Category Archives: Fine Art Views

LEARNING TO FLY Part 1: The Checklist

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.

Managing your career as an artist is much like flying an airplane.
Recently we met up with a friend, a professional photographer, who’s been flying airplanes for years. Almost all his life, in fact. Of course, I asked him my go-to question whenever I meet pilots: I asked him about the backstory of a recent local airplane crash.
Turns out almost all small plane crashes are directly due to pilot error.  This set off a fascinating, dynamic course in what’s involved in flying a small plane, the mechanics of flying, the skillset—and the mindset—necessary to fly, and survive.
Anyone can fly!” Bob exclaimed. “When things are going well, when you have good weather, a well-maintained plane, anyone can fly a plane. It’s when things go horribly wrong that determines life or death.” (Note: Few people die when their art careers go horribly wrong, so that’s the one thing we DON’T have in common with pilots.) He went on to list the incredible amount of human error that is the root cause of most small plane crashes.
Turns out that flying a plane, and managing your career as an artist, have lots in common. Similar skills, similar guidelines. Who knew?! And like a plane, when things are going well with your art career—your audience is growing steadily, your sales are strong, your resume is impressive, and your enthusiasm is at its peak—it’s easy to ignore your checklist. “I’ve got it all figured out!” you think. “I’ve paid my dues, and this is my reward!”
But like an airplane, our lives can go from running smoothly to ‘unpleasant surprise’ in months, weeks, days—even hours. And like a recession, when things get super hard in our lives, art and art-making can be the first thing we drop. (“It’s a luxury, right?”)
So let’s start today with the first line of safety in flying—in a plane, or in your art. And let’s assume things are going well today:
The checklist: The very first thing a flight instructor teaches a new student is to complete the pre-flight checklist. This is a visual confirmation that every single item/instrument/safety feature/aspect of the airplane is in its place and doing what it should. This exercise consists of three steps:
1) Reading (or hearing, if there are two of you) the checklist item. You read each item on the list every time, before you ever, ever, get off the ground. Every. Single. Time.
2) Accomplishing the item—verifying the correct setting, executing of the checklist tasks.
3) Responding to the outcome of the action performed: The switch is turned on (or off), the instrument is looked at and the information verified, etc.
This is a constant process of checking and cross-checking, checking and verifying results, and constantly checking in with the other person verbally.
There is a visual check you do of the airplane itself, before you even get in. You do another check in the cabin, before you start the engine, of every single instrument. The ones that should be on, are on. The ones that should be off, are off. There is a checklist after you start the engine, to make sure everything is working the way it should be.
After landing, no matter how soon you go up again, you do the whole thing all over again. Every. Single. Time.
Tedious? Yes. Repetitious? Oh, gosh, yes. Tempted to skip it? Well, in your art career, you may not die from the crash, but it can do a number on your spirit, your enthusiasm, your dedication to your art.
Your checklist can be very basic: Did you get a good night’s sleep? Did you have breakfast? Did you get outside? Go for a walk? Did you hug your kids/your partner/your dog?
Your checklist can be very simple: Get to your studio every day (or whatever is manageable for you, of course.) Get your hands dirty in your studio every time: Make something, anything that gets you to your happy artist place. Is your workspace ready for you to work? Or do you have to clear a surface (or two, or twenty?) Did you order that widget/supply/tool you need to try that new thing you’re interested in?
Your checklist can be more assertive: Maybe it’s managing your venues. Have you checked in with that gallery lately, the one that’s carrying your work? (Oops… gotta put that on MY checklist!) Have you kept track of the ones that are doing well, and figured out what’s going on with the ones that aren’t? Have you researched that new art fair you’ve been invited to?
Your checklist can grow with the times: Is your website up to date? Do you try to post new work regularly? Have you been diligent about adding new email addresses to your newsletter list? Have you checked out Instagram? (It’s easier to use than I thought, and fun!)
Your checklist can be very personal: Are you still excited about the work you’re making? Have you been true to your own, unique vision? Or have you been distracted by someone who seems to be having more success with their style? Does your artist statement sound like everyone else’s in the room? Or does it give your audience an authentic insight at what makes you tick?
Even as I write this, I can see the advantage in a checklist. I’m good at writing things down, but terrible at keeping them in a place I can easily find them again. (Guess how long it took me to figure out which notebook I’d written the original notes of my conversation with Bob?) So on my checklist for today, I’m putting “Create a checklist!”
Next time we’ll explore the cross-check, and the importance of your support network. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what’s going on YOUR checklist!

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Filed under Fine Art Views, Learning to fly, What is the story only you can tell?

CUTE SHIRT!: What to Say When You Don’t Like the Work

My latest column at Fine Art Views–enjoy!

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.

Kindness—and the benefit of the doubt—goes a long way with your peers and in your career.

In my last article, I wrote about respecting other people’s artwork, even if it’s not my thing. What if the person asks for your opinion? What do you say??

Let’s go back a few years… okay, a few decades. I’m a new mom, and my only friends are other new moms. (Most people run the other way when confronted with a frantic new mother and a crying baby. Hence, most of your friends will be other frantic new mothers and their crying babies.) I was in such a group.
Every new parent believes they’re baby is beautiful. No, not just beautiful—the most beautiful baby in the world.  And we know the right thing to say to other parents: “What a beautiful baby!”

That day, we were discussing what to say when presented with an absolutely ugly baby.

The responses ranged from, “Now that’s a baby!!” with a big smile, to “Cute shirt!” What we all agreed on was, you never say what you’re really thinking. That would be hurtful, and serves no one.
After all, we hope every baby is a wanted child, that every child is loved, and that every child, no matter what they look like, is a new human being in the world, with all that entails.  Besides, people come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and abilities—why on earth would we judge a baby by those criteria? No. We simply know that babies have a place in the world, to be their own person.
When it comes to the things people make (er…that aren’t babies, that is), it’s a whole nother kettle of fish.
Entire websites and books (regretfully, Regretsy.com, the truly wonderful curated collection of truly awful stuff on Etsy, is no longer active) generate plenty of caustic reactions to really bad art. Read a review of any movie in The New Yorker magazine that was made after 1956, and you wonder why anyone even bothers to make movies at all, so much so seriously wrong with them. Walk any art fair, flea market, online site, and marvel at the amount of bad art in the world.  It will instantly make you feel so much better about your own.
We can behave like old ffff…folks, and complain how young people ‘just don’t appreciate good art anymore’, or how kids today ‘aren’t taught anything about fine craft anymore’ (as if we ever were!)
And critiques are a long-standing practice of traditional art education. How can we know how to improve our art, if no one points out our weakness in our composition, the flaws in our technique, the naivete of our color palette?
That’s our lizard brain talking—our need to judge, our need to discover where we fit in, in the overall range of art from very, very good to oh-my-god-what-were-they-thinking?? And though critiques can be hugely powerful in improving an artist’s skills, we’ll never know how many ‘good-enough’ artists—or simply artists with more sensitive natures—have been devastated by unnecessarily-brutal art bashing in out-of-control critique sessions, to the point where they really were convinced they were not, and could never be, ‘real artists’.
Yes, good art stands the test of time. We all know it when we see it, right?  But so often, what we consider ‘great art’ was considered gauche, disturbing, or otherwise unpopular when they were originally created, and it could take centuries before opinion changed.
‘Outsider’ art, so-called ‘primitive’ art, ‘intuitive’ and ‘visionary’ art, folk art, Art Brut, naïve art, all were considered simply ‘really bad art’, until somewhere along the line, someone saw something deeper, more powerful, more engaging.
As for the teaching power of critiques, I believe there’s a difference between an opinion that’s offered (or forced on someone), and an opinion that’s asked for. There’s a difference between constructive criticism, and scathing sarcasm. There’s a difference between being wishy-washy, vs. offering good insights into how the artist can increase their appeal, and generating a stronger audience for their work.
Here’s my current situation: I’m newly exposed to artists who are self-trained, young artists who are fearless in the work they produce, artists who are inspired by very different memes and themes than the traditional landscapes and still lifes of my art history training. Video game characters, graphic novel illustrations, comic book heroes, internet memes, steampunk, Goth, the ‘maker’ movement, all contribute to a vibrant, design-driven, eclectic stream of work that simply boggles the mind that usually considers ‘traditional art’ the only ‘real art’. It’s tempting to reject it out-of-hand as immature, Day-Glo bright, or just plain weird.
But when I look at the people who make it, I see something else.  I see the same intense desire for self-expression, the same need to make something, the same dedication to practice, to growth, to connection with an audience, as I do.
So what’s the equivalent of “Cute shirt!” in our modern world today?
One suggestion: Find three things you like. And go from there. I got this idea years ago, from an article about home décor. It said, when looking at magazine spreads of beautiful homes, it’s easy to focus only on the decorating styles you love. But even styles you’re not fond of, can help you train your eye, and increase your design repertoire. Look for three elements you like: a color combination, a texture, a window treatment, a backsplash, or light fixture. Consider why they appeal to you, even in a layout that doesn’t.
It’s good advice. It helps me expand my sources of inspiration, and have new appreciation for different experiences, even in appreciating someone else’s artwork.
If I’m watching someone work, I notice how deft they are with their materials and tools. If I’ve been watching their work over time, I notice how their techniques become more sure, more polished. I note their use of color, textures, design, composition.
I ask about their motivation, their inspiration. I ask who their audience is. I ask what venues they use to show and promote their work. I ask what their professional goals are.
When they go through a rough patch—lots of likes on Facebook, but few sales—I ask how they’re attracting people to their website, their studio, their shows.
If I’m talking to someone working in more traditional media, working with more traditional subjects, I ask similar questions. Why do they focus on this subject over those? How did they end up choosing their particular medium? How did they get started? Where are they headed, and where would they like to be?
All of these focus on the intention, the dreams, the goals of the artist. If these align with the manifestation of their art, well, then, they are successful artists!
A last suggestion: If you sense that your feedback would be appreciated, frame it for easy listening. “I love this, and I’m intrigued by that. You have skills with x, y, and z. What you could do better is…” and then offer your suggestions.
There you have it. It’s not hard to be kind, and people might actually absorb more of your excellent advice if you are.

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Filed under advice on giving advice, Fine Art Views, What is the story only you can tell?

MY THREE CATS and the Real Artist

I may not like your art, but I celebrate the fact that it means so much to you, that you have a voice, a vision, and that you chose to share it with the world.

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for Fine Art Views. 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.

I have three cats. One I’ve had for over a decade, the other two are very new. (And coincidentally, both are black and roughly the same age.)

Old Kitty is affable, gets along with the dogs, moves like a raccoon, and does not adjust well to other cats. If I laugh out loud at something she does, she does it again. She hates to be held, but loves to be petted. She prefers floor toys to “air” toys.

Middle Kitty is also affable, and also gets along with the dogs. She gets along well with other cats. She will tolerate being held, but hates to be petted. She loves air toys, and is extremely athletic. She, too, is very funny to watch, but doesn’t seem to repeat when she hears me laughing.

New Kitty is anxious. She’s afraid of the dogs, she’s afraid of the other cats, she’s afraid of sudden moves and loud noises. But she is fearless about moving from her ‘safe’ place in our basement up into the living areas of our home. She’s determined to become a part of our household. She loves being held, and loves to be petted. We took her in off the streets, and she is only just now learning to play. She’s not very funny to watch.

Which one is the best cat?

Huh?

Why on earth would I rate my cats? After all, animal lovers know that our pets are as unique as people are. They have their good points and their annoying habits. They vary in the degree of affection they demand and give. And the value they add to our lives is impossible to quantify. Yes, we can live without pets in our lives, but if you love animals, you know life is richer for their presence.

(If you don’t care for animals, substitute ‘children’. Or ‘friends’. I was going to say ‘or spouses’ but I’m not going there.)

Why, then, do we so easily discuss artists in terms of who’s good, better, best?

I do it. You do it. We all do it. We’re competitive by nature, and our human culture stresses that competition.

Who’s the best student in the class? Who draws the best horses? Who won that race? Which baseball team won the World Series last year? Who makes the most money, and who’s the smartest person in the room? (Notice I am deliberately not including politics.) (Oops!)

And yet, it’s also human nature to embrace individuality, and inclusiveness. We strive to help those who have less than we do. We try to create a level playing field for people who live with disabilities so they can thrive. We applaud those who fight for the underdog, the underserved, the overlooked, those who are ignored ridiculed, or even attacked for being different in any way.

And yet we are so quick to judge the work of other artists, and even our own.

We argue about the difference between what is art and what is craft. Some people believe any work of 2D art is worth more than the finest example of handcraft. We talk endlessly about what a ‘real artist’ is. We even create levels of respect for the medium we work with: Oil is ‘better’ than acrylic, acrylic is ‘more respected’ than watercolor, anything is better than colored pencil or sketching, and this is often reflected in the price people are willing to pay for these categories. Consider a clay sculpture that is then used to create a mold for a bronze sculpture. Which will call for the higher value—the original clay piece? Or the cast item that can be made into multiples?

Who’s the most skilled? That’s a can of worms. Next!

Who’s the most famous? Who sells the most? Shaky ground. You may be a ‘successful’ artist (and we’ve had many discussions on exactly what that really means, you may be in all the fine galleries and in all the art books and magazines. But put ten people in a room, ask them who is the best artist out there right now, and I can almost guarantee there will be at least one person who disagrees).

Years ago, I participated in a workshop called “The Picasso Principle”. The instructor examined Picasso’s undisputed fame, yet listed many artists who are historically considered ‘better’ than Picasso at drawing, composition, color, painting, etc. But no one was better than him at marketing. And so today you can ask any person on the street to name an artist in history, and most will say “Picasso!”—even if they cannot name a single work by him.

Yes, there are standards and measures of technique. There are competitions, there are honors awarded, there are noted ‘masters’ throughout art history. (Though again, I will also point out that entire genders, race, and countries were systematically left out of the so-called definitive textbooks of art history.)

And yet all of this is based on opinion, personal, professional, and historical.

I bring this up because of several conversations I had recently with other artists. In one, someone mentioned a gallery run by two artists. “Now, Joe Blow is a good artist!” they said. And pointedly did not mention the other.

In another group conversation, a fellow artist walking by, and I jokingly said to the others, “Now there’s a real artist!” A person took it personally, and reacted badly. Lesson learned. (My jokes are bad.)

The last was a discussion about artists who have been in a guild a long, long, long time. “Their work is stale, and some haven’t even created new work in years!” one person exclaimed. “They shouldn’t be included anymore!” I disagreed. It costs us nothing to include them, they contribute to the demographics and our finances, they have their following, and their body of work. Who knows why they aren’t making new work? Health issues? Financial problems? I would hate to have anyone judge me based on my occasional fallow periods. “If they were good enough to get in, they should be allowed to stay until they decide to leave. If and when they try to re-jury back in, then we can judge.” And the others agreed.

It all boils down to this:

I may not like you, and/or I may not like your art. I may not like your medium, or your process. You may not meet the standards of whatever group you’re trying to join; they may be wrong, or they may be right. You may be ‘successful’, or you may feel like you’re not doing it right.

But if you are doing your best to make your art
If you have something to say with your art, even if it’s only ‘look what I made!”
If you have a vision of the world, and you share that
If your work connects emotionally, spiritually, metaphysically with others, even one person (notice I did not say ‘physically’ unless your medium is glue.)
If you strive, as you can, to make it better, to improve your skills, your marketing, your relationships with your audience
If all you do is make the world a better place for even one person

Then you, and your art, have a place in the world.

And you are a ‘good enough’ artist for me.

chai mouse

Old kitty, aka Chai

noddy and nick

Middle kitty, aka Noddy, Naughty, and Nutty

bean 2

New kitty, aka Bean. Yes, I can tell them apart, but our dogs can’t.

 

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SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE Part 2: Lessons from the Bym, Tai Chi, and the Circle of Life

My latest post for Fine Art Views helps you put everything into perspective about your art career. And, maybe, your life.

SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE Part 2: Lessons from the Gym, Tai Chi, and the Circle of Life

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CLEAR YOUR CACHE

TMI can overwhelm. Start where you are, let go of what doesn’t serve you anymore, and take one step forward–today!

Today’s column from Fine Art Views:

Clear Your Cache!

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SORRY, WRONG NUMBER

It’s my last Fine Art Views article for 2015, but my first blog post for 2016! Go figure….

What happens when we misdial with our art marketing in Sorry, Wrong Number

Happy New Year!

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