SUPPORT YOUR MEDIUM: People Are Listening!
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!
You can still share the how, but ground it with your ‘why’.
This week on Fine Art Views, I wrote about why it’s more important to share the ‘why’ of your artwork (why you make it) than the ‘how’ (how you make it.) Like a magician sharing how he does his tric, focusing only on the ‘how’ takes away a huge part of the magic of what you do.
Readers raised a few interesting points, noting that our customers do want to know how–so they can tell their friends, and be more invested in the artwork they’ve purchased from you.
I couldn’t agree more. As I said in the original article, I do provide a simple explanation that describes my process. Puff pastry, Samurai sword-making, scrimshaw.
But I believe that why you chose the ‘how’ is even more important to your audience.
One of my best signs in my booth is this one:
Welcome to my world!
I make artifacts from a lost culture, an imagined prehistory.
My work is inspired by Ice Age cave paintings and other prehistoric art. I want my artifacts to echo real ivory carvings of horses, deer, bear, fish and birds.
I use polymer clay, stacked in layers and stretched to make a block that has the grain and the feel of ivory. I make each animal one at a time, then bake, carve, and polish. The hands you see are miniature images of my own hands. A scrimshaw technique brings out the details of the markings.
I use polymer because I can make it look like real ivory, soapstone, coral, shell, and bone.
Unlike working with real ivory or bone, no animals are harmed.
Polymer is durable, yet lightweight and comfortable to wear.
I want my artifacts to look like they’ve been worn smooth by the touch of human hands. (Feel free to touch!)
I imagine the stories they carry. I retell those ancient stories, with these modern artifacts.
I use antique trade beads, semi-precious stones, and other collectible beads, to give my jewelry the look of a treasured piece, handed down through time, and many hands, and many hearts, connecting those ancient artists of the distant past, to you.
Do you see how the ‘why’ of my choice of techniques and materials, fits into my overall story about my art?
To get back to Bruce Baker’s comments that I mentioned in my Fine Art Views column, explain your choice of technique in terms of how it benefits your collector. “I use titanium glazes because they let me create colors that are richer and more vibrant. I use a higher firing temperature because it makes my pots more durable, so they’ll last a lifetime.” (I have no idea if this is true, I’m not a potter myself, so I made it up.)
Another point was raised about being generous in sharing our techniques. I agree whole-heartedly.
But I’m not paying booth fees to give people a one-on-one class in how to do what I do.
As I said in my column, there are people who are only interested in your techniques. That’s fine, but they don’t get to use up my precious energy when I’m doing a show, or hosting an open studio. When people want more technical information on how to create faux ivory with polymer clay, I tell them it’s practically in the public domain, and recommend websites and how-to books to check out. Or I ask them to contact me after the show.
There’s being generous, and there’s being generous. Only you can decide how much of your time , and energy, you want to spend teaching in the middle of selling your work, and whether or not you want to be compensated for that. I’ve found my own middle ground that reflects my integrity and priorities. You are always free to find yours, and it’s perfectly fine if it’s different than mine.
My nephew is getting married today in Chicago. He’s the first grandchild in our family, and the first one to get married, too. I wanted to be there.
(This is a long shaggy dog story about poor customer service, so if you’re not in the mood, just scroll down to the last few paragraphs.)
So I spent hours researching flight schedules and ticket prices. Found a great deal on Spirit, non-stop (bonus!) and acceptable times. (We live two hours from various airports, so 6 a.m. flights are not an option….)
I made my sisters & sisters-in-law (old and new) jewelry two days before. I went over my wardrobe the night before. I packed my bags, got a good night’s sleep, and printed out my boarding pass.
In hindsight, maybe I should have foreseen where this was all heading when I realized I had to pay an extra $70 to carry on ONE bag ($35 each way.) And to ensure an aisle seat (knee surgery last month, remember?), I had to pay an extra $20. So the “bargain fare” was beginning to look less and less like a bargain.
Oh, well. It was worth it, right?
We left for the airport with my husband in good time to catch my flight.
My husband dropped me off at the terminal for Spirit, and that’s where the real fun began.
I had a mental hiccup–do you have to check in if you already have your boarding pass? I asked one of the “line helpers” at a neighboring airline.
“You with United? No? You have to go over there for Spirit.” I told him it was a pretty generic question, but he wouldn’t answer. I wasn’t “his” customer, so he just insisted I go somewhere else. Of course, I realized after one quick look at the ticket kiosk that I was all set. As I walked away, he followed me, saying repeatedly, “Miss! Did you get the answer to your question? Can I help you?” Well, thank you for the help–NOT.
I went through one of the longest security lines I’ve ever seen, with a nervous gentleman behind who kept trying to nudge me forward or snake around me. He finally succeeded in doing so, only to be pulled from the line to be searched. HA!
I found my gate and sat down to wait. And wait. And wait.
Finally, one of the other passengers went up to ask what was going on. Guess what? Our flight was cancelled. When were they going to announce it? In a little while. Why? There was bad weather in Chicago (which I found out later was not so bad and didn’t last long.) Our flight was not delayed, or rescheduled. Just cancelled. There would be no rebookings til the next day, in the afternoon. AFTER the wedding.
A bunch of us tried to find a new flight, but it was difficult. I realized I’d be arriving very late, if at all, and exhausted (still recovering from surgery, not much stamina.) I decided to just get a refund and go home. I’m glad I did, because I saw the other passenger two hours later, still trying to rebook her flight with another airline, with no success.
I called the hotel to cancel my reservation–I only had a couple hours before a penalty fee would kick in. I was put on hold several times. The agent asked for my confirmation code eight times. (No exaggeration.) She kept asking when I would be arriving. I kept reminding her I was cancelling. She kept putting me on hold to “check with a supervisor.” After being kept on hold for 10 minutes, I hung up and used my smartphone to cancel the reservation on their website. It took me one minute.
I decided to have lunch while waiting for Jon to come pick me up. I went to the only restaurant outside the secured area. I asked the man at the cash register if it was self-serve or table service. (It looked like both, and I wanted to be served.) “We have table service,” he said. “Sit anywhere!” I sat down and waited. And waited. And waited. After fifteen minutes, (and after several larger groups were seated after me, and waited on before me), I decided to just get a salad to go and eat it in the hallway. I picked a packaged salad and waited at the cash register. And waited. And waited. Near me were a group of waiters chatting. I waited about five minutes, then turned and walked out. As I walked out, one of them ran after me, saying, “Miss, can I help you? Miss! Did you want something??”
I got a quick sandwich at Dunkin’ Donuts. (I was desperate.) Jon soon arrived, and we started home.
We decided to stop in Jaffrey and eat at a very nice inn. It was lovely. We sat on the screened-in porch and watched the world go by.
After a few minutes, I left to go use the restroom. Jon said it was kind of hidden, and to just ask one of the staff. After wandering through a few rooms, I saw a waiters station with three staff members talking. I waited til I caught the eye of one of the waiters and said, “Can you tell me where the restroom is?”
And he said, “Yes.”
I waited. He waited. I waited. He waited.
I know he thought he was being funny. I know he didn’t know I’d already had a 10 hour day full of waiting, disappointment, rude and pompous air terminal employees, and a long, hot drive still ahead of us. I know it was a joke.
Unfortunately, I was in no mood.
I turned around and walked out.
Of course, he came chasing after me. “It was a joke, I’m so sorry, the restroom is right there!”
We finished our meal, paid and left.
On the way home, I thought about the day’s events.
I wanted to be at that wedding. I tried hard to be at that wedding.
It’s nobody’s fault that I can’t be there, but it’s certainly not mine. All day long, I dealt with people who were paid to serve me, paid to assist me, paid to give me excellent customer service.
Very, very few of them did.
At one of the fanciest restaurants in the region, I was humiliated. I just wanted to know where I could pee. I politely asked a paid employee for assistance. All he had to do was point and say, “Right there” and I would have been content. Instead, at the end of a very long, exhausting day, I was made the butt of his little joke.
In fact, the best customer service I received that day was from the two cheerful, accommodating women at Dunkin’ Donuts. They were making minimum wage, and they barely spoke English. But that didn’t stop them from making sure my coffee was exactly the way I wanted it. (And yes, I gave them a big tip.)
So here’s the customer service point:
Whenever I write or talk about giving great customer service at a show, in your booth, when I write about how to answer customers’ questions about your work or your product, there’s always someone who insists that a funny, snappy answer is a good thing. When you ask, “How long did it take you to make this?” they respond, “It took me 30 years to make that!” I am here to tell you, it’s not funny to the person who asked you a question.
As a person who was exhausted, in need, and paying a lot of money to have a nice dinner, I just did not appreciate the “joke”.
In fact, I contend it’s not “a joke” nor “funny” to the person who’s at your mercy. It’s condescending at best, and passive-aggressive at worst.
Please. Don’t do this to your customers.
The best service I received that day was from a woman at Dunkin’ Donuts who barely spoke English. She simply kept asking if my order was “okay?” until I said yes. She put more cream in my coffee, gave me more napkins for my sandwich, till I was “okay!” Taking care of me wasn’t “beneath her”. She didn’t even need to smile or crack jokes. She simply took her job seriously, and I am grateful.
All the customer service advice in the world comes down to this, and it’s really very simple.
Treat your customers as treasured guests (until they prove beyond a shadow of a doubt they don’t deserve it, and even them, simply move them on.) Okay, maybe they are stupid. But more likely, they are confused, overwhelmed or exhausted.
If you want your customers to become owners, treat them with courtesy. With kindness. With respect.
That shouldn’t be so difficult, should it?
Here’s my latest article at Fine Art Views Newsletter called
QUESTIONS YOU DON’T HAVE TO ANSWER: Do You Have a Website?
And here’s a tongue-in-cheek article by Robert Genn on how the Art Marketing Board of Canada can help you price your artwork.