WHAT WE LOST: Lessons Learned from the Fires, My Aging Brain, and My Notebooks

Lessons Learned from the Fires, My Aging Brain, and My Notebooks
Lessons Learned from the Fires, My Aging Brain, and My Notebooks

What We Lost

Lessons Learned from the Fires, My Aging Brain, and My Notebooks

(8 minute read) 

I had a great idea for this week’s column. “Had”, not have. Because….where do I start??

Six months ago, I tried to clear my computer of old emails, because Google said I was “out of storage space.” My husband said it’s mostly photos that take up most of the space, so at first I only deleted emails with images already stored on my computer.

But the numbers didn’t go down much, so I began to delete more and more. At one point, my actions were moving so slowly, I thought I was doing it wrong, so I would hit “delete” several times before I’d see messages disappear. Which resulted in me accidentally deleting EVERY SINGLE EMAIL before 2018.

I didn’t think it would matter, until I realized a) that meant every single article I’ve sent to various magazines and online venues by email was also deleted; b) important conversations I wanted to refer back to were deleted; c) orders to companies for critical goods and services I only use every few years, were deleted.

Every week, there’s something I think of, and go, “Oh, I’ll search my email for that!” And then realize it’s gone, gone, gone.

Six weeks ago, I also got clarity on how to move forward with a project I’ve long carried in my heart. I needed to create my own “mounts” for displaying artifacts. I actually took an online class on mount-making for museum mounts just before we moved to California. I still have the book, I’m sure I saw it around that time, and went to look for it last week.

I can’t find it anywhere. I looked at home. Nope. I thought maybe I took it to the studio, but can’t find it there, either. I searched all my storage space at home. Nada. So I looked for it online, but it’s out of print. And Bookfinder.com, which usually comes to the rescue, only showed the folks that sell out-of-print books for thousands of dollars. I thought, “Oooh, I could search my emails for the rich conversations I had with my online teacher!” Then remembered….Oh, poo.

About that great idea for this column. I wrote it down, as is my habit, in my notebook, where I write down everything I need to remember: chores, appointments, commitments, insights, and yes, ideas for columns. I typically get 2-4 months of entries in each one, so that’s how much time is represented in each one.

Last Friday, I lost that notebook. I’ve searched high and low for it, even home, studio, storage. I’ve looked under furniture, car seats, inside backpacks packed for the fire evacuation, etc. I even called places I visited that day, asking if anyone has seen it or turned it in.

I feel like my brain is breaking!

And my biggest fear: This is a metaphor for the biggest fear for many of us, as we age, the loss of our memory. Scary stuff!

But is that the best metaphor?

Are we living computers, with memory that prevails for ages until injuries or conditions take them away? Is everything we “remember” even true? Are all our judgments and decisions that important over time?

Even as I wrote that, I looked once more on Bookfinder.com for the book, and found a copy that was affordable.

I visited a great hardware store that sold the brass rods I need to make those mounts, bringing samples and images of what I needed them for. A customer service rep assured me that making my own L hooks would be time-consuming, and there was an easier way to make those mounts with glue.

Yes, I miss the emails, still. But the articles aren’t actually “gone”, because they are somewhere in my documents file, even though it’s increasingly hard to find them. I will always regret some of the wonderful email conversations I’ve enjoyed over the years, but the healing, wisdom, and care I received from those are still with me.

And of course our most recent experience with our California wildfires helps put this all into perspective…..

The Kinkade fire was similar to the Tubbs fire in 2017 that destroyed 5% of the homes in Santa Rosa, except it wasn’t. Winds were less sustained, fire crews had more support, and they learned from the Tubbs fire. Almost 3,000 homes (over 5,000 buildings) burned in the Tubbs fire. Only 150 homes were lost in the Kinkade fire. There was more information available, because the lessons learned from 2017. Still not perfect, but a lot better. And most important? 22 people died in the Tubbs fire. The Kinkade fire? Zero.

This time, we had more time to think about what to take and what to leave behind, should we have to evacuate. I found it harder to leave my studio than our home!

These losses, real and imagined, concrete and anticipated, all sit in my heart today. Here are the gifts I’ve found there:

It’s hard for us to think about our unsold work, especially if it tends to outnumber our SOLD work. But at least it will go somewhere. It might sell after we pass, it may be gifted, it may be found in antique galleries and thrift shops, or heck, a yard sale! But that’s still better than having it all destroyed, for all time.

I’m frustrated at all the information I lost in that notebook. But I can find some of the more vital information (for taxes, etc.) I usually have a separate notebook for my more emotional/spiritual/blorting writing, and I still have all those! In fact, as I came across them while searching for my last journal, I’ve been pulling them out of storage and rereading them. My favorite so far is the year I recorded every funny thing my kids said. So many things I did not remember, until I read them again! So many setbacks and recoveries. So many problematic people for me to complain about, and so much insight gained on some, from good people.

The self-doubt I thought was new? Turns out I’ve had it since I took up my art! Yes, I was fearless in practice. But I still had to write my way to that place of power, over and over and over.

It was poignant to reread all my “biggest visions” and dreams I had for my art, that seem pretty small compared to the ones I’ve made in the last few months. Maybe I’ll surprise myself again, with even bigger ones!

It was empowering to read of the “dream galleries” I yearned to be accepted by, and so I get to contemplate the ones that worked out, and the ones that didn’t –and why.

We tend to think our lives, and our art career, as constantly moving forward, building and growing, or, if we’ve lost hope, stalled and pointless, when in reality there are peaks and valleys, profits and loss, insights and changes-of-heart, every step of the way.

Some of the things that felt like enormous roadblocks at the time, I usually referred to as “that incident”, or initials (if a person), and I can’t even remember who or what those were! They felt monumental at the time (and were!) And that stuff still happens, and will continue to happen. Hopefully, I will continue to move past them, and maybe even forget these, too.

And in the last year, several dear friends from my artistic path have popped up on my radar. No need to have those email conversations from decades ago! We now have new ones to savor and cherish.

That great idea I had for a column? It will either pop again, or it will be lost forever. No matter. Losing it inspired me to write this one instead.

I have a lot of unsold work in my studio. No matter! If it’s still around after I die, somebody will enjoy it, somehow. (I tell my kids how to manage my art and supplies when I’m gone: Give everybody a big bag to fill and charge them $250. They’ll make a mint!)

Even trying to jot down every idea, inspiration, question, isn’t proof against forgetting something, even something important.

Every day we will overlook an opportunity to get better, do better, find better, help better.

 And every day, we will find a new one.

As you make the work of your art, know that we can never be completely in control of our hopes, our thoughts, our intentions, our efforts.

We can only do our best. Because we are only human. Imperfect, inefficient, bad memories, displaced anger, trying to see our path in a firestorm of life events. 

It’s our greatest flaw, and our greatest super power.  Especially because we are artists, makers, creatives, constantly striving to use our work to have our say in the world, to tell our story, in ways that are good for the world. 

Embrace it! Go to the studio today, and make something that brings you joy.

And hold on to your dreams. Even one small step today will bring you closer to their fruition. You won’t know until you try.

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ONE IN A MILLION

We can get lost in the crowd, OR honor our own voice in the world. You choose!
We can get lost in the crowd, OR honor our own voice in the world. You choose!

One In A Million

We can get lost in the crowd, OR honor our own voice in the world. You choose!

(6 minute read)

A week ago, I read the latest newsletter from Robert Genn, who created the powerful series of articles called “The Painter’s Keys”.

Genn died in 2014, and he is sadly missed. His articles range from “how to paint” to “how to be”, and all are well-written and illustrated. Fortunately, his artist daughter Sara has continued the tradition, and carries it well.

This article was originally published in 2011, but still has relevance today. Perhaps even more so! You can see the article here: https://painterskeys.com/plight-undiscovered-artist/

He opens with this sentence:  “Last night I met with five of the 17 million artists who currently need to sell more of their art.

His take focused on the need to “get better” at our work, rather than “feeling good” about our work.  Obviously, although this little group were working very, very hard to sell their work, his advice suggests he considered the work slightly “less than.”

Remember, this is a guy who, when he realized he would not live out the year, sorted through all his paintings, pulled the ones he thought were “less than”…..and burned them. He did not want a shred of evidence of any low quality left behind.

Part of me understands this.

Part of me balks.

I have older works, older artifacts, etc. that make me squirm a little when I see them. I mentioned this to a dear friend in Keene many years ago. I said maybe I should destroy them.

She said, “Did you love making them?” I said yes.

She said, “Did people love them, and buy them?” Again, I said yes.

She said, “Then there will be people today who will love them, too.”

Bonk. Head slap.

In fact, this very insight came into full force during the two weekends of my open studios. People went through my artifacts drawers (a printer’s type tray chest) where all my older pieces and overstock pieces are stored. (If I have the perfect piece of real turquoise in hand for a necklace, I’ll use it. If not, I’ll make it. And while I make it, I make extras so I’ll have them on hand.)

I have just started selling a few of the older ones, the ones I don’t care for that much, and the ones I’ll never actually use. (Oddly, the ones I don’t like aren’t my first pieces, but my “middle period. Go figure!)

So there may actually be buyers for every stage of our creative work: Our earliest efforts, the period where we expand our skillset, and now, when we are making our best work ever.

And yet, why is it so hard to sell today? (Genn wrote his original article during the recession, when many galleries actually closed, sales were so poor.)

I think it’s in his very first sentence.

17 million artists in the world today.

Now I spent some time trying to verify this (although, I dunno, maybe he just threw it in there for effect. It worked!) And of course, “artist” usually only refers to 2D painting. It may or may not include people who work in other 2D media, or people who work in 3D media. It may include stone sculpture but not clay work. It may not include people who do fine craft, or even not-so-fine craft. It may not include singers, actors, dancers, writers, poets, etc., etc. For sure it doesn’t include my broader definition of creative work.

Although one of my favorite responses I found simply stated, “That would be the number of people in the world. Because everybody has some creativity in them.” YES!

So between the estimate of 2.1 million artists I found for the U.S. (a city the size of Chicago or Houston) and everybody on the planet, perhaps 17 million is a pretty good guess.

So every day, we are trying to make our work visible, accessible, and sales-worthy in competition with enough other people to populate a city smaller than Beijing (22 million) and slightly greater than Istanbul (15 million).

Wait for it…..

DO NOT LOSE HOPE.

I know our first reaction might be, “Why bother?!! I’m just gonna throw away my brush/pencil/clay/etc. and become a doctor/lawyer/CEO/pilot (or whatever your other, more lucrative dream career might be).”

And if you’re in art for the money, maybe that’s a good idea.

But that’s not why we took up art, is it?

I’ve heard every possible “creation” story” of how we came to making art. Many of us felt that urge to make something, even before we were old enough to know what it was called. (When I was four, I was given a pad of typewriter paper and a pencil. I drew something on every single sheet, including a spider wearing a little shoe with shoelaces on each foot, and affixed them to the walls of my bedroom with scotch tape onto my newly-painted walls.) (My parents were not happy.)

Some had no idea they had this in them until they were much older. Some walked away, thinking they weren’t good enough, only to return to it when they realized how fulfilling it is to make something wonderful. (Ahem. That would also be me.)

Some of us constantly judge ourselves, our process, and our work. Remember the commenter on one article who was mocked by family for working in “chalk”?

And yet they persisted, because pastels speak to them in a way that cannot be ignored.

We may feel less-than, we may feel we’re “doing it wrong”, we may feel we aren’t “good enough”, and maybe that’s true. Lord knows, there’s always someone who feels free to tell us that, even when we haven’t asked.

But the power of embracing where we are right now, the power of telling our story with the work of our heart, the power of starting where we are and stay focused on doing better, is heady stuff.

Genn went on to conclude his thoughts from that meeting:

Everyone left with more questions than they brought. Maybe you can answer some of them. Which is better — feeling good or getting good? What is good? Has everything already been done? Does it matter? What courses should monetarily artists take? How much of the current art-poverty is due to the current recession — or does the current poverty have something to do with sliced cows?

That last remark refers to some of those folks thinking if you’re selling skills are good enough, you can still sell poopy work.

Here’s my take-way:

Do it because you love it.

It’s not selling yet, because your audience hasn’t found you. YET.

Keep getting better. But don’t let the judgment of others keep you from the work of your heart. (There’s constructive criticism, and there’s vicious criticism. You get to choose which to listen to.)

 We may be just another “one” in a million.

But there is nobody else on earth who can tell our story. There is no one else in the world who can speak with our voice.

 We are, each of us, truly “one in a million.” Or maybe even several billion.

Do the work of your heart. Get better. Keep trying. Persevere.

Do it because you love it. And because it’s good for you!

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HOW TO GET TO THE “HEART” BEHIND YOUR ART

HOW TO GET TO THE “HEART” BEHIND YOUR ART

Get into the habit of thinking why we make the choices we do.

(9 minute read)

In last week’s column, I shared how thinking about the “why” helps us write a more powerful artist statement.

Some people got it right away. Others, who are just as good at making their art, were baffled. Believe me, I understand! When I first considered writing an artist statement, I looked to see how others were doing it. Which, I believe, is why most of us continue to use the Artsy Bollocks method of creating an artist statement. (I see they now even offer an “artist certification” generator for those of us who didn’t go to art school or who didn’t study with famous artists.)

What inspired me to dig a little deeper came from a speaker, Bruce Baker, who shared why a good story was so important.

Baker has retired from the lecture/workshop circuit, but you can see more about him here.

When a potential customer or collector first sees our work, it does have to “speak” to them first (although they may not know why it attracts them.) That is our “product”, the work that grabs their attention. “Oh my goodness, I just LOVE this piece!”

The second stage is the price. “How much is it?” To which we might reply, “That is a hand-formed, pit-fired clay vessel and it is $350!”

Bruce always added a slug of humor to his presentations, and went on, “So if they don’t faint, or walk away, here’s the next critical part of making that connection, especially if they don’t just buy it on the spot….”

The story.

And if we don’t nail down our story, we run the risk of the energy ebbing away: “Well, I’ll have to think about it, thank you! I’ll be back!”

My story is critically important for selling my work. Oh, like you, I’ve had the occasional customer who simply bought something, and as I was wrapping it up, they would ask, “So what’s it made out of?” But that’s pretty rare.

From the very beginning of my art-making, most first encounters were more like this: A person enters my space (my booth, or my studio). I greet them and give them a very brief intro to my work. I end with, “It’s okay to touch and pick things up, and if you have a questions, just let me know.” And then I do my best to leave them alone until they signal that it’s okay for me to talk to them.

Early on, people would walk by my booth, do a double-take, and come inside. They would look and suddenly find a piece that intrigued them. They do a head-tilt. (A more experienced friend said that’s what people do when someone is trying to “figure something out”, unconsciously accessing a different part of the brain.) (I have no idea if this is true or not, but I DO see it happen a lot.)

When I would ask, “What are you thinking?” (I was new to this, so though it’s not the best “opening line”, I was hoping to decipher how people viewed my work.)

They would almost always say, slowly, thoughtfully, “It’s absolutely beautiful, and I’ve never seen anything like it.” Sometimes even, “What am I looking at??” (in a nice way.)

Not all people, of course. I learned early on that my art wasn’t for everyone, but I did find an audience for it, which is all I care about.

I now have many stories to begin the conversation. I explain why I chose the medium I work with. I explain its benefits, to me, to my collectors, and to the planet. I share where my inspiration comes from, and why it is a story that speaks to us all.

But I rarely, if ever, saw that same deep dive in other artist’s statements.

What changed for me, when I heard that presentation, was my willingness to be vulnerable, to be honest, and to share what was in my heart. I was an “outsider” in the art world, I always felt like an outsider. But telling my story felt like recognizing I had a place in the world, regardless.

Years ago, I ran through the exercise for a friend, helping them untangle their own story. After reading her story, I bombarded her with “why” questions. It helped them focus on every single decision they make while creating their work. I wrote down her last comments: “ I don’t want to get too analytical in what I say about myself in this statement but I am also trying to look a little deeper and try to answer your questions.  I often don’t think about these things so much when I choose a subject to paint but not thinking about this doesn’t mean that there is not a thread to it all.  Thanks for making me think!”

And that’s the trick of it, the trick to writing a good artist statement.

My favorite strategy: When people say, I like to paint this, this way, etc. I ask them why? Over, and over, and over again.

Think about it. We make hundreds–no, thousands of tiny choices every day. Everything from the time we choose to get up in the morning, the breakfast cereal we prefer, the route we take to work, to the grocery store we shop at, going in the car we bought, filled with the gas station we go to,  shop with the cart (or basket) we pick (As in do you bring one in from the parking lot? Or prefer to get one in the store? Or avoid the one that still has paper trash in it?), and fill it with the brands we select in the aisles.

We choose the names of our children and our pets, and the doctors and vets that see them. We choose whether to take on a married name or not, our dishes, the color of our bath towels. We choose our way of exercising (or not to exercise), the people we befriend, the restaurant we go to, the entrees we order (or never order!) etc., etc, etc..

Our days are filled with tiny choices, most of which become habits. When they become habits, we eventually forget that first they were choices we’ve made.

All based on a myriad of conditions: Our taste. Our preference. Our budget. What works for us, what works for our partner/family/social circle, our life.

We do the same thing when we make our art.

Especially with our artwork! We choose the color palette, the medium, the glaze, the composition. We eventually acquire our own distinctive style. We have artists who inspire us, teachers who educate us, mentors who encourage us, spouses/partners/friends who cheer us on (or not). We make our own decisions about which shows, galleries, and events work for us, and which one’s don’t. We market our work in dozens of different ways, from postcards and signage to social media (or not!)

There are not only hundreds of choices of WHAT we make, but hundreds more after that. The kind of paint we use, the substrate, time we paint, what we paint. I could go on, but surely by now, you get the picture!

To move efficiently in the world, we make these choices–and are usually totally unaware of them. Soon we take them for granted. And we assume that everybody else has made the same choices, for the same reasons.

But that’s not really true, is it?

I know “special snowflake” is a popular meme these days, mostly because we’ve come to see it as derogatory. Yes, we are all special, but does that mean each of us should be treated uniquely?

Well…..yeah!

 Because knowing we all, as human beings, have so much in common, always, always has to be balanced with how distinct and unique we are, too.

And that has been a “thing” since those ancient, prehistoric times, too.

Even those ancient caves that inspire all have much in common. But each one is distinctive, too. There’s no single way to paint a bull, a horse, even a handprint. (And handprints on cave walls are a subtle, powerful way of realizing how many people participated in the ceremonies associated with those paintings, even down to a good guess about their age and gender, based on size and finger length ratios.)

Maybe a clueless potential customer (and I can be one!) can’t tell the difference between your work and someone else’s.

But you do.

You may focus on why yours is better, or worse. Whether yours sells, or why it doesn’t, and theirs does. Why their work got into that gallery or show, and yours didn’t, or vice versa. So will your true collectors.

But it all boils down to the hundreds of small choices you made along the way. Because that other artist made slightly different choices.

So your homework today, should you choose to accept it, is to think about as many choices as you can:

Why do you focus on that particular medium? (Or why do you choose to work in several?) Why do you use that tool, that process, that style?

Why did you chose those objects for your still life? Why did you arrange them the way you did? Why do you even like to paint still lifes? Or why do you not?

Why do you paint/draw/collage/sculpt/sing/dance/insert-your-creative-work-here the way you do? I know artists who are capable of using any medium but CHOOSE colored pencil work. Not because they can’t do anything else, but because it feels right to them. (Which is why I hate it when people automatically believe that some media are “better” than others.) (In cave art, the techniques varied from brushing, daubing, and spitting ground-up pigmented rocks to incising and carving.)

It can help to have a friend, a good friend who you trust with your help, fire these questions at you. It can help to have someone else (same qualifications) to take notes.

It helps to notice when you become exasperated, too, or even angry.

Why?

Because all that prodding gets you closer and closer to the why of everything you do. Are. Want. Create.

 It gets to the heart of Y*O*U*.

And that’s a pretty powerful place to be.

Try it. Let me know how it works. Let me know where you get stuck.

Remember, if it feels too personal, you get to control how much of your story to share.

But knowing your story is a major game-changer in understanding your own work of your heart.

It’s worth it. For you, and your audience.

Because we all have a story to tell.

What’s yours?

If you enjoyed this article and know someone who might enjoy it, please feel free to forward this to them.
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LESSONS FROM THE GYM: Challenge vs. Injury

There’s a big difference between perseverance and suffering.

I overheard another intriguing comment at the physical therapy practice I go to. Out of nowhere, one of the therapists told a client, “We want to see perseverance, not suffering.”

Oh, the memories…..

Years ago, (seems like an eternity) I was really into martial arts. (No, I never got a black belt, though all my instructors along the way said I was well on my way.)

I never got there because…..injuries.

I pursued martial arts over a spread of 15-20 years in my middle age, sometimes with massive breaks in between practices and schools (Tae Kwon Do, Thai Kickboxing, then back to Thai Kwon Do.)

Typically, I was the oldest person in the class. I always did my best, but I’ve always been “heavy” on my feet as opposed to “light”. Ironically, this quality is not due to weight. Jackie Gleason was always heavy, but he was also “light on his feet”. I’ve talked with my husband (a former gymnast), physical therapists and athletes about this quality. They recognize what I’m saying, but can’t identify what it “is”, whether it is innate or can be learned, and why some people have it and some don’t. It is not an indication of ability, but is a recognizable style.

And so, encouraged by my instructors to push myself, I always, eventually, ended up injuring myself pretty badly. (Although, come to think of it, my most major injuries were inflicted by a) an instructor who should have known better, according to other instructors in the class, and b) another student who was even more inept than I was, tried to kick me below the belt, and when I blocked him, his shoe broke my finger. (He had to wear shoes as he was diabetic.)

The story typically goes like this:

One evening, I went to Tae Kwo Do. We did a kicking work-out. The instructor yelled, “Faster!” and I didn’t want to be the one everyone was waiting on.

So I picked up the pace a wee bit, landed wrong on my foot, and injured my Achilles tendon.

I instantly had a cap on almost all my other activities for many months.

I felt pretty stupid. The instructor wasn’t urging me to go past my limits–he was yelling at the green belts. I was the one who felt I had to prove something–that I may be older, but I was still a competent student.

Well, I went over that delicate balance between challenge and injury, and landed hard on the injury side.

It wasn’t even my own challenge. I was worried what other people would think if I didn’t try harder. Even though I should know by now that is NOT the way to get what I need. The only thing I get with that attitude is more injuries.

I told myself I would not give in to self-pity, nor get angry with myself.

I went swimming instead. And with each stroke, I chanted to myself, “I…..can…..handle…..this.”

I realize I walk a delicate balance in everything I do. Working out. Friendships. Relationships. In my business. And with my art.

I need to push myself enough to challenge myself, to make myself grow stronger, physically, emotionally, artistically.

And yet hold just enough back so as not to injure myself, or others.

As in martial arts, so in my art. There’s that same balance between taking the professional risks that challenge me, without injuring my bottom line (and my ego) irreparably.

That particular injury (and there were many along that path) happened just before my (very full) fine craft wholesale/retail show was scheduled. I realized I was in the same place with my art biz. Although I had no idea what to expect, I knew I had to try.

Sometimes I get freaked out thinking it out–“What am I doing??!!” Other times, I feel it is a reasonable venture.

Hopefully, I would find buyers who were looking for work that had a more western/southwestern/northwestern feel.

If not, I knew I would come home feeling like I need to crawl into a barrel and mosey on over Niagra Falls…..

But not for long. I knew if this show proved not a good fit for my work, I would just have to get over it and try a whole ‘nother strategy.

Like my tendon, my ego eventually healed. And like my injury didn’t keep me away from martial arts very long, guessing wrong will not discourage me from making my art. Not for very long, at least.

In the end, the injuries accumulated to the point where I did have to walk away from that passion. And those shows? Well, that was just before the recession in 2007-2008. They turned out to be a gamble, one I finally decided was not worth it.

After creating new strategies over the years, I finally found what worked for me: One major show with a deep history and very loyal following, open studios, and online sales.

Moving to California meant rebooting in may ways. I’m still working out my best plan to persevere in my art-making.

What worked for me then doesn’t work for me now. What works for me now is still in process. There continue to be obstacles and injuries along the way.

But here are two big truths I hope inspire you on your own journey in making the work that lifts your heart:

As I said, I was not a “natural” when it came to Tae Kwon Do. But every instructor always reminded me: We are competing with ourselves. (One class was “Olympic” but there were plenty of folks who obviously weren’t going down that path.)

Because I was “bad” at it, I had to practice more than others did. I showed up, every class. My last instructor said, after the last big injury that meant I could never practice again, that my perseverance had gained me excellent technique, and indomitable spirit. He said he felt guilty they had started me at the beginning all over again (they doubted my credential from an instructor who had moved away.)

He said I deserved a black belt.

So, wait, four big truths:

I did what I loved.

Perseverance almost got me there. 

Practice makes perfect.

I’ve gotten very good at not giving up.

Whatever you need to do to make your place in the world, never give up what you love until it takes away from you. Even then, there are ways to keep moving forward. (T’ai Chi!)

Find the balance (life/work/art) that works for you.

And keep doing it ’til you get better.

WHY LOVE > $

SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin
SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin

WHY LOVE > $

Sometimes What We Want Isn’t Really What We Want*

So in math class, that title would read “Why “love” is greater than “money”.

I started reading a new book this week, called SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. Based on a series of interviews by Manjula Martin with well-known writers such as Cheryl Strayed,  Roxane Gay, Jennifer Weiner, Alexander Chee, Nick Hornby, and Jonathan Franzen, it is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

In these interviews, Martin encourages each writer to be totally honest about what being a “famous author” really looks like. The inside story is jaw-dropping.

Most started out making not very much money. That’s to be expected. But here’s what I didn’t expect:

Even when authors sign a $100,000 contract for their book, that’s not actually how much money they make.

Here’s how it works:

First, it takes years to get to the point where $100,000 would even be offered. Most start at $2,000. (That was the advance on my one published book.) If the book doesn’t generate stellar sales, there are no royalties. (I never got royalties.) I spent hundreds of hours creating the projects and steps, so I made….$1/hour?) (Of course, that would be $3/hour today, so there’s that.)

Let’s say you’ve climbed the ladder, and the deal is for $100,000.

First, your agent gets 10%. And a good agent is worth their weight in gold.

But the amount is also split into several payments.

There’s a payment for submitting the manuscript, one when all errors are corrected and the manuscript is re-submitted and approved, one when it actually goes to press, and the last when it is finally put out into the market.

This process can take years. Many of the authors thought, “I’ve made $100,000 this year!” But since the process can take from 2-4 years, they make a lot less per year than that. Like $24,000 less $2,400 for your agent.

So in the end, a writer who signs that lucrative contract isn’t exactly gonna get rich on it.

One book review says,

“…In the literary world, the debate around writing and commerce often begs us to take sides: either writers should be paid for everything they do or writers should just pay their dues and count themselves lucky to be published. You should never quit your day job, but your ultimate goal should be to quit your day job. It’s an endless, confusing, and often controversial conversation that, despite our bare-it-all culture, still remains taboo. In Scratch, Manjula Martin has gathered interviews and essays from established and rising authors to confront the age-old question: how do creative people make money?”

Sound familiar?

A lot of parallels to our art-making sector.

If we were to take a $100,000 commission for a work of art, here are some of the possibilities:

There would be the initial deposit for a custom order, usually non-refundable. But most customers wouldn’t give it up without a fight. I was at one of the top three fine contemporary craft shows in the country one year. One booth visitor placed a custom order at the show for a pretty major piece. Woohoo! I thought. A few weeks later, she called to cancel. Because she hadn’t considered the tuition for her son’s private school/academy he’d just been accepted into. (This, after sucking up 45 minutes of my time at the show telling me how rich she was, and about her amazing art collection at home.) When she called to cancel, she made the point (about 20 times) that her husband was a lawyer. I cancelled the order. (Fortunately, something felt “off” about her in the booth, and I had hesitated about starting the order. So, no loss.)

The person may even “forget” to tell you to cancel the order, like in my article about the Design Diva.

Consider the cost of packing and shipping a major piece in that price range. One local artist, a friend, even has to borrow my car to deliver their larger works to local buyers. (I’m happy, to do it, of course!)

Of course, if you work with a gallery, they’ll do that for you. But a gallery takes a 40%, 50%, or even (at the height of the market in NYC just before 9/11) a 60% cut.

Back to that book review quote: This is not a black-or-white issue. This isn’t us vs. the “bad people”. Maybe your bigger art sales aren’t this complicated.

But another interview revealed another side to that “success” we all crave:

Being locked into a “certain kind of fiction” or a “predictable best seller” can be suffocating. And fame can fall away in a heartbeat, with a bad review, with our own bad behavior, almost anything.

Several of the highly-successful writers said even in their “hottest moments” felt locked in, confined, discouraged by the category they found themselves stuck in. Deadlines may conflict deeply with life events. Touring for the book publicity can suck a lot of time and energy. Trying to top your last success can squeeze the creative juice right outta your system. “You’re only as great as your last success” can be a roadblock to creativity.

Most of the writers said they made a decent living three ways: Writing books (that get published.) Public speaking engagements. And teaching/workshops.

Sound familiar?

I highly recommend reading this book, even if you don’t read every interview. Most of these writers went out on a limb to be this honest and forthcoming about the realities of their success.

I wonder…..

If more artists felt safe to do the same thing, would we quit beating ourselves up about not making a good living out of our creative work?

Would we stop being intimidated by those people whose work sells for thousands, tens of thousands of dollars?

Would we realize that sometimes, those famous artists whose work sells for hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars, don’t actually make a dime from those auctions? Because they sold the work for one price, and now the new owner (or second, or third owner) is selling it for a heckuva lot more? (Publicity is helpful.) Or the artist is dead? (Publicity not so helpful. They’re dead!)

What I took away from the book is this:

We have choices. We have the power of our choices.

If we need to make a living from this work, we can do it. It will start to feel like “a job” rather than a calling, but for some people, this is what they have to do.

If we can be satisfied with SOME money, or even not much, we get to have complete control over the work we make.

We get to choose how much from each end of the spectrum we’re comfortable with. We get to choose what we are willing to do, or not to do.

We get to choose whether it’s full-time/well-paid/a lot more work and not as much creative freedom. Or whether it’s “it makes me happy and that’s all that matters”, or whether it’s “I can find ways to expand my calling into other lucrative ventures by teaching.” I know one artist who has expanded their skills into creating ways for other artists to offer workshops: They have the knowledge, the resources, and the audience to do all the funky work we’d normally have to do ourselves, so all the artist has to do is show up and be ready to teach.

There are no solid, sure-fire ways to make our work and share it with the world. There’s no 100% good side to any of our decisions about it–except what works for us. There’s no WRONG way to do it.

The only thing that’s “wrong” is believing we are doing it wrong, and believing that other people are doing it right. Believing that “success” looks the same to everyone.

It’s all about what’s right for Y*O*U.

On that happy note, I hope this gives you food for thought. If you’ve found the right combo for your creative work and income, please share! If money is our measure of success, it’s good to share information about how that happened for you.

If you know someone who needs to read this, to get clear on their own goals, please share!

If someone shared this with you, you can read more Fine Art Views articles here.

And if you like what I wrote, you can subscribe to my own blog here.

*I was going to call this article, “Be Careful What You Wish For” (You Might Get It!)” but I think that’s just too heartbreaking. It’s not stupid or wrong to want something from our art, including financial success. Go ahead and wish! If it’s not right for you, you can always change your mind.

LESSONS FROM THE GYM: Ice Is Your Best Friend!

Luann Udell shares how we can choose to reply positively to the naysayers.

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.

The things people say about our work, and what we can CHOOSE to say back.

 (6 minute read)

 This “ice” remark is one I hear almost every day at the physical therapy place/independent gym where I work out.

When we are injured, sore, aching, our first instinct is to apply heat. A heating pad feels wonderful. And it can help, if we don’t overdo it. But ice is actually even more healing and therapeutic, especially as our first go-to therapy. Granted, it feels better on a hot summer day than a cold winter one, but it really does help.

How does this metaphor apply to our creative work?

There are certain things that never change in our artistic lives. There will be people who love our work and let us know. And there will be people who don’t care for our work, and they are eager to let us know it.

When things are slow at art fairs and fine craft shows, exhibitors often gather in small groups to chat and compare notes. One of the most popular topics is the rude things visitors say about our work.

When someone attacks our artistic skills, process, subject matter, integrity, how we choose to respond says much about us.

Instinct kicks in:

Our first response is usually surprise: “Wha…?”

Our second is disbelief: “Why would you even say that?!”

The third is anger: “Why, you…!!!!”

These are normal, human responses, hardwired in us to protect us from danger. And when someone goes out of their way to be offensive, when all they have to do is simply walk away and go find work they like better, this can register in our lizard brain as “dangerous”.

If we respond instinctively, we jack up the heat.

Instead, in the long run, it’s better to “stay cool” and apply ice.

The thing is, there are many reasons people say such things:

Curiosity: Your work is “speaking” to them, though they may not be sure why. They want to know more.

Ignorance: They don’t know what they’re looking at, nor where it fits in their world.

Entitlement: “I will be the judge of your worthiness.”, “I am a better artist than you!”

Envy/Insecurity: “I can’t sit with the fact that YOU are an artist at this show, and I’m not!”

Antagonism/conflict lovers: They are deliberately looking to start a fight.

When we are attacked, we look for ways to defend ourselves.

There are groups on Facebook and other social media that relish this challenge. Everyone shares their awful stories about the horrible things toxic people have said. And everyone shares their funny/slamming/mocking responses in return.

We do this to minimalize the damage to our own ego. We find sympathy and support in our peer group. We share and memorize witty or snarky ways to respond, or even ask/tell them to leave our booth. Hurrah! We showed them!

I love reading the stories and the comments, and responses. I’m human, too!

But years ago, when I first started out, I sensed something “off” with this approach. It felt “hot”, and we were focusing on how to make it “hotter”.

It put me in a hard placeI felt encouraged to be my worst self, too.

I don’t want to believe people are deliberately cruel. I don’t want to be on the defensive. Taking the offensive feels like falling to their level. And it all circled around to watching out for the next attack.

Not a happy place for an artist to be. I don’t like who I am when I get in that space. All the joy I get from making my work is siphoned off.

Starting out in my industry, I was fortunate. I had the benefit of people who took a higher road, and a more effective approach. They generously shared their tact, and tactics, ways to take the conversation to a more productive place.

They showed me the power of “staying cool.”

There are ways to frame our responses that a) reduce the heat in the conversation; b) show that we can stay calm and centered; c) show mercy for the folks who truly didn’t mean to insult us; d) keep the conversation going on a better plane, or shut it down gently; e) remind us that other people are listening.

 When someone says, “My son makes these!” we can respond with, “That’s lovely! What shows does he do?” or “What galleries is he in?”

When someone says, “I just don’t think these are very well-made.” We can respond with, “My work is not for everyone, but the people who do like it, love it very much.”

When someone says, for the millionth time, “What are these made of?”, that’s an opportunity to expand the conversation and/or show them the sign that explains my process. (Because this gentle, well-intention question is actually them giving me permission to talk with them, and help them go deeper into my work.)

Everything changed when I stopped being annoyed by customer resistance to “plastic clay” and shared the reaons why I chose it as my medium.

Instead of being annoyed by folks who questioned my choice of media,

I promoted its advantages for my work. It worked!

If someone complains about our prices being too high, we may hear “Your work isn’t worth it.” But what they might be saying is, “I love it, but I will never be able to afford it.” (My great layaway plan can help here!)

The times I’ve had to deflect very toxic people when there are other people in my space, after the VTP leave, my other visitors always say, “WOW, you were so gracious with that *******!”

My main reason for choosing to respond this way? I feel like I’m being my highest, best self.

It’s really hard. But it’s its own reward. I’m not knocked off my pedestal (for very long, anyway), I gain the respect of my real customers, and I show that it’s okay to ask a question that might appear awkward/ignorant–because I will do my best to respond with respect and a peaceful heart.

In fact, often after an incident like this, everyone else in the room opens up with their own questions. I’ve shown I welcome the engagement, and I won’t easily take offense if they “phrase it wrong.” I’ve created a safe environment for them, and they can relax and open up.

 Truth is, truly angry/envious/aggressive people are looking for a fight. But we don’t have to automatically give them one. As a friend told me years ago, “You don’t have to go to every fight you’re invited to!”

If you do shows where you encounter a lot of these people, consider that you might be in the wrong shows.

If you believe your work is worth every penny of your prices, be prepared to show how much effort, time, and skill goes into it.

Forgive the nay-sayers. Forgiveness isn’t about letting them off the hook, or ignoring what they’re doing. It’s a way of letting us off the hook. We can stand back and realize we did not deserve their ire, and we don’t have to hold on to it. As I read in an old notebook last night, “Don’t let anyone else’s opinion of you become your reality.”

Of course, this assumes you want to be a force for good in the world. That you care about who you are and what you do. That you are constantly trying to be better at it.

When it comes to dealing with difficult people, just remember: Ice is your best friend.

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LESSONS FROM THE GYM: How to Change Bad Habits       

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews, an online art marketing newsletter. 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.

The body does whatever we ask it to. But it may not be the best way to do it. Only conscious effort can change that!

(5 minute read)

 I was at the old people’s (of which I am one) gym today, the place where I’ve received physical therapy here in Santa Rosa . They have an independent gym program, which I signed up for as soon as I could. It’s the “opg” because almost all of us who are in the program are up there in years. (I might be the youngest one at….gasp!…67! Score!)

I do what I do best in life. I discreetly eavesdrop on nearby conversations, and gain insights to my own issues when something resonates.

Last week, I overheard one of the employees say to a client, “When we move, our body automatically does it the easiest way possible, especially if it’s trying to avoid pain. But that just “locks in” the “bad” behavior/action. And “doing it wrong” can make the situation even worse…”

“To change that, we have to….”

And darn it, I couldn’t catch what he said.

Had to wait til this week. I recounted his response, and asked what his advice was.

Turns out that, to retrain our bodies to move in a healthy, balanced, healing way, we have to consciously move the “right way”.

For example, I tend to walk on the outside of my feet if I don’t consciously think about it. Various injuries throughout my life have created this pattern for me. As I do the DUI walk, as we call it (going toe-to-heel along a line on the floor, a balance exercise), I could see in the mirror my feet weren’t “rolling through” the right way. I have to deliberately think about proper foot position. I never realized my “old way” was creating more issues, until physical therapists pointed it out. The unused muscles weaken, the extra strain on the overused muscles can actually pull a kneecap out of alignment. OW!!!

“Observe. Pay attention. Focus.” Sounds mindlessly simple, doesn’t it?

Except, when you think about it, there are a lot of times and circumstances where we do “what is easiest” and in a way that “doesn’t hurt.”

And the only way we can change that is to choose to do it differently.

One example: How often do we roll through stop signs at intersections?

Probably 99 times out of 100, it doesn’t matter, especially if the intersection is usually traffic-free.

But what I’ve noticed is, if we train ourselves to “roll through”, we do it without thought. We may lapse in checking to see if there is other traffic. Or if there’s someone else who’s running the stop sign. And the consequences could be fatal.

In our city, running yellow, orange lights (orange is when people run through and are still in the intersection when the light turns red) and even red lights, is a thing. It’s heart-stopping the number of times I’ve had the green light, and someone bombs through on their red light. Most of us take a second to actually move forward, and/or stop to check left and right.

The only way to break the “roll through” habit is to deliberately, consciously, stop, or at least pause, even for a second.

Is it annoying? Yes. Has it saved my life? Oh, yeah!

On a much smaller scale, for the first time in my life, I am now flossing daily for the last several months. I realized I was unconsciously choosing not to because “I didn’t have time” on busy mornings. Until I realized I DO have 30 seconds to floss. And I remind myself, by getting out the floss and placing it next to the sink before I even brush. I look at it and think, “30 seconds.” And consciously choose to do better.

How does this apply to our art-making and art-marketing? So glad you asked!

I’ve been writing and posting articles for years, here on Fine Art Views and on my blog. It was only a month ago I realized that if people SHARED those posts, there might not be an easy way to encourage the share-ees (for lack of a better word) to find me, let alone sign up themselves.

So now I try to remember to add, “Share if you like this” and add a link for the people readers share it with. (Hmmmm….let me do that right now!)

Art-making? I’m working on a new line of “statement jewelry”. I’ve been struggling with some the finishing steps, which are even more time-consuming than the actual “making”. Until I finally realized if I swapped out one of my “usual tools” for a different one. It felt awkward. But it cut the time involved in half.

I used to post articles on Facebook, then Twitter, and now Instagram. Time-consuming! But then I learned I could “share” through WordPress directly to my Facebook business page, and from there, post automatically to Twitter. And after Facebook acquired Instagram,  I found I could post to Instagram, and set it up to automatically post to Facebook, and from there, to Twitter. (I just have to remember to post to IG now.)

I was reading Keith Bond’s FAV article on compartmentalizing our art. It made perfect sense! I’ve actually been doing it for years, with separate workstations in my huge studio back in New Hampshire, and as best I can here in California. (The only issue is sometimes having to have duplicate tools on hand, which is why I still own about eleventy-six pairs of scissors….)

I loved the article because it shows how “unconscious actions” can send us into a tailspin if we’re not being fully aware of what we’re doing, and why.

What “bad” habits/assumptions/unconscious actions are holding YOU back?

And what can you do about it, starting today? (Hint: Even acknowledging we DO have unconscious habits/assumptions/actions is a powerful “first step forward” for today.)

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