LESSONS FROM THE GYM: Working That Tiny Muscle

by Luann Udell
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.

Sometimes it’s tiny adjustments that bring about desired outcomes. 

I’ve written a series of articles on my blog about the conversations I overhear while working out at the gym. 

This isn’t quite the gym you’re thinking of. The physical therapy group I use also provides an independent gym program: When a client completes their physical therapy plan of care, they can chose to continue using the facility’s equipment on their own. I follow an exercise plan created especially for me by their PT or athletic trainer. The advantages are, it’s inexpensive, I receive continued monitoring by the staff, I get regular updates to the exercise plan, and I’ve found wonderful social connections. I love these guys! (Er…I’m from the Midwest, so “guys” means men AND women.)

Many of the articles in this gym series are insights I’ve gained from overhearing remarks and conversations between therapists and clients. (I never reveal health issues, therapy, nor treatment, not even the gender of those involved.) These observations spawn many “aha!” moments in my growth as an artist.

I’ve also watched many young people, people who want to pursue physical therapy, observing and ‘shadowing’ the therapists, accumulating hours for their own degree programs in this field. I love to ask each one of these observers, at the end of their time, a simple question:

“What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned from your observations here? Something you did not, or could not learn or observe in the classroom?” 

Surprisingly (or not!), every single person has learned something different.

The most recent observer noticed two things, and today’s article is about her first “surprise”.

They watched one therapist working with a client.  The client tried an exercise the therapist had given them, to help restore strength and function to a weak muscle. The therapist watched and then said, “Okay, when you do this exercise, you need to rotate your foot slightly, to here (gently repositioning the foot) to target this specific muscle we’re working on. Otherwise, you’re engaging and working a different muscle, and you won’t gain the results we need.”

I asked the student why that was surprising. They replied, “I had no idea that such tiny adjustments could alter the outcome of the therapy.” 

What a subtle observation! I have no doubt this young person will become an excellent therapist in the years ahead.

How does this relate to artists? So glad you asked!

To start with, keen observation is the very heart of an artist. There is something we “see” in the world around us, whether it’s a beautiful landscape, the way whiskers in an animal portrait catch the light (from a comment by a reader a few weeks ago!), the colors we hope to capture in a vessel’s glaze. A split second of action, or the deep emotion of the moment we hope to freeze in a photograph. The intoxicating aroma of a new perfume, or the feel of a handwoven shawl, the tacit feel of a hand-carved object. All these are tiny details, aspects of the world we notice that many do not. These details are the things we yearn to recreate, or capture, or echo in our own work. Then our mission, and hope, is to share these observations with an audience.

Yep. I’m that person at the ocean, looking at…..rocks. Every. Single. Rock.

Then there is the power of those tiny details in our work. These details are exactly what my audience loves about my work: How it looks, how it feels, are all small pleasures they experience, and enjoy. Every one of you has something, often tiny, often overlooked, that you pay deep attention to, to help you connect YOUR work with YOUR audience, too.

There are the tiny skills we acquire, sometimes over years, sometimes over a lifetime—how to utilize an ordinary pencil to its deepest purpose, to recreate a three-dimensional object, or an intricate pattern, a shadow, or a splash of light. Something most people use (if ever) for their shopping list hanging on the fridge, becomes a powerful tool in the hands of an expert. And the same for manipulating paint, paper, clay, metal, fiber. If you’ve ever watched a potter centering clay, then pulling up a form, you know the magic of what looks like the clay forming itself into a beautiful shape. It looks so effortless, yet if you’ve ever tried it yourself, you immediately appreciate the incredible skill and interplay of arms, hands, fingers needed to get it just right.

We use another set of tiny skills in the ways we let the world know what we’ve made. Advertising, marketing, doing shows, open studios, demonstrations, word-of-mouth, business cards, are all ventures comprised of a million tiny, individual, focused decisions, actions, and steps. Don’t we know it!  From deciding which images to use in our self-promotions to what shows and galleries we should consider, all break down into very tiny steps: Researching that gallery online. Visiting that show. Posting our work on social media. Filling in our calendar with deadlines. Skip some of these tiny steps and skills, and you may end up spending a lot of time and money on a show that does absolutely nothing for your art business. Just like my column on why our work costs so much, for every hour we spend “on the stage”, there are thousands of hours, spent on just as many teensy tiny tasks that helped us get there.

Is social media become a daunting task for you? I’ve learned that simply posting a single image (and comment) to Instagram is a tiny, efficient way to keep my work in the visual stream. I’ve set up my account to repost to Facebook and Twitter. My blog is set up the same way. I may not have the time to devote hours to social media daily, nor do I want to. But this is a very small effort that feels rewarding.

We know the power of committing some small part of our day to the service of our art, every day. It’s so easy to look at our to-do list, and promise to do our work “tomorrow”. But very tiny adjustments can help. Just as simply putting on our gym shoes can help us be more vigilant about exercising, I find that setting something I need to take to my studio (a piece of fabric, a string of beads, a half-finished artifact) on the kitchen counter the night before helps solidify my plans for the day.

And last but not least, very tiny revisions to how we approach customers can create great changes in our connections.

We now know that the greeting, “Can I help you?” will be usually be met with a “No, thank you, just looking.” While the greeting, “IF I can help you, just let me know!” will be met with a heartfelt, “Why, thank you!!” and the visitor digging in for a really GOOD look.

We know that saying, “It took me 39 years to make that pot!” may get a laugh, but not a connection. But saying, “As a child, I was very close to my mother, who was a potter, and I used to sit and watch her in the studio while she worked. I’ve been fascinated with clay ever since, and I’ve been working with it for over forty years. And when I make a beautiful pot, I think of her…..” may start a rich conversation.

We’ve learned to identify the questions that deserve a good answer, and the ones that really don’t. We know how to tell the people who are really are our allies, and the people who will never be—and that this is not our fault.

As artists, we all know the power of those very tiny adjustments can make all the difference in ourselves, our art—and the world.

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TAKE ME HOME WITH YOU! Will It Go With the Living Room Rug?

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.

Make it easy for your customers to make difficult decisions.

In this series, a spin-off of my Haters Gonna Hate series, we explore ways to make that impulse purchase happen. We’ve talked about getting around the issue of price, including the “how” (by creating a layaway plan that works) and the “why” (by explaining the value of your time.)

This week, we’ll discuss another obstacle that people sometimes give when they hesitate about a purchase:  

“Will it go with my antique rug/living room wall color/sofa/other collections??”

I’m sure you’re familiar with the pre-internet meme that’s circulated for years: “Art doesn’t have to go with the sofa!”

I get it. Art is…should be….bigger than that. Art should be something spectacular, something you build a room around, not something you match to the décor. Sometimes it’s good to go bold and colorful, edgy and provocative. Art doesn’t always fit in a box.

But truth is, people have their preferences. They have a beloved cheetah patterned-sofa, they have an heirloom rug that’s been in the family for years.

They have their color scheme, and they love it. They have their favorite possessions, and they love them. They have a style they prefer, and that’s okay. They have chewing, scratching pets, or young children, or a spouse with strong opinions. Perhaps they are at the stage where living quarters get smaller. They have NO MORE ROOM for more stuff.  And even when they have room, they may simply prefer empty spaces, clear surfaces, bare walls. (WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE??) (Oops…please pretend you didn’t hear that….)

So if your color palette doesn’t align, or your work is delicate, if it takes up a lot of room, or no room at all, if it’s simply not a style that fits in with everything else in their environment, then even if they love love love your work, you may face push-back.

Look, when people shop, even for art, they often hesitate, especially over a major purpose. That’s when questions, and self-doubt about our choices kick in, especially if we didn’t intend to fall in love with an expensive piece of work.

That’s when our lizard brain goes to town. “It’s too expensive, you already have enough art on your walls!” it buzzes. “You have tons more at home just like it!” Or the reverse, “It’s not like anything else you own, it will look weird!” Or, “It’s so fragile, what if I drop it??” Or, “What if it gets dusty/dirty/fades/shrinks/tarnishes???”

And when the lizard brain wins, your potential customer will walk out the door without your work in hand.

That’s why many sales techniques involve urgency: “Going out of business!” “Last one!” “Sale ends today!” Or massive pressure, or any other techniques we hesitate to use (and rightly so!) when engaging with our audience. We aren’t selling used cars here. (Although one artist friend said it would be a lot easier, and more lucrative!)

The power of asking what’s holding them back is in finding out what their lizard brain is telling them. And responding in ways that are logical, that are truthful, and that reflect our integrity.

In the case of will-it-go-with-the-sofa, a woman fell in love with a wall hanging in my booth at a show. She’d seen it before, but this time she’d made the decision to purchase the piece.

But as we discussed the work, I noticed she was resistant to me actually closing the sale. I made the mistake of assuming it was about the price. No, she replied, she was fine with that. We both looked at the work in silence.

Finally, very gently, I asked her, “What’s holding you back?”

 And she confessed that she had a treasured antique rug in her living room, where she planned to hang the piece.

She was afraid it would clash with the rug.

I asked her about the rug’s colors and pattern. I spoke about the antique, vintage, and recycled fabrics in the piece, noting that the slightly subdued palette would go with the rug. She still hesitated.

           Turquoise Moon

Who woulda thunk that working with OLD fabrics would be a powerful selling point??

Finally, I said, “I know this piece will shine in your living room. Do you live in the area?” (Many vacationers attend this show.) Yes, she said.

“Then here’s what I can do for you. Take the hanging home with you. I’ll take your credit card number, fill out a slip. I WILL NOT RUN the slip until you make up your mind. If it doesn’t work, bring it back, and we’ll tear up the slip. Then you can commission one in your choice of colors. If I DON’T hear from you by the last day of the show, I will run your credit card for the purchase.”

This worked. Greatly relieved, she agreed.

I had the security of her credit card. I also wrote the agreement in my notebook, and she signed. (You can do the same thing with a check, of course. And you can text them a copy of the agreement, too.)

In past discussions, some artists have let the patron take the work home with no deposit.  I was ripped off once (admittedly, a relatively small amount), and I hesitate to do that again. But sometimes, that amount of trust in a potential buyer is powerful. That’s up to you.

But even with this secured method, the trust element is huge. She was amazed, even honored, I was giving her a way to set her mind at ease.

I wrapped up the item for her. And as she turned to leave, she leaned in to me and whispered, “I don’t think I’ll be bringing it back!”

And she didn’t.

Does this always work? Nope. But when it does….!!

I waited five very long days to deposit that check. But when the last day came, and it was obvious she was, indeed, not bringing that artwork back, it felt wonderful.

Especially because it was a pretty big check!

HATERS GONNA HATE: “It’s Just Chalk!”

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.

 You don’t have to defend your choice of materials.

In fact, make it a selling point!

A quick return to my series on how to answer the innocent questions, the odd questions, even the hurtful questions our visitors ask.

 During one of the discussions on a post in this series, a reader related that someone had dismissed her choice of medium with a disparaging remark”

“It’s just chalk!”  Ow!

 I remember the very first show I did, selling pens I’d covered with patterned polymer clay. I sold them for $5. Someone picked one up, sneered, “It’s just a cheesy pen covered with some kind of cheap plastic!”, tossed it back onto the table and walked away. (I remember thinking, “Was that absolutely necessary??”)

Sometimes a remark like this comes from another artist. One of the oddest things I’ve found among artists (of all kinds) is the hierarchy assigned to various media.

For example, oil paint is often considered a more “professional” medium than acrylic paints. It’s traditional, it’s harder to master, and it takes time to dry. Once cured, it’s extremely durable. It’s versatile, perfect for mixing and layering, because of that longer drying time. In the hands of a master, it creates spectacular results. Oil paints have been around for centuries, and became the “artistic medium of choice” in the 15th century.  Art made with oils usually commands the highest prices in the art world.

More modern acrylic paint, created in the 1940’s, has a slightly less lofty reputation. It dries quickly, doesn’t have such a prestigious history. The very name “acrylic” suggests ‘plastic’, synthetic. Fake.

On the other hand, acrylics are valued more than watercolors, which are valued more than drawings, colored pencil, pastels. And don’t even open the door to photography, that’s not even art. It’s a craft! So are woodblock/linocut/etchings/etc., because you can make hundreds of copies. They aren’t considered “real” art forms.

When I entered the art world, my mind reeled trying to sort out the innuendos and rationale for these hierarchies. My own choice of materials are so non-traditional, my medium is greeted with some suspicion. I don’t get much respect as an artist, until people actually see my work.  Even then, people used to pick up a piece and ask what it’s made of. “It’s polymer clay!” I’d beam, and they’d quickly put it down again.

What’s going on here???

Some of this bias is historical, based in tradition. Centuries ago, drawings were considered simply a draft for the “real” art—a painting. Colors were made with Newer art materials may contain more synthetic colors. Some media are easier to master. And some, I suspect, is turf-building: “You don’t use the medium I use, so my work is automatically better than yours!”

But there are plenty of counter-arguments, too. The first artifacts made by humans were shell beads. Yes. BEADS. Early cave art involved drawing, with charcoal or other pigments, i.e., CHALK. Yes, later on, these pigments were mixed with saliva, or oil. But their first application was probably to decorate and color bodies and hair, a practice that still continues in some cultures today.

So what do we say when someone denigrates our medium of choice?

My first response is this:

It’s not WHAT the material is, it’s what you DO with it. 

The logic of this is irrefutable. 

When precious metal clay, a metal powder in a clay base that can be modeled, formed, and fired with a micro torch, first appeared on the market, I saw this push-back immediately. Some traditional metal workers—sculptors, silversmiths, jewelers, etc.—protested that this was a ridiculous, amateur-targeting material, that cheapened their reputations. Gone were the traditional skills—soldering, casting, chasing, etc. It couldn’t possibly be considered a “real” metalworking medium….could it??

Google PMC artist “Celie Fago” and you tell me. (Spoiler alert: Whatever medium Celie works in, she creates incredibly beautiful work.)

Last week, I showed an artist friend portraits of my kids by a friend. He thought they were oils. Yeah. Colored pencil artist Nicole Caulfield hears that all the time.  (See my favorites at http://www.nicolecaulfieldfineart.com/zen-series !)

Nicole Caulfield’s colored pencil work is often mistaken for oils

And my favorite story about art vs. craft came from a potter friend. “If I make a sculpture in clay, it’s considered ‘craft’ ”, she said. “If I send that model to a foundry to be cast in bronze, it’s ‘art’.”

And we have all seen atrociously bad art done with oils, and amazingly beautiful work done in….er, on….an Etch-a-Sketch.

“The Etch-a-Sketch work is by artist George Vlosich.”

A hundred hours and one unbroken line. That’s not easy.

And me? Fiber arts is often considered a craft, or a woman’s medium. Polymer clay is considered a kid’s play material. I had a lot of explaining to do when I first started displaying, exhibiting, and selling my work.

My second, even more powerful response:

I CHOSE this material, and here are the reasons why….

I use polymer because my hands want to SHAPE things, not carve them.

I love using it to create jewelry because even larger works are lightweight, and comfortable to wear.

I can make artifacts that look truly ancient. I have a story to tell, about the roots of our own humanity, inspired by cave art going back a hundred thousand years and more. I want that power and mystery to be an integral part of my work.

Also very important to me–No animals are harmed in the process.

I use polymer clay by CHOICE. It does exactly what I need it to do.

I could not have made this work 50 years ago. Thank heavens for modern materials!

When I began to share WHY I use the materials I use, it became a selling point.

Your homework today, should you choose to accept it, is to take a few minutes to think about WHY you work in your chosen medium. Share your thoughts, and feel free to ask for help, if you need it.

Most of all, embrace your choices. Never excuse or apologize again for your choice of materials, nor your techniques. Something spoke to you the first time you used a brush, or a palette knife, a pencil, or a fistful of clay. It agreed with your inner self, your preferences, your tendencies, the way you want to work, the way you want to create.

 Their question—“What are these made out of?”—becomes a powerful point of connection with your potential audience.

Share this with your visitors, and watch your connections grow!