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.

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.

14 thoughts on “GETTING PEOPLE OUT OF YOUR BOOTH #2: Shadow Artists”

  1. I’m so glad I came across your informative post. I have finally decided to take the big leap and participate in my first show. I am both excited and anxious about it. There won’t be any booths though, just tables. I picked a small show for starters. I think the information you gave here will be very helpful. Thank you for sharing!


  2. Fascinating insights and really great suggestions. Interestingly, during the years I was not making art I could never have stomached being a shadow artist so I avoided art/artists like the plague. Just going into a gallery could make me cry.

    What’s sad is when you decide to take the plunge and you have a long-time creative friend who hasn’t worked up the nerve to do the same (and likely never will now). The friendship is likely to end as the shadow artist’s passive-aggressiveness makes the situation intolerable. The greater the artist’s success the more likely the friendship to fail.


  3. Hi Erika, thank you for your comments. Congrats on doing your first show–I hope it will be the start of something wonderful for you!

    Andra, what you are saying about leaving friends behind is spot-on. It is one of the sad consequences of moving forward in your life–some people will be left behind, especially “co-dependents” who joined you in sympathy and commiseration for what what you could not have back then.

    It’s hard, hard, hard. Yet I would not go back to those times for all the tea in China! :^) What I have now is far more healthy and fulfilling.


  4. I’ve sat next to a type of shadow artist during my first show.

    It was in Switzerland and I spoke no French. She was British and worldly and had made sure to have both our tables next to one another so I would have some moral support. I thought how nice of her. I felt safe.

    She then proceeded to pick apart not only my work but also my display, my prices and the people buying it. She was so subtle that it took me awhile to catch what was going on. I thought why is she so jealous, she has a table, work and experience? Then when she told me that she collected jewellery at yard sales or bazaars and just cleaned up the pieces, or added a new clasp. I realized that she was jealous of the fact that I had come up with my designs.

    As for losing friends when you finally decided to make your art and sell it. It’s hard for everyone around, you really will find out who is in your corner and who just wants to hang out and talk about art. It’s hard, but that’s why many people don’t take the plunge.

    Thanks again for your wonderful insights and experience Luann.

    Hope your recovery is going well:)

    Kind regards Deborah


  5. Great post, Luann! These are terrific suggestions!

    I think the overly-picky customer can also be dealt with using the line “yes, my work isn’t for everybody.” It helps move them along. Besides, it’s entirely true! Not everyone will like your work.



  6. Deborah, I posted the link to the older essay on professional jealousy part deux just for you! You are obviously quicker on the uptake than I am–it took me YEARS to figure out what was going on! (It take me less time now, though–I’m learning!)

    Yes, Barbara, that IS a great line! :^)


  7. Hi Andrea, apologies, your comment slipped by me somehow.
    I want to reassure you that although it’s hard, hard, hard to lose those friends, eventually you get to a place where you appreciate the friendship for what it was, and let go.
    You also get to a place where you realize you wouldn’t go back and do it differently. Once your heart and spirit have expanded so much, you cannot squish it back into the little space it was before. Better to be nibbled at than squished!
    I also find the friendships that DO survive to be even more precious for that. And the new friendships, sitting on a stronger foundation, to be exhilarating.


  8. This touches me deeply. Having just returned from another “first friday” at the gallery. Spent most of the evening fencing around my “partner” within the booth. We share space at the gallery. He once was a very talented artists. I suspect he still is; yet he has gone off in another direction driven from the inability to “see”. His health is deteriorating. His eyesight not being what it once was. Lately he has taken to comparing my work and his latest with many of the sidebar comments of a shadow artist (now that know the term). Am not able to carry the cost of the full booth. This year is going to be spent sharing the booth space with this man. Your article has given me some alternatives to finding a peace between us hopefully without permanent damage being done.
    Thank you for putting it back in perspective


    1. It is wicked hard to lose a friend when they lose their way. I’m so glad this essay helped! I wish you peace in your heart as you navigate the months ahead. Let me know what happens.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: