WHAT IS THE STORY ONLY YOU CAN TELL? Starting With a “Little” Story Is Okay.

A little story can pack a big punch–or pave the way for an even bigger story.

I’ve told my story many times about how I got serious about my art.

It’s a powerful story, and it’s true. But I’ve left out the years I spent beforehand making making toys for children and grown-ups, and the story I told about that.

When my kids were very young, I took a workshop from Deborah Kruger. The focus was about creating support systems for making your art.

We were asked to share our work with the group.

I remember waiting for my turn, embarrassed because everyone was a singer, or a dancer, or a writer, or a painter. And I was sitting there with a lap full of tiny dolls, knitted sheep and doll quilts.

And I was panicking because I (thought I) didn’t have a story.

I was proud of my work, though. And when it was my turn, I simply said what was in my heart.

I said I loved making tiny things, things you could cup in your hand. Things that a child would love, but would also bring joy to an adult.

I even said a thing that makes me cringe now, when others say it: “I want to make people happy.”*

Everyone ooh’ed and ah’ed, because even then, my attention to detail, my color and fabric, my technical skills, were pleasing to others.

And until I wrote that bit just now, I didn’t see the connection between that first story and my big story that came later.

Handmade dolls by Luann Udell

There stories are connected because when I was a child, these were precious things I would have cherished.

And when I was a child, I was fierce in my knowledge that I was an artist.

I can see now that my love of the things that would make a child happy, was part of a deeper yearning. A yearning to be in that place again in my life, when I knew what it was I was here to do.

I knew it without questioning it. I just did it. I drew horses. I painted. I collecting stuff (rocks, shells, leaves, ribbon, pretty papers). I made stuff with whatever I could get my hands on. (There is a particularly embarrassing story about that I will NOT share….) (NO!!!) :^D

I could happily spend hours looking for pebbles and shells on a beach. I loved watching animals. I couldn’t wait to grow up so I could ride horses and have lots of cats, and yes, even keep pet mice. I loved things that were “too tiny”–doll house furniture, miniatures, charm bracelets.

Now I can look back and see the seeds that have grown into my art. But I couldn’t see it then.

As I grew up, things got more complicated.

I believed too many myths about artists.

I didn’t know how to pursue something I was passionate about. Because academic stuff came so easily to me, I didn’t have good work habits.

I didn’t understand the stages of competency. So I always quit when I got to Stage 2, and things got hard.

I see now that making little dolls, buttons and small quilts was a safe way of “backing up into” my art.

And that was okay.

That “first story” worked, because it got me making stuff on a regular basis.

It got me thinking about me, and what I wanted to do, instead of what other people wanted me to do.

It got me to a place where I was thinking less about “doing what I was good at” and more about “doing what I liked.”

Eventually I got to the place where I got turned around completely. (Warning: This video is about 16 minutes long. But folks who have watched it say they like it, so maybe you’ll find it worth your time.)

So today I’ve shared with you where a little story can take you. Tomorrow I’ll share an example of a “little” story that hides a big story.

P.S. As I wrote this, I realized the teensy tiny doll was actually inspired by a Waldorf school teacher who made and sold these at a craft fair. I was so enchanted with them, I called and asked her if I could make them without stepping on her toes.

She gave me the green light because she was tired of making them and didn’t want to make anymore.

*And the asterisk thingie? Because I wonder what I would have said if someone had held my feet to the fire and said, “WHY…do you want to make other people happy??”

WHAT IS THE STORY ONLY YOU CAN TELL?

I’m often asked to speak about my art. I’m good at it, too. It’s been a long journey, but I’ve become extremely comfortable sharing what is in my heart.

There is one frustration I sometimes encounter, though.

That’s the people who come up afterward and ask, “Can I make horses, too?” “Can I combine fabric and polymer, too?” The woman who exclaimed, “Oh, I love that idea! I paint gourds, and I’m going to make cave pictures on my gourds, too!”

Or the people that don’t even ask. They just start making cave ponies.

It’s not that they took my idea.

It’s that they got the wrong idea.

I know we all “copy” to some extent. I consider it a spectrum, just like any other human behavior. It ranges the gamut, from being inspired by someone else’s work (“I love that shade of blue! Hmmmm…I could make a necklace…”) to outright hacks. (Like finding your design on a shelf at T.J. Maxx or Target, and yes, that has happened to artists.)

I know I don’t own the idea of horses, the Lascaux horse, or even ancient images. It would be preposterous of me to say no one else can use these images.

I DO own my story.

And if you’ve ever listened to, or read my stories, and really heard them, you know I’m not just making little plastic horses.

I recently had a visitor to my studio, a delightful person who collects my work. We talked about her work. It’s an unusual profession, and one where many people would pick up the “hero” aspect. (I haven’t gotten her permission to write about this, so I’m being very circumspect.)

Her take was different. Deeper. More sensitive. Profound.

And when she spoke, I felt that ring of truth, that recognition of passion, that little shiver that goes down your spine when you hear deep knowledge expressed by someone from their heart.

It was her story. And it was astonishing.

If you know my story, you know my little horses represent many things to me–a childhood desire to run free, to fly, to feel the wind blowing my hair as my horse and I course across a plain together. You know it’s about the beauty of horses, the thrill of watching an animal born to run, run with all their heart. Doing what they were meant to do. Being what they were meant to be.

But they also represent choices. The choice to be the person you were meant to be. The choice to overcome fear, self-doubt and the weight of adulthood, and try something you’ve always dreamed of doing. To step into yourself, to take up your dreams, and live them. To follow the call.

And the choice to create beauty and embrace hope in the face of despair.

It boggles the mind to think that someone can hear my story.

And then copy my work.

Not just because my work is so personal and so important to me.

But because they missed the whole damn point of the story!

It’s that in YOU, is a story that only YOU can tell.

Because it is YOUR story. It happened to YOU. And it changed you–how you look at life, how you look at yourself, where you fit into the world.

Your story creates a place where, when you stand there, you are powerful. And you are beautiful, and you are whole.

How…..can anyone want to ignore their own powerful, wonderful, incredible story? And try to substitute someone else’s??

Even when your story is not about something you do, or something you make, it is still a place that YOU came to, a crossroads, YOU found yourself at, a journey YOU find yourself on.

Example: Anyone can do hospice work. It doesn’t take a “special person”. It just takes someone willing to be there. Anyone could do what I do.

But only I can tell the stories that come to me by doing it.

I know a woman who translates for the rights of an indigenous people in Brazil. She has even spoken at the United Nations. She insists she does not speak FOR them–they speak THROUGH her. She is their pipeline to a world that needs to honor their cries for help.

But the stories she tells about how they found her are incredible, and powerful.

That is why envy, and jealousy, are so destructive to creative people. To ANY of us.

Because it means we cannot see the power of our own stories.

What is the story that only YOU can tell?

And how will you tell it today?

EMBRACE THE POWER OF THY AMPLE BOSOM! Part 3

Your homework, before/after you read this article today, is to take eight minutes and listen to this podcast:

Listen to music excerpt and composer David Lang’s statement by clicking Listen to the whole show on this page. (8 minutes, if you skip the fund raising and stuff at the end.)

After that, if you want to listen to the entire composition without the artist’s comments, you can click on Listen to David Lang’s piece – Départs (18’14”) at the bottom of this page. (18 minutes)

Lang was commissioned to create a very special work of music, to quote the intro at WNYC “Radiolab”:

Imagine that you’re a composer. Imagine getting this commission: “Please write us a song that will allow family members to face the death of a loved one…” Well, composer David Lang had to do just that when a hospital in Garches, France, asked him to write music for their morgue, or “Salle Des Departs.”

Sounds morbid. But this piece is so poignant, I’ve listened to it a dozen times already. (Thank you to Heather Lawless for sharing this example in her recent workshop on artist statements at the Sharon Arts Center in Peterborough, NH.)

Lang’s comments do not comprise a formal “artist statement”. But the story this artist tells about his work, contains the elements of a powerful artist statement.

Lang does not focus on describing his techniques.

He tells enough about his process to make you want to listen more closely to the music. Akin to one definition of a good artist statement, that it “makes you want to go back and look at the art again.”

He tells why composing this piece meant so much to him. “I felt like I’d been waiting my whole life for this opportunity…”

He tells a simple, honest, personal story–about death, loss and grieving–that anyone can relate to.

He shares the effects he used to compose the piece: Music that “cannot be performed live, that is beyond the ability of human beings to perform.” Music he hopes “no one should ever actually have to hear.” These are not semantic word play; they are powerful metaphors for the grief born of of any death–but especially sudden, tragic death.

His goal was to create an environment that, unlike most music, does not tell the listener how to feel or how to act. Instead, it gives permission for the audience to define their own experience. “Here is my contribution. Now I leave you so you can make your own.”

It’s possible someone else might intuitively understand everything he says from the music alone. But I couldn’t. If I’d heard this piece alone, I might think it was pretty, even beautiful.

The power of the artist’s words makes the experience richer, more poignant, and more meaningful. I felt like this artist was taking something deeply important for him, and sharing it with me. I felt that sharing, that connection–and it moved me.

Now, for the artists who want the work to speak for itself, no comment needed from them…. Okay. If you want to split hairs, then yes, Lang says his music does not tell the listener how to feel.

And yes, people listening to it in the room would not hear his words and thoughts overlaid. The music would, indeed, have to “speak for itself”.

But the intended audience is in extreme circumstances, not a concert hall. They are in a situation few of us would wish upon our worst enemy–the last chance to say goodbye to a loved one who will never hear it.

We, the ones with the luxury of sitting back, safely at a distance, and only imagining the horrible circumstances under which we would hear this music, are only fooling ourselves with that academic argument.

When we are afraid to talk about our work in this way, when we focus on technique (“I used a #10 camel’s hair brush on gessoed linen canvas”) or our education (“I studied at this university, or under this famous artist…”), when we resort to cliche’ (“I just love color!”), when when we say nothing and insist our art “speaks for itself”, we shortchange our audience.

We leave them to make their own connection. But we’ve eliminated the human interaction. We say, “No need for me to reveal myself as human, or as a feeling/caring/grieving/loving/being person. You either get it or you don’t. So there!”

I believe, as artists, we can do better than this. I believe our responsibility to our customer, to our audience, to the world, is deeper than this.

There are those who will simply not agree with me, and that’s okay. (Just don’t write to tell me, okay? Not today. Not about this.) Maybe my hospice training is removing another protective layer off my psyche. Maybe my age is showing here. Maybe I’ve always been “too sensitive” for my own good.

There’s a time and a place for more formal, stuffy artist statements, I get that. And hey, I’m still nudging closer to my own truth. Haven’t gotten it down to half a page yet.

But to quote one of my favorite writers….(I love Anne Lamotte and I welcome the opportunity to throw her words at you today):

….Then two things happened. One was that I got obsessed with something my best friend had said right before she died, when she was in a wheelchair, wearing a wig to cover her baldness, weighing almost no pounds, but very serene, very alive. We were at Macy’s. I was modeling a short dress for her that I thought my boyfriend would like. But then I asked whether it made me look big in the hips, and Pammy said, as clear and kind as a woman can be, “Annie? You really don’t have that kind of time.” I just got it. I got it deep in my being. And all of a sudden, two years ago, it began ringing through the chambers of my head again: You don’t have that kind of time.

You really don’t have that kind of time.

We do not know when our last day on earth will be. Maybe we got fifty years, maybe fifty weeks. Maybe ten minutes. There is a certain clarity when we do, and that is one of the many gifts of hospice.

Say what you mean to say. Make the work that is important to you. Share it with the world in a meaningful way. We’re big enough, we’re strong enough.

That’s why we were given the gift of being creative.

And so I say to you all, “Artist! Embrace the power of thy ample heart!”

EMBRACE THE POWER OF THY AMPLE BOSOM! Part 2

Don’t be afraid. Don’t be very afraid. Don’t be even a little afraid.

Yesterday I shared that little story about a teacher urging a student to “step up to the plate”–to “own” the power inside her. Here’s the second part, as promised.

Recently I attended a workshop on artist statements.

Yes, I know I TEACH workshops on artist statements. I like to check out the competition.

Actually, it’s good practice to see how others treat the same topics I teach. I always learn something new. Plus it gives me a different perspective–it’s good to sit in the “student seat” once in a while. It helps me understand what I could do better.

Okay, so at one time (and maybe still??), artists were taught that their art should speak for itself. So, someone asked, what’s the point of an artist statement, if the art is already doing the talking?

The instructor replied that talking about your motivation will help a lot to connect with your audience (which is true).

But one artist said he felt uncomfortable doing that. When asked why he painted a flower next to a rock, for example, he felt uncomfortable; afraid to answer.

So he simply avoided the question altogether, preferring to talk around it.

I wondered….why?

In my humble experience, many, many artists feel this way. They’re nervous, they hesitate, they are afraid to talk about why they make the art they do.

Afraid of what??

I bet it’s the same stuff I’m afraid of.

I’m afraid I’ll sound shallow. Or facile.

I’m afraid I’ll sound un-academic. Unschooled. Naive.

In other words, I’m afraid of what every human being is afraid of:

I’m afraid I’ll open myself to ridicule and humiliation.

Don’t laugh. Fear of humiliation is a powerful socializing force. Human beings will go to great lengths to avoid embarrassment.

Because someone who humiliates you is trying to show you as powerless and without worth.

That is painful, and agony to anyone. It can be death for a creative person.

So we clam up. We refuse to talk about our work; some artists even refuse to show their work. “It’s just for me!” they say. “No one else needs to see it.”

Maybe. But what a loss to the world…. (Yes, I’m going to keep quoting that til it’s plastered all over everybody’s studios!)

When we create work that comes from our core passion, we can choose to not give away our power to those who would deride us.

We protect our power, NOT by hiding our work, NOT by hiding our passion, NOT by hiding our motivation. But by embracing our work fully. By being so grounded with our purpose that pointless ridicule, or attacks that come from envy, cannot penetrate.

The artist thought someone would question why a flower and a rock would be worth painting. Well, William Carlos Williams wrote a poem about eating someone else’s plums. (I’m guessing they were his wife’s watermelon, too.) Fred Gipson wrote a book about a cow dog who sucked eggs. (I cried every time I read it to my kids.) Anne Frank was 13 when she died. What did she know of the world? Why should we care?

Aren’t you glad that didn’t stop her from keeping a diary?

Look, not everyone will like our work. In this interview I did years ago, I thought if one person in a thousand liked my work liked, that would be enough.

Think of it: One person in a thousand. Doesn’t seem like very popular work, does it?

Yet in the U.S. alone, that would be more than 300,000 people.

If only one person in a million liked my work enough to buy it, that would still be almost 7,000 people in the world.

So what do you care about the people who don’t??

We still do, of course. We creative types can be terribly sensitive.

But I hope you’re starting to think a little differently about them.

Tomorrow I’ll share a hauntingly beautiful artist statement, in simple, honest words that will burst your heart wide open.

EMBRACE THE POWER OF THY AMPLE BOSOM! Part 1

Okay, obviously that title has a story behind it….

Years ago I attended a workshop for women in the arts, led by fiber artist and speaker Deborah Kruger. We learned why our art was so important, and how to make room for our art in our daily lives.

One person shared a story of taking singing lessons from an acclaimed voice teacher. She felt awkward and unsure of her abilities; he urged her to project and sing with power. Finally, in frustration, the teacher boomed with his heavy accent, “Woman! Assume the power of thy ample bosom!”

We rocked with laughter, but she said she heard the message. And she began to sing as if her life depended on it.

Because it does.

If you are not creating your art with the full force of your being, then you are robbing yourself–and your art–of vitality and authenticity.

Why is that important? (Hint: It will help your artist statement, too.) Tune in tomorrow for the second installment.

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS: A Segue

oooh, I’ve always wanted to use the word “segue” in an essay!

In my last “Myths About Artists” post, a reader said there are some people who , feeling entitled, simply want to simply “be” an artist, with all the fame and glory and controversy they think automatically comes with it.

Several themes came to me after reading his thoughtful comments.

First, as a parent, a former teacher, and even a former child (yes, and please, no comments about not having enough fingers, toes or other digits to compute how many years ago that would be), this sounded very familiar.

We all have a desire for our work to gain some attention and respect in the world. And if you’re like me, you probably wish we didn’t have to constantly work so darn hard to get there.

This is a very human trait, after all. Yes, some people work very hard at becoming excellent at their craft, whatever it is. But many of us start out dreaming of an effortless success.

When I dreamed of horses, and of riding horses, I pictured myself riding fearlessly a beautiful horse, galloping wildly across a boundless plain under an open sky.

I did NOT dream of the long and often painful process of learning how to acquire my “seat”–how to sit comfortably for hours on a horse, how to balance instead of bounce (ow, ow, ow), how to control a horse (because atop a wildly running horse can actually be a frightening place to be.)

I did NOT envision the hours of hard work involved in caring for a horse, including grooming, mucking stalls and tacking up. And of course, boarding fees, vet bills and farrier costs never entered my pleasant daydreams, either.

No, it’s all too human to see the glory, not the grit, in our dreams.

But the person who believes they deserve an easy success? This is not the person I have in mind when I write these essays.

In my mind’s eye, I always speak to the person I used to be–the person who never believed that dreams can come true.

I was lost because I was too afraid to pursue my passion, and suffering because of it. I made the lives of my loved ones miserable, because I could be difficult to be with. (Er…still am, actually.)

In the words of my favorite bumper sticker, “Those who abandon their dreams, will discourage yours.”

Eventually, the pain of NOT being an artist surpassed the fear of failure. And that’s when I took my first steps to becoming not just an artist in name only–but an artist with gumption.

When I had the courage to take those first few tentative steps–and to keep on taking them–then I was truly on the path to becoming a more whole person.

That’s what it felt like, anyway. As my pursuit of art became more habit than daydream, my ability to love more freely, to judge less harshly, to be more fearless, to be more thankful, also grew.

Am I perfect? Heck no. I am still racked often–even daily!–by self-doubt, envy, fear, jealousy and sour grapes.

But I just keep on plugging away. Because I believe trying–making a true effort to attain our goals and dreams–matters.

A good friend sometimes says I make too much of this “thing about the horses”. She makes the case that if my current art changed, if I took up another art form, even if my ability to make any art were to disappear, I would still be me. I am not my art.

I get that, I do. But I am still pathetically grateful I had the chance to make this work, and took it, even so.

And every word I write is with this intention–to encourage even just one more person on this planet to do the same.

I encourage you to take the same journey, in your very own individual, inimitable way (of course!)

To paraphrase another friend’s words, I truly believe our acts of creation, by putting positive energy out there, by becoming a more whole human being….

By believing we can all achieve something good by making something that is useful, or beautiful, or both…

…is ultimately an act of peace, and makes the world a slightly better place for all.

Okay, I know I just quoted a hobbit here, but that’s what I believe.

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #5: My Art Speaks for Itself

Myth: My art speaks for itself. I don’t have to explain anything!”
Reality: Your art will sell better if you can tell your story, create an emotional connection with your audience, and inspire a desire for your work.

We all know the scene:

Artist’s work on display, artist standing off to the side, aloof and austere, sniffing at any plebeian who dares ask a stupid question like “What is your work about?” or “So why do you like to paint green people so much?”

If we can’t tell what the work is about, it’s clear we shouldn’t expose our ignorance by asking.

Here’s my own personal observation:

Artists who won’t talk about their art, often can’t talk about their art. That is, they don’t know how.

Knowing how to talk about your work will also help you write a stronger artist statement. A strong artist statement is important because it is often the first way many people will “hear” you tell your story about your art.

There are as many ways to approach making art as there are artists, and as many reasons to buy art as there are customers.

Here are some ways not to talk about your art:

PROCESS If we talk about our work at all, we often fall into the easy trap of talking about process.

Process is important, to a degree, but there’s gotta be more. I’m not going to pay you by the hour to mow my lawn with a pair of manicure scissors unless you have a really compelling reason.

Yes, some people want to know how we make our stuff, where we learned our craft, where we get our materials. But in my humble experience, many people who care only about my process, want to make something like my work, not buy it.

Here’s a good example. For years, if the first question people would ask me was, “What are these artifacts made of?”, I’d answer, “Polymer clay”.

And once I said that, rarely did the person actually buy something. Often, their first reaction was to actually put down the object they were holding.

Even talking to them at this point, telling them why, had little effect. The spell was broken, and their interest was lost.

I finally wised up. Now I say, “I use polymer clay, and if you look over here, there is a wonderful little piece I wrote on why I chose to use it as my medium.”

Now people are engaged again, reading a short but powerful sign with beautiful examples of all the artifacts I make. And this has ended in more sales. (Hint: The key to why this works is in this paragraph…)

ACADEMIC when I read an artist statement filled with academese or art speak, I sense someone who is afraid to get up close and personal about their work. That, or my eyes roll up into my head, my toes curl and I fall over from total boredom. But then, maybe that’s just me.

RESUME At most shows, when you read the accompanying artist statements, artists carefully list their education, the classes of other, more famous artists they’ve studied under, and the awards they’ve won. Most sound like they were written to impress other artists, perhaps a worthy goal, but I’m guessing most of us would rather impress our customers. They may not realize their statements sound like every other artist in the show. Or they think that’s the way it “should be done.” At the very least, they sure don’t know how to make theirs stand out.

FUN Frankly, I don’t care when an artist tells me they had “such fun” making their latest design. Because why should I care if they’re having fun?? I want to know why I should be compelled to part with my hard-earned money, and make space in my already-crowded home for something new. I can tell you it won’t be because the artist giggles while she works.

I’ve taught many artists about how to write a compelling artist statements, how to write a strong press releases, how to give a powerful interview for the media. It’s very simple, really.

All we really have to do is think about a little three-letter word….

Why?

I tell them why….this cave. Why…this point in my life. Why…I use polymer clay. Why…I use these fabrics, those markings, this presentation. I even have a story about the beaver-chewed sticks, and how they contribute to the story.

So why do you do what you do? Why do you choose to do it this way, with these materials?

Most importantly… Why should your audience care??

I believe the work I make sells to people who a) are blown away by the work itself, and b) feel a powerful connection to the stories I tell about the work.

When we talk in a deeply meaningful way about what our work means to us, other people listen. They will feel the truth of what you say. Remember all the times my customers say, “When you said that, a shiver went down my spine”…? Or, “Look, my hair is standing up!” (Yes, these are actual customer quotes.)

They are hearing the power of what my work means to me, and they are responding to it with something going on in their own lives.

That is connection. Human to human connection. Empathy, resonance, heart to heart. Inspiration. The recognition that we as human beings have these things in common: A need to love, and be loved. A desire to belong, and be an individual. A need to protect, and be protected. A desire to remember, and be remembered.

Don’t be ashamed or self-conscious about admitting your humanity. It is to be embraced and celebrated. Hey, we’re all in this together, and nobody gets out alive.

And when you do that, with honesty and integrity, you will find other people will respond.

How do you know if you’ve done a great job either talking or writing about your art? Basket artist Joanne Russo passed on a terrific tip she heard: An artist statement should make you want to go back and look at the work again.

If you still don’t know what to say about your work, then invest in Bruce Baker’s CD on “Dynamic Sales and Customer Service Techniques”. It will be the best $20 investment you ever make in your art biz.

ARTIST STATEMENT = MISSION STATEMENT

A quick thought and a short post today. (You folks in the back row heaving a sigh of relief, I HEARD THAT!!)

A lot of people have written to say they don’t think of their art/craft as “serious enough” to be worthy of an artist statement.

Would it make you feel better if we called it a “mission statement” instead? I love this definition because I love the question, “Why do we exist?”

Or how about a “vision statement”? Again, I love how this article distinguishes between a mission statement and a vision statement:

The difference between a mission statement and a vision statement is that a mission statement focuses on a company’s present state while a vision statement focuses on a company’s future.

Your homework, should you chose to accept it, is to write a good mission or vision statement for your craft or art. Heck, go crazy and combine the two!

And someday, when you realize that the work/art/craft you do has its place in the world, see if writing that artist statement comes a little easier to you.

Be the guinea pig! Or be the bunny! Remember, they, too, have their place in the world.

And so do you.

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BABY IN THE WORLD

When you truly open your heart to possibility, you will find beauty, joy, compassion, love and other miracles.

It’s odd, but my hospice training experience is already crossing over into my artistic experience. Last week’s session made me think about the connections we form when we make our art from a powerful place in our heart. (Yes, that place some of you are finding so hard to think about when it comes to your artist statement!) (And I say that with love and acceptance, by the way. No lecturing parent thing here, just bear with me.)

During my first hospice training session last week, we split into small groups to do various exercises.

I worried for a moment. What if I didn’t like the people in my group?? What if they didn’t like me? I decided to set my fears aside and simply see what would happen.

We started our listening exercises. I soon realized the people in my little group, these “randomly selected” people, were soul mates.

Their stories blew me away. Their outlook on life amazed me. When it was my turn to talk, their compassion sustained me during difficult moments. What we shared with each other was astonishing.

Oddly, when we returned to our big group, I noticed we all felt the same way. Everyone felt their little group was the perfect match for them.

The only thing is, the groups were created in a fairly random manner.

How could all of us, have “randomly” ended up in “the perfect group for us”?

After the session, I asked our trainer how often that happened.

She said it happens all the time.

In fact, it happens every time.

In fact, she’s come to believe this:

“If your heart is open to this work (hospice), then that connection is already there.”

I thought about that all night. This insight is one thing that made me realize this is the perfect place for me to be right now.

When your heart is open, so many things are possible. Miracles are possible.

This phenomenon reminded me of a story, one of my personal favorites.

Years ago, before kids, before Keene, my husband and I shared an evening with new friends. They had just started the arduous process of adopting a child from another country, working with an international organization. In one of their support groups, another couple had told them this story, and now they were sharing it with us.

Now, because this story is third-hand, and because we heard it so long ago, I’m sure I have many details wrong. So if I’ve messed up anything that may be distracting if you know more about this kind of thing than I do, please forgive me and go for the story.

This other couple had gone through years of preparation and paperwork, and waiting and disappointment. (At one point, they were almost given a baby they learned at the last moment had been STOLEN from her mother. They were devastated on many levels.)

But finally, the glorious day came. They were told a child was available for them, really truly available. In fact, a number of children were available. A group of prospective parents were traveling to a South American country together, to receive their new babies and return home.

Now, for some reason, they would not be allowed off the plane. Their babies would be brought to the airport from the orphanage, then carried to the plane by the nuns who cared for them. Each baby would be given to its respective new parents, and the plane would take off immediately and fly home again.

On the flight down, the parents-to-be talked excitedly among themselves. They were bubbling with hope, and excitement.

And fear.

It had been so hard. So much had gone wrong. They’d waited so long. Was it really going to be all right today? Were they finally going to have a child to love?

Their biggest fear, they all agreed, was that they might be given an ugly baby.

(I remember the way Cathy told this part, in a hushed voice, and it always makes me laugh. It seems so silly! Yet a year later, I was pregnant, and that’s why I remember this part so clearly. Because I had the same fear.)

They could handle anything–missing toes, deformity, sickness, injury. But maybe something else would wrong with the baby. Maybe it would simply be ugly. And what would they do then?

And everyone agreed that it wouldn’t matter. It didn’t matter at all, not now.

No matter what, they all decided they would learn to love that ugly baby, and give it a wonderful home and a beautiful life.

The plane finally landed at the small airport, and rolled to a stop.

They could see the little terminal from the plane. They could see the doors.

They waited. And they waited.

For what seemed like an eternity, they waited.

Was there a mistake? Had something something wrong? Had the orphanage changed its mind?

Finally, the terminal doors flew open, and a very strange procession marched out into the fierce sunshine.

It was the nuns, with their habits and white wimples flapping in the breeze. They marched quickly, single file, across the tarmac.

And each nun, in her arms, carried a baby.

The nuns-with-babies marched up the steps into the plane, names were called out, hands were raised. And soon every baby was being cradled by its brand new mommy and daddy.

Now, the rest of the story is very fuzzy, probably because it would be almost impossible to describe the joy that must have filled that plane. If you could measure joy, if you could figure its weight, it would have been so big, so deep, so profound, our planet Earth must have surely tilted slightly on its axis that day.

But, Cathy said in a hushed voice, her friend had been very clear on one point:

Every single couple on that plane secretly rejoiced that they had received the prettiest baby in the group.

Each couple whispered to each other that their baby…

….that their baby…

… was the most beautiful baby in the world.

So it’s true. When your heart is open, wide open, fear and doubt will fall away. And the most powerful connections–authenticity…compassion…love–will already there.

Don’t you think that’s a miracle? I do.

That’s why art can be a miracle, too. When we make art from this powerful place in our heart, we will find other people whose hearts resonate with it. And that is a powerful connection. One heart speaks to another. A miracle.

P.S. At the end of our training session, we were asked to give the person next to us a blessing.

Here is mine for you today:

May you find such joy in everything you do in life, especially your art.

May you always have an open heart.

And may you always know, deep in your beautiful, open heart that you, as a child of the universe, as someone who brings your own special creativity to this world, at this time, in this place, may you know that to somebody, somewhere, you are the most beautiful baby in the world.

And may you know that somewhere in the world, your creative work has made someone else feel that way, too.

25 RANDOM THINGS: Action Steps for Your Artist Statement #5

Our stories are already inside us, waiting to come out. All we need is a truly sympathetic listener who will allow that to happen.

Fifth in a series of how to use that 25 Random Things list to write your artist statement.

“They have ears, but hear not….” Psalms 115:6

I marvel every day how we listen–and don’t listen–to each other.

We may think we are listening. But how often do we jump in with, “Oh, that happened to my cousin!”. Or, “I know just how you feel…” Or, “Speaking of cancer, did you know the ancient Greeks thought cancer was caused by eating too many crabs, and that’s why the astrological sign of the crab is also called cancer?” I made that last bit up, by the way, but we all know friends who do that. We do that, too.

We can’t even bear to simply let someone cry. We jump in to soothe and comfort–“It’s okay. It’s all right”–even though it obviously isn’t. Sometimes a hug is appropriate, of course. But sometimes, we’ve cut the person short because their pain is more than we can bear.

Allowing someone to tell their story, giving someone the time and support to really think about what is in their heart, and letting that come out, without comment or interruption, is a powerful gift.

I learned about this technique of really, really listening to someone, from Deborah Kruger. I took a workshop from her called “Empowerment for Women in the Arts”, where we learned how to form small support groups for each other, groups where we could freely share, in safety and kindness, our highest vision for our art.

Interestingly, it looks like we’ll be practicing the same skill in my hospice training.

Why should we learn to be good listeners today? So you can get to the bottom of why you make the stuff you do.

It can be a little tricky of you’ve never done this before, but it’s a great technique if you’ve tamped down your passion for so long, even you don’t know what it is. It might take a few tries, but if you are willing to do the hard work of really saying what is in your heart, you will find what lies there.

This exercise works well with 2-3 people. You can take turns listening to each other. All you you need to be on the same page. You need to be a good listener, and you need to find a good listener. That’s why I move back and forth between “you” and “them” in this article.

Find someone who loves you and/or loves what you do. Someone who truly wants you to succeed with your art, who wants only good things for you.

Find someone who has not a shred of jealousy or back-stabbing or passive aggression. Someone who, if you say, “I once threw up on someone” they’d say, “Yeah, hey, that was me but I know it was an accident and I still love you” and not “Um…yeah…look, I just remembered another appointment, can we do this later?”

Explain what your working on. They are going to hold your feet to the fire until you confess what it is you deeply, truly care about.

And they are going to do it with perfect kindness and perfect support.

Make sure they understand they are NOT to tell you “what you should do” or what they think. There will be no giving of advice today. They can only ask questions that force you to step up to the plate, questions that probe deeper until you hit your inner truth.

Oh! If you have another trusted friend who can take notes, that would help. But in a pinch, you can either tape this conversation or let your friend write your responses down. But it has to be quick–the PROCESS, the conversation is more important than getting it down perfectly. Although, sometimes asking for more clarity, or repeating what you think you’ve heard before you write it down, is a good listening tactic, too. (see Rule #2 below)

THE RULES: (and these are important)

1) The only response the listener can make is signs of loving acceptance.

We often stood up and held hands, but the important thing is eye contact and a smiling face or a calm face. (I tend to frown when I’m listening really hard, and I have to consciously control that when it’s my turn to listen.) No hugs til the end. Tears are okay.

2) No dialog!

The only questions you can ask are to ask for more information about something the speaker has said. And do that minimally. Just use it to clarify, or to move the narrative along, or help the speaker refocus if they get off course.

The scribe/recorder can only ask a question, with the speaker’s permission, and with the same guidelines, and only if everyone really seems stuck.

But…(and this is really important):

3) Give them time to answer.

We’re so used to giving pat answers, or short answers, because we’re not used to someone listening so carefully, to being so fully present. Silence is okay. You’ll be surprised how many speakers will pick up the thread on their own, once they realize the listener is not going to jump in and take it for themselves.

4) All of this is done in safety.

What goes on here is private. The speaker must know and believe that what they say will not be repeated, nor even referred to again, without their express permission. We all know about attorney-client privilege and doctor-patient privilege. That’s how you’re going to think about this process, okay?

5) Give enough time to answer, but timed so you have to focus.

The first time is rough, because the process is so different than any way we’ve ever talked with each other before. But half an hour should be enough time to some part of our story out.

6) Practice.

This exercise gets easier with practice. If you can’t quite “get there” with your first try, then try again another time.

In the workshops I took with Deborah, we asked four questions that led to a plan of action. For the purpose of finding the heart of your artist statement, we’re just going for one really great question:

Why do you make the art you make?

Yep, it’s that “why? why? why?” thing again. Why? Because it works.

We are looking for your artist statement, your mission statement. Literally, your reason d’etre, your “reason to be”. Why you are here, on this planet, why you are here at this point in time, why you are living this life of yours, to make this art.

(Relax. It sounds hard, and it is, but it’s exhilarating, too.)

A good warm-up question is: “Tell me what’s special about your art” (Note to questioner: Almost every artist will answer this question with an explanation of their techniques. Take good notes here, because this is a way of waffling. But it CAN lead to some good, honest answers later.

Other questions you can explore:

How to people respond to your art? Why do you think they respond that way?

What kind of people love your work enough to buy it? Why do you think THEY respond that way?

When did you start making this work? (Questioner: If something traumatic started this, take notes and follow this thread. Because something changed in order for this to happen, and that’s important.)

Why did you start making it? Was it required for a class? Did you do it with someone else, say a relative who showed you how?

Why do you make that? Why do you use those materials, those techniques?

Any time you get some adademic-bs or artist-speak (“I love to explore the interstices that occur between the full saturation of colored edge and line…”) or a cliche (“I just love color!”) start applying pressure.

This is where it gets hard.

I can’t give your questioner hard-and-fast rules about where to press and where to back off. But a sensitive person will know where you are bull-shitting about your answers, fobbing them off with a glib answer or a smart answer instead of a deep, rich answer.

You may feel angry at the person for pressing you–that’s a good sign! You may be scared at first and get defensive. The questioner can decide whether to keep pressing or “move sideways”, anything to get you past those defenses.

Because what you are defending yourself against is expressing the thing that really means something to you, and you are afraid to say it because people might laugh at you.

Social scientists say we fear humiliation more than almost anything else in life. Sometimes we fear it more than we crave success.

I believe the reason we fudge our artist statements, and why we find it hard to talk about this stuff, is we are afraid of looking like an idiot.

What you must understand is…that’s okay.

It’s part of the human experience. And we are human.

So at this point, where you are fudging and avoiding and getting defensive and hostile, your listener needs to go for the big guns.

And bring out that WHY word, over and over and over til you give it up:

The real reason you feel compelled to make the work you do.

They’ll know it when they see it, and hear it. And you will, too.

Because you-the-artist will act differently, and speak differently.

You may stand straighter (if you do this exercise standing up). I’ve seen some people literally “step up” and take a step forward.

Your voice may deepen. You may talk faster if you’re a slow talker, or slow down if you’re normally articulate.

But the clincher is when you, or your listener feel a shiver run down your spine, or a thrill in your heart.

You will have spoken your truth.

And when you speak your truth, from your heart, people hear that. They FEEL that.

Congratulations! You now have the heart of your artist statement.

I’ve done workshops using this technique to get at the heart of artists’ stories. I could always tell when we’d struck gold:

“I had a baby, I nearly died, and everything changed.”

“My grandmother took care of me because my parents couldn’t, and grandma taught me how to do this. And when I make this work, I still feel her love and kindness in my heart.”

“I lost my husband, my job, and my house. I had nothing left, except this… And it saved my life.”

These are the moments in life where something important happened, whether we knew it at the time, or not. But these moments are part of who we are, as human beings. They may be moments of love, or joy. They may be moments of yearning. They may be moments of self-discovery and survival. Whatever they are, your art is a response, or an outcome, of these moments.

Other human beings will respond to that, and respect it. Other people will connect with that–“Me, too!”–and be inspired. Or consoled. Or empowered.

Telling your story helps others to discover their story. And the connection continues.

We’ll talk more about how you can edit this and round it out with other random, interesting things about you to make a powerful statement about you and your work.

25 RANDOM THINGS: Action Steps for Your Artist Statement #4

It’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to make other people laugh. And it’s okay to write an artist statement about art-that-makes-us-laugh, too.

Many people have left comments or emailed me with concerns about my artist statement series. They say they don’t make “heavy” or “serious” art. They make art that is funny, or cute, or whimsical, or charming, or clever. So they don’t need an artist statement, right?

I’ve always said, if what you’re doing is working for you, don’t change anything.

But I still encourage you to think about why you’ve chosen–or been called–to make that kind of work.

And I encourage you to think about what would happen if you shared that reason, that realization, that insight, with your audience.

Remember when I said your art doesn’t have to be serious, but understanding why you make it is still important?

Here are the reasons:

1) It makes you step up to the plate and take what you do seriously.

2) Joy and laughter and sweetness are passions, too, just as important as more “serious” passions.

3) Your reasons for making this art, whatever they are, are still personal and powerful. People will respond to those reasons.

When I first started making stuff, I, too, made “whimsical” and “sweet” things. I made things simply because I enjoyed it. It was fun!

Then I attended a workshop for blocked or emerging artists. We had to bring examples of our work and talk about it.

I was in a tizzy. I thought of everyone else present as “real artists” and I was not. I just made stuff. There was nothing “heavy” or “serious” about it. Even if you could call what I did “art”, couldn’t art just be for fun?

But something happened when I was forced to really look at my work, to really think about why I made it, and then to talk about that to an audience.

Here is a reconstructed version of what I said about my work:

I make tiny dolls, only 2″ tall, made from recycled sweaters. I make small knitted sheep, too. I crochet small “pouches” on cords, so you can carry a doll or sheep around your neck. I also make small wall quilts based on traditional patterns and made with natural fabrics recycled from used clothing, so they really look old.

I imagined my body of work as something that would intrigue and delight at the same time, little “toys” newly made with old materials, giving them a timeless quality.

I used to think of these pieces as children’s toys, but adults are just as fascinated with them. I think it’s important to have joy and delight in our lives, so I guess in a way, I love making “toys for adults”–tiny little marvels, beautifully made, that enchant and delight.

Almost everything I make would fit in your hand. That is very important to me. I guess it’s so you can have these little gifts with you all the time, and take them out and hold them anytime you need to be happy. Because I want them to make people happy, and joyful.

I laugh when I look back and see how tentative I was about my work, even as I felt so compelled to make it. “I guess…” “I think….”

But in that first “artist statement” (because that’s exactly what it was), I can see the shape of things to come. I can see some of you who are familiar with my work, already nodding and saying, “aha!”

Small artifacts…made to be touched and held in your hand…carried with you as jewelry, as talismans…recycled fabrics and artifacts giving an aura of antiquity to the work….intriguing…connection…

….and passion. Joy.

Within a year, I was making an entirely different body of work, with the same qualities, the same aesthetic, almost the same story–but with a powerful message.

I began to make fabric wall hangings made with recycled fabrics. I made artifacts to put on these quilts; artifacts of ancient horses galloping through endless grass lands, their hearts full of joy and freedom. Artifacts that carried a message for us, that spoke to us across the ages, that told us how to live with more joy and freedom in our hearts.

I learned not to be denigrate how I felt. I learned to respect the reasons why I make what I make. I learned to really love and celebrate the artist in me.

I stepped up to the plate.

Does your whimsical art have to evolve into something more serious? Absolutely not!

In a world full of hardship and horror, pain and destruction, sorrow and sadness, there a profound need for art that makes us rejoice, and dance, and celebrate, and love. There is a time for being silly, for laughter. There is room for all our art.

Joy. Laughter. Delight. Silly. These are all part of the human condition, too. And they are just as important in creating a rich, loving and wonderful life.

There is power in joy, and laughter.

I am only asking you to think about that power, and acknowledge that power, and ultimately, to respect that power in your art, and in your heart.

Coming soon: How to get to that all-important WHY.

MARKETING IN A RECESSION

Here’s a nice little benefit to LinkedIn… I formed a new connection recently, which generated an invitation to connect from the person’s spouse, which led me to his blog, where I found this little gem today.

Ed Sucherman’s post is essentially, hard times come and go, and it can be scary….but people still desire, and need, the same things. He shares a poignant example from his own life, and ends with this thought:

Match your product’s marketing message to the very depths of human emotional needs and you cannot miss. No matter what target market. No matter what economy

In the hands of some people, this could sound manipulative.

In Ed’s hands, it sounds sweeter. Like if we remember that we are all in this mess together…

…If we can remember that it won’t last forever, and if we recognize that, being human, we all still have powerful needs and desires–beautiful, human needs and desires…

…Like our need to love and be be loved, our need for companionship and family, our need to be accepted, our need to feel protected, our desire to be seen as competent, our need for home and security, our desire to find peace and friendship even with those who are strangers to us, our desire for our lives to have purpose and meaning …

…Then we can find a way to do the work (and the art) that is important to us, and find the audience who will find it meaningful, too.

Hey, and how can we express those values we hold?

Yep….your artist statement.

25 RANDOM THINGS: Action Steps for Your Artist Statement #3

Continuing with my mini-series about how to use Facebook’s “25 Random Things About Me” to write promotional materials.

The next question is from an artist who wrote:

“Hi Luann,
I was intrigued by your letter today in the FAS newsletter. I just joined Facebook to find out more about the “list” of 25 things about yourself. After you compiled the list, how did you write it into an artist statement? I really feel clueless how to start. You are a very good writer!”

(This was the question I was going to answer first because of the compliment. Always feel free to put those in, btw….!!)

Okay, so first, you can’t just use the 25 Random Things as your artist statement. That would be a loooong statement!

The list is a) a warm-up exercise for learning to write easily about yourself. And b) a source for snippets about yourself that get to the heart of what you do.

Just like musicians might play scales to warm up for performing, this list is a warm-up for more ‘serious’ writing.

It’s also a way to ‘warm up’ to putting more passion into your artist statement.

I picked “artist statement” as an end goal for this warm-up exercise. In reality, artists need all kinds of self promotional materials: artist bio, cv (curriculum vitae, sort of a ‘life resume’ with your art as a focus), artist statement, press releases, etc.

Some of your list items are going to jazz up your statement. Because unless you think people go crazy with excitement reading lists of your exhibits and educational background, you must learn to talk about your art with the same passion you use to make it.

You don’t have to go over the top–no drama major needed. But think about ways to talk about your art that shows why it really, really matters to you–and that it isn’t just “something you do” to fill in your spare time. Even if it is only that, you can talk about that in a way that is more engaging than, “Well, I was bored, so I made this stuff.”

Don’t be afraid to tell people what you care about.

Think of the 25 Random Things as a way to collect these things you care about the most. Some of them will provide you with a jumping-off place.

In my last post on this topic, we left off with the suggestion that a good artist statement should make you want to look at the artist’s work again. Some of you did that experiment with the artists I suggested, and graciously acknowledged that it worked. Yay!

The key to the 25 Random Things is, somewhere in a good list, there is something you’ve listed that might make people “look again”.

If your art is light-hearted, your approach to your 25 Random Things list, and your artist statement might be light-hearted, too. Remember–light-hearted art is not necessarily lightweight art. Laughter is powerful medicine. Humor can be a powerful weapon. Whimsy can still be serious stuff.

You might also choose different approaches (more serious, more whimsical) for different applications. For example, the “About Me” section of my blog has a more light-hearted approach. That’s because I want to entertain as well as inspire. Yes, I’m serious about my writing, but I’m willing to laugh at myself, too. (I just don’t want you to be laughing at me too hard, okay?)

The introduction to my art calls for a more serious, inspirational tone. It’s not that I don’t want you to have fun with my work. But it’s not what you’d call “whimsical”. It’s a different manifestation of what I bring to the world.

My actual “artist statement”, is no longer on my website. I realize I should make room for it again.Here’s the short version of it:

I dream of the cave of Lascaux…

Its beautiful paintings of running horses,
born by the flickering light of torches….
Never meant to see the light of day,
yet brought to light in our lifetime.
Survived ten thousand years,
yet nearly destroyed by the breath of ten thousand visitors…
Too delicate to survive the climate of our modern world,
The cave was closed, and finally, sealed.

Lost.
Found.
And lost again.

The horses now run
in the darkness of their cave
forever.

We do not understand the mystery of these paintings.
We know not what they meant to the people who created them.
Their message was not meant for us.

But their beauty and power create profound echoes
in our modern hearts.

What ancient, yearning dreams of hope and beauty
brought forth these haunting images?

Ten thousand years from now,
Who will know the makings of our hands?
And who will know the mysteries of our hearts?

If you go back to my 25 Random Things About My Biz, you will see the seeds of where that statement comes from.

I know there are other “rules” I’m breaking with this statement. I haven’t changed significantly in ten years.

But every time I think of changing it, someone who reads it for the first time tells me how powerful it it is.

And so I keep it.

Just as it’s hard to present you with a template for a statement, it’s hard to give you a step-by-step model for turning your list into a statement. I’m thinking about how to do that, and present it in more manageable form for you. It’s easier to do face-to-face, using a technique I’ll explain next time.

But for now, write up a few lists. Play around with them. Write some in a humorous vein, make others more serious. Put a star next to the entries that create a lump in your throat, or bring tears to your eyes.

Because…I’ll say it again, because it is so important:

Whatever makes you cry, that’s where your heart is.

And where your heart is, that is your truth.

Don’t be afraid to tell people what you really care about.

If it is honest, if it is heartfelt, it will be…POWERFUL. You’ll know. And your audience will know.

And when you speak the truth, it is so powerful, people will hear it and know it for the truth.

25 RANDOM THINGS: Action Steps for Your Artist Statement #2

Why you need to jazz up that “perfectly good” artist statement of yours.

You say you have a perfectly good artist statement, thank you very much, and you’ve written it the way everybody else is writing theirs, so what’s wrong with your artist statement anyway?

Or you don’t know where to start, so do I have a template you can use to just ‘fill in the blanks’?

(The answer to that one is no, btw.)

Here’s why you might want to add some pizzaz your statement:

Yours sounds like everybody else’s.

The most extreme example I can give you is an group art show I attended awhile back. I’m going to say it was art made with Play-Do. It wasn’t, but I don’t want to pick on any specific group of artists, and I want to make my point.

There was only the Play-Do art on exhibit, and an artist’s statement on display under each piece.. No one had any business cards, or brochures, or pamphlets, or anything for viewers and potential buyers to take. So you had the art, and the artist statement.

The first one said something like this:

I live in X town, Y state. I have used Play-Do as my art medium for 12 years. I have studied under Mr. Z, the foremost Play-Do artist in the northeast. Last year I won best of show for my Play-Do art.

I have played with Play-Do since I was a child. I love Play-Do because it’s so colorful and versatile as an art medium.

The next one said something like this:

I live in B town, C state. I have studied Play-Do as my art medium for 15 years. I studied under Ms. C for four years, and then studied under Mr. D. I have exhibited in Play-Do art shows all over C state.

As long as I can remember, I have loved working with Play-Do. I continue to work in Play-Do, as it challenges my color aesthetic. I love the colorful interplay of aesthetic and emotional tones in my work.

The next one said,

I’ve been worked with Play-Do for 18 years. I studied with so-and-so at the such-and-such Institute for 8 years. I have won many awards for my Play-Do art.

I used to work with crayons, but now I chose to work in Play-Do because I enjoy the range of colors and tones I can achieve with it.

Every single artist statement had the same bland tone; the same litany of how many years the artist had worked with their medium; the same listing of more famous artists they’d studied under; everyone “just loved color.”

(For the record, it is unusual to find a human being who doesn’t like color, music, sunsets or food.)

Obviously, one member of the group with some academic training, who knew the “right things” to include in an artist statement, who had had some success with their art, had set the tone.

And everybody else followed.

So the compelling Play-Do artist in this exhibit is….the one who’s been working with it the longest??? That’s all we have to go on, from the information we’ve been given.

Acclaimed basket maker JoAnn Russo shared this thought about artist statements once. I don’t know where she got it, but I think about it often:

“An artist statement is something people read after they’ve looked at your work. And a great artist statement makes them go back and look at your work again.”

Here’s an example of a statement that makes you go back and look. Look at the work of glass artist Christina Bothwell.

Now read her artist statement.

After I read it, I immediately went back to look for the “inner image” inside each figure. Did you?

After reading that she works in glass because it does everything other sculptural media does, and also transmits light, I wanted to see that, too.

Side note: I was originally drawn to Christina’s work several years ago. She had a different statement/intro to her work then. It was just as compelling.

So a statement changes. It’s not set in stone. It can change as your work and your focus change, perhaps even to meet the needs of your current exhibit.

There are many reasons people buy art. It can be because they simply like the subject matter. Or they like the colors. Or they like your style. An artist statement probably can’t override their initial “like/don’t like” reaction to your work.

But if they like it enough to want to know a little more about you….

And if what you tell about yourself is compelling enough to make them look again….

Then why risk boring them to death, when instead you could be forging an even more powerful connection?

Make them look. Twice.

25 RANDOM THINGS: Action Steps for Your Artist Statement #1

My article about using Facebook’s “25 Random Things About Me” exercise to create an artist statement appeared in the FineArtViews newsletter this week.

People are asking me exactly how to do that–turn that list into their statement. Should they just make 25 Random Things into their artist statement??

Well, you could, but I didn’t mean for you to actually do that. For one thing, that’s one looooong artist statement.

Rather, think of the 25 Random Things as a jumping-off exercise to do an actual statement.

I’ll respond to some of these queries today and in upcoming articles. Maybe some examples will help make this more concrete.

I was going to first address the question from someone who told me I was a very good writer. Flattery gets you everywhere!

But a comment from another writer should come first. Because this artist can’t even get started on the 25 Random Things.

The artist left this comment on my blog:

I have been confronted with the list a number of times – but find that I am either too shy or just simply unable to list anything because I am changing too often to want to simply put anything down that would be so permanent that I could not go back and add another two millions or so things on a constant basis

Let’s look at the beliefs behind this block, and address them one at a time. (And I don’t mean to pick on this one reader, because a LOT of artists feel this way…including, from time to time, ME.)

Shy I can’t help you with. Except…

Nobody will care more than YOU do, about what you do.

Corollary: If you can’t articulate why what you do is amazing, or explain why we should care about it, you won’t even be able to communicate that to someone you HIRE to do it FOR you.

Here’s an article I wrote awhile back about why it’s important to step up to the plate with your artist statement, your promotional materials, and yes, your 25 Random Things.

It’s not about writing “two million things”, it’s about selecting 25 things.

What would you think if an artist said, “I can’t paint, there are just too many things in the world I could paint. I can’t make up my mind which one to paint, so I just won’t paint at all.”

That’s not a painter with too much to do. That’s a great excuse for not being a painter at all.

We know this person is an artist. We’re going to apply the same principles to getting out and making art, to getting out there and doing the list, and getting out there and writing an artist statement.

You’re selective when you make your art. Be selective when you make your list.

This will help when you do your artist statement, too. Most artist statements are far too long. I saw one once at a show that was a full typewritten page, with miniscule margins in an even minisculer font. (Yes, I know minisculer is not a real word–I made it up!) I tried and tried to read it, and kept losing my place.

Plus it was just plain boring, which is sad because the work was exciting. Plainly, the artist had trouble putting the same passion that drove him to make that work, into his artist statement…. Which brings me to my next point:

It’s 25 interesting things, okay?

More on this in the articles ahead. And why most artist statements sound alike, and how to make your stand out.

Anything you write has to stay that way…forever! (NOT)

Now, I know I’ve stated in other articles that what you say online is there a long time. But the truth is, it will take some digging to find. Your little list of 25 Random Things is not the Gutenberg Bible. It’s not written in stone, either.

When you do those million other things, you can simply go back and change it. Or heck, write a new one. It’s okay–nobody cares how many times you do it!

It’s just for fun.

Nobody is keeping track of how many times you do it. Nobody is keeping score. Nobody is hanging out on Facebook with a judge’s hat on, saying, “Well, he had a good rhythm, you could dance to it, but the lyrics…!! I give it a 5.”

What’s matter-of-fact for you might be HOLY COW!! I DIDN’T KNOW THAT ABOUT YOU! for someone else.

I always think the oddest thing about my martial arts practice(s) is how old I am. In reality, most people are amazed I do it at all. I guess “artist” never seems to go hand-in-hand with kung fu.

Just as the things you’ve done so long or so long ago, they are something you hardly think about, could be a hook for your audience. I never knew my friend Mark was a yoga nut. Or that my friend Judy knows more about football than anyone else I know. It enriches my relationship with them.

Last, I recognize one of the blocks, this because I suffer from this one myself:

Perfectionism.

Here’s a tip: Perfectionism=Stultifying

Perfectionism keeps us from doing anything until we can do it perfectly. When, in reality, practice makes perfect.

The only cure for perfectionism is….

Start where you are. When you know better, do better.

If you don’t want to publish your list on Facebook, then don’t. But write it in a notebook or a journal. Set it aside for now. Pull it out when I write the next article on what to do with those 25 Random Things.

Extra credit homework: A list of some good articles I wrote on self promotion for artists.

25 RANDOM THINGS ABOUT YOU: How to Write a Better Artist Statement

Use a silly little Facebook game to put more passion in your artist statement.

An article in our local newspaper discussed the current Facebook phenomenon, “25 Random Things About Me”. Apparently, it’s the most popular Facebook “Notes” feature of all time.

Why??

The article suggests it proves that we all love to talk about ourselves, especially the younger generation usually found on Facebook. (Although it turns out every age group on Facebook, including mine, is hopping on the “25 Random Things” list. I’m always amused at how we talk about other generations’ differences as if they were a different species…)

Emily Nussbaum, editor-at-large for New York magazine, says the most decisive difference is that the Facebook generation “assumes they have an audience”: They have a mental image of a large group of people interested in postings such as “25 Random Things.” Part of their identity rests on an invisible entourage that accompanies them everywhere.

It’s also an exercise to creatively select “facts” about ourselves that puts us in the best possible light. A little humor, and voila! A captivating mini-bio that reveals us as a delightful individual.

Is that so awful?

“Random Things” lister (Joe) Diorio has his own theory about why the lists and commentaries have become so popular. It has a piquant irony: “We spend so much of our lives online with Facebook, LinkedIn, and we spend so much time connected that we feel disconnected. So we tell people these little things, to feel more connected. We put a piece of ourselves out there, to give it a try.”

Isn’t this what art is all about? To connect what is in our heart to a larger audience?

Look, it IS hard to “stand out” in a world of a bajillion people. I’m a fairly outgoing person with a variety of ways to connect to my environment–parent, artist, assorted pastimes, social networks. In my own smallish town of Keene, NH, there are 25,000 people. What percentage of those people actually know who I am? Or care?

And yet to effectively market my art, to create an audience for the work I feel compelled to make, I may need to forge connections across a whole region, a country, perhaps over several continents.

So how do I make my work, and myself, stand out? How do I connect meaningfully with a larger audience?

We always assume it’s only about the quality of the work. Is it?

Good work helps. Great photography (so people can see our good work) helps. Publicity, self-promotion, advertising, exposure/exhibiting all help.

But what always grabs me is a good artist statement–an exquisite example of creative non-fiction. The ultimate “25 Random Things” list.

It should be true. But specific enough tell us something. “I just love color” or “I just love music” doesn’t tell me a single damn thing about your work.

It can be about your education or training. But that can’t be the whole thing. Typical artist statements often list the other, more famous artists someone studied under. To me that reads as, “I’m ALMOST as good as they are, but my work is a lot cheaper!”

It should be so well written as to be elegant. More often, it’s full of jargon and buzzwords (aka “artspeak”) that simply hides who you really are and what you’re really doing.

Here’s what I think it should be:

It should be aspects of the world at large that you experience through the lens of your unique perspective, your individual experience–in a way that explores, reveals and creates wonder in your audience.

It’s your honest, thoughtful explanation of why you create the work you do.

And why we should care.

Because that’s part of our human nature–to be interesting to other people. And to be interested in other people. We are social animals, after all, from the exuberant “look at me!” to the thoughtful “I never thought of it that way before….”

But if really connect with an audience, you have to dig a little deeper. Reveal a little more. Be a little more honest. Be more real.

Show us something human.

To quote the article again:

That communal aspect is what so much commentary misses about “25 Random Things.” It’s not just a list; it’s a communal exercise. Posters post, and friends comment.

What’s that commentary like? An unscientific survey of more than 30 such lists has yet to uncover anything vicious or unkind. Mostly, the virtual community is, in Nussbaum’s words, “surprisingly supportive, sweet, even encouraging.” It is nurturing, a thing friends do.

And that’s what I love about the 25 Things.

Every time someone I “know” writes one, I’m amazed at what I read. New facets of their personality, their history, their hopes, fears and dreams are revealed. They seem deeper and richer to me. I’m in awe of what has been shared.

I feel more connected.

I care.

Don’t be afraid to do this with your audience, your customers. Give them something real about you to connect with.

Your homework for today, should you choose to accept it, is to compile your own 25 Random Things list about you as an artist. I compiled such a list for my biz awhile back. In it are some of the stories that compel me to make my art.

I think I’ll be revisiting this list from time to time. I think it will continue to change as I get closer to discovering what makes me tick. As I get more clear about what it is I want to say. As I get closer to figuring out what it is I want to contribute to the world.

As I begin to understand how truly and completely fallible, lovable, annoying, loving, inspirational, wicked, kind, forgiving….how human…I really am.

YOUR REAL CAREER

This is another party story, like Turning the Tables.

At this same party, there were so many new people I’d never met, unusual in our smallish town. I would ask people, “What do you do?”

It always feels like a hopelessly inadequate question. After all, a person working as a clerk in an office could also be an artist, a singer, a T’ai Chi master. You never know.

It reminds me of a section in Martha Beck’s latest book, The Joy Diet. In the chapter “Play”, she asks you to name your real career.

A real career is not necessarily what you’ve trained for, or what you do to earn a living, or even the job you’re currently in (or not in).

Your real career, as Webster defines it, is “…the course of action a person takes over a lifetime.”

It may not be what you do for money. It may not be anything you’ve ever done. It may not even be what you do in your free time.

It is, she says, “…the course of action your true self would take if you were to live to the limit of your potential.”

This is a harder concept to grasp–what do you dream of doing? What feeds your soul? What are you at heart?

And this could be, she says, a Japanese scholar, a scientist, a mother.

This reminds me of the older definition of amateur: What you pursue for love. Or perhaps what you would pursue, for love.

To cut to the chase, she often asks her clients, “What were you doing the morning of 9/11? And what did you do that evening?” What seemed most important to you then?

When I found out about the two towers, I was working in my studio. And making preparations for my birthday celebration.

My husband and I immediately went for a walk. And talked.

We observed that there was a new dividing line: The people who knew. And the people who didn’t yet know.

I held my family close, and struggled with what to tell my kids.

I went back to my studio to make little horses. I struggled with why I should still do this.

Then I wrote about it.

And then I went out to celebrate my birthday.

I had to write about the event to make sense of it.

I had to ask myself why why making those horses still had meaning for me.

It was because they were, for me, a symbol of everything that’s tender, and good, in the world.

So I know my real career is making sense of the things that happen to us in life. To write about them as I go through them. To mangle my intentions, to struggle with meaning. To find a little way through.

And then to share them, through stories, with other people.

And then make little horses that embody those stories.

Oh, and to always leave room for cake.

I’m curious.

Pretend we’re at a party, and we meet.

What is your job?

And what is your real career?

PS. Art biz tip: This should be someplace in your artist statement, you know….

PPS. For this exercise, if something spared you the sucker-punch-to-the-stomach reaction to 9/11, feel free to choose another life event that left you reeling.

A SIX-YEAR-OLD CAN DO IT…You Can, Too!

Gulping my coffee this morning, watching the latest storm roll over Keene, New Hampshire, and reading our very own local newspaper, The Keene Sentinel. The Sentinel is noted for being the fifth oldest continuously published newspaper in the U.S..

I’m intrigued by an article in the business section. It’s by Rick Romell of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (Aside: Milwaukee is another cold, cold city. I Googled the latitudes of both cities and found that Milwaukee is at 43.04N and Keene is at 42.933N. Brrrr!)

You can read the entire article here. It’s about a professor of marketing who conducts market research with methods that resemble psychoanalysis.

So what does a marketing research technique that uncovers the real reason “real men” buy power tools have to do with your business in art and craft?

Because the most powerful technique they used was “…a rigorous format that includes repeatedly asking “Why?” like a persistent 6-year-old.”

Does this technique sound familiar?

I’ve never heard of the ZMET technique, though I hope to learn more. I discovered the power of “why” almost eight years ago, at a gallery talk for a juried art show I was in.

I’d never been to one before, and hoped to hear what drove the passions of my fellow exhibitors. I was disappointed to hear a lot of acadamese instead. In my ignorance and eagerness to learn what “real artists” thought, I kept pressing the speakers, asking “why” over and over. To a photographer who used images from a sole Greek island as her subject, I asked, “But why this island? And why this particular point in history?”, she finally revealed her personal and heartfelt inspiration. To a fiber artist who had used unusual materials to construct a coat with an “inside story”, the question revealed what that inside story was–and it was powerful.

It was a hard process, and not appealing to everyone–the newspaper review of the show later referred to me as “the persistent woman in the audience who kept asking ‘why?'” But every single artist came up to me afterwards and thanked me. One said, “You know, at first I was annoyed that you kept asking. But then it all came pouring out…. I never really knew before what drove my work. And now I do.” Another said, “I never realized the power of speaking my own story, my own truth, til you pushed me there. Thank you!”

I have used this technique when teaching artists how to write effective artist statements. I’ve used it in workshops to develop a story hook for press releases. I use it simply talking to people who pique my interest, wanting to find out what makes them tick.

I have never been disappointed by the answers I get to this question.

Who knew that simple question of a six-year-old could teach us so much?

55 ALIVE!

Today is my birthday, and I’ve hit the speed limit–55! I was 22 when, according to Wikipedia, the National Maximum Speed Law was enacted in 1974. This entry says it was in response to the gas crisis, which I remember fondly. Isn’t it odd how it was about saving gas, not lives (which was its greatest legacy?) And isn’t it funny how the crisis then “disappeared” for 30 years?

The title? If you’re my age, you remember this slogan from those days–“55 Alive!” Which is also a good slogan for this year, come to think of it.

I digress. I just wanted to add that I’m glad there are no speed limits in how we live our lives. And that sometimes, the legacy we create is not the one we intended.

Today I’m pointing to an old essay I now refer to every birthday, the one I wrote on September 11, 2001. It’s as poignant and meaningful to me as it was that day. It’s become my “secondary artist statement.”

As for the sympathetic murmurings I get that this happened on my birthday, I just want to say that:

1) Everytime something bad happens in the world, it happens on someone’s birthday.

2) Having a birthday to be sad about is better than having no birthday at all.

3) And not even I have an ego so huge, I think 9/11 is all about my birthday. (Although, I hasten to point out, it is entirely human to think so. We are the center of our own universe…)

So here is my essay. It’s a little stilted, as I reread it after all these years. But it’s exactly what happened to me that day, it’s exactly how it happened, and I still believe it.

Enjoy the day!

An Ancient Story for Modern Times

P.S. Even spookier, I see today, is the reference to global warming. The latest article I’ve read says we will probably lose polar bears, and soon. For some reason, this saddens me almost as much as everything else going on.

I cannot imagine a world without polar bears.

BODY OF WORK

What is a body of work, and how to you make one?

One of the most puzzling and hard to answer questions in the craft world is, “What exactly is a “body of work”??”

It’s a little like the definition of pornography. We know it when we see it, but it’s hard to pin down.

And like other worthy artistic and professional goals, sometimes the harder you pursue it, the harder it is to achieve.

Simply put, a body of work is a collection of artwork or craft you’ve produced that has a recognizable, personal style. It is immediately identifiable as a specific artist’s work.

As an example, I remember the first time a customer told me she was walking down a city street wearing one of my necklaces. A complete stranger walking by stopped and exclaimed, “You’re wearing a Luann Udell!”

Sometimes we think of certain attributes or materials as delineating our “style.” Think Joanne Russo and her signature porcupine quill baskets: Joanne’s signature style

Except Joanne’s newest body of work has nary a quill to be seen. And yet, when you see it, you know it’s her work: Joanne’s newest baskets

So our style can include our signature touches, yet transcend them too.

Some of my “gimmicks” are the beaver-chewed sticks my fiber work hangs from, my ivory techniques and my little horse artifacts.

Yet my “style” is more than these, too.

It’s the “whole thing”, the gestalt. The layering, the textures, the use of unusual colors. The details…the intricate stitching, the beads. The addition of the polymer artifacts. The presentation, the overall “look” of ancient artifacts. You can see all these elements in my wall hangings.

And, in my case, the story.

Part of my recognizable style is the passion that comes from me “digging” and searching for my artistic self. There’s a unifying story people sense. It’s about how I almost never found the artist in me, how my artistic potential was almost lost to the world–just like the Lascaux cave, the original source of my inspiration.

It’s sharing this “dig” that inspires others, that resonates with them as they look for their own path in life. That narrative thread weaves its way not only through my work, but around it, uniting it and strengthening it into whole cloth.

A dear friend and fellow artist saw my booth at the ACRE-Las Vegas show this spring. She said, “I can’t get over your new booth! It’s beautiful! And your work…. All those exquisite little artifacts, that new soapstone, the new pieces. It looks like….it looks like a miniature museum. It looks like you shouldn’t be touching the work.” She paused. “…but you can!!”

She has known me since my very first wholesale show, she has watched my work grow and evolve, she would know my work anywhere. And yet, it still has the capacity to surprise and delight her.

That is a body of work.

So how do you get one?

I wish I could answer that question easily for you. But it’s not an easy question.

My first words of advice would be: Relax!

And…just do the work.

Sometimes it’s simply a matter of time. Spend enough time doing something, a certain number of years making stuff, and your style eventually emerges. Over time, a preference for certain things–certain clays, certain processes–emerges. They may even become “signature”.

Part of it is making the work, over and over, until it comes so naturally and effortlessly (relatively speaking) that there are no conscious style decisions. I don’t mean you aren’t thinking about the details (“Would red work better here? No, definitely the yellow!”) I mean you are unconsciously making those choices in a consistent way that says “me!” Certain ways of putting colors together, certain aesthetics emerge. For example, it’s really hard for me to make “simple” necklaces. For me, the more beads, the better.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to make the same thing over and over. I know some artists who dabble in all kinds of styles and media. Yet each one comes through with that artist’s certain identifiable style.

It can be about perfecting your techniques until they are solid. I cringe when I see polymer clay work with smudgy fingerprints, and poorly finished jewelry made with cheap findings and tawdry components.

Yet some artists work with common, ordinary materials–and still create beauty and awe with their works. They have achieved a certain “grace” in the way they work with these components, no matter how simple or organic the “glue” it goes together with. Think Andy Goldsworthy with his deceptively simple “techniques” and ordinary leaves and sticks and mud:
stones
leaves
sticks

But all these aspects emerge and develop naturally, as a result of simply making the work you love, the best work you can make. Consistently.

Once you’ve invested the time and the effort into just making the work, if your signature style has still not emerged, then it’s time to dig deeper.

And here is where taking the energy to write an artist statement can help.

I believe that going through the process of writing an artist statement can help clarify what your art is about. What you are about, as an artist.

And that is what a body of work reflects: What you are about, as an artist.

So if you’re stuck at a point in your artistic career where the dreaded “body of work” seems as elusive as…well, a lucrative body of work–then try going through the exercise of writing or updating your artist statement.

Because sometimes thinking about who you are as an artist, and what you are saying with your work, can be a powerful took in developing that elusive “body of work”.

If that doesn’t work, let me know and I’ll think about this some more.

Here are some essays from my old blog that may help you get started:

Passion in Your Artist Statement

The Artist Statement Revisited

The Artist Bio/Statement–Tips for Making Yours Memorable, Personal–and Quotable