CUTE SHIRT!: What to Say When You Don’t Like the Work

My latest column at Fine Art Views–enjoy!

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. 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….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored 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.

Kindness—and the benefit of the doubt—goes a long way with your peers and in your career.

In my last article, I wrote about respecting other people’s artwork, even if it’s not my thing. What if the person asks for your opinion? What do you say??

Let’s go back a few years… okay, a few decades. I’m a new mom, and my only friends are other new moms. (Most people run the other way when confronted with a frantic new mother and a crying baby. Hence, most of your friends will be other frantic new mothers and their crying babies.) I was in such a group.
Every new parent believes they’re baby is beautiful. No, not just beautiful—the most beautiful baby in the world.  And we know the right thing to say to other parents: “What a beautiful baby!”

That day, we were discussing what to say when presented with an absolutely ugly baby.

The responses ranged from, “Now that’s a baby!!” with a big smile, to “Cute shirt!” What we all agreed on was, you never say what you’re really thinking. That would be hurtful, and serves no one.
After all, we hope every baby is a wanted child, that every child is loved, and that every child, no matter what they look like, is a new human being in the world, with all that entails.  Besides, people come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and abilities—why on earth would we judge a baby by those criteria? No. We simply know that babies have a place in the world, to be their own person.
When it comes to the things people make (er…that aren’t babies, that is), it’s a whole nother kettle of fish.
Entire websites and books (regretfully, Regretsy.com, the truly wonderful curated collection of truly awful stuff on Etsy, is no longer active) generate plenty of caustic reactions to really bad art. Read a review of any movie in The New Yorker magazine that was made after 1956, and you wonder why anyone even bothers to make movies at all, so much so seriously wrong with them. Walk any art fair, flea market, online site, and marvel at the amount of bad art in the world.  It will instantly make you feel so much better about your own.
We can behave like old ffff…folks, and complain how young people ‘just don’t appreciate good art anymore’, or how kids today ‘aren’t taught anything about fine craft anymore’ (as if we ever were!)
And critiques are a long-standing practice of traditional art education. How can we know how to improve our art, if no one points out our weakness in our composition, the flaws in our technique, the naivete of our color palette?
That’s our lizard brain talking—our need to judge, our need to discover where we fit in, in the overall range of art from very, very good to oh-my-god-what-were-they-thinking?? And though critiques can be hugely powerful in improving an artist’s skills, we’ll never know how many ‘good-enough’ artists—or simply artists with more sensitive natures—have been devastated by unnecessarily-brutal art bashing in out-of-control critique sessions, to the point where they really were convinced they were not, and could never be, ‘real artists’.
Yes, good art stands the test of time. We all know it when we see it, right?  But so often, what we consider ‘great art’ was considered gauche, disturbing, or otherwise unpopular when they were originally created, and it could take centuries before opinion changed.
‘Outsider’ art, so-called ‘primitive’ art, ‘intuitive’ and ‘visionary’ art, folk art, Art Brut, naïve art, all were considered simply ‘really bad art’, until somewhere along the line, someone saw something deeper, more powerful, more engaging.
As for the teaching power of critiques, I believe there’s a difference between an opinion that’s offered (or forced on someone), and an opinion that’s asked for. There’s a difference between constructive criticism, and scathing sarcasm. There’s a difference between being wishy-washy, vs. offering good insights into how the artist can increase their appeal, and generating a stronger audience for their work.
Here’s my current situation: I’m newly exposed to artists who are self-trained, young artists who are fearless in the work they produce, artists who are inspired by very different memes and themes than the traditional landscapes and still lifes of my art history training. Video game characters, graphic novel illustrations, comic book heroes, internet memes, steampunk, Goth, the ‘maker’ movement, all contribute to a vibrant, design-driven, eclectic stream of work that simply boggles the mind that usually considers ‘traditional art’ the only ‘real art’. It’s tempting to reject it out-of-hand as immature, Day-Glo bright, or just plain weird.
But when I look at the people who make it, I see something else.  I see the same intense desire for self-expression, the same need to make something, the same dedication to practice, to growth, to connection with an audience, as I do.
So what’s the equivalent of “Cute shirt!” in our modern world today?
One suggestion: Find three things you like. And go from there. I got this idea years ago, from an article about home décor. It said, when looking at magazine spreads of beautiful homes, it’s easy to focus only on the decorating styles you love. But even styles you’re not fond of, can help you train your eye, and increase your design repertoire. Look for three elements you like: a color combination, a texture, a window treatment, a backsplash, or light fixture. Consider why they appeal to you, even in a layout that doesn’t.
It’s good advice. It helps me expand my sources of inspiration, and have new appreciation for different experiences, even in appreciating someone else’s artwork.
If I’m watching someone work, I notice how deft they are with their materials and tools. If I’ve been watching their work over time, I notice how their techniques become more sure, more polished. I note their use of color, textures, design, composition.
I ask about their motivation, their inspiration. I ask who their audience is. I ask what venues they use to show and promote their work. I ask what their professional goals are.
When they go through a rough patch—lots of likes on Facebook, but few sales—I ask how they’re attracting people to their website, their studio, their shows.
If I’m talking to someone working in more traditional media, working with more traditional subjects, I ask similar questions. Why do they focus on this subject over those? How did they end up choosing their particular medium? How did they get started? Where are they headed, and where would they like to be?
All of these focus on the intention, the dreams, the goals of the artist. If these align with the manifestation of their art, well, then, they are successful artists!
A last suggestion: If you sense that your feedback would be appreciated, frame it for easy listening. “I love this, and I’m intrigued by that. You have skills with x, y, and z. What you could do better is…” and then offer your suggestions.
There you have it. It’s not hard to be kind, and people might actually absorb more of your excellent advice if you are.

MY THREE CATS and the Real Artist

I may not like your art, but I celebrate the fact that it means so much to you, that you have a voice, a vision, and that you chose to share it with the world.

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for Fine Art Views. 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….” For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored 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.

I have three cats. One I’ve had for over a decade, the other two are very new. (And coincidentally, both are black and roughly the same age.)

Old Kitty is affable, gets along with the dogs, moves like a raccoon, and does not adjust well to other cats. If I laugh out loud at something she does, she does it again. She hates to be held, but loves to be petted. She prefers floor toys to “air” toys.

Middle Kitty is also affable, and also gets along with the dogs. She gets along well with other cats. She will tolerate being held, but hates to be petted. She loves air toys, and is extremely athletic. She, too, is very funny to watch, but doesn’t seem to repeat when she hears me laughing.

New Kitty is anxious. She’s afraid of the dogs, she’s afraid of the other cats, she’s afraid of sudden moves and loud noises. But she is fearless about moving from her ‘safe’ place in our basement up into the living areas of our home. She’s determined to become a part of our household. She loves being held, and loves to be petted. We took her in off the streets, and she is only just now learning to play. She’s not very funny to watch.

Which one is the best cat?

Huh?

Why on earth would I rate my cats? After all, animal lovers know that our pets are as unique as people are. They have their good points and their annoying habits. They vary in the degree of affection they demand and give. And the value they add to our lives is impossible to quantify. Yes, we can live without pets in our lives, but if you love animals, you know life is richer for their presence.

(If you don’t care for animals, substitute ‘children’. Or ‘friends’. I was going to say ‘or spouses’ but I’m not going there.)

Why, then, do we so easily discuss artists in terms of who’s good, better, best?

I do it. You do it. We all do it. We’re competitive by nature, and our human culture stresses that competition.

Who’s the best student in the class? Who draws the best horses? Who won that race? Which baseball team won the World Series last year? Who makes the most money, and who’s the smartest person in the room? (Notice I am deliberately not including politics.) (Oops!)

And yet, it’s also human nature to embrace individuality, and inclusiveness. We strive to help those who have less than we do. We try to create a level playing field for people who live with disabilities so they can thrive. We applaud those who fight for the underdog, the underserved, the overlooked, those who are ignored ridiculed, or even attacked for being different in any way.

And yet we are so quick to judge the work of other artists, and even our own.

We argue about the difference between what is art and what is craft. Some people believe any work of 2D art is worth more than the finest example of handcraft. We talk endlessly about what a ‘real artist’ is. We even create levels of respect for the medium we work with: Oil is ‘better’ than acrylic, acrylic is ‘more respected’ than watercolor, anything is better than colored pencil or sketching, and this is often reflected in the price people are willing to pay for these categories. Consider a clay sculpture that is then used to create a mold for a bronze sculpture. Which will call for the higher value—the original clay piece? Or the cast item that can be made into multiples?

Who’s the most skilled? That’s a can of worms. Next!

Who’s the most famous? Who sells the most? Shaky ground. You may be a ‘successful’ artist (and we’ve had many discussions on exactly what that really means, you may be in all the fine galleries and in all the art books and magazines. But put ten people in a room, ask them who is the best artist out there right now, and I can almost guarantee there will be at least one person who disagrees).

Years ago, I participated in a workshop called “The Picasso Principle”. The instructor examined Picasso’s undisputed fame, yet listed many artists who are historically considered ‘better’ than Picasso at drawing, composition, color, painting, etc. But no one was better than him at marketing. And so today you can ask any person on the street to name an artist in history, and most will say “Picasso!”—even if they cannot name a single work by him.

Yes, there are standards and measures of technique. There are competitions, there are honors awarded, there are noted ‘masters’ throughout art history. (Though again, I will also point out that entire genders, race, and countries were systematically left out of the so-called definitive textbooks of art history.)

And yet all of this is based on opinion, personal, professional, and historical.

I bring this up because of several conversations I had recently with other artists. In one, someone mentioned a gallery run by two artists. “Now, Joe Blow is a good artist!” they said. And pointedly did not mention the other.

In another group conversation, a fellow artist walking by, and I jokingly said to the others, “Now there’s a real artist!” A person took it personally, and reacted badly. Lesson learned. (My jokes are bad.)

The last was a discussion about artists who have been in a guild a long, long, long time. “Their work is stale, and some haven’t even created new work in years!” one person exclaimed. “They shouldn’t be included anymore!” I disagreed. It costs us nothing to include them, they contribute to the demographics and our finances, they have their following, and their body of work. Who knows why they aren’t making new work? Health issues? Financial problems? I would hate to have anyone judge me based on my occasional fallow periods. “If they were good enough to get in, they should be allowed to stay until they decide to leave. If and when they try to re-jury back in, then we can judge.” And the others agreed.

It all boils down to this:

I may not like you, and/or I may not like your art. I may not like your medium, or your process. You may not meet the standards of whatever group you’re trying to join; they may be wrong, or they may be right. You may be ‘successful’, or you may feel like you’re not doing it right.

But if you are doing your best to make your art
If you have something to say with your art, even if it’s only ‘look what I made!”
If you have a vision of the world, and you share that
If your work connects emotionally, spiritually, metaphysically with others, even one person (notice I did not say ‘physically’ unless your medium is glue.)
If you strive, as you can, to make it better, to improve your skills, your marketing, your relationships with your audience
If all you do is make the world a better place for even one person

Then you, and your art, have a place in the world.

And you are a ‘good enough’ artist for me.

chai mouse

Old kitty, aka Chai

noddy and nick

Middle kitty, aka Noddy, Naughty, and Nutty

bean 2

New kitty, aka Bean. Yes, I can tell them apart, but our dogs can’t.

 

THE REALLY GREAT SHOW THAT WASN’T: Thoughts on Getting Over It and Moving On

My biggest local show to date was last weekend. I’m still recovering. Physically, emotionally, spiritually.

I set up my very professional-looking booth. Those of you who read my sad tale of woe about my pedestal base covers can see that, by staying organized and clean, the lack of covers was not an issue.

Quickest set-up ever, and it looked good!

Quickest set-up ever, and it looked good!

very professional-looking booth.

My display was also clean and simple.

Focus was on jewelry, and featured only my new Ancient Oceans series.

Focus was on jewelry, and featured only my new Ancient Oceans series.

I brought ONE wall hanging, just to give people context for my work. And at the last minute, used these felt pieces as accent pieces. These are from a collaboration I did years ago with another fiber artist. She did the felt, I did all the little artifacts.

These went BEAUTIFULLY with the white/neutral theme of the Ancient Oceans line!

These went BEAUTIFULLY with the white/neutral theme of the Ancient Oceans line!

I had a new cool outfit, on loan from my Santa Rosa buddy Patricia Reilly (also a jewelry artist, who is teaching me to sew my own linen duds!)

Being clueless about outdoor shows, I would have baked to a crisp, if a fellow exhibitor hadn’t noticed and asked one of the show support staff to grab an umbrella for me. (It went right in between my two cases, was exactly the right size and color, and looked great!)

So what went wrong?

Other competing events meant fewer people attending. Those who did attend, were not buying. (It was mostly about the food, the wine, and the music–dancing!!) And I was right behind the band stage. (GREAT music, but also very loud.)

As always, there were small moments of brightness, and gifts. A few people were captivated, and they were invited to my next open studio. The show was extremely inexpensive to do, so I didn’t lose much money. (Fee was $50 and a 20% commission on sales. I sold two inexpensive pairs of earrings, and made $84. You do the math.) Several friends showed up to brighten my day and model my jewelry.

Michele Bottaro, rockin' my Shaman Horse necklace!

Michele Bottaro, rockin’ my Shaman Horse necklace!

So what could I have done better?

Well, for one thing, in my eagerness to get my biz rebooted here in Northern California, I broke my first rule about shows:

Visit the show before doing the show.
Talk to the vendors. Ask about sales and audience-building. How long have they been doing the show? Does it work for them? What are their strongest price points?

Check out the products. Apparently painted baseball caps are a thing. Google it. It’s not awful per se, but I can’t compete with a $15 product.

Look at the crowd. Is there energy? (And not just from the music and food.) Are they actually buying? If so, what? Painted baseball caps??

Of course, I’ve visited shows that looked great, and by the following year (when I do it), something has changed. The economy, the layout, the venue. ANY of these changes can result in the phenomenon known as the first-year show. I’ve learned the hard way never to do a brand-new show.

Listen to your gut. There was a strange dynamic between the person who personally asked me to do the show (and followed up with me several times) and me. I try not to smack-talk people in my industry, so I’ll just say, that dynamic continued throughout the show. It’s hard enough to do shows without weird, slightly-hostile interchanges that go on and on and on. I honestly don’t know what I did to bring that out, but I also don’t care. I won’t be working with that person again, so it’s a non-issue.

The last thing will sound swell-headed, and I apologize in advance for that. But I’m getting the sense that, when you and your work reach a certain level of originality, quality, appeal, recognition, as mine has (sorry!! sorry!!), it’s to a gallery’s/promoter’s advantage to have you in that show–even if it’s not really a good fit for you. And I fall for it every time.

Sometimes I do want to support that person, give them a chance, go out on a limb for them. As I said, there is often an upside to doing a show that can’t be measured in sales and money. And of course, sometimes it’s anybody’s guess what show will be good for you, and what ones won’t.

But the older I get, the harder it is to do these shows, especially when, over and over and over again, it’s clear to me that the magic happens in my studio, and only rarely anywhere else. (The League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair was the only exception, and it took years to get traction there, too.)

And of course, most folks will tell you it’s necessary to keep doing that bad show show that doesn’t work for you for three- to -five years, to build a following. That hasn’t worked for me, and apparently it often doesn’t for others, either, as this excellent article at Fine Art Views by Carolyn Henderson explains so thoroughly. (SO glad it’s not just me!)

Where do I go from here?

Taking a deep breath in. And breathe out slowly…..

I can still experiment with gallery representation, though I’m more interested in wholesaling.
I’ll focus more on this season’s First Friday events, with summer and fall’s long, bright evenings, where local art galleries and artist studios are open to the public. Next one is this Friday!
I’m already putting more energy into my updated Etsy shop. So this week I’ll be putting up all that cool new jewelrythat didn’t sell, as promised.
And I’ll have faith in my process, and give myself time to grow.

It’s always worked before, and I believe it will again.

The metaphor here are those three white felt pieces. That collaboration took place the second year I did the League Fair, 16 years ago, and I’ve never displayed them since. So it felt a little retro (as in ‘going back over old ground’) but it felt right. As does my continuing realization that I may not be starting at the beginning, but I surely am starting over

And the funniest part?

I didn’t realize the guy who sold painted baseball caps was right behind my booth. As we broke down, he asked me how the show had gone. I told him, not well.

He said, “Well, don’t give up, I’ve been doing shows for seven years now. You gotta….” and a litany of the advice I’ve given others for lo-these-past-20-years poured out.

I smiled graciously (I hope) and thanked him.

And then went over to Patty and Jim’s house for beer and Mexican salad, with locally-grown avocadoes and locally-grown artichokes for appetizers.

Beer helps.

So do good friends, and a sweet, supportive partner. Thank you, Ana, Barb, Michele, Patty, Jim, Deb, and Jon. Did I miss anybody? Lemme know!