SUPPORT YOUR MEDIUM: People Are Listening!

SUPPORT YOUR MEDIUM: People Are Listening!

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.

 

img_20160905_170647
I have very good reasons for choosing polymer. Simply put, I could NOT do the work I do without it!

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.) [1]

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: [1]  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 dunnbaker@aol.com  I assure you they are worth every penny!

SUPPORT YOUR MEDIUM: Consider the “Why”

Don’t focus on the “what”. Focus on the “how” and the “why”.
What’s it made of?
This used to be my most dreaded question to answer. Until it wasn’t.
Recently, Cynthia Tinapple, a long-time polymer clay artist/teacher/writer/curator, told about a recent visitor who said she “loved polymer clay.”
Cynthia was caught off-guard. Usually, we polymer clay users jump “defend” our choice of medium. This visitor acknowledged it, respected it, and praised it, all without prompting.
Polymer clay is an amazingly versatile, adaptable, and accessible art medium. And like any other medium, you can use it to make crap, or to make something astonishingly beautiful.
It was originally used in Germany as an art doll medium, and well-respected.
But when it was originally marketed in the U.S., it was framed as a simple clay for children and amateurs to use, especially Sculpey: Supersoft, easy to work, quick to fire in an ordinary toaster oven.
Those of us who worked with it soon found ourselves constantly judged as “less than”…. Less than “earth clay” artists. We worked in “plastic”. It was cheap, and it broke easily. I remember my first little craft fair, featuring pens I’d covered in patterned mosaic polymer, selling for a few bucks. A couple stopped by, and the guy picked one up. “What is it?” his partner asked, and he responded in disgust, “A cheap pen covered in plastic.” He put the pen down and walked away.
I felt flatter than a pancake.
Innovators like the late Tory Hughes (who inspired my faux ivory work), City Zen Cane, Kathleen Dustin, and many others, soon showed us what could be done with this material.
Still, the stigma remained.
Years ago, I noticed a disheartening phenomenon: Whenever a booth/studio visitor picked up my work and asked what it was, I’d reply brightly, “It’s polymer clay!”
And they would put it down again and move away.
I realized I had to reframe what this material meant to me, and why I chose to work with it.
First, I created a few small “sample” card of things I’ve made with the clay. There are faux bones and pebbles, mosaics and buttons, pieces of turquoise, coral, and amber, tiny fish and other wonders, all arranged attractively and attached to a piece of poster board.
Then there is my “Welcome to my world!” sign next to it.
I’m much wordier when I talk about it. I show them the little sign-with-samples that’s now an instant attention-getter in my studio and at shows.
I remark on what a miracle it is to have this material in the world at the same time in history that I’m in the world.
I put a little horse, or bear, into their hands, and tell them the story of a customer who chose her horse necklace based on how it felt in their hand.
I show them the grain, and tell them about the guy I met at the Boston Gift Show years ago, who owned a company that makes artifact reproductions for museum gift stores, who said they can’t make a scrimshaw reproduction that so beautifully mimics ivory like I do.
I share how important it is to make “bones” and “ivory” without harming animals, a choice that better reflects our modern times.
And I always add, “It’s not what the material isit’s what you do with it.
So once again, I am grateful to all the innovators and early-adaptors of polymer clay, for curators like Cynthia and others, new teachers who share their expertise and knowledge about this amazing medium, and the amazing, talented, unique artists who have chosen it to work with.  Thank you!!!
I would show you the sample card, but I’m not sure where it is right now. I’m moving to a new studio in a few weeks, and my space is filled with boxes, packing tape, and boxes marked like this:
moving studio box
Yes, I have a small collection of puppets in my studio. I LOVE THEM!!!
Which reminds me of when we packed for our move to California four years ago, and Jon labeled THIS box:
moving
I love this man. He always makes me laugh!

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!

STAY IN TOUCH: Newsletter Tips for Artists

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

Keep it real, keep it human, and be yourself.

In my last column, It’s the Little Things That Count a reader asked what we should write about in our email newsletters.

Short story: Our email newsletter is how our audience gets to know us.

And long story (which follows): There is no single “right way” to do that.

I have seen beautiful, heartwarming, informative newsletters that I eagerly read as soon as they show up in my inbox.  I have seen pompous, bragging newsletters that make me stop reading after the second paragraph.

I have seen brief notices of an event, and I have seen long, meandering missives that wander here and there and everywhere.

All of the writers have an audience, so just because I like them or don’t like them doesn’t mean they are necessarily “doing it wrong”.

I do see (and you are all going to laugh knowing this comes from ME) that keeping it short and to-the-point makes it more likely people will actually read it!

Here’s the thing to remember: If someone signs up for your newsletter, they already believe you have something of value to share with them.  So really, all you have to do is be the best “you” you can be.

Of course, usually I create a newsletter to inform my audience of an event, whether it’s a show, a meet-the-artist event, or an open studio, or even a sale.

But many artists share tips on how they actually make their work. Or they share WIPs (works in progress), providing a little behind-the-scenes peek into their creative process. Or they share a little life lesson or funny story. (I tend to share this kind of stuff on other social media, but that’s me.)

In short, every single newsletter is a reflection of who that person is. Their newsletter tells us what they want us to know about them, and their work, what they’re up to, where they’re heading.

So think about who you are: Confident? Humble? Cheerful? Grounded? Funny? Very serious? Quiet? Talkative? A sharer/teacher? An eternal student of life?

Show that in your writing!

Be authentic. Write about what matters to you.

Write simply, and get to the point.  Some of the newsletters I get go on and on, as if I’m listening to a stream of consciousness in the author’s head. Not fun on a busy day…

Be funny (if that’s your style.) If not, be serious.

It’s also okay to experiment with different styles and approaches until you find the one you’re the most comfortable with.

Now, for the concrete: I’ve written many blog posts over the years, about what I’ve learned about writing effective press releases to magazines, newspapers, etc. and I consider an email newsletter a personal, mini-press release.

So when you’re setting one up, think about the 5 (or 6) W’s: Who, what, when, where, why, and how (okay that’s not a W, but you get it) if you are including something educational.

  • The “who” is you, of course.
  • The “what” is what you want your audience to know: An event? A class? An honor/award/prestigious show you’ve been accepted into? A new gallery? A new body of work? A sale?
  • The “when” is obvious. Nobody will show up to your event if you don’t let people know what date and time it is.

What is not obvious (and what I struggle with) is, email newsletter experts say you need to let your audience know multiple times about the “when”. That is, if you have an open studio event, you need to not only let people know in multiple arenas (email, Facebook, etc.) but multiple times. Give people plenty of time to plan ahead. But then remind them over and over that it’s coming up.

The “where” is obvious, too. But you’d be surprised how many emailers assume their audience KNOW where the where is. I finally replied to one gallery newsletter last week, asking them what CITY AND STATE they are in. (In fact, I just realized I did not do that in my most recent newsletter. OOPS)

  • The “why” is trickier. But untangle it a bit, and it becomes obvious. For events, the “why” is, “Because I’m hoping you show up and buy something!” For notices of awards and honors, it’s “Because now you can see other people/organizations think my work is pretty cool, too!” For a new body of work, it’s “Because you love my previous work, you might REALLY love my latest body of work!”

The “why” could also include your call-to-action. That is, what do you want people to do with this information? Do you want them to come by? Share/tell their friends, so they can help you grow your audience? Order something online? Be happy for you? How about just to say “thank you”? That works, too!

  • The “how” can be an interesting tip, suggestion, insight into what you do. Some people want to know as much as possible about our process. Others want to take a class, and this can encourage them to do that. Sometimes, they just appreciate the fact that you care enough to share!

The only caveat (beyond the ones I’ve already mentioned) is to tread carefully about the hard parts of your life you’re dealing with. It’s okay to share a setback, or to explain why you’ve been out of touch, or why you had to take time off from your art this year. I would advise you not to overdo it. Here in Santa Rosa, the fires last year devastated a lot of lives, immediately and peripherally. It will take most people years to process their loss, and heal.

But to make every single newsletter/conversation/announcement about that is overwhelming to our audience. After all, we are all struggling with something. We are all broken, someplace in our heart. We are all healing from something.

Asking for a little sympathy and understanding is human nature, and support from others can be a healing factor. But asking someone to listen over and over and over to our sad story is exhausting.

It also doesn’t serve us, in the long run. I’ve had a rotten year myself. I would say “nobody died”, but actually quite a few people died, and quite a few involved let me down horribly. It was hard, and trust me, I’m happy to tell everyone about it.

In the end, though, where the most powerful healing came from was, getting back to my studio and making the work of my heart. It helped restore me to my better self, the person I chose to be.

And that message, a message of healing, and restoration, and solace, and hope, a message of what our art does for us and for other people, is the message we really want our audience to hear.  

As artists, we want our art to inspire, to bring joy, to lift hearts. We want to bring messages of hope, and love, to others. We want to provoke thought about difficult issues, and to share our own personal view of the world and our experiences.

This is our job, as artists. And the people who are attracted to our work, who want to see more, learn more, hear more, are just waiting to get more of that from us.

I hope this encourages you to reach out to your audience, and let them know what’s going on in your world! Clint Watson, founder of FASO, has written great articles about the more practical points of producing an effective email newsletter, and I encourage you to go back and read them.

But I assure you, if you approach this with as much integrity and openness as you approach your art, you really can’t go wrong.

HOW NOT TO SAY HELLO

 

There are polite greetings, there are annoying meaningless greetings, and then there’s true engagement. You choose!

Recently my husband and I visited a chic little town north of us. A friend had mentioned some gorgeous galleries that might be a good fit for my work, and both of us wanted a pleasant road trip.

Things started out well, but ended….well, rather badly on several issues.

First, as we crossed a street, I tripped and fell on a complicated section of curb. (Very high and uneven curb, above an equally-uneven sort of culvert-shaped road edge.) I took a serious fall, wrenching my knee, straining my back, and smashing my glasses, which also gave me quite a headache.

We found a delightful hardware store nearby, and the clerk gave me excellent customer service. She walked me over to the glue section and helped me select the right glue to repair my glasses. It didn’t work, but I have no complaints, because she “met me where I was” and did her best to help me move forward.

We continued on to a beautiful gallery. By this time, I was really starting to feel the effects of the fall. I tried to focus on the artwork, but I was suffering. My back was spasming, my shoulder and knees hurt, my head and nose hurt.

The gallery attendant was busy and didn’t look up when we entered. That’s actually a good thing, giving people a minute to “land” once they walk into your booth, studio, or gallery space.

But what happened next was a travesty of good customer service.

They said, “How are you today?”

I was struck speechless. My bad. I wanted to say, “Fine, thank you!” But the reality of that fall was kicking in, and I was momentarily confused. I didn’t want to say, “Not well.” But mostly, I didn’t want to engage in small talk.

So I hesitated. And things went downhill from there.

The person seemed to take offense. They repeated the question again, louder. This was annoying. Because of this, I admit, I was unsure how to respond, and didn’t. (I was thinking, “Really? I have to take care of YOU?!”)

And while I gathered my wits and words to defuse the situation, they grew angrier still.

They threw their hands up in the air dramatically and snapped, “Fine! I get it! You’re on vacation and you don’t want to be bothered!”

Okay, that pissed me off. What an assumption to make on their part! And how not to win over a customer, on their part!

I politely said, “I apologize, I took a terrible fall on the sidewalk a little bit ago, and I’m in a lot of pain. I’m pretty distracted right now.”

Of course, they were embarrassed, and instantly apologized. But the damage was done.

Anyone who gets offended because a visitor doesn’t want to respond to empty greetings and conversation is not going to represent me or my artwork.

Anybody who leaps to conclusions about why someone is quiet, or reluctant to engage (what if I didn’t speak English?? What if I were hard of hearing? What if I had cognitive issues?), and anyone who responds in anger within ten seconds of this interaction, is simply not someone I want to have a conversation with.

And many of us do this all the time. We pressure people to engage in meaningless conversations, thinking we are doing it right.

Consider your visitors’ journey to see you. If you are doing a show, they may have wandered into a dozen or more, maybe even 50 or 100 booths before they get to yours.

And every single booth holder has greeted them with phrases like these:

“How are you today?”

“Nice weather today, isn’t it?”

“Are you enjoying the show?”

Or we jump into asking for too much information right off the bat:

“How many years have you been coming to this show?”

“How did you hear about this event?”

“I work with stoneware fired to cone 10 with copper oxide glaze.” (I have no idea if that even makes sense, which should tell you something. I collect a lot of pottery, and I don’t know, or care, about the conage or the glazage…. I just know if I find it beautiful or not, and if I can afford it.)

By the time our studio/booth visitors get to us, they are tired of talking about the weather, they want to wear a sign that says, “I’m fine, thank you”, and what they really want to hear about your pottery is, is it lead-free, and will it go in the oven.

What’s a better way to engage a visitor?

Don’t pressure them.

After a they take a few seconds to look around, and decide if they want to stay, you do a brief introduction of yourself, the setting, the work, etc. (“Brief” is the operative word here!)

When someone enters my booth or studio, I give them that moment to settle in, a quick hello if anything.

Then when they “collect themselves”, I say, “I’m Luann, and this is all my work, jewelry, wall hangings, sculptures. I make all the artifacts you see here that look like bone or ivory. It’s okay to touch the pieces, it’s okay to pick things up, and if you have any questions, I’m right here.”

Their response?

“THANK YOU!!!”

Always. They have been acknowledged, they are not being forced into silly non-conversations, they have been given permission to relax and enjoy my space.

And so they dig in, and start looking.

Then I shut up and go back to work.

“Work” being relative term. I work on something simple I can pick up and set down at a second’s notice. I am “engaged”, but also “available”.

This is all I want to share today. There’s a lot more on how to proceed, when to talk, what to talk about, what not to talk about. There’s knowing that when people are ready to talk, they will ask a “stupid question” that may feel annoying to us, but is simply their way of saying, “It’s okay to talk to me now, and I want to know more about what you do!”

For example, if someone says, “How long does it take you to make that?” the worst answer you can give is, “It took me 30 years to make that!” (And saying it works because people laugh when you say it, is not understanding that people laugh when we embarrass them. Because you just made fun of their ignorance, and they KNOW that.)

So for today, think about a softer way to address visitors.

Something that doesn’t force a person in pain to put on a cheerful face. And doesn’t force them to apologize to YOU when you take offense, if they don’t.

Think of a simple greeting that doesn’t put them on the spot. An opening that doesn’t force them to respond, or engage. An introduction that allows them to explore your work, and to approach you confidently when they are ready to talk.