What You and M. Night Shyamalan Have In Common
(Hint: It’s what ALL artists have to ignore!)
(Hint: It’s what ALL artists have to ignore!)
(This article was first published on September 1, 2018 on Fine Art Views)
It’s the little things that matter, and the story.
(10 minute read)
My Mom died earlier this year. Soon after, my pregnant daughter lost her first baby. And earlier this week, I took a redeye flight to Michigan to say goodbye to my Dad.
I got there just in time to say the things I needed to say. And although he was not “conscious” in our sense of the word, I know he heard me.
My hospice volunteer experience taught me so much. All of that was visible in my dad’s last few hours on this planet.
My dad was a long-standing, prominent figure in my little hometown. From a co-op dairy project started by my grandfather that eventually turned into one of only two family restaurants in town, (which also provided jobs to dozens, if not hundreds of teens and adults over the years), to his years of volunteering, (serving on school boards, supporting our church), socializing (visiting elderly former employees in their last years, meeting almost weekly with friends for bridge, for potluck dinners, for parties, hosting all his kids’ weddings in his backyard), he wove a winding path through our small farming community.
As life approaches the end, it gets smaller. Friends and family moved away, or died. The town got bigger, so more people were ‘strangers’. Eventually, his world was only as big as the assisted living staff, family members who remained nearby, the people he ate dinner with every night.
And of course, it all ends in a hospital bed, surrounded by those who loved him, holding his hand, whispering in his ear, saying a prayer.
His passing was peaceful, with little pain, and not much suffering, unlike those he leaves behind.
But this is how it goes. And this was as good as it gets.
Now for the next thread: Last month, a friend in New Hampshire told me of a friend of hers who found one of my horse sculptures at a yard sale.
Put a pin in that. (For those who don’t know what this means, it alerts you that I intend to circle back and connect all these little “bits” on this “bulletin board.)
I’ve just finished watching a Netflix comedy special “Nannette”, created by Hannah Gadsby, an Australia comedian who identifies as lesbian. Her comedy was searing, and hilarious, honest, and gut-wrenchingly powerful.
There were so many words of wisdom she shared as she told the hardest stories of her life, stories she had edited for pure laughs in her ten-years-plus career. This time, she said, she has to tell the whole truth. Because without it, we cannot truly understand her pain, the shame and humiliation she suffered because of something she did not choose, and how she rose and grew as a human being through her art.
She is, like me, also an art history major. And she spoke deeply and clearly about that, too.
Put a pin there.
I struggle writing for Fine Art Views. I mean, I LOVE writing for FAV! I love the people I’ve met through my columns, I love the respectful discourse, I love it when I see I’ve helped lift people’s hearts, if only for a day, by encouraging them to make their art.
I’ve been a professional artist for over 20 years now. I work hard at what I do. I’ve created a solid body of work. I’ve entered, and been accepted, into prestigious organizations, some of the top fine craft shows in the country, and sold work to some prominent people. I’ve educated myself about marketing, display, and customer service. I have a following on my blog, and a good-sized email list of customers.
But I’m not sure I can call myself a “successful artist”. At least not by the definition many people assign to that term.
In only a handful of years did I ever break the $20,000 income for the year. So, technically, I am at poverty level. (Fortunately, society values my husband’s work a heckuva lot more.)
So when a reader wrote recently asking for a favor, saying they knew I was busy because I am so successful, I felt a little embarrassed. Yes to the busy. Er…not so much for the “successful”.
And sometimes, although I know (and follow) most of the practices (that work for me) to advertise and market and sell my work, I can’t “prove” my credentials (no art degree! No museum shows!)
So who am I to advise you on marketing?
Simple. I am a fellow traveler. I share what I’ve learned. It’s up to you to decide if it works for you, or not. I simply have to write about it. It’s part of my story.
Also, to be easier on myself, it’s possible I will become a tremendously famous artist after I’m dead. Like Van Gogh, and Emily Dickinson, whose poetry was never published in her lifetime.
I will never ever say that following my advice will guarantee you fabulous sales. I don’t have a $2,000 “product” (course, book, seminar, etc.) to sell you that promises to make you famous, or rich, or even make enough money for the babysitter so you can do shows. ((except a few eBooks running around $5 each that will help you get toxic people out of your sacred creative space, and how to improve your display.)
Of course, that illusion of artistic success (“Van Gogh is a brand, and look how much his paintings sell for! Branding is the key!”) is just that: An illusion. More on that….
Let’s pick up some of those pins.
In her performance, Gadsby quotes people who rave about Van Gogh’s fame, framing it as a rags-to-riches story. “He was broke, and crazy, and starving, and now look at him!”
“But he’s dead,” she replies quietly.
“Yeah, but he’s very successful!” they argue back. They offer more “assumptions” on why his work was not successful in his lifetime, and why it is now.
She goes on. Van Gogh wasn’t “ahead of his time”. He was a Post-Impressionist painter at the height of Post-Impressionism. People didn’t “not buy” his work because his style was inaccessible.
He lived with severe mental health issues. He couldn’t “network” because he was extremely difficult to deal with. People crossed the street to avoid him. His “brand” was “crazy”.
His art did not spring from his illness. He sought help from psychiatrists, he was medicated, and some of his vibrant color choices were actually visual side effects from the medications he was on. He made his work despite his mental illness, because it meant so much to him.
Gadsby, with words that broke my heart, says, “We have Van Gogh’s sunflowers not because he suffered, but because he had a brother who loved him.”
And here’s where the Dad pin comes in.
My Dad was not a famous person. He was not extremely talented. He was not wealthy. He was not “artistic” (though he took up woodworking in his retirement.)
He was simply a good man, who provided for his family any way he could, because family was important to him. Someone who always did his best. All of us in the room knew he loved us, and showed it, the way he had been taught to show it.
And as he left this world, I know this for sure: He knew we loved him, too.
Now the back to the art marketing pin.
You can follow all the marketing advice in the world. You can brand yourself just like cowboys and steers. (That’s where the word comes from.) You can strive to get into those perfect galleries, those top shows, be featured in elegant magazines, and win Best-in-Show so often, the committee will eventually have to take you off the ballot every other year so that other, just as commendable artists will have a shot.
It will guarantee you nothing.
And even if it brings you wealth, and fame, in the end, we will still all end up in a hospital bed in our bedroom, working our way to our last breath. Hopefully, at peace, without pain, surrounded by love….
And with luck, no regrets.
No one came to tell my Dad what a great restaurant he ran. (It was very modest, not an haute cuisine thing. Just home-cooking, great ice cream, and pie.) No one came to tell him how his wealth and power inspired them. (He had neither.) No one ever rushed to grab his autograph, or have a selfie taken with him. There is no history book that will refer to him, ever.
People tell us he gave them their first job. People tell us he was generous with his time. People tell us he made them laugh.
As artists, we have a unique gift. We get to choose every step of the work we do. We do it our way. We make it our way. We get to choose how well we do it, we have some choice in where we show it, and who sees it (even more with the Internet), and if we’re lucky, we learn how to best connect with the people who will become our customers. We choose how to promote it, how to sell it, how to advertise it.
But none of these efforts can guarantee us success. Nothing and no one can ensure we will make a living, or even make very much money at all with it.
Hannah Gadsby suffered for years because of her trauma. She transformed that into a healing experience we can all benefit from. She shares what truly connects us: telling our stories; and what most assuredly will destroy us: anger, and hate.
Art is how we tell our stories. The medium does not matter. Stories can be told through oil paintings, pastels, clay, and stone. Polymer clay, voice, music, film, books, plays, food, and comedy. Relief work, healing, teaching, mending, any human effort that brings more light, and love, into the world counts as creativity to me.
Yet even this may not be enough to assure our place in the world, now, nor for all time.
We have no control over our stories, while we live nor when we’re gone. As I looked through the boxes of photographs my siblings had gathered together, I realized I, as the oldest, was the only one who knew some (but not most) of the people featured, the places, the events, depicted in them. People leave before us, and at the end, we may not leave that much behind. Eventually, no one will care. Life goes on.
All that matters, at the end, is that we do it. That we do the work of our heart. That we fit it in somewhere in our life, whether it’s full-time, part-time, down-time or me-time. It only matters that we do not leave this world with regrets.
All that matters is that we do our best. That we make friends, and cherish family. That we do what we think is right. That we give solace to those who suffer, that we feed those who are hungry, that we home those who are lost. That we forgive those who have hurt us (truly forgive, which means freeing ourselves from the pain they bring us), and heal ourselves, even though we can’t fix it or change them. (I’m still learning about true forgiveness. Not there yet! Getting closer….)
All that matters is that we do the work that heals us, so we can be in the world. It’s the only way we can truly tell our story.
As for the yard sale find, I was a tiny bit dismayed. So soon? My work is considered “worthless” so soon? No Van Gogh moment of discovery?? Wah!
At a yard sale, someone found something that spoke to them. They bought it. It brings them joy. They treasure it. They tried to find the artist, and they did. I have a name now.
I myself have quite a collection of thrift shop finds, flea market treasures, and other “uncurated” works of art, craft, and otherwise. Some are signed, but because of the time they were created, there’s not much to learn about the artist. Others are anonymous, but no less treasured.
I love them all, They bring me joy.
That is what I choose to focus on today. What matters, at the end. Fame, fortune, cannot survive. We will not live forever. Even love may fade into obscurity.
But maybe a piece of our life will survive to raise another’s heart. In a song, in a book, a life we save, a bowl, a painting. A little horse sculpture.
Make your best work.
Put it out into the world. Make it visible. Make it accessible.
Do your best.
Then let it go.
Sometimes a “major change” is simply many tiny changes in outlook.
For everyone who wrote me asking why I’m walking away from my art and writing, let me reassure you, I’m not!!!!!
I am at what my dear hubby calls “an inflection point”. I’d never heard of that before, except as a math term. But one dictionary describes it as
- 1.MATHEMATICSa point of a curve at which a change in the direction of curvature occurs.
- 2.US(in business) a time of significant change in a situation; a turning point.
That’s what it feels like. A “change” is coming, but I don’t know what it is.
What I do know is, my story hasn’t changed. I’m not done telling that story! And so my art itself, and my propensity for writing about my art (and what I’ve learned from making it), will not change.
I got lost in trying to pinpoint what was going to change. Stuck in trying to figure that out, because sitting with that has been hard.
Because when we choose not to move forward until we’re sure what that looks like, we lock ourselves into the present while fearing the future. (Perfectionism, thy name is “Luann”….!!)
I had fallen so low in my self-esteem in this flux state that I broke my own rule about giving away my work.
I don’t give my work away to people who expect it to be free, or those who demand I give it to them.
Such a simple rule, and I broke it. To the tune of agreeing to do free work worth thousands of dollars. And to be grateful to the person who said I should do it.
No worries, I walked it back! I’m only out $200, and I consider that a lesson I will never have to learn again. I hope!
I was in the middle of a health crisis (not life-threatening, but life-style threatening), a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, a state of living with uncertainty so long, I couldn’t see the gifts I already have: A home, a family, a loving partner, my health in general, the beauty of the California landscape and seascape, my studio, etc. I’ve been focusing on how close we are to losing many of these gifts, obsessed with security, and my struggle to control our future. (Ha!! Good luck with that, human!)
So I made a few more bad decisions.
But I also made some very, very good decisions.
Like reaching out to family, good friends, old friends, new friends, readers, supporters.
I reached out, and found people who listened, deeply.
I overcame my main worry, that I only reach out when I need help, others will judge me on my own selfishness (“She only calls when she’s stuck!”)–and found they were genuinely happy to help. Not only that, I found everyone was going through similar stuff, themselves. And they welcomed my help/feedback/support! (“Reciprocity” is a word that’s been resonating with me lately, and I was delighted to engage in it.)
They walked me back from the next bad decisions I’d made. And although I’ve been in a deep funk about who I am, they’ve been holding the memory of who I am, when I’m at my best.
And even better, they shared how much they love and respect me even when I’m at my worst.
Which gets me to where I am today: Tiny steps forward, and for the first time in months (many months!), holding a tiny bit of hope.
How I got there in a few hours yesterday is what I want to share with you today.
There’s an online class offered by Yale University, and anyone can take it if you can cough up $40. (And if you can’t, there are grants available!)
It’s called The Science of Well-Being, a class based on brain science and scientific evidence, developed and taught by Laurie Santos. It’s been in the news since the course wen’t online in March. It’s quickly become Yale’s most popular course.
The short story is, we don’t really know what we want. We don’t really know what will make us happy. And if we don’t understand what really will, or won’t, make us happy, then our pursuits in life won’t result in happiness.
The first video talked about “A ‘Good’ Job”. When you ask people what they want from a job, it’s often things like “a big salary” and “opportunities to advance”, and “prestige”, etc.
But it turns out those can be misleading goals that don’t necessarily make us happy in the long run. Yes, a livable income is important. But not at the expense of other goals that will actually improve how we feel about life. Like work that appeals to our strengths and values, work that challenges us in a good way, work that provides us opportunities to be “in the zone” or what is now called a “flow” state.
So how do we do that? How do we identify those unique strengths, our important values? How do we learn to nurture them those strengths and values? Because doing so will nurture us, will increase our sense of well-being and happiness.
This isn’t the old 90’s thing about “follow your bliss and the money will follow.” It’s more evidence-based, and doable. This class shows what works, and how to do it right.
After a few hours of work yesterday, I read something that gave me a glimmer of hope that I, too, can figure this out.
One evaluation survey showed that after taking the course, and implementing the (very simple) exercises, almost every student showed an average 30% increase in their sense of happiness. That’s nice.
But what blew my socks off was this statistic:
On average, every single student also reported a 70% DECREASE in depression.
Think about that.
We all know there’s no such thing as “happy all the time”, or a life filled with constant joy. I think we all shy away from anything that promises that. After all, I’m following my passion in life, and I still struggle with insecurity, a sense of not-doing-it-right, not being able to even pay for my studio rent with my art, and not being able to pay for much of anything from my writing. (A friend was gob-smacked when I told her how little I am paid for my one paid writing gig. And that’s just “the new normal” for free-lance writers.)
So “being happier” was something I’m always a little suspicious of.
And I already know some of the more obvious, popluar goals, like “make more money”, won’t fix everything–especially if I sacrifice integrity and what makes my work powerful. I know fame and celebrity can be a shadow goal, and potentially a self-destructive pursuit.
But the promise I could be less unhappy? Significantly less unhappy?? Bring it on!
That tiny ray of hope, the realization that things really could be better, inside, with a shift in perspective, was enough to raise my spirits.
And the way that happens–aligning key character traits and values with my life mission–is already giving me a wee bit of clarity of what that “inflection point” might be.
As always, I’ll keep you posted on my progress.
And in the meantime, I hope you check out the course, especially if you are also struggling with what would really make you happy!
How do you know when it’s time to move forward? When nothing else is possible.
If you follow my blog, you know I’m writing about a series of steps to create your own artist support group. It’s harder than I thought it would be, though I’ve done it many times. Even though I took the training not once, but twice.
I am obsessed with doing it right, hoping this “I’m not in the room to show you” approach will translate and transfer. I can’t stop thinking there’s someone out there who really needs to hear this today.
Today I finally realized that person is me.
I’ve been trapped in a whirlwind of my own emotions, my self-doubt, my inability to figure out what “the universe” is telling me. On top of the difficulties of melding with (relatively) new surroundings, trying to rebuild an audience for my art (and writing!), dealing with difficult family matters (I almost said family “members”, but have to remember they might describe me the same way!), I have been in a tsunami of allergy-related health issues. I am achey and ill-at-ease, exhausted, and I sleep round the clock. A friend said, “When allergies hit us, it feels like the universe is attacking our body.” True dat.
I’ve been reaching out to people who have had my back in the past. People who know me well. People who have seen me at my worst, and still love me. Unfortunately, when I look at how far back our conversations go, I can see that some started before we even left New Hampshire!
And slowly, slowly, I’ve realized, the universe isn’t trying to tell me something.
My heart is.
I’ve always struggled with “shaman”, just as I used to struggle with “artist”. The three aspects of a shaman are intriguing and feel right. Whether I am one or not, to go “in that general direction” just felt like the right path.
Artist. Teacher. Healer.
What about my training for those facets of who I am?
I claimed my story, and my art grew from there.
Teaching? It was one of my very first “aha!” moments, when I thought/realized I wanted to be a teacher. (Turns out I DO, and I AM, but not in our traditional idea of teaching. I share what I’ve learned in my writing, in workshops, and often in conversations with people who happen to cross my path. In a classroom, 8-4 every weekday?? For 8 months??? Not so much.)
Healing? My hospice training blew my heart up, in a good way. From sitting with clients, sitting with them, not “fixing” but simply being present. Then learning to sit with clients with Alzheimer’s, not “fixing” but simply being in THEIR moment, not mine. Then I moving on to creating and leading grief writing workshops: Helping people heal from deep and/or complicated grief and loss. (ALL under the guidance and supervision of trained professionals!) I learned, and I learned, and I learned.
But though people have urged me, I’ve always edged away from actual “coaching” coaching. It would seem like a natural “next step”, but it feels…wrong.
When I work with the wrong person, at the wrong time for them (and me!), before they are ready, before they are able, and when they are in my life for the wrong reasons, it ricochets badly.
And sometimes, I just get caught up in “I know better than you!” (I call it “triangulation”–“Let’s check in on these questionable people we both know, are they just goofy, or dangerous?” But some people call it, “Please mind your own business, I didn’t ask you!” OW!!)
I feel these efforts are always sketchy anyway–I don’t feel like a healer, though I believe my art heals me, and my art can sometimes heal others.
Lately, my “coaching” efforts have been a lot more than “less than”. They feel awful.
What it feels like: The minute I assume I know what I’m doing, it blows up in my face. And because I’m vulnerable in that role, it’s devastating.
It felt like the universe was saying, “Get over yourself!”
But today I realized there’s a gap in my training.
I need more training in healing/coaching.
I still reject the notion of this aspect of my life. It still feels wrong, it still feels uncomfortable.
I need more information on how to stay grounded. How to assess the situation. How to realize when to fold, the sooner the better! (I do have good instincts for self-protection, but sometimes they kick in too late.) How to tell when someone really is “ready”.
And to acknowledge that often, when it works at its best, there is reciprocity. Not money-wise. But every time it works beautifully, there is an exchange of energy. We both walk away better for the interaction.
Hard for me to describe. I’ll think about that.
So I share this with you today. It’s why I’ve been quieter than usual. Why I’ve made myself “smaller” instead of “bigger”.
I’m at another turning point in my life. I don’t know what it looks like, and I pretty sure I’m leaving art and writing behind. (How would I survive?!)
So today I start another trail of learning. My “next step”: Today I’m contacting someone I trust with my heart, to get a thought on how to move forward on this.
Today is another “life lesson”, just waiting to be learned.
(N.B. I’ve been blogging about the business and spiritual side of art since 2003. Unfortunately, when I switched my website to another host, all the links to those articles (almost 500) were “lost”, invisible to internet search.
It’s been a slow, painstaking journey to reset those urls. And so today, I’m republishing on of the most important ones I’ve ever written: THE HARDEST QUESTION
I promise to find and republish that process, because it MUST be done with love, support, and respect.)
This post was originally published on July 31, 2006.
A reader’s comments on yesterday’s blog, on the process of getting to the “why” of our work, got me thinking.
Here’s a tip I’ve learned from doing active listening exercises I don’t think I’ve shared in my blog.
When a question makes you angry, go there.
I don’t mean the offensive or hurtful questions that come from people who are out to get you. I mean the questions someone asks you out of innocence, out of interest, out of caring or out of any positive place.
If those questions make you uneasy, or irritable, or downright angry, take a step back–and ask yourself, “Why?”
Because that anger, or anxiousness, means we’re getting close to something important.
Let me backtrack and explain.
I occasionally do active listening exercises with people I think would really appreciate and USE the experience. I learned the technique from one of my mentors, fiber artist and workshop leader Deborah Kruger. You can see Deborah’s work here, though as of today, it’s in the process of being revised: http://www.deborahkruger.com/
Deborah trains artists how to find and create support groups for each other. The formal structure of the support is offered through four questions that each person gets asked, one by one:
What is the greatest vision for your art?
What is your next step?
Where does it get hard?
What support do you need?
They seem like simple little questions. But I watch people struggle mightily with them. Sometimes one of the questions brings them to tears. Other times, one will make them angry.
I’ve learned, as a listener, to follow the tears AND the anger. Because sadness and anger are often what we use to protect our core. And often, the very answers we need are at our core.
Now you see why I only offer to do this with people I care about! It’s hard for me to deal with other people’s anger or defensiveness. I have to feel the process is going to be worth the crummy part.
I’m going to do a bait-and-switch today. I realize each of these four questions is an entire column’s thoughts. So I’m going back to the question I talked about yesterday:
Why do you make this work?
Why do you do it the way you do?
Why do you use THESE tools, THIS technique?
Why is it important to you???
When I am really interested or really care about someone or their work, I want to know the “why” of it. And if I don’t get that answer, if I’m determined enough, or care enough, I will keep asking it til I do.
And often people get angry. But if they are people who “get it”, I find they’re usually amazed and grateful later.
Because “WHY?” gets at the heart, the core, of everything we’re about as artists.
That can be a scary, uncharted place to go. Especially if we’ve never dared go there before.
But go there we must, if we are to create the strong emotional connection between our artwork and our audience. Articulating OUR connection facilitates our AUDIENCE’s connection.
Look, a jillion people on this planet have the technical skill and wherewithal to do whatever we artists and craftspeople do. The massive manufacturing industry in China churning out cheap replicas of our work proves that. There’s a thriving market for this stuff, too, and almost all of us are guilty of supporting it. We all love a bargain, especially for something that’s “good enough”.
But when your work speaks deeply to someone, when it is so beautiful or profound or meaningful or wonderful they just HAVE TO HAVE IT, that’s when price is almost no object. (Hint: It often helps to offer layaway!)
If you don’t have the foundation for that connection—if you don’t really know yourself WHY it has the effect it does—then you may be missing opportunities to create that connection.
I know many people might disagree with this. We can love a song without knowing anything about its creator, we can enjoy a meal without knowing how it was prepared, we can buy artwork without understanding anything about the artist.
But when you learn that Beethoven created some of his most powerful work even when he could not hear it, you may pay attention a little more to his music.
When you learn that Renoir’s final paintings were made with brushes strapped to his hands, because he was so crippled with arthritis he could no hold a brush, the soft blurry edges of his later nudes take on new poignancy.
When an artist tells you the story that generates their “ethereal, abstract” work, and that story is about the loneliness of a child who finds solace and control in during airplane flights–where all the confusion fades away and only serene landscapes and cloudscapes are left–the work now speaks to you in thundering whispers.
Because the “why” informs us more than the “how” ever will. An intellectual exercise is just that–from the head. An emotional leap into the abyss is from the heart.
The “why” is not an easy place to get to. And yes, it will morph and change as we let go of one “why” and pick up another. And it will change as life picks US up and drops us in another place.
But our job as artists goes far, far beyond achieving technical skill and mastery of our processes.
Our job is to look at the “why’s” in our life, to bring the questions—and—the answers—into visible or audible form. So that others can see it and feel it and connect with it in ways that enrich THEIR lives.
So get a trusted friend or supporter to play the “why” game with you. They start asking you the “why” questions. They have your permission to be persistent. They have your permission not to accept facile answers or technical jargon. If they feel you are deflecting, they have permission to persevere.
If it gets too heavy, or you get angry, that’s okay. Step back and take a break.
If you find yourself wondering WHY it got heavy, or WHY you got angry, well, now you’re getting somewhere.
Remember, you will know you’ve found your “why” when you feel the tears. Because whatever makes you cry, that’s where your heart is.
P.S. Again: If you believe this would be of service for you, or a friend, please act with love, kindness, and respect. ASK FOR PERMISSION to do this exercise, do it with others who have the same supportive mindset. Remember that we all have our deep inner truth we want others to respect, and accept. LISTEN to THEIR deep inner truth. It’s not for us to tell. It’s for THEM to discover.)