WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: We Will Never Know Our True Legacy

Try our best, we are not in control of how we will be remembered.

There’s a brilliant cartoon called Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller that ran a few weeks ago. It starts with a caption, “The Get-Rich-Quick Correspondence Art School” and shows an artist standing before a huge empty canvas, paintbrush in hand, reading the first page of the instruction book:

“Step 1: Fill in blank canvas.

Step 2: Sell it for $1,000,000*

*Price triples if you die first!”

Funny? Not funny? Sad? All of the above!

We all know about Vincent Van Gogh, who sold maybe one painting in his lifetime, whose work (one painting) sold in 1990 for a record $82.5 million dollars.

Then there’s the most popular artist of the Victorian era, whose work, within a few decades after his death, was deemed saccharine and trite. He is so forgotten I can’t easily find him by Googling, I just remember that story from one of my art history books.

We have our own Thomas Kinkade, arguably the most commercially successful artist of our time, mass-producing paintings that look like a sickeningly-sweet Christmas card my grandmother might have sent out. Love him, hate him, he certainly knew how to manipulate the market, to the extent it’s estimated that 1 in 20 households in the U.S. own a print of his work. Will his work stand the test of time? We’ll see.

The irony is, we tend to concern ourselves with achieving fame and fortune, or at least a presence in the world. (Yes, I secretly dream of a time when people will clamor for my work!)

But we actually have very little control over that.

Oh, we participate in art events, we self-promote, we strive to work with the best galleries. We work for good publicity, we work our social media, we are delighted when the rich and famous buy our work. (Double publicity!)

Some of us use more extreme measures.

We could be famous for cutting off an ear (this was not done for publicity, of course, but this is how many ordinary people identify Van Gogh), or inserting a crucifix upside down in a bottle of urine. We could be famous for trademarking “Painter of Light”, (except that all painters, technically, are recording light.) It can be difficult to think of a more disturbing painting than Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, and yet, it has held its place in time. In my recent column about finding an audience,  I shared how the attention actress/writer April Winchell’s now-archived website Regretsy actually brought attention—and sales—to truly awful handmade items sold on Etsy.

So maybe we’ll be famous after we’ve been dead awhile. Maybe, if we manipulate the media cleverly, we can be famous now.

If not, well, maybe our art, like the images in those prehistoric Ice Age caves, will survive for thousands of years, to be discovered by an entirely new race of humans (or…..aliens??) who will marvel at our work, find its full beauty, and wonder what the heck we were trying to say.

We’re not wrong to feel this way. We’re just humans.

We all want to believe we matter.

We all want to believe we have made a difference in this world.

We all want to believe the work of our heart matters.

That is the central core of my artist statement, realizing that we all want to leave our mark in the world.

That’s not wrong. That’s achingly beautiful. It’s extremely human.

Maybe we will, maybe we won’t.

In the end, though, all we can do is to do the best we can.

We have to work at our own pace, in our own manner, with our own style. We have to make a little room in our lives to do that work.

We must respect the work we do, and try not to be envious of the work of others, nor their reputation, income, or celebrity.

We have to discover the stories that mean everything to us, and share them, through our creative work, with the world.

In a perfect world, all creative work would foster tolerance, harmony, love, respect for our earth and all the people on it, and be a force for good in the world.

But there is also a darkness in every heart, just as there is a bit of light within the greatest evil.

 That, too, is what it means to be human.

And so my hope for you, today, is that this helps you set aside your agonizing about fame and fortune. I hope it can change your definition of success, so you feel fulfilled with your efforts to make art.

I hope we can create our work today and let go of focusing only on where it lands in the world.

I hope we can all find a way, and a reason, to keep on ‘making’. I hope we can let go of envy of the success of others, and our own fears of failure, and simply rejoice that we have the luxury, and the privilege, to be able to do this work.

Our only real obligation is to make it. And then share it with the world, through sales (yes!), through connection, through relationships, and mostly through our love for what we do.

And have hope that this will be enough.

(As always, if you enjoyed this article, pass it on! Someone you know may need to hear it, today. You can sign up for more articles at my blog here.)

 

WHAT WORKS FOR Y-O-U?

There’s no right–or wrong–process to create a body of work. Only what works for YOU.

There are as many kinds of work habits as there are stars in the sky. What matters is what works for YOU.

Years ago, I was in a small artist support group. We met once a month, going over our previous month’s goals, checking our progress, and supporting each other’s choices.

One woman wanted to have a solo show by the end of the year. She was worried about her production process. Other potters worked steadily throughout the day, or the weekends, to create a good representative body of work. She asked for help to speed up her process.

When presented with a problem, most of us have a bad habit of giving advice.  And, being human, we started down this path, making suggestions, giving advice, all of which went nowhere.

The purpose of groups like this is to dig a little deeper, to discover where the real obstacles lie. So when it was my turn to ask questions, I let go of what I thought she should do.

“What do you think your process should be?” I asked.

Well…she’d been listening to other potters talk about their routines. Batch lots, production schedules, record-keeping, etc. Long days in the studio. Late nights and working weekends.

“What is your process now?” I asked.

She replied that, because her days were full, she would work on a pinch pot in the evening, as she and her husband watched their favorite TV shows in their den. She described how she would work in her chair, shaping and molding the beautiful curves she was known for.

“How many pots do you make doing that?”, I asked.

She could make one pot an evening.

“How good are those pots?” In other words, how many were good enough to sell and/or exhibit?

Every single one, she replied.

“How many pots do you need for an exhibit?” I asked.

She named a number.

So…in three month’s time, with her own process, she could produce enough pots for an exhibition or show.

Her relief was palpable.

Contrast this with another friend, in a different group, who said he wished he could produce enough paintings to sell galleries. He showed me half a dozen pieces he’d created during a one-day workshop a few months before. (They were beautiful!) He didn’t have a studio, and at first we tried to figure out a way for him to have one. But he gently resisted. He loved his day job, he didn’t want to give up his evenings, he wasn’t a self-starter.

Suddenly, a lightbulb went off in my head.

“How many paintings do you produce in a workshop?” I asked.

He was a swift painter. Always, at least half a dozen, maybe more. (He worked in small formats, already had the basic techniques down.)

“Do you like taking workshops?” I asked.

He loved them. In, paint, out and done.

I pointed out that he lived in a major metropolitan city, close to two other major cities. Was it likely that he could find a workshop every single week of the year? It was.

So….if he committed to even one day a month to a workshop, he could create enough work to present to a gallery in a matter of months?  Hmmmm….why….yes, he could!

At every stage of our artistic life, there a new stages of growth, new challenges, new goals. There is no single process–intermittent and fast, slow and steady– that will help us achieve them. Except to discern what works for us.

And then to do it.

WHAT’S THIS ALL ABOUT??? MY NEXT STEPS WITH MY ART.

Thoughts for my new series are still roiling and boiling in my brain.

The ideas come from many places and times. Some as long ago as I can remember, and others as recently as today. Some was inspired by seeing how another assemblage artist organized his materials. “THIS should be your art!” I exclaimed. He was not amused.

But it got me thinking.

All of this is based on my favorite activity, which I refer to by its ancient designation, “hunter-gathering”.

I’ve always loved picking up pretty pebbles, twisted twigs, sea shells, bits of rusted metal. This actually translates in a beautiful (and sometimes devastating) way to shopping. I love poking through piles of stuff, looking for the perfect little something everyone else has overlooked.

Last month I found a huge box of shells at a local antique shop. It was marked way, way down. But still a little pricey at almost $60. I won’t say I had buyer’s remorse when I got home, but “What was I thinking?!” was flying around my head. (It’s not buyer’s remorse if you’re still secretly glad you bought it….)

So here’s where the shells have gone. Here:

Big, big jar of big, big shells. Found the perfect jar at T.J. Maxx for under $15, in the perfect shade of sea glass blue.

And here:

A smaller jar o’ shells.

And here:

Note how they are sorted by color, texture, size and other significant characteristics. Like one slot holds “stones with spots”!

Now the last pic is especially telling. Because when I go to the beach, I come home with this:

Box o’ beach rocks.

And they quickly get displayed like this:

Do you see a pattern here?

Which got me doing this a few years ago:

People absolutely fell in love with my many trays of handmade artifacts at my last open studio!

So in my head are images of artifacts, collections, gatherings of objects, museum display, shrines and altars. Add to that a shaman’s gathering of healing herbs, objects of power, talismans of hope, magic stones and mysterious bones.

I don’t know exactly what it is. I have only vague ideas of what it looks like. Sometimes it frightens me. Sometimes I wish I could drop everything else to work on it. Sometimes it seems too much like play to take seriously.

There is only one thing I’m sure of:

Something wonderful is coming!

POLYMER ARTIFACTS APPEAR IN POLYMER CLAY DAILY!

Today I saw an update in my inbox from Cynthia Tinapple’s delightful blog, It was titled Polymer Artifacts so of course I had to take a peek.

Even more delightful, it turns out it’s about MY polymer artifacts!!

It’s an honor to be featured in PCD, as Cynthia scopes out the best work in polymer clay around the world. Thank you, Cynthia!

There’s a nice balance between focusing your work and being inspired by others’ work. The last few years, I’ve been hunkered down, focusing on keeping my vision clear, and trying not to envy the incredible work being made by other artists. Lately, I realized I’ve hunkered down too much. Cynthia’s blog helps me see a bigger picture of the world. It’s time to explore and see what else is out there.

I also see it’s time to update my images on my website. My beloved photographer, Jeff Baird, died of lung cancer three years ago. I owe a big chunk of my success to his beautiful images of my work. It’s been hard to admit that he’s gone, and I’ve been reluctant to switch out the pics. But Jeff would be the first one to tell me it’s time to do that. Wherever you are, Jeff, know that you are deeply missed.

Enjoy!

Shaman mask pins in faux soapstone–polymer clay
Unmatched shaman mask earrings, in faux ivory–polymer clay
Gaia artifact with faux soapstone bird–polymer clay
Ivory and green soapstone artifacts–polymer clay
I love mismatched earrings!
Ivory bear and pendant, soapstone pebble–polymer clay artifacts

COLLECTING STAMPS & MAKING ART

Trust me, your artistic self is just as powerful as a postage stamp. Maybe more.

Fresh off my first Open Studio tour of the year, and boy is my studio CLEAN! I love open studio events for many reasons, but more on that later this week. I have something else on my mind that has to come out today.

As you may know, my soapbox speech is about finding out what makes you, and your work, unique.

We hear all about how no two snowflakes are identical, and how our fingerprints and DNA are unique to us.

You’d think, with all this unique-ness pouring out of us, we could a unique way to talk about our work.

I’ve been in a lot of group shows this year, seen a lot of lovely work and talked to a lot of passionate artists. What strikes me is how everyone says the same things about their art.

We talk about our compositions. We talk about why we love pastel, or oil, or clay. We talk about light and shapes.

If I hear “I just love color!” one more time….. Well, it won’t be pretty.

So let me share an ‘aha!’ moment I had years ago.

I was doing a mail art project, and wanted old postage that would reflect the theme of my piece. I found an older couple who ran a stamp collecting business out of their home.

As I scrabbled through the trays and books of postage, we talked about stamp and the stamp collecting biz. They shared stories about stamp collectors. I asked her what kinds of stamps people collected.

The woman said, “You know, in fifty years of selling stamps and doing shows and talking to collectors, I’ve never seen two people collect exactly the same thing.”

Never?

Now think about that a minute.

There is no creativity per se in collecting stamps. Collectors don’t make the stamps, nor are they handmade by other people. Stamps are produced en masse, and have been in production for years.

Collectors simply….collect.

But how they collect is so strongly individual and personal, each collection–each act of collecting–is as unique as….well, the human being who put it together.

Some collect by country, or region or language. Some collect by subject matter. Politics, places, people, animals, plants, themes, designs, plate designer…. There is simply no end to the possible combinations of appeal.

If we could get away from the mundane–what our materials are, the fact that we love certain colors or lines or compositions…..

If we could dig a little deeper and think about why we make the art we do….

If we could tell a richer, more personal story about our art…..

If we were willing to go the scary, deep place of who we are, and who we yearn to be in the world…

People would see our work as the miracle in the world it truly is.

Sharing ‘unique’ processes, ‘unique’ inspiration, ‘unique’ love of color/shape/style, separates us from our audience.

Discovering what makes us tick as a human being, sharing what is truly in our hearts, connects us with our audience.

Be brave. Be YOU.

Some of my postage stamps

A RESPONSE TO “COPYING VS. STEALING”

(For the sake of clarity, I republished this article a day after “WAITING FOR THE COOL: That Copying Thing Again”. I didn’t move it very well, and I may have lost some comments. I apologize, they were GREAT!!)

A Response to Kerrie Venner’s article, “Copying vs. Stealing”

I just discovered an article on the International Polymer Clay Association’s website, written by Kerrie Venner, IPCA Vice President for Education and Outreach. Kerrie’s article is here.

The article talked about my artwork and a blog article I wrote about my work being copied. Kerrie refers to me as an example of an artist who has published directions for making my artwork who then gets “antsy” when people copy it. She states that she doesn’t understand what’s wrong with coveting my little totem animals, then making her own versions for her own use, and even to sell, since her customers probably aren’t familiar with my work anyway.

At first I was delighted to read Kerrie’s wonderful comments about my blog and my artwork. But that delight quickly turned to dismay.

Her article is an interesting take on a very complex and emotional issue.

Just to correct a few errors:

1. Kerrie’s article simply linked to the home page of my blog. My article Kerrie that refers to in her article is WHAT IS THE STORY ONLY YOU CAN TELL? and the correct url is https://luannudell.wordpress.com/2010/05/30/what-is-the-story-only-you-can-tell/ I discuss why someone who copies another artist’s work is actually short-changing their own creative journey.

2. Contrary to Kerrie’s assertions, I’ve actually only published directions featuring my faux ivory technique (a modification of the technique originally developed by Victoria Hughes.) I provided directions for very simple beads, buttons and bones. Photographs of my animal artifacts and jewelry were for illustration and inspiration only.

3. I have never published projects or taught how to make my artifacts and animal totems, for the very reasons Kerrie mentions in support of her viewpoint: It might imply permission for others to copy my work.

I could address each of Kerrie’s statements and questions separately, and will do so in a future blog article. But here’s the short story:

I’ve done the hard work creating this body of work. I spent years perfecting my craft. Inspired by imagery available to everyone, it is nonetheless a highly original and individual interpretation and presentation. As Kerrie points out, it has a powerful, personal narrative, describing my journey from a place of pain (at not practicing my art), to a place of healing (embracing my unique vision, and sharing with others how that happened.)

I’ve done the hard work to get my work out there. And I’ve spent a lot of money doing that. I’ve paid thousands of dollars to do the high-end shows to sell it. I go to great lengths to find galleries to carry it. I’ve spent thousands of hours marketing, writing, speaking, entering exhibits and juried shows, and submitting work for publication to support and grow my reputation. I’ve paid thousands of dollars to have my work professionally photographed, to construct a booth and create beautiful displays for it.

I’ve spent years developing a loyal following of customers, collectors and supporters. I am deeply moved by the role my art has played in their lives. I love the stories they share with me on how much my work has meant to them, how much it has inspired them, how it has healed them.

I’ve earned my stars and paid my dues. My work-and my prices–reflect that.

We artists may make our art for love or money, or both. But it’s hard to make art without some kind of support from our community, be it emotional, spiritual, or financial.

Kerrie says she admires and desires my artwork. I am truly grateful for that. There are many ways a true supporter can help me get my art out into the world:

1) Tell me how much it means to you, and respect the unique place in my heart it comes from. Tell your friends, too, and point them to my blog, my website or my store.

2) Spread the word about my work by writing great reviews and articles.

3) Buy it for yourself, or for a special gift.

4) If you really can’t afford my work (prices start at $42, and I have a great layaway plan), encourage potential collectors to buy it instead. Or ask friends and family to buy it for you. Christmas is coming!

5) Ask your favorite gallery or museum store to carry my work. Or suggest they include me in an invitational show. Or even a solo show

Actually, the list is endless: Invite me to speak to your local or regional art guild. Ask your public library to purchase the books that feature my work. Hire me for a private consult on your artist statement. Alert me to publishing opportunities. Etc., etc., etc.

Unfortunately, copying my work doesn’t support me.

Copying my work, then selling it as your original work, deprives me of potential customers who might buy my work. This does not support me.

Telling others I am wrong to care about my work being copied does not support me.

In fact, someone copying my artwork short-circuits everything I’m trying to achieve. That is where the pain and the resentment comes from. And that is what I have to get over, and get through, every time it happens.

In the end, although my work is copyrighted, it’s almost impossible for me to protect those rights. I don’t have the deep pockets of Disney, and I don’t have the time or emotional energy to spare. I have to save that energy and focus for my art.

Some amount of copying has its place in the learning process. That’s why a teacher provides a project for a class.

But a body of work based solely on some “variation” of someone else’s work is not the work of your own heart, your own unique vision.

Kerrie’s article was written without my knowledge and did not link to what I actually said. I cannot adequately convey how disheartening it is to see these views-justifying the right to copying my work simply because I have made it visible in the world–expressed by someone who is Vice President of the International Polymer Clay Association’s Education and Outreach Committee.

Kerrie is entitled to her viewpoint, and I appreciate the opportunity to present mine. As she and I both said, this is a complex issue, involving human nature, the creative process and ethics.

Whether or not Kerrie’s reflects the views of the IPCA organization, it was published on their site and incorrectly referred to me as an example of a disgruntled artist who sets herself up for being copied by offering her artwork as projects and classes. Since I’m not one of “those artists”–who are also entitled to their own opinions about others copying their work–and especially because I have consciously chosen not to…that allegation was neither true nor fair.

I’m thrilled Kerrie loves my work. I hope someday she decides my artwork is worthy of collecting for herself. I would be truly honored.

And…I would feel truly supported.

2 P.S.’s (What the heck is the plural of “P.S.”???)
It’s been brought to my attention that Kerrie didn’t mean she would actually copy my work–she was speaking aloud the thought process that many have expressed. So in a sense, she was speaking as “Everyman/Everywoman”. And she never intended these remarks to represent her, or the IPCA’s actual point-of-view.

Again, I’m glad she voiced these thoughts so we can talk about it.

And please, please don’t bash Kerrie! :^)

P.S. For the latest take on this, see WAITING FOR THE COOL: That Copying Thing Again

WHY YOU SHOULDN’T DITCH YOUR SLOWEST SELLER

How your “slowest” seller could actually be your best marketing.

There are two tenets in business that everyone accepts as true:

1. You should figure out what your most popular product is, and sell the heck out of it.

2. You should figure out what your least popular product is, and get rid of it.

In fact, I read it again just a few minutes ago.

Here’s a little story about why you should reconsider step 2.

I’ve been a long-time CVS fan. While waiting for prescriptions to be filled, I would wander the aisles shopping. (In fact, once our insurance company switched to Medco’s online pharmacy, our “miscellaneous” expenditures dropped enormously.)

CVS is losing me as a customer to Walgreen’s. Why?

They no longer carry three products that I love:

a) They no longer carry Physician’s Formula make-up remover lotion
(I LOVE this stuff because it isn’t runny and doesn’t drip like oil versions);

b) Dr. Scholl’s pedicure file (probably because their store brand is cheaper, though not nearly as good);

c) and they don’t carry dental wax (which I want to use to position jewelry for photography.)

Probably because they were slow sellers. Or they had a store brand they wanted to push. I dunno.

But guess where I’m finding these products now?

Yep. Walgreen’s.

Okay, to be perfectly fair, the makeup remover is getting harder to find anywhere. I suspect the product is going through a makeover.

But my point is, wherever these products are, that’s where I’m going to go to get them.

Our local grocery store does the same thing. It introduces new products which I love, and discontinues them when they aren’t big movers.

Other grocery stores pick them up–and that’s where I go to get them. One carries my all-time favorite fruit-infused vinegars. (People, these are amazing to use in homemade salad dressings.) I go to another for my Ghiradelli hot cocoa.

So every month or so, Hanniford’s does not get my $200-$300 grocery bill.

So sometimes your slowest seller can be a draw to very passionate users/buyers. People who will look elsewhere if you drop it, like my favorite pear infused vinegar.

Sometimes an item sells slow because it’s really expensive, or very unusual. It can still be a huge draw to your other work. And it can make the rest of your work seem more affordable. I don’t sell too many $5,000 wall hangings. But when I do a) it’s the equivalent of selling a hundred $50 items, and b) it does a bang-up job of publicity.

My Big $5,000 Wall Hanging (from Niche Magazine, April 2006)

Sometimes a “slow” product will come back around. I hadn’t sold much fish jewelry in years. Maybe their time was over? When I put my “business hat” on, I considered dropping it. When I put my “artist hat” on, I realized it still had a story to tell. And guess what? I’m now selling more fish.

Fish necklace, back in demand!

Or perhaps it just hasn’t had time to catch on yet. I hardly sold any sculptures when I first started out. Just when I was about to lose hope, sales took off. Plus, turns out they fill a major niche as a gift for guys. I would have lost that marketing opportunity if I’d given up too soon.

Maybe your slow seller is something that sets off the rest of your products. Years ago, a friend had a yarn store. She didn’t carry any yellow yarn, because “it didn’t sell.” I showed her an article by a color designer for a local yarn mill. The designer said every line should have a yellow “because it fills out the color wheel, and makes other colors sing.” The store owner added yellow, and her sales rose.

Maybe your slowest seller is a dog* because of very good reasons. It’s out of fashion, you make a better one now, or you can’t even get the supplies to make it anymore.

But unless you’re sure it no longer serves any purpose, consider it a small price to pay for a few very special, very passionate customers.

Because any customer who is passionate about your art is sharing that passion with a lot of other people.

And that’s a good thing.

P.S. I apologize for calling any part of my/your art “a dog”. Just trying to give some good business advice here, as well as good artistic advice.