What We Lost
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.
(7 minute read)
Sometimes I have tons of ideas for articles. Sometimes, not so much.
I keep a supply of ideas, rough drafts, etc. so when I’m not inspired, I’ll have something to talk about. Today is one of those days.
So here from the “drafts” section is a one-liner that leapt out at me. Awhile back, I found a quote from “A Serpent’s Tooth”, a book by Craig Johnson (whose series inspired the “Longmire” TV show.)
Sometimes we spend our lives thinking we’re doing something, when in reality all we’re doing is waiting.
Underneath this, I’d typed “What are you waiting for?”
I have no idea why that quote hooked me. I’ve come back to it from time to time, and thought, “Why did I write that down?” Then on to other things.
But today, it stopped me in my tracks. It resonated differently this time.
What are we waiting for???
I’ve been trying to assist a loved one in their goal to “really get started” with their life: “I want a real career, but I’m such a loser, I’ll never figure it out!” “I fail at everything, and I’m behind in life!” “I don’t know what I want, and I never will!” “You don’t understand!!!”
When someone we care about is caught in these never-ending loops, there’s very little we can do. Except listen, try not to give advice (especially when nothing we say is considered valuable in the first place), and to simply be present. It’s not easy. It’s hard. Heavy. And harsh.
But today, when I came across that quote, I realize I’m the one in the never-ending loop.
What am I waiting for?? I ask myself….
I am amazed at the clarity that surfaces.
I am surrounded by the detritus from my fourth studio move in five years. Some stuff has been sold off, some has been donated, and some is simply destined for the scrap heap.
But as a mixed media artist (and a highly-evolved hunter-gatherer!), I have learned to see the beauty in everything. A pebble, a bird feather, a weathered stick, a button, all have potential in my eyes.
So, too, those really ugly pearls I bought on impulse that I cannot bring myself to use. The bags of milk paint I was sure would be perfect for painting old wood boxes. The damaged frames piled up in my studio, dinged and danged from too many venues, too much packing and unpacking, not enough bubble wrap. “Maybe I can fix them and sand them and repaint them,” I think to myself.
but then I caught myself:
Is that the highest, best use of my time? Probably not.
When I had to clear all that stuff out to make room for said family member’s arrival, I realized it was time to get brutal. Er….but not too brutal.
That’s where the idea to host an artists garage sale came from, a few weeks ago. The first time I organized one, it sucked up so much time and energy, I didn’t have time to organize my own stuff and get it priced and ready to sell. On the other hand, it was hugely successful! People begged me to do it again next year. Unfortunately, I moved to California instead.
This time will be different. A lot of people in our two buildings are already onboard, as well as the building managers. I can set up a table inside my own studio. I can use my Square to take payments. I will have people helping with posters, publicity, and table-wrangling.
OK…..What else am I waiting for?
I struggled with a few great galleries that’s accepted me as a guest artist. But 2018 through the first half of 2019 was filled with many deaths in the family, many trips for last visits, funerals, support. I could barely take care of myself, let alone my art biz. I dropped the ball on restocking, attending receptions, staying in touch. And I realized my sales in New Hampshire galleries had dropped off to practically nothing. (Some had dropped my work, some had only older work, etc.)
Out of the blue, one gallery asked me to restock. When I did, they followed up with, “Um…these new designs you sent….do you have more??!” Yes, I did, and sent them on.
That inspired me. So a month ago, I reached out to all my League of NH Craftsmen galleries, hoping one or two would pick me up again.
To my surprise and delight, six of them wanted me back in! This past month has been spent creating new work and new designs, creating a cohesive collection for each one, tagging, labeling, creating an inventory sheet. Now working on packing and shipping.
That inspired me to reach out to a local gallery, where my inventory had really languished under my neglect. The last time I visited, I found they’d increased the number of jewelry artists, and my display was woefully inadequate. I swallowed my pride, and asked them if they still wanted my work.
They did! Turns out all the members loved my work (okay, most of them do.) The larger works were great attention-getters, but slow sellers. I took them back. Tomorrow, I’ll be setting up a new display with new work (and higher prices!)
What else am I waiting for?
I’ve been feeling cut off from my friendship network. Was I waiting for people to reach out to me? Yes, I was. And this week, one new local friend did reach out, a small artist support group I started took an important “next step up” (which was powerful), and another friend started a neighborhood women’s gathering. I was going to go. “I’m too busy! I don’t have time! I hate gatherings with people I don’t know!”
But I went, and had a wonderful time. I think everybody did. Afterwards, we all responded to the group text information with words like, “This was exactly what I didn’t know I needed today!”
Sometimes, when we are feeling overwhelmed by life and its myriad complications, in trying to create balance with making our artwork and marketing it, it’s easy to get caught up in “fixing it”. If only I had…..! If only I knew someone….! If only I knew how to…! If only I knew what I really wanted!!!!
We end up waiting. For what?
Do we wait til we’re sure we’ll succeed, before beginning that big new work?
Do we wait til we’re sure we’re “good enough” before we explore gallery representation? (I find the people who are really good who hesitate the longest!)
Are we waiting for a “sign from the universe” before we take on a new challenge? Do we wait until we find the perfect solution to our problem? Have a straight 8-10 hours to start that new work? Do we believe we have to clean our entire studio before we can get back to work after a hiatus, rather than just clear off that one surface we need to start it?
I remember a friend’s wise words one morning a few years ago, when I texted to say I was totally confused about what to do about the stuff on “plate”. She replied, “I sit with uncertainty everyday until Clarity makes her presence known.” If that sends a shiver down your spine like it did mine, you might like to read more about Sheri Gaynor’s life work here.
Today, I sat. I poked around, hoping for a little clarifty.
And there it was, in my own notes, just waiting to be found.
Sometimes we wait for clarity. Sometimes we go looking for clarity. Sometimes it’s right where we left it, just under our noses.
Have you experienced this? Been unable to “fix” an issue that seemed to complicated, too random, with no solution… And then seen clarity what was needed, and what you had to do? How did that work out for you?
Please share! I’d love to hear your story, and I’m sure others will, too.
As always, if you like this article, please share with someone you think would enjoy it.
And if someone shared this with you, and you’d like to read more, you can subscribe to the Fine Art Views newsletter (with many other authors contributing!), or sign up at my blog at LuannUdell.wordpress.com.
I’ve always known my writing is not for everyone. Some folks expect more concrete “do this” and less “we’re all in this together, and that will make us better”. That’s okay, I get that.
Sometimes that’s what I’m looking for, too. Like today. Why do none of my LED bulbs work in my old booth lighting fixtures??” (The results: It’s complicated.)
The thing is, when people criticize my writing because that’s what they’re looking for, it’s really a moot point. There are other writers who will give them that.
Me? I share when I’m stuck or overwhelmed, or when I’m feeling “less-than”, and how I got through that, as close to “in the moment” as I can.
But here’s the deal with the “just the facts’, ma’am” approach:
I’m a woman, born in the ’50’s, who never saw an artist growing up. (There was one potter in the county I grew up in, but I only heard of her after I graduated high school, and never saw their work.) I was raised to blend in, to go along, not to talk back, and to be nice.
There were school budget constraints that created a total lack of actual art education.
My college art history textbooks featured no women artists. One author even stated publicly he did not believe women could be considered “real artists”, and of course, that meant no women artists were featured in his book until 1987.
1987, people!!!!! Nineteen effin’ eighty-seven.
Janson’s History of Art has become so problematic as Janson’s own personal canon of “real art” is, that efforts to be more representative still can’t restore its usefulness in art history education.
You know where all the women are in art history? Nudes, as subjects. For the shock value, and publicity.
I’ve seen and read examples of many, many women supporting their male partner’s art career, often at the expense of their own. The Wife, anyone?
I cannot recall one instance of a man doing the same for his wife. (Some wives-of-artists even have a secondary career of advice-giving of how to be a successful artist. Without admitting that it can be hard for us wives to have our own “wife”.)
(Full disclosure here: I could not afford to have a studio nor have an art career, nor even to be a writer, were it not for the fact that my partner’s work pays 100x more than my meager income. And he helps with computer issues all the time. But he does not do my marketing, my correspondence, my social media, sales, shop upkeep, etc.)
Even in workshops on technique, and writing about marketing, most folks refer to famous male artists. It took the Netflix “comedy” special Nanette to share the real reason Van Gogh is famous, and to frame his situation for modern art-lovers. (Van Gogh’s work was hampered by his mental health issues, not inspired by it, and his work is visible today not because he was “good at marketing”, but because “…he had a brother who loved him.”
Although making your place in the art world can be harder if you are a woman, there are several things I also am, that make it a little easier for me. I’m white. (Not a person of color.) I’m middle class. (Not born into poverty, and I was able to attend college.) (No, my family didn’t “buy” my way in, either.) I identify as a woman. (Not LGBTQ.) I was raised Christian. (Not Muslim, Jewish, or any other religion that some consider “less than”.) (And though I now identify myself as agnostic.)
All of these identities are in my favor, NOT because they make me “better than”, but because some believe these traits make us “less than.” (It does not.) These folks have far more difficulty navigating the waters of our culture, throughout our history, and to this day, unfortunately.
Then of course, there is our choice of media we use to tell our story. I cannot tell you how many times people have told me I’m not a “real artist” because of my choice of media. I work in fiber (“That’s craft!”) and polymer (“That’s just fake clay, and clay is just a craft, too!”)
There are those who tell me I’m an awful writer, because I tell a story rather than simply “get to the point and tell me what to do!” (At one point, after someone complained my articles were too damn long, I put things like “5 minute read” in the bylines. In case, you know, five minutes was too much of a drain on their time.)
So when I write, I write for myself first. I write to reassure myself–and other artists who feel the same way–that our work IS needed in the world. It DOES serve a “purpose”–it’s our voice, our chance to have our say. Yes, making money from making our art is wonderful, empowering. But even if we don’t, we still have to find the time and energy to make it, if only for ourselves.
.And so when I write, I write for myself. To inspire myself. To remind myself, that though there are some who still would not consider me a “real artist”, the only person who can stop me from making my art (barring a drunk driver) is myself.
And the one single factor that keeps most of us from creating is…..
Such a little word, and so much damage comes from it! I came across this quote recently, but I can’t trace it to the original author.
Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.
This is why I share my writing with you.
Doubt kept me from trying harder. From making good decisions about my life work until my early 40’s. Doubt kept me from calling myself an artist, until I hit the wall, hard. Until the day I knew I had to do the work of my art, or I would destroy everything around me with bitterness. Doubt made me frightened, weak, and full of excuses why I wouldn’t take my work seriously.
Once I learned to pat doubt on its head, shush it lovingly, and move it back to its corner, failure was nothing. Failure I could deal with. Because if you give it your best shot, if you try and do your best, and fail? Well, at least you tried.
And then we learn to try again. And again. And again, until we either find a way through, or realize we will build a different path over, under, and around that obstacle in our way.
So when I share my beginnings, when I share my setbacks, when I share how I healed my toxic self-image, it’s because I want you to have what I have:
Hope, and courage, inspiration, and strength, and my own definition of success.
I want this for every single artist I meet.
And though we may never meet in person, I want this for YOU.
Hope is the thing with feathers
Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all, And sweetest in the gale is heard; And sore must be the storm That could abash the little bird That kept so many warm. I’ve heard it in the chillest land, And on the strangest sea; Yet, never, in extremity, It asked a crumb of me.
Take a tiny moment to say ‘thank you’, and count your blessings!
I’m an artist. And as an artist, my first responsibility is to make my art. It’s what restores me to my better self, makes me whole and centered. I make it for myself, first.
I know this first-hand, and many good friends remind me of this constantly. For example, the one who sent me a card with this quote:
People like you must create.
If you don’t create, Luann, you will become a menace to society.
(the note also says, “With apologies to Maria Semple, author of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”. See last paragraph in Part 3.”) (Thanks and a hat tip to Amy Helen Johnson!) (Yes, I bought the book.)
Our second responsibility is to put it out in the world. We mostly interpret this as selling our art, and making a living with our art. Some fortunate, hardworking few can do this. But walking away from the work of our heart, simply because we can’t sell it, is hurtful. (See “first responsibility”, above.)
There are lots of ways to get our work out into the world. If you make art, you can make it, share it, give it away, sell it, exhibit it, teach it, collaborate with it, write about it, donate it, etc. etc. The same with writing. The internet makes this almost effortless.
Yes, selling is wonderful–unless you get caught up in the selling, to the exclusion of everything else. Vincent Van Gogh’s work was only sold to his brother. (Do you have 3 minutes? Watch this heartbreakingly powerful snippet of a video about this.) (I dare you not to tear up.) And ironically, the most commercially successful artist of our time seems to have lost everything of value in a life dedicated to fame and fortune.
Somerwhere in the middle is where I’d like to end up.
So I recently stepped up my game in regard to selling. This came after realizing I was struggling to sell a $24 pair of earrings to a casual visitor in my studio. Realizing that one gallery hadn’t sold one single piece of my work in a year. Reflecting that most of my out-of-state galleries were struggling to sell my work. A local gallery that reached out to represent me, finally said they love love love my work (another line that’s fun, but not my “heart” work) just wasn’t selling, and they needed to set me free.
I felt like a failure. (Hey! 2017 was a weird year!)
Then I realized, why should I focus on making $24 earrings??? Why should I base my definition of success on income alone? Why was I falling for the same emotional/spiritual/inaccurate measuring stick I constantly counsel and warn artists against????
So…I upped my game.
I cleared my studio of the fun-but-inexpensive work, focused on the work of my heart.
I realized that just because I’m now writing weekly for an art marketing newsletter doesn’t mean I’m off the hook with my blog.
I reevaluated, recentered, and refocused on my biggest vision for my art. And I cleaned house on my Etsy site, and focused on the work I have on hand, my best work, and moved forward.
I decided to make the work that makes me happy, and not the work I think I can sell.
Another gallery in the same town as the one that cut me loose, took on my work two weeks. And they’ve already made a sale.
The gallery in Santa Rosa has been selling steadily, and it just keeps getting better and better.
A gallery that hadn’t sold any of my work in a year, sold a MAJOR PIECE. And another big (for me) piece the same day.
And I’ve had five sales in my Etsy shop this month. (A lot for me!)
But that’s not all. Every single sale has resulted in a message from the buyer, telling me how much they love love love what I do, how it speaks to them, and how even more amazing it is in person.
Today I got home to a beautiful email from a delighted buyer. I always respond, with gratitude and joy.
But because I’m human, because I’m afraid to be too happy, afraid to be too hopeful, I tend to respond well outside. But inside, I hold back. Thinking, “Well, that’s great, but…..” “Don’t get a swelled head, because…..” “Don’t get your hopes up because…..”
But this time, I read that email. And something told me….
Be in this moment.
Embrace this moment. Stop and celebrate it.
This moment is the blessing, the extra gift, that comes for making my work and getting it out into the world.
Take note of this moment.
I remembered, decades ago, a wise woman I crossed paths with, who shared a powerful insight with me.
When we really want something, she said, there is a centering, empowering way to ask.
Stand up, head bowed, humbly. Think of what your heart desires. Breathe in, breathe out. Then stand tall. Expand.
Raise your head, open your arms, and hands. Look to the heavens above.
And simply ask, with all your heart, what it is you desire.
The very first time I did this, I was in an antique store. I’d been looking for years for a wonderful book that was long out of print. (This was years before I finally discovered Bookfinder.com, the absolute best tool for finding any book in the world.)
I thought, what the heck? I did the mantra.
And when I was done, I look up. I saw a bookcase in the booth across the room. I walked to it.
And I found the book.*
So today, before I could diminish my joy, before I could “be logical” about my delight in this sale, and this email note from my buyer, I decided to take a moment to celebrate.
I did my little ceremony.
But instead of asking for anything, I simply said….
In these days of “Be careful what you wish for”, in these days of “Yeah, but….”, in these days of, as Anne Lamott succinctly put it, “…compar(ing) our insides to other people’s outsides”, in these days of internet fame and viral prodigies, in these days of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), in these days of wondering, “Will I ever be a successful artist?”, without ever stopping to think of what “success” means to YOU….
Take a minute to give thanks.
To count your blessings.
To feel the full joy of having a voice in the world.
And the unexpected delight of having someone else hearing your song.
Now…go to your studio and make stuff.
*David and the Phoenix (Illustrated) by Edward Ormondroyd, if you want to know, and it’s been reprinted since then.
(OH, and you can see my Etsy shop here.)
My column for Fine Art Views, on all the ways to make room for your art:
Fear Of Missing Out results in so very many, so very bad decisions.
Today’s little Venn diagram from Indexed (by Jessica Hagy) sums up this week’s brain buzz (mine) pretty well:
FOMO. Aka, Fear Of Missing Out.
Whenever I see an artist who’s more successful than I am, whenever I see a booth that’s busier than mine at a fair, when another artist is mobbed at a gallery I’m in, I freak out inside.
Whenever I see someone whose work is so amazing and powerful, I writhe with envy.
Whenever I see someone who seems to have nabbed every lovely opportunity/venue/award/kudos/publicity spot under the sun, I die inside a little.
Because I’m sure I’m missing out.
I’m sure that person has it figured out. I’m sure they’re more savvy in their marketing, more practiced in their technique. I’m really sure they’re ‘on trend’, riding that glorious 15 foot wave with the perfect curl, hair blowing in the wind, dolphins cavorting in their wake squealing, “You GO, grrl!” (Or “Way to go, dude!”)
I mope in my studio, trying to figure out what will sell. Trying to figure out what I’m doing wrong. Trying to figure out how I’ll pay my business debts.
Will I ever write another book? Will I ever be a successful artist again? (Relatively speaking….) Will I ever be that cool, sophisticated artist who “explores the interstices of form and chaos, reveling in the capricious nature of conforming and rebellion. As momentary derivatives become clarified through emergent and academic practice, the viewer is left with a clue to the possibilities of our culture.” (Okay, I totally stole that last line from Arty Bollocks, the online artist statement generator.)
Jessica Hagy’s illustration brings a touch of clarity to the buzz. “What you’ve heard” vs. “What matters” is simply “PR trumping journalism”.
It’s the lizard brain reacting, instead of the work that is in your heart resonating.
It’s not who comes by. It’s who comes back.
It’s not about how many people will like my work. It’s about introducing my work to a new audience, even if that’s a handful of people.
It’s not how much money I make at any given show. It’s about being at least successful enough to keep moving forward. And being brave enough to try.
I love, love, love making whimisical jewelry from vintage buttons and old radio resistors. And I love making freshwater pearl jewelry. But only I can tell my story, the one that reveals how the Lascaux cave became a metaphor for my entire body of work.
And so I soothe my fevered brain today. Yes, it’s been awhile since I’ve set up for a show, especially ones that are limited in space. Yes, I worry about my prices with a new audience. Yes, I have no idea where half my booth stuff is, and whether my car is big enough to pack what I need.
But this isn’t about creating a smaller booth orthe best display, it’s not about looking professional (arrrrrgh!!), it’s not about doing it perfectly.
It’s about getting my art out into the world again, in a new place, in unfamiliar territory…one small step at a time.
OH, almost forgot: I’ll be at the San Francisco Center for the Book’s Holiday Craft Fair this Saturday, Nov. 21, from 10-5. It’s on Rhode Island Street. That’s all I know.
OH, forgot again: Thank you, Jessica Hagy!!!!