Scrambling for Clarity

But sometimes, all we need is to trust our best instincts, to sense our highest purpose on earth, instead of focusing on our greatest fears...
But sometimes, all we need is to trust our best instincts, to sense our highest purpose on earth, instead of focusing on our greatest fears…

In Our Heart, We Already Know What to Do

(8 minute read)

I have a confession to make today.

I love word puzzles. Not all of them. (Some are too hard for my aging brain.) But crossword puzzles and word scrambles are my faves.

Crossword puzzles have life lessons all on their own. I used to be unable to do a New York Times crossword puzzle at all–too hard! Lots of “tricks” and double-entendre clues involved. But I’ve gotten better over the years, as I learn that the clue “double-decker?” could mean “two-stories” or “pinochle”…

The beauty of a crossword puzzle is, when I am worried, anxious, or trying to get to sleep, my lizard brain is soothed by having “something to solve” that doesn’t really matter. (As in, I don’t lose money, self-esteem, or anything else if I can’t solve it.)

Word scrambles…Now that was another story. How do you solve an anagram?

By the way, if you Google “anagram”, Google will ask you if you mean “nag a ram”….. So now we know that Google does have a sense of humor.

Word scrambles also appear in our newspaper, like Jumble and Scram-lets. They used to be quite difficult for me to solve. I relied heavily on working them out by “logic”, trial-and-error (randomly trying out various combinations until I found one that worked).

Until I read an article a few years ago about how reading actually rewires our brains. You can read more about this phenomena, called typoglycemia, here. (I remember a similar technique in the classified ads in older magazines: “If u cn rd ths u cn b a scrtry & gt a gd jb w hi pa!”) (Please don’t ask me how old!)

I tried typoglycemia to solve anagram puzzles, and it works!

Instead of patiently doing the trial-and-error thing, now I start by quickly looking at the scrambled word, “see” the word almost instantly, and move on to the next as quickly as I can, before I’ve even finished entering the answer. It’s amazing how innate this word recognition thing is!

There are still some words this technique doesn’t work for, for me. Oddly, one of the first was “studio”. I thought originally it was because of words we tend to use less, which is true. But “studio”????

The second odd thing is, once I see “studio” in the anagram, it’s easier to recognize it in the scrambled version going forward. It’s like solving it once, made it easier for me to solve the next time.

Our brains are marvelous organs, both incredibly powerful, and frustratingly baffling. (Remember my post last week, about realizing all the things I’ve lost?)

What does this have to do with our art-making, art marketing, and art career?

Sometimes we make ourselves work way too hard to solve a problem or issue, when simpler solutions might be right in front of us.

Sometimes I struggle with all the social media necessary these days to find and connect with our audience. Then I found shortcuts: I can elect to have my blog articles automatically reposted on Facebook and Twitter. Images posted on Instagram can be automatically reposted on Facebook, too. Thus, I use my social media time more effectively, and more efficiently, which is incentive to post more regularly.

When I first started blogging, I wrote for several years before I had an audience. Part of it was that it was so new, who would go looking for what I had to say? (My first blog-hosting site was Radio Userland, which doesn’t even exist anymore, except as an archive.) Fortunately, my husband retagged these old posts, and I republish them from time to time. And WordPress has more tools and options, which can make it easier to use.

The very article I linked to above was when I learned that there is no single “right” way of making our art and getting it out into the world. I was anxious about coaching other people. It felt like telling them what to do, and much of my own experience was vastly different than the other workshop leaders I worked with.

And yet, when I simply focused on a few simple things, it worked. If you love quilting, and you are very good at it, and yet, you mistakenly believe people won’t value what you do, so you “have to” compete with mass-produced quilts, or ones made in India, for example, and therefore you work faster, with imperfect results, do you WANT to be successful selling them? I told that quilter to do the work that made them proud, and then find their audience.

To a young kid who was actually already enjoying some success with their jewelry designs, I gave them resources on improving their techniques and color choices. But, I told them, “Your biggest asset is that you are nine years old, cute as a bug, and sweet as candy. Work with your mom to keep you safe, in social media”, I told them and their mom. “But people will be enchanted by your determination and delighted you’re embracing your creative spirit at such a young age, and they will want to encourage you to keep it up, by buying your work.”

I finally realized I’d shied away from teaching because I know I don’t have all the answers, especially all the RIGHT answers. But I’ve discovered I am very good at helping people find their next step, and that is what most people need in life. An example of me “overthinking” how much knowledge I needed to teach.

Another example of quickly “seeing” is when we have a major life/art goal, and can’t figure out how to get there. Try this simple approach to get grounded, and to get started:

Name your vision. Is it representation in that wonderful gallery? Is it to build your audience for your work? Is it to sell your work for a fair price? Is it to have your work published in a book, or to get into that top show, or make x amount of money a year?

Start there.

Then walk yourself through the steps by thinking backwards from that goal.

What has to happen before that, for it to take place?

Got it? Now, ask yourself again: What has to happen before that?

Got it? Keep going…..

You wanna right a best-selling novel? Yep, it’s hard, though not impossible.

First, it has to be published.

Before that, it has to be taken on by a publisher.

Before that, it has to be edited to near-perfection.

Before it can be edited, it has to be in the hands of a publisher.

In order for you to approach a publisher, you may need an agent.

To find an agent, you need to have written that story.

Before you write it, you have to make the time to write it, enough that they can see its potential.

So what can you do in the next 24-48 hours to get it written?

You need to set aside a small amount of time, right now (or as soon as possible) to write. And you have to hold that goal in your heart daily, weekly, monthly…..

And to write your story, you need to know what you want to say in the world.

You don’t have to figure it all out ahead of time. You just have to have a starting point that gets you through that first step, and then the next step. And then the next after that.

And then keep at it, as much as you can. Because it matters to you.

That’s why I love Clint Watson’s advice about the importance of having a website, and keeping in touch with your audience. It’s not about figuring out how to be a total social media expert, or even figuring out dozens of ways to get your work out there. All you need is an online presence (and a website combines all the best aspects of online presence.) And a way to let your audience know what you’re up to, by reaching out to them from time to time, so they won’t miss your next show, your next open studio, the new gallery that now represents you, and you latest body of work, available for sale at XYZ.

And this is why I love the Keith Bond’s article on defeating the specter of procrastination. Because the more we defer our “next step” action, the harder it is to move forward.

Just like unscrambling words to find the right anagram, our brains-and our hearts-know what we need to do. But we tend to overthink our efforts. If we’re feeling lost or discouraged, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by our attempts to “figure it all out”, so our path is straight.

Unfortunately, “straight paths” are pretty rare in every creative endeavor. We’ve all read about the people who have achieved overnight success. But that’s the rare exception, not the everyday reality.

Instead, we can quickly recognize a great opportunity, and go for it. We can realize we need to have a cohesive body of work, whether that’s in subject matter, techniques, or overall aesthetic. It should look like our work, and easily identifiable as such.

We may calm ourselves down by recognizing how making our art restores our heart and soul, which is ultimately more enriching than how much money we made this year. Not sayin’ sales aren’t important, just that sometimes that means we have to give up other things involved, things we might miss even more.

Our lives, and our art, can be just as scrambled as a Jumble puzzle.

But sometimes, all we need is to trust our best instincts, to sense our highest purpose on earth, instead of focusing on our greatest fears, or our single measure of fame and money with our work.

It can help to see the hidden word, the true word, in our holy “mess” we call our beautiful, creative life.

If you enjoyed this post, feel free to share it with someone else who might like it, too. And if someone forwarded you this post, and you liked it, you can sign up for more at my blog.

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!

If someone sent you this, and you’d like more of the same, subscribe to Fine Art Views for more insights from different artists.  And if you want to read more of my writing, subscribe to my blog at at LuannUdell.wordpress/com.

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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TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: Slow Down When Things Get Hard

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.

"...it’s okay to simply lay back in our little boat, and drift."
“…it’s okay to simply lay back in our little boat, and drift.”

Sometimes, it’s about NOT doing….

 (6 minute read) 

 In last week’s post, I shared my thoughts on how “waiting”, though it can feel like “doing”, can end up with us “doing nothing.” Many readers shared their own stories about moving forward. Others shared theirs about the realization they were indeed, just “waiting”. They were inspired to be more proactive with their art, and their art marketing.

But the first commenter broke my heart, with their story of dealing with loss, and grief for the last few years. Having gone through that myself the last two years, I know what it feels like to feel like our heart has no room, no desire for art-making.

It’s true our present culture can put a timer on grieving. People may expect us to “get over it” within six months. (There are ways to protect ourselves from that.) Others do “go long” with their grieving, and struggle to find a way forward. (There are ways to deal with that, too.)

What I wanted to tell that person is, it’s okay to be stuck.*

Yes, it’s important to work consistently and with intention to a) make our creative work, and b) get it out into the world.

But sometimes we just can’t. And that’s okay.

The first time I ever heard this concept—the idea that sometimes life just gets too hard to “soldier on”, that it’s okay to step back and breathe—was in Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. She described our creative efforts as paddling that boat swiftly down the river. But there may be times when we just can’t paddle.

And then, she writes, it’s okay to simply lay back in our little boat, and drift.

The current will still carry us downstream. Just not as fast.

“slow down when things get hard…”

Life has a way of getting in the way of our goals and dreams, our hopes and aspirations. It may be a good thing: Our first child, perhaps, (or the fourth!!!), or a new home. Maybe our spouse got a great job opportunity….on the other side of the country, far from friends, family, and supporters of our work.

More often, it’s that dreaded phone call in the middle of the night, the one none of us wants to get, ever. Or the call that a loved one is definitely nearing the end of their journey, perhaps expected, but just as difficult.

Maybe it happens to us. I know several potters who had to leave their beloved medium, and find another way to express themselves that doesn’t involve repetitive stress injuries. We may experience illness or debilitation. Or, even harder, we may take on the caretaking for a loved one, for years, in what feels like a grinding, thankless, sleepless exercise that will never end. Until it does, and then it feels even worse, focusing only on what we did wrong, and what we could have done better.

For those of you here, in these hard places, I’m here to tell you: It’s okay.

It’s okay to step back if life is overwhelming. It’s okay to put down the oars, to lay back in your little boat, and let the current carry you for awhile.

It’s okay to walk away from a creative career that doesn’t feed your soul anymore….until you hear the call of this one, or another one, again.

It’s okay to put down our creative work, when it becomes just another burden we’ve been asked to carry….until we’re ready to take it up again.

This is when it’s okay to wait.

This happened to me, in 2018 and well into 2019. Things just got hard. Yeah, it could have been worse, but that’s not much comfort when the suffering and sadness never seems to end.

The trick is knowing when it’s time to pick up your paddle again.

And who you can ask for help, to get you moving again.

 One tip is to still go to your creative-making space from time to time. Check in: Is there a little sketch you can do? A small surface you can clear? No? That’s okay.

But still check in from time to time. At some point, you’ll see something that you want to finish. Or start. Some little task that will help you remember what it felt like to simply want to make something new. (Remember the generous commenter who shared how they carved out a tiny bit of time during their days of full-time care of their parent? Brilliant!)

Another, bigger trick is to find your creative supporters, friends or family who know who you are—an artist!—and who hold that memory for you, until you’re ready to pick up the pencil/brush/clay tool/needle again. (I hope some of the stories people shared will help!)

The artist support group workshop I took from Deborah Kruger lo-these-many-years-ago, stressed this, too. You can, and should, keep going to the meet-ups, even if you haven’t made anything in months, or years. Their job isn’t to nag you, or tell you you’re doing it wrong. Their job is to listen, to be a witness to what you’re going through. And down the road, to gently remind you it’s time to get back in the saddle.

There’s a reason for the saddle simile. If/when we fall from a horse, we’re told we need to get back on, and ride. Otherwise, the fear and anxiety can grow until we tell ourselves we don’t even want to ride anymore.

Getting back in the saddle can remind us why we ride in the first place: For the joy of being outside, in tune with a complex animal that enjoys the work as much as we do, for the simple pleasure of riding, in sync with our companion, along a wide river, under the trees, on a crisp autumn morning.

And so it is with our art.

When we’re ready, it will be there, waiting for us. All the reasons we’ve said, “I can’t….” will be waved gently away. “It’s time” our work will whisper to us, gently, and urgently. “Come on back! The road is waiting! The river is still flowing!”

Wherever you are on your path, or on the river, know that sometimes the way gets hard. Remember, even when it feels like we are getting nowhere, we are still moving forward quietly, gently. Life goes on as we work through our grief, process our new situation, and find ways around our setbacks.

Because our creative work is just to big, too beautiful to set aside. It is powerful stuff, as we will remember when we take it up again. It will always be waiting for us.

Ironically, these setbacks that are real, the ones we survive, will help us understand better the ones we manufacture for ourselves: “I’m not good enough.” “I don’t know how to do that.” “Nobody wants my work.” It’s easier to see these for the silly (though crippling) stories they are. Shoo!

Going through the real hard stuff, helps us move forward through the imaginary stuff we put on ourselves. We know better, and when we know better, we can choose to do better.

Are you waiting, now? What helps you keep hope in your heart? Are you ready to get back to your art? What will your first step be? If you’re comfortable, share this part of your journey. Someone else may need to hear it today!

If you liked this article, share it with someone who needs it.

If someone sent you this article, and you found it helpful, let them know!

And if you want to read more like this, sign up for the Fine Art Views newsletter, or subscribe to my blog, where I republish them after they run on FAV.

* That person said they were already starting up their creative work again, exploring new media, new venues, etc. Patricia, you are doing it right!

LIFE IS LIKE A CROSSWORD PUZZLE

One of my strongest memories growing up was seeing my parents work on the crossword puzzle in the newspaper.

My dad did the writing. He would go as far as he could. When he got stuck, he’d say to my mom, “What’s a six letter word for “high hat” that goes s-blank-blank-blank-t-y?” and she’d think a moment and say, “Snooty”.

I’d always wonder why they did something that seemed so boring. Now that we’ve been married over forty years, I know that even such simple things as this, these moments shared, are a blessing in a marriage.

I don’t remember when I took up crosswords, myself. But in time, I would do the daily crosswords in our local newspaper, too. The Detroit Free Press, The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, The Keene Sentinel, and now, The Press Democrat.

But I steered clear of the New York Times crossword puzzle.

They were monsters.

I could read every single clue, and maybe…maybe…have an idea for one or two. I had no idea how the mind of the puzzle-maker worked. Literal meanings behind the clue? A play on words? Or just a word I’d never heard of before?? Add in the underlying theme just added to the misery, such as the theme, “You Are Here” meant adding “ur” to a common adage to twist the meaning.

One of our most brilliant friends regularly tackled the Sunday NYT puzzle, even harder than the daily ones. I knew I would never be in his league. (Pun intended. He also knew every single baseball trivia question known to man.)

So I decided I would never be clever enough to ever finish one.

Except, one day, while browsing a thrift shop, I found a daily calendar pad of, you guessed it, a year’s worth of NYT crossword puzzles. For a dollar!

I’m guessing because they were small, I thought I could try them. (They are the “dailies”, not the monster Sunday versions.) And hey, the answers were right there, in the back! I could cheat! (Put a pin here.)

Yes, in the strictest sense of the word, peeking = cheating…..

IF we assign solving a crossword puzzle the ultimate measure of our integrity and our ability.

Let’s walk “cheating” back to the fence, and start over.

I don’t know how to play the piano.

Nobody is born knowing how to play the piano. (PLEASE do not bring up Mozart.)

If I want to learn how to play the piano, do I sit down in front of it and try to blast my way through it? (Perhaps starting with a Mozart concerto….??)

No.

I’d tinker with it. Play. Maybe pretend I can play.

I’d seek out a teacher. They would start me with simple exercises, practices, teaching my fingers the right places to go.

They might play along with me, as I master one sequence of notes. (Is that “cheating”?)

I would eventually master a song, a simple one. I would continue to challenge myself. When I make a mistake, my teacher would show me the right way to do it, and encourage me to copy their motions. (Is that “cheating”?)

Now, if I make my life ambition to perform as a concert pianist, I obviously have to learn to perfect my skills on my own, challenging myself to do better, faster, with energy, until my hands almost move on their own, without conscious thought.

But what if I just want to ease my mind by the actual practice of playing? Badly, slowly, leaving a piece of music that doesn’t speak to me. Perhaps coming around again to pick it up, after learning a few more moves…. Playing just because playing is enjoyable?

And so I continued to do those (a little simpler) daily puzzles, getting used to that crossword “culture”. Checking my initial answers to see if I’m on the right track.

If I find that the theme is just majorly too confusing, I can set it aside for another time. Or forever.

I began to recognize the patterns, the lines of thinking. For example, a clue for “bed” could be a place to sleep, or plant flowers. An “intro” could be a speech, or a word prefix. (For example, “musical ending” could be “phonic”, (from stereophonic”.)

Sports stats? Sports figures? No way. I can now recognize a clue for “RBI”, and a “home authority” can now mean “umpire”, but that’s about it. Though my time in Boston helped me solve “Bobby Orr”. And repetition helped me memorize “Ott.” Otherwise, I either fill in around that entry as much as I can, until I can’t go any further. Or I just “cheat” and look up the entry I will never otherwise know (unless I become a sports fanatic, and that’s just not ever gonna happen, okay?)

Now for the most important reason I do crosswords:

I do them so I can help my buzzy brain relax.

This had led to even more insights on life and crosswords.

Sometimes, I just “cheat”, to keep moving. I’m not doing this as an “ethical exercise”. There are no “grades” at the end. Sometimes I do imagine showing up at the pearly gates, and being asked, “So about all the crossword puzzles where you looked up the answers…..”  Ruh roh.

OTOH, if that’s how I’ll be judged, not sure I belong in that place anyway.

So if a puzzle is just too hard or complicated, I can “cheat” or ditch it. That’s not a failure, in my mind. This is supposed to be fun and challenging, not frustrating and impossible to deal with. One of the greatest pleasures in my life right now is to recognize I don’t have to go to every fight I’m invited to. If a crossword puzzle is “putting up a fight”, I can just turn the page and try the next one. (I now buy books of ’em, to take on long trips, airplane flights, and waiting rooms.)

Other insights? Sometimes I get stuck, and cannot figure out any of the remaining clues. Of course, being human, my initial reaction is, “I’ll never be good at this!” I put it down when I’m stumped, and leave it for another day.

The insight is, sometimes I come back the next day, and all of a sudden, there’s clarity. Oooohhh, I see it now! And scribble in five or six more words. My brain needed a break, that’s all.

Another insight: Sometimes, “cheating” with one word helps dozens of others fall into place around it. That one clue was a roadblock I couldn’t get over. But going around it helped me go forward.

Sometimes, I “cheat” but only allow myself to enter the word if I guessed right and my “cheating” confirms my guess. If I guessed wrong, I can’t “forget it”, of course. But I won’t let myself enter it until I solve for more clues around it.

Is it cheating if we ask someone for help?

Is it cheating if we learn by absorbing someone else’s style? Learning to anticipate what they’re asking for, rather than what we think it should be? (Isn’t that called “learning from the experts?” Or “thinking outside the box?”)

Is it cheating if we’re simply stuck, and somewhere else is the answer? Is using the internet for sports clues any worse than the way we used to use encyclopedias to find facts?

Is it cheating if the entire overall process is what is helpful for me? (Giving me a break from buzzy brain by doing a somewhat meaningless task that is relaxing, letting me disengage in a good way.) And not necessarily relying on how “someone else does it”…?

To me, I would be cheating if I did all the above, and then lied about it to you. If I said, “Oh, yeah, I do those all the time. I’m really good at it!”

But I don’t. I do it for myself, I enjoy it, and it helps me relax, while feeling like I’m “doing something useful.” (Which is what our brain needs to relax, sometimes.)

Did I pack too much meaning into a word game? Maybe.

But sometimes, I know exactly what I need to get through a boring period, a stressful place, a stuck place in my life.*

Thank heavens for the New York Times crossword puzzle!**

*I try to keep track of how much help/”cheating” I did on a puzzle, to see if I’m getting better at it. I estimate how much I did without any help. At this point, I consider 75% a passing score!

**(Thanks and a hat tip to Wil Shortz!)

 

 

LESSONS FROM THE GYM: Challenge vs. Injury

There’s a big difference between perseverance and suffering.

I overheard another intriguing comment at the physical therapy practice I go to. Out of nowhere, one of the therapists told a client, “We want to see perseverance, not suffering.”

Oh, the memories…..

Years ago, (seems like an eternity) I was really into martial arts. (No, I never got a black belt, though all my instructors along the way said I was well on my way.)

I never got there because…..injuries.

I pursued martial arts over a spread of 15-20 years in my middle age, sometimes with massive breaks in between practices and schools (Tae Kwon Do, Thai Kickboxing, then back to Thai Kwon Do.)

Typically, I was the oldest person in the class. I always did my best, but I’ve always been “heavy” on my feet as opposed to “light”. Ironically, this quality is not due to weight. Jackie Gleason was always heavy, but he was also “light on his feet”. I’ve talked with my husband (a former gymnast), physical therapists and athletes about this quality. They recognize what I’m saying, but can’t identify what it “is”, whether it is innate or can be learned, and why some people have it and some don’t. It is not an indication of ability, but is a recognizable style.

And so, encouraged by my instructors to push myself, I always, eventually, ended up injuring myself pretty badly. (Although, come to think of it, my most major injuries were inflicted by a) an instructor who should have known better, according to other instructors in the class, and b) another student who was even more inept than I was, tried to kick me below the belt, and when I blocked him, his shoe broke my finger. (He had to wear shoes as he was diabetic.)

The story typically goes like this:

One evening, I went to Tae Kwo Do. We did a kicking work-out. The instructor yelled, “Faster!” and I didn’t want to be the one everyone was waiting on.

So I picked up the pace a wee bit, landed wrong on my foot, and injured my Achilles tendon.

I instantly had a cap on almost all my other activities for many months.

I felt pretty stupid. The instructor wasn’t urging me to go past my limits–he was yelling at the green belts. I was the one who felt I had to prove something–that I may be older, but I was still a competent student.

Well, I went over that delicate balance between challenge and injury, and landed hard on the injury side.

It wasn’t even my own challenge. I was worried what other people would think if I didn’t try harder. Even though I should know by now that is NOT the way to get what I need. The only thing I get with that attitude is more injuries.

I told myself I would not give in to self-pity, nor get angry with myself.

I went swimming instead. And with each stroke, I chanted to myself, “I…..can…..handle…..this.”

I realize I walk a delicate balance in everything I do. Working out. Friendships. Relationships. In my business. And with my art.

I need to push myself enough to challenge myself, to make myself grow stronger, physically, emotionally, artistically.

And yet hold just enough back so as not to injure myself, or others.

As in martial arts, so in my art. There’s that same balance between taking the professional risks that challenge me, without injuring my bottom line (and my ego) irreparably.

That particular injury (and there were many along that path) happened just before my (very full) fine craft wholesale/retail show was scheduled. I realized I was in the same place with my art biz. Although I had no idea what to expect, I knew I had to try.

Sometimes I get freaked out thinking it out–“What am I doing??!!” Other times, I feel it is a reasonable venture.

Hopefully, I would find buyers who were looking for work that had a more western/southwestern/northwestern feel.

If not, I knew I would come home feeling like I need to crawl into a barrel and mosey on over Niagra Falls…..

But not for long. I knew if this show proved not a good fit for my work, I would just have to get over it and try a whole ‘nother strategy.

Like my tendon, my ego eventually healed. And like my injury didn’t keep me away from martial arts very long, guessing wrong will not discourage me from making my art. Not for very long, at least.

In the end, the injuries accumulated to the point where I did have to walk away from that passion. And those shows? Well, that was just before the recession in 2007-2008. They turned out to be a gamble, one I finally decided was not worth it.

After creating new strategies over the years, I finally found what worked for me: One major show with a deep history and very loyal following, open studios, and online sales.

Moving to California meant rebooting in may ways. I’m still working out my best plan to persevere in my art-making.

What worked for me then doesn’t work for me now. What works for me now is still in process. There continue to be obstacles and injuries along the way.

But here are two big truths I hope inspire you on your own journey in making the work that lifts your heart:

As I said, I was not a “natural” when it came to Tae Kwon Do. But every instructor always reminded me: We are competing with ourselves. (One class was “Olympic” but there were plenty of folks who obviously weren’t going down that path.)

Because I was “bad” at it, I had to practice more than others did. I showed up, every class. My last instructor said, after the last big injury that meant I could never practice again, that my perseverance had gained me excellent technique, and indomitable spirit. He said he felt guilty they had started me at the beginning all over again (they doubted my credential from an instructor who had moved away.)

He said I deserved a black belt.

So, wait, four big truths:

I did what I loved.

Perseverance almost got me there. 

Practice makes perfect.

I’ve gotten very good at not giving up.

Whatever you need to do to make your place in the world, never give up what you love until it takes away from you. Even then, there are ways to keep moving forward. (T’ai Chi!)

Find the balance (life/work/art) that works for you.

And keep doing it ’til you get better.

THE GIFT OF RISK: Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone Has Its Own Rewards

Rewards, Insight, Setbacks, and …K…K….courage, all this can be yours!
painted medallions
Painting on glass for an out-of-my-comfort-zone book project ultimately led to this new body of work.

As I typed the title to this column, I realized I almost had an acronym! But I couldn’t think of a “k” word except “kindness”. Maybe spell “courage” with a k??? Aw, what the heck, let’s put both in there!

Last week, I shared my story about “luck”, and how we can make ourselves ‘luckier’.  I told how setting aside my expectations of being paid for everything I do opened doors I never even knew were there.

I shared the rewards of that risk, which expand even into today:

  • I had my work published and made visible before the internet made that easy.
  • I created fun projects that not only were well-paid, but upped my own skill set: Using vintage buttons to make distinctive jewelry. Painting on glass, which (I only realized after writing that article) paved the way for a new series of work. I’m painting cave art images on my handmade faux ivory medallions.
  • I wrote and illustrated the first mass-market craft book on carving soft vinyl stamps.
  • I met amazing people, who were a powerful, wonderful presence in my life for years. And I continue to do so! (It turns out our dentist here in California pulled out her stamp carving book to make her annual handmade holiday cards, saw my name on the cover, and realized I was her patient!) (Yes, I autographed her copy.)
  • I’ve bought old copies of my book (which is now out of print) to sell to students who take my stamp-carving classes.

Another big reward from taking a risk deserves its own list: Insight.

  • We cannot control everything in life. Not even close! But “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is a powerful insight. Here’s my favorite joke about that, but be forewarned, there’s a naughty word in there!
  • If you look back to my previous article, where two Mary’s had vastly different lives, then you will understand the power of ‘framing’, what we pay attention to and what we choose to let go of.
  • I found out what works and what doesn’t work, when it comes to choosing shows. I have respect for the wisdom of “never do a first-year show”….!
  • Not all rewards in life are about money.
  • It takes courage to pursue your dream, patience for it to build into something profitable, and a sense of self-worth to keep it somewhere in your life, even if it doesn’t work as your paying job.
  • There will always be people who will be uplifted by our work—professionally, emotionally, spiritually.

Now for the downside: Setbacks!

  • Not everyone is your friend. There will always be people who are deeply threatened by us, and our work. It’s taking less time for me to suss them out, thank goodness! (Thank you, The Nibble Theory!)
  • Not all shows are as well-managed as others. After all, show organizers/promoters make money on a show even if vendor sales are awful. (Of course, they can’t continue to be successful if their vendors aren’t. Still, there are always people like me who are willing to try….)
  • Hard financial times (9/11, war in the Middle East, the dot.com crash, the stock market crash of 2008, etc.) are especially hard on art and fine craft markets. Art is considered a luxury, not a need. (Debatable, of course) It can feel very personal, like ‘we are doing it wrong’. Many, many people in the industry—artists, craftspeople, show runners, galleries, etc.—suffered mightily in those years, and many never recovered. Many folks took wild chances, shifted strategies, tried desperately to hang on, where sometimes just hunkering down and waiting out the storm made more sense.

The danger of setbacks is, it’s all too easy to give them a major role in our decision-making. Once burned, twice shy, etc. Yes, it’s simply good sense not to keep sticking your hand in the fire.

Otoh (on the other hand), not all failures are useless. As good ol’ Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

So here’s that word again: Courage! (I almost went off on a bunch of metaphors based on Tennyson’s poetry, but I spared you. You’re welcome!)

Courage was a relatively new concept for me, as a child. Oh, I had exercised it a few times as a young adult, but always in pursuit of a dream. Going back to school, getting a teaching degree, even traveling across the country looking for work in the 1980’s recession.

But when I took up my art in my forties, I exercised courage in a sustained manner for years, viewing each setback as a valuable lesson learned, and always, always continuing to move forward. Even moving across the country in our 60’s was a monumental act of courage. Sometimes I’m still surprised we did it, though I don’t regret it for a minute. (Well. A few minutes….)

It takes courage for me to write these articles. I get paid a nominal sum, far less than when I wrote for magazines even 15 years ago. But though it doesn’t bring in a big income, it fills my need to share what I’ve learned, and expands my audience weekly. (Thank you, faithful readers!!!)

In fact, all my writing comes from sticking with it, even when it felt like nobody cared. Because…

It mattered to me.

It’s a risk. When I put my work/words out there, I want them to serve someone else as it served me. I hope it reaches someone who needs to hear that story, today. I’m delighted when people say it did. I love it when people pass it on to someone else, who may also need to hear it.

And yet, there are setbacks, too. There is always someone who thinks we’re “doing it wrong”, and they never overlook a chance to let us know that.  There are people who are offended by my titles, fercryin’outloud.  There are those who believe there is nothing worth doing for free, and those who believe my writing is toxic.

Still, I persist.

And now, here comes kindness….

My art, and my writing, have taught me to practice kindness even…or especially… to the naysayers, the contradicters, the folks who seem to be looking for a fight.

It felt impossible at first. It’s obvious my work is not for them, and that’s okay. The kind thing to do, of course, is for them to simply stop reading, or to delete it, or move on to the next studio on the tour.

But I’m learning. Like the people who call pastels “just chalk”, or the people who claim fiber is not an art medium, etc. they are where they choose to be. Yep, maybe even doing the best they can.

By responding with as much kindness as I can muster, I can let go. I am restored to the person I want to be in the world. My risk—putting my work out there to be criticized or ridiculed, is offset by the knowledge someone else is grateful I did take that risk.

And that makes it all worthwhile.

In the end, the choice is ours. We can play it safe. We can avoid risks, ditch change, never step outside our comfort zone.

It’s up to you. I can’t even pretend to think I know better than you. As I always say, if this doesn’t work for you, don’t do it!

I can only share what’s lifted my heart, write what’s helped me move forward, what restores me to my better self.

What risk have you taken that’s moved you forward? What did you learn when it didn’t work out? Remember, both are valuable, and both are worth sharing!