WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: You Can Be Focused, You Can Be Diverse, It’s All Good!

WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: You Can Be Focused, You Can Be Diverse, It’s All Good!

Topics: advice for artists | creativity | FineArtViews | inspiration | Luann Udell | originality

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.

Luann Udell shared how to be focused and diverse in your art career
Luann Udell shared how to be focused and diverse in your art career

You get to choose what you do, how you do it, how many things you do, and you can change it whenever you’re ready.

When the young art students came to my studio, most of them were still in the exploring stage of art-making. Some already felt “more comfortable” with a specific media, but most were trying this and that, and some hadn’t found what really felt right.

That’s normal! I encouraged them to keep exploring. This stage could take a few years, it could take a decade, it might take more than that. Maybe…..for the rest of their lives!

I think some of them were a little surprised by that. It seemed that some were already feeling the pressure to pick “just one thing” or “just one process” (painting, for example, or drawing, etc.) (It may have been more societal pressure than pressure from their teachers.)

I told them, “If you’ve already figured that out, good on you! But if you haven’t, that’s normal, too. These are the perfect years to explore and experiment. In fact, you might incorporate “new and different” for the rest of your life! And that’s okay.”

Focus is a good thing, of course. When we push all our efforts in one direction, into one medium or process, we can make enormous strides in our skill set.

But that’s not the only way to be a “real artist”. And when people tell us it IS the only way, and we don’t want to do it that “one right way”, it can feel soul-crushing.

Years ago, I attended a seminar with a well-known speaker who created a series of workshops about all kinds of artist/maker issues: How to market our work, how to display it at shows and in galleries, how to talk with customers, etc. All excellent information, garnered not only from their own career as a maker, but from dozens of others who shared their insights with him.

When it was my turn to ask a question, I started to frame my body of work: “So I do jewelry, fiber work, and printing, and I’d like to know…..”

They interrupted me mid-sentence: “FOCUS!!!!”

The whole room erupted into laughter, and I was humiliated. The speaker went on to explain that “certain clueless craftspeople” get into doing everything: “I raise the sheep, I shear the sheep, I spin the wool, I dye the yarn, I make the pattern, I knit the sweater….” They end up with a product that can’t be reasonably priced, and then wonder why their work doesn’t sell. The speaker moved on to the next person.

That wasn’t my problem, and I was pretty peeved. Afterwards, I went up to ask for clarification, and they apologized. “I wanted to make an example of you, because that comes up all the time! But I see now that isn’t what you were sharing, and I’m sorry.”

There’s a lesson there: Don’t make assumptions about the “stupid questions” people ask us. (As in, “How long did it take you to make that?” “It took me thirty years to make!”) (Yes, there are a dozen better ways to answer that question without making a joke at that potential customer’s expense!)

“Lack of focus” was not an issue for me. I already knew I was “doing it right”, FOR ME. I was perfectly comfortable with my multi-media choices, because I had a powerful story that united them. From the very beginning of my art career, people could recognize my distinctive style, use of color, and use of artifacts, even in the different ways I staged them.)

I wanted to know how to approach the top retail shows in the country that, typically, demanded I pick ONE medium to apply in. And usually my jewelry wouldn’t be accepted, because it’s a dense medium at high-end fine craft shows. Often half the applicants are jewelers! I wanted help figuring out how to get out of the “box” most shows and exhibits want to put us creatives in.

(I never solved that, but finally figured out ways around it.)

Nowadays, whenever I ask people about their creative work, I get a wonderful variety of answers. But the ones where I sense folks feel the most embarrassment is when they haven’t focused completely on “just one thing”.

“Oh, I’m not a real artist! I love oil painting, but I’ve also enjoy watercolor and pastels, and I’ve taken clay workshops and loved it, and I want to….” And then they sort of trail off, waiting for me to tell them to “focus”.

I refuse.

I ask them what their goals are, and listen. Unless they feel “held back” by their free choices, I almost always tell them to embrace their path.

From their reaction, I’m guessing no one has ever told them that’s okay. Which is sad.

Some of us know the medium that speaks to us. We leap into with all our heart, and pursue it, perfecting our skills, finessing our techniques, perhaps (hopefully!) even receiving recognition and acclaim for our work.

Others, like me, take longer to figure it out. We try different things, or keep up with several things, until we find our way through.

For me, I did fiber work for years: Cross-stitching (easy!), then embroidery (harder!), then quilting (so much time!!), getting smaller and freer and focusing on making something that looked aged and worn. I got to the point where I rarely bought new fabrics, and instead scrounged yard sales, thrift stores, and antique shops for unusual, vintage, and antique fabrics, and well-worn clothing. Eventually, when I couldn’t find what I wanted, I began to over-dye my own fabrics, and even carved my own stamps to print fabric.

When my kids were born, I knit them sweaters. (Hey, it’s faster to knit for a little kid than an adult, and they’re a lot less fussy about how it fits!) (But you also have to work fast, or they’ll grow out of whatever you’re making for them….)

Eventually, I was frustrated trying to find the perfect buttons for those sweaters, and so I began to make my own.

I couldn’t afford expensive jewelry, didn’t like much of it anyway. I loved the look of old pieces. I started buying broken or out-of-date bits and pieces, restringing them or salvaging the beads for other projects. One year, I was accepted into an exhibit for art quilts, and forgot to read the fine print: Beadwork was required. So I “explained” that the beads I used were too tiny to be seen in the photograph, and frantically added seed beadwork to the finished pieces. (I won a Judges’ Choice Award!)

And I also began using those sweater buttons as embellishments on my art quilts.

Are you sensing an epiphany here? It’s coming!

Until the day came where I stepped up to the plate with my “mom crafts” and found my powerful story, where I found my place in the world as an artist.

All those “little crafty things” I’d been doing for years all came together to make something different. Something unique. Something that became my signature, so that now, people who are familiar with my work, can spot it in almost any form.

If I had “found my perfect medium” all those years ago, I would not be making the work I do today.

Would I be better off? How do I know? We choose a path, and our story is changed forever. I don’t regret my “aimless wanderings” that eventually brought me the work I love with all my heart. I choose to celebrate the skills and insights I gained along the way.

Some of us will “do it right”, focusing on a specific medium and style. Some of us will explore, constantly adding, tweaking, mixing it up. And some may never “settle” into one or two things. They will explore, and experiment, and dabble for the rest of their lives.

My question for them: Are you happy with that?

Because if you are, that’s all that matters.

What matters, first and foremost, is that our work brings us joy.

Oh, not 24/7. I get that. Sometimes things just don’t click, or we get tired of the same ol’ same ol’. (Usually we get our happy back, though!) And if we want to get really, really good at something, we have to put in the time and the work.

Some people pursue one style, or medium, and then walk away from it and pursue something else. That’s okay, too.

And some of us find total joy in the new, the experimenting. Some people only make art when they take classes. Which, I tell them, is really smart! If you can’t make time for your art, then taking a class is an excellent way to set aside the time (to go to class), to experiment (with all the tools and expertise provided by the teacher that you’ll need) and come home with something you love (because you had the chance to actually finish it!)

In our modern times, art is both a necessity (for our emotional/spiritual health) and a luxury (we can all choose what, when, how, and why we “make”). We get to choose how we fit it into our lives, we get to decide whether it’s our “one thing”, our “main thing”, or our “fun thing”.

Somewhere along the line, the word “amateur” (which means doing something because you love it, whether we make money at it or not) became a hugely judge-y thing: “Oh, you’re not a professional, you’re just an amateur!”

In reality, “amateur”, “vocational”, and “avocational” are all on the same spectrum. We do it because we love it, and it supports us, financially, and we do it as if it really were our profession- doing all the steps that a “true professional” artist would do, even if we don’t actually make a lot of money at it. And a few professionals actually step back from that stance, because they find the demands of catering to a market, and having to do the same thing, the same way, for the same people, actually saps some of the joy from our process. They find other ways to earn income, something they’re good at that pays well, and that they like or even love, yet keep their artwork in their life, on their own terms.

It’s all good.

Because when we accept all the reasons that show us we’re “doing it right”, the more art, the more beauty, the more joy there will be in the world.

So keep on keeping on, I told those kids. Do what you can. Do what you want. Do what you have to do. You get to choose.

Make it work for Y-O-U, finding your unique happy place in the world with your art.

The whole world is waiting to see “what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life…”*

*From “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver (1935-2019)