LESSONS FROM THE GYM: Ice Is Your Best Friend!

Luann Udell shares how we can choose to reply positively to the naysayers.

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

The things people say about our work, and what we can CHOOSE to say back.

 (6 minute read)

 This “ice” remark is one I hear almost every day at the physical therapy place/independent gym where I work out.

When we are injured, sore, aching, our first instinct is to apply heat. A heating pad feels wonderful. And it can help, if we don’t overdo it. But ice is actually even more healing and therapeutic, especially as our first go-to therapy. Granted, it feels better on a hot summer day than a cold winter one, but it really does help.

How does this metaphor apply to our creative work?

There are certain things that never change in our artistic lives. There will be people who love our work and let us know. And there will be people who don’t care for our work, and they are eager to let us know it.

When things are slow at art fairs and fine craft shows, exhibitors often gather in small groups to chat and compare notes. One of the most popular topics is the rude things visitors say about our work.

When someone attacks our artistic skills, process, subject matter, integrity, how we choose to respond says much about us.

Instinct kicks in:

Our first response is usually surprise: “Wha…?”

Our second is disbelief: “Why would you even say that?!”

The third is anger: “Why, you…!!!!”

These are normal, human responses, hardwired in us to protect us from danger. And when someone goes out of their way to be offensive, when all they have to do is simply walk away and go find work they like better, this can register in our lizard brain as “dangerous”.

If we respond instinctively, we jack up the heat.

Instead, in the long run, it’s better to “stay cool” and apply ice.

The thing is, there are many reasons people say such things:

Curiosity: Your work is “speaking” to them, though they may not be sure why. They want to know more.

Ignorance: They don’t know what they’re looking at, nor where it fits in their world.

Entitlement: “I will be the judge of your worthiness.”, “I am a better artist than you!”

Envy/Insecurity: “I can’t sit with the fact that YOU are an artist at this show, and I’m not!”

Antagonism/conflict lovers: They are deliberately looking to start a fight.

When we are attacked, we look for ways to defend ourselves.

There are groups on Facebook and other social media that relish this challenge. Everyone shares their awful stories about the horrible things toxic people have said. And everyone shares their funny/slamming/mocking responses in return.

We do this to minimalize the damage to our own ego. We find sympathy and support in our peer group. We share and memorize witty or snarky ways to respond, or even ask/tell them to leave our booth. Hurrah! We showed them!

I love reading the stories and the comments, and responses. I’m human, too!

But years ago, when I first started out, I sensed something “off” with this approach. It felt “hot”, and we were focusing on how to make it “hotter”.

It put me in a hard placeI felt encouraged to be my worst self, too.

I don’t want to believe people are deliberately cruel. I don’t want to be on the defensive. Taking the offensive feels like falling to their level. And it all circled around to watching out for the next attack.

Not a happy place for an artist to be. I don’t like who I am when I get in that space. All the joy I get from making my work is siphoned off.

Starting out in my industry, I was fortunate. I had the benefit of people who took a higher road, and a more effective approach. They generously shared their tact, and tactics, ways to take the conversation to a more productive place.

They showed me the power of “staying cool.”

There are ways to frame our responses that a) reduce the heat in the conversation; b) show that we can stay calm and centered; c) show mercy for the folks who truly didn’t mean to insult us; d) keep the conversation going on a better plane, or shut it down gently; e) remind us that other people are listening.

 When someone says, “My son makes these!” we can respond with, “That’s lovely! What shows does he do?” or “What galleries is he in?”

When someone says, “I just don’t think these are very well-made.” We can respond with, “My work is not for everyone, but the people who do like it, love it very much.”

When someone says, for the millionth time, “What are these made of?”, that’s an opportunity to expand the conversation and/or show them the sign that explains my process. (Because this gentle, well-intention question is actually them giving me permission to talk with them, and help them go deeper into my work.)

Everything changed when I stopped being annoyed by customer resistance to “plastic clay” and shared the reaons why I chose it as my medium.

Instead of being annoyed by folks who questioned my choice of media,

I promoted its advantages for my work. It worked!

If someone complains about our prices being too high, we may hear “Your work isn’t worth it.” But what they might be saying is, “I love it, but I will never be able to afford it.” (My great layaway plan can help here!)

The times I’ve had to deflect very toxic people when there are other people in my space, after the VTP leave, my other visitors always say, “WOW, you were so gracious with that *******!”

My main reason for choosing to respond this way? I feel like I’m being my highest, best self.

It’s really hard. But it’s its own reward. I’m not knocked off my pedestal (for very long, anyway), I gain the respect of my real customers, and I show that it’s okay to ask a question that might appear awkward/ignorant–because I will do my best to respond with respect and a peaceful heart.

In fact, often after an incident like this, everyone else in the room opens up with their own questions. I’ve shown I welcome the engagement, and I won’t easily take offense if they “phrase it wrong.” I’ve created a safe environment for them, and they can relax and open up.

 Truth is, truly angry/envious/aggressive people are looking for a fight. But we don’t have to automatically give them one. As a friend told me years ago, “You don’t have to go to every fight you’re invited to!”

If you do shows where you encounter a lot of these people, consider that you might be in the wrong shows.

If you believe your work is worth every penny of your prices, be prepared to show how much effort, time, and skill goes into it.

Forgive the nay-sayers. Forgiveness isn’t about letting them off the hook, or ignoring what they’re doing. It’s a way of letting us off the hook. We can stand back and realize we did not deserve their ire, and we don’t have to hold on to it. As I read in an old notebook last night, “Don’t let anyone else’s opinion of you become your reality.”

Of course, this assumes you want to be a force for good in the world. That you care about who you are and what you do. That you are constantly trying to be better at it.

When it comes to dealing with difficult people, just remember: Ice is your best friend.

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TRUNK SHOW

I’d never done a trunk show before. You know me–that was all the excuse I needed to over-think and over-prepare!

But I think it was a successful event. You can see the photos of my set-up here.

Here are some of the things I considered as I pulled my display together:

1) A trunk show means you bring EVERYTHING.

But it can’t look like everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink, either. I still wanted a cohesive display. So I set out several “series” of jewelry and grouped them accordingly. I had plenty more samples in reserve.

2) It should look different than a craft show booth.

My artist-of-the-month display looks a lot like my fine craft booth. It’s a formal display, an in-depth look at my work in a museum-like setting.

But I wanted my trunk show to look like just that–like I’d traveled to the show, bringing a personal collection of items for my customers’ enjoyment. I even asked for a few chairs, so that people could sit and talk as I worked.

3) It should still be obvious what you’re selling.

One of the drawbacks of a totally creative display is, sometimes you can’t tell what people are selling. How many times have you walked by a booth at a show filled with wonderful props and eclectic display–only to wonder what the heck they’re selling??!! (Hint: If people keep trying to buy your display pieces, those display pieces are TOO interesting!)

I got around this by sticking to the vintage suitcases as my only “prop”. The rest of the display featured traditional black steel jewelry display pieces–earring holders, necklace holders, etc.

I also confined my larger, bolder, more elaborate pieces to the suitcase display. The smaller, simpler pieces went on the traditional display fixtures, where they were able to be seen more easily.

People did ask about the suitcases, but they also stuck around longer to enjoy the entire show. Because the pieces were simply “laid out”–not elaborately draped and swagged–the message was still clear: “It’s okay to touch!”

4) Give people a reason to hang out.

At a craft show, there may be thousands of people coming with the intent to see as much as they can. If they like my work and my booth, they enter. Then they are in “my world”.

It can be harder when you’re simply a display in a store. Right next to your table are examples of a dozen other artists’ work!

I decided to do make up some simple necklaces featuring my artifacts and torch work with sterling silver wire. This gave even casual observers an excuse to hang out, watch and ask questions.

5) It’s only your time. Have fun!

To quote Greg Brown, “Time ain’t money when all ya got is time.” (From “Just a Bum”

Yes, my time is valuable, but it wasn’t like I was paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars to be there at the gallery that day. It was a nice, relaxed opportunity to introduce new people to my work.

So by keeping my expectations low, my presentation skills high, by keeping myself busy even during slow times (but totally available during busy times) I ended up having a great time, acceptable sales and met some amazing new collectors of my work!

Trunk display for my trunk show!
Trunk display for my trunk show!

NEW TO SHOWS, WHERE DO I START??

I’m going to be very lazy today, and share a post I made recently on a crafts forum.

A craftsperson posted that they were thinking about doing some shows. She was at a loss on where to begin designing a booth. Was there such a thing as a “booth designer” she could hire?

Someone responded that there are companies who design major exhibits for corporations and such, and perhaps one would be willing to freelance.

But probably not. I wish there were such services available to folks in our budget range. There’s a magazine devoted to the trade show industry called Exhibitor Magazine. Unfortunately, it’s geared to companies whose trade show budgets begin at “up to $50,000” up to “over $1,000,000”.

The exhibit industry is geared toward displays manned by a team of people, setting up in huge indoor convention halls, and reconfiguring the entire display every couple years.

Consequently, anyone involved in that industry will probably not understand that most of us start out budgeting perhaps a tenth of that figure, maybe even less. They may not understand why your set-up has to be windproof, or how it will fit into your station wagon. They may be aware of poster services and display that start at hundreds and thousands of dollars. But they won’t be able to tell you why velcro ties are more cost-effective than zip ties.

But the magazine is still kinda fun to look through, it’s free, and some of the articles are good reads. A few months ago, it featured one of the best articles on fire safety/fire retardant booth materials I’ve ever read.

And it’s nice to know that sometimes even folks with exhibit budgets of tens and hundreds of thousand dollars still get to a show and realize their booth is too tall for the venue….

Other forumites mentioned Bruce Baker’s CD on Booth Display and Merchandising and I also highly recommend his CD. If, after listening to his CD and rolling through my Good Booths Gone Bad design series, you still have questions, you could ask Bruce for consult. And no, it’s not free, but it will be great advice.

The problem is, we can all tell you what to do and what not to do. It will still feel like (as I always say) someone handed you a pamphlet on driving laws, four tires and a seat belt and told you to design your car.

Ultimately, only you know all your needs and all your trade-offs, what you are willing to scrimp on and what you are willing to throw money at, what you are willing to put up with, what you won’t.

I feel your pain if you carry multiple lines. I have to have solid wall space for wall hangings, some sort of shelves for small sculptures, and cases for jewelry. No simple solutions there!

My best advice is to echo what another poster said, and start looking at other booths with a critical eye. Look at what people use for lighting, what tent they use, etc.

If vendors are not busy, most will be happy to offer you a suggestion or give you a source for their displays. But please–try not to treat them as a walking resource center, though. One of my (many) pet peeves is the people who try to “pick my brain” about everything in my booth. Especially in front of customers. I’ve paid good money to be at that show, and my primary focus is making enough money so I can keep doing my artwork. Be considerate of the artists’ time, unless they actually say they don’t mind talking with you.

Once you have a general idea of what might work for you, you can either search other online forums, and ask people’s opinions about things like tent choices, etc. Or you can ask to be directed to specific sites and displays for your product. For example, jewelry artist Rena Klingenberg has created an amazing website with tons of good information and advice about photographing, displaying and selling jewelry.

When you’ve narrowed your choices down, you can even look for artists who are selling off parts of their booth and display. I’ve bought lots of stuff at very reasonable prices from folks who were updating their booth or getting out of the business. For example, ProPanels has a section on their forums for artists selling or renting their ProPanel walls.

And last, don’t be afraid to make mistakes! Trying to get it “perfect” the first time will frustrate and exhaust you. (I know, because that’s what I do!) Try to just do “good enough”, then see what works and what doesn’t. You can always sell the ideas that don’t work to another new exhibitor. And new booth/tent/display stuff is coming out all the time, too.

I would come up with a snappy ending to this post, but Bunster is chewing through my jeans hem. Her latest way of letting me know she wants to be petted. I would teach her to use email, but then I’d have to give her access to my computer. And we all know where that would lead: Mystery boxes of jelly beans, purchased on Ebay, arriving at my doorstep daily.

P.S. In response to Rena Klingenberg’s wonderful suggestions in the comments section, here’s an article I wrote for the April issue of The Crafts Report on how I learned the hard way I was never going to win a Best Booth award.

VACATION MODE–OFF! Sunburn, Island Dogs and Fire Safety

We’re back from our very first Caribbean family vacation. We spent a week on the Turks and Caicos islands. And yes, it’s as beautiful as it looks in the pictures.

My sun-lovin’ husband is happy, happy, happy, but despite avoiding the sun between 10 and 3, applying not one but two layers of sunblock (we’re talking zinc oxide here, people) and staying in the shade, I managed to get so sunburned I needed medical intervention. I love the idea of a tropical island, but I’m afraid I could never really survive on one.

Most people come back from the islands with seashells, or maybe a t-shirt. We came back with a potcake puppy.

We actually adopted our little sweetie (a male–we’re still arguing over names) from the Turks & Caicos SPCA. The folks there arranged every single detail of our adoption and transportation of this pup, and another one who will be eagerly welcomed at our own local animal shelter.

Our Monadnock Human Society has had such incredible success with their spay and neuter program that we actually have a shortage of mixed-breed dogs available for adoption in the region. The TCSPCA, on the other hand, is desperate to find homes for these abandoned dogs. They already have connections with other shelters in the U.S. We’re hoping this newest connection with our local shelter will result in more wonderful new homes for these amazing island dogs.

Traveling with these two puppies through three airports, customs, immigration, one delayed flight and a long layover, was a piece of cake. Many airport personnel were familiar with the dogs; you haven’t lived til you’ve seen a stern and proper customs official melt at the sight of one of these pups. One former islander laughed heartily and said, “Yah, we say ‘potcake’, but you say ‘MUTT’!” That’s exactly what they are, of course, lovable, affable mutts.

People unfamiliar with them cannot believe how relaxed and happy the puppies were. They really are mellow, loving dogs, and we hope more can find their way to the states.

And to get right back to business, here is this excellent article on fire safety for your booth by Candy Adams in Exhibitor magazine. It’s one of the best I’ve seen on the subject, and though it’s written for “the big guys” at major trade shows, it offers good insight and clarity for us artists/craftspeople and our more humble booths.

HOT TIP 4 PROPANEL OWNERS

I’m all set up for the League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair–our 75th!! (yay!!!) It’s going smoothly so far, which I hope means I’ve finally experienced enough booth emergencies in my life to be ready for anything.

I broke down and invested in MD Propanels a few years ago, and though I’ve managed to have some “emergencies” with them, too, they have still made my show life infinitely easier.

Now they’ve added a cool new add-on called Quick Shelves which I highly recommend.

Why, can’t you already order Propanels with shelves, you may ask? Yes! But you have to specially order which panels you want made with the slots inside for the shelves and shelf brackets. And if you are like me, plan and plan as you might, you can never actually tell exactly where you want the damn shelves to go. So you set up your booth and either a) lose track of which panels have the slotted things in them and get them in the wrong place, or b) keep track of them and get them in the right place, but change your mind.

With the Quick Shelf, you can either mount the shelf as you put up a panel (any panel); or you can set up your booth, decide where you want the shelves, and go back and put the shelf in. (My method, of course!) (Are you surprised??)

I’m not sure how much weight they’re rated for. But when they’re installed, any weight pushes the bracket more firmly into the wall. So I believe they’re pretty sturdy.

I think they’re great, and I think you will, too!

Not affiliated with MD Propanel, just another happy customer.

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #25: Booth Evolution

Folks, there will be typos…

But I can’t resist sharing this great article by Bruce Baker in the latest issue of THE CRAFTS REPORT.

In the February 2008 issue, Bruce shows the actual evolution of a typical craft show booth, from those typical craft table displays and blank walls to a sleek booth that really highlights the work.

I’ve sat through a lot of BB seminars, and I’ve seen a lot of his examples of “beautiful booths” and “creative display” in his presentation. I thought I was breaking form by being a “plain vanilla” girl when it comes to booth display.

So I’m delighted to see the points I made in my GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD series echoed and put so succinctly…

“Beautiful” and creative” should NOT apply to your booth at the expense of your WORK. (sorry for all the drama bold & such, but this is a message I want to keep driving home.)

Now, there are still a few things I’d change in the booth. But it’s still a much stronger presentation than the earlier versions, and this article shows that clearly.

I think you can buy single issues from TCR if you don’t already subscribe.

p.s. Hey, if you look on that table of contents page again, you’ll see my latest artcile for TCR, too. (Not a blatant plug, but geez, a girl’s gotta earn a living…)

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #24: When “Perfect” Isn’t Good Enough

Sometimes perfecting the best booth you have isn’t good enough. Sometimes having the best booth, period, isn’t good enough.

What I mean by the first statement is, sometimes we get stuck trying to perfect something that isn’t the best solution in the first place.

Take my search for the “perfect track lighting.” I constantly worked, reworked and replaced my track lighting for my booth. I experimented with light bars, cross bars, looked for more reliable systems and flexible lamps.

I finally got to the point where I realized I hate track lighting. It’s just not the best solution for my booth. The last two shows, I didn’t use any track lighting at all–just gooseneck clamp-on halogen lamps. They are easier for me to ship/pack/set-up and have fewer things to go wrong (fewer electronic connections, for one thing!)

Or my search for the “perfect table display”. My very first booth set-ups included those dreaded folding tables I’ve been harping on throughout this series. I experimented with different drapes and decorations. I tried to make them taller. Then bought narrower tables–before realizing I was never going to get them into my little car. And I was never going to get the professional-looking display I needed with them. I invested in Dynamic Display cases, sometimes augmented with Abstracta, and never looked back.

Then there was my search for the “perfect pipe-and-drape walls”. I struggled with various fabric walls–purchased pipe-and-drape, making my own drapes, adding various shades and blinds to make them stiffer and more stable for displaying my wall hangings. The happiest day of my life was the first day I set up my new Propanel walls.

So sometimes you have to persevere to find the right working version of something for you. But sometimes you just have to start over with something totally different.

Then again, sometimes even that perfect booth isn’t enough.

In 2007, I did two wholesale shows with my “perfect booth.” Okay, I know it’s still not perfect in many ways, but it was beautiful and got rave reviews. The display fell away, the work stood out, and was well received.

But I had the right work at the wrong show. Or the wrong work at the right show, if you want to look at it that way. I had de-emphasized my jewelry to promote my fiber work. It didn’t work.

You can have the best booth in the whole world. But if you have not targeted the right market for your work, you will not do well.

If you don’t do a preshow mailing to your audience, they won’t know you’re there.

If your work is high-end, and the show is low- to mid-end, they will not buy.

If your work is contemporary, and the show is country/folk, they will not buy.

If you specialize in Christmas decor and it’s a retail show in spring, you probably will not do well.

If your work is a little pricey and unusual and not a gift product, you may not do well at Christmas shows.

So what’s a craftsperson to do?

Stick with it. Observe. Learn. Get better.

And laugh.

No one said it would be easy. If it were, everyone would be doing it!

You keep doing it because you believe in your work, and you believe there are people out there who will love it as much as you do.

You try this, you experiment with that, you tweak this and you replace that. You work hard to get into that dream show, that perfect show for your work. And a few years later, you struggle to find the courage to leave that “perfect show” that is no longer the best marketing strategy for your work.

There is no “finish line” you cross where you finally realize you’ve made it. There is no final formula for success.

There is only another exciting challenge ahead of you.

The downside? It can be exhausting.

The upside? It’s good for you! Aimee Lee Ball writes about “THE NEW & IMPROVED SELF-ESTEEM” in the January 2008 issue of OPRAH magazine. Research shows that the brain grows more neurons when challenged. By struggling to figure this stuff out, we get smarter, and more competent.

So don’t despair if it all seems like too much sometimes. Remember–this is IQ training for your LIFE.