LEARNING TO FLY Part 3: What Rudyard Kipling Said

Learning to Fly Part 3: What Rudyard Kipling Said

by Luann Udell

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for Bold Brush 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.
Stay calm, stay focused, stay dedicated … and carry on.

In my first two article in this series, I introduced the concept of the checklist (NOT a to-do list, as many people read it, but periodic ‘checking-in’ with your goals, your creative process and marketing plan, to make sure they align and you haven’t dropped a ball); and the concept of a co-pilot (your support team.)

Today we’ll consider the next critical concept: What to do when things go horribly wrong.

In talking to several small plane pilots over the years, I’ve learned that most plane accidents (outside of terrorism and acts of God) are due to pilot error. A pilot may fly a big, flashy plane that ‘looks good’, but it’s over-powered or tricky to fly, in relation to the pilot’s skill level. Or they ignore bad weather conditions and other obvious dangers, in their over-confidence.

My friend Bob’s next story was about a small plane crash that made big headlines on the East coast in 1999. I’d read much about the weather conditions at the time, and made a judgment about the pilot. Researching this article, I see many others made the same assumptions, and judged harshly. But again, my friend corrected me.

“He actually did everything right,” he said. “The weather conditions were manageable, he was familiar with the route, he did the right things. He went into a spiral, and he’d been trained what to do. What threw him off when the plane began to spiral, his passengers panicked. In the audio tapes of the flight, you can hear them screaming in the background. And then, distracted, he panicked, too.That’s when he followed his instincts instead of his training-and crashed.”

Panic.

Most artists don’t have to figure ‘death by making art’ into their decisions, thank goodness! But how many of us have had those frantic moments-days–years-of snap judgments about our art careers?

“I finally got that solo show, and nobody bought anything!”

“I got into that prestigious gallery, and nothing is selling!”

“I created this whole new body of work, and nobody likes it!”“I’ve been working like a dog to market on Facebook and Instagram, and I don’t have any likes’!”

“I finally put up an online store, and nobody’s buying anything!”

“I (put your latest step forward here), and (insert the measure of success you didn’t meet)!”

Let’s get more general: “No one in this area appreciates fine art/fine craft!”

Let’s get even more horrific⦠“This world economy sucks!! No one buys art anymore!”

We do our best work, the work of our heart, and we still aren’t rich/famous/collected/published/whatever-your-measure-of-success-you’ve-set-for-yourself.

Even worse, we look around and see people who are successful. They make tons of money (or at least earn a living), they’re famous (they’re in the news all the time), they’re talented (they win all the awards), they’re good at marketing (their work appears in the best galleries and the best homes, etc.

It’s easy to assume they’re doing it right. Which means YOU must be doing it wrong.

And we panic.

We decide we’ll paint what so-and-so paints, or we’ll paint like so-and-so paints, we’ll try to get into the same galleries, use the same hashtags, we’ll write an artist statement just like theirs, we’ll dice and slice and chop up our process, and in the process, lose our vision, our way, our very creative self.

And that makes it even worse, because then we don’t even know who we are anymore.

When I consult with an artist about their artist statement, my first question to them is, “Why do you do what you do?” (And you already know, if they exclaim, “I just love color/light/landscapes/the interstices between the tensions generated from both explicit and implicit layers”, I know I’m gonna be holding some feet to the fire. Because these well-meaning people, people who were attracted to art, and make the art they make, have looked around them, been distracted by what others are doing, and have lost their way. They begin to question everything they do, and how they do it, trying to find out what they’re doing wrong.

And yet, when I push a little, many (if not most of them) are not painting just for the money, or for the fame. There is something in them that is unique, something that is precious and beautiful, extremely human and poignant, that represents who they are in the world.

I believe we make art because of this unique ‘us’, because we yearn to make a mark in the world, perhaps even something that will survive us when we’re gone.

Sometimes this results in success, especially if we can articulate what that ‘something is’, so that other people can connect with it. Sometimes it simply results in a new respect and gratitude for what we do, regardless of how others regard it. Sometimes it drives all our actions in the world, creating those damn ripples in the great lake that we can’t see, but have to believe in. (You know, the ones I’m always writing about.

And sometimes, it is simply the story we tell ourselves, so we can create meaning in a vast and overwhelming universe.

So when the panic and the self-doubt hit, take a moment. Or a day, or a week, or even a year. Contemplate. Reflect. Reach out to your support group, or your wise person in your life.

Cross-check for fear and doubt. Hold them up to the light of the fire inside you, and see what is revealed.

Your homework for the day (should you choose to accept itâ¦Hey, you’re a grown-up now! You get to say ‘no’!) is to reread Rudyard
Kipling’s rousing poem, “If”…. Which begins with

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too….

And ends with

“….Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!”

And for extra credit, reread Philip Larson’s controversial last line his beautiful poem, “An Arundel Tomb”….

“…The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.”

The sentiment is not simple. It means that, whether the tomb represented a true love store, or a medieval burial marker convention,what we see is love…

Because in our hearts, we want it to be true.

I have been with many people near the end of their life, and I never heard them talk about their fame or fortune, their achievements or their honors.

They talked about memories; loved ones (those gone before and those who will be left behind); sorrow; regret; gratitude; and forgiveness.

My advice to you, as an artist, and as an artist who may sometimes panic about your place in the world:

Simply do the best you can, as you can.

Create the work YOU care about, right now.

Do better, and be better, as possible. Leave as little as possible in regret.

And grow as much joy as you can, today, with your art.

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!