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?

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.

2 thoughts on “LEARNING TO FLY Part 2: Who Is Your Co-Pilot?”

  1. I do so appreciate your insights! I have only been working with polymer starting this year. I read, watch videos, do classes and learn something from everything I see. I know what I like and what I can do, and what I know I will never be able to do but have a hard time with contacting someone about letting it get out there. I’m not a good one for critics! I’ve even thought of donating some pieces to a non profit outlet just to see if they move. I given some to friends and relatives also. Not sure if they are wearing or liking (understanding?) the work. I just love creating but have to have validation or I think I need to give it up! I hope this fear is rational. B


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