MESSAGES WE CANNOT READ

One of the memes in my artwork is best explained by a quote from one of my favorite books about Ice Age art, called Painters of the Caves by Patricia Lauber. She discusses the many theories about the purpose of ancient paintings in caves like Lascaux and Chauvet, most of which say more about our times and culture rather than theirs. She says the cave paintings and art are messages that were not addressed to us.

This concept says so much about our humanity. When presented with something we don’t understand fully, we create a story that explains it to our satisfaction.

But sometimes the story is wrong, or outdated, or simply cruel. I’m learning it takes great courage, and a willingness to be humble, to learn the true story. (Or perhaps I should say, the truest story.)

While I make my work, I’m constantly working in sets of numbers, colors, patterns–how many dots on this horse? How many lines? What is my favorite pattern of dots this month? How many beads in this color on this necklace, or on this decorative ‘drape’ on the sides of a wall hanging? I love odd numbers. Four is good, and five. Fourteen bothers me.

Afterwards, when I look at the finished piece, I see echoes of other patterns, some ancient and still unknown. The number of knots I put in a length of waxed linen remind me of the knotted cord language of the Incas.

When I see the dot pattern I’ve etched onto an artifact, I can almost remember what was inspiring me at that moment. When people ask me what the dots and markings mean, I ask them what they think. And their answers are always thoughtful, beautiful, wistful. “I think they’re constellations”, from a child. “Musical notation”, from a musician. “A map, a journey”, says another.

I use sticks from beaver dams to hang my fiber work. I’m fascinated by the patterns of their teeth marks. The pattern suggests a written message, a message we cannot read.

Beaver-chewed sticks, bug-chewed sticks, and lichen-etched sticks.

Beaver-chewed sticks, bug-chewed sticks, and lichen-etched sticks.

Today I came across videos of birds in flight. This haunting video of starlings in flight, for example. And this equally intriguing video of of birds’ flight ‘tracked’ in time.

So, two memes, or motifs, in my work:

So many hidden, mysterious messages around us, some random, to be sure. But others full of meaning to the creatures who make them, though certainly not made for us. Something that seems ordinary, that upon closer examination, is an exercise in wonder. An opportunity to see ourselves as just a small part of a world of daily miracles.

And the power of the stories we tell to make sense of our actions, our choices, our lives, the lives of others, and the world around us.

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BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE

True story: A year or so ago, I was working on a stack of ‘fragments’–smaller, raw-edged fiber pieces with my handmade artifacts. I left the stack near a window for a few days.

When I came back, there were funny burn marks on some of them. I realized a magnifying glass had focused the sun’s rays and scorched them. Yes. I nearly burned down my studio!

Now, after months of purging, packing, traveling, settling, unpacking, setting up, and moving my studio again two weeks ago….

I’m finally able to pick up where I left off with these two fragments. I had all the layers done, individually stitched in different colors of thread. I’ve attached the artifacts. Nothing left to do but….

Invest hours more of work into these!

I WANT them to look repaired, and so I was a little obvious about it. So I patched both of these pieces, using not-matching fabrics and threads. Hand-stiched them, because I haven’t quite figured out how to free-style quilt with the old sewing machine I picked up for my studio.

Can you see the repair? It's the tiny blue square above, to the right. I patched over the black base, and the blue square, and stitched periwinkle blue around the rust square.

Can you see the repair? It’s the tiny blue square above, to the right. I patched over the black base, and the blue square, and stitched periwinkle blue around the rust square.

I also repaired another square. Then I spent almost an hour just adding the right color of blue seed beads, and a few extra buttons. I never thought of this before, but I actually have to switch back and forth between hand sewing needles for each task, too. One needle for embroidery, another for handquilting, yet another for attaching seed beads–because a needle eye that is big enough to accommodate embroidery floss is usually way to big to go through a size 9o or 10o seed bead.

Can you find the repair in this piece?? The scorch mark again was about an inch long. It's just below the upper right hand corner of the yellow square, and extends into the rust colored square.

Can you find the repair in this piece?? The scorch mark again was about an inch long. It’s just below the upper right hand corner of the yellow square, and extends into the rust colored square.

Tomorrow I’ll add a few more handmade polymer buttons (which are in the oven right now!) I just ordered new shadow box frames for these, too.

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with how much time and work goes into even these ‘simpler’ pieces. It’s so hard to price them afterwards. Usually I end up making $5 to $10 an hour, or less. Not including my supplies and materials.

Sometimes I think it would have been so much easier to just paint. But then I would miss the fabrics, the beads, the polymer work, the displays and the old wood boxes, the shadow boxes…. I love almost every step that goes into making these pieces, and I never stop tweaking them, perfecting them, adding yet another element of interest, until I actually sell them.

I’ll show the finished pieces later next week, I hope!

P.S. I ran out of little bones, so this morning I made more. They’re in the oven now.
I bet that’s a sentence you don’t see every day.

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KEEPING UP APPEARANCES

One of the reasons we picked Santa Rosa, CA to settle in, is its diversity. There are all makes and models of people who live here, a variety of race, color, creed, sex, and socio-economic class. All very new and different to us after living 27 years in a college town in lily-white New Hampshire.

My husband lives in second-hand t-shirts–or even third-hand, who can tell? He wears them until the edges fray and the stitching unravels. (Remind me someday to tell you about our very first date.) Some mornings he takes a mini-sabbatical and heads off to a local coffee shop to research and write. He typically walks, and schleps around a worn-out backpack filled with his phone, laptop, and other necessities. And sometimes he puts off getting a haircut for a few weeks.

Nothing notable about that in Keene, NH. But one day, he caught a glimpse of himself in a store window, and realized that in Santa Rosa, he looks like a homeless person.

That population is as diverse and unique as any other group of people. There are many ways people become homeless, especially in a city that’s seeing another spike in housing prices, and rents that are unimaginably high. Some folks have cars, and sleep in them. Some have dogs, and struggle to keep them fed, as well as themselves. Some push old grocery carts filled with their possessions, or stuff they can recycle. Some carry all their possessions in an assortment of garbage bags. Some stay in small groups, others range far and wide. Some are reserved and cautious, others can be in-your-face with their issues, although the latter is actually rare. Many more are invisible to us. Most stay close to available social services. Range too far, and they won’t get back in time to get a bed for the night.

The other thing we love about Santa Rosa is how the city government, and the communities it services, strive to work WITH this population, with compassion and respect.

Last week I spent hours in my studio, getting my new space set up and my work on display. I inherited an airconditioner and a microwave. Which means I can stop by my favorite neighborhood mini-mart store in the morning, pick up a delicious entree of pesto tortellini, or a tri-tip sandwich, or an enchilada, and heat it up and eat later in the day.

I made a such food stop there last week. While waiting in line, I saw a man carrying several trash bags, wandering around the store. He left before I got in line, or I would have offered to buy him lunch, too. I felt bad that I’d essentially done that ‘I-can’t-see-you-so-you’re-not-my-problem’ gaze we get when confronted by social issues we don’t think we can do anything about.

But I got a second chance to do the right thing. I saw him again on my way out of the parking lot. I had no cash, but I realized I had quite a stash of parking meter coins. I grabbed a small handful of quarters and rolled the window down.

I pulled up alongside him. “Hey, good morning! I don’t have much cash, but I have my parking money, if that will help…?” I held my handful of coins out to him.

He stopped and looked at me, and said, “What?”

I thought, oh no, I’ve embarrassed him. But I repeated my offer.

He was still confused, so I said, “I thought maybe you’d like to get something to eat? I saw you in the store a minute ago. All I have on my are these quarters.”

He started laughing.

“I WORK there!” he said. “I’m just taking the recycling out!”

Boy, was my face red. I apologized.

“No, that was really kind of you,” he said. “REALLY kind. You have a good day now.”

Sometimes even the appearance of a good deed can bring laughter to a dark and dreary world.

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OPEN STUDIO for SOFA ART WALK

My brand new studio door. The studio is new, the door sign is new, and the door is freshly painted. So...new studio door!

My brand new studio door. The studio is new, the door sign is new, and the door is freshly painted. So…new studio door!

There are so many reasons why artists and other creative types should have open studios. You’d be surprised how many of them aren’t about the money.

Our big move to California last September upended a lot of things for both my husband and I. For me, I missed the League of NH Craftsmen’s Fair, which generates almost half my annual income for me. I’m also missing the FFAST open studio tour, and the Keene Art Tour, which I co-founded a few years ago.

I left without saying goodby to many lovely, loyal friends, collectors and patrons of my art.

And arrived in Santa Rosa where nobody knows my name. (OK, you folks in the back row saying, “Oh, WE know who you are, you smart aleck…”)

Today is the SOFA Art Walk, and my first really truly open studio, in my brand new space, filled to the brim with artwork, displays, and supplies.

I’ve been worried about the lack of traffic that usually happens down my little alley. I was worried about the massive construction project going on in the cafe around the corner from me, and the fact that Atlas Coffee won’t even be open this weekend. I’m worried my new visitors will suffer sticker shock. I’m worried about…..

Luann. STOP.

Finally, my right brain kicks in. Just as reasonable as my left brain, too.

It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter how many passers-by I attract to my studio today. Walk-ins were not how I grew my audience in Keene, NH.

It doesn’t matter that Atlas Coffee is closed. The owner has his own dreams, and his own audience. This is when the work had to be done (and you can already see how beautiful the improvements will be.) If anything, people will be just as interested to see the work-in-progress there, though we all miss their coffee. Depending on another small business nearby is not how I grew my audience in Keene.

It doesn’t matter that my prices may seem high. They’ve always been “high”, especially compared to big box stores and other small producers. Low prices and appealing to the masses is not how I grew my audience in Keene.

I think people grew to love my work for many reasons.

I’ve always wanted them to feel comfortable in my studio and in my booth. From the start, I’ve encouraged people to actually touch my work, pick up a little bear, or horse, or fish, and hold it.

I’ve always shared my stories, and my passion for my art. I did learn not to overwhelm people with my yakking (somewhat.) I let them browse, read, ponder. I let them really sink into the work, and wait for them to let me know they want to hear more.

I’ve (mostly) handled even rude and difficult customers (few and far between, thank, goodness!) with courtesy and patience.

I grew my customer base slowly, over the years, with these principles in mind.

And the same will happen here.

In my heart, I know it. As surely as I know, in my heart, that my work has a place in the world.

(And it helps that I also have a really great layaway plan!)

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JUST FOR TODAY: Try Something Different

Today’s post from Fine Art Views
Just for Today: Try Something Different
by Luann Udell

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. 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….”

Step outside the But-That’s-How-Other-Artists-Do-It box and see what else is possible.

I was talking with an artist I’d just met the other day. I love her engaging personality. I love her gift for creating engaging display. (She’d just set up my jewelry at a new gallery, and it looks great!) Everything about her smacks of authenticity, integrity, insight, and experience.

She told she was on fire with her newest body of work, which wasn’t on display yet. But she showed me the catalog she’d created, and pointed to her artist statement.

Which, I’m sorry, read like almost every other artist statement I’d ever read. Full of quotes about line, composition, light, color, and form. Academic, formal, and lifeless.

Absolutely nothing about the powerful, emotional circumstances that led her to explore a new process, a new dynamic. Nothing about what she hoped to achieve, nor why.

And I told her that.

This is one of those Oh-God-I-Just-Blorted-And-Put-My-Foot-In-My-Mouth moments. (I’m into titles today.) Thank heaven she took it the right way.

Artist statement. Artist bio/CV. Artist resume. We all have a notion of how they ‘should’ be written. All we have to do is look around at how other artists do it, and follow their example, right?

Wrong. Because how we all do it is simply convention. And, let’s face it, easier.

It’s easier to create a list of the galleries we’re in, the shows we jury into, the awards we win. It feels good to list the famous people and the prestigious corporations that have collected our work. And let me be the first to admit that on those days where I’m not feeling so successful, it helps to look back and see the accomplishments I’ve racked up over the years.

But what do they mean?

Yes, they can be a good reflection of our work—or at least, our work ethic. If a lot of people like our work, that’s good, right? If our work sells well for galleries, if we’re competent enough to attract the eye of a curator or a judge and garner that Best in Show award, if our work is interesting enough for a prestigious magazine to review with a two-page full-color spread, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Yes, all of these ‘measurable’ things are good. And of course, for our collectors who need to be reassured that we are indeed as good as we say we are, those milestones can be validating.

We also know that if these milestones were truly accurate measures of our worth as an artist, then the artist with the most, wins. If you are in more galleries than I am, are you really a ‘better’ artist than I? Your aesthetic may simply be more accessible to more people. If you won more awards than him, what does that mean? It means your aesthetic intrigued more judges than his. If she gets juried into more shows than you, what does that prove? Maybe her work is better. But maybe she simply applies to more shows than you do.

In my snarkier, lizard-brain moments, it’s easy for me to say, “Good lord, who let THAT into the show?!” (If you want to see wonderful examples of really bad handmade things, with hysterically snarky commentary, check out this smaller sampling from the now defunct website Regretsy.com.

But when I listen to the angels of my better nature, I know that what surely looks like bad art has a human heart and soul behind it. The work means something to the artist, something powerful enough for them to put the time, and the effort, to get it out into the world. The world’s reaction may or may not affect what the artist does next. That’s our choice. But it shouldn’t control everything.

So back to paying less attention to how we think things should be done…

Thank goodness, that artist took my words for what they were—a gentle challenge to be a little vulnerable. “You just told me that something happened to you a few years ago. You didn’t say what it was, and you don’t have to tell me. But everything changed for you. You “woke up”, you saw the world differently. It changed the way you make your art. There’s something really important you want to say. And you’re not saying it.”

Ironically, isn’t this exactly what art is supposed to do? One human being, sharing a different way to look at the world. Nothing…nothing… is more powerful than that. It’s not all about how you made that line, or how much you love color. You may use color to represent that powerful something. But what if there were a color you couldn’t see? Would you still be able to bring that powerful something into the world? (Of course you would!)

And so, just for today…

Try to write an artist statement that doesn’t include these words, especially all of them together: Line. Color. Composition. Form. Transcendant. Relationship. Synthesis. Oh, heck, go to the Arty Bollocks website and read a few of the results from their instant artist statement generator. If they smell a whiff like yours, think about what you could do differently.

Just for today…

Don’t try to impress other artists (as a profession). Try to connect with your audience (which may include other artists.)

Just for today, lose the artspeak—and speak from your heart.

Just for today, share what happened in your life that changed everything, that got you here from where you were before. If the ‘what’ is too personal, share the ‘why’.

Just for today… Try it!

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LESSONS FROM THE MOVE: Voices in My Head

Holy cow, where did that last month go?? Into the land of forgotten things, apparently. And so, to get back in the swing of things, a very tiny thought for today.

I have not one, but TWO chests of printers’ type tray drawers. The second one is special to me for the main reason that my son offered to refinish it for me. He did a beautiful job, too.

This is the printers type tray chest my son Doug refinished for me. Didn't he do a good job?!

This is the printers type tray chest my son Doug refinished for me. Didn’t he do a good job?!

Except for the drawers, and I don’t blame him for not going there.

Someone had started to restore it–half the drawers have their original type dividers. But half have been removed. And although the outside looks great, the inside is dirty/dusty/oily as only a type tray drawer can get from dirty/dusty/oily metal type.

When I moved into my new, tiny studio here in Santa Rosa, I decided to use this piece to store my inventory of polymer clay beads–animal artifacts, shell and tiny bone artifacts, and all sorts of beads in different shapes, sizes, and colors.

Yep, my artifacts inspired by prehistoric fox teeth are in there. Somewhere.

Yep, my artifacts inspired by prehistoric fox teeth are in there. Somewhere.

Visitors are amazed when I tell them to open the drawers. And they love to look through all the tiny treasures, and pick them up and hold them in their hands.

The only problem is, over time, those same beads are picking up the dirty/dusty/oily crud. And it’s hard to get it off. So it really wasn’t such a great idea to store them that way.

In the 8 months I’ve been in that space, I’ve agonized about what to do. Remove the polymer clay items? But it’s such a great way to have people interact with them! Use Q-tips and gently clean each tiny little section? That would take years. I mean it. And several bushels of Q-tips, and it wouldn’t completely clean them. And I hate cleaning stuff like that, and I don’t have time, and it will therefore never get done.

I kid you thought, I’ve thought about this every single day I’ve been in that A Street studio.

So the last two days, I’ve been moving into my new NEW space, into the larger, brighter, cooler (temperature-wise, but yeah, cool cooler, too!) space just vacated by my studio mate. Exactly one week after I realized my own teeny-tiny space was a bit claustrophobic for most visitors, she announced California was too hot for her (temperature-wise) and she was going to move a thousand miles away.

I felt very sad to lose her (she’s been wonderful!), but secretly elated I could now have her space.

So this is the third studio I’ve had in 10 months.

Setting it up feels just as daunting.

“Don’t worry,” say my artist neighbors and my coffee shop neighbors. “These things take a little time. Then it all comes together.” I know this is true, and for a moment, the panic ebbs.

It ebbed a little more tonight, for a funny (funny-odd) reason.

I remembered my friends in Keene tonight.

Today I heard a woman talking, and I thought, “Oh, that’s Julie!” But it was our new neighbor Jackie, who for some reason sounds like Julie today.

A hour later, I saw a woman walking to a car, and I thought, “Oh, there’s Jennie!” But it was someone who looks like Jennie (who is three thousand miles away).

Later I smelled the coffee my husband was brewing, which happens to be Prime Roast Demon Roast coffee, and I thought, “Oh, I’ve got to get Jon more coffee from Judy today.” But Judy has already mailed us the Demon Roast. It’s sitting on the counter, waiting for me to find a jar for it. And suddenly, I could hear Judy’s voice, too.

And tonight, after taking a wall clock apart to glue on a second hand that kept falling off (don’t ask), I heard someone else’s voice, in my head. Someone who, when I told them three years ago that I loved the look of old, worn, oily-black wood boxes, but hated the smell, and what could I use to seal the wood so it wouldn’t smell yucky, said, “Luann, you can’t do that. You need to WASH those boxes first.”

So at the very end of today, I also heard Gary’s voice, giving me the good adivice on restoring wood boxes that eventually led to a six-month informal apprenticeship for me.

Gary had one place for every tool in his shop. I'm trying. But it's hard.

Gary had one place for every tool in his shop. I’m trying. But it’s hard.

Now I know how to clean those type tray drawers. It will take half a day, or perhaps just a couple of hours and some time in the dry California summer sun.

Soon those drawers will be clean and dry, and able to safely hold my precious artifacts: horses, bears, otters, birds, antlers, stones, shells, and stones.

Someday, we’ll realize we’ve made deep new friendships here in California–because we always do. Change is hard, but change is good, and eventually you learn that change becomes normal in its own good time. We will laugh and cry with new voices, and make new memories, even right now.

And visits ‘back East’, and phone calls and emails,Facebook posts and pictures, will help keep those lovely, loving voices of old friends and good memories, alive and well.

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NERVOUS NIBBLES and a Very Humble Apology

Sometimes, when praise is due, we nibble instead. DON’T!!!

Years ago, a tiny little book, full of cartoons, written by a woman most of us have never heard of, changed my life.

The book is called The Nibble Theory and the Kernel of Power: A Book About Leadership, Self-Empowerment, and Personal Growth and you can read my first blog post about it, THE NIBBLE THEORY, A Big Little Book. (Actually, I’ll post links to ALL my blog posts about this amazing little book.)

Short version is (yeah, let’s see if Luann can do a short version….ha ha!), we are all circles, big and little. But ‘little’ doesn’t mean ‘less’, and ‘big’ doesn’t always mean ‘better’. Sometimes little circles are in the middle of astonishing growth. And sometimes circles, big and little, when intimidated by another circle whose potential is astonishing, will ‘nibble’ that other circle down to size. Take little bites out of it, so that circle will be smaller and less intimidating.

If you’ve ever received a back-handed compliment, a small put-down (or a major slap-down), anything that makes you feel embarrassed, diminished, less-than….you, my friend, have been nibbled.

We’ve experienced it, and it’s awful.

What’s even worse? When we find ourselves doing it.

A year or so ago, I discovered an Etsy shop called Loveroot. I fell in love with Nikki Zehler’s work, her wonderful designs, the extremely competent use of color, the eclectic nature of her materials. I bought several items from her shop. They were just as wonderful in person.

I'm including this image from Nikki's site because I BOUGHT THESE!! Aren't they beautiful?

I’m including this image from Nikki’s site because I BOUGHT THESE!! Aren’t they beautiful?

At some point, she messaged me, saying something to the effect of, “OMG, you’re THE Luann Udell, I’m so honored you like my work!”

And I took my first nibble.

I told her one reason I felt so connected to her work was that it looked like what I might have made, if I hadn’t taken the path of making my own artifacts.

I felt uneasy, even as I wrote that. I wasn’t sure why. (I do now.) But worse, I did it again.

A few months ago, polymer artist/writer/teacher/curator Cynthia Tinapple featured Nikki’s work on her site.

And in the comment section, I thanked Cynthia for ‘helping’ Nikki get her work out there.

Do you see them? My nibbles?

First I implied, “I could do what you do, if I wanted to.” (For the record–I COULD NOT.)

I implied I was ‘better’, because I make my own artifacts. (For the record–SO DOES SHE. And when she does use components made by other very talented artists, she fully acknowledges them. She mixes it up, and makes what she needs when she can’t find it–like me.)

Then I implied that this talented artist needs the help of others to be successful with her art. (The only help a talented artist needs, is for people to buy the work and spread the word.)

Yes, I meant well. (But let’s be honest here–I envy this woman her talent.)

Yes, it’s human nature to be envious. (But we can choose not to act on it. And I did.)

Yes, we are all inspired by the beautiful work of others. (But we can simply acknowledge it, too. Not measure ourselves against it.)

Yes, we are all influenced by the work of others, the ones that are here now and the ones that have gone before us. (Prehistoric cave art. Can’t get much further away from our modern times, right?)

Bottom line: Sometimes when I am confronted by raw, wild, beautiful talent, I’m afraid. I’m afraid the world really is a finite pie, and if someone else gets a bigger piece, mine will be smaller.

And I myself have been badly nibbled by jealous professionals to understand how hurtful even the smallest bite can be.

And so, this Very Humble Apology, for what may be very tiny transgressions, but are still me not being the person I’d like to believe I am.

I want to be better. That means doing better.

So this is for Nikki. I am sorry I nibbled you. I will not do it again. And if I do, I’ll apologize, again.

Check out her beautiful work. Tell her I said hello.

She is a one-of-a-kind artist, and she has nowhere to go but up.
And she will get there on her own talent and story.

Links to my posts about THE NIBBLE THEORY:

THE NIBBLE THEORY: A Big Little Book

WATER BALANCE

AMOK

MEAN PEOPLE SUCK #2a: Professional Jealousy Part Deux

MAYBE IT’S YOU: Staying Creatively Centered When Creativity Changes Things

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