The Story You Tell and the Power of Your Tribe

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.

 A month ago, my husband was cycling on a bike path, when he ran over a stick. It jammed in his derailleur and broke it. Fortunately, I was a phone call away and retrieved him (and the bike) quickly.
Yesterday, the exact same thing happened AGAIN. (He swears it was the same damn stick, but I don’t believe that.) Unfortunately, I am thousands of miles away, in Keene, NH. And he had to walk home, in his bike shoes.

Life has a lot of sticks just waiting to jam up our derailleur…er, life. And in the last month, we’ve run over a lot of them.

The already sky-high rent on our home here in Santa Rosa, CA was raised, eating up almost half our income. We now have two large dogs and three cats. The rental market here is as tight as it is expensive, and it will be impossible to find a landlord willing to rent to us. As former home-owners for 27 years, it’s embarrassing to find ourselves here. (We did find a place, a much smaller place. As soon as I get back to California, we have to pack up and move.  My art will be on hold for awhile. Again. But bookmark this, I’ll return to it later.)

My husband’s employer’s company has 3-4 months of funding left, and there will be no more in the pipeline. All sources have been exhausted. The tech industry does not readily employ people in their 60’s.  Jon’s best option is to strike out on his own. But this is an expensive place for our second reboot in three years, and it’s a little scary.

My art sales have slumped. (This is not unique to me, I know, and not entirely of my making, but there you go.)

One of our children is struggling here in Keene. It sounded urgent enough for me to book a flight out here, to see what I can do. It is cold here. Really, really cold. Like 10 degrees when I woke up, and more snow, with winds gusting to shove that snow right up my nose.

My daughter just announced she’s getting married this summer, in the middle of Tennessee (best spot for the solar eclipse).

And that wonderful shared studio space at that incredible artist enclave has disappeared. My friend and I have extremely different visions for how the space should work. To preserve the friendship, I told her I needed to step away. But it all blew up in my face. My friend is deeply hurt by my decision. With all the other setbacks on my plate, I can’t afford the oxygen to fix this, even if that were possible.

That’s one story.

But here is the other side of the story I chose to tell.

My old tribe here in Keene is holding me together in so many ways. They know who I am, they know what to do.

These trusted friends will hold my tender heart, and my huge artistic vision, in their gentle, loving hands, until I can take them up again.

Let’s go way back, to the beginning of my art career. I took a workshop from wise woman Deborah Kruger, on creating an artist support group.

The premise was, “Women can do it all. But not necessarily all at the same time.”

When life throws big effin’ sticks in our path—sickness, death, divorce, job loss, a big move—there is only so much we can handle. Sometimes the first thing that gets put on hold is the very thing that nourishes our heart and lightens our soul: Our art.

Good friends will hold that vision of you: Your goals, your process, your abilities, your path. When you are ready (even if you think you’re not), they will gently remind you who you are. And help restore you to yourself.

Now let’s look at the other story I choose to tell:

Gift #1 Though we have not built that precious network of friends here in CA, it’s in process. And a friendship of 20 years led to our next home. It will only be available to us for a few years. But that will give us the space to figure out where we go from here. They know we have pets, too. Yay!

Gift #2 The painfully broken friendship gave me clarity on a better way to be there for my child. I will not force him to take care of me during this difficult time, no matter how hard it is to listen sometimes. I need only be present, for now. If that hadn’t happened two days before I left, I would have blundered on as I have done in the past. It was a lesson that arrived just in time to be a better mother.

Gift #3 As I make time to meet up with these good friends, each one has an insight for me. I hear the exact words I need to make it through the day. As I bemoaned the fact that I’d fallen into another situation I should have recognized—again—a friend exclaimed, “I just LOVE my life lessons! I love them so much, I learn them all over again. And again. And again!” I laughed for the first time in days.

Gift #4 As I share such wonderful insights with the next friend I meet up with, it’s just what they need to hear, too!

Gift #5 We have already realized the rewards of our life reboot. Jon’s got his game back, reconnecting with old allies, and finding new ones. The work he’s doing is the work of his heart—collaborating with users to create the tools they need to make their own work easier. The projects are timely, extremely relevant, and deeply-rooted in bettering our culture.

As we consider our next steps–as our reboot is rebooting–Jon and I realize it will be easier this time. For example, we are only moving across town, and we can break it down into small loads. And the new neighborhood will have all the features we treasure in this one.

Gift #6 My art will go on hold again, though hopefully not for long. OTOH, if we should have to leave Sonoma County down the road, I’ll only have to walk away from a few years of audience-building here. Not three decades, like our first move!

Gift #7 My Keene tribe is still here!

Gift #8 I’m passing on the gifts! When I was living in Keene, I never thought of connecting my tribe members! (I know, I know—“DOH!!”) Two of my meet-ups organically overlapped yesterday, and two friends met each other for the first time. The synergy was astonishing. One had the exact information the other needed to take a step forward in a new career. The other recognized not only a new, rich resource in the first friend, but an ally. Both were validated anew to themselves as they recognized the same qualities in each other: Passion, integrity, professionalism, creativity, emotional maturity, and a wicked sense of humor.

I’m now working on getting all of these core people together, if not on this trip (though we’re trying!) then the next. In between, there’s Skype and Google Hangout. We’ll figure it out.

#9 And now I’ve shared this gift with you, faithful readers.

I’ve shared how sometimes, the seeds of a new beginning are buried in the deep past, and sometimes, even in the most recent hardship. The way to your next step is not carefully hidden in the great universe; it is often right under your nose. The words you need to hear are already sitting in the heart of someone who may cross your path—today.

And when the world feels like a hard and hopeless place, there may be someone standing next to you who will offer exactly what you need to get through it. Holding your dream, your beautiful vulnerable open heart, tenderly and lovingly, until you are ready to pick them up again.

Your bonus gift for subscribing today! Here are some of the wonderful words I’ve heard, in addition to the ones I’ve already shared. There will be more!

“Breath until you’re surprised.” This came up in a conversation about an ancient breathing/meditative practice that helps people heal from trauma, grief, and abuse faster. I sense there’s something deliciously deeper here that will reveal itself in time. It’s still sitting with me, and I love it.

“It’s only blood.” In a discussion about letting go of old family conflicts that may never be healed. If the family we’re born into is difficult, we can choose to create our own family.

“This ain’t your first rodeo. You don’t have to be the clown.” A discussion about me trying to make myself smaller so I can make insecure people feel better.

“You don’t have to go to every fight you’re invited to.” No explanation needed.

 “I sit with uncertainty everyday, until Clarity makes her presence known.” Every. Single. Day.

(If you’d like to see the published article and comments, go here.

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AT THE FAIR: Muscle Memory

Sometimes we could–should–listen to our hearts instead of our bodies.

It’s been a long, wonderful week at this year’s League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair up at Mt. Sunapee Resort in Newbury, NH. Busy! So busy the time seems to fly by. Lots of new faces, and familiar ones, tales of happiness and sorrow.

My heart is full when I come home, but my body is racked with pain.

Last night, I had a session with a chiropractor, who, like me, has a martial arts background. I mentioned I was thinking of returning to my practice. The hurdle is this: Usually I return to classes to get in shape. As I age, I should really be in better shape before I attempt to do that.

He said it was a wise choice. I’ve had a lot of injuries and another surgery in the last year, and things–alignment, balance–are out of whack. “If you return now, without letting your body heal, your muscle memory will kick in. Your body will try to do the things you used to do. But you can’t do them right now, and you’ll injure yourself trying.”

Aha! That’s why some of my ‘returns’ have been so short-lived!

That phrase–muscle memory–stuck in my mind, and helped me understand where some of my discomfort at the Fair comes from.

Most people think we artists and craftspeople are like a big family. Well, that’s more true than you know. When I first joined the ranks, I felt like I’d found my tribe, my true heart’s home. It was a shock to realize it really is like a big family. (I have personal experience–I’m the oldest of seven children.)

Some of us don’t speak to each other. Others come to us for support and comfort and inspiration constantly. Professional jealousy rears its ugly head constantly. And there are others who cheer us on with every step.

Set-up is the hardest. One minute you’re offering someone your precious stool, and the next you’re snarling at them to move their junk out of your booth space.

Sometimes too much has passed between you. Then there is no opportunity missed for a caustic remark to be made, even as you win an award. Some cannot even bring themselves to greet you as you pass on your many trips to the bathroom or Fair office (or the bar at the top of the hill.)

For these times, there is muscle memory: Your body, remembering the acts of unkindness, shrinks when you see them, and you cannot bring yourself to even pretend to be polite anymore.

But there is a way out.

Over the years, I’ve learned that, 99% of the time, someone who is causing you anguish, is carrying their own tight anguish inside their heart. In short–it’s not about you. It’s about THEM. You happen to be a convenient target.

And sometimes it’s us. We’ve done somebody wrong, and it’s time to admit that. Take responsibility for it, and say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me. And if you can’t, I understand.”

Then try to live with the fact that we, too, are imperfect people.

I have done things I’ve had to ask forgiveness for. And sweet Jesus, I received it. I have others who have asked forgiveness from me, and I am overwhelmed by their humility–and courage. It takes real courage to apologize. I know. I’ve been there.

In the end, we have to trust the work of our hands, and the work of our hearts. We live in this tribe, in many tribes, actually. We live in this world.

I like to think if we could trust the muscle memory of of hearts and spirits, a little more than the muscle memory of our bodies, just a little….

Then maybe someday we could even have peace in the Middle East.

Okay, that last line is a family joke, and perhaps not even a very good one. (“I hat you” is also a long-standing family joke.)

But that’s what families are for–a place where we can work out our little dramas and big heartaches, and ultimately find a place where we can stand and say, “You’re a poop, but I love you, and yes, I forgive you. Seventy times seven.”

And cross our hearts and hope for the best.

May you be able to forgive, seventy times seven. And may you also be forgiven, at least ten times as much.

SELLING YOUR WORK: Far Afield? Or Close to Home?

There are pros and cons to being a ‘local artist’, and many artists opt to ‘get out of Denver’ as quickly as they can. But there are deep reasons to building a local audience first.

I got an email newsletter from artist and writer Robert Genn. I always enjoy his thoughts on making and selling art. He’s a good writer, and a thoughtful one.

Today (insert link here) he tells why he decided to skip a local market, and developed more distant venues to sell his paintings.

I felt the same way when I started out with my art. I feared that ancient ponies and bone awls would never find a hold in a traditional New England marketplace. I did a few local shows, just to prove to myself I needed to go further afield. And then I did just that.

But I’m here today to eat my words. (I do that a lot.) There are lots of good reasons to start local. And I’ll give you suggestions on how to make it work.

You’ll learn how to talk about your work.

“I hate talking about my work!” “I don’t know what to say.” “My work speaks for itself.” “I’m shy–I just can’t talk to people!” I’ve heard–and said–these words so many times. Let’s cut to the chase. Art rarely ‘sells itself’. Somebody has to talk about it. If it’s not you, then it has to be your gallery or sales rep.

And how are they going to know what to say about it unless you give them a clue? If a thousand artists paint a picture of a tree in a field, then how will someone decide yours is the one that goes home with them?

If you believe that artistically knowledgeable people can tell the difference between your tree and 99 others, or a thousand others, or 10,000, then you’re going to have to be the absolute best painter out there.

In reality, many collectors aren’t looking for ‘the best out there’. They want to believe the one they like best, is the best one.

And your job is to tell them why your painting is the best for them.

You can do it with credentialing–art school degrees, awards, honors, solo shows, etc. You can do it with publicity–press releases, getting your work published and exhibited, etc.

The easiest thing, of course, is to just tell them. You share your technique, your process, your story. Whatever works best to connect them to your work. (You know I vote for ‘story’, but if it feels safer to start with ‘process’, go for it.)

Of course, a gallery will do this for you. But who tells the gallery? Yup. Y-O-U. I got practice talking to my customers. By the time I talked to gallery owners, I was comfortable and confident.

You’ll discover what people love about your work.

I talked easily and readily about why I loved my work, once I got used to the notion. It’s when I shut up and listened that I found out why others loved it.

What other people say about your work is powerful. People overhearing someone else saying something wonderful, is even more powerful.

People saw things in my work that astonished me. As they told me how it affected them, what it meant to them, I became even more dedicated to making it. I realized I need to make it. And others need to see it.

That’s hard to do when your work–and your audience–is a thousand miles away.

And it’s powerful to be able to say to a prospective gallery, “This is what people say about my work….”

You’ll perfect your booth, your display, your signage, your entire presentation.

Let’s say you do get that perfect out-of-state show with the oh-so-sophisticated audience, or the super duper gallery with the big name artists roster. What will they say when they see your awkward framing? Your lack of support materials?

What do you do when your far from home and realize you’re missing a critical piece of your booth? It’s one thing to run home and grab it. It’s another to be looking for the nearest Home Depot at night, in a cab.

Doing local shows was an education. I learned the hard way how to streamline my set-up and breakdown (as much as I can with jewelry cases, table top AND wall displayed items!) I learned they hard way what was essential and what wasn’t. I learned through practice the best ways to display my work.

And then I did my first big out-of-state show. When I did, I hit the ground running. (Well. Running, yes. But there was still a lot I had to learn!)

You’ll generate enough money to keep going.

Getting into an out-of-state art exhibit was exhilarating. It forced me to get good images of my work, and to go looking for opportunity.

But it wasn’t great for sales.

It was a small but steady stream of local sales that kept me going. My local collectors supported me just enough for me to always take the next step. And that was really all I needed.

You’ll learn that you are responsible for your success.

Local market or farther afield, it still takes dedication and work to build your name as an artist. It’s easy to say, “Oh, no one around here appreciates good art” or “People here are too cheap to buy real art.”

I would have an easier time believing that, if I didn’t hear artists from around the world say this. All. THE. TIME.

We all like to blame others when our efforts don’t fly. I do! I want to blame everybody except myself.

I know we can’t control everything. I know we can’t command success. I know sometimes even the best efforts fail.

But we are responsible for doing the best we can.

As I learned how to do better–as I knew better–I did better, and I got better. My presentation improved. My ideas grew. My self-promotion got better. I learned how to believe in myself, and my art.

And I found it a lot easier to learn how to do that, with local venues and local customers.

The biggest reason I’m glad I started local?

When times got hard, I had a safety net.

When the recession hit, and the sales at big shows fell off, when galleries were closing left and right, my local audience saved my ass.

In all the years I’d bemoaned the lack of a ‘local audience’, my small band of collectors and supporters was actually growing quietly and steadily.

My open studios became more successful. My sales at state craft venues climbed–the League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair; the League shops: the Sharon Arts Center. Each year, just as sales tapered off at one venue, another would leap ahead. (For various reasons, my work tends to ‘cycle’ in popularity. Instead of despairing when sales falter, I now know to sit tight and come back with new work in a year or two.)

I now feel honored and supported by my local community.

As I said in my article about local self-promotion, publicizing your successes goes a long way to building that local audience. But I’ve learned it’s well worth the effort.

With the ease of discovering new markets and venues on the Internet, I don’t feel any artist is limited anymore to a local market. But I wouldn’t discount them, either.

Put your eggs in both baskets, and see what happens.

TRIBES #4: BEING THE PARIAH

Which is worse? Leaving a tribe behind, or being ASKED to leave the tribe??

I wrote earlier about how hard it is to leave a tribe we’ve outgrown or moved past.

A reader reminded me it’s even harder to leave when you don’t want to–but everybody else wants you to.

Is this scenario familiar? You have a special group of friends, good buddies. You’ve all been together for awhile and things are great.

Then one day a new person joins the group, usually invited in by one of the members.

It may start right away, or it may be insidious, but eventually, one of the original members of the group–YOU!!–is slowly but surely forced out.

Maybe you find out everyone else was invited to something. But not you. Or you are accused of talking about people behind their back. Maybe the new person is rude to you when no one else is around. But when you complain, everyone thinks you’re making it up.

The more frustrated and hurt you become, the more the group shuns you.

And one day, you are on the outside looking in. You are no longer part of the group.

This happened to me. I was in my forties, if you can believe it. (This is still humiliating to think about, but I was accused of stealing a tiny Rubbermaid container with Cheerios in it.) And ironically, it was me who invited the newcomer to join our group.

It seems ridiculous now, but at the time it was devastating. It was one of the most emotionally painful events of my life.

I had no idea what to do about it. It took awhile to get over it.

Then, a year later, I read an article about the same thing happening to somebody else, a kid who was in high school at the time.

A new kid joined his group of friends, who had been tight since first grade. Then the new kid spread rumors about him. Everyone turned on him. He was ousted from the group.

Fortunately, he had someone to counsel him. The wise words went something like this:

You cannot control what happened, because you cannot control what other people think. Since it’s not in your control, you must learn to let go, and move on. You may never learn why this happened, and it’s not important that you do.

This is the only thing you can know for sure: People who do this to you are simply not your friends.

The sad thing is, they may have been “good enough” friends for awhile. Maybe even for a long long time.

But when things got dicey, they cut and ran. They did not believe in you.

And so they weren’t really your friends.

Because real friends don’t do that.

Stay your course, believe in yourself, and follow your heart. You will make new friends, built on a stronger foundation. They will be better friends.”

It seems too simplistic to be helpful. But it helped.

First was the realization that this happens to others, too. I didn’t feel like such a pariah any more.

Comfort also came from realizing I had no control over what had happened. Therefore, I didn’t have to figure it out or even fix it. It was over, and it was time to let go.

The kid in the article moved on. He went to college, and made new friends. He began to value other, deeper qualities in his new friends–mutual respect, integrity, trustworthiness.

And the day came when one of his old friends contacted him to tell him that the group had finally broken up when the interloper tried the trick again. Everyone realized what had happened. He apologized and said he was sorry he had believed the rumors and lies.

It was nice of the guy to do that. But it didn’t really change anything. They resumed their friendship, but at a very casual level.

Whether you leave the tribe, or the tribe leaves you, the same thing is true…

They are not your tribe. Not any longer.

As Greg Behrendt says in his book, HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU, don’t waste the pretty. Don’t lose any more precious sleep or brain cells on figuring it out. Just be grateful you are free to explore your next step forward. And imagine the lovely new people you’ll meet on your way.

P.S. Of course, there’s always the possibility it IS you. Who can say? But the same advice applies. Move on if it’s causing you pain. Find the group that embraces your unique brand of irony.

TRIBES #2: FINDING YOUR PEEPS

Someone commented on my recent post, “RUNNING WITH THE PACK”. She said she hadn’t found her “peeps” yet, which inspired this post today.

I love the word “peeps”. For me, they still conjure up visions of yellow marshmallow chicks at Easter time. I guess both “peeps” have things in common: Stickiness!

Here’s a good tip for finding your tribe. The next time you find yourself preparing a a major step forward, look to see who’s right there with you.

I give this advice every time I teach on workshop on professional development skills. I end every presentation with this suggestion….

“Look around you. You came today because you wanted to take the next step in your own growth as an artist.

You’re in a group that self-selected for the same thing! You’re all in the same tribe.

Did you feel a connection with someone today? Did you like what someone had to say? Exchange contact info, and get together. Maybe even form your own support group!”

In fact, whenever you take any big step in a new direction, take note of the company you’re in.

I took hospice training earlier this year. Some of you may remember the essay I wrote early on describing that incredible sensation of connection I felt with this group.

It was no coincidence–people taking that training have come to a certain point in their lives. We were ready to be a part of something different and new. We formed a nexus, and felt a sort of recognition in each other. We’d never met before, but we traveled this same road together in search of something powerful and compelling.

We were not strangers to each other. “I know you!” we each thought.

We had become members of a strange new tribe.

You, too, may find your tribe in this way. Or in other strange places. When you are open, truly open, to the work that is in your heart, you are also open to new opportunities. New adventures. New people.

Not all will stick. But some will.

Your tribe. Your peeps!