THE GIFT OF RISK: Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone Has Its Own Rewards

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.

Rewards, Insight, Setbacks, and …K…K….courage, all this can be yours!

Painting on glass for an out-of-my-comfort-zone book project ultimately led to this new body of work.

As I typed the title to this column, I realized I almost had an acronym! But I couldn’t think of a “k” word except “kindness”. Maybe spell “courage” with a k??? Aw, what the heck, let’s put both in there!

Last week, I shared my story about “luck”, and how we can make ourselves ‘luckier’.  I told how setting aside my expectations of being paid for everything I do opened doors I never even knew were there.

I shared the rewards of that risk, which expand even into today:

  • I had my work published and made visible before the internet made that easy.
  • I created fun projects that not only were well-paid, but upped my own skill set: Using vintage buttons to make distinctive jewelry. Painting on glass, which (I only realized after writing that article) paved the way for a new series of work. I’m painting cave art images on my handmade faux ivory medallions.
  • I wrote and illustrated the first mass-market craft book on carving soft vinyl stamps.
  • I met amazing people, who were a powerful, wonderful presence in my life for years. And I continue to do so! (It turns out our dentist here in California pulled out her stamp carving book to make her annual handmade holiday cards, saw my name on the cover, and realized I was her patient!) (Yes, I autographed her copy.)
  • I’ve bought old copies of my book (which is now out of print) to sell to students who take my stamp-carving classes.

Another big reward from taking a risk deserves its own list: Insight.

  • We cannot control everything in life. Not even close! But “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is a powerful insight. Here’s my favorite joke about that, but be forewarned, there’s a naughty word in there!
  • If you look back to my previous article, where two Mary’s had vastly different lives, then you will understand the power of ‘framing’, what we pay attention to and what we choose to let go of.
  • I found out what works and what doesn’t work, when it comes to choosing shows. I have respect for the wisdom of “never do a first-year show”….!
  • Not all rewards in life are about money.
  • It takes courage to pursue your dream, patience for it to build into something profitable, and a sense of self-worth to keep it somewhere in your life, even if it doesn’t work as your paying job.
  • There will always be people who will be uplifted by our work—professionally, emotionally, spiritually.

Now for the downside: Setbacks!

  • Not everyone is your friend. There will always be people who are deeply threatened by us, and our work. It’s taking less time for me to suss them out, thank goodness! (Thank you, The Nibble Theory!)
  • Not all shows are as well-managed as others. After all, show organizers/promoters make money on a show even if vendor sales are awful. (Of course, they can’t continue to be successful if their vendors aren’t. Still, there are always people like me who are willing to try….)
  • Hard financial times (9/11, war in the Middle East, the dot.com crash, the stock market crash of 2008, etc.) are especially hard on art and fine craft markets. Art is considered a luxury, not a need. (Debatable, of course) It can feel very personal, like ‘we are doing it wrong’. Many, many people in the industry—artists, craftspeople, show runners, galleries, etc.—suffered mightily in those years, and many never recovered. Many folks took wild chances, shifted strategies, tried desperately to hang on, where sometimes just hunkering down and waiting out the storm made more sense.

The danger of setbacks is, it’s all too easy to give them a major role in our decision-making. Once burned, twice shy, etc. Yes, it’s simply good sense not to keep sticking your hand in the fire.

Otoh (on the other hand), not all failures are useless. As good ol’ Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

So here’s that word again: Courage! (I almost went off on a bunch of metaphors based on Tennyson’s poetry, but I spared you. You’re welcome!)

Courage was a relatively new concept for me, as a child. Oh, I had exercised it a few times as a young adult, but always in pursuit of a dream. Going back to school, getting a teaching degree, even traveling across the country looking for work in the 1980’s recession.

But when I took up my art in my forties, I exercised courage in a sustained manner for years, viewing each setback as a valuable lesson learned, and always, always continuing to move forward. Even moving across the country in our 60’s was a monumental act of courage. Sometimes I’m still surprised we did it, though I don’t regret it for a minute. (Well. A few minutes….)

It takes courage for me to write these articles. I get paid a nominal sum, far less than when I wrote for magazines even 15 years ago. But though it doesn’t bring in a big income, it fills my need to share what I’ve learned, and expands my audience weekly. (Thank you, faithful readers!!!)

In fact, all my writing comes from sticking with it, even when it felt like nobody cared. Because…

It mattered to me.

It’s a risk. When I put my work/words out there, I want them to serve someone else as it served me. I hope it reaches someone who needs to hear that story, today. I’m delighted when people say it did. I love it when people pass it on to someone else, who may also need to hear it.

And yet, there are setbacks, too. There is always someone who thinks we’re “doing it wrong”, and they never overlook a chance to let us know that.  There are people who are offended by my titles, fercryin’outloud.  There are those who believe there is nothing worth doing for free, and those who believe my writing is toxic.

Still, I persist.

And now, here comes kindness….

My art, and my writing, have taught me to practice kindness even…or especially… to the naysayers, the contradicters, the folks who seem to be looking for a fight.

It felt impossible at first. It’s obvious my work is not for them, and that’s okay. The kind thing to do, of course, is for them to simply stop reading, or to delete it, or move on to the next studio on the tour.

But I’m learning. Like the people who call pastels “just chalk”, or the people who claim fiber is not an art medium, etc. they are where they choose to be. Yep, maybe even doing the best they can.

By responding with as much kindness as I can muster, I can let go. I am restored to the person I want to be in the world. My risk—putting my work out there to be criticized or ridiculed, is offset by the knowledge someone else is grateful I did take that risk.

And that makes it all worthwhile.

In the end, the choice is ours. We can play it safe. We can avoid risks, ditch change, never step outside our comfort zone.

It’s up to you. I can’t even pretend to think I know better than you. As I always say, if this doesn’t work for you, don’t do it!

I can only share what’s lifted my heart, write what’s helped me move forward, what restores me to my better self.

What risk have you taken that’s moved you forward? What did you learn when it didn’t work out? Remember, both are valuable, and both are worth sharing!

What’s Luck Got To Do With It? The True Meaning of Luck

What’s Luck Got To Do With It? The True Meaning of Luck

Luck = Preparation plus persistence plus opportunity.

This is one of my favorite personal stories….

Years ago, I belonged to a discussion forum (remember them?!) of stamp carvers. We used soft vinyl materials used in erasers (sort of a really soft linoleum, not as slippery) to make our work. Our skills ranged from newbies to people who actually worked as book illustrators.

It was a lively, talented group, supportive of each other, full of suggestions, materials testing, and inspiration.

One day, an editor from a craft book publishing company* joined our group. They announced they were looking for “gallery images” of our work, to feature in their latest craft book. (Aka, “a call to artists”, defined by AmericansfortheArts.org as “A Call for Artists is an opportunity notice that gives artists the information they need to know in order to apply to be considered for the project. Issuing a Call for Artists is a standard practice of the public art field.”

At first, people were thrilled. But then reality set in: We would have our work published, with credits. But we would not be paid.

People ranted about this, even though I later found out it is a common practice in the art-and-craft book industry. In the end, only a handful of us submitted work.

There were guidelines and deadlines, which we all met. The results? Our work was published! It felt pretty good to own such a book, it was wonderful to be able to say, “Look, my work was featured in this book!” The validation was powerful.

A few months later, the editor submitted another call for entries. The same little group responded, and the rest of the group continued to gripe. “It’s not fair that we aren’t paid for our work!” I figured I’d never made a cent from my prints—they were always for myself or a gift for someone. So nothing + nothing didn’t seem too awful.

And now our work was featured in two books!

This continued for about a year. Even the little group dwindled a bit, but I loved the “exposure”. I know the saying, “Artists die from too much exposure!” In this case, I still owned my stamp and held copyrights to my images, so what the heck?

I developed a relationship with this editor, a talented artist in their own right. We became friends. It helped that they loved my work! But they also appreciated the fact that I made their job easier. I met deadlines, my work was different from other people’s work, and whenever they called, I dropped what I was doing to talk with them.

Eventually, they asked if I would like to submit project for other books. (Multi-media work gave me an edge! I could do stamps, fiber, collage, jewelry, etc.) Over the next few years, my work appeared in around a dozen books published by Lark Books.

At one point, I got a call to submit a painted glass project. I said, “Oh, gosh, no, that’s too far afield for me!” They said that was fine, they had other people in line, including one person who was shipping a lot of painted glass pieces.

About six weeks later, they called in a panic. That person’s shipment had arrived totally smashed, the final deadline was looming, and that artist couldn’t possibly create enough new pieces in time. Could I, would I pleeeeeeeeeeze pretty please make a piece?

Of course, I said yes.

I found some stacking clear glass plates, in three different sizes at a thrift shop, traced images of my Lascaux series stamp carvings on the bottoms, and painted them with acrylic paints. Soon I had a ring of red stags and running horses on them. It looked pretty cool, if I do say so myself! (Sadly, one broke years later, and I gave the rest to a friend before we moved to California.)

You can imagine how grateful my editor was!

Sure enough, in a few months, they reached out to me again. They wanted to publish the first mass-market craft book on rubberstamp carving.

And they wanted ME to write it!

Let’s make this big enough so you can see my name!  :^)

Now, there were other stamp carvers who were more skilled than I was. There was a well-known stamp carver who had already self-published a beautiful little booklet on the same. I actually recommended that person for the job, and reached out to them, too. I didn’t want to step on any toes or disrespect their efforts, or this opportunity.

But they were not interested! “I am just not up to that!” they replied. “I can’t commit to all the deadlines, the amount of work….  Thank you for reaching out, but you do it, with my blessings!”

And so I did.

It was an amazing experience. I was assigned another editor, and they were amazing, too. It was a long process, with me writing the intro, all the lessons, carving stamps illustrating all the “stages” of stamp carving production, and compiling the resources section.

Lark Books flew me to their headquarters in Asheville, North Caroline, so I could be photographed “carving” stamps. (That is, my hands were photographed! Yes, I am now a hand model!) (Er….not anymore, actually.) I got to meet both editors, I got to explore Asheville (the first time I’d ever seen outdoor seating at restaurants!), and….

I am now a published author.

Thanks to this opportunity, I was the first person to write a mass-market book on rubberstamp carving. There have been more (and some of my work appeared in one of them), and they are even better, more on-trend.

But here’s the lesson:

When it came time for the gallery section, I reached out again to that same discussion group, inviting them to submit their work for inclusion.

The response?

“You’re writing a book on stamp carving?? You’re SO LUCKY!!”

*Thanks and a hat tip to Katherine Aimone and Joanne O’Sullivan of Lark Books. I am forever grateful for the opportunities you provided to make this all happen!

 

P.S. I got a few grumpy comments on this article, from people complaining I was giving my work away. I wasn’t. I got free publicity by submitting work to the book galleries, I was paid very well for the projects, and I received a decent advance for the book I wrote.  Did I get rich? Nope. Not much of the work I do pays very well, and that’s even more true today. But it was enough, it was enjoyable, I met amazing people, and it broadened my horizons in uncountable ways. I’m grateful, and I’m glad I did it!

Thank you, a class, and an invitation!

Third… Come see our group show PaleoMythic: Modern Myths from Ancient Sources. Five artists working with ancient imagry and stories, at Backstreet Gallery, 312 S. A Street, down Art Alley.

This show is hosted by Suzanne Edminster of Saltworks Studio. The Opening reception is THIS FRIDAY, May 4, from 5-8 pm. (I will be there, so I won’t be in my studio.)

The show is unusual and beautiful, exceeding all our expectations. I hope you can join us!

Horse image from the Lascaux Cave.

A list of events around this show. Artist talk on May 27!

LESSONS LEARNED FROM KNEE SURGERY

Here’s my latest article from the August issue of The Crafts Report.

Please send rum.

If you want to read it without a picture of my knee, here it is:

WHY IS THE RUM ALWAYS GONE? Life Lessons Learned from Knee Surgery

By the time you read this, I will may be dancing inching gingerly down the streets of Keene to a Zumba band, double-time the wheeze of a small kazoo. But in my timeline, I’m one week out from knee replacement surgery. I know, that’s just not funny. I’ll try to make it up to you.

My daughter phoned me while was at the hospital. I told her about a run-in I’d had with a very grumpy ok, a tired and probably underpaid grumpy night employee. (Sorry, I fought the lizard brain and the lizard brain won.)

Robin stopped me, exclaiming, “MOM!! Never complain about the hospital staff while you’re still in the hospital!!”

Wow, right! Never complain about the people you depend on to help you to the bathroom. Wait until you’re out of striking distance, then make fun of them. Um. Okay, so what else did I learn from my stay?

The next lesson, learned painfully from an over-zealous physical therapist, was, if what you’re doing hurts enough to make you cry, stop doing it. Yes, good results are worth the effort, and it takes diligence to do the things that are good for you. But if it hurts way way WAY too much, seek a second opinion.

Think of all the strategies for success we try, to build our own craft biz. Hard work, dedication, persistence. Sometimes our challenges are rewarded. But some are harsh, destructive, unnecessary or downright mortifying. (Sometimes jury processes and art critiques turn into free-for-alls and get scary.) There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for success. Know your limits, and respect them.

On the other hand, don’t sell yourself short. The encounter with said grumpy person started with an argument about a mysterious cut on my lip, which she insisted was a disgusting cold sore, and I insisted was a mysterious little cut on my lip. (Later another attendant reassured me it was probably from the breathing tube inserted during surgery.)

Determined to win the grump over with good will (my defense? I was on drugs, remember?) I asked her about her work. She told me, then she asked about mine. I told her I was a craftsperson. She asked what my work was like, so gave her my elevator speech (fabric/collage/ prehistoric artifacts/etc.). Instead of the interest that usually sparks, she turned to me and exclaimed incredulously, “Who in New Hampshire would ever buying anything like that??!”

She caught me so off-guard, I laughed out loud. Did she think I used plastic red and green dinosaurs? I dunno.

So the little lesson was, never argue with a grump, especially if you can’t get away fast.

But I also remembered, just in time, my big lesson: Believe in yourself.

When I first started out years ago, I asked myself that very question every single day: Who will ever buy this?? Am I crazy??

It was a guaranteed work-stopping, creativity-stunting, happiness-busting question to ask myself. It never failed to bring me down.

The best thing I ever did?

I learned to stop asking it.

Believe in your vision. Let your work find its own audience. Make the best work you can do, and then make it better—so when success does find you, it will find you at your very shiny best.

Let the nay-sayers find someone else to pick on. Try, try to refrain from tripping them as they pass you by.

So why is the rum always gone? Because a) you can’t have rum while you’re on pain-killers (drat!) and b) knowing you were sofa-ridden and couldn’t run after them, everyone else drank it already.

But again, by the time you read this, pain killers will be history. So send me your rum!

ART FOR ONE PERSON

HOW DO WE MEASURE THE VALUE OF ART?

Whether it’s for one person, or millions, your art matters.

I belong to a new guild in Keene, the Creative Professionals Guild of New Hampshire. I’ve never thought of myself as a ‘commercial artist’ and I don’t always enjoy groups. But there was good energy in the group, and it was a chance to meet different people, interesting people. I realized some of my writing gigs fit the bill as a ‘creative professional’. So here I am, getting ready for an upcoming exhibit at a local bakery/coffee shop in town, writing press release, advising people on their artist bios and tag lines. (I have a knack. Who knew?!)

I was talking to one of the group members yesterday. Roma Dee is an amazing young woman. Not only is her photography good–she’s really really skilled at capturing what she calls ’emotional moments’, at weddings and in portraits–she’s also a delightful woman whose gentle leadership skills rallied u to put on our first show. Even-handed, even-tempered, ready to laugh at the drop of a hat, she’s been a joy to work with.

We talked about her business, the nature of marketing to a small, time-sensitive, targeted group of people (brides) and the nature of art. (Bear with me here.)

We all have strong ideas of what art is, and like porn, we think we know it when we see it. Modern art forms, and modern ways of marketing it, make the definition more fluid. Is photography art? If so, is digital photography art? What does ‘art’ mean when ‘anybody can do it’? When the materials are cheap, or easily accessible, or not even ‘desirable.’ (Something polymer artists run into a lot. Face it, I make plastic horses.)

Roma talked about this and her chosen career, and then she said something effin’ brilliant.

She said she loves to do portraits and weddings. Yet these subjects do not lend themselves easily to art shows, and galleries. They are often only meaningful for the people involved, but perhaps not for a ‘general public.’

“But,” she added in the next breath, “It’s art to that one person.”

It’s art, but only for that one person. Or maybe it’s not ‘art’ (for everyone), but it’s definitely art to that one person.

So….is it art, if only one person cares about it?

In my mind….YES!!

In our modern culture, we can look to the past for our definition of ‘art’ and even ‘great art’. There are the works–usually painting, or sculpture. Work like the Mona Lisa. (Not to be too flippant, but most of what we consider ‘real art’ is stuff made by dead European white guys.)

Sometimes it can be work of ‘lesser media’ of great historical and cultural significance–that have endured the test of time. The Bayeux Tapestry. Grecian urns.

Millions know them and love them. Everyone agrees it’s art.

If we look to more recent examples, we look to the measure of fame and money. Picasso. Pollack. Warhol. And even more about fame and money, even less about original work, Richard Prince and Shepard Fairey.

When….did fame and money become the only measures of what is art?

When….did artists have to die before they could achieve fame and respect?

When…did we begin to consider how many other people like what we do, to determine if what we make is ‘real art’?

Roma said she did a portrait of a child, and her mother cried when she saw it. There was something in the moment Roma captured, the emotional content, that moved that one person to tears. (In a good way.)

That….is art.

Yes, there’s good art, and mediocre art. Sometimes even downright appalling art. Sometimes it’s popular, sometimes it’s not.

Yes, we all crave to speak to a larger audience. We all yearn to know our work is wanted, valued, admired. We may wish enough people valued our work enough for us to be able to make a living making it.

Yet sometimes, as Roma remarks, only one person will respond to it.

When we make something that resonates with someone, gets past their ordinary-life-defenses….
When it slips in and breaks their heart wide open…..
When what we create, creates that secondary moment–that awareness of something bigger, something special, something powerful, something meaningful….

Even if only that one person feels it….

That….is our blessing in life. To have that gift, and to be able to use it to make that moment in someone else’s life…..

That, in my art-making, is the one moment I live for.

There is also the moment for little chocolate cupcakes with pink icing, but that’s whole nother story. Come to our reception on April 16 and see what I mean.

RUNNING WITH DOGS

Last week I made my first little dog artifacts.

My very first little dog artifact, in faux green soapstone.

Today I have pics of my very first dog pack. I love them so much already! I stayed with a very ancient-looking prototype, with long snout, upright and slightly cocked ears, and a curly tail. The curling tail seems to be the discerning characteristic of a dog versus a wolf or coyote. I could be wrong, but I’m going with it for now.

A whole pack of ancient dogs!

Running with the dogs. For Joanne!

I also have two little otters who are different from their brethren. Their backs arch up. I think they look like they’re doing that thing kittens do, when they arch their backs and hop sideways. And look–see the tiny toes on this one’s feet??

Bouncy otters!

Otter toes!

HOW TO BE MORE PRODUCTIVE Part 1

Concrete advice on how to get more done in a hurry, with my tongue placed firmly in my cheek, published Thursday in the Fine Art Views newsletter.

One of the necklaces on exhibit at the Sharon Arts Center this month.