In my last article, The Stupid Question, I explained how actually treating this as a stupid question hurts our connection to our visitors. Today I share some suggestions to answer them better!
Some common questions for me:
“What are these made of?” My response is usually intuitively based. I’ll mention the polymer clay, but especially when I started out, when I simply said, “They’re polymer clay!”, most people would put the item back down. (It was not considered a legitimate “art material” back in the day. And back in the day, a lot of media were not considered “real art materials”, as this article shows: SUPPORT YOUR MEDIUM: Other People Are Listening!
First, it’s more powerful to share WHY you use your medium-of-choice. I’m not a painter, but the one time I tried, I realized I would never paint with acrylics. They set too fast, and I tend to rework and make adjustments every step of the way in my making process. I couldn’t keep up with the drying time of acrylics. You’ve also either deliberately or instinctively chosen a medium that works for you.
So instead, share that: What is it about your chosen medium that fits your process, your style, even your personality?
What are the benefits of your medium? Mine is that, unlike ivory and bone, no animals are harmed by my process. (That’s been a pretty powerful detail for my visitors and customers!)
And though most of the materials available to creatives today are often ranked in terms of “quality”, after you read the above article, I hope you’ll see that that isn’t really relative anymore.
“How long does it take you to make this?” Aha! The one we all get! (DO NOT SAY, IT’S TAKEN ME 30 YEARS TO MAKE THAT!) In my case, I ask if they are familiar with making puff pastry or Samauri sword making. Always gets a chuckle without insulting them, and almost everyone is familiar with one or the other. I compare those layering processes with my faux ivory process, which involves mixing the colors, conditioning the clay, creating multiple layers, ending up with a block of layered faux ivory clay. And say, “And THEN I start shaping my artifacts.” This is almost always followed by a gasp of how complicated this process is. I follow up with how I fire them, how I use a scrimshaw technique to bring out the details, how I sand and buff them to a shine.
Not one person has ever noticed that I never say exactly how long that takes me.
You can do something similar. Explain what catches your eye when you decide to paint a landscape, what you try to capture in a portrait, what your aesthetic is in your glass/pottery/wood work, etc. How you capture that in your work, what the steps are in your process, etc.
“Do you actually do any work in here??” I get asked that a lot! Including my most recent open studio event, when I was literally sitting at a table working to finish an item that had to be delivered to a gallery the next day.
I don’t know why people ask this. Is it because my “creative mess” is out there? Or because during open studios, I try to set out 90% of my work, so it looks like there’s nowhere for me to actually work? Is it because even on ordinary days, it kinda looks like a gallery, or store? (I hear that a lot, too.)
Here’s what I’ve forgotten: When we get asked a specific question a lot, one good way to explore it is to ask the person why they ask! That’s my goal for my next open studio. To laugh and say this:
“Yes, I do ALL my work in here! I get asked that question a lot. May I ask what made you ask?”
This is an excellent strategy to get an answer I’ve only been making assumptions about. And as you can see, our assumptions can dump both us and our visitors into a bad place. When I get more insight into this particular one, I’ll come back and add it to this.
“Where do you get your ideas?” This is your chance to talk about what inspires and intrigues you, what draws you to a certain subject, or certain body of work. For many of us, it’s closely related to our creation story. (Mine is!)
“Where do you get your materials from?” Mine are wide and varied, but even if you use a single medium, you can share a) why you use the brand you prefer; b) you can share your favorite art supply source (especially local ones, who will appreciate that!); c) if they’re eclectic and unusual, share how you got drawn into that medium, and (again) why. If it’s wood, for example, what are your favorites? Why? Is it the characteristics of a specific tree? The history of the tree? One woodworker asked me for assistance years ago for their artist statement. They were focused on the process. Way too focused. But as we dug deeper, they shared the resilience of wood, how even damaged trees (by fire, insects, etc.) still have beauty. A metaphor for the human condition, I told him, sharing some suggestions, and encouraged them to use it in their artist statement. (It was published in a magazine years ago, and it still moves me to tears when I read it.)
Also, if a person is interested in your work and materials, this might also indicate they’d be interested in classes. And when you ask if they’d like to hear about the classes you offer, that’s the perfect time to find out where they’re from, and to get their email/snail mail address. (See how much easier it is to get this information once they’ve started to engage with you more deeply?)
Signs are wonderful! They anwer questions, engage introverts, and help us multistask with visitors.
Again, if the questions get tiresome, and/or you have too many people in your studio to explain over and over, signage is your best friend. Some people actually prefer reading more information about you and your work. But if you’re engaged deeply with someone, say, wrapping up their purchase, etc. you can always point a person with a question to your sign that answers it. They’ll appreciate it.
I have signs about my stick collection, my fabric collection, the boxes I use in my shrine series, my inspiration and ideas, my artist statement, the stories behind each of my animal artifacts, and more. They add a whole nother layer of exploration in my studio.
They can do the same for you.
If you’d like to dig deeper into questions and signs, here are some articles that might be of interest: Questions You Don’t Have to Answer (Lots of goodies in there!)
Feel free to share the questions you get, especially the ones you struggle with. There are so many ways to turn them around! And other people might have the exact strategy that works for you. The power of sharing….