GETTING PEOPLE OUT OF YOUR BOOTH #2: Shadow Artists

Second in a series of people you need to get out of your booth at a craft show–fast!

Oddly, the next group of people I’d like to talk about are the people who wish they were you.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, described a type of person she called the “shadow artist”. A shadow artist is someone who is an artistic, creative person themselves, who chooses instead to stand in the shadow of someone who is perceived to be a “real” artist. The shadow artist may play a supportive or secondary role in the arts, working for groups that promote artists, or even marrying an artist.

Being a shadow artist can be a sad and painful thing. These people may have never been encouraged to explore their artist self. They may have been told they weren’t good enough. Yet something in them hungers for art, and draws them near others who have it.

Many artists are former shadow artists. I was.

Many of your best customers and supporters are shadow artists. They celebrate what you do. They cheer you on. They delight in you doing what they feel they are not capable of doing themselves.

Many shadow artists are still positive, constructive people. They learn to channel all their creative energy into helping others. They do amazing work, supporting artists and the arts with their time, their money, their patronage. Many of our art guilds, organizations and schools would not be nearly as effective without them.

But they may still be unhappy. Deep down, they may feel the loss of not living the life they would like for themselves.

Consequently, some shadow artists are not positive or supportive people. They may be jealous or resentful of the very artists they say they appreciate and support.

They may even be artists at some level already–but jealous of people they perceive to be “more successful” or “more artistic” than themselves. The pain of seeing others live the life they want so badly for themselves spills over onto other people.

Sometimes it spills right over into your booth. Not good.

I know, because as hard as it is to admit it, that was me, too.

So as much as this type of person annoys and irritates me, I have a soft spot in my heart for them. I’ve been there. I know what it looks like. I know what it feels like.

But I still have low tolerance for their behavior, especially in my booth.

How will this person act in your booth?

You may hear someone like this making snide little comments to a friend as they peruse your work. They may hint the quality isn’t what it should be. At a wholesale show, a buyer may be overly fussy and particular about your work, insinuating that most pieces are just not quite good enough for their store, handpicking through your samples. They may make disparaging comments about your color choices, your materials, your design choices.

Retail customers may imply that they could do your work–the “I can make that!” people. Anything that makes them look good and you look not-so-good.

Now, hey, it’s human nature to think this way sometimes, and I groan and roll my eyes at what passes for “art” and “fine craft” all the time.

But not in someone else’s booth. Not where they can see me and hear me. That’s just rude.

I’ve found a few ways to deal with this kind of behavior. Please feel free to add your own tactics in the comment section.

One way to handle it is to ignore it completely, especially if there is no one else in your booth. There’s simply no way to interact that won’t put you on the short end of the stick emotionally. Recognizing this behavior for what it is–passive-aggressive, hard to pin down, hard to argue with–can help you decide to ignore it.

Resist responding in anger. Either the person doesn’t realize they come across that way, in which case your response will seem unjustified, or they do mean it, and they get a rise out of you. Getting angry in your booth is just bad, bad, bad for you, your booth, your business. People will sense it long after the offender is gone. Resist making comments about that person to the next visitor, too. Otherwise, they worry you’ll be talking about them next!

Your best weapons, believe it or not, are your good humor, your patience, your professionalism, sincerity (yes, sincerity) and the fact that it’s Y*O*U who is at the show, not them.

Bruce Baker recently suggested two good responses for the “I can make this!” crowd. Both have to be done with good humor and as much sincerity as you can muster.

When someone starts hinting or making comments that they could do the same work, simply say politely, “Well, these are for the people who aren’t as creative as you!” I’ve used this statement many times, and it works. It leaves them with absolutely nothing to say. It sounds like you are acknowledging their creativity.

The unspoken point is, that if they were as creative as you, they’d be doing the show, too. You win tons of points for subtlety and restraint. If there are other people in your booth who overhear this, they will actually come up and compliment you on your professional restraint. They’ll marvel that you were able to hold your temper and respond so calmly. I know, because people have done just that.

Another BB suggestion is to respond with total good nature and wide-eyed innocence: “Oh, you’re a potter/jeweler/painter/whatever, too? What shows do you do? What galleries do you sell to?” Again–you must be sincere to make this work. You are gently challenging them to prove they really are at your level.

Most people will back down, mumbling something about being “between studios” or “needing to do more marketing research.” Because, of course, they usually aren’t at a point where they are actually making and selling their work. (This also works for the people who claim their daughter makes the same stuff you do.)

If they claim self-righteously that they make their work for love, not money, keep on pressing with something like, “Oh, so then where do you exhibit your work?”

Then there’s my personal favorite: I take a tough love approach.

I will actually give shadow artists a little lecture about the importance of making their own art. I tune in to that “healing” aspect of my work, by sharing how it came to heal me.

Again, it works best if you are grounded and sincere. And when I do this, I am speaking out of sympathy and love. (If I can’t muster it for the annoying person in my booth, then I do it out of forgiveness for my former, miserable self.)
Without coming out and actually naming what they are doing, I tell them my story of how I got started doing this artwork. I tell them how miserable and jealous I was, sitting on the sidelines, being afraid and critical of everyone else’s artistic efforts–until I finally got into the game myself. I quit being a back seat driver, and started driving my own little art/life car.

I tell them I firmly believe that almost everyone is creative in their own unique way. That everyone has something of value to offer the world. That the world would be a better place if more people had the courage to do just that–figure out what they can offer, then just do it.

I tell them the power of being their authentic self. The healing that comes from being the artist they were meant to be. It’s hard work. But it’s worth it.

The story is about me. But it’s still a challenge–and an opportunity, if they see it–for them.

I think when people hear it, they can see themselves, just for a moment. I think, by being honest about the fact that I wasn’t nice person when I was in that horrible little place, it gives them permission to see a new possibility for themselves.

I hope so, anyway.

It usually is enough to at least turn the energy around, to take that negative stuff and turn it into something positive. Most people who can’t deal with it, hunker down and run at this point.

The people who can hear it, are hungry for more. I refer them to my blog, or to Julia Cameron’s books (or other resources), or offer to talk to them more….

(wait for it.)

after the show. (You knew that was coming, right?)

Shine a gentle yet powerful light on these shadow artists, and watch the scary stuff disappear.

P.S. As for the picky, picky buyer at a wholesale show or a store where you’re presenting your work, I’ve found there isn’t much you can do to turn the attitude around. After all, even if you can turn it around on the spot, you still have to trust them to do the right thing and continue to promote and sell your work long after you’ve sold or consigned the work to them. The most effective ploy takes a lot of courage and conviction and belief in your work.

You can choose to pick up your marbles (er, work) and go home.

Simply say, “I’m sorry, I don’t think my work is right for your store. Thank you for your time.” Pleasantly, professionally.

Surprisingly effective for those buyers hoping to put you on the defensive, because now if they really want your work, they have to cajole you into staying.