LEARNING TO SEE #13: Eyes on the Wrong Prize

Today, I am slowly transferring my ‘selling’ space from Etsy (since 2008!) to my FASO website at LuannUdell.com.

It will take a while, and I won’t completely give up my Etsy site. I may keep it for my less-expensive work, destash items, discontinued items, etc.

But the insight that a more unified-approach to selling my work online is long overdue.

Part of it comes from a newsletter this week from Clint Watson, owner/developer of the website hosting company Fine Art Studios Online, which also (ta-da!) hosts Fine Art Views, the online art marketing newsletter I’ve written for since 2011. In the article, Clint pleads for artists not to send him off-site when he wants to purchase their work.

So, insight from a long-time artist/gallery owner who now works to maximize artists’ sales and connection with their audience. I’ll take it!

But something else opened my eyes today, too. This is hard to share….

I’ve been distracted my entire career by false measures of my success in the world.

Like everybody else, I believe my work and story to be unique to ME. And being the center of my own universe, I think it’s the best in the world. Not bragging. Just human nature. (Okay, a lot of us swing from “I’m the best!” to “I suck!” We should form a club. It would be huge.)

Oh, I’ve got a humble side, too. I can see every error, every misstep along the way. Sometimes they’re so obvious in hindsight, I cringe. (See what I mean about the swing part?)

And yet I also know the power of my work, how strongly my customers connect to it, and how it has not only widened, but deepened my own life in so many ways. Even the work that now seems not-up-to-snuff had passionate collectors, people who even today beg me to replace/restore/replace a treasured piece they love.

And like everyone else, I want those awards, prizes, (and M*O*N*E*Y that comes with those prizes), the proof that I am who I say I am, that I’m as good as I like to think I am. I want the publicity that comes with those awards, too.

The latest is the Etsy Design Awards, which applications are being accepted for now.

Unfortunately, such honors have been few and far between, and none of them really affected my sales or popularity. And in hindsight, I can see why not.

My work is out of the box. I barely fit into even a ‘mixed-media’ category for shows, exhibits, etc. let alone more specialized ones.

Although my entire body of work is connected with a powerful story, stories aren’t often a factor in selection. (The Etsy one does, but just wait…) Even after 30 years of making, I still recognize the awe–and confusion–many first-time visitors experience when they see my work. “What is this made of?? Is it real ivory?” (The most frequent comment is, “It’s absolutely beautiful, and I have no idea what I’m looking at…”)

Here’s the origin story that led to today’s insights:

For decades, the League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair was half my annual income. Besides that, it’s a prestigious and respected fine crafts organization, one I’m proud to me a member of.

And every year at the Fair, I dreamed of being selected for the Best Booth Award.

Almost every year, I’d come this close to winning. Well, okay, not THAT close. But I was often listed as a runner-up or also-ran.

I had a beautiful booth, and some of the judges would tell me later that they were appalled I hadn’t won. It helped, but I constantly wondered why I couldn’t nail it.

Until finally, years later, I realized I was shooting for the wrong star. Eyes on the wrong prize.

Holy cow! What do I care if my booth isn’t the prettiest?? That is NOT why I make the work I do.

Yes, I strive to display my work to its best. I work hard to have a professional booth at shows. I work hard at every professional aspect of my art biz, as a matter of fact, from process, to display, to marketing, to customer care.

And yet, somehow I landed on “best booth” as a measure of my worth?!

We all can fall victim to some imagined “measure of success” that actually has nothing to do with our own definition of “success”.

Years ago, I talked with a talented, well-known fiber artist. We talked about goals, and they shared theirs with me: “I want to have my work represented in at least one gallery in every one of the 50 states!”

My first question was, “Why???”

To me, the absurdity of this goal was obvious. Who needs 50 galleries, some chosen only for their being in Arkansas, or Alaska? Especially when what we SHOULD have as a goal. is having some number of excellent galleries that are a perfect fit for our work, and have staff that are ardent representatives for us.

When I gently pointed this out, it landed well, fortunately. Later, they confessed this goal had helped keep them motivated, to a point (which is great!) But they realized it had outlived its purpose: Getting them outside their ‘comfort zone’ and into exploring galleries outside of our region.

Second origin story: Decades ago, at a major wholesale show, someone mocked me for remaining cheerful about the new opportunities offered to me (publicity, galleries, a chance to write articles in the future) during the show, despite low sales. And here I thought I was being mature, looking for the good in the sad times. I thought, “Yeah, I guess it wasn’t such a good show…”

Until the show coordinator and now a valued friend, brought me back to my higher, chosen reality. They asked, “Is money the only measure of your success?” (Thank you, Alisha Vincent, forever!)

Since then, I steadily wobble from clarity to confusion, grounded to lost (and found again), just like….everybody else!

The Etsy Design Awards re-stirred this bubbling pot for me. They are looking for a great product, a great story, and great images.

Unfortunately, I’m realizing (finally!!) that neither my current phone nor my old camera are capable of high-res images.

And so even my current ‘best images’ get kinda blurry in full-scale view. (I didn’t realize this until I looked at my site as the judges would. Ouch!!)

Even great photography doesn’t capture the entire beauty of my work. Despite having had amazing photographers over the years, many people, including other artisans I respect, have told me that. There’s something that can only be felt, and touched, that a photo can’t capture, and unfortunately, that ineffable quality is the mainstay of my work.

Etsy shoppers aren’t even my target audience. My best customers are people who a) have seen my work in person; b) have come to respect who I strive to be in every aspect as a human and an artist. I use Etsy as a place for these folks to purchase my work, because people unfamiliar with my work usually consider my work to be too expensive. (Those who know it come to believe it’s worth every penny!)

In the interest of not overloading folks who subscribe both to my blog (on WordPress, that can no longer accommodate new subscribers), my website’s email newsletter, and the ‘new work’ email alert, I’m trying to combine more of these functions on my website. Unified field theory in action! (Moving/giving up WP will be much harder…)

Hence, my desire to slowly wean myself from Etsy.

Etsy’s been good to me, over the years. I love it, I love shopping there, and it’s been easy to upload and sell my work there, too.

But wanting a chance to ‘be Etsy’s ideal seller’ so tempting, when it’s sooooo out of reach, does not serve me.

So wish me luck! Let me know which YOU would prefer, too. If you can prove Clint right, that you’d prefer NOT to be directed off-site to purchase my work, let me know. I’ll do my best to replicate the Etsy experience: More images available for each item, better images, etc.

There’s a lot of work I need to get started on, and it will take time. How will the site (or PayPal?) handle shipping labels? (I can purchase First Class shipping labels on Etsy, but not the USPS site.) Will FASO calculate and collect sales tax? (Etsy does that automatically.) Many, many questions ahead!

But consolidating my website’s capacities, and my own sense of purpose in the world, is underway!

What was YOUR moment of clarity about YOUR art goals? Please tell me I’m not the only one who keeps forgetting what’s really important in our winding journey through life!

 

 

ART AND FILTHY LUCRE: Does Making Art for Money Muddy the Artistic Waters?

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.