We Are Enough (and So Is Mary Oliver)

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not.

It was the last day of December, the last day of 2018. It’s been a hard year in so many ways. I don’t know whether to embrace or watch with suspicion the dawn of this new one. Do I move forward with hope, and courage? Or do I hunker down until it’s safe to come out?

But a book arrived in the mail that day, Mary Oliver’s book of poetry, Blue Horses. As always, it’s an unpected gift at just the right time.

I’m a fan, and not just because I love her poetry for what it is to me. I used several of her works when I created a grief writing workshop as a hospice volunteer. Her poems are accessible, full of the beauty of small moments in nature, with a big bang of wonder and insight inside. They always draw a gasp of amazement, and they often make us cry.

I don’t know much about her. I only recently discovered she was in a relationship with a woman, Mary Malone Cook, for over 40 years, and her partner died in 2005 I didn’t know about the hardship and abuse she suffered as a child. I didn’t know she lived in Ohio but took up New England as her home years later. And as I read “Blueberries”, with her musings about eating blueberries year round, something new for her, I wondered where she lives now.

And so I Googled “Mary Oliver where does she live now” and came across a Wikipedia entry. And found this somewhat disturbing entry in “Critical Reviews”:

Vicki Graham suggests Oliver over-simplifies the affiliation of gender and nature: “Oliver’s celebration of dissolution into the natural world troubles some critics: her poems flirt dangerously with romantic assumptions about the close association of women with nature that many theorists claim put the woman writer at risk.”[13] In her article “The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver”, Diane S. Bond echoes that “few feminists have wholeheartedly appreciated Oliver’s work, and though some critics have read her poems as revolutionary reconstructions of the female subject, others remain skeptical that identification with nature can empower women.”[14] In The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Sue Russell notes that “Mary Oliver will never be a balladeer of contemporary lesbian life in the vein of Marilyn Hacker, or an important political thinker like Adrienne Rich; but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”

I had to stop reading.

Who are these people??

Who are they to judge a poet’s work based on how “political” her thinking is, or how much she aligns publicly with her gender?

My husband, an English major as an undergrad, contemplated a career in academia briefly. He says this is exactly why he didn’t pursue it. “It’s just academic-speak”, he says.

I think it’s more than that.

Someone is saying Mary Oliver is “not doing it right”.

They are saying she is not enough.

Jon said, “You read poetry? I haven’t read any poetry since college!” What?! “You haven’t read “Wild Geese?!”

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Even as I tried to read it aloud to Jon, I knew I couldn’t. Tears were already welling up. I handed him my phone to read it.

Or how about “Summer Day”?

Summer Day

by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I’ve rarely enjoyed poetry “analysis”. I’ve never understood the desire to write in specific forms or meters as a professional challenge, unless the rhythm and patterns lend themselves to even deeper feelings of connection. (As in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”:

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
I understand there are hidden gifts in complex musings, and challenges that can deepen our experience. It’s like doing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle as opposed to the 5-minute versions that always appear in our local newspaper.
But there are reasons it’s okay for poetry to be accessible, and simple.
It’s okay not to speak for everyone. Geez, white guys of Northern European descent have been doing it for years.
It’s okay for a writer to simply share what’s in their heart.
It’s okay to make people cry with our beautiful words.

If I Wanted A Boat
by Mary Oliver, Blue Horses

“I would want a boat, if I wanted a
boat, that bounded hard on the waves,
that didn’t know starboard from port
and wouldn’t learn, that welcomed
dolphins and headed straight for the
whales, that, when rocks were close,
would slide in for a touch or two,
that wouldn’t keep land in sight and
went fast, that leaped into the spray.
What kind of life is it always to plan
and do, to promise and finish, to wish
for the near and the safe?  Yes, by the
heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want
a boat that I couldn’t steer.”

What do I hear in this?

It takes courage to let go of trying to control our future.

Or this one:

WHAT GORGEOUS THING

by Mary Oliver

I do not know what gorgeous thing
the bluebird keeps saying,
his voice easing out of his throat,
beak, body into the pink air
of the early morning. I like it
whatever it is. Sometimes
it seems the only thing in the world
that is without dark thoughts.
Sometimes it seems the only thing
in the world that is without
questions that can’t and probably
never will be answered, the
only thing that is entirely content
with the pink, then clear white
morning and, gratefully, says so.

It tells me it’s okay to seek solace in the tiny moments in life. To hold the simplest things and see. To listen. To wonder.

They won’t fix everything. Maybe they won’t fix anything. 

But if they give me a teensy break, a moment of relief and respite, I’m taking it, with gratitude.

Fortunately for my mood today, I came across this lovely article by Ruth Franklin in The New Yorker: What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand. It helped me back to my happy place. Still, a few off remarks: Oliver didn’t write much about her lover, and she rarely writes about the dark places in her life. Such a lack “…flattens her range….” in the opinion of this writer.

Whatever. I’ve been writing articles, essays, and blog posts for almost two decades. I never write about my relationship with my husband, and although I write about what it feels to be in dark places, I keep away from the deeply personal. And don’t bury myself in the dark.

I don’t, except in my “blort book”, because it’s my dark place. Yes, it’s part of me. But I get to decide how much I share, and when, and how.

When I’ve had suicidal thoughts (and I’ve had them all my life), I know what they are: A response to the despair and hopelessness I’m overwhelmed with. I also know it will pass. It looks like an escape, but I know it will only bring enormous pain to those I leave behind.

(To be perfectly frank, I’m also a chickenshit. I’m afraid I’d mess it up and have to live with pain, and shame, and disability the rest of my life. So no, I’m not gonna do it.)

But most people will “hear” a plea for help. They will respond with a “solution”, a “fix”.

There isn’t one. Or at least, it’s never the right one.

My truth: I’m kinda hard-wired to be in mild despair. I always expect the worst.

But I choose to look for the light instead. I choose look for the life lesson that will help me move forward. I choose to seek out the folks I know I can trust, who know who I am, and who I want to be, to help me find my way back.

I also want to respect my partner’s privacy. We’ve been together 40 years. That wouldn’t be true if he weren’t a good human being, worthy of love, who is simply trying to do the best he can. He has saved my sanity a jillion times. At his best, he meets me where I am, and helps me take a step forward. At his worst, he is bad about cleaning up after himself. Not too shabby, in my book.

I even want to protect the privacy of those who have hurt me. It’s on me to work my way back to the light. They have their own story, and it may involve things I know nothing about, no matter how much pain they’ve created for me.

That’s my choice. It doesn’t make me “less than”. (Yes, I am a proud member of the “#metoo” moment, but it’s just not for public consumption. For now.)

I’m not going to hold it against Mary Oliver, either.

Thank heaven for the last part of that “critic review” section by Sue Russell:

“…but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”

So go forward today, with the joy you find in the small things. For me today, it’s Noddy wanting a drink from the kitchen faucet. Chai trying to sneak a lap of milk from my cereal bowl. Tuck wanting a butt-scritch. Jon reassuring me that academic critics live in a world of their own making, and not to worry about it.

The sun shining, for the fourth day in a row.

A flock of bluebirds in the California winter.

A murmuration of starlings in the evening.

Another poem by Mary Oliver.

Hey! A new year!

Now I feel like can can deal with it.

baby goat
A baby goat!
rocks on a beach
Rocks on a beach!
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Stories We Tell

Our stories can be a force for good in the universe, or a source of darkness. Choose wisely!

The day I found my “first story” was a powerful day.

I was at loose ends in my life. I was in my late 20’s, and had already met my life partner. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have kids. But I put together a few key concepts that were important to me: I love to read, and I believe reading expands our minds, and our world.

And I liked kids.

I realized the best gift I could be to the world was to share my love of reading with kids.

With the support and encouragement of said partner, I had the courage to apply to graduate school, and get a master’s degree in elementary education.

It was a powerful time in my life. I was fully focused on my goals, and my studies. I met people–fellow students, professors, supervising teachers–who changed my life. Getting my degree was the first time I’d ever pursued a goal I’d picked, a goal that had called to me.

Years later, I realized, for various reasons, I couldn’t be “just” a teacher. (There’s no judgment there about the profession, I mean that literally: In terms of me, I needed more.)

I believe this helped me, when I hit rock bottom (for me) regarding my art, decades later. I told a new story: “I have to be an artist, or I’ll die. And I don’t even care if I’m a GOOD artist, I just have to do it.” And pulled on that success I’d achieved years before, and worked just as hard, with just as rich an attitude, and succeeded.

I started to write “stories” about my journey. Every time I hit a high note, or a low point, I wrote about it. I shared what I’d learned, how I framed my experience, how I realized I could CHOOSE what it would mean in my life.

It’s a powerful thing.

I also remember I shared a story someone else told me about their conversation with another family member. It was beautiful, and sweet. I was actually envious of said F.M., because they got a lot of kudos in the story. It reflected well on them.

And then F.M. called me in a fury to tell me what I’d written was a sack of lies.

They were embarrassed by what I’d written. And of course, I’d was immediately embarrassed I’d written it.

But when I asked for clarification from them, I was confused. It turns out the sense of the story, the heart of the conversation, the spirit of love, the intimacy and power of long-unspoken dreams revealed, all these true.

The “lies”? There were what any writer would consider “minor” details in exactly what words were used, and in what order. “I didn’t say I wanted to do that! I said I’d THOUGHT about doing that!”

I was baffled anyone would take offense, and I was distraught that people think “stories” are “lies”. This was not a “news event” or the records of a city government meeting.

Whenever we tell a story, there are elements that could be marked a “lie”.

First is our memory. Our brains are not tape recorders or DVDs. Our memory is affected by our emotional state at the time, the context of the situation.

There is the fallacy of “the shared experience”. Five people at an event may all have vastly different opinions on what just happened. There’s an amazing episode of the 80’s TV show “Thirty-Something” that shows the two lead couples in a restaurant, from each person’s point-of-view. As the scene replays, over and over again, we see it from each particular person’s POV. Including the totally oblivious, “What the frick just happened??” version from Michael’s seat. (He can’t figure out why everyone else is so upset, because he’s not paying attention.) If I can find it, I’ll put a link here!

There is what we bring to that event: Our filter. How we feel about the other people involved. What our mental and physical state was. What our history is with the other people involved.

There’s also what we DIDN’T bring! What we don’t know, behind the scenes. What we don’t know about the other people involved.

There’s the incredible effect of hindsight–realizing what was going on behind the scenes, etc. Our own personal growth since then. Our own “evolution”, or our own bitterness.

And finally, there’s the simple art of telling a story.

This is where some people are when they accuse us of “lying”.  They think every story is literally, excruciatingly, true. Or it has no value.

A good storyteller frames the story.

They create a context.

They share what it means to them, and what it could mean for you.

They might eliminate details that slow down the narrative, or segues that detract from “the message”. Awkward sentences get edited (unless that would dilute the “message”.)

Some writers would keep the quotes in dialect, because it adds authenticity. Some would leave it out, because maybe it’s harder to read “the message”. Neither is “wrong”, or “lying”. It’s an editorial decision.

Some would record every single sentence and statement, no matter how repetitive, because that’s what happened. Or it’s funnier that way. Others would edit out the repetition, because that gives the story more clarity. That’s not “lying”.

Many people consider the Bible “literally 100% true”, when the fact is, if you are a believer of its faith, it is “figuratively true”. There are plenty of contradictions, if you look for them. As one source says, “…written over 1,400 years, 66 books by 46 authors….” And written by HUMAN BEINGS, to boot. Deeply flawed, deeply earnest, deeply devoted, deeply conflicted, deeply prejudiced humans, just like you and me.

I myself am sooooooo frustrated when I write an impassioned plea for people to set aside their fears and follow the work of their heart, and write (what I hope is) a powerful story to illustrate that, and someone writes to say, “Great article! There’s a typo in the fourth paragraph, VERY distracting!!”  Oh, THANK YOU MR. LANGUAGE PERSON!!!

I can understand the lack of understanding by non-writers. It must be a cognitive dissonance for them! But to take grace, and minor editing, and reworking to create clarity, power, and truth as a “lie”?  As a “lack of integrity”??

I don’t get it.

But….that’s THEIR truth.

Here’s where a lie is evil:

If someone tells lies to manipulate you, to attempt to have power over you, to cover up deeper evils, then it’s bad.

If someone lies to make themselves look good….That takes some deeper thinking, and evaluation. We ALL want to “look good”, and as human beings, we do that constantly. It’s understandable. But not always excusable, especially if our major goal is to make someone else look bad, who doesn’t deserve that.

Making a story more clear, more powerful, is “lying”? Not so much, in my book.

Go for integrity. Go for your truth. Go for compassion, understanding, ultimately forgiveness, if that helps you move forward, if and when you’re ready, on your own terms.

Speak your truth. And let others speak theirs, in their own time and space.

 

 

 

 

 

HATERS GONNA HATE: You Aren’t My Customer

A problem shopper is a problem for EVERYBODY. And it isn’t about you. 

This weekend I went thrifting. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s hitting as many thrift shops as I can before my husband wants the car back. (We are managing with one car since we’ve moved to California, and so far we’ve also managed to actually stay married.)

Some people would never consider shopping at a thrift store, and some people can’t afford to shop anywhere else. In between are those of us who love the thrill of the chase, and the lure of the bargain. It’s hit-or-miss, of course, especially if you are looking for a specific item. But if you have an open mind and a small budget, it’s almost as much fun as a yard sale or a flea market, and there’s usually air conditioning, too.

So far, I’ve become (in)famous with a small group of photographers, who gave a workshop on how to photograph your own artwork. They highly recommended a tripod. I used to have one in New Hampshire. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the cut during the Big Move. Now I realized it’s critical to getting a crisp, clear image.

So on our lunch break, I ran out to a nearby thrift shop—and found a very nice tripod for under $10. (Actually, I found TWO, and bought them both for $13, total.)

The facilitators (mostly men) were gob-smacked. And very impressed! “We never thought of that!” they exclaimed. “And you just went out and did it and came back with TRIPODS!” (I AM good at thrifting. I has skills, people.)

So there I am at Salvation Army, in the mood for t-shirts and open to the idea of great pair of new dress pants, with the original sales tag, for $6, when I hear an angry voice at the cash register.

A large, older man is venting his frustration at the elderly woman at the counter.

“I HOPE WHOEVER DECIDED TO SORT YOUR SHIRTS BY COLOR INSTEAD OF SIZE HAS BEEN FIRED, AND IF THEY HASN’T BEEN, THEY SHOULD BE!” He boomed. “IN FACT, THEY SHOULD BE SHOT!”

He continued, “I don’t want a RED shirt, I want a LARGE shirt! And I shouldn’t have to check out every shirt on the rack to find one!”

The clerk looked nervous, but calmly apologized. She said their policy was not to sort clothing by size. “WELL, THEN, YOU SHOULD ALL BE SHOT!” he yelled. A few more similar remarks, and he finally left the building, fuming that his perfect shopping experience had been spoiled.

When I was ready to check out, I spoke to the clerk, telling her she had my sympathy. And that I love when items are sorted by color, because I was looking for specific colors and it saved ME a lot of time to find what I was looking for.  She was relieved. We chatted cheerfully, and I left with my new purchases.

Does this man have a point? Of course he does! If he really doesn’t care what color his shirt is, it can be frustrating to have to look at every shirt to find his size. He wants to go to one spot, find all the shirts that meet his criteria, and get outta there.

Except…..There are plenty of places you can do that. In fact, EVERYWHERE else. If you still can’t afford the big bucks, you can try Kmart, Walmart, Costco, or some of the other thrift shops in the area.

So is he justified to have this attitude towards the one place he chose to shop that day? Not really. And you want to suggest a change in a productive way, why would you go off on a person (who probably was a volunteer) at the one thrift shop that doesn’t do things “your way”?

Because you can.

Because you feel entitled. “This is what I want, and I expect to get it, cheap! Now!” And the thrift store is not accommodating you.

Because you are frustrated you are big, and the world isn’t accommodating you. Because you don’t want to spend money (why else would you be in a thrift shop?) but you want a great selection, and you also don’t want to spend a lot of time. (Remember the three kinds of printing available—good, fast, or cheap? And you can get any two, but rarely three? That applies to shopping, too.)

Because you are a big, loud, angry man, and the clerk is petite, and elderly, and frightened, you can blow your stack and since it looks like there’s nobody around who’s going to stop you, you can get away with it. She’s a captive audience—she can’t walk away, she has to mind the store. And you’re the “customer”, and she has to listen.

Sometimes, that’s the damaged, angry, entitled person who comes into your creative space, and trashes you, your work, your display, your aesthetic, and in the process, maybe your soul. 

It isn’t about you. It isn’t about your work. It isn’t about your color choices, your prices, your artist statement.

It’s all about them, and you are simply available. You can’t leave your space, and they are the customer.

Except….they’re not!

As I write this, I’m trying to think if ANY of the truly difficult people I’ve encountered while selling my work…the REALLY rude, patronizing, insulting, angry people….have actually bought a piece of my work.

And the answer, I realize, is no. They have not.

They aren’t really my customers at all. Just people taking advantage of the fact that I’ve (figuratively) invited them into my space, and I can’t leave. I am their captive audience, they figure, and they are entitled to your attention, and your hope, and your dreams.

If any of you are still harboring thoughts about people/family/customers saying hurtful things, about whether there is a grain of truth in their statements, about how to defend yourself, here is the living, walking, shouting truth:

There is no way to make this person happy. And you don’t even have to try.

All you have to do is smile, apologize, walk him out, maybe even point him in another direction…(another thrift shop? Another studio/booth/gallery? An artist you personally dislike? OOPS DID I SAY THAT OUT LOUD???) and count your blessings.

Because these are not the droids you’re looking for.

Because YOU made all this wonderful, wonderful work. The making of it brought you happiness. Putting it out into the world built your courage.

Your TRUE customers–the people who love it, and the people who buy it, will be happy, too.

And all it took was for you to stay in your happy place and move the unhappy baby…er…person…out of your space.  And for your real customers to cross your path today. Or maybe tomorrow. Soon!

Oh, and you have some pretty good responses and answers to their comments and questions. But we’ve got you covered there, too.

You’ve got this!

HATERS GONNA HATE: “It’s Just Chalk!”

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.

 You don’t have to defend your choice of materials.

In fact, make it a selling point!

A quick return to my series on how to answer the innocent questions, the odd questions, even the hurtful questions our visitors ask.

 During one of the discussions on a post in this series, a reader related that someone had dismissed her choice of medium with a disparaging remark”

“It’s just chalk!”  Ow!

 I remember the very first show I did, selling pens I’d covered with patterned polymer clay. I sold them for $5. Someone picked one up, sneered, “It’s just a cheesy pen covered with some kind of cheap plastic!”, tossed it back onto the table and walked away. (I remember thinking, “Was that absolutely necessary??”)

Sometimes a remark like this comes from another artist. One of the oddest things I’ve found among artists (of all kinds) is the hierarchy assigned to various media.

For example, oil paint is often considered a more “professional” medium than acrylic paints. It’s traditional, it’s harder to master, and it takes time to dry. Once cured, it’s extremely durable. It’s versatile, perfect for mixing and layering, because of that longer drying time. In the hands of a master, it creates spectacular results. Oil paints have been around for centuries, and became the “artistic medium of choice” in the 15th century.  Art made with oils usually commands the highest prices in the art world.

More modern acrylic paint, created in the 1940’s, has a slightly less lofty reputation. It dries quickly, doesn’t have such a prestigious history. The very name “acrylic” suggests ‘plastic’, synthetic. Fake.

On the other hand, acrylics are valued more than watercolors, which are valued more than drawings, colored pencil, pastels. And don’t even open the door to photography, that’s not even art. It’s a craft! So are woodblock/linocut/etchings/etc., because you can make hundreds of copies. They aren’t considered “real” art forms.

When I entered the art world, my mind reeled trying to sort out the innuendos and rationale for these hierarchies. My own choice of materials are so non-traditional, my medium is greeted with some suspicion. I don’t get much respect as an artist, until people actually see my work.  Even then, people used to pick up a piece and ask what it’s made of. “It’s polymer clay!” I’d beam, and they’d quickly put it down again.

What’s going on here???

Some of this bias is historical, based in tradition. Centuries ago, drawings were considered simply a draft for the “real” art—a painting. Colors were made with Newer art materials may contain more synthetic colors. Some media are easier to master. And some, I suspect, is turf-building: “You don’t use the medium I use, so my work is automatically better than yours!”

But there are plenty of counter-arguments, too. The first artifacts made by humans were shell beads. Yes. BEADS. Early cave art involved drawing, with charcoal or other pigments, i.e., CHALK. Yes, later on, these pigments were mixed with saliva, or oil. But their first application was probably to decorate and color bodies and hair, a practice that still continues in some cultures today.

So what do we say when someone denigrates our medium of choice?

My first response is this:

It’s not WHAT the material is, it’s what you DO with it. 

The logic of this is irrefutable. 

When precious metal clay, a metal powder in a clay base that can be modeled, formed, and fired with a micro torch, first appeared on the market, I saw this push-back immediately. Some traditional metal workers—sculptors, silversmiths, jewelers, etc.—protested that this was a ridiculous, amateur-targeting material, that cheapened their reputations. Gone were the traditional skills—soldering, casting, chasing, etc. It couldn’t possibly be considered a “real” metalworking medium….could it??

Google PMC artist “Celie Fago” and you tell me. (Spoiler alert: Whatever medium Celie works in, she creates incredibly beautiful work.)

Last week, I showed an artist friend portraits of my kids by a friend. He thought they were oils. Yeah. Colored pencil artist Nicole Caulfield hears that all the time.  (See my favorites at http://www.nicolecaulfieldfineart.com/zen-series !)

Nicole Caulfield’s colored pencil work is often mistaken for oils

And my favorite story about art vs. craft came from a potter friend. “If I make a sculpture in clay, it’s considered ‘craft’ ”, she said. “If I send that model to a foundry to be cast in bronze, it’s ‘art’.”

And we have all seen atrociously bad art done with oils, and amazingly beautiful work done in….er, on….an Etch-a-Sketch.

“The Etch-a-Sketch work is by artist George Vlosich.”

A hundred hours and one unbroken line. That’s not easy.

And me? Fiber arts is often considered a craft, or a woman’s medium. Polymer clay is considered a kid’s play material. I had a lot of explaining to do when I first started displaying, exhibiting, and selling my work.

My second, even more powerful response:

I CHOSE this material, and here are the reasons why….

I use polymer because my hands want to SHAPE things, not carve them.

I love using it to create jewelry because even larger works are lightweight, and comfortable to wear.

I can make artifacts that look truly ancient. I have a story to tell, about the roots of our own humanity, inspired by cave art going back a hundred thousand years and more. I want that power and mystery to be an integral part of my work.

Also very important to me–No animals are harmed in the process.

I use polymer clay by CHOICE. It does exactly what I need it to do.

I could not have made this work 50 years ago. Thank heavens for modern materials!

When I began to share WHY I use the materials I use, it became a selling point.

Your homework today, should you choose to accept it, is to take a few minutes to think about WHY you work in your chosen medium. Share your thoughts, and feel free to ask for help, if you need it.

Most of all, embrace your choices. Never excuse or apologize again for your choice of materials, nor your techniques. Something spoke to you the first time you used a brush, or a palette knife, a pencil, or a fistful of clay. It agreed with your inner self, your preferences, your tendencies, the way you want to work, the way you want to create.

 Their question—“What are these made out of?”—becomes a powerful point of connection with your potential audience.

Share this with your visitors, and watch your connections grow!

HATERS GONNA HATE: Your Turn to Ask the Questions!

To make a sale, you need a DIALOGUE, not a MONOLOGUE….When you’ve answered all your customers’ questions,, there’s more to say. It’s up to YOU to start this particular conversation…
By asking THEM questions!

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.

 

To make a sale, you need a dialogue, not a monologue.

To date, this series has focused on how to respond to the (usually) innocent but sometimes awkward or even tricky questions people ask us when they are intrigued by our artwork.

I still have questions I want to cover. But I also sense that many of you are “getting it”. You now realize that these moments are not an inconvenience, but an opportunity for you. A chance to have a conversation about your work, and you….and your potential customer!

Yes, them! They know who WE are. Time to find out who THEY are. 

So we’ll set aside for now about how to answer the questions about your prices, your process, your website, your galleries.

You’ve gently shifted the questions about your materials into your reasons WHY you choose those materials (in ways that benefit your customers).

You’ve used the questions about your process to share WHY you work the way you do (and how that benefits them). You’ve answered the questions about your subject matter with the reasons WHY you feel drawn to this work, these subjects, these landscapes—and how that lifts YOU, and why it might lift them, too.

You’ve used their questions to direct their attention to another work they may not have noticed, or another piece that tells a similar story.

If they’ve asked for a discount or made an offer that’s not acceptable to you, you’ve used the “No, but if…” response to challenge them gently to commit.

You’ve answered the questions about where you get your ideas, with the story of how you came to be the artist you are today, and where you want to go with that in the future—and how that’s made you a better person in the world, and how that helps OTHERS be better people in the world.

Now there’s a lull in the conversation, but the person is not looking around for a way out, moving away to look at another piece, or saying, “Thank you, I’ll be back!”

There’s more to say, and it’s up to YOU to start this particular conversation.

By asking THEM questions!

Let’s focus on some simple guidelines for the questions YOU will ask.

Every question you ask will be a gentle, light way of finding out what this visitor finds fascinating about your work.

“So I’m curious—what brought you into my booth?” or “So what is the piece in my studio that first got your attention?”  “What spoke to you about it?”

From their answer, you can expand into what’s special about that particular work, what it is that supports and justifies their attraction to it: “I’m glad you like that one, it’s one of my favorites because…..” or “You’re right, it’s an unusual piece for me because….”

You’ve explained what you’ve learned about that “first enticing piece”—that it’s not the same for every visitor, that every person has been attracted to different works, for different reasons. There’s an unspoken, non-verbal, unconscious connection between your visitor and that particular piece. And it matters, on a deep level. Let’s find out!

Use open-ended questions. Keep away from questions that can be answered “yes” or “no”. 

Instead of saying, “Is this the kind of work you usually collect?”, ask “What kind of work do you usually collect?”

“Are you attracted to a piece for yourself, or are you shopping for a gift?”

Instead of, “Is the price too high?” ask, “What price range are you working with today?” If it’s higher, or lower, show them a similar piece, accordingly. If the price is right, keep moving! 

And when it’s obvious they really, really, REALLY love that one piece, and yet they’re still hesitating….

If you’ve done your homework, anticipated their questions, replied in good faith, in an authentic way that’s kept the conversation going…

If you’ve asked YOUR questions…if you’ve determined what it is in your work that’s calling to them…

If, in spite of the connection you’ve made, and the trust you’ve established…

They are still hesitating…..take a moment.

NOW You can quietly, gently, ask:

“What’s holding you back?” 

Listen carefully to what they say.

These will be what are known in sales as “objections”. It may be one thing, or several. They may be major concerns, or simple. They may be insurmountable, or easily fixed.

It’s good for us artists to anticipate what these concerns are. Some we may have heard before, and many of us will assume it’s the price. Often, it’s not about the price, though, and “assuming” they can’t afford it can be off-putting for the client. This is why I prefer to simply ask, rather than assume, or guess.

I’ve been astonished by some of the responses I’ve received.

And most—if not all of them–are easily addressed.

Next week, I’ll share some of the objections I’ve received, and how I’ve handled them.

Take some time to make a note on the “objections” you’ve heard (“I love this one, but I hate the frame!” “It’s a little more than I usually spend.” If you don’t see your customers’ usual objections in the list, let me know.

I also know some of you have come up with some wonderful solutions, yourself, to meet these obstacles. Be sure to share them!

Be prepared to respond in a way that moves the conversation forward. (Hint: “Sorry, can’t help you, gotta go” is not a way to do that.)

And remember, even if we can’t find a way around the issue NOW….and they leave without purchasing the work…..

They’ve asked. You’ve engaged. You’ve asked, and they’ve responded.

They know who you are, and they’re intrigued to the point of allllllmost buying something.

Give them your card. Now is the time to refer them to your website. Get their address (email, snail mail), and stay in touch.

Because someday, they really, really will BE BACK!

 

HATERS GONNA HATE: You’re Not My Friend

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.

Rude, perfect strangers are one thing. What do you do when a FRIEND is rude??

So far in this series, we’ve focused on perfect strangers who sometimes say the oddest things about our work. Before I continue, let me say it again (and again, and again) that most of the time, people don’t realize they’ve said something that triggers us. They simply want to connect, even if it’s a very broad “me, too!” These are the people we need to give the benefit of the doubt, and respond with our “higher power”.

But sometimes the remarks verge on being downright rude, or tasteless. There’s the customer who makes constant sardonic remarks about your work. It’s “supposed” to be entertaining patter, all in fun–but it sure doesn’t feel that way.

And sometimes, it’s not a perfect stranger.

Sometimes it’s a friend who gets a little mean. Or another artist. Or even a family member. How do we handle them?

I’ve heard this referred to as “talking smack”–an exchange of put-downs and insults between friends. It’s all in good fun, right? Otherwise hurtful remarks are disguised as ‘jokes’: “Oh, I’m just kidding!”

I say there is a time and a place for such practice–maybe in a bar over a few beers discussing your favorite respective baseball teams. (“How about them Red Sox?!”)

But never in our place of business. Never in our studio, at a show, in our booth. Never where we are trying to earn a living. NEVER in front of our customers.

I had a “friend” who did this at a show. (Spoiler alert: This was my first real insight that this person was not really my friend.) As they looked at each piece, they had a crass, or even crude remark to offer. They had done this before, and I’d always laughed it off. “Going along” to “get along”. (Another spoiler alert: Does. Not. Work.)

This was a prestigious, juried show I’d spent well over a few thousand dollars to be in. I was on my game, and on my feet, 8 hours a day, for a week.

That day, I simply wasn’t in the mood to tolerate this anymore.

I called him out on their behavior on the spot. I was gentle, respectful, but firm.

I said, “You know, I love to goof around and say silly things. But not about my art. And not when I’m at a show. I’m as serious about what I do here as you are about (insert their profession here.) I hope you understand.” (Big smile.)

I said it quietly, without any rancor. I did not shuffle my feet or hem nor haw. I did not apologize.

I meant every word, and they knew it.

It worked. They were embarrassed. They mumbled a vague apology, made some token effort to look at my work “seriously”, and left soon after.

Years later, we realized we’d overlooked a lot of crap from this person, because of their charm and wit. It took a long time to see what was really going on. Better late than never!

In this case, they were envious of the authenticity, and the integrity, of the work I was making. The “jokes” were a way to diminish me in a socially acceptable way. “Hey, I’m just kidding! You’re pretty sensitive, aren’t you?”

I used to apologize for being sensitive. Not anymore. YES, I’m sensitive! I’m a friggin’ artist! My heart is open to the world around me, highly-tuned to nuance in design, color, story. It’s who I am, and I am never going to apologize for that again.

And neither should you.

The person in our life who acts this way, whether a friend, or a family member, is acting this way because something in us is affecting them. Intimidating them. Scaring them. We have something they don’t have, or haven’t had the courage to reach for.

We are committed. We are courageous. And our work is precious to us.

We constantly tune our technique because we are committed to doing our best work. We put it out into the world—posting it on social media, enter it into juried shows, approach galleries to represent us, etc.—because we have found the courage to do what needs to be done. We practice how to talk to people about our work because this is the work of our heart. Like a child or a puppy, it needs our love, our best intentions, our best efforts, to thrive in the world.

As life coach Danielle LaPorte puts it so succinctly, “Open, gentle heart. Big effin’ fence.

Last, when we get to the point where we have to say this to someone we love and/or care about…

When we have to set our boundaries, gently but firmly…

If they ever do this to us again….

There is the final blessing, the biggest gift of all, this beautiful, powerful insight from poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou: 

If it happens again….they have shown you exactly who they are.

Believe them.

We may choose to still love them, to keep them in our circle. We just now know for sure who they are, what they do, even if we never understand why. That is their journey, not ours.

We just know to consider the source, to protect ourselves, and deflect the negative.

And we need, above all, to keep on making our art.