THE HARDEST QUESTION

(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?

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.)

THIS IS LOVE

For Bobbye…..

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Bobbye Sansing’s beautiful handformed, pit-fired pottery vessels.

I felt something was wrong for weeks.

I sensed it when I first reached out to an old, dear friend, months ago. I was relieved to find she was glad to hear from me. Yet no new messages followed.

We hadn’t parted on bad terms, really. Oh, I look back and cringe when I see how I sometimes took her friendship for granted. And how I pushed–too much–for her to get her art out into the world.

She was my Wise Woman friend for years, as I slowly broke out of my eggshell beliefs that I wasn’t good enough to be a real artist. She was in my first “artist retreat”, a workshop led by another Wise Woman, about how to find true support from a small circle of trusted cohorts. We would celebrate each others’ successes when the world noticed us. We would raise each other up when the world took us down a peg.

As I grew more confident, and knowledgeable (I thought), I began to urge her to be more visible in the world.

It’s easy to believe we know better than others. I felt I knew what was best for her. And she (rightly so) resisted, firmly.

So we drifted gently apart for awhile. And then both of us eventually moved thousands of miles away, until we both found ourselves out West, me on in Northern California, her in Nevada.

My early blog posts and personal journals are filled with her words of wisdom. She taught me so much. She could be so honest, it hurt. But not in a mean way. In a way that held my feet firmly to the fire of my own self-doubt and whine-iness. (Yes, I’m a bit of a whiner. There. I said it.) Because of her, I began to grow a backbone. (Still growing. Not done yet.)

In a few small  ways, I helped her, too. She is a potter, specializing in pit-fired vessels. Determined to be professional in every way, she asked us (our group) for help to build a body of work for exhibiting and selling.

After several suggestions were shot down, I thought to ask her this question: What is your production process now?

She explained how, when her husband got home from work, they would eat dinner and watch TV together in their warm and cozy den, and talk. Every night, almost without fail. She hated working in her basement studio, alone. She wanted to be with Bob, and so she chose him.

As they sat, she worked a lump of clay, turning it into a beautiful hand-pinched pot, ready for the kiln.

“Every night?” I asked her.

Yes.

“And every one is a good one? Good enough to exhibit, or sell?”

Yes.

“So at the end of a year, you have over 300 good pots?”

Yes.

“Is that enough for a year’s worth of exhibits and sales?”

Uh…..yes.

So she had a reliable process that slowly-but-steadily created a beautiful, substantial body of work. Why would she mess with that??

She said it didn’t sound very professional. She felt she was doing it wrong.

I hope in this single, small way, I helped her realize that any way you get your work made, and out into the world, is ‘professional’ enough.

So today I just learned that her husband died.

Almost half a century together. So many years. So much love.

I took her pots out today. I only have a few, but I treasure them.

And when I look into the graceful swirling edges, the haunting mystery of their interiors, the hand-polished exteriors, everything of her hands and fingertips, their shared hours of companionship, togetherness, a life built from fragile–yet resilient–human clay, filled with laughter, and children, and family, and friends, and home, and art.

Each pot, made with love, surrounded by love, infused with love.

This is love.

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THE BIGGEST SINGLE MISTAKE YOU’RE MAKING TO GROW YOUR AUDIENCE

Don’t be an asshole. Be respectful of those you’re building on.

This was a convoluted journey today, that got me to this thought. Bear with me!

I somehow signed up for something called Medium.com. It looks kinda like Flipboard, Kos, Upworthy, etc., a news-and-ideas aggregator sites that let you select the kinds of stories and news you’re interested in.

Medium’s Daily Digest somehow got me to a newsletter from Josh Spector, digital strategist, creator and collector of ideas) called “10 Ideas For You”.

I browsed the ideas, and found some that intrigued me. Especially one by Alex Turnbull, founder and CEO of Groove. The article is called 8 Wins That Helped Us Grow Our Email List to 100,000 Subscribers.

Normally, I don’t click on something like this. So much of the information out there is too vague or too ridiculous for very tiny (art) businesses like mine. And the most useful advice you’ll get is the obvious: Be yourself, be unique, be authentic, and be persistent. (In other words, it can take years to become an “overnight success.”)

But this particular article was enjoyable and helpful. The title was irresistible. In fact, it inspired the flashy clickbait title I used today. (What the heck? It’s true, I’m gonna come through, and you don’t have to pay for anything. A girl can have some fun, right?)

One huge suggestion Alex gave, was to reach out to already-established “influencers” in your field, to encourage them to check out your article, comment on it, and link to it from their platforms.

The trick is to be authentic, open, reciprocal, and succinct. And it reminded me of one big mistake people often make when doing this, a strategy that’s historically been a huge turn-off for me.

It’s when people engage with what I’ve written, on my blog or another art blog I write for (link)….

And then blatantly redirect my readers to their own blog.

I’ll be honest. I used to do this, years ago. In fact, we were encouraged to do this. I actually pissed off a few people doing it. (I am so sorry!!!) Times have changed, thank goodness!

It’s one thing to contribute substantially to a conversation, to build on what’s been said, to offer another point of view or thought.

It’s another thing to argue, to bring up a contentious point I’ve already addressed, and then to overtly suggest people leave my site and go to your site.

Here’s where the authenticity part comes in:

If you build on what someone’s already published, you’re helping them. Especially if you are an expert or influencer in your own right, your comments (in a perfect world) validate their efforts. It’s win/win, since people will want to visit your site, to see more of what you have to offer….

Because you’re doing it right.

You haven’t shanghaied the conversation for your own self-aggrandizement. You’ve given before you (subtly) suggest you might have something just as useful to say, yourself.

People will see your enthusiasm, your integrity, your respect for the author’s work, your professionalism.

You’re not telling them or implying you do it better.

You’re showing it, in your modus operandi.

Think about it. I get comments all the time on my blog, comments that go directly to the spam folder. Why? They make general comments that are obviously boilerplate stuff, with almost no connection to the actual post.

Then they post their own website, and urge my readers to check it out. It’s a blatant redirection, with no contribution to what I’ve created.

So when ordinary, oblivious people do it, it looks like spam.

I want to tell these people, “Back in the day, we were encouraged to do this. Times have changed. Catch up!” That’s why I’m embarrassed to admit I used to do it, too. But to my credit, it always felt contrived and awkward.

So check out Josh’s space, if these ideas intrigue you. (There’s one on Bruce Lee and his personal journals, where he constantly encouraged himself to be the very best at what he did.) (Originally posted on Brain Pickings, another great site for big thoughts and ideas.)

And visit Alex’s article on the tried-and-true method they created, for growing your audience. Yes, they’re geared for businesses large enough to outsource their customer service services. (Er…what would that be like??) (Wait. Never mind. That’s not the “big” I’m aiming for.) But I found something useful, and you might, too.

And the next time you try drafting on someone else’s good work, think about what you’re doing before you hit that “post” tab….

Because you’re doing it wrong.

 

 

 

CUTE SHIRT!: What to Say When You Don’t Like the Work

My latest column at Fine Art Views–enjoy!

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.

Kindness—and the benefit of the doubt—goes a long way with your peers and in your career.

In my last article, I wrote about respecting other people’s artwork, even if it’s not my thing. What if the person asks for your opinion? What do you say??

Let’s go back a few years… okay, a few decades. I’m a new mom, and my only friends are other new moms. (Most people run the other way when confronted with a frantic new mother and a crying baby. Hence, most of your friends will be other frantic new mothers and their crying babies.) I was in such a group.
Every new parent believes they’re baby is beautiful. No, not just beautiful—the most beautiful baby in the world.  And we know the right thing to say to other parents: “What a beautiful baby!”

That day, we were discussing what to say when presented with an absolutely ugly baby.

The responses ranged from, “Now that’s a baby!!” with a big smile, to “Cute shirt!” What we all agreed on was, you never say what you’re really thinking. That would be hurtful, and serves no one.
After all, we hope every baby is a wanted child, that every child is loved, and that every child, no matter what they look like, is a new human being in the world, with all that entails.  Besides, people come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and abilities—why on earth would we judge a baby by those criteria? No. We simply know that babies have a place in the world, to be their own person.
When it comes to the things people make (er…that aren’t babies, that is), it’s a whole nother kettle of fish.
Entire websites and books (regretfully, Regretsy.com, the truly wonderful curated collection of truly awful stuff on Etsy, is no longer active) generate plenty of caustic reactions to really bad art. Read a review of any movie in The New Yorker magazine that was made after 1956, and you wonder why anyone even bothers to make movies at all, so much so seriously wrong with them. Walk any art fair, flea market, online site, and marvel at the amount of bad art in the world.  It will instantly make you feel so much better about your own.
We can behave like old ffff…folks, and complain how young people ‘just don’t appreciate good art anymore’, or how kids today ‘aren’t taught anything about fine craft anymore’ (as if we ever were!)
And critiques are a long-standing practice of traditional art education. How can we know how to improve our art, if no one points out our weakness in our composition, the flaws in our technique, the naivete of our color palette?
That’s our lizard brain talking—our need to judge, our need to discover where we fit in, in the overall range of art from very, very good to oh-my-god-what-were-they-thinking?? And though critiques can be hugely powerful in improving an artist’s skills, we’ll never know how many ‘good-enough’ artists—or simply artists with more sensitive natures—have been devastated by unnecessarily-brutal art bashing in out-of-control critique sessions, to the point where they really were convinced they were not, and could never be, ‘real artists’.
Yes, good art stands the test of time. We all know it when we see it, right?  But so often, what we consider ‘great art’ was considered gauche, disturbing, or otherwise unpopular when they were originally created, and it could take centuries before opinion changed.
‘Outsider’ art, so-called ‘primitive’ art, ‘intuitive’ and ‘visionary’ art, folk art, Art Brut, naïve art, all were considered simply ‘really bad art’, until somewhere along the line, someone saw something deeper, more powerful, more engaging.
As for the teaching power of critiques, I believe there’s a difference between an opinion that’s offered (or forced on someone), and an opinion that’s asked for. There’s a difference between constructive criticism, and scathing sarcasm. There’s a difference between being wishy-washy, vs. offering good insights into how the artist can increase their appeal, and generating a stronger audience for their work.
Here’s my current situation: I’m newly exposed to artists who are self-trained, young artists who are fearless in the work they produce, artists who are inspired by very different memes and themes than the traditional landscapes and still lifes of my art history training. Video game characters, graphic novel illustrations, comic book heroes, internet memes, steampunk, Goth, the ‘maker’ movement, all contribute to a vibrant, design-driven, eclectic stream of work that simply boggles the mind that usually considers ‘traditional art’ the only ‘real art’. It’s tempting to reject it out-of-hand as immature, Day-Glo bright, or just plain weird.
But when I look at the people who make it, I see something else.  I see the same intense desire for self-expression, the same need to make something, the same dedication to practice, to growth, to connection with an audience, as I do.
So what’s the equivalent of “Cute shirt!” in our modern world today?
One suggestion: Find three things you like. And go from there. I got this idea years ago, from an article about home décor. It said, when looking at magazine spreads of beautiful homes, it’s easy to focus only on the decorating styles you love. But even styles you’re not fond of, can help you train your eye, and increase your design repertoire. Look for three elements you like: a color combination, a texture, a window treatment, a backsplash, or light fixture. Consider why they appeal to you, even in a layout that doesn’t.
It’s good advice. It helps me expand my sources of inspiration, and have new appreciation for different experiences, even in appreciating someone else’s artwork.
If I’m watching someone work, I notice how deft they are with their materials and tools. If I’ve been watching their work over time, I notice how their techniques become more sure, more polished. I note their use of color, textures, design, composition.
I ask about their motivation, their inspiration. I ask who their audience is. I ask what venues they use to show and promote their work. I ask what their professional goals are.
When they go through a rough patch—lots of likes on Facebook, but few sales—I ask how they’re attracting people to their website, their studio, their shows.
If I’m talking to someone working in more traditional media, working with more traditional subjects, I ask similar questions. Why do they focus on this subject over those? How did they end up choosing their particular medium? How did they get started? Where are they headed, and where would they like to be?
All of these focus on the intention, the dreams, the goals of the artist. If these align with the manifestation of their art, well, then, they are successful artists!
A last suggestion: If you sense that your feedback would be appreciated, frame it for easy listening. “I love this, and I’m intrigued by that. You have skills with x, y, and z. What you could do better is…” and then offer your suggestions.
There you have it. It’s not hard to be kind, and people might actually absorb more of your excellent advice if you are.