses–come with plenty of thorns. When the thorns prick us, that’s the time to slow down. And sniff.

Caring for these puppies transports me to the days when my children were young. It was a lot of work, but there was even more joy. Like children, these pups come into this world with a powerful need to be loved, and the desire to love in return. Both of these young ones will do almost anything to get that love. They learn to control their bowels and bladders (though it can feel like an eternity, as my teacher sister says, “They’re always potty trained by kindergarten.”) They learn not to chew on your favorite shoes, or use them for a Barbie bathtub.

In return, they teach you that it’s never a waste of time to sit quietly in the sun on a warm spring day, watching young things gambol and cavort in the new green grass.

They teach you that there is nothing quite so wonderful as a good belly laugh–from them, or from you. (And I swear those pups are laughing.)

They teach you that when you hold them in your arms, and they gaze at your with perfect knowledge they are safe and sound, and profoundly loved, there is no better balm in the world for a troubled heart.

So I’m grateful for the gift of these puppies today. They’re beautiful dogs, full of joy and hope, ready for their forever homes. They’ve given me peace in my heart. They’ve reminded me of what it means to be alive, to be in the world, with all its joy and beauty.

And all the poo that comes with it, of course.

Aren’t you glad I didn’t say you had to learn to love the smell of poo?

P.S. Jack and Gillie will soon be on their way to the Monadnock Humane Society in Swanzey, NH soon. Help spread the word!

Run, baby, run!

Jack and Gillie.

Jack, in perfect Potcake tail mode.

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Filed under art, craft, dogs, gratitude, life with a dog, life with teenagers, mental attitude

ART FOR ONE PERSON

HOW DO WE MEASURE THE VALUE OF ART?

Whether it’s for one person, or millions, your art matters.

I belong to a new guild in Keene, the Creative Professionals Guild of New Hampshire. I’ve never thought of myself as a ‘commercial artist’ and I don’t always enjoy groups. But there was good energy in the group, and it was a chance to meet different people, interesting people. I realized some of my writing gigs fit the bill as a ‘creative professional’. So here I am, getting ready for an upcoming exhibit at a local bakery/coffee shop in town, writing press release, advising people on their artist bios and tag lines. (I have a knack. Who knew?!)

I was talking to one of the group members yesterday. Roma Dee is an amazing young woman. Not only is her photography good–she’s really really skilled at capturing what she calls ‘emotional moments’, at weddings and in portraits–she’s also a delightful woman whose gentle leadership skills rallied u to put on our first show. Even-handed, even-tempered, ready to laugh at the drop of a hat, she’s been a joy to work with.

We talked about her business, the nature of marketing to a small, time-sensitive, targeted group of people (brides) and the nature of art. (Bear with me here.)

We all have strong ideas of what art is, and like porn, we think we know it when we see it. Modern art forms, and modern ways of marketing it, make the definition more fluid. Is photography art? If so, is digital photography art? What does ‘art’ mean when ‘anybody can do it’? When the materials are cheap, or easily accessible, or not even ‘desirable.’ (Something polymer artists run into a lot. Face it, I make plastic horses.)

Roma talked about this and her chosen career, and then she said something effin’ brilliant.

She said she loves to do portraits and weddings. Yet these subjects do not lend themselves easily to art shows, and galleries. They are often only meaningful for the people involved, but perhaps not for a ‘general public.’

“But,” she added in the next breath, “It’s art to that one person.”

It’s art, but only for that one person. Or maybe it’s not ‘art’ (for everyone), but it’s definitely art to that one person.

So….is it art, if only one person cares about it?

In my mind….YES!!

In our modern culture, we can look to the past for our definition of ‘art’ and even ‘great art’. There are the works–usually painting, or sculpture. Work like the Mona Lisa. (Not to be too flippant, but most of what we consider ‘real art’ is stuff made by dead European white guys.)

Sometimes it can be work of ‘lesser media’ of great historical and cultural significance–that have endured the test of time. The Bayeux Tapestry. Grecian urns.

Millions know them and love them. Everyone agrees it’s art.

If we look to more recent examples, we look to the measure of fame and money. Picasso. Pollack. Warhol. And even more about fame and money, even less about original work, Richard Prince and Shepard Fairey.

When….did fame and money become the only measures of what is art?

When….did artists have to die before they could achieve fame and respect?

When…did we begin to consider how many other people like what we do, to determine if what we make is ‘real art’?

Roma said she did a portrait of a child, and her mother cried when she saw it. There was something in the moment Roma captured, the emotional content, that moved that one person to tears. (In a good way.)

That….is art.

Yes, there’s good art, and mediocre art. Sometimes even downright appalling art. Sometimes it’s popular, sometimes it’s not.

Yes, we all crave to speak to a larger audience. We all yearn to know our work is wanted, valued, admired. We may wish enough people valued our work enough for us to be able to make a living making it.

Yet sometimes, as Roma remarks, only one person will respond to it.

When we make something that resonates with someone, gets past their ordinary-life-defenses….
When it slips in and breaks their heart wide open…..
When what we create, creates that secondary moment–that awareness of something bigger, something special, something powerful, something meaningful….

Even if only that one person feels it….

That….is our blessing in life. To have that gift, and to be able to use it to make that moment in someone else’s life…..

That, in my art-making, is the one moment I live for.

There is also the moment for little chocolate cupcakes with pink icing, but that’s whole nother story. Come to our reception on April 16 and see what I mean.

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Filed under art, craft books, creativity, inspiration, marketing

FEAR AND ART

Let fear enlighten you, not enslave you.

(This post was written just before we invaded Afghanistan. Or Iraq. I can’t remember now.)

A poster on a discussion forum put into words what all of us have been feeling lately, but hate to admit out loud. The artist had a show coming up soon. Should they cancel it because of the impending war? Maybe no one would show up.

Many of us chimed in with a resounding “no!”, stressing the need to live life as normally as possible until forced to do otherwise.

The discussion eventually meandered into a discussion of other things. But the original post got me thinking about fear and anxiety in general.

Some of my favorite books about getting control of your life, have the word “fear” in them.

Feel the Fear (and Do It Anyway) by Susan Jeffers, is a pragmatic book about recognizing and acknowledging the anxiety/discomfort that comes from taking risks and making changes–but not letting that anxiety stop you.

Fearless Creating by Eric Maisel, I’ve read in chunks and bits, with some good sections about overcoming the obstacles to creativity. (The guy is more long-winded than I am, but there’s some good stuff in there.)

Another book I highly recommend is Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It proposes that being creative is all about having fear and self-doubt. So embrace and move through them–it’s part of the territory. Just don’t give in to them.

The last is not a “creativity” book at all. It’s The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. In a nutshell, the book is about the knowing the difference between general, free-floating anxiety vs. the genuine fear that alerts us we are truly in danger.

When we are in real danger, we sense it, whether we acknowledge the signals or not. We know that strange guy who offered to help us made us uneasy. We know there’s something about that new person we’re dating that just isn’t right. We may tamp down that feeling because of social conditioning or magical thinking, but we do have it.

Anxiety is more encompassing and insidious. It keeps us from booking a flight after we read about a plane crash. It makes us wonder whether we should cancel that show when war seems imminent. It makes us worry about our kid walking to school by himself for the first time. It keeps us from dangling our feet over the edge of our inner tube while floating in the ocean. (Jaws, anyone?)

Statistics show us that we are more likely to die from a bee sting than a shark attack. Yet we don’t flee at the sight of a flower-filled meadow. If you look at cold hard facts, we are much more likely to buy the farm every day when we belt ourselves into our cars and head out to work or the mall: Car accidents kill more people each year than the total number of U.S. fatalities suffered during the entire Vietnam war. Yet I know of no one who has stopped driving their car because of the risk of an accident.

My advice to the original poster was:

I hesitate to add my two cents’ worth on this issue, since I don’t do many shows. But I think if you start making decisions based on fear and anxiety, you are heading down a slippery slope. Yes, it’s natural to worry about current events. Almost impossible not to. But when you start making business decisions based on “what if?”… well, “What if…?” can kill every effort you make to grow your business.

One way to think of this is: What’s the worst that could happen? If you bombed at this show, would it bring your business to a halt?

And if so, don’t you really take that chance at every show you do? Your thinking is, “We might be at war, and maybe no one will come.” What about, “It might rain and everyone would stay home.” Or maybe “There might be a strong wind, and my tent might blow away!” Or “The stock market might crash, and no one will be able to afford my work.” All those events are possibilities, too. (And actually, all of them did, indeed, come to pass.) You plan for them as best you can, evaluate the real, tangible risks–and then decide.

I’d say, unless the show promoters cancel the show, it would be good business to show up as you contracted to do. If, after doing a few shows, you decide current events are impacting your bottom line severely, then that’s the time to sit down and re-evaluate how you’re going to restructure your business to accommodate that.

It takes a certain amount of determination to turn this free-floating anxiety around, unless you’re by nature an optimist. And I’m not. I’m a born pessimist. And turning this attitude around is not a one-shot deal. I have to revisit it again, and again, and again. And sometimes I still need someone else to point it out to me. And sometimes, by reassuring someone else, I find I’ve reassured myself.

Some tips that have helped me:

Read a book, forum or article about dealing with fear. It sometimes helps to realize you are not the only person who’s feeling this way!

Find people whose judgment you’ve come to trust, and check in with them. Not someone you ought to trust, someone you’ve learned you can trust. Someone who’s earned your trust. For decisions about my kids and their growing need for personal responsibility and freedom, I have a very small collection of parents whose opinion I value. I know they have similar values, I know they respect my values, and I’ve learned to trust how they come to their decisions. They don’t belittle my concerns or beliefs, they just tell me how they got to their decision.

I’ve learned not to expect everything from one person, too. I’ve learned that I have parent-decision type friends, business/art type friends, family-dynamic expert type friends, etc. Find those solid people in every one of your life sectors. And when one of them goes through their own difficult times, recognize when they are not able to help you with that area (temporarily or permantly.) In other words, constantly evaluate your support structure.

Learn from yourself. Keep track of the times you’ve successfully battled anxiety, and remind yourself of those times. For myself, I find it immensely helpful to write about my anxieties. I keep a daily handwritten journal. I would die of embarrassment if anyone read of anything I’ve written there–I complain and swear a lot! But I also find that making my anxiety concrete by describing exactly what I’m afraid of, is the first step to working through it.

Get absurdly reasonable. Seek professional help if you have to. One strategy is called cognitive therapy, was hugely helpful for me. Here’s an example:

A patient says, “I’m terrified I’ll lose my job.”

Therapist: “Well…what would the logical consequences of this event be?” (An illogical conclusion might be, “I’ll become a bag lady!” That’s possible, but is it probable?)

Patient: “I wouldn’t make any money.”

Therapist: “So what would happen then?”

Patient: “I would have to find another job that maybe wouldn’t pay as much money.”

Therapist: “So what would happen then?”

Patient: “I couldn’t afford to make my mortgage payments.”

Therapist: “So what would happen then?”

Patient: “I’d have to sell my house.”

Therapist: “So what would happen then?”

Patient: “I’d have to find a cheaper place to live, like an apartment.”

Therapist: “And what would that mean?”

Patient: “My kid would have a smaller bedroom.”

Therapist: “So the end result of losing your job is that your kid would have to sleep in a little bedroom.”

Patient: “Oh. Okay. So I guess that wouldn’t be so terrible…”

This is a simple version, of course. And we all know some people do have worse consequences. But for most of us, yes, losing our job might been living in a place with tinier rooms. Been there, done that. Survived.

Recognize, as de Becker points out, that anxiety drains our batteries, leaving us vulnerable and unprepared for real danger when it crosses our path. Recognize that anxiety is our engine racing without engaging the clutch–it doesn’t take us anywhere, it’s just noisy and uses up a lot of gas.

Consider medication. I know this is not for everyone, and it doesn’t “fix” everything. But I found that a very low dose of anti-depressant was enough to take the crippling knife edge of anxiety away. Now I do less obsessing, and gentler fretting. (This was after trying exercise, massage, meditation, yoga, tai chi and my favorite, lots and lots of red wine.) (I still like these things, but I’m saner now. Really.)

Last, embrace your fears. Being involved in hospice has healed a lot of things. I’m not fear-less by any stretch of the imagination (and boy, can I stretch it!). When it comes to change, I still drag my feet. I still hate touching seaweed when I’m swimming.

But I’ve learned that many of the things I used to be afraid of, are simply not as bad as I’d imagined.

I accept some anxiety and fear as part of being human. They are my small, often annoying, ever-nagging companions. Even as I sit here, I am worrying about….ten different things. No, twelve. But I also look out the window and marvel at the first spring rain. I am so grateful for all the blessings in my life. I listen to the sound of my breath moving in and out, so regular and easy.

Life may be long or short, hard or sweet, with joyful ups and crazy downs A few little moments of terror and wonder thrown in. Usually a good mix. And it’s good to simply be alive, to savor this moment, with a little peace in my heart.

I wish the same for you.

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Filed under art, business, choices, courage, craft, creativity, fear of falling, mental attitude, world peace

CLEANING THE STUDIO Redux

Lord, I hope “redux” means “revisited”…. Just checked Wiki–yes!!

It all started when we cleaned out our daughter’s old room. She came home to help. I had visions of the two of us cutting a swatch through the piles o’ stuff, filling bag after bag of stuff to be tossed, given, moved or….or….what else do you do with a 1942 manual on identifying enemy planes?

Instead, we spent a leisurely afternoon of Robin browsing through old journals, school notebooks and yearbooks. We tried on the hats we bought on family trips to Boston. (We once defused a family spat by stopping in a little shop on Newbury Street called TOPPERS. We all bought hats. Now it’s a family tradition.) Finally, after hours of delicate sorting, Robin announced she’d salvaged everything she wanted. I was free to take care of the rest. (My professional writer voice is calm and dignified. My mother voice is about to scream.)

From there, I’ve managed to keep up with my goal of removing one bag o’ stuff a day from her room, the attic and my studio. It feels like truly sisyphean task. I comfort myself by doing the math. If I keep it up, in a year I will have removed 365 bags. Not too shabby, hey?

This has all happened before. It will all happen again. (Who says you can’t learn something important from Battlestar Galactica reruns?

Sometimes it helps to know how you did it before. Other times, knowing what’s in store can add to the overwhelming nature of the task. (The first words out of my mouth when I tore my ACL the send time were, “Oh, NO, NO, NO, NOT AGAIN!!!” I knew I was in for another surgery, I knew I was in for at least six months of recovery, I knew it would be at least a year before I felt back to normal.

I couldn’t face it. But….

I did it anyway.

So today as I dig in once again, I share with you three thoughts and resources that are helping:

1) “Leave it for someone else.” Too many of my clutter–er, collecting–impulses are fueled by the thought that I’ve discovered something wonderful, and I need to save it from oblivion in the thrift shop.

But now I ask if I truly love it or have a use for it. If not, I know it will be found and cherished by someone else. So….I leave it for someone else.

2) “Would I buy this again today?” I can’t believe how much this helps me decide what will stay and what should go.

3) This website, Clutter Buster, by Brooks Palmer.

I can’t remember where the first two questions came from, but will credit them when I track the source down.

In the meantime, I need to go fill another bag.

What strategies help YOU clean out?

Happy spring cleaning!

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Filed under action steps, art, cleaning the studio, craft, perseverence, recycling tip

LET’S NOT DO WHAT WE OUGHT, BUT WHAT WE WANT

This article originally published on Sunday, March 30, 2003
The advice still applies.

Let’s NOT do what we ought, but what we want

A cry for help appeared on a list serve I subscribe to. An artist gave up painting for years. She’s now determined to take it up again. Unfortunately, all her paints are so hardened in their tubes, they are almost unusable. Can anyone tell her how to salvage them??

I’m not sure how welcome my advice would be, but it’s clear to me the universe is sending a message here, loud and clear.

BUY NEW PAINTS.

What a huge obstacle she has overcome! The urge to paint again is wonderful, and I wholeheartedly tell this artist to go for it.

But the artist is already stuck again. “I can’t paint until I fix my paints.”

Where have we heard that before?

Well, I used to hear it every day. And sometimes, when I’m down or overwhelmed with the simple problems, I still hear it:

“I should do the laundry first.” “I really need to run a few errands first.” “I’ve got to get this mailing out this week–I’ll work on some new art ideas later.”

Sometimes it feels like my passion for my art, the work of my heart, is the last thing I take care of.

To that renewed artist, I’d say….

Maybe those paints are ruined for a reason.

Maybe the universe is sending a message here. You can paint again, it says, but maybe it’s time to really start anew.

Here’s a powerful thought: Maybe you don’t have to do penance by fixing those tired, dried-up old paints.

Maybe the message is, “Go out and buy wonderful new paint. Buy some of your favorite old colors, but try something different, too.”

Maybe it’s time start fresh with new ideas, new inspiration, maybe an entirely new direction.

Maybe it’s time to play with colors again, to regain the same sense of wonder and excitement when you first began to paint. And then to move ahead in a different way. Forge a new path.

But to do this, you need to get rid of everything that held you back the last time.

You have found your inspiration to paint again, and you’re determined to really set aside the time and energy it deserves. And that means not wasting time and energy working to revive dead paint.

What a lesson for me today! I’ve been sitting in the middle of an overwhelmingly messy studio, bemoaning the fact that I “should” clean up before I get back to work. Then I get the note about dried up paint. Sometimes what is easy to see in others is what I need to see in myself.

Maybe it’s really okay to just jump right into making something today, messy space notwithstanding. Maybe it’s okay to do a little cleaning up after I have fun.

Hmmmmm… Okay, I’m putting away the dishcloth now!

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CLIMBING OVER ROAD BLOCKS

One person’s ‘roadblock’ is another person’s mountain pass.

(This article was originally published January 18, 2003. In the eight years since then, many of the “insurmountable problems” mentioned here are now a snap with the Internet–online catalogs, online printing services, less expensive options for websites, etc. But there’s still good information in here, and a lot of good thoughts about overcoming obstacles.)

Marketing and selling one-of-a-kind artwork can be problematic.

If you’re dealing with local stores, you could bring an assortment to each store. Store owners simply make their selections. No problem!

But store visits mean time away from your studio. There’s a limit to how many stores you can drive to in a day–stores don’t like it when you saturate the area with your work. What if you live in New Hampshire, and a store in California would be a terrific venue for your work? And what do you do about about re-orders??

Catalogs? It can be hard even with production work. Some stores don’t mind if an item varies from one to the next. But some do. And catalogs are expensive. They work best for featuring production work. They’re most cost-effective when ordered in large quantities. Not for one-of-a-kind work, nor work that changes constantly.

Advertising? That gets expensive, too. I obviously can’t run an ad for $500 to sell one individual item that retails for $250. If a store likes the object in the ad, then that’s the one they want.

Wholesale trade shows can be a way to present your one-of-a-kind items to many stores. But these shows are expensive to do–booth fees often start at $1,400 and up, plus hidden costs like travel, hotel and electricity. Not a good choice for many artists just starting out.

Well…why not go right to the source? Call stores directly. Ask them if they sell one-of-a-kind work. If so, how do they buy it from the artisan? Do they go to shows? Which ones? Do they browse an artist’s website? You can get good information this way. But this is time-consuming. And introverts hate it. (I do!)

The best way is to ask other artists how they handle this.

Online discussion forums are great places to find out what works for others. You’ll find a wide range of artists from all over the country who can share their process or make suggestions. There’s just one caveat.

What works for one person and their product, may not work for you and yours.

Even worse….If no one in the group has figured it out, it can be an exercise in frustration and commiseration. Instead of a brain-storming session, it turns into a …… Well, everyone starts agreeing just how impossible the whole scenario is. And that’s bad. Because….

You don’t want to give yourself an excuse to just give up.

Declaring a situation impossible to deal with lets us off the hook. It’s not our fault, we tell ourselves. We are not responsible for our lack of success–it’s obviously impossible to succeed!

I used to get overwhelmed by roadblocks, too. I thought there had to be a “right way” to do this. And I just had to figure out what that “right way” was.

If I couldn’t figure it out–I’m off the hook! If others succeed where I can’t, then it’s because they’re lucky–right? And I’m just not lucky.

Nope. No more. I can’t let myself off that easily. In my heart, I know it can take years to be an ‘overnight success’.

And no one succeeds by giving up.

Mistakes and dead ends don’t prove you’re wrong. They’re merely evidence there’s still more to be learned.

There is no single “right way”. There’s simply the way that will work for YOU.

I’ve learned that the first thing I need is an attitude adjustment. Trial-and-error sucks. So let’s call it… “running an experiment”. That’s much more appealing! Cold-calling stores for information is hard. I’ll call it “market research”. That sounds quite professional.

Second, I watch for other people doing one-of-a-kind work. If they’ve been doing it awhile, they’ve found something that works for them. So
maybe it would work for me.

I came across an artist, a graphic artist who makes one-of-a-kind books. For years she struggled with marketing her work, until she finally came up with a solution. She tweaked her business model to accommodate both retail and wholesale venues.

She makes limited edition books to wholesale. She only sells her one-of-a-kind journals at retail shows.

This is my favorite way to find solutions. Because if someone else has figured out how to do it, so can I. If she can grow her business by tweaking her business model just a bit–from all one-of-a-kind work to some one-of-a-kind and a lot of limited editions, so can I.

If she can follow her passion and find a way to support herself doing it, so can I.

Luck is wonderful. But as someone once said, “Luck is opportunity plus preparedness.”

Do your research, keep your eyes open for opportunity, and you will fly over those roadblocks.

Update: In the eight years since I first wrote this article, everything has changed. Now we can offer wholesale customers password-protected online catalogs. We can take our own digital images and upload them quickly and easily to our website, or our online store. We can find stores and galleries more easily, and contact them by email (if the phone is too stressful.)

It’s a miracle! :^)

Also, for jewelry or other small, easily shipped items, a “pick box” works beautifully for some stores. A store can secure their order with a credit card number. You ship an assortment of items to them. They select the items they want, and ship the box back to you. You bill them for the items they’ve taken. Works great with one-of-a-kind items!

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Filed under art, business, craft, marketing, perseverence, selling to stores, shows, wholesale

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR–You Might Get It!

When it seems like nothing you wish for comes true, ask yourself, “Am I dreaming big enough to last a lifetime?”

(This post was originally published December 11, 2002.)

“Be careful what you wish for….” This has to be my least-favorite proverb in the world. It’s like those folktales about fools wasting silly wishes (“The Sausage“) and bargains with the devil (“The Monkey’s Paw.”) People get their wishes granted, but live to regret it.

Making wishes is dangerous business, these stories seem to warn us. You can wish for the most wonderful thing in the world and the powers that be will twist it against you. Fairies’ gold turned to dry leaves in the morning light.

It takes the very joy out of wishing, doesn’t it? And what a depressing view of the universe! “The universe likes nothing better than to give with one hand and take away with the other.” Yow!

Taken another way, though, this proverb is actually excellent advice. Instead of a dour caution, see it as an challenge to dig deep into your heart, to what you really want.

When we regret a wish we’ve been granted, it’s often because we unconsciously limited the dream before it left our heart. We down-sized it to increase our chances of getting something. We don’t allow ourselves to dream big. We’re afraid to ask for too much.

Because we don’t really believe our wishes can come true.

You can see this limiting process at work when people take their first tentative steps in their work. I did it. You’ve probably done it, too. You ask for so little. Then when you get it, it’s just not enough. Or it’s just all wrong.

Years ago, I reclaimed my artistic self. (I know, I know, it sounds like I picked up my dry cleaning….)

I didn’t ask for much. I attended a seminar for women artists. I told a roomful of strangers my dream was to make wonderful little toys—tiny dolls, knitted sheep—that you could hold in your hand and marvel at. I wanted to make things that made people happy.

It’s a nice thought. But in reality, I couldn’t imagine affecting people in a more profound way than to appeal to their sense of playfulness.

I didn’t think I had anything deeper or more substantial in me.

So I wished for a way to sell lots of my little toys. Of course, each one took a minimum of two hours to make. And I wanted to make sure they would sell, so I kept the price really low.

After doing some very small local craft shows, I got my heart’s desire. A local store requested four dozen sheep, and of course, they wanted them yesterday.

I spent the next two weeks doing nothing but knitting sheep.

At first it was fun. Each sheep was so cute! But after five in a row, the joy faltered. It was… Hmmmm… Let’s just say that knitting little sheep—lots of little sheep—gets boring fast.

After twelve, I never wanted to see another skein of cream-colored yarn again. At #24, all I could think of was, “Twenty-four down, twenty-four to go.” By #42, I was sick unto death of little knitted sheep.

And I still had to sew them up, and tie little tiny bells on each one.

I managed to squeak out all 48. And swore I’d never make another.

I kept one or two of my stash, because they are so darned cute. And also as a reminder of a lesson learned.

Because in addition to all that knitting, I messed up on figuring my wholesale price. I’d simply cut my retail price in half. So I got $5 per sheep. Ouch. I probably made less than $2 an hour, after my cost for materials.

I didn’t see this granted wish as a disappointment. Okay, I’ll be honest. At first I did.

But then I saw it as a blessing. Thank heavens I hadn’t gotten more orders!

So here’s what I learned from this experience:

I learned production work was not for me. I learned how to establish a decent wholesale price. And at least I had $240 in my pocket, enough money to finance my next endeavors. (Hint: I did NOT buy yarn to make more sheep.)

As time went by, this process occurred over and over.

More ideas and more opportunities crossed my path. Each time I’d think, “Maybe this is the thing that will take off!” They always did—just enough to buy more supplies and make my hobby pay for itself—but not in the way I’d hoped. I followed them til they either petered out or til they grew into something that took me too far away from my heart’s desire. Then I’d let go, and move on.

Along the way I learned a lot about making and selling things. I learned how to sell wholesale to retail stores. I learned about signage and display. I learned how to price my work, how to create a distinctive and original product, how to locate wholesale sources for supplies. I took my profits and reinvested them in my business.

I learned the pros and cons of building a strictly local audience. I learned the potential–and the limits–of advertising. I learned how to promote myself and my work.

I taught classes when I could, but soon learned a little teaching goes a long way for me. I’d rather make more and teach a little. (But I also found I could teach through this blog.)

Finally, I learned what I really wanted, what was truly in my heart.

If you had asked me way back then what I wanted, I would have said, “I want to make something that makes people happy.” I wasn’t digging very deep into what makes me tick.

It turns out there was a story there, a story about how my dreams were echoed in the prehistoric artwork from a cave in France. I thought about why this story was important to me, and how I was going to share that story with the world.

I found a focus and a drive I’d never experienced before. Everything I’d learned about business was now centered on getting my story and my art out into the world.

When I ran into what seemed like insurmountable difficulties, I solved them through perseverance, research and experimentation.

And I loved the entire process. Even the parts that drove me crazy. I was learning so much about myself, my art and my business.

Everything began to fall into place. Opportunities lay everywhere, more than I could take on. Doors opened, people appeared in my life, solutions beckoned.

I still experience failure, but it doesn’t stop me now. It’s a call to evaluate what I really want and whether I’m still on task to achieve it.

I see the presence of something in my life that treasures my creativity, that supports me achieving my dream.

If my true wish had been to sell lots of knitted sheep, there are business models to support that. I could have hired knitters, located a sales rep, done gift shows. But my real wish was to make something totally of myself, so fulfilling and intriguing that I would not tire of the production process; and to make something with such value and power, people would pay a lot to own one.

I had a wish big enough to last me a lifetime. That was the right wish to be granted!

Most small business experts say it can take five years to get a new business off the ground. Even the IRS recognizes that. There’s a lot of learning and failing, growth and change in five years of business….

So look at what you’re doing now. Think about your biggest, deepest wish.

Will you outgrow your current dream? Will you still love it five years from now? If my first wish had been granted five years earlier, I would have outgrown it within six months.

Are you digging deep? Get past the “nice” things to say (“I want to make people happy”) and find your true story. There’s power there.

When it seems like nothing you wish for comes true, ask yourself, “Am I dreaming big enough to last a lifetime?”

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Filed under art, artist statement, business, courage, craft, craft shows, fear of failing, inspiration

DEALING WITH FAILURE

Buffer failure? Embrace it! Sometimes the manure life deals you is fertilizer for your garden to come.

(This post was originally published on Thursday, December 05, 2002.)

A reader saw my story on Meryl Streep (we have so much in common!) She commented she has overcome her inner critic from time to time, has some success—and then encounters failure. In one case, it resulted in a large financial loss. It stopped her dead in her tracks. How, she asks, do you buffer failure? Is it a sign that we’re heading down the wrong path?

Buffer failure? Embrace it!

No, I’m not crazy. I hate failure as much as the next person. It doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t look good, and it usually doesn’t smell very good, either.

But I’ve learned to call it something else. It is now a “life learning experience.” Or “an experiment.” A “calculated risk.” Or “an opportunity/possibility that has been tried, and simply did not pan out.” Whatever you call it, you met it, you got through it, and now you have a precious gift.

You can decide what you learned from it. And what you learn from it is entirely up to you.

We hear all those stories about Edison trying and discarding 423 different materials before he found one that could successfully be used as a filament in his electric light bulbs. Supposedly, he would say, “I didn’t fail—I found 423 things that didn’t work!” In reality, I doubt he was that chipper at trial #218. I’m sure he had some choice words.

But the important thing to remember is, it wasn’t failure. It was a process. He didn’t take each failure as a “sign” he should not continue. He took it as a challenge, an opportunity to explore new possibilities.

There’s a book I read awhile back, title escapes me. A collection of stories as told by assorted famous people, on their failures. Yep. Every single one of them had failed somewhere, along their road to success. You don’t take on risk without encountering failure at some point. Not one person achieved their dream by accepting failure as an end to their dream. Every single one of them walked around it, climbed over it, punched through it, ignored it, learned from it or changed it into a victory.

Look, these people aren’t really smarter, more beautiful, more creative, more talented, more anything than you or me. They’re simply people. Real people.

They’re just incredibly persistent.

Their common denominator was once they knew what their heart’s desire was, they kept after it. Just like me and Meryl, talkin’ down that buzzy whiny voice and doin’ the work. (Yep, me ‘n Meryl…)

It’s not easy. And it doesn’t come naturally, at least not to me. I’ve had to work at not giving up. And I’ve had to work at growing a new attitude about “failure.”

I don’t put it in terms at “what did I do wrong?” I think “What did I do well? And how could I do better? What did I learn? And do I have to do that same thing again to learn that particular lesson? Or is it okay to move on to try something else?”

My first few small town craft shows were “failures.” It would have been so easy to get discouraged. Fortunately, I was committed to making what I loved, not making what would sell at a church bazaar. I realized my work was not the bargain gift item one expects to find at such a show. Although, oddly, after every show, someone would call me and buy one of my very expensive pieces. So I learned some people found my work worth the price I asked for. And I learned I had to find a better venue for my work.

I’m still recovering from a more recent, bigger “failure.” I tried a new summer wholesale show, traditionally more of a gift market. I not only did the show, I redid my booth—new floors, new walls, new lighting. I even took a larger booth space. I did the work—did a pre-show mailing; bought an ad in the show guide; updated my catalog’ sent out my newsletter to customers and hot prospects; created new products. I set up my booth, put on my professional artist clothes, and went to work.

And I bombed.

I wrote enough new orders to cover some of my expenses, but not the major improvements I’d made. And because the economy still sagged, many of those new accounts called later to reduce their show orders.

Did I fail? It sure felt like it at the time!

A fellow exhibitor at the show asked me how I did. I started to list all the pluses from the show. He cut me short and said, “Why don’t you just be honest and admit it sucked?!” I didn’t know what to say. Was I being a Pollyanna?

But another friend said, “Do you only measure your success in monetary terms?” Wow. I had to think about that.

Yes, I want to be financially successful with my art. I consistently act and plan accordingly. But I also evaluate my progress by other standards. Money is an important measure, but not the only one.

I took a reasonable risk—to introduce my work to a new audience and to try a new booth design/layout.

What did I do well? The pre-show preparations were excellent. The new booth was great. The improvements were pricey but they’re a long-term investment in my business.

Everyone loved the work, so I know it’s viable. Most of my press kits were taken from the media room—always a good sign! I picked up a dozen new accounts.

I made valuable connections, including an editor at a highly respected trade magazine who was fascinated by my work. The new director of an arts foundation, referred to me by a mutual friend, found me, lined me up for a show and has proven to be a source of valuable experience and information about my targeted market. My booth neighbor was curating her first show at the museum where she works, and invited me to exhibit in their first high-end craft show.

I helped out a friend at the show with lighting problems, and he thanked me with a gift of his lovely art glass. My daughter, assisting me for the first time, bought a faux-leopard skin cowboy hat from another exhibitor—oh my!), met the charming teenage sons of another exhibitor, and was in seventh heaven. We had a great time.

What could I have done better? I realized I could improve my sales technique, especially on selling more expensive items.

What was under my control, and what was not?

Sad to say, the economy is not under my control.

Should I have skipped the show?

Well, I’m not sure. I’m glad for the connections I made. In hindsight, perhaps I could have waited on the booth improvements. But doing the show forced me to make those improvements, and though it would have been nice to recoup their expense with that show, I know I eventually will.

What did I learn?

I learned that I could tank at a show and survive.

I didn’t accept it as a sign my dream was unattainable. I kept the good stuff, I examined the bad stuff, then tossed it. I dug in and got back to work.

In August, I did another show. I took more custom orders than I usually accepted. I got better at closing big-ticket sales.

It was my best retail show ever.

Buffer failure? No. You don’t get anywhere with that approach.

Sometimes the manure life deals you is fertilizer for your garden to come.

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RESPECT YOUR COLLECTORS Part 2

This article was originally published for Fine Art Views.
I forgot to republish this on MY blog!! My bad.

Respect Your Collectors Part 2
by Luann Udell on 12/23/2010 9:56:04 AM

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. Luann also writes a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explores the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”

Don’t leave your early collectors behind.

Sometimes artists, in their haste to “get big”, blow off the very people who helped them get there in the first place.

In my first article in this series, I explained how I was introduced to the joys of collecting original works of art. Today I’ll show how—and why–you must honor those early supporters of your work.

In educating me how to find ‘real art’, my friend pointed out a rich source of original art in my own backyard—the prestigious Ann Arbor art fairs. These fairs are a series of 3-4 fine art and craft shows (depending on how you count them) that take place concurrently on the campus and in the town streets.

Taking my friend’s advice, I visited the shows that year with new intention—not to just be amazed and entertained by the beautiful work, but with an eye to actually owning some of it.

I was no longer an ordinary browser or casual shopper. I was an art collector! I had money in my pocket, an open heart and a passion to learn. It was a heady feeling.

There was one artist whose work I fell in love with. I spent quite a bit of time in her booth talking to her, and admiring her work. We talked about the inspiration for her charming motifs, the materials she used to create the enchanting details I loved, her lovely, delicate use of color.

She had work in a range of sizes, but she’d already sold all the pieces in my price range. “I’m just so excited, this has been a GREAT show for me!” she exclaimed. “I’m definitely coming back next year, and I’ll have lots more smaller pieces, too—they’re selling like hot cakes!”

I was pleased that someone so likeable, whose work I really liked, was having so much success. In my budding connoisseur-like mind, it confirmed my instinct to support her art. She didn’t take layaway, and this was before most artists took credit cards. But she assured me there would be ample opportunity to own one of her pieces the following year.

For that entire year, I set aside money, enough to acquire one of her smaller pieces. I kept her postcard on my bulletin board where I could look at it every day. I circled the dates for the next art fair show on my calendar.

When the happy day came, I sought her out. I had my hard-earned money in my hot little hands, all ready to buy something. I was determined to leave her booth with something this time.

To my dismay, things had changed.

Her work was bigger, for one thing. It was bigger. Much much bigger. And consequently, much more expensive, too. Not a single piece was less than several thousand dollars.

It was different. The small, intimate, intricately detailed work was gone. Strong, bold, monochromatic abstract work had replaced it.

Something else was changed, too. Her attitude.

The gushing, friendly, warm, enthusiastic emerging artist I’d met the year before was gone.

Apparently she’d been ‘discovered’. She’d had a great year, sales-wise. She’d juried into several prestigious exhibitions. She now had a following.

She was, indeed, a successful artist—one whose success had evidently gone to her head. Because she was also haughty, disdainful, and dismissive, to the point of rudeness.

She didn’t remember me. I didn’t expect her to—I knew she’d talked to hundreds, if not thousands of people in the past year. But she wasn’t apologetic (as in,“I’m sorry I don’t remember you, I meet so many people–but please refresh my memory…”) Her attitude was, “Why should I remember you?! You didn’t buy anything!”

She was scornful about her former work. “Yeah, I’m way past that stage now. I marked it down and got rid of it. I’m into this work now.” Her tone almost seemed to say, “Get over it!” She didn’t care to explain it, either. You either got it—and bought it—or she didn’t have time for you.

I inquired about smaller works. She practically sniffed. She said she couldn’t be bothered with making small pieces anymore. It was much more lucrative to make bigger pieces, and charge more.

Someone else entered the booth, someone who could obviously be taken more seriously as a prospective buyer. She turned her whole attention to them. I left her booth, crestfallen.

I kept my postcard of that artist for many years. I kept track of her progress as best I could (pre-internet days.) I’m not sure why. Maybe I was hoping for a glimpse of that sweet, more accessible, more grateful young woman I’d admired so much before. Artists change, their art changes—I got that. Maybe I was just hoping her next sea-change would be for the better.

In time, though, the memories of that last day I saw her, overshadowed the first. I tossed the card. I’ve all but forgotten her name.

At the time, I was bewildered. Now that I’m an artist, too, I can sympathize…a little.

I’m not always crazy about my older work. But I respect the fact that I loved it when I was making it, and that people that bought it, liked it, too.

I know there is more money to be made with the wall-sized fiber work. I know that I couldn’t afford my work! But I know there is worth in my smaller work, too.

I know I can’t support myself just on sales of $25 necklaces. But sometimes, when things were really tight, it was those same inexpensive items that kept the cash flow going.

I know many of those people purchased work back then for less than my wholesale prices now. Still, it was their hard-earned money, and they chose to spend it on my work.

As far as my collectors go, I appreciate what they ALL did. They all loved the work. They all believed in me. They all wanted to support my efforts. They bought something because they loved it, and they wanted it, and they felt it was worth it.

I may forget their names, but I am astonished and delighted that they have not forgotten mine. When they share a story about their piece, or even bring some of those ‘ancient works’ back in for repair or a redesign, I make a point of thanking them for collecting me from the beginning.

They are the people who helped me get where I am today. And I will never forget them for that.

Perhaps we all have days we dream of being so financially successful, so famous and respected, that we don’t have to worry about the tedious little things in life anymore.

But people who love our work, people who support us in so many ways—by purchasing it, by recommending it to their friends, by telling us what it means to them—these people are not the “tedious little things in life. They are part of the “big thing”. They are what got us to this wonderful place, a place where we can make the work we love and share it with the world.

Remember that, and you will always respect your collectors, large and small.

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Filed under art, business, collectors, craft, craft shows, customer care, Fine Art Views, marketing, Respect Your Collectors, selling, shows

WE ARE ALL MADE OF STARS

Do you realize how amazing you are?

Why are we so willing to believe the worst about ourselves?

I had a conversation with a friend recently. She tends to believe she presents herself worse than she does. She accentuates her perceived weaknesses and berates herself for being “stuck”.

When I commented on her strengths and her perceived weaknesses (more on that), she smiled. “Yeah”, she said, “A friend once told me what my real problem is. My friend said, ‘Your problem is, you don’t realize how amazing you are.”

I agree with her friend.

I told her about a presentation I made last year, to an auditorium full of people. I’d goofed pretty badly–thought I was doing a presentation on one topic, only to realize the night before I was committed to a different one.

I was still more than adequately prepared. I’ve taught this workshop before, and have plenty of material on hand. But throughout the presentation, I kept apologizing. “I’m handing out a resource list–I’m so sorry, it would have been longer….” “Blah blah blah, sorry!, blah blah.”

When I read the evaluations later, everyone raved about me.

Except for one astute soul who commented, “The presentation was excellent, good information. Just one negative. She apologized too much. I found it distracting.”

Oy.

It’s time to quit apologizing for ourselves.

It’s so easy to see this in other people. So hard to see it in ourselves: Not trusting our instincts. Focusing on our weaknesses and flaws. Taking our strengths for granted.

Taking ourselves for granted.

So in the interest of full disclosure, here’s the back story behind my blog:

I merrily make my art/write my column/prepare a seminar. Things are humming along. Life is good!

Then I hit roadblocks. An envious peer. A missed deadline. A new injury (usually acquired doing something absolutely stupid.) A rejection from a show. Oh, and a very low checking account balance.

Some people thrive in adversity. Yay for them! (And we all can do that sometimes.) But often we are struck in vulnerable places. The roadblock looks similar to a struggle in our past. And there are some people in this world, in a kind of pain themselves, who know exactly where to aim their blows.

If I’m in my powerful place, I shrug these off as annoying but manageable, tiny little bumps in my path. I will not be deterred from my journey.

But if I’m in a fragile period, I get knocked off-center. “Why do I bother making this work? Nobody likes it!” “How can I make her like me and stop being so mean?” “I’m so disorganized!”

Soon I feel like there’s no place for me in the world. No gifts I can offer. No way I can contribute. I’m just a whirling bundle of fret and anxiety and unkindness and ineptitude. (I thought I was making that last word up, but spell check says no, I’m good to go. Until I spelled “spellcheck” wrong….)

I eventually sit down to write. I dump it all out onto paper. I whine, I cry, I resent, I blame.

And then something wonderful happens.

I realize how amazing I am.

Not in the swelled-head, I’m-okay-you’re-not, aren’t-I-grand kinda way.

Just…amazing…in the ordinary way. A person, here in this world, in this time, trying to love and be loved. Trying to be kind. Trying to shine. Trying to do the work I was put here to do. Trying to do the best I can. (Another friend, years ago, said to me, “I like to believe people are doing the best they can.” It brought tears to my eyes.) (Although it’s hard to remember that when someone cuts me off in traffic.)

For a few wonderful, incredible minutes, maybe a few hours, maybe even an entire day, I see how powerful I am, how brightly I shine. Just enough for me to get back in the saddle and try again. (OH! A riding metaphor!)

At some point, this struggle, this journey, turns into a blog article, or a keynote speech, or a new wall hanging. If it’s funny, it goes to my column at The Crafts Report.

I write about the struggle. I write about how I end up in the hard place, and how I find my way back from there.

And how I still end up there again.

And find my way back home, to my own heart–again.

I write about how our weaknesses are not something to be cried over, but something to be celebrated. Because our weaknesses are the true source of our strength, if we let this awareness happen.

If we are the victim of cruelty, we can still choose to be kind.

If we are gripped by sadness, we can simply embrace that, for now. Or we can choose to act as if we are happy. Or we can help someone else who is sad.

If we grieve, it is because we loved. Or because we wanted to love, or to be loved.

These things are not imperfections. Or rather, they are imperfections. They are what make us beautiful, just as as stress, flaw, disease and even death make something beautiful in wood.

If we don’t think we are amazing, it is simply because we are afraid of what that might mean. We think we don’t know what that looks like. We don’t know what might change or what we might lose, or that we are setting ourselves up for even bigger failure. We are afraid we will have to work harder, and we are afraid we won’t be able to.

We are afraid we are not enough.

And yet, in each of us, is the potential to simply be ourselves. To be present. To respect our gifts, and USE them.

What inspires me, what makes me cry, is that this very place that’s so hard for us–”I am not enough”–comes from a very powerful, very beautiful place–”I want to be somebody</em, somebody worthy of love, respect, kindness, joy, achievement. I want to be seen and cherished. I want to do good work. I want to be remembered after I'm gone."

Don't you think it's amazing that we all want these things?

Isn't it astonishing that this desire drives everything we do, every choice we make, whether we act on this consciously ("I'm going to hold the door open for that person behind me.") to unconsciously ("Huh! That person cut in front of me! He acted as if I were totally not worth his kindness!" or choice words to that effect….)? (I am praying you did not get lost in the punctuation of that last sentence.)

And that's why, when people say I'M amazing, or do such beautiful work, or write something good, I do a little foot shuffle and blush, and say, "Aw, tweren't nuthin'…"

Because I DON'T have this all figured out, or rather, it doesn't STAY worked out. I'll have to do the same thing tomorrow, and next month, and probably for the rest of my life–fall down, cry, take hope and get back up.

I know I just have to do this. And I don't have to do it perfectly, either.

Because when I look at my work, at my art, at the artifacts, the fiber work, the little bears and otters, the grumpy fish, the horses….oh, the horses!

When I remember my story I tell about myself and this work, what it's done for me spiritually, and what others say it does for them….

When I remember how far I've come from that lonely, sad place, where I was so sure there was no place in this world, I actually tried to leave it….

When I look at the wonderful guy who is my life partner, and our children, our friends and family, even the stranger on the street who chooses to be kind… When I realize all the opportunities there are in life to BE that partner, that child, that friend, that stranger…

I realize we truly are all made of stars.

I am. And so are you.

p.s. Thank you, Moby, for the title of this post.

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WHEN IS A WYSIWYG NOT A WYSIWYG?

When is “What you see is what you get” not what you think? When it’s something else.

(Originally published December 4, 2002)

Last week I got a call from someone on committee. They were in a bind. They needed someone to help with a project–could I volunteer for half an hour? I checked my calendar, saw an open spot and said yes.

I went in today for my assignment. I was greeted by the person in charge and put to work. Half an hour later, the task was done, and I asked the person in charge, “Is that it?”

She said, “Yes. Now, wasn’t that easy? That wasn’t such a big deal, was it?” with a kindly smile.

Being a grown-up, I managed to bite my tongue before the words “I think the words you’re looking for here are ‘thank you’!” popped out. I simply smiled and left.

At my next stop, I related my story to the woman behind the counter, bemoaning how ungrateful some people can be..

“Oh, that’s nothing,” she said.

Last year her fiance was at a local organization here in Keene, NH. He saw their Christmas tree project in the lobby, covered with dozens of tags. (This is their special Christmas project. Each tag has a child’s name, a child who was in one of their community outreach programs, with the child’s age and one wish for a gift.)

It was a week before Christmas, and no one had taken any of the tags.

Her fiance found the woman in charge of the program. He told her he wanted every tag on that tree. He was determined that no child’s wish went unfulfilled.

Together, they went shopping. He bought every single child not only their designated gift, but lots of extra presents as well.

He spent over $2,500.

They returned to the facility and stored all the presents to be distributed the next day. He told her he preferred to remain anonymous. And he had to hurry, because he still didn’t have a Christmas tree himself.

The woman said, “You said you don’t even have a tree for Christmas yet? Why don’t you take that tree home with you? It’s the least we can do to thank you!”

So the took the tree. As he walked out the door with it, the facility director walked in and saw him.

This week (one year later), the man saw this year’s tag-covered tree in the lobby. Again, he approached the front desk, where the facility director was standing. “I’d like to help out again with your Christmas program again this year,” he said.

The director looked at him. He only remembered seeing this guy walk out of the facility a year ago with the tree. He sneered, “I don’t think we’ll need your kind of help this year.”

What you see is not always what you get…..

I told the woman to have her fiance write a letter to the guy, cc’ing the board of directors, the woman in charge of the Christmas program, and the local United Way, which supports and funds this facility. Oh, and the local newspaper, too.

He should explain that last year, he had donated his time and $2,500 of his personal money to make sure no child in their care was left out at Christmas. This year, he had repeated his offer, and had been told his help was not needed this year. And he should say how delighted he was that the facility had been so successful in their efforts that they needed no other help from their membership or the community to ensure every child had a wonderful Christmas.

He won’t do it, of course. But what a lesson for all of us!

Sometimes what you see is NOT what you get.

Sometimes…there’s whole nother story being told.

Update: The generous gentleman preferred to suffer in silence, and vowed never to participate again. But eventually, he realized only the children were hurt by his decision. He continues to make Christmas wonderful for these kids.

P.S. This is a perfect example of BIBS, the Baby In the Back Seat phenomenon. Here’s where I read this concept by conflict resolution expert Anna Maravelas and here’s a recent retelling.) Please read them if you have a moment, it will change your life!

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