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!