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.

If you enjoyed this today, please share it with someone you think would enjoy it, too!

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NO POWER: Lessons From the Fires

NO POWER: Lessons From the Fires

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.

Sometimes we have to lose our power before we realize we've had it all along.

Sometimes we have to lose our power before we realize we’ve had it all along.
Today’s been a fun day. No electricity. Maybe none for another five days….OY!!
Two years ago, our city was hit by an out-of-control wildfire that destroyed over 5,000 homes and killed a dozen people. It turned out our regional power company was at fault. High winds, blowing east-to-west in the fall, had downed several power lines. These set trees on fire, and the high winds blew the destruction over miles and miles.
Unfortunately, our fire crews were overwhelmed, because of a similar situation in another part of the the state. So rather than an influx of support, our teams were quickly overwhelmed. Buildings couldn’t be saved, only saving lives mattered. The last line of defense was taken outside of two area hospitals, which, incredibly, were saved with little damage.
Of course, this is no longer an anomaly.  Other cities and towns in California experienced even worse fires in the years following. PG&E has struggled to develop a plan-of-action during these high-risk weather situations. The current plan? Shut down power before the winds hit. Like, a day before the winds hit. Like, today.
So, unfortunately, this plan was put into effect 24 hours BEFORE the high winds are predicted. We are among the 240,000 people affected.
We woke up to no power.
The weird part? Everyone two blocks to the west of us, and a few miles north of us, has power. (Why electricity in our town was shut down at all, when the fires were generated many, many miles EAST of us, is a mystery.)
Fortunately, my studio has power. And here I am today, thinking about “power”.
Yesterday, the price of gasoline jumped at least 50 cents a gallon. My husband shook his head at the price-gouging, til I reminded him that gas stations have a very narrow profit margin. And when the power goes out, they won’t be able to sell gas, perhaps up to five days. Yes, they were taking advantage of a freaky situation, but otherwise, they could go out of business. Not good.
Supermarkets were swarmed by people stocking up on supplies. Oddly, our favorite store had already run out of water. (Our water was not turned off, but when you hear the words “emergency”, you don’t want to take anything for granted. Also, most of of these stores may have to close when the electricity gets cut. They stand to lose millions in refrigerated and frozen food.
It got me thinking: What is the power source of an artist? And what happens when we lose that source, even temporarily?
One power is ingenuity. We are very good at solving all kinds of problems and issues, from figuring out which medium works best for us, to sussing out shows, galleries, and events that garner us the most in sales and exposure to new audiences. If we were to lose that “power”, we would probably curl up into a ball like a hedgehog, waiting (uselessly) for the world to “change” to our advantage. But artists are very good at “keep on keeping on.”
So our next power could be perseverance. Knowing when, and how, to keep moving forward, to hold hope in our hearts, even when the world is full of uncertainty. This can be tough. I’ve seen artists’ sales rise and fall, surge and ebb over the years. (I’m currently in that sales fall-and-ebb state. It’s not fun.) I can’t imagine what it would feel like to believe this would never change.
And yet most of us do. Many artists lose hope, and some actually walk away from the work of their heart, believing they will never earn a living from it, or even help pay a bill or two. (Some just want to pay their expenses.)
I’ve always known I can’t walk away from my work (until I’m physically forced to!) But I know it’s a thing, to believe we can never make it work. It breaks my heart. It’s hard enough to deal with hard times. Taking away my ability to make art would break me. That’s why, when I found that wonderful “Sally Forth” cartoon, with it’s powerful statement, “It’s not about having an audience, it’s about having a voice”, I realized I had “permission” to continue this work, no matter if I have to eventually find other ways to earn $$$. It’s what keeps me sane, and whole, it a dark and weary world.
Stockpiling is another power. I’m really good at buying in bulk to save money on materials, even if it sometimes mean I have to sell some of it off as my work takes another direction.The trick is to stockpile the right stuff. And also, to be able to repurpose those supplies into other uses. (Ask me about S-clasps that can also be used as connectors!)
Last night, my husband bought a ton of his favorite foods. Unfortunately, this morning he realized that if we don’t get power back soon, it’s all going to go bad in the refrigerator. (I did buy some cheese, but it will last a day or so without refrigeration. I also bought crackers, too. No cooking!) So knowing how and when to stockpile, and how to find a new use for what we have, is a good skill set.
Another good power to have is flexibility. During the fire in 2017, our neighbors not only lost power, but also their internet. (It depended on who the carrier was. Ours still worked, theirs didn’t.) We were able to use our phones as hotspots, and they were able to “coast” on our internet. Today, I was able to use my studio laptop to write this. I’ll be taking it home with me tonight. My husband also mentioned we’ll be able to power our cellphones with laptops. I did not know that!
Me? I’m gifted with this power! When I first started out making my art, a lot of people gave me grief because I worked in so many different media: Fiber. Polymer. Jewelry. Monoprints. Assemblage. But my superpower was my story. People can now recognize my work in almost every medium I work in, because of that. Some even recognize my non-polymer jewelry, because of my palette and my designs. That’s a good thing! Also, I can sell my work through different galleries that specialize in different media. And jewelry always sells, even when my higher priced 2D work doesn’t.
What thrives in a power outage is community. Just as we helped our neighbors in 2017, there are times when friends, family, and neighbors, can leap to our aid.
Artists often work in isolation, and some of us have lived in areas and times where artists are few and far between. And yet, our attempts to form an artist community can be powerful. My own current artist support group lagged when it came to trying the exercises I told them would be powerful. We coasted on updating, kvetching, and advice-giving, until finally, a few months ago, one person was willing to try the process of “active listening”, and the Four Questions.
It worked! It was so powerful, they want to do it again, and again. I even got a chance, and it was powerful for me. I’d forgotten what it was like to simply talk, with very few interruptions, to be able to grieve without other people trying to soothe me out of it. It was amazing, to work through my own issue with my own insight I couldn’t get solely by being in my head. And I am grateful.
In a way. I strive to use my column as that opportunity for YOU, too. I want to hear your stories, your struggles, your successes, and I want you to reach out and support others who are going through the same thing. Nobody knows better than an artist what it feels like, when it seems the world does not want nor value our work. And yet, we need to do it, if only for ourselves. (Because making the work of my heart heals me, and I know it can for you, too.)
The last power (because I know you have other things to do this morning!) is courage. It takes courage to take up brush, or pen, or clay, or our guitar, to express the truth that must come out. It takes courage to accept that what is in us, must be shared. If not for ourselves, then for someone else who is also sitting in a dark place, who also worries the world does not want their work. Someone else who needs to hear “you are not alone” (though yes, you are unique), someone else who is doing all the right things, but still isn’t having the success they dream of. Someone else who is afraid they are “doing it wrong”, when they simply have not found the right audience for what they’re doing right.
Sometimes it takes a power outage to realize the real source of power is hiding in plain sight:
In our hearts.
In our art.
In our community, family, faith.
In our own experience, and generosity.
Do you have story about how you got through a power outage (real or metaphorical?) How did you find your source of inner power? Share it so someone else will be inspired!
If you enjoyed this article, pass it on to someone else who might like it, too.
And if someone sent you this article, sign up for more advice for artists at Fine Art Views and/or sign up for more of my writing at my blog at https://luannudell.wordpress.com/

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Editor’s Note:

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