LEARNING TO FLY Part 2: Who Is Your Co-Pilot?

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.

Find the best people to support you in your art-making.

In my first article in this series, I introduced the checklist, the pre-flight assessment that ensures anything and everything about your airplane is in good working condition, doing what it should be doing.

I also mentioned that when there is a co-pilot, there is a process for checking in with each other—one person reads the list, the other verifies. Neither assumes the other has checked already. It’s all about check, cross-check, and verify.

Often, artists consider themselves a one-person business. We think up the ideas, we gain the skills to do our work, we make it, we market it, and we sell it. (Oh, and we wrap it and ship it, too.)

Sometimes we’re fortunate to have a partner or spouse, either one that actually helps us promote our career, or one that has a job with the steady paycheck and health insurance. Even so, it can often feel like a lone endeavor.

Your actual artist support system can be much bigger.

These are the people who offer solace when things get tough. The people who can look at your latest work, and give constructive criticism, feedback, and encouragement.

These are the people who verify and confirm your assumptions, and even challenge them when you’re slightly off-course. People who can hold your feet to the fire, if needed.

These are people who offer another set of eyes on your perceptions, your obstacles, your game plan, and your outlook.

One example: Years ago, I was in a small artist support group. We met monthly to share our latest work, we reported on our progress towards our stated goals, and brainstormed about obstacles we faced.

One member, whose goal was to break into book illustration, brought a rejection letter from a publishing house. After showing it to us, she said, “So I want advice on how to accept rejection and failure.”

Instead, she got an earful on her outlook, and her strategy.

One member said, “Look at the wording, it doesn’t say ‘no, never’. It just says, ‘no, not now, but maybe later’. Why is that a rejection? I say try again in six months!”

Another member noticed that the person who had written the rejection note was NOT the person the letter was addressed to—it was a totally different person in the department, not the actual person she’d been referred to by an author. Not even the traditional initials used by a boss dictating to a secretary. “It’s possible your work was never even seen by the person you wanted to contact!” she said. “Call them back and follow up.” (This was long before everyone had—and used—email.)

I asked how many publishers she was targeting. “Only the one”, the artist replied. “They’re the only one I’d consider working for!” Upon further questioning, it turned out this stance was only supported by her dreams as a youngster, to work for this specific publisher—though there were dozens, if not hundreds, of other companies available—including several local companies. “Why limit yourself, based on what might be faulty assumptions?” I asked. “Right now, working with a different publisher for now, would give you the experience you might need to work with this publisher! At the very least, you could add ‘professional/published illustrator’ to your resume!”

The artist, who had never thought to question her assumptions, agreed with all.

How do we choose our co-pilots?

Ideally, they are someone who has your back—they will tell you the truth. But it’s also crucial you can trust them with your he(art). Because we all know some people will be unnecessarily, even unfairly cruel, ‘for your own good’.

They are good listeners. Deep listeners. They will take the time to listen well.

They’ll call you on your stuff.  They will discern the gulf between what you say and what you do.  You say you need a new website, or artist statement, or time to create a new body of work. But what you do—what you actually use your time for, doesn’t jibe.  (This is where they make your feet hot.) They’ll remind you of the goals you set last week, and ask what progress you’ve made. (Yes, there may be good reasons why you didn’t, and you’d better have one.)

They may take over the controls when you need a break. When you are only thinking of the bad stuff, they will acknowledge that you may be in a hard place—good listeners, right? But they will also remind you of the good stuff. (Our brains have evolved to focus on the bad/sad/scary stuff. It’s good to be reminded of the things we overlook—that big sale last month, the new gallery that approached you, your growing mailing list.) They will help you put it into perspective.

They may have more experience than you. They’ve been on the road—er…in the sky–longer, they know there are updrafts and downdrafts, and how to handle both.

 They may simply have more information than you. It may be a fellow artist who’s also in that gallery you’re worried about, or that show promoter that seems a little ‘off’. They may reassure you everything is okay, or they may share information that confirms your suspicions.

They don’t necessarily have to be other artists, nor good friends, nor even people you ‘get along with’.

How do you recognize the good check-in/advice/feedback/confirmation from the bad? Your intuition. Your gut. If you feel worse after being with someone, chances are you’ve subconsciously recognized something that’s ‘off’. If it rings true, if it restores you to yourself, if you simply feel better, it’s probably sound. Even better if you find that afterwards, you usually walk away with a good insight, a better way of thinking about something, hopefully, even a plan of action.

They may simply surprise you. I have a family member who, over the years, has been quite critical of my choices. But once, when I sighed about not being accepted into an acclaimed show, she practically channeled Martha Graham’s wise words to me. “Your art is not for you to judge!” she said. “It’s only your job to make it and get it out there. Leave it for others to judge.”

I almost dropped my teeth, but I recognized the truth of what she was saying. This is not the person I turn to again and again, but I love her for this time when she was spot-on. Use the same discernment when listening to difficult people.

There are friends you can lend money to, friends you can ask for money. There are friends who you can hang out with anytime, and friends you can call in the middle of the night. There are artists who always ‘feel sad about their art.’ (Avoid these, please.) And there are artists who raise us all with the rising tide of their wisdom and encouragement.

Seek out a select few who have the life wisdom, the integrity, the insight you need, to ensure you fly high.

So in your art career, who is your co-pilot?

And how do you support your artist friends?

LEARNING TO FLY Part 1: The Checklist

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.

Managing your career as an artist is much like flying an airplane.
Recently we met up with a friend, a professional photographer, who’s been flying airplanes for years. Almost all his life, in fact. Of course, I asked him my go-to question whenever I meet pilots: I asked him about the backstory of a recent local airplane crash.
Turns out almost all small plane crashes are directly due to pilot error.  This set off a fascinating, dynamic course in what’s involved in flying a small plane, the mechanics of flying, the skillset—and the mindset—necessary to fly, and survive.
Anyone can fly!” Bob exclaimed. “When things are going well, when you have good weather, a well-maintained plane, anyone can fly a plane. It’s when things go horribly wrong that determines life or death.” (Note: Few people die when their art careers go horribly wrong, so that’s the one thing we DON’T have in common with pilots.) He went on to list the incredible amount of human error that is the root cause of most small plane crashes.
Turns out that flying a plane, and managing your career as an artist, have lots in common. Similar skills, similar guidelines. Who knew?! And like a plane, when things are going well with your art career—your audience is growing steadily, your sales are strong, your resume is impressive, and your enthusiasm is at its peak—it’s easy to ignore your checklist. “I’ve got it all figured out!” you think. “I’ve paid my dues, and this is my reward!”
But like an airplane, our lives can go from running smoothly to ‘unpleasant surprise’ in months, weeks, days—even hours. And like a recession, when things get super hard in our lives, art and art-making can be the first thing we drop. (“It’s a luxury, right?”)
So let’s start today with the first line of safety in flying—in a plane, or in your art. And let’s assume things are going well today:
The checklist: The very first thing a flight instructor teaches a new student is to complete the pre-flight checklist. This is a visual confirmation that every single item/instrument/safety feature/aspect of the airplane is in its place and doing what it should. This exercise consists of three steps:
1) Reading (or hearing, if there are two of you) the checklist item. You read each item on the list every time, before you ever, ever, get off the ground. Every. Single. Time.
2) Accomplishing the item—verifying the correct setting, executing of the checklist tasks.
3) Responding to the outcome of the action performed: The switch is turned on (or off), the instrument is looked at and the information verified, etc.
This is a constant process of checking and cross-checking, checking and verifying results, and constantly checking in with the other person verbally.
There is a visual check you do of the airplane itself, before you even get in. You do another check in the cabin, before you start the engine, of every single instrument. The ones that should be on, are on. The ones that should be off, are off. There is a checklist after you start the engine, to make sure everything is working the way it should be.
After landing, no matter how soon you go up again, you do the whole thing all over again. Every. Single. Time.
Tedious? Yes. Repetitious? Oh, gosh, yes. Tempted to skip it? Well, in your art career, you may not die from the crash, but it can do a number on your spirit, your enthusiasm, your dedication to your art.
Your checklist can be very basic: Did you get a good night’s sleep? Did you have breakfast? Did you get outside? Go for a walk? Did you hug your kids/your partner/your dog?
Your checklist can be very simple: Get to your studio every day (or whatever is manageable for you, of course.) Get your hands dirty in your studio every time: Make something, anything that gets you to your happy artist place. Is your workspace ready for you to work? Or do you have to clear a surface (or two, or twenty?) Did you order that widget/supply/tool you need to try that new thing you’re interested in?
Your checklist can be more assertive: Maybe it’s managing your venues. Have you checked in with that gallery lately, the one that’s carrying your work? (Oops… gotta put that on MY checklist!) Have you kept track of the ones that are doing well, and figured out what’s going on with the ones that aren’t? Have you researched that new art fair you’ve been invited to?
Your checklist can grow with the times: Is your website up to date? Do you try to post new work regularly? Have you been diligent about adding new email addresses to your newsletter list? Have you checked out Instagram? (It’s easier to use than I thought, and fun!)
Your checklist can be very personal: Are you still excited about the work you’re making? Have you been true to your own, unique vision? Or have you been distracted by someone who seems to be having more success with their style? Does your artist statement sound like everyone else’s in the room? Or does it give your audience an authentic insight at what makes you tick?
Even as I write this, I can see the advantage in a checklist. I’m good at writing things down, but terrible at keeping them in a place I can easily find them again. (Guess how long it took me to figure out which notebook I’d written the original notes of my conversation with Bob?) So on my checklist for today, I’m putting “Create a checklist!”
Next time we’ll explore the cross-check, and the importance of your support network. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what’s going on YOUR checklist!