Don’t forget to pack joy when you travel or do a show–my latest article at Fine Art Views.
Category Archives: craft shows
My art’s bigger/better/purer than your art. So there!
Hierarchies come easily to many living creatures.
It can be a brutal process. For birds, hierarchy can mean life or death. That phrase ‘pecking order’? It’s real. I’ve lost chickens and cockatiels to the process. The bird on the lowest rung of the ladder may not get enough to eat. An even slightly injured chicken will be attacked, killed, even eaten by the rest of the flock.
We humans have hierarchies, too. Our fascination for English royalty, our obsession with celebrities, our own yearning for fame and fortune, all are social constructs based on hierarchy.
Artists and craftspeople are no exception.
People who make their own jewelry components sniff at ‘bead stringers’–people who use only purchased components in their designs. The people who do some wire work or only make their own beads, are sniffed at by silver- and goldsmiths.
Glass artists have been the top of the heap in the collecting world for several decades now. Before that, it was something else. Maybe clay. I dunno–I wasn’t in the biz then.
Fine artists look down on all crafts. Once I introduced myself to a small group as a fiber artist. “Hunh! That’s nice…” was the general response. Ten minutes later, a local oil painter’s name came up. “Now he’s a real artist!” someone in the group exclaimed.
But fine artists have their own internal order, too. Pastels are better than colored pencils, watercolors better than pastel work, acrylic paint is better than watercolor, and oils are better than acrylic.
And of course, across all media is the hierarchy of purity. Who makes money from their art, and who makes art purely for art’s sake? Who sullies their ethos for filthy lucre? Is teaching the purest form of sharing our art with the world?
It gets kinda confusing–and funny–after awhile.
If you are in a group of artists who sell their work, the mark of a ‘professional artist’ is your ability to make a living from your work. How much money you make is your achievement award. It’s proof that you are a serious, full-time artist.
Or people place you on the ladder by the prestige factor of the shows you do. Small local shows don’t count, of course. Why, they let just anybody in!
Being vetted by an organization helps, too. I’ve had people express polite interest in my work until I mention that I’m a doubly-juried member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. Suddenly, I’m treated with respect and deference.
But there’s nothing like the disdain amateurs–those who can’t-won’t-don’t sell their work–hold for an artist who actually, actively seeks sale–those artists who want to make their work and get paid for making it. The disdain the amateur holds for ‘professionals’ is huge.
They have history behind them. The word ‘amateur’ originally meant someone who pursued an activity purely for the love it of it. Now it ranks right up there with ‘dilettante’–someone who pursues an activity superficially. (ouch!) Amateurs, by definition, make their art without the requirement of making money from it. Art for Art’s sake. The purest state of making art.
The reality? Not for me to judge. It’s all good.
I’ve been everywhere on the spectrum in my career.
I began by making jewelry entirely from purchased components, and making traditional quilts. I did a very few small local shows, but mostly I gave my work away.
Then I dedicated myself to finding my own personal vision. It was a powerful step. I was grateful to even be making my art. The thought of being accepted into a show, or of someone even buying a piece, seemed too much to ask for.
As my skills and self-confidence grew, the next step was entering exhibitions across the country. Someone had told me they thought the phrase ‘nationally-exhibited artist’ sounded so wonderful, they made that their goal. I made it my goal, too. And I achieved it within a few years by methodically applying to as many opportunities as I could.
When ‘nationally-exhibited artist’ lost its luster, I turned to money as a measure of my success. It was important to me to make sales. The more money I made, the more successful I felt.
After years of making money, I wanted to be in the ‘good’ shows, the prestigious shows that look on a resume. With time and effort, I managed that, too.
And then I went back to square one.
I transitioned from focusing on these external goals, to thinking about the place in the world I occupy. I’m still selling–better than ever, in fact. But that transition came from a powerful place in my heart, and that is more important to me than ever.
Now, according to many people, I can be placed at every step in the art hierarchy. I’ve been ‘pure’, I’ve been ‘mercenary’, I’ve been ‘published/exhibited’, I’ve been hunkered down.
And yet, it’s the same work. And I am the same person.
Hierarchies evolved as a way for a species to survive. The weak, the sickly, were left to die, so that the flock/herd/group could survive.
We humans can–and do–choose differently.
We try to heal our sick. We care for the weak. We are present with the dying, to comfort them.
We’ve learned that even someone who is sick, or weak, or slow, or awkward, or fearful, or (gasp!) untalented, still has a place in the world.
And given that chance, and that place in the world, the gifts they offer can be profound and huge. At the vary least, they are happier for doing what they do.
So make your art.
Sell it, if that’s important to you. Don’t resent others if they sell theirs, and you can’t seem to sell yours.
Don’t excuse yourself by judging others. They are either on a different path, or (like me) simply in a different part of the cycle.
Recognize the hierarchy of who’s making ‘real art’ for what it is–a way to hide our jealousy of people who seem to have something we want for ourselves. A survival strategy we can choose to ignore.
Decide what you want, right here, right now.
And know that you can change your mind, any time. And do something different.
When it seems like nothing you wish for comes true, ask yourself, “Am I dreaming big enough to last a lifetime?”
(This post was originally published December 11, 2002.)
“Be careful what you wish for….” This has to be my least-favorite proverb in the world. It’s like those folktales about fools wasting silly wishes (“The Sausage“) and bargains with the devil (“The Monkey’s Paw.”) People get their wishes granted, but live to regret it.
Making wishes is dangerous business, these stories seem to warn us. You can wish for the most wonderful thing in the world and the powers that be will twist it against you. Fairies’ gold turned to dry leaves in the morning light.
It takes the very joy out of wishing, doesn’t it? And what a depressing view of the universe! “The universe likes nothing better than to give with one hand and take away with the other.” Yow!
Taken another way, though, this proverb is actually excellent advice. Instead of a dour caution, see it as an challenge to dig deep into your heart, to what you really want.
When we regret a wish we’ve been granted, it’s often because we unconsciously limited the dream before it left our heart. We down-sized it to increase our chances of getting something. We don’t allow ourselves to dream big. We’re afraid to ask for too much.
Because we don’t really believe our wishes can come true.
You can see this limiting process at work when people take their first tentative steps in their work. I did it. You’ve probably done it, too. You ask for so little. Then when you get it, it’s just not enough. Or it’s just all wrong.
Years ago, I reclaimed my artistic self. (I know, I know, it sounds like I picked up my dry cleaning….)
I didn’t ask for much. I attended a seminar for women artists. I told a roomful of strangers my dream was to make wonderful little toys—tiny dolls, knitted sheep—that you could hold in your hand and marvel at. I wanted to make things that made people happy.
It’s a nice thought. But in reality, I couldn’t imagine affecting people in a more profound way than to appeal to their sense of playfulness.
I didn’t think I had anything deeper or more substantial in me.
So I wished for a way to sell lots of my little toys. Of course, each one took a minimum of two hours to make. And I wanted to make sure they would sell, so I kept the price really low.
After doing some very small local craft shows, I got my heart’s desire. A local store requested four dozen sheep, and of course, they wanted them yesterday.
I spent the next two weeks doing nothing but knitting sheep.
At first it was fun. Each sheep was so cute! But after five in a row, the joy faltered. It was… Hmmmm… Let’s just say that knitting little sheep—lots of little sheep—gets boring fast.
After twelve, I never wanted to see another skein of cream-colored yarn again. At #24, all I could think of was, “Twenty-four down, twenty-four to go.” By #42, I was sick unto death of little knitted sheep.
And I still had to sew them up, and tie little tiny bells on each one.
I managed to squeak out all 48. And swore I’d never make another.
I kept one or two of my stash, because they are so darned cute. And also as a reminder of a lesson learned.
Because in addition to all that knitting, I messed up on figuring my wholesale price. I’d simply cut my retail price in half. So I got $5 per sheep. Ouch. I probably made less than $2 an hour, after my cost for materials.
I didn’t see this granted wish as a disappointment. Okay, I’ll be honest. At first I did.
But then I saw it as a blessing. Thank heavens I hadn’t gotten more orders!
So here’s what I learned from this experience:
I learned production work was not for me. I learned how to establish a decent wholesale price. And at least I had $240 in my pocket, enough money to finance my next endeavors. (Hint: I did NOT buy yarn to make more sheep.)
As time went by, this process occurred over and over.
More ideas and more opportunities crossed my path. Each time I’d think, “Maybe this is the thing that will take off!” They always did—just enough to buy more supplies and make my hobby pay for itself—but not in the way I’d hoped. I followed them til they either petered out or til they grew into something that took me too far away from my heart’s desire. Then I’d let go, and move on.
Along the way I learned a lot about making and selling things. I learned how to sell wholesale to retail stores. I learned about signage and display. I learned how to price my work, how to create a distinctive and original product, how to locate wholesale sources for supplies. I took my profits and reinvested them in my business.
I learned the pros and cons of building a strictly local audience. I learned the potential–and the limits–of advertising. I learned how to promote myself and my work.
I taught classes when I could, but soon learned a little teaching goes a long way for me. I’d rather make more and teach a little. (But I also found I could teach through this blog.)
Finally, I learned what I really wanted, what was truly in my heart.
If you had asked me way back then what I wanted, I would have said, “I want to make something that makes people happy.” I wasn’t digging very deep into what makes me tick.
It turns out there was a story there, a story about how my dreams were echoed in the prehistoric artwork from a cave in France. I thought about why this story was important to me, and how I was going to share that story with the world.
I found a focus and a drive I’d never experienced before. Everything I’d learned about business was now centered on getting my story and my art out into the world.
When I ran into what seemed like insurmountable difficulties, I solved them through perseverance, research and experimentation.
And I loved the entire process. Even the parts that drove me crazy. I was learning so much about myself, my art and my business.
Everything began to fall into place. Opportunities lay everywhere, more than I could take on. Doors opened, people appeared in my life, solutions beckoned.
I still experience failure, but it doesn’t stop me now. It’s a call to evaluate what I really want and whether I’m still on task to achieve it.
I see the presence of something in my life that treasures my creativity, that supports me achieving my dream.
If my true wish had been to sell lots of knitted sheep, there are business models to support that. I could have hired knitters, located a sales rep, done gift shows. But my real wish was to make something totally of myself, so fulfilling and intriguing that I would not tire of the production process; and to make something with such value and power, people would pay a lot to own one.
I had a wish big enough to last me a lifetime. That was the right wish to be granted!
Most small business experts say it can take five years to get a new business off the ground. Even the IRS recognizes that. There’s a lot of learning and failing, growth and change in five years of business….
So look at what you’re doing now. Think about your biggest, deepest wish.
Will you outgrow your current dream? Will you still love it five years from now? If my first wish had been granted five years earlier, I would have outgrown it within six months.
Are you digging deep? Get past the “nice” things to say (“I want to make people happy”) and find your true story. There’s power there.
When it seems like nothing you wish for comes true, ask yourself, “Am I dreaming big enough to last a lifetime?”
This article was originally published for Fine Art Views.
I forgot to republish this on MY blog!! My bad.
Respect Your Collectors Part 2
by Luann Udell on 12/23/2010 9:56:04 AM
This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. Luann also writes a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explores 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. 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….”
Don’t leave your early collectors behind.
Sometimes artists, in their haste to “get big”, blow off the very people who helped them get there in the first place.
In my first article in this series, I explained how I was introduced to the joys of collecting original works of art. Today I’ll show how—and why–you must honor those early supporters of your work.
In educating me how to find ‘real art’, my friend pointed out a rich source of original art in my own backyard—the prestigious Ann Arbor art fairs. These fairs are a series of 3-4 fine art and craft shows (depending on how you count them) that take place concurrently on the campus and in the town streets.
Taking my friend’s advice, I visited the shows that year with new intention—not to just be amazed and entertained by the beautiful work, but with an eye to actually owning some of it.
I was no longer an ordinary browser or casual shopper. I was an art collector! I had money in my pocket, an open heart and a passion to learn. It was a heady feeling.
There was one artist whose work I fell in love with. I spent quite a bit of time in her booth talking to her, and admiring her work. We talked about the inspiration for her charming motifs, the materials she used to create the enchanting details I loved, her lovely, delicate use of color.
She had work in a range of sizes, but she’d already sold all the pieces in my price range. “I’m just so excited, this has been a GREAT show for me!” she exclaimed. “I’m definitely coming back next year, and I’ll have lots more smaller pieces, too—they’re selling like hot cakes!”
I was pleased that someone so likeable, whose work I really liked, was having so much success. In my budding connoisseur-like mind, it confirmed my instinct to support her art. She didn’t take layaway, and this was before most artists took credit cards. But she assured me there would be ample opportunity to own one of her pieces the following year.
For that entire year, I set aside money, enough to acquire one of her smaller pieces. I kept her postcard on my bulletin board where I could look at it every day. I circled the dates for the next art fair show on my calendar.
When the happy day came, I sought her out. I had my hard-earned money in my hot little hands, all ready to buy something. I was determined to leave her booth with something this time.
To my dismay, things had changed.
Her work was bigger, for one thing. It was bigger. Much much bigger. And consequently, much more expensive, too. Not a single piece was less than several thousand dollars.
It was different. The small, intimate, intricately detailed work was gone. Strong, bold, monochromatic abstract work had replaced it.
Something else was changed, too. Her attitude.
The gushing, friendly, warm, enthusiastic emerging artist I’d met the year before was gone.
Apparently she’d been ‘discovered’. She’d had a great year, sales-wise. She’d juried into several prestigious exhibitions. She now had a following.
She was, indeed, a successful artist—one whose success had evidently gone to her head. Because she was also haughty, disdainful, and dismissive, to the point of rudeness.
She didn’t remember me. I didn’t expect her to—I knew she’d talked to hundreds, if not thousands of people in the past year. But she wasn’t apologetic (as in,“I’m sorry I don’t remember you, I meet so many people–but please refresh my memory…”) Her attitude was, “Why should I remember you?! You didn’t buy anything!”
She was scornful about her former work. “Yeah, I’m way past that stage now. I marked it down and got rid of it. I’m into this work now.” Her tone almost seemed to say, “Get over it!” She didn’t care to explain it, either. You either got it—and bought it—or she didn’t have time for you.
I inquired about smaller works. She practically sniffed. She said she couldn’t be bothered with making small pieces anymore. It was much more lucrative to make bigger pieces, and charge more.
Someone else entered the booth, someone who could obviously be taken more seriously as a prospective buyer. She turned her whole attention to them. I left her booth, crestfallen.
I kept my postcard of that artist for many years. I kept track of her progress as best I could (pre-internet days.) I’m not sure why. Maybe I was hoping for a glimpse of that sweet, more accessible, more grateful young woman I’d admired so much before. Artists change, their art changes—I got that. Maybe I was just hoping her next sea-change would be for the better.
In time, though, the memories of that last day I saw her, overshadowed the first. I tossed the card. I’ve all but forgotten her name.
At the time, I was bewildered. Now that I’m an artist, too, I can sympathize…a little.
I’m not always crazy about my older work. But I respect the fact that I loved it when I was making it, and that people that bought it, liked it, too.
I know there is more money to be made with the wall-sized fiber work. I know that I couldn’t afford my work! But I know there is worth in my smaller work, too.
I know I can’t support myself just on sales of $25 necklaces. But sometimes, when things were really tight, it was those same inexpensive items that kept the cash flow going.
I know many of those people purchased work back then for less than my wholesale prices now. Still, it was their hard-earned money, and they chose to spend it on my work.
As far as my collectors go, I appreciate what they ALL did. They all loved the work. They all believed in me. They all wanted to support my efforts. They bought something because they loved it, and they wanted it, and they felt it was worth it.
I may forget their names, but I am astonished and delighted that they have not forgotten mine. When they share a story about their piece, or even bring some of those ‘ancient works’ back in for repair or a redesign, I make a point of thanking them for collecting me from the beginning.
They are the people who helped me get where I am today. And I will never forget them for that.
Perhaps we all have days we dream of being so financially successful, so famous and respected, that we don’t have to worry about the tedious little things in life anymore.
But people who love our work, people who support us in so many ways—by purchasing it, by recommending it to their friends, by telling us what it means to them—these people are not the “tedious little things in life. They are part of the “big thing”. They are what got us to this wonderful place, a place where we can make the work we love and share it with the world.
Remember that, and you will always respect your collectors, large and small.
I’m halfway through my week-long artist-in-residency at The Balsams. It’s an absolutely beautiful place, one of the last of the “grand hotels” so popular in the 19th and 20th centuries.
This is the second year I’ve been invited to stay and teach little workshops for the guests.
It’s always a big sea change for me. Most of the year I’m usually bopping around my studio, listening to techno music, happily making my little horses and great bears and crafting the most beautiful jewelry and wall hangings I can imagine.
Then I go through utter panic preparing for the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s annual fair at Mount Sunapee Resort–digging through the barn attic for my halogen lights, my ProPanel walls, my necklace and earring stands, getting postcards printed and mailed, wailing, “Where did I stash all my extension cords??” and worrying how many trips I will need to make to carry everything up there. My booth does NOT fit into my little Subaru Forester, not by a long shot.
Then nine days at the Fair, with my long-time customers and new collectors stopping by my booth constantly, sharing their stories of the pieces they bought last year, and adding new ones to their collection. Stories of love and hope and laughter and gratitude abound. There are many tears shed, and hugs and good wishes shared. And with luck, enough sales to keep me in business another year.
Then it’s over. We break down the booth in a rush, and I immediately begin to plan and pack for my “Balsams gig”.
It’s a totally different place here. Meals are served in a beautiful ballroom, with glorious views of Dixville Notch and the surrounding forests. Countless staff members make sure every need is met, often before you are aware you even HAVE a need.
Every effort is made to keep the “real world” at bay, and provide as wonderful an experience as possible, with as little visible effort as possible. And many, many people work here to make that happen, from the incredibly talented team of chefs to the guy who found me table lamps for my class table, from the doormen who greet each arriving guest and carry their baggage to their rooms to the musicians who play during dinner and also double as sales clerks in their off-stage hours.
It’s a little daunting to be in the midst of so much luxury and service, especially when my own breakfast the last few weeks has been a box of cinnamon Pop Tarts; it seems unreal to be dressed up every day in my “artist” clothes when normally I live in cut-offs and t-shirts. It’s different to be teaching kids how to make polymer beads and buttons in between tee times and riding lessons instead of making my own art and hoping I sell enough necklaces to pay for my own riding lessons back home. My husband came up with me this year to bike and hike in the White Mountains. But he stays with friends or at local motels–because even with a reduced room rate for him, we can’t afford for him to stay here with me.
But finally, I get it.
I hear the stories behind some of the people I’ve met here and there; I hear about this one whose beloved aunt nearly died last week during surgery; a grandchild born with unbearable health issues; the person who has just finished chemo, and another recovering from debilitating injuries. Life doesn’t care who you are or how much money you make, it just happens–good and bad, wonderful and sad.
Then I remember the words of Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian, whose book of memoirs, “Composed”, was published earlier this year. She writes with dignity and respect, in words so graceful and elegant and so full of compassion, that I am moved to tears:
You begin to realize that everyone has a tragedy, and that if he doesn’t, he will. You realize how much is hidden beneath the small courtesies and civilities of everyday existence. Deep sorrows and traces of great loss run through everyone’s lives, and yet they let others step into the elevators first, wave them ahead in a line of traffic, smile and greet their children and inquire about their lives, and never let on for a second that they, too, have lain awake at night in longing and regret, that they, too, have cried until it seemed impossible that one person could hold so many tears, that they, too, keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember…
Little courtesies and small kindnesses….. They abound all around me this week.
And suddenly, I realize it isn’t about who has what and who doesn’t have enough. Suddenly, I realize that we’re all in this together, and nobody gets out alive or unshaken.
And that all we really need and crave is love, and acceptance. We all yearn for the recognition that inside each of us is something unique and wonderful that just needs a little opportunity to shine in the world.
That we all have a story to tell.
And somehow, though I don’t always understand how or why I can make that happen, that’s my job today–to help someone make something that brings a little joy, to give something that lets someone else know “I hear your story, and I care”.
It’s my job today to provide a little experience a family can treasure for years to come, and to be a small part of those memories. To share the joy that comes from making something with your own hands.
And it’s my job today to keep making art–my little horses, my great bears, my sweet birds and happy dogs–that causes someone else’s heart to leap up and want to sing, just a little, just for today.
And that’s when I know I really am at home and at peace, here at The Balsams.