NEW JOURNEY: The First Step

Letting go of one stage of life in art, moving on to the next.

WARNING: The following is my personal experience and thoughts on this particular juncture in my life.

I do not cast judgment or aspersions on anyone else’s decisions and goals. It is simply one person’s thoughts (mine) on what I’m going to do next, and a discussion on how I’m getting there.

Time to share some of the reasons I checked in with artist/writer/life coach Quinn McDonald last week, and some of the insights I’ve had since then.

I’ve been feeling like a failure.

Or rather, I’ve now achieved all the goals I set for myself fifteen years ago, for better or worse, and I can’t find new ones.

Some were great: Getting juried into the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. Getting juried into the equally elusive Buyers Market of American Craft winter wholesale show. Getting juried into one of the country’s top retail show, the ACC-Baltimore show.

I’ve been featured in national magazines. Interviewed on TV–twice! Wrote a book. Wrote articles, even a regular column, for magazines.

I’ve been a guest lecturer for the Arts Business Institute. Given speeches at an international crafts symposium, various state and regional artist groups.

I’ve sold wall hangings for $5,000, an outrageous goal when people were balking at paying $50. I’ve had my work exhibited alongside some of my art heroes. I was selected for juried exhibitions in dozens of other states. I’ve won awards.

I’ve learned how to apply for public art proposals, how to create an exhibition proposal and how to pitch an article idea to a magazine editor. I’ve learned how to promote myself as an artist and writer.

In the process I’ve met wonderful people, made new friends, traveled across the country, and enriched my relationship with my now-adult daughter (who was three when I started all this!)

Some goals proved hollow or too elusive, and I’ve set those aside for now.

But I can’t think of any new goals. I have no idea what’s next.

Not knowing feels like failure.

Last fall I came across this incredible article on failure in the October 2008 issue of soon-to-be-defunct ODE magazine. Writer Marisa Taylor explores why failure is not just critical, but crucial to our development.

I know something is changing in me. But “giving in” to it was terrifying.

What if this “next step” means walking away from my art? What if it means not being very good at something?

What if it means going deeper into my art, and I’ve already used all my talent? What if I can’t sell it? What if I can sell it, but I don’t know how? Or don’t want to??

I realize I’ve fallen back into bad thinking habits. Thinking I have a finite talent for learning, focusing only on what I do well, whether I love to do it or not. Fear of looking stupid.

I realize lately I’ve taken more risks with my writing than with my art. How many people do you know would say it right here, “I’m afraid of looking stupid”…??

“The brain is a muscle,” says Taylor, “that grows stronger the more it’s used.” Failure, she says, creates even more synapses, more connections. Success and failure in the business world is about taking big risks–because only mediocrity lives in that middle ground.

And creativity is all about new connections. Like mediocrity, it never lives in that middle ground.

For me, selling my work gently but firmly led me to making creative decisions from my wallet, not my heart. Playing it safe, lowering my prices, focusing on work I thought would sell more easily.

Now, selling artwork is not a totally bad thing. It’s wonderful to have people love your work, it’s incredible when they tell you how beautiful it is.

When they buy it, it means they value your work enough to pay you for it. Their hard-earned money for your incredible work. One of my 15-year-old goals was to sell a wall hanging for $10,000. The day I sold one for $5,000 was a banner day.

But that thrill of selling is short-lived. Defining my success as “how much money I made at this show” or “how much money I made this year” made my world smaller and smaller. As the recession hit harder, and fear affected more and more of my customers, my sales took a walloping.

I kept saying I would not give in to that, but I did. As I look at all my decisions the last few years, I can see I’m still holding on to that lame definition of success.

It’s left me with an empty place in my heart.

My coach said it’s easy to see how I got there.

Just for simplicity, she suggested I temporarily replace “success” with the phrase “thrill of selling”.

Art shows are all about making money, from the producer to the show guide publisher, down to the booth holder and the parking lot attendant. Money is the coin of the realm here.

You sell your work or you don’t. You make “enough” money because enough people buy your work, or you don’t. If you are“successful”–selling your work for a lot of money–well, it gets harder and harder to raise the bar.

And if not….if you feel you have something–a pot, a quilt, a necklace–to offer the world and you’re “not successful”–it’s not being valued/bought, that’s painful.

The recession has made that worse. There’s been a sea change in our culture since 9/11. It’s a culture of fear. And it’s been exploited by many for a lot of different purposes.

So, said my coach, you’ve got something wrapped around your axle, so to speak. You are an artist–and money is not important. You are an artist–and money is important.

It is very, very hard to hold two opposing thoughts in your head at the same time. Which is where some of your discomfort is coming from.


Here’s the first question I was asked:

“What if money were not the coin of the realm?”

(Actually, the very first question was, “Are you a perfectionist?”, but we all knew that answer….)

So if I mentally/emotionally remove myself from that art show environment, what else is there?

Stay tuned…..


8 thoughts on “NEW JOURNEY: The First Step

  1. For me (at this moment) art is a means and form of communication, a way to express. Ideas, thoughts, feelings especially. Is there a way to quantify whether the art has successfully expressed them? And if so, is that enough of success, an unquantifiable yet hopefully gratifying, way to assess progress?
    Lynn Davis


  2. I go back and forth on this. Certainly you don’t want to just create soulless stuff for the market. But at the same time, what good is art if no one but the artist ever appreciates it? Is art created solely for the artist’s own pleasure just naval-gazing? Shouldn’t art be a conversation? When someone wants a piece of art for their home, so they can view it and enjoy it for all time, isn’t that an important part of the conversation? I view it as a delicate tension, a high-wire act that we must all walk. Some choose commerce, some choose art for art’s sake, but I think the best, most interesting art occurs at the interface.


  3. I think a lot of artists are now working on smaller less costly items . But the good news is the people at the top of the top of pay scales are able to spend with no problem. (I saw a news piece last night referring to $40,000.00 suits.) So in that category they’re spending.

    I always see you as successful not only for the meaningful work you do but for attaining all the things you’ve mentioned. Just think how it would feel if you hadn’t attained your goals yet.

    I’m in the same boat by the way. I’ve been teaching for over 20 years and always feel there is something more to learn, do or go after.


  4. Oh, Luann! Thank you so much for your courage. Like an athlete after the gold medal, or a couple I talked to a while ago who were selling their B&B, it is often hardest to move on after successfully living the dream. And this is something that everyone goes through: empty nesters, college grads, and so many who have lost jobs and companies whose products have reached lifecycle end. Finding new direction, new vision, new dreams takes courage and creativity. You have both! Thank you for sharing your process. It can help those of us with less courage.


  5. Hi Luann, I seldom if ever make comments but I am enchanted by the storytelling quality of your blog posts. It is reassuring, uplifting and life affirming to read about your experiences and insights. Hello Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria,sounds like you are setting off to discover The New World.


  6. Lynn, thank you for commenting! Yes, you are right that art is a way to express ideas, thoughts and feelings. Measuring how well, as an artist, we’ve accomplished this is one definition of success. That is what I still want to do. But now I want something more, and that’s what I’m exploring. What it is, I don’t know yet. More on the “IDK” soon! :^)

    Barbara, I agree with you 100% on the delicate balance you’ve described. It’s always helpful to question where we are in that equation. It’s also good to accept that some people will place themselves more to one side than the other. One issue is I found creative “push” from one side and can’t find the “push” from the other right now. Letting go of the outcome for right now is a way to explore a new dynamic.

    Marie, I think you’re right about that upper end. But something held me back from pursuing that the last few years. I’m hoping to find out why.

    Beth, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, and thank you for your good wishes.

    Kerin, your friendship, good wishes and excellent insight have been huge, and I revel in your simple wish for peace. :^)

    Jeanne, I’m humbled by your comments. I think the storytelling will play a huge role in what lies ahead. And I love the Columbus reference! Maybe I should make some ship’s flags….! :^D


  7. What if you were to write a book or article for the children’s market that use your art pieces (with photos for illustrations)? The children’s book market has NOT taken the dive that many other markets have, and as you remarked earlier; your storytelling looks stronger currently. There are many links out there to groups to help you reach that market, if you are interested; but the really sound one I just started with is Childrens Insider (on the write4kids website). In every issue of the online mag – it carries several pages of news about open calls for material at kidlit mag & book publishers. If that doesn’t interest you; then continue to Create your own reality & “so mote it be.” Blessed be.


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