What You and M. Night Shyamalan Have In Common
(Hint: It’s what ALL artists have to ignore!)
(Hint: It’s what ALL artists have to ignore!)
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!
(N.B. I’ve been blogging about the business and spiritual side of art since 2003. Unfortunately, when I switched my website to another host, all the links to those articles (almost 500) were “lost”, invisible to internet search.
It’s been a slow, painstaking journey to reset those urls. And so today, I’m republishing on of the most important ones I’ve ever written: THE HARDEST QUESTION
I promise to find and republish that process, because it MUST be done with love, support, and respect.)
This post was originally published on July 31, 2006.
A reader’s comments on yesterday’s blog, on the process of getting to the “why” of our work, got me thinking.
Here’s a tip I’ve learned from doing active listening exercises I don’t think I’ve shared in my blog.
When a question makes you angry, go there.
I don’t mean the offensive or hurtful questions that come from people who are out to get you. I mean the questions someone asks you out of innocence, out of interest, out of caring or out of any positive place.
If those questions make you uneasy, or irritable, or downright angry, take a step back–and ask yourself, “Why?”
Because that anger, or anxiousness, means we’re getting close to something important.
Let me backtrack and explain.
I occasionally do active listening exercises with people I think would really appreciate and USE the experience. I learned the technique from one of my mentors, fiber artist and workshop leader Deborah Kruger. You can see Deborah’s work here, though as of today, it’s in the process of being revised: http://www.deborahkruger.com/
Deborah trains artists how to find and create support groups for each other. The formal structure of the support is offered through four questions that each person gets asked, one by one:
What is the greatest vision for your art?
What is your next step?
Where does it get hard?
What support do you need?
They seem like simple little questions. But I watch people struggle mightily with them. Sometimes one of the questions brings them to tears. Other times, one will make them angry.
I’ve learned, as a listener, to follow the tears AND the anger. Because sadness and anger are often what we use to protect our core. And often, the very answers we need are at our core.
Now you see why I only offer to do this with people I care about! It’s hard for me to deal with other people’s anger or defensiveness. I have to feel the process is going to be worth the crummy part.
I’m going to do a bait-and-switch today. I realize each of these four questions is an entire column’s thoughts. So I’m going back to the question I talked about yesterday:
Why do you make this work?
Why do you do it the way you do?
Why do you use THESE tools, THIS technique?
Why is it important to you???
When I am really interested or really care about someone or their work, I want to know the “why” of it. And if I don’t get that answer, if I’m determined enough, or care enough, I will keep asking it til I do.
And often people get angry. But if they are people who “get it”, I find they’re usually amazed and grateful later.
Because “WHY?” gets at the heart, the core, of everything we’re about as artists.
That can be a scary, uncharted place to go. Especially if we’ve never dared go there before.
But go there we must, if we are to create the strong emotional connection between our artwork and our audience. Articulating OUR connection facilitates our AUDIENCE’s connection.
Look, a jillion people on this planet have the technical skill and wherewithal to do whatever we artists and craftspeople do. The massive manufacturing industry in China churning out cheap replicas of our work proves that. There’s a thriving market for this stuff, too, and almost all of us are guilty of supporting it. We all love a bargain, especially for something that’s “good enough”.
But when your work speaks deeply to someone, when it is so beautiful or profound or meaningful or wonderful they just HAVE TO HAVE IT, that’s when price is almost no object. (Hint: It often helps to offer layaway!)
If you don’t have the foundation for that connection—if you don’t really know yourself WHY it has the effect it does—then you may be missing opportunities to create that connection.
I know many people might disagree with this. We can love a song without knowing anything about its creator, we can enjoy a meal without knowing how it was prepared, we can buy artwork without understanding anything about the artist.
But when you learn that Beethoven created some of his most powerful work even when he could not hear it, you may pay attention a little more to his music.
When you learn that Renoir’s final paintings were made with brushes strapped to his hands, because he was so crippled with arthritis he could no hold a brush, the soft blurry edges of his later nudes take on new poignancy.
When an artist tells you the story that generates their “ethereal, abstract” work, and that story is about the loneliness of a child who finds solace and control in during airplane flights–where all the confusion fades away and only serene landscapes and cloudscapes are left–the work now speaks to you in thundering whispers.
Because the “why” informs us more than the “how” ever will. An intellectual exercise is just that–from the head. An emotional leap into the abyss is from the heart.
The “why” is not an easy place to get to. And yes, it will morph and change as we let go of one “why” and pick up another. And it will change as life picks US up and drops us in another place.
But our job as artists goes far, far beyond achieving technical skill and mastery of our processes.
Our job is to look at the “why’s” in our life, to bring the questions—and—the answers—into visible or audible form. So that others can see it and feel it and connect with it in ways that enrich THEIR lives.
So get a trusted friend or supporter to play the “why” game with you. They start asking you the “why” questions. They have your permission to be persistent. They have your permission not to accept facile answers or technical jargon. If they feel you are deflecting, they have permission to persevere.
If it gets too heavy, or you get angry, that’s okay. Step back and take a break.
If you find yourself wondering WHY it got heavy, or WHY you got angry, well, now you’re getting somewhere.
Remember, you will know you’ve found your “why” when you feel the tears. Because whatever makes you cry, that’s where your heart is.
P.S. Again: If you believe this would be of service for you, or a friend, please act with love, kindness, and respect. ASK FOR PERMISSION to do this exercise, do it with others who have the same supportive mindset. Remember that we all have our deep inner truth we want others to respect, and accept. LISTEN to THEIR deep inner truth. It’s not for us to tell. It’s for THEM to discover.)
DOES STORYTELLING WORK?
Yes. Yes, it does.
For years now, I’ve advocated for creative people telling their stories. I believe the “why” of what we do is far more powerful than just the “how”.
I also know that some artists have fought long and hard for their credentials—their education, the shows they’ve been juried into, the awards they’ve won. Anything else seems, well, unprofessional. Perhaps even fluffy.
I get it. I do. When I first started my art career, I methodically entered all kinds of juried exhibits. I’m proud of the awards I’ve won. I’m especially delighted when my professional peers—other artists, galleries, etc.—sing my praises. After all, they see a lot of work. When they choose mine for their own homes, it’s a major thumbs-up for me.
I also know how extremely uncomfortable some people feel about sharing what’s in their heart and soul. They feel safe sticking to the tried-and-true. What they do is working for them, so I won’t ask them to change that.
I spent a weekend at a state-wide storytelling workshop, a collaboration between our Sonoma County Library, Creative Sonoma (of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board), the California State Library and StoryCenter.org. The project’s goal was to gather 100 stories that represent the ‘voices’ of California.
You can read more at http://www.storycenter.org/.
Ten people from Sonoma County were selected to share their stories, which would be transformed into ‘digital stories’—recorded in our own voices, with images, and music—no more than two or three minutes in length.
As a matter of full disclosure, I was NOT one of the original ten people selected. Someone else dropped out, and I was offered their place.
Also, when we first told our stories to the group, I said I had no trouble telling stories. Keeping it to 300 words? Almost impossible.
Two huge things happened during the class.
First, I was overwhelmed with technical difficulties. My laptop crashed, my internet connection wouldn’t take, I had trouble working with the video production software (WeVideo.com). I was the absolute last person to create a video, and it’s really not even finished yet. (I’ll be putting the last details on it in the upcoming week—I hope!) That was hard. There’s a steep learning curve to any video editing process, my husband reassures me, and at least I’ve discovered SoundCloud and CreativeCommons.com, social sharing sites for images and music. A challenge, but it’s good to challenge ourselves.
The second thing is wonderful. I was astonished and amazed by the stories people brought to share.
Every single person had a story. Each was very different from the other (although most people were involved in the creative arts.) Some were funny, some were hard. Some weren’t resolved yet. Some had no ‘answer’. But each one was intriguing.
And these are only our first stories. I realized there will be many more to come.
Here was another powerful aspect of these stories:
I remembered everyone’s name in the class, something that’s usually problematic for me.
I remembered everyone’s story.
And everyone’s story was powerful beyond words.
Not all the stories sounded like winners during our first ‘sharing’. This was probably due to the fact that some folks hadn’t actually shared them before. They rambled, they had trouble finding the ‘point’. Some stories were so new, people were was still working through them.
But in the composition and editing process (and our teachers’ experience guiding us), we learned to find the ‘hooks’. We were strongly encouraged to not tell several stories at once, something I struggle with. (Hence, my 1,000-word articles!) We found our strong beginnings, and our thoughtful endings.
Images were powerful. Music helped connect.
And our voices? Oh, our voices…..
We each created a ‘script’ of our stories, and read and recorded them.
And every single one of us nailed it on the first reading.
One instructor marveled at this. “Even the people who insisted on a second take? Their first version was better!” she said. “And everyone read it with such power…it’s astonishing!”
At the end of the class, we watched the (mostly) finished videos. Each one was a winner.
You don’t have to rush out and create a video (although I’m definitely going to explore this further.) You don’t have to have a full-media story telling experience to connect with an audience. Although I hope it’s not lost on you that, as artists, we already have our visuals. In fact, I used images of my artwork, as my story was about how I became an artist in mid-life.)
I do hope you’ll consider telling your story to your audience.
A thousand people here in Northern California paint the ocean, the vineyards, the rolling hills. Every artist captures the light, a moment in time, or a glimpse of something hidden. Many are beautiful, and most are at least competent.
And yes, there are people who, unsure of their decision, will be reassured you are as good as you say you are, by reading your list of accomplishments and awards, or checking the well-known galleries that carry your work..
But a good story, a story that connects your experience to those of your customers, will make you stand out from the crowd.
Create that powerful connection. Make your mark.
After reading all my articles about artist statements, are you going to tell me you still don’t like to talk about your art?
Then tell me about YOU.
Yes, I’m going to rag on you about your artist statement again. (I’m never too busy for that!)
I’m getting ready for the League of NH Craftsmen’s Fair, and I should be doing a bajillion other things right now. But I got up early. I’ve got half a cuppa coffee in me.
And as always, I found a little artist life lesson in today’s email inbox.
It’s an e-newsletter from Michael’s. They asked six of their employees how they use picture frame to express themselves in their own homes.
I think they’ve taken a online peek at Oprah Magazine, but I took a look.
And here’s your takeaway:
Everyone said what they needed to say in two sentences.
Yes, in two sentences, you learn what these folks’ passions are. What’s important to them. What they chose to display in their homes, and why.
Melissa, like me, loves to shop for vintage eclectic stuff. Jenny has an artist’s eye for the tiny, beautiful details around her. Susan uses her photographer’s eye to capture unforgettable moments in her family’s life.
Yes, it’s a Michael’s ad.
But it’s also an intimate peek into the minds–and hearts–of six creative people.
And they did it in 25 words or less.
Now, it’s not easy to crystallize who you are into that short a sentence. Yes, I struggle with that, too.
But it’s worth it.
People have made art for over 50,000 years. It’s part of who we are. I explore what it means to be human and an artist, in the world today, through ancient stories retold with my modern artifacts.
(I know, it could be better. It’s always a work in progress!) Editor!!
HEY! I know…..
Tell me what you think MY 25-words-or-less could be!
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.
Trust me, your artistic self is just as powerful as a postage stamp. Maybe more.
Fresh off my first Open Studio tour of the year, and boy is my studio CLEAN! I love open studio events for many reasons, but more on that later this week. I have something else on my mind that has to come out today.
As you may know, my soapbox speech is about finding out what makes you, and your work, unique.
We hear all about how no two snowflakes are identical, and how our fingerprints and DNA are unique to us.
You’d think, with all this unique-ness pouring out of us, we could a unique way to talk about our work.
I’ve been in a lot of group shows this year, seen a lot of lovely work and talked to a lot of passionate artists. What strikes me is how everyone says the same things about their art.
We talk about our compositions. We talk about why we love pastel, or oil, or clay. We talk about light and shapes.
If I hear “I just love color!” one more time….. Well, it won’t be pretty.
So let me share an ‘aha!’ moment I had years ago.
I was doing a mail art project, and wanted old postage that would reflect the theme of my piece. I found an older couple who ran a stamp collecting business out of their home.
As I scrabbled through the trays and books of postage, we talked about stamp and the stamp collecting biz. They shared stories about stamp collectors. I asked her what kinds of stamps people collected.
The woman said, “You know, in fifty years of selling stamps and doing shows and talking to collectors, I’ve never seen two people collect exactly the same thing.”
Now think about that a minute.
There is no creativity per se in collecting stamps. Collectors don’t make the stamps, nor are they handmade by other people. Stamps are produced en masse, and have been in production for years.
But how they collect is so strongly individual and personal, each collection–each act of collecting–is as unique as….well, the human being who put it together.
Some collect by country, or region or language. Some collect by subject matter. Politics, places, people, animals, plants, themes, designs, plate designer…. There is simply no end to the possible combinations of appeal.
If we could get away from the mundane–what our materials are, the fact that we love certain colors or lines or compositions…..
If we could dig a little deeper and think about why we make the art we do….
If we could tell a richer, more personal story about our art…..
If we were willing to go the scary, deep place of who we are, and who we yearn to be in the world…
…People would see our work as the miracle in the world it truly is.
Sharing ‘unique’ processes, ‘unique’ inspiration, ‘unique’ love of color/shape/style, separates us from our audience.
Discovering what makes us tick as a human being, sharing what is truly in our hearts, connects us with our audience.
Be brave. Be YOU.