NEWSLETTERS 101 #6: My Creation Story’s Creation
How I Poke(d) People Into Telling Me Their WHY
Yet still she persisted….
(8 minute read)
I know I’ve told this story a million times. But I can’t find it to share with you, and so I’m telling it again.
Soon after I heeded the call of my art, I entered my work in a group exhibition. The group was the Women’s Caucus for Art (the New Hampshire Chapter) and this was my very first art exhibit. I was already on fire with my newfound life mission, and it showed.
The show organizer asked for volunteers to present gallery talks. I volunteered, but wasn’t chosen. Which I carried NO resentment for, and when I asked, courteously, telling them I just wanted to know for my own education, they said they picked people they knew would be up to the task. And they didn’t know me yet. (Which shows the power of gentle inquiry in finding out in a way we can LEARN from, instead of simply assuming the worst.) (TWO life lessons for you today!)
Having never heard a gallery talk, let alone actually giving one, I went with eager anticipation, hoping to hear the story behind these artists’ work.
It was a long drive, we only had one car at the time, and one of the other artists offered me a ride. We hit it off and had a lovely talk on the way up. (Keep note of this!) The exhibit was beautiful, the typical run-of-the-mill artist statements were displayed, and after an hour or so, the selected artists’ presentations began.
It was abysmal. THEY were abysmal (the talks, not the people.)
The first speaker shared a lot about their process, a much-maligned medium (digital art) at the time. Perhaps to compensate for the expected push-back (digital art was not considered “real art” at that time), the artist understandably spent a lot of time on the “how”. Their talk had a good reception, though. The work nowhere near “simple” to create. Their subject was inspired by a Greek island the artist had explored in their academic research, where a priesthood of women in ancient times had resided. Those recently-discovered images were the foundation of her work. Their presentation was quite academic in nature.
But then it was time for their question-and-answer session, and that’s where it almost fell apart.
The first questions were fairly mundane: What software had they used? Who did their framing? Etc., etc.
Then I posed my question.
Okay, this was almost 30 years ago, and I can’t remember exactly how I phrased my question(s). It took about a dozen tries on my part. The more I persisted, the more defensive the artist became, again understandably. But my intent finally got through.
I simply wanted to know why this particular island was so important to this woman. And, to be blunt, why it should be important to us, too. (More on this at the end.)
I said, “There are thousands of islands in Greece.” (Just looked that up. There are around 6,000 Greek islands, though fewer than 300 are inhabited…) “Thousands. And people have lived on them for millennia. Why THIS ISLAND? And why THIS POINT IN TIME?”
Aha! The lightbulb visibly lit up in their head.
They unfolded their arms. They stood up, straight and proud. Their voice deepened, slowed down, became firmer:
“Because on this island, in this time all-too-brief moment in time, women were revered and respected. They could walk the streets, at night, in safety, alone and unafraid.”
Boom. Mike drop.
The entire room did that gasp thing, where everyone else suddenly gets it, too.
It was a powerful moment. Still is.
The rest of the talks went the same way. When everyone was done asking the run-of-the-mill questions, I would ask the “why”.
Now, this was hard for me. I do not welcome confrontation. I usually run from it as fast as I can. It was hard for the speakers, too. They had clearly never considered the “why”. And no one had ever held their feet to the fire to do so.
Afterwards, every single speaker came up to me. I would start to apologize: I was new to art-making, I was on fire with my art. And I wanted to know what the fire was in my newly-found community of artists.
Every single artist said, “No. I want to THANK you!” (THAT took courage, too.)
My fellow artist/speaker/driver said the same thing. I was worried that after our intense, deep conversation on the way up, that I’d wrecked it. Their work was titled, “The Hidden Story”. And I was the only person who actually asked what the story was!
“No,” they said, “I know who you are. I’ve never told that story before today, and I’m glad you asked me about it. I looked at your face in the audience. I felt safe, and I felt SEEN. I told you my story, and I’m glad I did!”
An article about the exhibition ran in the state’s largest newspaper, and I was mentioned. Not by name. I was the “persistent person in the audience” who encouraged every speaker to tell their powerful story.
Yup, that’s me.
I don’t do that much anymore. I’ve done a similar process with anyone who takes me up on my offer to help them find their story. It’s easier, in some ways, to do it in person, or in a workshop. I have to show them my (persistent) intentions are honorable. Even so, there is always someone who simply can’t do this. They aren’t ready. Or the years of experience they already have keeps them from wrapping their heads around this. Obviously, this isn’t something that happens much in art school, I’m guessing, though maybe times have changed.
And even when it’s someone I know and love, it’s hard for ME. It DOES feel confrontational when I won’t let some lame response fill the bill. I keep going until I know that person is speaking their truth, because I see the same signs when it does: Posture changes, defenses come down, voices strengthen, and slows.
Truth is told.
And even when others see this, it can offend them, make them defensive. I gave an impromptu presentation when asked at a gallery exhibit a few years ago. I know my stories, and somehow I know which one will “rise to the occasion” when I talk. I’ve told them many times, there are always new ones in the work, and I rarely lack for something to say, when asked. (This from a newly self-identified introvert, remember!)
But the very next person asked said angrily, “My art isn’t verbal!” and clammed up. (Too bad, because their piece was one of my favorites in that show.)
So if you did the homework assignment from last week, with full attention and intent, and are still stuck, try this:
Is there someone in your life who you would trust with your tender, creative heart?
They don’t have to be an artist, nor a collector, nor even a fan. They simply have to be someone who you trust to act with integrity and kindness. Ideally, someone who is also willing to persist.
You keep talking, and every time you pause, if the story hasn’t appeared yet, they keep asking you that question about your artwork: Why?
Why this medium? Why this subject? Why this composition? Why these colors? Why, why, why.
They need to pay very close attention to what comes too easily from you. What feels like a no-brainer for you:
“I just love color!”
“Why? Why do you love color? Why did you choose THESE colors? What do they represent to you? What mood are you striving to create with them? Why that mood? Where does that mood come from in this piece? Why?”
I don’t have any sure-fire tricks here. Every time I do this, I worry I’m doing it wrong, if that helps. When the person gets defensive, it REALLY worry: Have I just killed our relationship???
But that defensiveness is exactly the clue that we are on the right path.
Our closely-held assumptions, our protective coloration (sorry, couldn’t resist!), our cherished (yet often superficial) beliefs about our work are being challenged. That can feel like an attack. Hence, the defensiveness.
But if you truly want to get to your creation story, which you can choose to incorporate into your artist statement or not (your choice), this will be well worth your time and momentary discomfort. (It might help to have a bottle of wine ready when you’re done…?)
You can also try this in writing, by yourself. I did. When I locked myself in my studio, determined to get to the heart of what I do, I started with, “Why this cave?” And after I’d write my answer, I would write, “Why?”
Until I got to my true answer.
Last, here is why the “why” is so hard:
I’m really asking you why I should care.
And here’s why you need to find it, even though it’s hard:
Everyone has a creation story.
Every creation story is a hero’s journey.
No matter where you are on your journey, there’s a story.
You are not alone, with your story.
Everyone is struggling with something.
Everyone is healing from something.
Everyone wants to be “seen”.
Everyone wants to have a voice in the world.
Everyone wants to know that they matter.
And when we share our story, there are people who are going through something similar, or know that it’s something they WILL go through, someday.
Your story will not only resonate with someone, it will uplift someone, encourage someone, inspire someone. It may comfort someone, it may give someone hope. It make clarify their own intentions, wants, and desires.
Your story, at the heart of your art, your creative, is a powerful force for good in the world.
That alone is a pretty good reason to dig deep for it, don’t you think?
NEWSLETTERS 101 #6: My Creation Story’s Creation
How I Poke(d) People Into Telling Me Their WHY
Yet still she persisted….
Warning: Snark zone ahead!!!!
I’m offering a service for artists and craftspeople…heck, for anyone who needs a ‘mission statement’. I’ll rewrite your current artist statement for a small fee $100.
I’m not putting the dollar amount in stone yet. That’s because I charged my first paying customer $25. And then spent five hours arguing back and forth in dozens of emails, until I finally called them and snarled for 15 minutes, (which I hardly ever, ever do) laying out all the reasons why mine might work better than theirs, that they could add whatever they wanted to it, just don’t tell me to do it, and if they didn’t like what I’d written, then throw it away and write their own.
So I made $4/hour AND had to listen to a lot of complaining and what I’d ‘left out’. So, setting boundaries. Lesson learned.
In my defense, I contacted a friend of mine who works in the same medium, and read them what I’d written. “Holy crap!!” they yelled, “If THEY don’t use it, I want it!!! That’s terrific!” (Thank you, thank you.)
I actually learned two things from this experience.
I need to be charging more than $25 I need to make it clear I am not a work-for-hire. I am a consultant. I will rewrite or suggest a different way to present yourself as an artist. You are then free to use this information–or not.
I also learned I must be crystal-clear on what I’m offering. Or rather, what I’m not offering.
What I write will have very little to do with how long/how many years you’ve been doing….whatever it is you do.
I do not particularly care who you studied with, nor where you went to art school. (That’s for your bio/resume/cv, though why we brag about who we’ve paid to teach us something counts as a credential is beyond me.)
I’m not interested in the galleries you’re in, the awards you’ve won, or the shows you’ve been in. (See above.)
I don’t want to read your single-spaced two-page artist statement in a 10 point font. (Come on!)
I don’t especially care how you do what you do. (And this is where I ran into conflict with my first paying client. For them, it was all about process–the how. Yeah, I might want to know down the road, but honestly, I can probably Google it just as quickly.)
I want to know the WHY.
I want to know why you chose this medium.
I want to know why you use it the way you do.
I want to know why it gives you joy.
Why it resonates with you, why it ‘fits’ you, why it provides you your voice in the world.
I don’t want to hear that you ” just love color”. Or texture. Or anything else that literally everyone in the world likes.
I don’t want to hear that your prefered medium is “alive”. It sounds like you might segue to other living things as your medium of choice down the road. Like…people. After all, that wood is not “alive” after you cut it, slice it, carve it, paint it, is it? (Wood people–please take note.)
And if I hear, “Because I want to make people happy” one more time, I am kicking you to the curb. (Just kidding.) (NO I’M NOT.) People will be happy if you drive around in a car and throw money at them as they’re walking down the sidewalk. That is not an artist statement.
If you’ve read anything I’ve written for the past twenty years, if you’ve ever taken a class from me, if you’ve ever seen my artwork/visited my booth/talked to me in person, you will understand.
And even though I break some of my own rules in my own artist statement, I still believe it has power and it says enough.
How do I know?
Because after people read it, they do exactly what I want them to do.
They go back and look at my art, again. They look deeply and reverently. And then they turn to me and ask a question.
Former art marketing and display consultant Bruce Baker taught me the wisdom of this first question from our exhibition/booth/gallery/studio visitors. It is a sign from your visitor that it’s okay to talk to them about your work. The question may seem silly, or mundane. It may be profound and thoughtful. Whatever.
They have connected with your work, and they want to know more about it–and you.
You have said something in your writing that speaks to them, that resonates with them. And they look at your work again, seeing something deeper, something powerful, something they might otherwise have missed.
Believe me, please….. If your artist statement is all about your credentials, about your schooling, about your techniques, then you will have to start at the bottom to connect this person with you and your work.
Come on, folks. Thousands and thousands of artists have graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. Tens of thousands have taken workshops with a well-known painter or ceramist. Tens of thousands have worked in the same medium you do. Hundreds of thousands of hours have been spent by people perfecting their craft. Millions of people wanted to be an artist when they were little. And billions of people (aka “everybody on planet Earth”) “just love color.”
But there is only one ‘you’ in the entire universe.
And yet, that is the one credential most people are afraid to talk about in their artist statement.
Oh, most people talk about themselves in some way, shape, or form. (See above.)
But in my humble experience, most of us are truly hesitant about sharing what really matters to us, in our art, in our lives, in our hearts.
What happened to that person’s artist statement? About a year later, a magazine ran an article about them.
And what I’d written for them was center stage. I think it was the best part!
P.S. And if you’re still not convinced, if you are a true fan of art-speak, fancy-schmancy words, and something vaguely art-acadamese-sounding, help yourself to this amazing website: ArtyBollocks, the best artist statement generator. Check it out! Or this “art-speak generator“. I haven’t tried it yet, but it sure looks promising!
P.P.S Apologies, I’ve just finished my volunteer assignment for a local art event that entailed reading about 140 artist statements, and I am totally fried.
The moment you chose to live your life and make your art with intention is the heart of everything you do, write, say.
(4 minute read)
Last week, I shared how introverts can shine in the world, thanks to email art marketing newsletters.
Today, I had a long article planned. But, lucky you! I realized it was about two different topics I had squished into one:
Your Most Important Story of All
Before we get to suggestions about this, let’s talk about the most important topic of all of this:
The Story of YOU.
Here’s the biggest obstacle when it comes to every aspect of marketing and selling our art:
Sooooo many people don’t know their own story!
Let’s back up a little. There are two powerful stories in every creative person.
The first is what I call the ‘creation story’.
The second is our artist statement, which I’ll tackle next week. Because it helps to know your creation story first.
What’s the difference?
Your creation story marks your first step, the moment you knew you were meant to be an artist. It’s that aha moment when we realized we had to be an artist. The moment where we completely embrace what we want, regardless of whether we even know how, or why. It’s the point in your life where your deepest intention occurred.
Dave Geada, FASO’s marketing guru, talks about this story in almost every webinar I’ve watched so far. He phrased it perfectly: After a near-death experience, he vowed to live his life with intent. With INTENTION. I’ve called it our “hero’s journey story” for years, and Dave calls it that, too. (Whew! I love it when the experts and I are on the same page!)
That’s what your first step was: Your intention to make your art. Here’s mine. It’s what made me take the leap, and it still resonates with me today.
Unlike your artist statement, it doesn’t have to be public (though there are ways to modify it so it can, so don’t rule that out.)
You DO have to know it. Because once you realize it, it will provide the foundation of everything you do, write, make, talk about, going forward with your artwork. It will ground you when you are lost. It will reassure you when you are discouraged. It will lift you up when life gets hard.
Knowing it will help you lift others, too. Because when we speak our truth, it not only resonates with others, it can inspire them to see theirs.
Years ago, I created a workshop designed to help people write their artist statement. It was powerful, and eye-opening. I got to hear how several dozen people got their start, and why. My favorite was the artist who started with, “I had a baby. I nearly died. Everything changed…” I exclaimed, “THAT’s your artist statement!” What I meant was, this was the foundation of her artist statement.
To frame this better: That may or may not be what she decides to use, publicly. But it was that point in time where “everything changed.” It would inspire her artist statement, however she chose to frame it. It was her creation story, it was powerful, and she knew it.
Another great creation story was one I’ve written about before, which illustrates that our creation story will evolve. It’s about long-time artist who lost their sight late in life—and everything changed. Did they stop making? Nope. But it’s different, now. Because everything changed. But it was compelling enough for me to go back to that ‘weird crappy’ piece of “art” hanging on the gallery wall, and find something beautiful in it. Courage. Perseverance. Letting go of what was, and embracing the new ‘what is’.
Your homework: What is your creation story? Write it out, if only for your private use.
If you enjoyed this article, and know someone else who might like it, too, feel free to pass it on. And if someone sent you this and you did like it, see more of my articles at FineArtViews.com, other art marketing topics at Fine Art Views art marketing newsletter, and my blog at LuannUdell.wordpress.com.
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.