There are people in the world who want to take you down. Don’t let them.
As the holiday season swirls around us, I find myself in alternating waves of joy and despair, lifted by appreciative hosts and customers, and devastated by the casual cruelty of my fellow makers.
Two incidents to illustrate:
I did a small maker show for a prestigious organization that unfortunately was not well attended. That was fine, it happens.
Another maker circled my set-up, someone I’ve encountered before. The pattern goes like this: They let me know they know my work and my writing, and are somewhat flattering. They approach with accolades, which soon turn into “Can you help me with x?” (which I am a sucker for, because I love helping people move forward with their dreams). This quickly declines into push-back (“Let me show you how I am more successful than you!”) on their part.
I see this from time to time, and I know it’s time to simply retreat with no engagement. But then there was the sucker punch.
The person approached me again at the very end of the event, and said, “Do you own a dog?”
I laughed and replied, “Why, yes, I do! How could you tell? Do I have dog hair on my clothes?”
They said, “You smell like dog pee.”
Uh. Oh. Stunned silence on my part.
They continued, “I have a very sensitive nose.”
I stammered a reply, noting that one visitor had brought anxious dogs to the event, and perhaps that is what they smelled. But I know exactly what was going on. (Put a pin here. Next incident!)
Second incident: Someone on social media found a series of articles my blog about display and marketing advice for artists, and shared it with a group. There were many responses from people who appreciated what I’d written, and how helpful they’d found it. I thanked everyone for their kind comments. Until I got the last one:
“Too bad she doesn’t have any photos on her blog.”
Let’s set aside the obvious: When I wrote that series over a decade ago, digital photos were a lot harder to take, almost impossible to edit, and tricky to upload. In fact, the original host site didn’t even have the ability to host images.
A book I quoted in the series, WHY WE BUY by Paco Underhill, featuring the best research on what physically/mentally keeps people from buying had no illustrations.
And most of the issues involved in “turning people off” while shopping are not easily discernible in photos. They are deeply-rooted, near-instinctive reactions, common to all humans. They were only discovered by actively observing customer behaviors in situ, and then going back to examine the environment.
But my biggest irk?
Why would you complain or criticize a resource that’s valuable–and FREE?
My favorite quip when someone argues with my articles is, “I will happily refund every penny you paid for it.”
So what’s going on here? It’s the nibblers again.
It is a short, simple, compassionate account of why some people seek to tear us down by “nibbling” away at our self-esteem. It is a powerful, restorative work that helped me heal from the tiny slashes and gashes some people inflict on others. I urge you to find a copy. It will take you no more than an hour or two to read. And then share it with someone else who needs its wisdom!
Even though these small yet thoughtless attacks hurt, once you understand where they come from, it’s easier to let go.
It also helps to find the good, the funny, the helpful. I told one person about the dog pee remark. She picked up a rolling pin and said, “I would have told her she had a 5-second headstart before I responded in kind.” (“Kind” being ironic.) I would never even try that, but it made me last.
Another person suggested, “Let me tell you where you can put your ‘sensitive nose’!”
What I wish I’d said? “I wish you had a sensitive heart.”
Another person, a store owner highly respected in our city, a staunch supporter of artists and their work, who has amazing employees who work hard to connect my work with collectors, shared their own slightly toxic encounter that week. Which also helped, because….
It made me recall the blessings of that show.
I told the store owner how their name had come up multiple times in my conversations with the other makers. (The fun part of a slow show: You get to yak!) Everyone….everyone…sang his praises, and I told him that. “You are highly-respected and loved in our art community, your store is beautiful, our work is well-represented, and your employees are amazing! You are doing it right!”
I recalled the vendor who shared a simple yet effective display idea that would work well for these small, intimate events. I remembered I thought up a way to engage a larger, younger audience for these events by coordinating an integrated social media campaign with other artists, other venues/galleries/stores, and other art organizations. I pitched another art garage sale proposal, which the other vendors loved. I chatted with employees with the organization that sponsored the event, and learned more about their own creative work, and their own hopes and dreams for their art. We had a delightful conversation about our favorite foods from Trader Joe’s, and I bought some fun holiday gifts from the other vendors.
So, laughter, support, comraderie, and future projects. All good stuff!
And I remembered that the one slightly-disgruntled comment on my lack of blog images was preceded by a chorus of gratitude and appreciation from other makers.
So when you encounter nibblers, go for the light. As Michele Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” Turn the negative into something positive, and shiny. Be a force for good in the universe.
And my final chuckle?
That evening, I went to bed and woke up one of our dogs who was deeply, deeply asleep on our bed. So deeply asleep that when I roused him and asked him if he had to go outside to pee, he obliged by urinating on our bed.
So there I was at 11p.m., stripping and remaking the bed, spraying odor-eater on bedding, and doing laundry.
And chortling to Jon along the way, “So that remark wasn’t a slam, it was a prophecy!”
P.S. You can find the forementioned series on booth design here (free!), and you can also purchase the eBook here (a paltry $5, and no, I will not refund your money if you don’t like it. Be forewarned!
P.P.S. In creating links to resources here, I discovered there is a new, updated version of Why We Buy, to include internet sales and such. I just book a copy! That’s the version I linked to above, too.
My art’s bigger/better/purer than your art. So there!
Hierarchies come easily to many living creatures.
It can be a brutal process. For birds, hierarchy can mean life or death. That phrase ‘pecking order’? It’s real. I’ve lost chickens and cockatiels to the process. The bird on the lowest rung of the ladder may not get enough to eat. An even slightly injured chicken will be attacked, killed, even eaten by the rest of the flock.
We humans have hierarchies, too. Our fascination for English royalty, our obsession with celebrities, our own yearning for fame and fortune, all are social constructs based on hierarchy.
Artists and craftspeople are no exception.
People who make their own jewelry components sniff at ‘bead stringers’–people who use only purchased components in their designs. The people who do some wire work or only make their own beads, are sniffed at by silver- and goldsmiths.
Glass artists have been the top of the heap in the collecting world for several decades now. Before that, it was something else. Maybe clay. I dunno–I wasn’t in the biz then.
Fine artists look down on all crafts. Once I introduced myself to a small group as a fiber artist. “Hunh! That’s nice…” was the general response. Ten minutes later, a local oil painter’s name came up. “Now he’s a real artist!” someone in the group exclaimed.
But fine artists have their own internal order, too. Pastels are better than colored pencils, watercolors better than pastel work, acrylic paint is better than watercolor, and oils are better than acrylic.
And of course, across all media is the hierarchy of purity. Who makes money from their art, and who makes art purely for art’s sake? Who sullies their ethos for filthy lucre? Is teaching the purest form of sharing our art with the world?
It gets kinda confusing–and funny–after awhile.
If you are in a group of artists who sell their work, the mark of a ‘professional artist’ is your ability to make a living from your work. How much money you make is your achievement award. It’s proof that you are a serious, full-time artist.
Or people place you on the ladder by the prestige factor of the shows you do. Small local shows don’t count, of course. Why, they let just anybody in!
Being vetted by an organization helps, too. I’ve had people express polite interest in my work until I mention that I’m a doubly-juried member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. Suddenly, I’m treated with respect and deference.
But there’s nothing like the disdain amateurs–those who can’t-won’t-don’t sell their work–hold for an artist who actually, actively seeks sale–those artists who want to make their work and get paid for making it. The disdain the amateur holds for ‘professionals’ is huge.
They have history behind them. The word ‘amateur’ originally meant someone who pursued an activity purely for the love it of it. Now it ranks right up there with ‘dilettante’–someone who pursues an activity superficially. (ouch!) Amateurs, by definition, make their art without the requirement of making money from it. Art for Art’s sake. The purest state of making art.
The reality? Not for me to judge. It’s all good.
I’ve been everywhere on the spectrum in my career.
I began by making jewelry entirely from purchased components, and making traditional quilts. I did a very few small local shows, but mostly I gave my work away.
Then I dedicated myself to finding my own personal vision. It was a powerful step. I was grateful to even be making my art. The thought of being accepted into a show, or of someone even buying a piece, seemed too much to ask for.
As my skills and self-confidence grew, the next step was entering exhibitions across the country. Someone had told me they thought the phrase ‘nationally-exhibited artist’ sounded so wonderful, they made that their goal. I made it my goal, too. And I achieved it within a few years by methodically applying to as many opportunities as I could.
When ‘nationally-exhibited artist’ lost its luster, I turned to money as a measure of my success. It was important to me to make sales. The more money I made, the more successful I felt.
After years of making money, I wanted to be in the ‘good’ shows, the prestigious shows that look on a resume. With time and effort, I managed that, too.
And then I went back to square one.
I transitioned from focusing on these external goals, to thinking about the place in the world I occupy. I’m still selling–better than ever, in fact. But that transition came from a powerful place in my heart, and that is more important to me than ever.
Now, according to many people, I can be placed at every step in the art hierarchy. I’ve been ‘pure’, I’ve been ‘mercenary’, I’ve been ‘published/exhibited’, I’ve been hunkered down.
And yet, it’s the same work. And I am the same person.
Hierarchies evolved as a way for a species to survive. The weak, the sickly, were left to die, so that the flock/herd/group could survive.
We humans can–and do–choose differently.
We try to heal our sick. We care for the weak. We are present with the dying, to comfort them.
We’ve learned that even someone who is sick, or weak, or slow, or awkward, or fearful, or (gasp!) untalented, still has a place in the world.
And given that chance, and that place in the world, the gifts they offer can be profound and huge. At the vary least, they are happier for doing what they do.
So make your art.
Sell it, if that’s important to you. Don’t resent others if they sell theirs, and you can’t seem to sell yours.
Don’t excuse yourself by judging others. They are either on a different path, or (like me) simply in a different part of the cycle.
Recognize the hierarchy of who’s making ‘real art’ for what it is–a way to hide our jealousy of people who seem to have something we want for ourselves. A survival strategy we can choose to ignore.
Decide what you want, right here, right now.
And know that you can change your mind, any time. And do something different.
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.
I had the same bumper sticker on my car for years, right next to my “BRAKE FOR MOOSE, IT COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE!” sticker from the NH Fish and Game Department. (I love the looks I get from it when I drive around in Philadelphia….)
Some people take this to mean you should only hang out with happy people. Well, yeah, there’s that.
For me, it was a constant reminder that people who nay-say your dreams, your ideas, your business, your art…
They are not necessarily telling you that “for your own good”.
They have their own motivation, their own agenda. And their motive is to not further yours.
I was especially reminded of this a few years ago. I’d hit a roadblock with my work. Wasn’t sure where to go with it, or what to do next. Heck, did the world even want my art? It sure didn’t feel like it….
That was a rough time, a scary time.
What was even scarier was, I became hyper-critical and hyper-jealous of those who did appear to have their act together.
And I also took some big hits from other artists I suspect were in the same scary boat/place.
So my take on this little homily is this:
If you love the work you do, if you are making the best art you can, if making it makes you a better person….
Then it’s good enough to be in the world.
Maybe I don’t like it. But that’s my problem, not yours. It probably serves somebody’s purpose, even if it isn’t mine.
And when other people are giving you crap, don’t take it personally.
In fact, don’t take it at all.
Because chances are, it’s somebody who’s in a really bad place with their own work.
You can sympathize, if you are a big person. (I’m not.) But don’t give in to them.
Those who abandon their dreams,
will discourage yours.
The Devil’s two most powerful tools in this world are vanity and envy.
I’ve written so much about jealousy and envy, I thought I had nothing left to say. But I do.
I know that technically speaking, the terms are not identical. Envy is wanting what someone else has. Jealousy is fear of losing what you have.
But the premise is the same: Your perception is, you fear you have something to lose, and somebody else is responsible for that fear.
Envy has been a powerful thread in my life. No matter how “enlightened” I get, I struggle with it. Either I’m preoccupied with someone else having more skill/good fortune/attention, or someone is giving me crap because they envy me.
Seems like much of the trouble in the world is based on envy, from my own small woes to those of great nations.
If someone copies your work, part of that is because they see you have skill/success/attention/money/whatever. They think if they simply make the same work, they will have that, too.
If someone is envious of your artwork, and they are in a position of power over you (a juror for a show, a standards committee member), they can make life miserable for you in countless small and subtle ways.
If they are a peer or a friend, it’s even worse. Suddenly, everything you say or do draws a sarcastic remark, a biting comment, a moment of ridicule. A once-promising friendship warps into something sad and rueful.
When I allow myself to envy, it’s just as bad. Trust me.
But the real sin in envy is not in the behavior itself, or the misery it causes.
It’s because by giving in to it, we give away our power.
We give away everything beautiful, unique and wonderful that’s in us. We destroy the gifts that are given us–our talent, our perseverance, our joy–and turn them into dust.
Earlier this month, I almost left my dojo for another that seemed more compatible. I thought I would join a school that was less physically demanding, more sympathetic to my aging body.
I talked with my head instructor; he reluctantly agreed my reasons were sound. But he said I had to let the head of my school know.
I have one thing I do well that I’m proud of. I make the hard phone calls. I arranged to meet with Mr. R in person.
What happened then was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.
I will make a long story short–this was a complex situation, with a long history, involving many talented, good people. Much of it is personal and not tangent to the story, so I won’t go into it.
But the heart of this story is, Mr. R quoted that opening line to me. He told me when he’d heard it, and why.
Envy was at the root of the long, sad story that had left so many people deeply unhappy, and not at peace with themselves.
That’s when I realized that another, deeper reason for me leaving was not simply the tough work-out. The real reason was, I was envious of others in the class. I felt stupid having to step out when things got hard. Others were moving ahead, and I was not.
That was bad. Because I had lost track of my true reasons for practicing Tae Kwon Do.
I’d forgotten that my practice is always, for myself.
Not to be better than so-and-so, or to get to my next belt, or have my teacher praise me.
I must practice because I love what Tae Kwon Do can teach me.
I must practice because I love the discipline of trying to be my best.
I must practice for the joy of mastering something–sometimes in a horribly pathetic long drawn-out process, to be sure–to get good at something simply because I keep doing it, no matter what.
I, and I alone, am responsible for pacing myself within the class. If I can’t do sets of fifty push-ups anymore, then I must break it down into sets of 25, or 20. Or seven, if that’s all I can squeeze out.
If I can’t run fast laps on the hard floor, then I can run slow laps on the mat. Or walk, if that’s all my body can handle that day.
And there is no need to feel embarrassed when I need to step up or slow down. Because 1) it’s not anyone else’s place to judge me, and 2) I must stop judging myself.
Can you see the implications for our art?
I have quoted Martha Graham’s quote many times, but I’ll do it again. And I see I’ve lost the copy I used to hang prominently on my bulletin board, so I’ll print it out again for me, too:
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. …
No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
from The Life and Work of Martha Graham[
Everyone always has there own reasons for their behavior. If they are envious of you, it has nothing to do with you. There is nothing you can do to deflect it, or control it, either. Sometimes we have the luxury of removing ourselves from the situation, sometimes we can’t.
Understand that envy is based on fear. Fear that there is not enough love, or not enough attention, or not enough money, or not enough opportunity for all of us. Fear creates a little death. It takes the joy of living away from us.
We can only manage ourselves. The only thing we can change is how we respond. The only thing to do is to keep doing what we’re supposed to do, on the very highest level.
We can only try to make our decisions out of love, and hope, instead of fear.
We can only keep making the unique work, the art, that is in our hearts.
I have had the support of amazing people in my life, who have helped me internalize that. I may need a refresher course from time to time, but I always get back to the same place, the place of inner strength and conviction.
This is my gift to the world, the work of my hands, the work of my words, the work of my heart.
It is all we really have, but it is astonishingly powerful.
And when we truly understand and embrace that, we are astonishing, too.
Your needs and goals as an artist will change and grow throughout your life. You will constantly gather the people you need to you.
And you will also periodically leave people behind.
I started this mini-series with a sort of Ugly Duckling story, as one reader noted. I told how my dog tries to be a cat, and why it’s a good thing he isn’t very good at it. When we find out we aren’t really “bad bankers” but are actually “really excellent artists”, it’s an amazing epiphany.
The second article talks about how to find your own tribe.
Interestingly, some people took that to mean searching out other artists who work in the same medium. Some took it as how some artists learn techniques from a master, then never really develop their own style.
Some even found their new “family”, but grieved when it, too, became contentious, confining and restrictive.
While some of us will be fortunate to find a wonderful, cohesive, supportive group of like-minded folks, others will struggle to maintain that in their lives.
Sad to say, but it happens.
The day may come when you have to leave your bright new tribe, and find another.
There are lots of reasons why this happens.
Sometimes the group is just too big. There’s no time for each person to have a turn to be listened to. You can feel lost in the shuffle.
Sometimes there aren’t enough “rules”. A few folks will take on the role of gadfly (aka “jerk”). Or there are too many rules, too much “business”. The lively group dynamic is strangled with too many procedural stops and starts. (I left one craft guild when the business reports began to take up almost half the meetings.)
Sometimes the group narrows its own dynamic. It can be subtle but powerful. You’ll start to feel constricted. Here’s a true story:
Years ago, a quilting guild I belonged to brought in a nationally-known color expert for a workshop.
During it, she commented that there were definite regional color palettes, patterns and technique preferences across the country.
I asked her how that happened. She said when members brought in their projects for sharing, some would generate a huge positive response from the membership. Others, more eclectic or “out there”, would receive a lukewarm reception. “We all crave that positive response”, she said. “It’s human nature. So slowly but surely, we begin to tailor our work to generate the bigger response.”
It hit me like a brick. Another quilter and I did more unusual fabric work. The response to our “shares” was decidedly in the “lukewarm” category.
And I had begun to do more work in the “accepted style” of the group.
I left after the workshop, and never went back. My fellow fiber artists were a great bunch of people. But I was not willing to “tamp down” my vision in order to garner their praise.
Sometimes, our course changes. We find ourselves in pursuit of different goals. Or we find our own needs sublimated to the needs of the group.
Or we simply grow faster than the rest of the group. You may even outgrow your mentor. If our work fosters jealousy–if our work becomes more successful, attracts more notice–then professional jealousy might raise its ugly head.
It can feel even harder to leave this new tribe that gave us so much joy at first. In fact, it’s brutal.
But it has to be done, if you want your art to move forward.
You cannot control the feelings of others. You can make yourself, and your work, as small and mundane as you can. But if someone is determined to nibble you, nothing can stop them.
Take heart in this knowledge:
This group served your needs for awhile. Enough for you to gain confidence, and to take a step forward.
And you will find another tribe. It may take awhile. But your peers are out there.
Consider that they may not even be working in the same medium. They may not even be visual artists. They may not be “artists” at all.
As long as they share the same values, or can support and challenge you in constructive ways, you can benefit from their company.
It may even be time for you to walk alone. Just for awhile.
Just long enough to really hear what your own heart is saying.