Sometimes, we don’t need stories.
Last week, I traveled to the East Coast to see my daughter and her husband and their new home in Washington, D.C. While I was there, I had an interesting conversation about art with her.
Robin actually worked with me for over a decade in my show booth, doing a 9-day local retail craft show, and a major wholesale fine craft show on the East Coast. She started as my booth assistant: Helping with set-up, processing sales (which allowed me to be “The Artist”), etc.
She was involved in the drama club in high school as a member of the stage crew, so she soon did my lighting set-up, too. She was quiet by nature, and a keen observer. She saw many of the clues that indicated a display or floor layout needed to be tweaked. And as she grew more confident, she became an excellent salesperson, too.
These show opportunities gave her exposure to “handmade”, too, and she came to value it highly. Over the years, she bought (or we traded for) glasswork, pottery, photography, jewelry, and she now has her own “handmade” pursuits.
She continues to shop for “handmade” even now. But she shops very differently than my generation does!
She mostly buys on Etsy.
And she does not care about the story.
When she told me this, I was shocked. Every time we drove for an hour up to the 9-day retail show, I would put in a cassette (and then the CD) of Bruce Baker’s tips on displaying and selling. Over the years, I almost memorized the content, and so did my kids.
At one marketing education event in which I sat on a panel with Bruce, I had to bring my 8-year-old son with me at the last minute. Doug sat patiently in the back row with snacks and a book. When Bruce did his presentation, he said, “When you introduce yourself to someone coming into your booth, you need to avoid pressuring them. There’s one little word that will turn the whole dynamic around. Anybody know that word?”
Of course, I knew the word. But no one else in the room did. The silence went on until I finally said, “Doug knows the word.”
All eyes turned to little Doug in the back row, and Bruce said, “Doug?”
And Doug confidently replied, “IF!”
As in, not “CAN I help you?”, which will almost always be responded to with, “No thanks, just looking” but “IF I can help you, just let me know…” which will almost always be responded to with, “Thank you!” and opens a conversation when the person is ready.
So after listening to all those presentations on story, and because my story is so personal, and powerful, how could Robin not care about the story???
It turns out she and her husband are self-described “geeks and nerds”, fully into the gaming world and its heroes. Though she still has all her artwork from “the old days”, their little home is now also filled with sweet and funny meme art: Godzilla posters, Star Trek “Next Generation” artwork, and little toys from their childhood.
“I just don’t care about the story, Mama!” she exclaimed. “If I like something, I just buy it!”
Now, on one hand, my daughter is probably not your customer. They don’t have the money to afford more than $100, and their taste does not tend to landscapes, bowls of fruit and wine, or rusty trucks.
But handmade is important to them. She prefers NOT to shop at Target’s, but has many “favorites” on Etsy, and visits them often. (She also purchases handmade watercolors on Etsy to create her own work.)
They collect work that reflects their interests, their lifestyle choices, and their pocketbook.
And they will continue to do that, presumably for the rest of their lives.
So in a time where there are more working artists in the world than ever, throughout history, in a time where many of us started out 20, 30, even 40 or 50 years ago and we are gradually losing our patrons to downsizing, changes in lifestyle and even, sadly, death, in a time where “Ire fortiter quo nemo ante iit”  is an important detail in a print, how do we grow a new audience?
I’m not suggesting you start painting Data and Geordi in their Holodeck Sherlock Holmes adventures. There are plenty of people who still love landscapes, partly because our brains are hardwired to appreciate a landscape. It’s welded into our DNA from the time of our need to scan horizons constantly, looking for danger, for the morning light, for foraging for food. We will always want images of people we love, and so portraits will always be a “thing”. Still lifes always catch our eye, depending on whether they depict the components that speak to us.
And I am not suggesting we all stop telling our story.
When we fear our work isn’t good enough anymore because sales are slow, remember that not only, have our collectors dwindled, more importantly times change. In fact, yesterday I saw a trendy new jewelry design that echoes the minimalist aesthetic in the marketplace when I first started making jewelry in the early 1990’s. (A time I do not wish to return to. Oh well.)
And I say loud and clear, do not lower your prices! Especially if you’ve already sold items in the same series at the higher price. It sends a terrible message to the people who literally and figuratively invested in us. And it makes our pricing strategy seem random and reactive.
And here is the deepest hope:
Once people learn to treasure “handmade” over “mass-produced”, they never leave it behind.
If anything, the “maker movement” has made handmade even more desirable. And the boundaries of what “real art” and “real craft” is, is being expanded exponentially. (Folks who get stuck in “real art is only oil painting” and such were never my potential customers in the first place. And collectors of the multi-million dollar Impressionist artwork sold for record prices at prestigious auctions were never my customer base. People who snort at “craft beer” and “artisanal food” may be right, but the customer base for those don’t care what WE think. I got over it. You can, too!)
My daughter still wants something of beauty that came from another person’s hands, and heart, especially when she started to make and sell her own work. As she browsed for an urn for the ashes of her stillborn child, she became frustrated with the same ol’ sale ol’ look of them. Nothing felt personal enough, or fit the emotion of the event. When I suggested that a good friend who works with wood might make something especially for her, she lit up. (She found a maker on Etsy who resonated with her.)
This box will be in their home forever, and every time they see it, it will bring a bit of solace amid the sorrow. They may not know, or care to know, the story of the maker. But it holds their own story of this time, and that’s what matters.
The potential of this younger audience is huge. Yes, trends have changed, and money will be an issue, for awhile. But when they have the money, they will up their game for the artwork and handcrafts that “speak” to them.
I’ve experienced this first-hand in my old A Street studio. One last-minute shopper bought a small framed bear artifact collage for his wife. He thought it was a guinea pig! Rather than be offended, I simply said it was a bear, just so they wouldn’t feel misled, and he said, “It looks enough like a guinea pig, she’ll love it!” And so I made a few hundred dollars in a five minute transaction.
I saw another artist’s work at a gallery, who paints still lifes of vintage children’s toys. Their work was excellent, but sales were slow. What would I suggest to them about marketing?
Approach the toy manufacturers who produced those toys, to see if their corporate offices are interested. Find stores that sell high-end baby and children’s products, to display and sell them. Children’s hospitals and wards might be onboard for artwork and/or murals. Tag images of the toys, manufacturers, etc. online with whatever would attract this age group, new parents, and young homeowners. Lower their budget threshold by offering reasonably priced repros, or offering smaller works, or larger original work without frames. (It’s not forever, just until your new audience grows enough to tolerate your higher priced work.) Seek out galleries that attract a younger audience, OR the new grandparent market. (Grandparents are my age, and they probably have more disposable income!) There are probably lots of other potential venues, and I hope you’ll share the strategies that have worked for you.
There are younger visitors who do feel the powerful story in my work, and they enjoy hearing mine. They are also grateful that in addition to my shrines, which can be priced in the thousands, I have smaller original works for less than $100. And they buy them.
I’m still processing this, just like you. I don’t have any sure-fire solutions to help rebuild an audience that has dwindled.
Right now, I make what I find meaningful and beautiful. I try to offer a range of work that can meet most budgets. I keep the quality in the work, refusing to “dumb it down” or use inferior materials to make it.
I have signage in my studio that tell stories, not just for those who would rather read it than listen to me tell it, but also so I don’t “force” my story on those who may not need it to make their purchasing decision. (Yes, there are ways to tell! Hint: It’s what they ask us about our work when they are ready to talk to us.)
I have found an audience, steadily, through my work and my writing. It still serves them, and new ones will emerge. I just have to keep making it, keep marketing it, make it accessible online for those who can’t meet me in person, and easy to buy for those who prefer not to engage. I’m fortunate my artifacts are safe for youngsters to touch and hold, too. Asking a child if they would like to hold a bear or a horse (and waiting while they seriously ponder their choices, which is a hoot!) doesn’t end in a sale. But it opens a doorway to experiencing art for the whole family, and has produced beautiful stories down the road. (This one is my favorite!)
So let’s open our hearts, and our minds, to these changes which time will bring.
There are many ways for our work to become a part of someone else’s story, someone else’s world, someone else’s journey.
Keep hope in your heart, and be open to new possibilities. And be patient with yourself, as we all navigate these new waters.
Art is part of us, no matter what it is, no matter where, or how, or when we find it. Online markets can be just as powerful as in-person encounters, if not more. (Many in this age group never even think about going to traditional art galleries. Yet.)
And I will hope ALL of our art, mine, and yours, will be “found”, someday, by the people who will love it and enjoy it for the rest of their lives.
In yesterday’s post, I shared what is–has been–a huge part of my life: The blender. A constant buzz and swirl of chatter in my head. Even as a child, I mulled and ruminated. (Odd. Both of those can also be food words.) Hashing and rehashing events, issues, questions, worries. I’ve always felt like a blender!
I know that’s part of the human condition. In our modern world, especially for most of us who have….enough (even when it doesn’t seem like it), our little buzzy brains are always busy. Evolved over millennia to watch for lions, tigers, and bears, now we imagine danger (and worse, humiliation) in every shadow and behind every corner. (Unless you are a sociopath or a narcissist, in which case you have a lot less buzz. But people don’t like you very much.)
Let’s add another string bean to the blender: I’ve had tinnitus my entire life. I thought everybody had a ringing chord in their brain. I thought I was hearing electricity, that the power lines connecting our houses were thrumming with it. I was six when I realized only I could hear it.
It’s never gone away, and probably never will.
So a week ago, I began my blender meditation.
Wednesday morning: I imagine a blender. I put in some water, some ice, oil. A few peas. (Peas, Quinn? Why??) A strawberry. Some food coloring. In my mind I turned it on, I watched, I waited. And then I turned it off, just as the alarm on my timer went off, too.
I wrote one word in my journal: Yuck. (It made me queasy.)
Thursday a.m. I put something different in the blender: Rocks. Small pebbles, sand, silt. Leaf litter and debris. Water. Sediment layers!! (I love geology!) And some floaty plastic bead things. I’d been using one of those hot/cold gel pads on my cat bites (a story for another day), and they obviously intrigued me to the point where they got stuck in my head.
I thought this was a great visualization, because I’ve done this before (without a blender), and marveled at how well the ingredients settle out. And each layer has a potential purpose. Gravel can pave a path. Small grit can be used in concrete. We can use one layer to make clay for pottery. We can drink the water. The debris? Compost!
I also realized it was the sound of the blender (that high-pitched grating whine) that made me feel queasy.
And I thought of my tinnitus, because sometimes it, too, sounds whiney.
But what if that whine had layers, too? Sometimes I can ‘hear’ it as a chord, a blend of many tones. Sometimes I imagine it as the noise of my own body (one theory about lifelong tinnitus)
What if I were actually hearing….the steady tone of the universe??
I raised my open hands to that achey place, and held them there. I felt comforted.
Then the alarm went off. I wrote all these thoughts down.
On Friday, I worried about my rock smoothie. What if the rocks broke the blender?! What a mess, right? So instead of rocks and dirt, I realized I could put shoulda/coulda/woulda into the blender. All the second guessing, all the remorse, all the replays of the bad moments of my life, the fears (“I could do that! But wait….what if….??”), the self-doubt, the self-recriminations….
As the whine grew louder in my head, there suddenly came a flash of insight:
I could add “I shall” and “I will” to the blender. And…I could add “maybe”.
As in, “Maybe I will, and maybe I won’t.” As in, “I don’t have to make a decision. In fact, I can decide not to decide.”
Again, I put my hands to that achey place, and felt comforted.
The blender wavered. And then the alarm went off. I wrote all these thoughts down.
On Saturday I got all caught up in the details. Rocks? I could, too, pick them up with wet hands! (Part of Quinn’s metaphor about the uselessness of trying to corral those thoughts.) (Yet another aspect of the human brain. We love to rebut.)
I decided to go back to the peas and strawberries, etc.
Then I thought of Quinn’s comment: “I see you circling the ‘problem’ with your back to it.” I imagined what that would look like. I immediately thought of Mike Birbiglia’s comedy routine, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend”, and his description of the amusement park ride, The Scrambler. (Later in his routine, he actually spins and wheels across the stage to demonstrate, but I can’t find that bit.)
I laughed out loud. And the timer went off.
On Sunday, it was about the noise again. The blender was whining. Jon was outside with our new weed-whacker. The refrigerator hummed. My tinnitus was ringing. Noise! The noise was unbearable.
And suddenly, I saw the noise as something different.
Everything is doing what it’s supposed to do.
My body is alive–heart pumping, blood flowing, ears listening, brain processing the wonder of all this, even as I sit quietly in my chair. The fridge is keeping our food cool and safe. The weed-whacker is whacking weeds. The universe doing its universing thing.
My brain is doing what it’s supposed to do. Overdoing it, perhaps. But it’s not a bad brain. It’s just busy, acquiring information, assessing each bit for danger, for possibility and usefulness.
Simply observing it at work is a marvel. Our minds are a gift. My life is a gift.
I suddenly realized, my brain is simply trying, in its own way, to take care of me. It’s busy evaluating each possibility, examining the potential of each thought, even the ones I cannot control, the ones I have absolutely no power over.
And if I can keep out of the process, just for a moment, I realize it will all settle out on its own, into the layers that I can contemplate later at my leisure: Hmmmm, no, that one is not a danger I have to act on. That one is interesting, but not actionable right now. That one is a possibility, but I don’t have to decide right now.
My responsibility? To let that gift do what’s supposed to do. Let it expand. Let it sift. But don’t lose sight of what’s important.
I am meant to grow. To learn, to expand.
I am meant to to sift. To let go of what does not serve me: Fretting, mulling, worrying.
I am meant to forgive, myself and others, to take the lessons learned and move on.
I am meant to share what I am, what I make. I share what I make with my hands, sometimes by selling, but also by exchanging, by writing about it, by giving it away. In its own time, at its own pace.
I thought of the ache in my chest (I never think of my ‘heart’ as the source except metaphorically. It’s always at the top of my chest, for some reason.) I raised my open hands to that ache, to comfort it. I felt peace. Love. Relief.
And the timer went off.
On Monday, the blender started. And I thought of the video, We Came to Dance.
The words, “We learned there were rules to being human…” (shame, guilt, feel of humiliation if we don’t do it right.) “We stopped listening to the humming in our veins…” (My tinnitus! One theory of tinnitus is that the sound is in every one of us, but most have learned to ‘screen it out’…) With the beating of my heart, and the chord of music I carry everywhere, even the odd musical note that is the blender of my brain, is music.
I thought about dancing. What would dancing to that music be like?
Suddenly, the noise of the blender receded, even before I turned the blender off.
In its place I heard the thrum of traffic, more noticeable because many trees lost their leaves and so don’t muffle the noise. But spring is here, and the leaves are coming back.
I heard the cherk of saucy jays, and the tiny pips of unknown birds (new to me) that I call ‘pipkins’ (until I learn their proper name.) I heard the voices of children playing in the neighborhood. (School holiday?) I heard the clock ticking, measuring time in its sometimes helpful, sometimes annoying way. I heard the timer’s alarm.
And I felt peace in my heart.
Today was Tuesday. And I only wrote down two phrases:
Tardigrade, aka ‘water bears’. (Google it, it’s weird.) (Should I be freaked out??)
And 4-7-8, the new “guaranteed-to-help-you-sleep’ breath count. Which I’ve tried, and feel like I’m suffocating. (Am I doing it wrong??)
I laugh. And get ready to start my day, with a little peace in my heart.
What’s the problem I’m circling with my back to it? I still have no idea.
But I know Quinn will be there to help me sort it out. I know Sheri will be back in a week. My kids are visiting later this month, and my daughter has assured me the too-tiny fold out sofa bed will be fine.
All I have to do is trust my process. And enjoy the day.
Did you find that helpful? Part of me worries that you won’t.
But mostly I did what I do: Shared it with you, to help you on your journey, wherever the ripples take you.
And that’s all I have to do, today.
p.s. Oh, and clean the cat litter. And make the bed. And go work out. And go to the studio. And maybe go grocery shopping. And put the too-tiny sofa bed together. And clean the bathrooms, kitchen, back hallway, and basement. And everything else. And not worry about galleries, publicity, sales, exhibit opportunities, volunteering, staying in touch with friends and family, how to create the perfect visit for my kids, how to take care of loved ones, etc., etc., etc.
But somehow, it all looks a little more manageable.
We love our new lives in California. But sometimes all the ‘new’ is overwhelming.
Even small things, like not recognizing the ‘ordinary’ birds out here, remind us daily of what we don’t know about California. (There are at least TWO kinds of jays here in Santa Rosa.) (And what are the ones that go, “pip”. “Pip.”)
Then there’s been the big stuff: A knee surgery for me, within two months of moving here, for me, double hip replacement surgery for Jon less than six months ago. Rebuilding our careers, missing our kids, our friends, our resources…. Did I say missing our kids?
Starting over….I knew it would take time to rebuild an audience for my art, time to grow a new audience, here on the other coast. I know that takes patience. (Not my forte, btw, patience. Er….could you tell?)
But it’s the constant second-guessing that’s killing me. Not knowing what is an opportunity, and what’s a distraction. What’s the next step? What should hold on to, and what do I let go of. When to wait, and when to act. And my studio–is it a workspace? A store? A blessed space, a sanctuary? Yet another place to fill with stuff?? Finished goods overrunning the space, a constant reminder that it’s not selling??? All of the above???!!
It boggles the mind. MY mind, daily.
Last month, I had a healing, enlightening, expanding session with a new friend here, Sheri Gaynor of Creative Awakenings. It was healing with horses, something I’ve encountered (and will always treasure) just before I left New Hampshire, at HorseTenders Mustang Foundation. I highly recommend both Sheri and the HorseTenders programs.
Of course, the new vision frightened me. And of course, being me, I immediately when into ‘contraction state’ (Who, me?? I can’t do that!!) and right through to planning mode. (What does that look like? How does it work? How to I monetize it? Should I monetize it??)
“Call Sheri!” my fevered brain begged. So I did. Ack!! Sheri is on a sabbatical in Costa Rica, for her own much-needed retreat, respite, and restoration of heart and soul.
The song from Ghostbusters ran through my head…”Who ya gonna call??”
And then it occured to me who I could call: My friend and mentor Quinn McDonald of Quinn Creative. (I love her tagline: “Clarity starts here.”)
I had a coaching session with Quinn years ago, in the middle of another professional turmoil/quandry. (Okay, I have them every
month day 20 minutes, if you must know.)
She asked if I were a perfectionist, and I said yes. Who doesn’t want to always do their best??
“The trouble with being a perfectionist,” she said, “is that you are full of ‘knowing’. And when you are full of knowing, nothing new can come in.”
Let me repeat that amazing, seemingly-simple little sentence….
When you are full of ‘knowing’, nothing new can come in.
That phrase lit up my life for the next six years. Still does. And so I turned to Quinn to walk me through my latest crisis of heart.
After listening to me
whine describe what I was going through, Quinn created a metaphor for a brief, daily meditation, an image to capture what I was going through and what it felt like–and what to do about it.
It’s a blender.
“Imagine a blender. Throw some ice cubes, some water, a little oil, a couple of peas, maybe a strawberry. And some food coloring!” she said. “Then turn it on.”
My life has been a blender the past few years, she said. All of that stuff, the good, the awesomely good, the bad, the really bad, the scary bad, the good in the bad, everything, is whirling around, being chopped into tinier and tinier pieces. “And you’re trying to pick up those pieces as they fly by, with wet hands.”
Boy, did I get it.
“So life is not supposed to be a smoothie,” I mused. Right, said Quinn.
Hence the meditation. She described the steps, ending with “turn off the blender.” (whew!) Then, “Write down what comes up, after”, she said. “Even a word or two. Keep a written record for the next week or two. We’ll talk more about that later.”
Now, knowing me, you KNOW I wrote down more than a word or two.
And no, I actually don’t like smoothies. A milkshake, yes. No veggies, please, nor fruit.
And in tomorrow’s post, I’ll share what came up, and where I’m going with this.
Til then: Turn off the blender!
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!!!!