I’m often asked to speak about my art. I’m good at it, too. It’s been a long journey, but I’ve become extremely comfortable sharing what is in my heart.
There is one frustration I sometimes encounter, though.
That’s the people who come up afterward and ask, “Can I make horses, too?” “Can I combine fabric and polymer, too?” The woman who exclaimed, “Oh, I love that idea! I paint gourds, and I’m going to make cave pictures on my gourds, too!”
Or the people that don’t even ask. They just start making cave ponies.
It’s not that they took my idea.
It’s that they got the wrong idea.
I know we all “copy” to some extent. I consider it a spectrum, just like any other human behavior. It ranges the gamut, from being inspired by someone else’s work (“I love that shade of blue! Hmmmm…I could make a necklace…”) to outright hacks. (Like finding your design on a shelf at T.J. Maxx or Target, and yes, that has happened to artists.)
I know I don’t own the idea of horses, the Lascaux horse, or even ancient images. It would be preposterous of me to say no one else can use these images.
I DO own my story.
And if you’ve ever listened to, or read my stories, and really heard them, you know I’m not just making little plastic horses.
I recently had a visitor to my studio, a delightful person who collects my work. We talked about her work. It’s an unusual profession, and one where many people would pick up the “hero” aspect. (I haven’t gotten her permission to write about this, so I’m being very circumspect.)
Her take was different. Deeper. More sensitive. Profound.
And when she spoke, I felt that ring of truth, that recognition of passion, that little shiver that goes down your spine when you hear deep knowledge expressed by someone from their heart.
It was her story. And it was astonishing.
If you know my story, you know my little horses represent many things to me–a childhood desire to run free, to fly, to feel the wind blowing my hair as my horse and I course across a plain together. You know it’s about the beauty of horses, the thrill of watching an animal born to run, run with all their heart. Doing what they were meant to do. Being what they were meant to be.
But they also represent choices. The choice to be the person you were meant to be. The choice to overcome fear, self-doubt and the weight of adulthood, and try something you’ve always dreamed of doing. To step into yourself, to take up your dreams, and live them. To follow the call.
And the choice to create beauty and embrace hope in the face of despair.
It boggles the mind to think that someone can hear my story.
And then copy my work.
Not just because my work is so personal and so important to me.
But because they missed the whole damn point of the story!
It’s that in YOU, is a story that only YOU can tell.
Because it is YOUR story. It happened to YOU. And it changed you–how you look at life, how you look at yourself, where you fit into the world.
Your story creates a place where, when you stand there, you are powerful. And you are beautiful, and you are whole.
How…..can anyone want to ignore their own powerful, wonderful, incredible story? And try to substitute someone else’s??
Even when your story is not about something you do, or something you make, it is still a place that YOU came to, a crossroads, YOU found yourself at, a journey YOU find yourself on.
Example: Anyone can do hospice work. It doesn’t take a “special person”. It just takes someone willing to be there. Anyone could do what I do.
But only I can tell the stories that come to me by doing it.
I know a woman who translates for the rights of an indigenous people in Brazil. She has even spoken at the United Nations. She insists she does not speak FOR them–they speak THROUGH her. She is their pipeline to a world that needs to honor their cries for help.
But the stories she tells about how they found her are incredible, and powerful.
That is why envy, and jealousy, are so destructive to creative people. To ANY of us.
Because it means we cannot see the power of our own stories.
What is the story that only YOU can tell?
And how will you tell it today?
I had the same bumper sticker on my car for years, right next to my “BRAKE FOR MOOSE, IT COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE!” sticker from the NH Fish and Game Department. (I love the looks I get from it when I drive around in Philadelphia….)
Some people take this to mean you should only hang out with happy people. Well, yeah, there’s that.
For me, it was a constant reminder that people who nay-say your dreams, your ideas, your business, your art…
They are not necessarily telling you that “for your own good”.
They have their own motivation, their own agenda. And their motive is to not further yours.
I was especially reminded of this a few years ago. I’d hit a roadblock with my work. Wasn’t sure where to go with it, or what to do next. Heck, did the world even want my art? It sure didn’t feel like it….
That was a rough time, a scary time.
What was even scarier was, I became hyper-critical and hyper-jealous of those who did appear to have their act together.
And I also took some big hits from other artists I suspect were in the same scary boat/place.
So my take on this little homily is this:
If you love the work you do, if you are making the best art you can, if making it makes you a better person….
Then it’s good enough to be in the world.
Maybe I don’t like it. But that’s my problem, not yours. It probably serves somebody’s purpose, even if it isn’t mine.
And when other people are giving you crap, don’t take it personally.
In fact, don’t take it at all.
Because chances are, it’s somebody who’s in a really bad place with their own work.
You can sympathize, if you are a big person. (I’m not.) But don’t give in to them.
Those who abandon their dreams,
will discourage yours.
The Devil’s two most powerful tools in this world are vanity and envy.
I’ve written so much about jealousy and envy, I thought I had nothing left to say. But I do.
I know that technically speaking, the terms are not identical. Envy is wanting what someone else has. Jealousy is fear of losing what you have.
But the premise is the same: Your perception is, you fear you have something to lose, and somebody else is responsible for that fear.
Envy has been a powerful thread in my life. No matter how “enlightened” I get, I struggle with it. Either I’m preoccupied with someone else having more skill/good fortune/attention, or someone is giving me crap because they envy me.
Seems like much of the trouble in the world is based on envy, from my own small woes to those of great nations.
If someone copies your work, part of that is because they see you have skill/success/attention/money/whatever. They think if they simply make the same work, they will have that, too.
If someone is envious of your artwork, and they are in a position of power over you (a juror for a show, a standards committee member), they can make life miserable for you in countless small and subtle ways.
If they are a peer or a friend, it’s even worse. Suddenly, everything you say or do draws a sarcastic remark, a biting comment, a moment of ridicule. A once-promising friendship warps into something sad and rueful.
When I allow myself to envy, it’s just as bad. Trust me.
But the real sin in envy is not in the behavior itself, or the misery it causes.
It’s because by giving in to it, we give away our power.
We give away everything beautiful, unique and wonderful that’s in us. We destroy the gifts that are given us–our talent, our perseverance, our joy–and turn them into dust.
Earlier this month, I almost left my dojo for another that seemed more compatible. I thought I would join a school that was less physically demanding, more sympathetic to my aging body.
I talked with my head instructor; he reluctantly agreed my reasons were sound. But he said I had to let the head of my school know.
I have one thing I do well that I’m proud of. I make the hard phone calls. I arranged to meet with Mr. R in person.
What happened then was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.
I will make a long story short–this was a complex situation, with a long history, involving many talented, good people. Much of it is personal and not tangent to the story, so I won’t go into it.
But the heart of this story is, Mr. R quoted that opening line to me. He told me when he’d heard it, and why.
Envy was at the root of the long, sad story that had left so many people deeply unhappy, and not at peace with themselves.
That’s when I realized that another, deeper reason for me leaving was not simply the tough work-out. The real reason was, I was envious of others in the class. I felt stupid having to step out when things got hard. Others were moving ahead, and I was not.
That was bad. Because I had lost track of my true reasons for practicing Tae Kwon Do.
I’d forgotten that my practice is always, for myself.
Not to be better than so-and-so, or to get to my next belt, or have my teacher praise me.
I must practice because I love what Tae Kwon Do can teach me.
I must practice because I love the discipline of trying to be my best.
I must practice for the joy of mastering something–sometimes in a horribly pathetic long drawn-out process, to be sure–to get good at something simply because I keep doing it, no matter what.
I, and I alone, am responsible for pacing myself within the class. If I can’t do sets of fifty push-ups anymore, then I must break it down into sets of 25, or 20. Or seven, if that’s all I can squeeze out.
If I can’t run fast laps on the hard floor, then I can run slow laps on the mat. Or walk, if that’s all my body can handle that day.
And there is no need to feel embarrassed when I need to step up or slow down. Because 1) it’s not anyone else’s place to judge me, and 2) I must stop judging myself.
Can you see the implications for our art?
I have quoted Martha Graham’s quote many times, but I’ll do it again. And I see I’ve lost the copy I used to hang prominently on my bulletin board, so I’ll print it out again for me, too:
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. …
No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
from The Life and Work of Martha Graham[
Everyone always has there own reasons for their behavior. If they are envious of you, it has nothing to do with you. There is nothing you can do to deflect it, or control it, either. Sometimes we have the luxury of removing ourselves from the situation, sometimes we can’t.
Understand that envy is based on fear. Fear that there is not enough love, or not enough attention, or not enough money, or not enough opportunity for all of us. Fear creates a little death. It takes the joy of living away from us.
We can only manage ourselves. The only thing we can change is how we respond. The only thing to do is to keep doing what we’re supposed to do, on the very highest level.
We can only try to make our decisions out of love, and hope, instead of fear.
We can only keep making the unique work, the art, that is in our hearts.
I have had the support of amazing people in my life, who have helped me internalize that. I may need a refresher course from time to time, but I always get back to the same place, the place of inner strength and conviction.
This is my gift to the world, the work of my hands, the work of my words, the work of my heart.
It is all we really have, but it is astonishingly powerful.
And when we truly understand and embrace that, we are astonishing, too.
Your needs and goals as an artist will change and grow throughout your life. You will constantly gather the people you need to you.
And you will also periodically leave people behind.
I started this mini-series with a sort of Ugly Duckling story, as one reader noted. I told how my dog tries to be a cat, and why it’s a good thing he isn’t very good at it. When we find out we aren’t really “bad bankers” but are actually “really excellent artists”, it’s an amazing epiphany.
The second article talks about how to find your own tribe.
Interestingly, some people took that to mean searching out other artists who work in the same medium. Some took it as how some artists learn techniques from a master, then never really develop their own style.
Some even found their new “family”, but grieved when it, too, became contentious, confining and restrictive.
While some of us will be fortunate to find a wonderful, cohesive, supportive group of like-minded folks, others will struggle to maintain that in their lives.
Sad to say, but it happens.
The day may come when you have to leave your bright new tribe, and find another.
There are lots of reasons why this happens.
Sometimes the group is just too big. There’s no time for each person to have a turn to be listened to. You can feel lost in the shuffle.
Sometimes there aren’t enough “rules”. A few folks will take on the role of gadfly (aka “jerk”). Or there are too many rules, too much “business”. The lively group dynamic is strangled with too many procedural stops and starts. (I left one craft guild when the business reports began to take up almost half the meetings.)
Sometimes the group narrows its own dynamic. It can be subtle but powerful. You’ll start to feel constricted. Here’s a true story:
Years ago, a quilting guild I belonged to brought in a nationally-known color expert for a workshop.
During it, she commented that there were definite regional color palettes, patterns and technique preferences across the country.
I asked her how that happened. She said when members brought in their projects for sharing, some would generate a huge positive response from the membership. Others, more eclectic or “out there”, would receive a lukewarm reception. “We all crave that positive response”, she said. “It’s human nature. So slowly but surely, we begin to tailor our work to generate the bigger response.”
It hit me like a brick. Another quilter and I did more unusual fabric work. The response to our “shares” was decidedly in the “lukewarm” category.
And I had begun to do more work in the “accepted style” of the group.
I left after the workshop, and never went back. My fellow fiber artists were a great bunch of people. But I was not willing to “tamp down” my vision in order to garner their praise.
Sometimes, our course changes. We find ourselves in pursuit of different goals. Or we find our own needs sublimated to the needs of the group.
Or we simply grow faster than the rest of the group. You may even outgrow your mentor. If our work fosters jealousy–if our work becomes more successful, attracts more notice–then professional jealousy might raise its ugly head.
It can feel even harder to leave this new tribe that gave us so much joy at first. In fact, it’s brutal.
But it has to be done, if you want your art to move forward.
You cannot control the feelings of others. You can make yourself, and your work, as small and mundane as you can. But if someone is determined to nibble you, nothing can stop them.
Take heart in this knowledge:
This group served your needs for awhile. Enough for you to gain confidence, and to take a step forward.
And you will find another tribe. It may take awhile. But your peers are out there.
Consider that they may not even be working in the same medium. They may not even be visual artists. They may not be “artists” at all.
As long as they share the same values, or can support and challenge you in constructive ways, you can benefit from their company.
It may even be time for you to walk alone. Just for awhile.
Just long enough to really hear what your own heart is saying.
MYTH: Real artists never compromise. They never make art that has to matches a sofa.
REALITY: Just exchange “some” for “real”, and “sometimes” for “never”. Oh, heck, just stop making things black and white, and let some gray area in.
Art has fulfilled powerful roles throughout history. From our human need to know and touch our gods, to our cries for social justice, art has served many purposes. Cathedrals are attempts to do the first, Picasso’s Guernica strove for the second. Conceptual art explores ideas at the expense of materials or process.
So…Art is profound. Art says something. Art is provocative. Art demands reaction, engagement, comment.
But art is also….beautiful. Art is healing. Art is quiet, or simply enjoyable.
And we all know art that’s just weird, dumb or shallow.
Art is all of these things, because beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. One generation’s “good art” is the next generation’s sentimental tripe. And one generation’s “garbage” is another generation’s masterpiece.
“Guernica” is a powerful work of art. But it’s also perfectly acceptable not to want it in our living room. For one thing, it’s huge! (And there’s only one, so only one of us could have it.) (I know we could all have prints of Guernica, and its message is that important to some people. But I like to have real stuff that a real person has made–that’s important to me, too.)
Art in the widest sense can fill the smallest spaces. Not every song is a symphony. Not every dance move is a ballet. Not every scribble is a cave painting. Not every poem is The Iliad.
Art is big enough to find a place in everyone’s life. And the world is big enough for all our art.
It’s okay to paint a lovely landscape to grace someone’s home–even one that goes with the sofa pretty nicely. Although it’s also cool when someone chooses a sofa to go with the painting.
Years ago, a visitor to our home perused our record collection (which tells you how long ago this was) and sniffed, “You can tell a lot about people from their music collection.” To which another visitor replied coolly, “Yeah, you can tell what kind of music they like!” I love that! We don’t all like the same kinds of music. But there are very few people who don’t love music, some kind of music, period.
I started my art path by making tiny fabric dolls and knitted animals. They were sweet and adorable. They were not “powerful” by any means. They had nothing to “say”. Or so I thought. But in them were the the tiny seeds of my desire to make something that made people happy. As my desire to connect in a different way grew, so did my handiwork.
And I’m still not done growing yet.
Make the art that’s in YOU. Don’t worry if if’s not “serious” or “profound”. Try not to compare yourselves to others. It’s hard, we all do it. But don’t stay there.
Don’t be embarrassed that we aren’t a Mozart, or a Picasso. Those incredible folks are art’s aberrations, not the norm. There is plenty of room in the world for the rest of us. There is a need for a well-made pot, a truly comfortable chair, a lovely flower arrangement, a catchy song.
Just make it. Bring it into the world. You and your art may “grow”, or not. It doesn’t matter.
Because the art that is in you, is unique to you. And it yours–all yours–ONLY yours–to give.
What you make, may be just what the world needs, today.
Seventh in a series of getting difficult people out of your booth at a craft show or art fair.
I can almost guarantee you this “difficult person” will be the hardest one of all to deal with. If this happens to you, my only consolation is, you are not alone.
It will happen after you’ve asked a friend to help you in your booth at a show.
Because there may come a time when you will have to ask that friend to leave your booth.
I have a few friends who not only work with me on my booth at some shows, they volunteer to help, calling me months ahead of time to offer their services.
And they are simply amazing at it. I secretly think they are better at this than I am. They are a miracle made manifest in the world, and I am the luckiest artist alive because of them.
And even if someone isn’t stellar at selling, they are such good company, I’m delighted to have them on board. Their companionship is all that is necessary.
I also had a few friends, perfectly good friends…. Friendships of many years duration that have gone screaming down in flames from working with me in my booth.
A day into the show–sometimes an hour into the show, you realize with a terrible sinking feeling that it’s all gone wrong. They are not doing well in your booth. It is so not working out.
They show up dressed inappropriately–either under-dressed (“I want to be comfy!”) or over-dressed–or barely dressed at all. (“Oh gosh, I can’t get this top to stay up!”)
They’re so busy telling you about their hot date last night, they ignore customers in the booth. Or get mad when you interrupt their hot date story to deal with those customers. Or can’t understand why you don’t even want to hear their story when the customers are just looking, for cryin’ out loud.
They don’t know how to talk with customers, saying, “Can I help you?” even when you’ve told them a dozen times that’s the worst possible thing you can say to a potential buyer.
The friend loves to share funny stories about you with your customers. Stories you kinda wish she would not share.
It can get even worse.
One artist told me her assistant used her high-end booth display to do his ballet warm-up exercises. In front of customers. All. Day. Long.
Another told me her friend came back from lunch–two hours late. She’d decided to go shop around the fair. The artist, having sent her to eat first, was starving.
Another said a friend got plastered at a dinner out with important clients–buyers for a chain of stores–and behaved inappropriately. (Still waiting to here the juicy details on that one.)
Two different artists with compatible work share a booth to save on expenses. Only one is constantly trying to steal the customers of the other.
Whatever the attitude or behavior, it’s detrimental to your business and to your mental health.
And you are going to have to ask them to leave. Either at the end of the show (if it’s just mildly annoying), the end of the day (if it’s hugely annoying) or within the hour (if it’s such a disaster you are going to kill them any minute.)
And before you say, “Oh, Luann, we know what a pistol you are! That would never happen to me!”, let me assure you–it happens a lot. It has happened to people who have been in business for many, many years.
It happens so much, I know people in the biz who now have an iron-clad rule: They never–ever–hire friends to work for them anymore.
How can this happen? Why does a normal person who is nice enough to be your friend suddenly turn into the booth assistant from hell?
STRESS Shows are hard. No. Shows are really, really hard. It’s the work of getting enough product made to stock your booth. The weeks of preparation, making sure all your booth components are in place and in good working order. Making travel arrangements (and maybe family arrangements for your absence), and dealing the expense and stress of packing and loading and simply getting to the show. Set-up (ye gods, we could all write a book about the things that go wrong during set-up) and break-down. The weary drive home, the unpacking and trying to get back into your normal life–so you can do it all again for the next show.
In between is the part that is both wonderful and dismal, fun and agonizing–doing the show. Talking to enthralled customers about your work, and watching people walk by who couldn’t care less about your work. Making big sales and wondering if you are going to make booth expenses. Meeting other cool and interesting artists, and dealing with weird, psychotic fellow artists. It’s all there, it’s all happening at the show.
In short, S*H*O*W*S = S*T*R*E*S*S
And there’s your friend, a show virgin who just doesn’t get it. Who just doesn’t get any of it, at all. She doesn’t understand what you’ve already been through, or how critical the show’s success is to you, or how frantic you are underneath your smiling exterior. It all looks fun and glamorous to to her, and that’s what she’s expecting.
Or she’s under stress, too (see “their stuff” below). Or they worry they’re not going to do things right. Or they worry you’re going to do the crazy artist thing and yell at them.
So maybe you’re both stressed. whoo hoo.
UNCLEAR EXPECTATIONS Some people, despite your telling them the way it works, do not understand that being in a show is WORK. They don’t really understand it is a business situation, and that you have to generate sales to stay in business.
They arrive with a vague idea that it’s going to be a fun-filled day, full of chatter and fun food and wonderful sights to see.
They won’t understand why you interrupted their moving reenactment of the last awful days of their collapsed marriage just because a customer came into the booth.
They won’t understand why it wasn’t okay to just disappear for two hours at lunchtime because they felt like taking a walk.
They won’t understand why it’s really, really important to get ALL the numbers imprinted on a charge slip, including the card’s expiration date and the customer’s telephone number.
And because operating the credit card machine is just “too confusing”, they won’t understand why you can’t just do it, while they schmooze your customers.
And they won’t understand why you will have to tell them to shape up or ship out.
SHADOW ARTISTS We’ve covered this in previous chapters in this series, but it bears repeating. At a show, these SA’s are in your booth–a booth that is actually a tiny monument to your ambition and achievement.
They will be surrounded by your work. They will see and hear your fan base–your customers. They will have to listen to people rave about you with excitement and admiration. They will have to listen to you talk about your work with pride and confidence.
It will be too much for them.
It will simply be too painful, the cognitive dissonance too great, and they will resent it. For some people, seeing your success in pursuing your art, up close and personal, will be the final straw.
EGO Some people cannot handle being in a subordinate position in the friendship, even a temporary one as you booth assistant. They will refuse to follow your suggestions for selling. Or they will continue to push their craft over yours. They may resent having their time managed.
CHANGING ROLES We start a friendship with everyone’s roles firmly in place. And then the roles change.
Many relationships struggle with this transitions, not just friendships. Business partnerships. Mentor and student. Parent and child. Even marriages often topple under the stress of two people growing and changing apart.
Somehow, we don’t ever expect our friendships to fail from our changing roles. But they do.
One explanation: If you scratch the surface of the friendship, my humble experience has been it may have actually been based on one of these prototypes.
And like them, subject to the same sad conclusion when the roles change and the pressure to adapt rises.
THEIR STUFF Other people have their stuff–my catch-all term for emotional baggage, hard times, psychological upheaval, whatever.
They may have recently lost someone they loved, or even someone they hated. (The stress from either is great.) They are in a hard place for reasons that have nothing to do with you.
It’s going to spill over at some point. If you are near them when it happens, you are going to get scalded.
So what are the clues this beautiful friendship-cum-sales team is heading south?
They are resistant to your suggestions and training. I give out Bruce Baker’s sales training CD to new assistants before a show. One person said they were too experienced with sales to listen to it. I believed them. The first hour in the booth, it was painfully obvious their experience was not as good as they thought it was.
They forget who’s boss. They will show resentment when you ask them to do something they see as trivial or mundane or demeaning–running an errand, etc.
They will rearrange your display when you step out of the booth, and their feelings will be hurt if you are not happy with their efforts.
They may even decide not to show up at all, telling you that you don’t really need them–leaving you in the lurch and too late to make arrangements for other assistance.
They forget whose booth it is, and whose work they’re selling. I actually had one friend refuse to wear my jewelry in my booth. She wanted to wear her fashion accessories instead. Not wanting to push it, I let her–until the first customer noticed her work and asked her about it, and she happily started to tell them about her business.
They see the time with you in your booth as a social thing, a chance to catch up on all their life changes. This is so hard. Of course you want to hear all this stuff. But the show has to come first.
At a show you are working. The focus has to be on selling your work. And you can’t afford to deal with downer stuff. You must stay upbeat and positive.
Worse, your efforts to remind them of this will sound heartless and uncaring. It’s an impossible situation.
Now for the sad part.
In all my years of dealing with this, I have never found a good way to “fire” a friend.
I have yet to salvage one friendship from a “firing”.
And I have never felt good about what I had to do.
I’ve tried many different approaches.
I’ve tried heart-to-heart talks over dinner and drinks after the first day.
I’ve tried taking in all the responsibility for the misunderstanding (for which I was accused by the friend as “You’re treating me like a damn teenager!” I had to bite my tongue in order not to respond, “That is exactly how you’ve been acting the last 24 hours!!”)
I’ve tried to fudge it by saying I overestimated my needs, and don’t really need to tie up their time for the entire show, or even the entire day.
I’ve tried to be upfront and honest and calm. “Look, I know your life is your life–it’s not my place to expect you to put my needs above yours. I know if you are sick, you shouldn’t be expected to work. But you offered to help, and I told you my expectations, and you accepted them. And when you wait til five minutes before the show opens to call and say you won’t be coming in, that puts me in difficult position. I simply need more time than that to line up someone else to help.”
Nothing worked. Anger, resentment, recriminations follow, all falling on my head and making me feel even worse. The only thing left to do is say nothing more so as not to make it even worse.
When I asked my fellow artists how they handled it successfully, they confirmed a sad fact. No matter how you couch it, it’s going to suck big-time. And the only friendships that survived were the ones where the friend took it in stride and let it go. The friend has to decide it is not going to ruin the friendship.
One consolation for me was, I felt like I was choosing business over friendship. It is only with time and some emotional distance that I can see the storm clouds were often already on the horizons. The show only acting like a giant magnifying glass, focusing little heat rays on the issue and setting it on fire.
It’s also a part of doing business. Sometimes you have to fire someone, and they just aren’t going to like that or deal with it well. If it happens to be a friend, it’s just more gasoline on the fire. But there’s never a good way to fire someone. And there will never be a good way to fire a friend.
If it were a small show, where I only hoped to gross a few hundred bucks, I might feel that it’s not worth it to risk the friendship. You might choose to simply let it go, get through the day, and do things differently next time.
But at a big retail or wholesale show, where thousands of dollars and your professional reputation are at stake, you may have to act–unless you are independently wealthy, or just don’t need the money.
The only thing I can think of that might be worse is if this happens with a family member. And at least there is huge incentive for a family member to eventually come around. Although, come to think of it, there are a lot of divorced people who used to be in business with their ex-spouse…..
Think long and hard before asking–or allowing–a friend to work with you in your booth. And hope for the best. But be prepared for the worst.
I’ve had a lot of response to my post on shadow artists in my “GETTING PEOPLE OUT OF YOUR BOOTH” series. People keep saying they thought they were the only artists who, as they became successful, found they were losing friends.
I wrote an essay about this phenomenon awhile back, called MEAN PEOPLE SUCK #2a: Professional Jealousy Part Deux.
I haven’t figured out a solution yet–there probably isn’t one, since this is more about them than it is about you–but I hope it will at least help you feel better.
Second in a series of people you need to get out of your booth at a craft show–fast!
Oddly, the next group of people I’d like to talk about are the people who wish they were you.
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, described a type of person she called the “shadow artist”. A shadow artist is someone who is an artistic, creative person themselves, who chooses instead to stand in the shadow of someone who is perceived to be a “real” artist. The shadow artist may play a supportive or secondary role in the arts, working for groups that promote artists, or even marrying an artist.
Being a shadow artist can be a sad and painful thing. These people may have never been encouraged to explore their artist self. They may have been told they weren’t good enough. Yet something in them hungers for art, and draws them near others who have it.
Many artists are former shadow artists. I was.
Many of your best customers and supporters are shadow artists. They celebrate what you do. They cheer you on. They delight in you doing what they feel they are not capable of doing themselves.
Many shadow artists are still positive, constructive people. They learn to channel all their creative energy into helping others. They do amazing work, supporting artists and the arts with their time, their money, their patronage. Many of our art guilds, organizations and schools would not be nearly as effective without them.
But they may still be unhappy. Deep down, they may feel the loss of not living the life they would like for themselves.
Consequently, some shadow artists are not positive or supportive people. They may be jealous or resentful of the very artists they say they appreciate and support.
They may even be artists at some level already–but jealous of people they perceive to be “more successful” or “more artistic” than themselves. The pain of seeing others live the life they want so badly for themselves spills over onto other people.
Sometimes it spills right over into your booth. Not good.
I know, because as hard as it is to admit it, that was me, too.
So as much as this type of person annoys and irritates me, I have a soft spot in my heart for them. I’ve been there. I know what it looks like. I know what it feels like.
But I still have low tolerance for their behavior, especially in my booth.
How will this person act in your booth?
You may hear someone like this making snide little comments to a friend as they peruse your work. They may hint the quality isn’t what it should be. At a wholesale show, a buyer may be overly fussy and particular about your work, insinuating that most pieces are just not quite good enough for their store, handpicking through your samples. They may make disparaging comments about your color choices, your materials, your design choices.
Retail customers may imply that they could do your work–the “I can make that!” people. Anything that makes them look good and you look not-so-good.
Now, hey, it’s human nature to think this way sometimes, and I groan and roll my eyes at what passes for “art” and “fine craft” all the time.
But not in someone else’s booth. Not where they can see me and hear me. That’s just rude.
I’ve found a few ways to deal with this kind of behavior. Please feel free to add your own tactics in the comment section.
One way to handle it is to ignore it completely, especially if there is no one else in your booth. There’s simply no way to interact that won’t put you on the short end of the stick emotionally. Recognizing this behavior for what it is–passive-aggressive, hard to pin down, hard to argue with–can help you decide to ignore it.
Resist responding in anger. Either the person doesn’t realize they come across that way, in which case your response will seem unjustified, or they do mean it, and they get a rise out of you. Getting angry in your booth is just bad, bad, bad for you, your booth, your business. People will sense it long after the offender is gone. Resist making comments about that person to the next visitor, too. Otherwise, they worry you’ll be talking about them next!
Your best weapons, believe it or not, are your good humor, your patience, your professionalism, sincerity (yes, sincerity) and the fact that it’s Y*O*U who is at the show, not them.
Bruce Baker recently suggested two good responses for the “I can make this!” crowd. Both have to be done with good humor and as much sincerity as you can muster.
When someone starts hinting or making comments that they could do the same work, simply say politely, “Well, these are for the people who aren’t as creative as you!” I’ve used this statement many times, and it works. It leaves them with absolutely nothing to say. It sounds like you are acknowledging their creativity.
The unspoken point is, that if they were as creative as you, they’d be doing the show, too. You win tons of points for subtlety and restraint. If there are other people in your booth who overhear this, they will actually come up and compliment you on your professional restraint. They’ll marvel that you were able to hold your temper and respond so calmly. I know, because people have done just that.
Another BB suggestion is to respond with total good nature and wide-eyed innocence: “Oh, you’re a potter/jeweler/painter/whatever, too? What shows do you do? What galleries do you sell to?” Again–you must be sincere to make this work. You are gently challenging them to prove they really are at your level.
Most people will back down, mumbling something about being “between studios” or “needing to do more marketing research.” Because, of course, they usually aren’t at a point where they are actually making and selling their work. (This also works for the people who claim their daughter makes the same stuff you do.)
If they claim self-righteously that they make their work for love, not money, keep on pressing with something like, “Oh, so then where do you exhibit your work?”
Then there’s my personal favorite: I take a tough love approach.
I will actually give shadow artists a little lecture about the importance of making their own art. I tune in to that “healing” aspect of my work, by sharing how it came to heal me.
Again, it works best if you are grounded and sincere. And when I do this, I am speaking out of sympathy and love. (If I can’t muster it for the annoying person in my booth, then I do it out of forgiveness for my former, miserable self.)
Without coming out and actually naming what they are doing, I tell them my story of how I got started doing this artwork. I tell them how miserable and jealous I was, sitting on the sidelines, being afraid and critical of everyone else’s artistic efforts–until I finally got into the game myself. I quit being a back seat driver, and started driving my own little art/life car.
I tell them I firmly believe that almost everyone is creative in their own unique way. That everyone has something of value to offer the world. That the world would be a better place if more people had the courage to do just that–figure out what they can offer, then just do it.
I tell them the power of being their authentic self. The healing that comes from being the artist they were meant to be. It’s hard work. But it’s worth it.
The story is about me. But it’s still a challenge–and an opportunity, if they see it–for them.
I think when people hear it, they can see themselves, just for a moment. I think, by being honest about the fact that I wasn’t nice person when I was in that horrible little place, it gives them permission to see a new possibility for themselves.
I hope so, anyway.
It usually is enough to at least turn the energy around, to take that negative stuff and turn it into something positive. Most people who can’t deal with it, hunker down and run at this point.
The people who can hear it, are hungry for more. I refer them to my blog, or to Julia Cameron’s books (or other resources), or offer to talk to them more….
(wait for it.)
…after the show. (You knew that was coming, right?)
Shine a gentle yet powerful light on these shadow artists, and watch the scary stuff disappear.
P.S. As for the picky, picky buyer at a wholesale show or a store where you’re presenting your work, I’ve found there isn’t much you can do to turn the attitude around. After all, even if you can turn it around on the spot, you still have to trust them to do the right thing and continue to promote and sell your work long after you’ve sold or consigned the work to them. The most effective ploy takes a lot of courage and conviction and belief in your work.
You can choose to pick up your marbles (er, work) and go home.
Simply say, “I’m sorry, I don’t think my work is right for your store. Thank you for your time.” Pleasantly, professionally.
Surprisingly effective for those buyers hoping to put you on the defensive, because now if they really want your work, they have to cajole you into staying.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my art since I’ve been laid up with all these injuries.
I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe it isn’t really “real” art after all.
“Real” artists seem to have different reasons than I do for making their art. They see themselves as explorers, or pioneers–exploring new ideas, new techniques, new venues, new styles. It’s the new, new, new that calls them and excites them. They have profound social themes to explore and comment upon.
It can be beautiful, exciting stuff, even provocative stuff.
But that’s never been what my work is about. I can’t even imagine myself working like that.
My “next idea” and “new body of work” has always–always–come from a very different place and process.
It comes from something calling out to me to be made. It feels intensely personal and even idiosyncratic.
It comes from a desire to make something special for someone who asked for it, or needed it.
Sometimes it comes by chance. Sometimes by challenge.
Rarely (if ever!) by imposing some kind of artistic, intellectual discipline. Yes, it came to me first by study and introspection. But that was when I was so truly lost, I had no way to even begin. I had to work to even find a place to stand.
It’s not really like that now. I just momentarily lost faith in that path. But I never really left that path, nor do I care to now.
It’s time to trust my process again. I must simply make the things I like to make. I must simply accept the reasons I make it.
I must let go of the reasons why I “should” make something else. They just don’t apply to me.
I think my art, for me, is a metaphor.
It’s the power of my choices made visible in the world.
My art (I include my writing) is a way to work through the issues in my life. It helps me determine what kind of person I am, and what kind of person I want to be. It helps me find a way to come back from failure. It helps me deal with fear and insecurity.
It’s not even necessarily how I do those things successfully. I’m a work in progress, after all! I am all too aware of my shortcomings and short sightedness in the world….
Sometimes those are concrete issues I’ve struggled with: How do I create a craft show booth that showcases my work to its best advantage (and is also easy to ship, set-up and break down?) How do I get my work into stores and galleries? How do I get my work published?
But other times (like the last few months) it’s working through more personal issues: How do deal with injury and pain? How do I justify what I do in the world? How do I tell my story in ways that other people can relate to?
Through it all, I think, shines my process. How to think about it. If I can do this, maybe you can, too. If I can figure this out, then maybe you can, too. If I get discouraged and am afraid, maybe it’s okay when you feel that, too.
It’s about learning. It’s about listening. It’s about healing. It’s about choosing.
If I think about which article on my work gives me the most pause, it would have to be the one Ornament Magazine ran in the Winter 2003 issue: my artist statement on 9/11. You can see a version of this statement here.
That’s what my art is about.
Maybe some people do not consider this to be true “art”. Maybe it’s more that shaman thing. That used to frighten me more than figuring out the business side of things. Not so much, anymore…
I’ve come to the conclusion that my art is fine just the way it is.
When I can work again, I have a lot of requests to fill. I need to figure out how to incorporate a new sea otter figurine into a necklace for a woman who needs a little fun and relief from her extraordinary burdens. I need to make a good fish bracelet for a woman who’s fighting for her life. I need to make a bird necklace for a woman who’s ready to fly. I have a repair or two to make, for customers who wore their piece til it fell apart. I have an order or two to fill.
I do feel like a shaman when I look at that list–making lovely things for others on their journey.
That’s not too shabby, either.
Tatjana – Submitted Aug 31, 2007
I have lost more friends to jealousy than to any other disease.
(quote from Robert Genn’s “Painter’s Keys” website Painter’s Keys archives “Evaluating Art” clickbacks.)
I came across the quote above while browsing through Robert Genn’s newsletter archives. It was so true, it made me almost cry.
There’s something no one will tell you, when you start your journey pursuing your art.
It can get lonely out there.
I don’t believe in the “perfect relationship” anymore. I don’t believe in perfect marriages, perfect families, or perfect friendships. I think we do the best we can, until we learn to do better.
In a perfect world, relationships stretch and grow, accommodating all kinds of stress and obstacles. In reality, I believe sometimes a relationship is “good enough”, until it reaches a crisis that cannot be dealt with.
Jealousy is a big one in friendships.
As you grow in your art and begin to achieve success–whether it’s financial rewards, or professional recognition, whatever–you will lose friends along the way. I am not saying you will lose all your friends. But you may lose some, including some that will surprise and dismay you.
The mentor relationship is especially delicate. I’ve found incredibly generous people who helped me tremendously along the way. Until, that is, I began to surge ahead. I didn’t get ahead by stepping on them–far from it! My greatest sin has been encouraging them to come further on their own journey than they were ready to go.
But the damage is still there.
Outshine your teacher, and it’s the rare person who won’t resent you for it. (Remember, it’s okay to feel resentment–it’s how you act on it that can preserve or wreck that relationship!) It’s astounding how badly some people will choose to act….
I think this tendency is why I get almost obsessive about remembering to thank people. I try to always give credit to people who have shared techniques, insights, support. It’s my way of trying to divert any jealousy they might accrue.
But it only helps to a certain extent. What I’ve found is, you cannot control how another person thinks, feels, acts. They truly have their own journey.
If jealousy raises its ugly green-eyed head in their life, you cannot stop that. If they choose NOT to use that to further their own work, you cannot control that. If they began to engage in passive-aggressive behaviors that undermine your friendship, you will find it difficult to turn that dynamic around.
You will know your gut feeling is right when these friends start saying things like, “Oh, you’re just too sensitive.” Which is another way of saying, “I totally deny your right to HAVE feelings.”
If you are a truly independent artist/person who can operate fully without a rich support system of family, friends and peers, you will not need this book.
But for the rest of us, who feel real physical pain at how wrong a friendship can go, you need to read this book. It will help. It will explain.
And in the end, it will help you with your art. Because you will be able to recognize the ways a good friendship can–and SHOULD–support you in making your art. (Hint: It doesn’t have to be the big stuff, either!)
One of the most powerful things anyone ever said about my art was from my sister, who says she knows nothing about art and not much about my world. But when I was having a total lack of confidence in my work, and hesitant to enter it in a exhibition where its chances of acceptance were slim, Susan said something I’ve never forgotten.
“Your job is not to judge what you make. Your job is to make it, and get it out into the world. Others can judge it once it’s out there, but you can’t hold it back by judging it beforehand.”
Talk about channeling Martha Graham! It was an astounding thing for a self-confirmed non-artist to say.
Because Martha Graham said:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening
That is translated through you into action,
And because there is only one of you in all of time
This expression is unique.
And if you block it,
It will never exist through any other medium,
And be lost.
The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is,
Nor how valuable, or how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly,
to stay open and aware to the urges that motivate you.”
I know for some people there will always be conflict: How much art to give up for the sake of friendship. How much friendship to give up for the sake of art.
I still struggle with this.
In the end, I realize I am the only person responsible for my art–I am the only one who can bring it into the world, just as I am the only mother my children will ever have.
My children come first. My art comes first. Friendships have to align themselves somewhere around these non-negotiables.
But I still try to be aware of the different loads my various friendships can handle–and which loads they can’t.
It’s worth a try. It’s part of me to try! But if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t make me feel like a failed human being anymore.
Just a human being who tried–and failed.
Years ago, I was going through a rough patch with my art career. Other artists were behaving badly. I was dazed and unsure of what was going on. I confided in a friend, who mentioned the matter to her husband, a lawyer. “Be nice to Luann at dinner tonight, dear”, she told him. “She’s had some bites taken out of her lately.” She told him the back story.
Her husband, a person usually brusque and heavy-handed when it came to the tender feelings of artistic types, responded quickly and with passion.
“You tell Luann that lawyers do this to each other all the time!” he told her. “It’s called professional jealousy. It means she’s doing good work.”
I’ve always kept those words in my heart when things get rough with my fellow craftspeople.
Today I was killing a little time and came across Christine Kane’s wonderful blog again. Christine is an artist in the music world. She writes great essays that transfer across all creative endeavors. You can see her writings here:
Christine Kane’s “Be Creative” blog
I read her essay on Jealousy and Envy. In it, a certain paragraph leaped out at me, the one entitled “Mastery”.
Christine wrote, “Whatever career path you’re on, you have the choice to become a master. Not necessarily of the career or the craft or the art. But of you. That’s what keeps me going. If you want to reach, inspire, help, encourage, heal in any way, most likely it’s going to require that you face your own demons in that process. If jealousy comes up, then it’s a teacher for you. That’s all. Let it be. That’s where your biggest treasures will be.”
I’ve never denied being jealous myself of people more talented and creative than I am. I affectionately call that first rush of pure green bile “the lizard brain”. I chalk it up to my inner nature, that ancient instinctive heritage I will always have with me.
But as Christine says, we have choices, too. And this is one aspect of my life with which I think I’ve made good choices.
I used to be consumed with jealousy. Years ago, though, I realized what being jealous did for me.
I realized it let me off the hook.
If someone else was “better than me”, or “doing better than me”, then I didn’t have to try to be the best anymore. I could give up, quit doing what I was doing, and just say, “Oh, well, I wasn’t very good at it anyway…” Or, “Oh, they’ve got it all wrapped up, there’s no room for ME.” I could pick up my toys and go home.
There’s always the temptation, too, of letting jealousy shift your focus. You now have an “enemy” to hate. How delicious! You can now seethe and plot on how to take them down.
What a tremendous waste of our precious creative energy.
Once I realized that, I quite letting jealousy rule my life. I couldn’t banish it completely, of course. But I could make different choices on how I acted on it.
And that’s when I really started making progress in my career as an artist.
I began to focus on doing what I liked just because I liked it, regardless of how “good” I was. It helped me keep starting over, and helped me persevere when things got tough.
And because I kept going and kept starting over, I began to get kinda good at some of those things.
Now that I think about it, that attitude has helped me in all kinds of situations. Another case where learning how to be a better artist has also helped me be a better person.
And now when the green monster raises its ugly head, I savor it. I know it’s going to spur me on to greater heights.
I know somewhere in that mess, that demon still has something to teach me.
Try it yourself! The next time the lizard brain kicks in. Go on, be jealous. Enjoy it.
But only for a minute.
Then get down to work. And figure out how to make that jealousy work for you. Instead of fuming about your object of envy, put that lizard brain to work.
Think how to make it make YOU a better artist.
If only more of us focused on making jealousy work FOR us, instead of focusing on how to take that other person down…..
We might get along better. Or at least have a lot more wonderful art in the world.
p.s. I’m thinking that, after I wrap up the “GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD” series, this might be a good essay in a new “MEAN PEOPLE SUCK” series. In fact, I’ve gone ahead and numbered this one accordingly. There isn’t a MEAN PEOPLE SUCK #1 yet, don’t panic.