It is the fourth time I’ve moved my studio in four years, and we also moved our home twice times in four years. I’m a lit-tul bit exhausted. But I think I see some light at the end of the tunnel!
Month: January 2019
LEARNING TO FLY Part 4a: Trust Your Instruments
LEARNING TO FLY Part 4a: Trust Your Instruments
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.
Don’t trust your senses, because humans weren’t meant to fly!
Today’s column is a continuation of a series I wrote for Fine Art Views a few years ago: Learning to Fly Part 1: The Checklist (the steps you take to check your progress, process, and and presentation); Learning to Fly Part 2: Who Is Your Co-Pilot? (identifying your support peeps); and Learning to Fly Part 3: What Rudyard Kipling Said (keep your head when things go horribly wrong.)
I was talking with my pilot friend again this week. His knowledge and insight inspired the articles above. His enthusiasm is contagious, and every time there is an “air incident” in the news, I ask him about the “inside story.”
He said, “You can’t trust your senses when you fly.”
Huh?? This concept is a little harder for me to wrap my head around. Don’t trust your gut?! We are constantly told to trust our instincts! Why not when flying? After all, we’re above the earth, we have a clear view, we can see for miles. Why shouldn’t we trust that?!
But it turns out I misheard my friend. “Instincts and gut/experience are good!” he said. “But our senses? That’s different! We’re taught not to trust our senses when we fly.
Turns out most air accidents are pilot error. Pilots aren’t any worse than anyone else when it comes to making a mistake. It’s just that when you’re miles in the air, with the lives of hundreds at stake, one small error can have huge implications.
Our human nature is to trust our senses, he explained. We rely on our senses for balance, for example. Visual orientation. Fear of falling. How to counterbalance a fast turn. That should translate to flying, too, right?
Not at all. Because humans aren’t made to fly.
Birds are made to fly. (Okay, class card in the back row, we’ll exclude the dodo, emu, ostrich, etc. Although technically, they lost their ability to fly along the way, though they still have wings.)
Birds can fly in a flock of thousands (called a murmuration, as demonstrated by this hypnotic video of starlings) and not a single collision or fall occurs. A peregrine falcon can dive-bomb a bird out of the sky at speeds of up to 180mph. They know exactly how far, and how fast, to plunge. They know exactly when to pull out. They can trust their senses, because birds have been flying a long, long time, at least over 135 million years.
Humans fly because they saw birds do it, and thought, “Why not?!” It took centuries to perfect a way to do it.
And what gets in our way is simply our lack of evolution. We’ve only been flying just over a hundred years.
We’re so used to trusting our eyes, we may not recognize when we’re looking at a false horizon. We’re so used to adjusting our balance according to our vision, we can’t really interpret when we’re flying sideways in the dark. We may take a dive, but we may not realize when we are dangerously close to not being able to pull out of it.
So when a pilot flies, and can’t see the horizon due to fog, or night, they have to trust their instruments. Assuming we can trust our senses, but not our instruments, is a sure way to cut our flying career short!
How does this relate to making and marketing our art?
Well, for one thing, it’s only in relatively modern times that so many people have taken up art-making as a profession, an avocation, or hobby. (We probably all had “roles” in our tribes and communities, and each role benefited all.) It’s only very recently that people of certain genders and race/color could even be recognized as artists. (It’s only in the last decade or so that women have been recognized as prehistoric cave painters and shamans.) It’s only relatively recently that so many people expect to sell their art (as opposed to barter/trade, or simply being another contributing member of a community) and expect to make a living at it. And the more “creatives” there are in the world, the harder it is to be seen as offering something unique.
I know people who believe they are successful, and yet their work is woefully underpriced. Or their skills aren’t quite up to snuff, and they don’t understand why they can’t get into those great galleries. Or they think a show is not a good show, but they haven’t mastered their marketing yet, and forgot to “invite” their loyal customers.
What is even worse, in my book, is when we “measure” our success by assumptions that may or may not be true, and judge ourselves lacking.
Those other artists on social media are so successful! They tell us they are! They live in grand houses, drive fancy cars, and get into all the prestigious shows. They are doing it right, we are doing it wrong, and we are miserable failures.
Visible wealth is not always a measure of success. Fancy cars and houses may mean they’ve inherited wealth, or have a financially successful partner. It doesn’t mean they make tons of money from their art. In fact, some “famous and successful” artists still die dead broke. Or worse, broken by their pursuit of “success”.
Celebrity is the same. Statistics show that artists of certain gender and race are often more famous throughout history, and today, and not necessarily better artists than those others. Every time someone points to Van Gogh or Emily Dickenson as a “famous artist”, I cringe. They both craved recognition in their lifetimes, and didn’t get it until after they died. And yet, even they are a very few of the fortunate ones who were eventually recognized for their talent and artistry.
So countless artists “trust their senses” and believe they are failures. Some of them walk away from their art altogether, believing they simply aren’t good enough.
And everyone who sets aside the creative work means there is that much less light in the world. Less light, less joy, for them, for their audience, and perhaps for the future world.
So even as it’s easy to feel successful with our art-making (materials are easily available to all, and affordable, instruction is easier to find, even online, information about selling/marketing is everywhere, it’s even easier to feel like a failure.
So let’s set aside our less-evolved senses when it comes to success. Instead, let’s consider this: What are our artistic “instruments”, and how can we use them to better measure our success?
Well, first, what is your definition of success?
If it’s more sales, you can keep track of what venues and events bring in the most money. What product lines result in the most sales. What galleries do best with your work, and how to find similar ones.
If it’s more recognition, you can enter more shows and competitions. It takes an investment, though entry fees are usually modest. But when I was building my artist resume, I realized I couldn’t get my work into prestigious exhibitions unless I entered them! Duh, I know. I committed to applying to five to ten such events a year, and always got into at least one or two. That helped beef up on my resume. (That’s not as important for me anymore, as one-time viewings rarely result in sales for me. But it was a mood-booster when I needed that early on!)
If you want a bigger audience, then you can explore the metrics of your email newsletter, and see how many people actually opened, and read, your email newsletter. (FASO sites have this!) You can actually do the experiment and see what factors create more response. What posts on Facebook and Instagram garner the most shares and likes?
If you blog, you can watch your audience grow by the number of visitors and subscribers. And you can make sure it’s really easy for people to subscribe! For sure you will discover that when you find your audience, and post regularly, your numbers will grow. It took years for my blog to grow from zero followers, to over 2,500, and I know that’s not big numbers even now. But there was a time in my life when I wondered if ANYONE cared to hear what I had to say, and now I now there are plenty!
There are plenty of other artists/writers here at FASO who have excellent suggestions on how to be better at “successful”. After this year, for right now, I bow to their greater expertise. There are lots of people who will share their secret strategies, their experience, their expertise.
My question for you is, what is the most personal instrument to measure success?
Simple. Your most important “instrument” is your heart.
How do YOU feel when you are in your studio? Do you feel excited and enthused? Calm and “in the zone”? Happy and fulfilled? Challenged, and growing? All of these are signs of a good life for us humans. If your work brings you joy, comfort, solace, and fulfillment, then you are doing it right.
If money is critical, then you can explore those other “instruments” offered by said experts. But don’t forget to check in with your heart! If it feels like their advice takes you off-course, if it becomes all about the income stream and not your personal satisfaction, if you can’t find a balance between the two…. Well, you know where I stand on that.
No matter your instruments, or the measure of your success, the trick is another pilot term: Scanning. It’s important to constantly scan our instrument readings, to verify what’s really happening, to assess our progress, and to make sure we are on course.
Next week, I’ll share the second half of this article: Trust…and Verify. Stay tuned!
We Are Enough (and So Is Mary Oliver)
Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not.
It was the last day of December, the last day of 2018. It’s been a hard year in so many ways. I don’t know whether to embrace or watch with suspicion the dawn of this new one. Do I move forward with hope, and courage? Or do I hunker down until it’s safe to come out?
But a book arrived in the mail that day, Mary Oliver’s book of poetry, Blue Horses. As always, it’s an unpected gift at just the right time.
I’m a fan, and not just because I love her poetry for what it is to me. I used several of her works when I created a grief writing workshop as a hospice volunteer. Her poems are accessible, full of the beauty of small moments in nature, with a big bang of wonder and insight inside. They always draw a gasp of amazement, and they often make us cry.
I don’t know much about her. I only recently discovered she was in a relationship with a woman, Mary Malone Cook, for over 40 years, and her partner died in 2005 I didn’t know about the hardship and abuse she suffered as a child. I didn’t know she lived in Ohio but took up New England as her home years later. And as I read “Blueberries”, with her musings about eating blueberries year round, something new for her, I wondered where she lives now.
And so I Googled “Mary Oliver where does she live now” and came across a Wikipedia entry. And found this somewhat disturbing entry in “Critical Reviews”:
Vicki Graham suggests Oliver over-simplifies the affiliation of gender and nature: “Oliver’s celebration of dissolution into the natural world troubles some critics: her poems flirt dangerously with romantic assumptions about the close association of women with nature that many theorists claim put the woman writer at risk.” In her article “The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver”, Diane S. Bond echoes that “few feminists have wholeheartedly appreciated Oliver’s work, and though some critics have read her poems as revolutionary reconstructions of the female subject, others remain skeptical that identification with nature can empower women.” In The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Sue Russell notes that “Mary Oliver will never be a balladeer of contemporary lesbian life in the vein of Marilyn Hacker, or an important political thinker like Adrienne Rich; but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”
I had to stop reading.
Who are these people??
Who are they to judge a poet’s work based on how “political” her thinking is, or how much she aligns publicly with her gender?
My husband, an English major as an undergrad, contemplated a career in academia briefly. He says this is exactly why he didn’t pursue it. “It’s just academic-speak”, he says.
I think it’s more than that.
Someone is saying Mary Oliver is “not doing it right”.
They are saying she is not enough.
Jon said, “You read poetry? I haven’t read any poetry since college!” What?! “You haven’t read “Wild Geese?!”
by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Even as I tried to read it aloud to Jon, I knew I couldn’t. Tears were already welling up. I handed him my phone to read it.
Or how about “Summer Day”?
by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I’ve rarely enjoyed poetry “analysis”. I’ve never understood the desire to write in specific forms or meters as a professional challenge, unless the rhythm and patterns lend themselves to even deeper feelings of connection. (As in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”:
One Artby Elizabeth BishopThe art of losing isn’t hard to master;so many things seem filled with the intentto be lost that their loss is no disaster.Lose something every day. Accept the flusterof lost door keys, the hour badly spent.The art of losing isn’t hard to master.Then practice losing farther, losing faster:places, and names, and where it was you meantto travel. None of these will bring disaster.I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, ornext-to-last, of three loved houses went.The art of losing isn’t hard to master.I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gestureI love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evidentthe art of losing’s not too hard to masterthough it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
If I Wanted A Boat
by Mary Oliver, Blue Horses
“I would want a boat, if I wanted a
boat, that bounded hard on the waves,
that didn’t know starboard from port
and wouldn’t learn, that welcomed
dolphins and headed straight for the
whales, that, when rocks were close,
would slide in for a touch or two,
that wouldn’t keep land in sight and
went fast, that leaped into the spray.
What kind of life is it always to plan
and do, to promise and finish, to wish
for the near and the safe? Yes, by the
heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want
a boat that I couldn’t steer.”
What do I hear in this?
It takes courage to let go of trying to control our future.
Or this one:
WHAT GORGEOUS THING
by Mary Oliver
I do not know what gorgeous thing
the bluebird keeps saying,
his voice easing out of his throat,
beak, body into the pink air
of the early morning. I like it
whatever it is. Sometimes
it seems the only thing in the world
that is without dark thoughts.
Sometimes it seems the only thing
in the world that is without
questions that can’t and probably
never will be answered, the
only thing that is entirely content
with the pink, then clear white
morning and, gratefully, says so.
It tells me it’s okay to seek solace in the tiny moments in life. To hold the simplest things and see. To listen. To wonder.
They won’t fix everything. Maybe they won’t fix anything.
But if they give me a teensy break, a moment of relief and respite, I’m taking it, with gratitude.
Fortunately for my mood today, I came across this lovely article by Ruth Franklin in The New Yorker: What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand. It helped me back to my happy place. Still, a few off remarks: Oliver didn’t write much about her lover, and she rarely writes about the dark places in her life. Such a lack “…flattens her range….” in the opinion of this writer.
Whatever. I’ve been writing articles, essays, and blog posts for almost two decades. I never write about my relationship with my husband, and although I write about what it feels to be in dark places, I keep away from the deeply personal. And don’t bury myself in the dark.
I don’t, except in my “blort book”, because it’s my dark place. Yes, it’s part of me. But I get to decide how much I share, and when, and how.
When I’ve had suicidal thoughts (and I’ve had them all my life), I know what they are: A response to the despair and hopelessness I’m overwhelmed with. I also know it will pass. It looks like an escape, but I know it will only bring enormous pain to those I leave behind.
(To be perfectly frank, I’m also a chickenshit. I’m afraid I’d mess it up and have to live with pain, and shame, and disability the rest of my life. So no, I’m not gonna do it.)
But most people will “hear” a plea for help. They will respond with a “solution”, a “fix”.
There isn’t one. Or at least, it’s never the right one.
My truth: I’m kinda hard-wired to be in mild despair. I always expect the worst.
But I choose to look for the light instead. I choose look for the life lesson that will help me move forward. I choose to seek out the folks I know I can trust, who know who I am, and who I want to be, to help me find my way back.
I also want to respect my partner’s privacy. We’ve been together 40 years. That wouldn’t be true if he weren’t a good human being, worthy of love, who is simply trying to do the best he can. He has saved my sanity a jillion times. At his best, he meets me where I am, and helps me take a step forward. At his worst, he is bad about cleaning up after himself. Not too shabby, in my book.
I even want to protect the privacy of those who have hurt me. It’s on me to work my way back to the light. They have their own story, and it may involve things I know nothing about, no matter how much pain they’ve created for me.
That’s my choice. It doesn’t make me “less than”. (Yes, I am a proud member of the “#metoo” moment, but it’s just not for public consumption. For now.)
I’m not going to hold it against Mary Oliver, either.
Thank heaven for the last part of that “critic review” section by Sue Russell:
“…but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”
So go forward today, with the joy you find in the small things. For me today, it’s Noddy wanting a drink from the kitchen faucet. Chai trying to sneak a lap of milk from my cereal bowl. Tuck wanting a butt-scritch. Jon reassuring me that academic critics live in a world of their own making, and not to worry about it.
The sun shining, for the fourth day in a row.
A flock of bluebirds in the California winter.
A murmuration of starlings in the evening.
Another poem by Mary Oliver.
Hey! A new year!
Now I feel like can can deal with it.