ART FOR MONEY vs. MONEY FOR ART

 

This post was originally published May 30, 2004, on a now-defunct blog-hosting site.  This slightly edited version is dedicated to Rhonda K. Hageman, who read it when it first appeared on DurableGoods/Radio Userland. Thank you, Rhonda!!

Still timely. So enjoy! 

A topic came up this week on a small private e-mail list I host. The list started as a way for artists to learn how to get their work in front of a larger audience than friends and family, by exploring ways to sell, publish and exhibit their artwork.

Some have found the process daunting. Perhaps they had difficulties selling their work as it was, then started producing work they thought would sell better. Or well-meaning people made discouraging remarks or suggestions that just didn’t feel right.

I’ve never advocated making anything just because you think it will sell. I realized from the get-go that this process will whisk you away from your core vision (making the work that is in you and pleases you) and sends you scuttling down the path of trying to please others. No can do, says this girl.

The thing is, so many times, when I hear artists have decided not to explore ways to sell their work, it’s for all the wrong reasons. They don’t get enough money, they find the quality of the work degenerates, the sales are disappointing, and the whole process doesn’t make them feel very good, nor creative, nor successful.

Part of the reason this happens is we misunderstand what selling our art can really mean. In fact, many people associate “selling art” as “selling out”.

I have found the complete opposite is true when I sell my work.

I make the most beautiful work I can envision. Someone else appreciates the work I have made. I tell them the story behind the work. A connection is made. An exchange is made—usually their money for my work (or, if you prefer, the fruit of their labor for the fruit of my labor.) Hopefully, both parties are pleased with the transaction.

That’s all. That’s it. That’s what selling my art means to me. No value judgments, no demeaning transactions, no loss of my artistic vision, no selling out.

Lately, though, I’ve come to see another dimension, just as rich (no pun intended) to this transaction. ..

And that is the power my art has on others even after the sales transaction.

The last few weeks I’ve received half a dozen e-mails, postcards and letters from people who have bought my work, or seen it in a magazine, or read what I wrote on 9/11.

Apparently, the impact of my work on their lives has continued long after I sold them the piece.

One woman wrote to tell me how much she enjoys looking at her wall hanging every day when she works at her computer. Another wrote to say how much she loved hers—and that it even inspired her to revisit her own interest in fiber art. She is now creating her own unique pieces, revitalized by our discussion on art and life and my passion for my work. She now appreciates my handwork even more, if that is possible, she wrote. (You can see this incredible letter from Kathleen Faraone here.) (N.B. I had forgotten all about this, until I found it just now–April 20, 2018! Kathleen, wherever you are now, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your powerful words!)

And that is the magic of selling/exhibiting/publishing your work. Not just the excitement of being able to generate some cash flow, perhaps even a livable income (which is pretty darned exciting!) But seeing how what you create working from your heart, seeing it start its own journey of inspiring hope, creativity, and passion in others.

That is something I did not expect when I started my journey of making my art accessible to a larger audience. It is something I could not predict nor control. It’s just another affirmation that I am doing the right thing and on my true path.

So before you sell yourself—and your art—short (or decide not to sell at all), consider this: Selling your art can be a good thing. A  very good thing.

It is a process, and sometimes a long process. As the saying goes, “It took me twenty years to become an overnight success!” Most small business consultants say it takes at least five years for a business to get established. Most people only plan for a year or two at most. Many artists give up after one bad show or one dismal gallery experience.

The secret to success with your art?

Stay with it.

Keep on making the work you are passionate about. Then look for its market.

Ask for help, but don’t assume what someone else says about your work is automatically true. Experiment. Adjust. Tweak. Sometimes small changes in format, size or presentation can make huge differences. But these need not be fundamental changes in what your art is. You should still be able to work with total commitment to your inner voice.

In fact, most of the time, when I see an artist or craftsperson who is not having much success, it’s because they’ve “dumbed down” their work, made it more cheaply, made it more mundane. They doubt their ability to astonish, so they set their sights lower. They end up aiming too low.

Make your best work. Make sure as many people as possible see it.

Then you will never have to worry about “selling out.”

Because your heart and soul are not for sale.

They can only be given, with love and joy.

A lot has changed in my art through the years…..

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…but a lot of things HAVEN’T changed!

WHAT MERYL STREEP AND I HAVE IN COMMON

This is the very first blog post I wrote, on Sunday, December 1, 2002.
And it’s still true today. Except Walt is gone now, may his gentle heart and fevered brain rest in peace.  And if it gives YOUR fevered brain a little peace today, well, that’s good, too!

I was going to write about a discussion with a friend about his dirty house.  But when I picked up the Sunday magazine that comes with our local paper, I came across some amazing statements by Meryl Streep that caused me to bump the dump story.

In the talk with my friend, he told me how immobilized with anxiety and self-doubt he felt each day.  I’m a natural born people fixer-upper (much to the annoyance of my friends), so I jumped right in with suggestions that have worked for me.  He kept saying, “You don’t understand, you don’t understand” until finally, in frustration, I told him my deepest, darkest secret:

I wake up every morning with a sense of dread about how hopelessly inadequate I am to achieve my goals, and I go to bed every night ever mindful of….how does the Lord’s Prayer go?  “We have done those things which we ought not to have done, and left undone the things we ought to have done.”  Well, that sums up the beginning and end of my day quite well.

My friend was astounded.  He said, “But you’re always so upbeat and you’re always busy with your artwork and always doing stuff….”  He paused and said, “And I know you’re telling the truth, because you know the old saying, ‘You can’t bullshit a bullshitter?’  I’m in the pits, and I can tell you’ve been there, too.  So how did you turn it around?”

It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, spiritually.  I simply stopped listening to the little voices that told me how how futile it all was.

Note that I said I didn’t stop hearing the voices.  I said I stopped listening to them.

It came about through a long, slow process.  It wasn’t any one thing.  It was a series of books, a smattering of important people, teachers, who showed up in my life at just the right time.  It was the birth of my oldest child.  It was a workshop I took.  It was trying to spiritually accomodate the violent murder of an elderly neighbor 20 years ago.  It was a physical injury that tied up my body for almost a year.  It was a brush with cancer (a very light brush, but frightening at the time.)

We often dream that when we figure everything out, when we realize our perfect vision for ourselves, everything else will fall into place, too.  When we get the right job, when we meet the right life partner, when we get our dream home, when we find the perfect little black dress, (when we reach the perfect size for that little black dress!) the perfect lipstick, whatever, that we will finally silence those little voices that always tell us what is wrong.  (Please note I’m not talking about the little voice telling you about real danger.  I’m talking about that little voice that tells you you will never be good enough, fortunate enough, strong enough, talented enough, blah blah blah. The inner critic.)  When we still hear that little voice, we may panic.  Dang!  It’s still there!  Where did I go wrong??

One of my most precious insights, almost miraculous in my eyes, is that it is possible to act in a powerful way even if your little voice says you have no power.  You hear that familiar little rant in the morning–“You didn’t fill that order, you didn’t win that award, you didn’t get into that show and you never will!

Then I get up and do it anyway.

Everything I have accomplished in the last five years–and it’s a lot!–I’ve done in spite of that little voice.  I don’t pretend to say that I have deeper resources than other people, and I would never even pretend to say that all mental health can be achieved by just saying no to those voices.  I am saying it is an act of will to act in spite of my voices, and I feel blessed to have found that out.  I now realize there is no place I can get to where I will not hear them.  But now I don’t let them stop me from getting where I want to go.  They can whine all they want, I’m going there anyway.

So what do Meryl Streep and I have in common?  In an interview with Ken Burns that appeared in USA WEEKEND today, KB asks Meryl if she will always act.  And she answers

“Oh, I always think I’m going to give up.  You get the cold feet.  You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie?  And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?  I don’thave to do this.’  It is something I confront at the beginning of everything.  I have to start out with nothing each time.”

KB: And reinvent the wheel.

MS: “And reinvent the wheel.  It’s very hard.  It’s very, very hard….”

There you have it.  The article notes that Streep has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards, tying Katherine Hepburn’s record.  She’s actually won two Oscars.  And that her work ethic is legendary.

And every time she takes on a new challenge, she hears the same little voices I do!

I wonder what she says to her little voices…..?

READING THE OBITS

 

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Will future archeologists see my work as true artifacts? Clever fakes? Or even know them for the introspective artwork they are? 10,000 years from now, who will know the makings of our hands? And who will know the mysteries of our hearts?

I wrote this post almost nine years ago. Still true.

May 20, 2007

I’ve arrived at that age where I read the obituaries in the paper each day. (Actually, I started years ago but it seems more age-appropriate now.)

After checking in with the important stuff (Is it anyone I know? Were they younger or older than me??) I glance through the rest of the article for clues about who they were.

This person left behind a huge family of grieving loved ones. This one outlived many others. This one founded an industrial dynasty. This one traveled the world for the love of adventure. This one worked tirelessly to help her fellow man. This one was an Elk, or a Moose, or a veteran. This one was an advocate for animals, for children, for the earth. This one wrote a book, made a movie, sang in their church choir. This one made toys for his grandchildren. And this one always had fresh-baked cookies and a seat at the table for those in need of a warm heart and a sympathetic ear.

Real lives, all. None for us to judge. We know too little, in the end, for that.

There is a strong central theme running through each one.

The desire for them to be remembered.

It got me thinking this morning:

Remembered for what?

We cannot ultimately control how we will be remembered. If we leave behind an impressive legacy, or enough loved ones, we may have a slightly better chance.

Even then, for how long? A few years? A few generations, if we’re lucky to have mattered that much to some? For centuries, if we are a Mozart, or a queen, or a tragic hero?

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that we cannot always control the outcome of our actions in our lives. Some of the most noble actions have led to the most dreadful outcomes and vice versa.

Even the most evil act in the world may someday generate some good. Israel, the United Nations and the lifework of Elie Wiesel (“Too remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all…”) are but a few legacies of the Holocaust.

If we cannot control the outcome, how do we decide what is worth doing?

All we can do is live our best intention, and make it manifest in our everyday lives.

The older I get, the more I realize how hard this is to do on all fronts–my personal life, my professional life, in my art and writing. I am really good at some intentions and frankly awful at others. And sometimes my failures are more outstanding than my successes, as my critics love to tell me.

In the end, the words I wrote for my aunt’s funeral sum it up the best for me. I scribbled them on a scrap of paper that morning, and it was lost in the shuffle on the way back home.

I said that all lives, great and small are precious.

That in the end, even small and quiet lives can touch the hearts of many others in ways we cannot foresee or fathom.

I remember saying that our days are surely numbered, and none of us knows the number of our days.

We can only live each one with as much passion, as much wonder, as much love, as much forgiveness, and as much courage as we can muster.

Because the world can be a harsh and frightening place, and it needs that from us. It needs our passion, and compassion. It needs our open heart.

It needs the very best from us. Our very best effort to make it a little brighter, a little better not only for our loved ones, but for everyone.

Even quiet lives and little acts of courage and kindness can have repercussions we cannot ever imagine Because the diary of Anne Frank is a legacy of the Holocaust, too.

For me, part of my very best effort means my art.

I realize my confusion and unhappiness has been because I could not see what its place is in the world. I’ve been doing my best to make sure it’s as “big” as it can be.

But then I have to let it go. I have to let it go out into the world and let it be what it is.

That is as it should be. It’s as much my child as my own flesh and blood. And like my children, I want it to shine as brightly as it can.

Like my children I must fight fiercely to protect it when it is vulnerable, and always out of love.

And like my children, it will ultimately find its own place in the world, beyond my expectations and intentions.

I cannot “control” what effect it has, or what it will mean to others, or even whether I will be remembered for it after I am gone. Just as I have no right to control how my children will craft their own lives, nor who they will marry, or how they will make their living in the world.

And like my children, I see more and more that this is a mystery to be embraced–not “handled.” There can be joy is in doing my best–then letting go of the outcome.

And trusting that even tiny actions of encouragement, acts of good intention, acts of creation, might leave their mark in the world long afte I and my work am forgotten.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Let go.

HOLDING ONTO PATTERNS THAT HOLD YOU BACK

What is the story you tell about yourself, that holds you back from doing the things you really want to do?

This is my very first blog post, which was first published Friday, November 29, 2002

Years ago, when I was getting my master’s degree in education, I met a young woman in one of my math methods course.  We paired up for several projects.  I found her bright and funny and easy to work with.

One day we were doing some measurements for a hands-on project, and she stumbled on an easy mental calculation, multiplying a single digit by 9.  I said something jokingly about her multiplication tables needing work.

“Oh, I never learned my 9’s facts,” she explained.  “I was absent that day.”

I thought she was joking.  Surely someone as smart as she was, and as someone who was taking master’s level math methods coursework, knew that elementary school does not denote one day out of the entire fourth-grade curriculum to teach the nines multiplication table.

But she wasn’t kidding.  She told me an elaborate story about being sick the day the nines table was taught, and so more than 15 years later, she was still unable to multiply by nine.

I think of that young woman often.

Coincidentally, in that same math teaching course, we were learning how to teach kids their math facts–addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  There are many easy facts.

Let’s take the multiplication tables.  Everyone knows what the ones facts are:1 x 1 = 1, 2 x 1 = 2, etc.  Next come the twos, and it turns out they’re pretty easy, too.   Most kids learn them quickly.   Next are the fives and the tens.  They’re easily mastered, too.  Also the “doubles”: 3 x 3 = 9, 4 x 4 = 16, and so on.

Now if you were to map out a chart of all the multiplication facts, and mark off all the “easy” ones, including their reversals (2 x 3 = 6 and 3 x 2 = 6, for example) you’d find almost half of the facts accounted for.  And what are the strategies for learning those remaining facts?

The answer, it turns out, is not so much fun.  You have to memorize them.

Of course, there are some good tricks, like the nines tables: Subtract 1 from the not-9 number, use that number. That number plus what will equal 9? So for 6 x 9, 6-1 is 5, 5 plus what = 9? 4.  So 6×9=54.  Cute, huh?

But the straight skinny is, ya gotta memorize them.  The math facts are one of the few academic skills that are ultimately only learned by memorization, and best reinforced by drill and practice.  (Acquisition of vocabulary, especially in learning foreign languages, also benefits greatly by this approach, too.)

So here we have two statements, or stories, about facts.  One is measurable, observable, concrete.  To learn the math facts, you gotta work at them.  You gotta memorize them.  You gotta be able to knock out the answers within a second or two of hearing the numbers.  But once you learn them, you never really forget them.  You might get rusty, or you might get stuck on one or two.  But the foundation, the habit is still there.

The other story is harder to quantify.  Everyone will believe it, few will really examine it.  It goes like this: “I have a special story about why I can’t do something.  It’s an odd story, but it makes me feel better about not being able to do that thing.  So I hold onto it fiercely.  Even when a calm, adult eye would see that it doesn’t even make sense anymore.”

What do you gain by holding onto a story like that?

Well…you don’t have to try anymore.  You can have a clear conscience about why you can’t do that thing.  Others might think you’re silly, but it’s possible no one would ever say that to your face.

In fact, probably other people, who have their own  “I can’t” story, nod their head in sympathetic agreement, relieved that someone else has such a story, too.  You may even get sympathy, or admiration.  “Wow, that’s quite a story!  How awful for you! No wonder you can’t do that!”

It’s also a way to make sure you don’t have to do the real work of learning those new facts, those new ways of doing something.  It’s too hard,  it’s too time-consuming, it’s too late, it’s not possible, and so on. So make up a story, and move on.

But what do you lose with a story like that?

You lose a lot.  A lot of missed chances, missed opportunities, a whole world of missed possibilities.

I’m telling this story because I used to tell myself a story like that, too.

It was all about how I couldn’t do the things I really wanted to do–make art.  It was about how I couldn’t be what I really wanted to be–an artist. It was about how I would never be able to sell my work, or find anyone who would want to buy it. 

Surprisingly, once I realized my “stories” I told about myself were just that–stories–I found I could change the story to one I like better.  A huge paradigm shift occurred, and I began to see that all the things that “couldn’t happen”, could.  

I now hear that old story from people who ask me how I accomplished so much in the last five years.  When I tell them, they first tell me how lucky I am.  (I am, but not for the reasons they think!)

I soon hear their story.  They think it’s specific to them, a special story, an unusual story.

When I point out that I had the same story, they are quick to correct me that their story is different.

When I point out the inconsistencies of what they’re telling me, they tell me I don’t understand their story fully.

When I suggest ways they could tell another story, they are horrified.  They’ve put so much energy into holding onto this old story.  There’s just too much at stake.  It’s always a really, really good story why they simply cannot do the very thing they just told me is their true heart’s desire.

So my first question for you today is:  What is your story?  What is the story you tell about yourself that is holding you back from doing the things you really want to do?

Tomorrow I’ll tell the story about my friend Walt and his messy house.  Now there’s a story! *

*Sadly, I never told the story about Walt, who died a few years ago of brain cancer. I remember it was another riff on this article–he had a huge story about why he couldn’t clean his house.

One of the many wonderful things I remember about Walt is, he came to the same conclusion: He could change his story, and he did.

GO FORTH AND MAKE STUFF

There are a million reasons why you can’t/shouldn’t/won’t make your art visible in the world. There’s one reason worth your life, why you have to.

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I felt pretty uninspired yesterday. Then I made this.

I’ve have many dreams for my art over the years. Some involved artistic vision. Some involved recognition, respect, and kudos. Some involved financial rewards. Some were only for me and my sanity, my vanity, and my little rabbit heart’s yearning.

Some have been achieved. Many probably never will be. Some are still in progress.

Some I never even imagined, until they came appeared, on their own, exclaiming, “Hey, you forgot ME!!”

We all hold dreams for our the creative work we do, whether we work with words, music, paint, stone, polymer clay, gold, clay, or glass.

It’s when we try to make them present in the world that we run into trouble.

I’ve encountered so many creative people lately, strong, intelligent, gifted people, who, quite frankly, have their head up their respective asses. (In all fairness, I can add myself to that list.) Filled with self-doubt, physical/emotional/mental/spiritual/temporary and permanent setbacks, they struggle to have even an iota of their creative potential in their life.

“When I have the perfect training/situation/schedule/studio/work place/support group/guaranteed income/show/companion/gallery/social media skills/presentation/experience/audience/community/website/skills/whatever-in-god’s- name-you-think-you-need-to-create in my life, then I’ll exercise my creative talent!”

Oh dear.

This is beginning to sound like the SCOTUS nomination and Congress situation. There is just no work-around when you have so many conditions on how–and when–your creative self will engage with the world.

It’s easy to buy into these situations: When can I call myself an artist? How will I make a living with my creative gifts? Who will buy it?? What is a successful artist? Am I good enough to be an artist? These are just a handful of the mind-numbing and soul-petrifying doubts and questions that block so many of us from doing what we love to do.

I’ve been writing about this since my very very first blog post in 2002.  I’ve felt all of these ‘conditions’ and ‘restrictions’ personally, too. Examining my own caustic beliefs, working through them, and sharing that process with you, is a huge part of my own creative process. Sometimes I wonder if the only reason I was born with an artistic gift, is so I could write and share this with you.

It’s so incredibly hard, for so many people, to hear my message over the little nagging voices in their own heads, I often can’t break through.  (I’m learning that people can’t hear me until they are ready to hear me. Which helps me keep trying when I feel discouraged.)

So here’s one of my all-time favorite comic strips that explains, as only humor can, why the world needs your art. And why YOU need your art in the world… And why it doesn’t matter how much of it you put in the world, or how much money you make with it, why it doesn’t matter if it’s your vocation, your avocation, or your career, why it doesn’t matter how many people ‘like’ it (literally and figurative, thank you Facebook!), nor why it even matters if I like it or not….

In this Sally Forth cartoon panel from February 5, 2015, Ted is talking to his daughter Hilary, ten years in the future, about the real importance of her creative endeavors:

Hil, do you know why people play music? Or draw or sing or do stand-up or create?

Becauxe it’s through their art they can interpret the world. And it’s through their art they can add their ideas to the world. It’s not about having an audience, it’s about having a voice.

And if you don’t pursue your art, you may lose that great opportunity to have your say.

(And for a small reality check that every parent will recognize, Hilary replies, “Is this the very level of understanding why you never flinch when I ask for money?”)

Ponder that for a bit today.

Remember: I’m not telling you to give up your day job. I’m not telling you to sign up for American Idol. I’m not telling you what “real” art is, I’m not telling you how often or when you should make it, I’m not telling how you should do it, I’m not saying you should run off to Tahiti, abandoning your family, and lie on a beach somewhere with a umbrella drink in your hand. (Although, that sounds pretty cool, and Tahiti IS a magical place.)

And I’m not telling you it’s easy, or simple, or that there’s a right way to do it.

I’m saying you have a voice. You have just this one life to use it. And it’s NEVER TOO LATE to use it.

Okay, you have a job, a real job or role, one that you like, or even love, or a care-taking role, or anything else you simply do or have to do.

I say, you need the restoration, the sanity, the healing power you get by putting your own power out into the world, to support this other, vitally important work you do. (Think of your creative spirit as the gas you put in your car.) (Okay, the electricity you recharge you car with.)

Make room for it, even just a tiny bit of a room, in your life.

If not for yourself (although I firmly believe that’s the best reason in the world to do it), then do it for someone you love, someone else in the same boat, who holds the same fears and second-guessing and shame and despair that you do.*

Show them the real healing power of art.

Show them what it looks like.

*Yep, this is my super-sneaky strategy to encourage certain selfless folks to be a wee bit more self-ish. Did it work?

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The well-worn and much-loved comic strip that inspired today’s post.

Stories from the Flea Market: Christine’s “Tail”

A friend back in Keene, NH read yesterday’s story about the bunny I bought at a flea market. Christine Janda Grant is a talented craftsperson, and I have several samples of her explorations in polymer, beading, yarn, etc. She wrote to me to share her own, similar story, and with her permission, I share it with you. She’s working on a launch of a new project soon, so keep an eye out for her!
Christine wrote:
So enjoyed your bunny story. It brought to mind a tale from a NH League of Craftsmen show.

Years ago I had gone to help a friend (Gail Wilson, nationally acclaimed doll artist) with her booth at the League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair

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Gail’s tiny bear kit is wonderful. Of course, I can’t put my hands on my finished bears right now….STOP LAUGHING AND SAYING “So what else is new?”….!!!

I only had a little money to spend – I think about twenty dollars. I had spotted a small pottery clock that I fell in love with and planned to buy it before the fair ended.
A family came into Gail’s booth with a little boy who very much wanted one of Gail’s dolls. The father brusquely informed the boy that they were for girls and they moved on. I saw some tears rolling down his face as they left.
I asked Gail if she would sell me a small doll for the money I had and she did. I stuffed it into a bag and caught up with the boy. After getting his parent’s permission to give him “a little something”. I gave him the bag with instructions not to open it until he got home.
Gail made a remark about me not being able to buy my clock now and I told her I didn’t mind. A little later I stopped by the booth to see it one last time but it had been sold.
At the end of the day Gail thanked me for coming to help her and gave me a gift to take home.
You guessed it, the clock I loved.
I only found out later that she told the story to the potter, who gave something to Gail and then someone gave a gift to the potter and it kind of traveled around the show that year.
I still have the clock as one of my treasured things.
Thank you, Christine, I love this story!