NEWSLETTERS 101 #18: Love (and Art) in the Time of Covid-19

Bear tells me, "Be strong when things get hard. Listen more. Think slow. Love deep." Perfect advice for 2021!
Bear tells me, “Be strong when things get hard. Listen more. Think slow. Love deep.” Perfect advice for 2021!

There’s no perfect way to get through 2020 and beyond. So just do what works for YOU! 

(8 minute read)

I’ve never sought out positions on boards or steering committees, despite being involved with quite a few art organizations in my life.

I don’t have a “head” for leadership. I hate bossing people around. I mean, I love having my own way, but when I think I know what’s best for others, I fail miserably.

But over the years, I have volunteered for many these same orgs. Oh, I’ll complain along with everyone else about rules and regulations, how things are done, etc. But then I realize that the best way to find out the WHY is to join that committee, and learn.

I love peeking behind the curtain to see what’s going on!

It’s tempered my entire approach about shows, galleries, art groups, organizations, etc. And it also gives me a new perspective about the people who complain, but never take the time to find out WHY.

 My all-time favorite was sitting next to another fine craftsperson at a gathering during a major show, and listening to them complain non-stop about the committee I served on. After addressing almost all of their complaints, with the stories behind the decisions, I said, “Hey, you should join us, maybe you have some great suggestions for us!” (I said this with a straight face, too.)

They said, “How much do they pay you to serve?”

I nearly died laughing.

Apparently, it had never occurred to them that committees in art organizations are rarely, if ever, compensated for the dozens, or even hundreds of hours they put in, as a volunteer.

This year, despite my misgivings, I did join as a member of a steering committee. I’ve been given a relatively-easy committee to head, one that I actually might be okay with.

It was eye-opening on so many levels.

First, I was truly impressed by the quality of work this group does to pull off some pretty major events here in Northern California. I couldn’t believe all the details, permutations, roles these people played, how well they remembered every step of the process, and how quickly they reviewed and updated them.

Me? I forgot this article was due yesterday.

 I couldn’t help wondering what I brought to the table, if anything.

I soon found out. I had to take part in a phone tree to make sure artists had gotten the invitation to participate in our next event, an open studio tour mid-year, in 2021.

I hate making phone calls. I don’t even call friends or family members. (I just found out this year this is a major sign that I am an introvert at heart, though I can fake extrovert for short periods.)

I didn’t know what to expect, but I got the whole gamut of responses.

This year’s event had been cancelled shortly before it took place, due to (duh) Covid-19. Every effort was made to offer refunds for those who opted out, and a lot of planning and work went into making it a virtual event. An entirely new website was created, the event was pushed back and combined with a similar event. I was asked to volunteer with that, and put in easily 50 hours of work.

I made zero sales. I did two more virtual events that same month, and they all tanked for me.

Many of the artists I called had had the same experience (without the volunteer time.) Some accepted the new normal going forward. Some weren’t sure if they were willing to commit. And a few were quite angry over how this year’s event (that was cancelled) was handled.

I get it. I really do. And yet…

I chose to look at the gifts instead of the loss.

 Years ago, I did some major wholesale and retail high-end craft shows on the East Coast. I knew I had to put in a few years for each one before they would pay off.

But first came 9/11. Sales tanked for everyone. And every year after that, it seemed like a couple months before that show, we would invade some country in the Mid-East. I barely paid for my expenses. My last year, all three major wholesale shows tanked and I was in debt up to my eyeballs.

It was hard. But I learned so much.

I learned that there is no guaranteed success with any business venture we undertake. Even my writing, which used to bring in $300-$450/per article, tanked. I now make about 10% of that, and most of those opportunities have disappeared anyway.

I learned it takes time to build an audience, even in “normal” times. My very first open studio in New Hampshire, with a prestigious art group, I had zero visitors. The second year I had one, a nice young man who was very stoned. We had a very nice chat. I hope he remembers that! The third year, my studio was packed every day, and I made about a third of my income from one event.

I learned that an event with a catalog costs a lot of money. In those days, before the internet became a key component of my marketing, I would place ads in magazines associated with those events. It cost a minimum of $350 for one quarter-page ad, in a magazine that had a shelf life on 1-4 weeks.

So when I learned that a catalog accompanied my participation in this event, for the same money, a ‘magazine’ with a shelf life of a YEAR, I considered it a bargain.

 A great show/event catalog is worth its weight in gold.

 I’ve also learned that when we pay our fees, that money is used almost instantly to pay for all the resources: Design work for website modifications and ads and the catalogs, salaries (salaries for non-profits are usually at below-market rates compared to commercial businesses), etc. When an event is cancelled, the org does not get that money back. Design costs alone for this year’s catalog were almost $10,000, not including printing.

Our org has learned what works and what doesn’t with this process. Everyone involved has worked really, really hard to not only keep the organization going (which supports so many different kinds of creative work), but to improve the experience for its artist members.

And here we are today, at Fine Art Views, which dedicated all its efforts towards assisting us with the “new normal” and focusing on social media marketing.

It can work. For one thing, I had an uptick in sales in August, a very nice uptick. I couldn’t figure out where they came from, as none of them came through any of the online events. All of them came from my Etsy shop. Finally, I realized they were from my audience in NH! I haven’t been back in person to do the show. But since the entire show was virtual this year, I was at the same “level” as everyone else. I am so grateful to the League of NH Craftsmen!

In short (I know, it’s too late to make this short!) things are different. “Sure things” aren’t solid right now. Sales are off, it’s hard to connect with people/customers in person, and we all hate the loss of paying customers, and hate not knowing how, or when this will all get better.

But in a way, my life as a creative has ALWAYS been all over the map.

I’m grateful these art orgs are trying to stay in place, so they can be a support and outlet for us. I’m in awe at the people who work so hard to keep us moving forward, from a non-profit’s show committee, to the team at FASO.

I’m grateful I have an online shop, my own website, and system for marketing my art online.

I’m proud to be contributing to the safety of our country and part of a culture that values customer safety over profits.

I know if I can’t sell my work, 10,000 years from now, archeologists will have a blast when they unearth my studio.

I feel lucky that I still have a studio to go to, especially during these dark cold winter months.

And I am grateful that I can still make my work, because it brings me joy when I finish my latest projects.

As I shared some of these insights I’ve had over the years, many people softened re: their anger, their fear, their uncertainty. (That, or I bored them to tears and they said they’d consider joining just to get me off the phone!)

What are YOUR tiny blessings you’ve found in the moment? What have YOU learned in a lifetime of making your art? Doing shows? Sharing your art with the world?

What have YOU done to show your appreciation for what others have done for you, and for your passion for making art?

What are YOUR hopes and dreams for 2021?

If you enjoyed this article, if you enjoyed this article, share it! Link back to it here on Fine Art Views, or my blog at luannudell.wordpress.com.

If someone shared this article with you, and you’d like to read more in this series, visit my articles at FineArtViews.com. 

SHOW YOUR WORK #2: What Is Your Process?

How much do I share without destroying the mystery of my finished work?
How much do I share without destroying the mystery of my finished work?

SHOW YOUR WORK #2: What Is Your Process?

SHOW YOUR WORK #2: What Is Your Process?

Share what you want, not what you think you “have to”

Some thoughts on what to write about, photo, and share on social media.

I’m a double-juried (in two media) craftsman member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, a well-established, well-respected organization that supports and markets the work of members in many ways: galleries, events, exhibitions, and its prestigious Annual Craftsmen’s Fair held in August every year. (I achieved tenure, so even though I now live a few thousand miles away, I still retain my membership.) I eventually volunteered to become a member of the Fair Committee, because I was so curious about what went on “behind the curtain” to produce these incredible 9-day long event.

One feature of our annual outdoor fair was demo booths. For a reduced rate, a juried craftsman got a super-sized booth (about 20’x30’, if I remember correctly) to not only display their wares, but to do demonstrations of their craft for the public. When I started, there were three such booths at each year’s fair.

And every year we had to beg people to sign up for them.

The reason was, sales at these booths were horrible. Even with the savings and prominent placement on the grounds (an off-season ski resort), people knew they would struggle to make any money that year. It just wasn’t worth it to them.

I can’t remember why I decided it might be something to try, but boy, did I do my research. I checked in with past demonstrators, and asked if it were worthwhile. Almost everyone said, “Not that year, but my sales afterwards steadily climbed!” So, okay, consider it a loss-leader in the short-term, and investment in a bigger audience down the road. I could handle that.

But my superpower is gathering as much information as I can from every conceivable source. And so I also checked in with Bruce Baker, a jewelry-maker and gallery/gift shop owner who traveled across the country for years giving workshops on all things craft/art business related: Display, sales techniques, pricing, etc. (Bruce has retired this part of his biz and returned to jewelry-making full-time, but his CDs live on.) He lived relatively close, so I was able to attend many of his workshops, and even served with him on panel discussions and with traveling craft biz-building workshops for a year.

I called Bruce, and he graciously gave me the insights and advice I was looking for.

My first question was, why do sales tank at demos? He replied that demos tend to be “edu-tainment”: Free, educational and entertaining. And when it’s over, there goes the crowd, on to the next fun thing (music, raffles, food, etc.) So demo booths are unconsciously filed away under “fun to watch” and not “fun to shop”.

Add to that another unconscious element: When the “edu-tainer” artist sees people actively shopping, of course they stand up and move over to assist them. And the “magic” of demonstrating turns into, “Uh-oh, here comes the car salesman pitch!” and people scurry away. “There’s a disconnect,” he explained. “And once that ball is dropped, it’s hard to get back.” Hence, maybe crowds, but no sales.

He shared insights and gave suggestions. Like setting up my demo booth on the outer border of the big tent, so people didn’t have to “commit” to coming inside. “Don’t put it in the back of the booth, because then people have to make a conscious decision to enter a big, dark tent. Put it right there on the fairway!” I did, and it worked.

Second, he said I should NOT do sales. What??

“Not “no sales”. I mean you yourself should not do sales. Hire people to do that,” he said. “Keep that divide between the creative maker and the “car salesman”.” So I hired/bribed/cajoled a team of friends to help. (I lent them all CDs of Bruce’s selling techniques. But instead of telling them what I say about my work, I encouraged them to share what they love about my work. I felt it would come across as heart-felt and more authentic, and I was right.)

The proof of Bruce’s insights? At one point in the week, all my volunteers were at lunch at the same time. (Slow day.) Some people came in, I demo’ed, they watched. And when they started shopping, I walked over to them – and they nearly ran out of the booth! Lesson learned. (No, I’m not that scary in person, the dynamic had changed just as Bruce had described.)

I made my highest sales ever that year, and the next (as I got to choose to demo again, if I wanted to, and I did.) In fact, from that year on, there was actually competition for those sales demo booths, and their number increased to five! Because every other artisan saw what was happening, and wanted in on that, too.

But one of the biggest hurdles yet remained. And it took a friend’s insight to solve that problem:

How much do I share without destroying the mystery of my finished work?

This has been a “hurt place” for decades for me. My work has been copied (although badly, I’m ashamed to admit I’m happy to say). Showing exactly what I do, and how I do it, felt too risky. Also, think of how explaining a magic trick takes away the magic. The last thing I wanted to do was to unconsciously give others permission to copy. (Most of my techniques are well-known and not original to me, but the way I put them together and the stories I tell are.)

Again, just the right person showed up.

I met Alisha Vincent when she was the show manager for the Buyers Market of American Craft (informally called “The Rosen Show” for the company’s owner, Wendy Rosen) and now known as the American Made Show.) She was/still is one of my super heroes in life, for her intelligence, her powers of observation, her wide range of experience in the world, her courage, and her sense of humor. She actually came to NH that year to work in my demo booth, and I am forever grateful she did, for countless reasons. But especially for today, this one: When I expressed my fears, she was quick to find the solution. “Look at your neighbor,” she said, gesturing toward the guy who made beautiful Shaker boxes in the tent next to me. “He says his process has 29 steps.”

“He’s demonstrated nine of those steps.”

Oh. OH. OH!!!!!! Got it!

Next week, I’ll share the other learning points from this experience we can apply to social media. For today, just this:  When I say “show your process”, know that it means you can choose how much to share.

Take pictures (or ask someone to help with that) that show your work (and you, if you like) at various stages of your process. Share, with comments. (I did this with my email newsletter recently, and the response was the best I’d ever gotten.)

Some people do share every single step. Hats off to them! They are secure in the knowledge that their skills have taken time and effort, and are not easily mastered. And that their own aesthetic and color choice are unique to them.

Me, not so much. I totally know this comes from my own insecurities and past experiences.

And so Alisha’s insight helped me pick interesting aspects to demo, but not a start-to-finish process. She helped me find my comfort level, so I could start there and go forward.

That’s the big idea for you, today. There will tons of insights, advice, statistics, and information about art marketing in the weeks ahead on Fine Art Views.

Keep note of the ones that interest you.

Note what feels like “too much” vs. what feels like a challenge you can handle.

And as you get comfortable with it, take on the next challenge.

Remember, there are oodles of steps to help us move forward in our art biz.

The gift is, we get to choose what ones, how, how much, how often.

As always, if you enjoyed this article, let me or my editor know! If you’d like to read more, you can either read more of my articles on Fine Art Views or subscribe to my blog at LuannUdell.wordpress.com. You can visit my older articles in the wayback machine at Radio Userland. (They are harder to search for, but they are also shorter!)

If you think someone else would like it, please forward it to them. And if someone sent you this, and you liked it, ditto!

AT THE FAIR: Muscle Memory

Sometimes we could–should–listen to our hearts instead of our bodies.

It’s been a long, wonderful week at this year’s League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair up at Mt. Sunapee Resort in Newbury, NH. Busy! So busy the time seems to fly by. Lots of new faces, and familiar ones, tales of happiness and sorrow.

My heart is full when I come home, but my body is racked with pain.

Last night, I had a session with a chiropractor, who, like me, has a martial arts background. I mentioned I was thinking of returning to my practice. The hurdle is this: Usually I return to classes to get in shape. As I age, I should really be in better shape before I attempt to do that.

He said it was a wise choice. I’ve had a lot of injuries and another surgery in the last year, and things–alignment, balance–are out of whack. “If you return now, without letting your body heal, your muscle memory will kick in. Your body will try to do the things you used to do. But you can’t do them right now, and you’ll injure yourself trying.”

Aha! That’s why some of my ‘returns’ have been so short-lived!

That phrase–muscle memory–stuck in my mind, and helped me understand where some of my discomfort at the Fair comes from.

Most people think we artists and craftspeople are like a big family. Well, that’s more true than you know. When I first joined the ranks, I felt like I’d found my tribe, my true heart’s home. It was a shock to realize it really is like a big family. (I have personal experience–I’m the oldest of seven children.)

Some of us don’t speak to each other. Others come to us for support and comfort and inspiration constantly. Professional jealousy rears its ugly head constantly. And there are others who cheer us on with every step.

Set-up is the hardest. One minute you’re offering someone your precious stool, and the next you’re snarling at them to move their junk out of your booth space.

Sometimes too much has passed between you. Then there is no opportunity missed for a caustic remark to be made, even as you win an award. Some cannot even bring themselves to greet you as you pass on your many trips to the bathroom or Fair office (or the bar at the top of the hill.)

For these times, there is muscle memory: Your body, remembering the acts of unkindness, shrinks when you see them, and you cannot bring yourself to even pretend to be polite anymore.

But there is a way out.

Over the years, I’ve learned that, 99% of the time, someone who is causing you anguish, is carrying their own tight anguish inside their heart. In short–it’s not about you. It’s about THEM. You happen to be a convenient target.

And sometimes it’s us. We’ve done somebody wrong, and it’s time to admit that. Take responsibility for it, and say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me. And if you can’t, I understand.”

Then try to live with the fact that we, too, are imperfect people.

I have done things I’ve had to ask forgiveness for. And sweet Jesus, I received it. I have others who have asked forgiveness from me, and I am overwhelmed by their humility–and courage. It takes real courage to apologize. I know. I’ve been there.

In the end, we have to trust the work of our hands, and the work of our hearts. We live in this tribe, in many tribes, actually. We live in this world.

I like to think if we could trust the muscle memory of of hearts and spirits, a little more than the muscle memory of our bodies, just a little….

Then maybe someday we could even have peace in the Middle East.

Okay, that last line is a family joke, and perhaps not even a very good one. (“I hat you” is also a long-standing family joke.)

But that’s what families are for–a place where we can work out our little dramas and big heartaches, and ultimately find a place where we can stand and say, “You’re a poop, but I love you, and yes, I forgive you. Seventy times seven.”

And cross our hearts and hope for the best.

May you be able to forgive, seventy times seven. And may you also be forgiven, at least ten times as much.

AT THE FAIR: A Girl’s First Real Necklace

Being a part of someone’s life, because of the work we make, is a powerful thing.

Today is Day 4 at my big retail show, The League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair. It’s been exciting, exhausting, enervating, exhilarating, excellent and entertaining. Sort of New Hampshire’s own Big E.

Years ago, a mother and her young daughter came to my booth. The girl–around 9 or 10–fell in love with my horse jewelry, and begged her mom for a necklace.

“No way!” exclaimed her mom. “You always lose your jewelry. You lose everything!”

The girl pleaded her case, promising she would cherish the necklace. There was a little bargaining involved, I found a horse necklace that was a little less expensive, and both of them left with their Luann Udell horse.

Scene: My booth, one year later. A girl and her mother walk in the booth. The girl is wearing–my horse necklace!

We hug and laugh. Her mother tells me the story: “Every night, before she goes to bed, she takes off her necklace and places it in the gift box you gave her. And every morning, she puts it back on. It is the last thing she does before she sleeps, and the first thing she does after she wakens.”

I was so moved that she loved my work so much. I told this story to a friend. She said, “Do you realize, Luann, that YOUR jewelry is her first piece of ‘grown-up jewelry’? Your necklace took her to the next place in her life–you’ve been a part of her growing up.”

Now they come back every year. Sometimes the daughter buys a pair of earrings, sometimes her mother buys a necklace. Sometimes they pick something together, agreeing to share it between them.

It is beautiful to watch them.

They came this year. The girl is a young woman now. There is talk of college, maybe even a gap year program. As always, the love and warmth between them is obvious. She picks a pair of earrings, Mom picks a beautiful necklace–with a promise to share. They may be back for the girl to pick another ‘big’ piece for graduation. As they leave, I feel tears coming.

Yes, their purchases over the years have supported me as an artist. They are lovely people and I’m honored they love my work.

But even more, I am humbled at the idea that I am now a part of their family story. My work, from my hands, graces their lives. It encouraged a child to take her first steps to adulthood, and greater responsibilities. It’s been part of her life for almost a decade now, and will be with her on her first steps out into a bigger world.

I have been a witness to this. I’ve been invited to be a part of this. My art has been my ambassador, and I am astonished and grateful.

Today another young girl and her mother came to my booth for the first time. The girl begged her mother for a horse necklace. I shared this story with them. They laughed, the mother looking thoughtful. They looked and tried on a few pieces, then moved on to see the rest of the Fair.

I have a feeling they’ll be back.

As hard as it is to do this show, these moments, these precious moments, remind me of what the world asks of me. They remind me that my gift serves others, sometimes gentle, sometimes obscured, but always with purpose.

It is why I am here, today, at the Fair.

A little girl's first 'grown-up' jewelry!