WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: Make Room for Art in Your Life!
4/27/2019 by Luann Udell
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.
We can’t control everything in life, but we can choose how we face it.
Years ago, one of my favorite writers, Martha Beck, wrote an article thathas stuck with me for decades.
Beck’s insights and advice come from her years as a therapist, observing how people get stuck and how to help them get unstuck. In this article, she describes two of her clients, two women named Mary.
Mary One has a sad life story: A parent dying young, obstacles, setbacks, health issues, etc. Just reading the list makes you wonder how anyone could survive what she has been through.
Mary Two has a wonderful life story. She inherited wealth, and was able to attend top-notch colleges. She is highly educated, and her career issatisfying. She is very close to her grandmother, who showers her with love and kindness. She loves to travel and has been all over the world. One cannot help but envy her good fortune.
The two clients are actually the same person.
This article was a game-changer for me. The lessons are obvious.
We have all had sadness, and joy in our lives. We have all experienced cruelty, and kindness. We all have victories, and setbacks. We’ve all had people who love us, and people who are toxic. We all wish we had more money, even though we know in our hearts that if a billion dollars is “not enough” for the wealthiest people in the world, how will we ever have enough?
The lesson for me was simple: We get to create our own story.
For years, my saddest story was that I couldn’t get into art school. My school, one of two in the entire county, in an agricultural area, didn’t have much money to spend on art programs. This meant my portfolio was pretty pathetic. And so, when I did go to college, I majored in art history instead, the traditional “shadow artist”, hovering on the outskirts of my passion and filled with envy for those who thrived with their art.
I actually was accepted into not one, not two, but three colleges thatoffered art programs. Instead, I chose the one that was the most prestigious, where my best friend, my high school boyfriend, and my secret crush had been accepted. It was the only school that rejected my portfolio. I took a few art classes, but they were like bananas offered to amonkey in a cage, a prize I could never reach.
So “not being good enough” wasn’t really a thing, though it took me years to see that. It was just a “sad story” I held onto for a long time.
Although that boyfriend turned out to be fairly toxic, and much of my love life was pretty pathetic, it was in this same city that I met my husband, my life partner, and a pretty great one. We’ve been together over 40 years.
So with the power of hindsight/reframing, going to that college was actually a lucky fortunate choice. (Next week, I’ll share another storyabout “luck”!) Taking all those art history classes, starting with theLascaux Cave (the oldest human art in the world in the 1970’s) was apowerful, inspirational resource when I finally owned the power of my choices, and became the artist I was always meant to be.
And if I had actually been accepted into that college’s art program, I am certain I would not be making the work I make today. I don’t think my tender heart would have survived the toxic critiques many students had to endure (I hear schools do it differently now, but I take that with a grain of salt, as this intriguing memoir reveals.
In short, there may be one set of facts, circumstances, etc…
But there are a slew of stories I can tell myself because of them.
When I’m feeling “less than”, I feel embarrassed that I actually hate drawing. I resent that my medium of choice took years to gain respect in the art world. I know that some people still would not consider me a “real artist”. I remember every cruel or thoughtless remarks from ignorant, pompous, or deeply-troubled people.
But when I choose to see my power, I know I make art for myself, first. Making my art has made me a better person. I know that I use thatpower, the power of my choices, to not only make work that‘s so personal, my collectors can easily recognize my style and aesthetics, I’ve used that power to reach out and connect with others, always with the hope that doing so may elevate the hearts of others, as well.
Try this exercise today: Jot down all the hardships and crappy things thathave crossed your path this week, everything that made you suffer and seethe. (I didn’t say “in your lifetime” because that could take weeks! But sure, put in anything that‘s still hounding you.) List the deadlines you’re stressing over, the to-do list that never seems to end, the lack of respect for your style/subject/medium, the dearth of sales. Make note of how you feel when you’re done.
Now write down all the blessings and gifts that happened in the same time period: The car that let you merge safely into traffic, the person who stopped to let you cross the street, the new opportunity to show your work that‘s got you fired up about your new series. Consider the thank-you notes you got from the grateful customer who bought your work because they loved it. Think of all the things you did accomplish, and all the steps forward you’ve taken with your art, your personal growth, your relationships.
How do you feel now?
I always-always-feel better.
This is why I write. It helps me sort out the distractions from the real deal, the true life mission I carry in my heart from the road bumps. I get clarity on what I can change, and what I can’t change. I can feel my anger melt as I frame the difficult stuff differently.
All the naysayers, the critics, the trolls, the digs, the snark we encounter daily, suddenly feel more like annoyances than anything. I feel free to simply do what I love to do. I give myself permission to live my life theway I want.
A recent example: A dear friend and supporter shared with excitement the realization that their work is “on trend”. My lizard brain immediately buckled. The same trend was in force when I started making this particular aspect of my art, and I struggled mightily to overcome it. For afew moments, I was envious that this person, who has had my back for years, might surf that wave farther than I ever will.
And then I had to laugh. My work has never been “on trend”, and I’m glad! The courage it took to simply make the work of my heart has created my own wave I can ride as far as I desire.
I know now that the world is big enough for both us. If they aresuccessful with their work, if they get a “bigger piece of the pie”, thatdoesn’t mean my slice is smaller. There is an infinite amount of “pie” in the world, enough for both of us. Actually, it’s big enough for all of us.
I will simply not let that first story be the story I tell. I choose the second story, the one filled with mutual respect, joy, and kindness.
What is the story YOU can choose to tell, today?
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I recently wrote an article called SUPPORT YOUR MEDIUM: Consider the “Why”. In it, I shared how we can positively frame our choice of media, especially ones that are considered “less than.”. (I was going to say “justify” in that sentence, but it sounded like an apology. Let’s just stick with “frame”.)
There is a hierarchy in art media, just like there are hierarchies in any creative human activity. For example, even the worse presentation of ballet may be seen as more “sophisticated” than tap dancing, or break dancing.
In art, oil painting may be considered more “real art” than acrylics, which is “better” than watercolor, which is “better” than colored pencil, etc. Many even consider pottery and fiber art to be craft rather than “real art”. (It used to be, if you wanted to start a flame war on the internet, you would just ask what the difference is between “art” vs. “craft”. Actually, that argument’s probably still raging!)
My friend Nicole Caulfield is an extremely talented colored pencil artist. She chose this medium for a variety of reasons. To my eye, they are as beautiful and compelling as any oil painting I’ve ever seen. Yet her work commands far lower prices than even a mediocre oil painting. Does it weigh her down? Nope. This is the work she loves, and excels at. In my mind, she is an art hero! (I’ve linked to one of her website pages, but her portraits are jaw-droppingly beautiful, too!
Over time, new media (especially polymer clay) do gain respect and followers. And yet, there will always be those people who will find fault with them. In the article, I shared how I got to the heart of my “why”—why I chose to work with this material, and its advantages over others, to make my art.
Today I share another insight into why it’s important for us to find these reasons:
When we are challenged by these people who imply (or outright tell us!) our materials are “less than”, we need to be prepared with a great answer….
Because other people are listening!
I did an entire series of articles on awkward, obnoxious, aggressive/dismissive, simply ignorant, or even innocent questions or comments that may startle or stun us.
As artists and makers, whatever our choice of medium, we need to be prepared for an answer that modifies and redirects the conversation on our own terms. We need to do it with patience, and dignity, and without anger, defensiveness, or apologies.
For one, we gain nothing by responding with anger or snark. We’ve simply lowered ourselves to our detractor’s level. We help create a hostile environment that works against us. (In fact, that’s why some obnoxious visitors do this, consciously or unconsciously. Why else would someone go out of their way to be rude, when all they have to do is walk away??)
But more importantly, when we address our detractors, other people around us. Whether it’s at an art opening, in our booth, in our studio, or even in our family and circle of friends, other people are paying attention to how we handle it.
If we learn to handle these difficult situations with respect, and reframe it to our advantage, we will really impress the people who are listening, who are/could be our real customers.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had someone say something awful to me, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes because they are simply an awkward person, and sometimes, because my work has triggered something in them. (I’m guessing envy, and perhaps insecurity about their own creative efforts.)
I realized those questions and comments fall into several categories: My choice of media (not just polymer clay, but fiber, and jewelry.) My source of inspiration. My color palette. How I talk about it.
I sat down and thought hard about how to respond in a positive way, without being defensive. This actually gives me the power to reframe the conversation in a way that serves me well.
And every time there has been an “audience”—other people browsing, for example—it’s obvious they’ve been listening to how I responded. Because they do one or more things:
They look even deeper at my work.
Often they come up to me afterwards and compliment me on my restraint. (Fortunately, no one can read my mind yet, where less pleasant responses are swarming.) (Yes, I have a lizard brain, too!)
They often buy something, too.
That “difficult person” gave me the opportunity to share my outlook on life, my art, and my medium, in wonderful, positive, life-affirming ways that resonate deeply with my audience.
Again, this took time. I was fortunate to find Bruce Baker’s seminars early on in my art career. For almost two decades, Bruce gave seminars and sold CDs offering great advice on marketing and display skills for artists and makers of all sorts. (He has now returned to his original work of jewelry-making.) 
I used his advice (and words!) when two women entered my booth at my very first major show. One looked at a large wall hanging, featuring my own handmade polymer faux bone artifacts. She said, “You’d have to live in a very different house to hang this. A VERY different house!” (It was obvious her “very different house” was not a desirable house…..)
I’d practiced Bruce’s suggested response to detractors, memorized it (so I wouldn’t be caught off-guard) and went into full reframing mode:
“Yes”, I replied cheerfully, “My work IS unusual, and unique. I’m inspired by the Lascaux Cave in France, which for decades was considered the birthplace of human art. I work with recycled fabrics to make each quilt, layered and stitched to look like it’s passed through many generations of family. I make my own faux prehistoric artifacts, one at a time, to embellish them.”
And the kicker line: “My work isn’t for everyone. But the people who do appreciate my work, love it passionately.”
Why is this so appealing?
I established my cred as an artist. I shared a bit of the process behind my work. I emphasized the time involved, and where the aesthetic comes from. I showed I’m not looking for mass appeal, but the story in my heart.
And I issued a small “challenge”: Maybe it’s not for you…or is it???
This is the power of discovering our “why”: Why we use this material. Why we make this work.
And why someone else’s negativity won’t stop us from moving forward with all our heart.
But the biggest gain was the people who came up to me after that person left, and congratulated me on my response!
They saw someone who hoped to get a rise out of me, sent on their way with courtesy, patience, and respect. They heard a response that answered some of their own questions, questions they may have hesitated to ask. (Because some artists can get pretty snarky about what they perceive as “stupid questions!)
It started a whole nother conversation about my work, where I could share how I came to be an artist, why I chose this cave, and why polymer is the perfect medium to tell my story.
So think about why you chose your particular medium. Think about why you choose to make what you make. Think about the questions that have stopped you in your tracks, making you wish you had a snappy response in return.
Then take out the “snappy” bits, and reframe it to your advantage.
Be careful about making a joke, because usually those jokes are at our customers’ expense! I myself have been the butt of such remarks, and even though they make me laugh, I’m also slightly ticked. (See that same “questions” series for ideas!)
And practice your response(s) until you don’t even have to think about it.
If you, too, have found a way to frame your response to detractors (it could be medium, subject matter, color palette, in a positive, respectful way that benefits you, share! Someone else is hoping you’ve found a beautiful way to not only deflect, but perhaps even engage, a difficult person.
Footnote:  Bruce’s old website is long gone, but his excellent and informative CDs on selling and display for makers are still available! You can contact him by phone (802-989-1138) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org I assure you they are worth every penny!
It is the fourth time I’ve moved my studio in four years, and we also moved our home twice times in four years. I’m a lit-tul bit exhausted. But I think I see some light at the end of the tunnel!