WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: Make Room for Art in Your Life!

WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: Make Room for Art in Your Life!

 

Bear has a story for when life gets hard.

Life is not “all or nothing”, you can make as much—or as little—room for art as you like!

More in the series about sharing my hard-earned knowledge with young art students. This one was hard.

I told them how I’d wanted to be an artist since I was three years old. Making stuff mattered deeply to me.

But my opportunities for learning and practicing were scarce. Materials were scarce, art teachers were scarce, art classes, even books about art were just not available. I got to the point where I dreamed of going to art school, college. I put away all my dreams until then.

And then it didn’t quite work out the way I thought it would.

I’ve shared this before, so to make it short:

I struggled. My teachers were either unengaged (they probably knew how few of us would go “all the way.”) Some of them were harsh. I didn’t enjoy drawing from life: eggs on a sheet of white paper, etc. My grades weren’t great, either. I wasn’t accepted into that school’s art program (I lacked a portfolio), and so I fell back to art history as a major.

I felt like I was simply not a good artist, and I let it go.

But that left me in a hard place for decades. Until (again, I’ll keep this short, I’ve shared it so many times before) I realized I was aching for art in my life again. And my total surrender to it—saying I didn’t care if I were a GOOD artist or not, I just had to do it—was a turning point for me.

For years, I felt like I’d wasted all that time, until I realized it created a unique path for me. And my revelation on how important it was to simply have in my life gave me power I’d never had before.

Over the years, I’ve met a lot of people who went further down their artistic path, and then fell away. Their work didn’t sell, or the gallery they tried to manage overwhelmed them. They didn’t think they were good enough. Or they didn’t have the time anymore, what with having “a real job” now. They believed if their creative work wasn’t painting, or sketching, then it wasn’t “real art”.

I’m happy to say that, meeting people where they are, telling my story, and simply encourage them to take small steps to put it back in their life, has actually worked! Not for everyone. Not all the time. Not right away. But there are people who have come to the same realization I did: When we are doing the work of our heart, whether it’s full-time, part-time, a little bit of time, whether they earn a living, make some money, or only a little money, or….none….that they simply feel better when it’s part of their life again.

And that’s what I told those teens.

Our lives are rarely a “sound plan” that we can maintain our whole life. We may change our priorities, or they may be changed for us. We may pick up a different kind of creative work, one that’s not officially “real art”, but fulfilling to us nonetheless. We may have to take a class to carve out that time, or get up an hour or two earlier in the morning. We may be so overwhelmed with those soul-stomping events in life that we have to step back temporarily.

But just like “putting on your gym shoes” in my series “EXERCISE FOR SUCCESS” I wrote here awhile back, sometimes those little efforts pay off. We say, “I’ll just carry a sketch book with me when I go to lunch today.” Or we write a page of our novel while we’re traveling on business. (One page.) Or we collect paint samples from the hardware store, or we take up embroidery, or pinch pots instead of throwing on the wheel (because we can do it in the living room while we watch TV here.)

We watch our kids fingerpaint, and suddenly, we want to squish paint around, too! Or we find an image online and the color palette fascinates us. “What if…..?” we think to ourselves and suddenly, we are inspired again.

Time and fortune will come and go, opportunities will expand and fade, life will be full and rich, and suddenly barren and sorrowful. We can only count on so much, and not nearly as much as we think.

But we can always….ALWAYS….choose to keep our creative work in our life.

The all-or-nothing approach never worked for me. It doesn’t really work for most people, actually. We forget that we have the power of our choices. We get to choose, every step of our way, how, when, where we fit our art in our lives.*

Because the “why” is always the most important part.

Why? Because it restores me to myself.

Why? Because it heals me.

Why? Because, even under crushing events, there is a tiny window of faith, of hope, a small opportunity to make room for art.

Why? Because when we share it with others, with the world, there is always someone who needed to see it, hear it, read it, that day.

And when we share our art, and it helps/encourages/inspires someone else, well, that’s pretty close to being a hero, in my book.

“I am an artist. What’s YOUR superpower?”

* My bear artifacts appeared during a difficult time in my life, and you can read the bear’s story here.

WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: You Can Be Focused, You Can Be Diverse, It’s All Good!

WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: You Can Be Focused, You Can Be Diverse, It’s All Good!

Topics: advice for artists | creativity | FineArtViews | inspiration | Luann Udell | originality

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.

Luann Udell shared how to be focused and diverse in your art career
Luann Udell shared how to be focused and diverse in your art career

You get to choose what you do, how you do it, how many things you do, and you can change it whenever you’re ready.

When the young art students came to my studio, most of them were still in the exploring stage of art-making. Some already felt “more comfortable” with a specific media, but most were trying this and that, and some hadn’t found what really felt right.

That’s normal! I encouraged them to keep exploring. This stage could take a few years, it could take a decade, it might take more than that. Maybe…..for the rest of their lives!

I think some of them were a little surprised by that. It seemed that some were already feeling the pressure to pick “just one thing” or “just one process” (painting, for example, or drawing, etc.) (It may have been more societal pressure than pressure from their teachers.)

I told them, “If you’ve already figured that out, good on you! But if you haven’t, that’s normal, too. These are the perfect years to explore and experiment. In fact, you might incorporate “new and different” for the rest of your life! And that’s okay.”

Focus is a good thing, of course. When we push all our efforts in one direction, into one medium or process, we can make enormous strides in our skill set.

But that’s not the only way to be a “real artist”. And when people tell us it IS the only way, and we don’t want to do it that “one right way”, it can feel soul-crushing.

Years ago, I attended a seminar with a well-known speaker who created a series of workshops about all kinds of artist/maker issues: How to market our work, how to display it at shows and in galleries, how to talk with customers, etc. All excellent information, garnered not only from their own career as a maker, but from dozens of others who shared their insights with him.

When it was my turn to ask a question, I started to frame my body of work: “So I do jewelry, fiber work, and printing, and I’d like to know…..”

They interrupted me mid-sentence: “FOCUS!!!!”

The whole room erupted into laughter, and I was humiliated. The speaker went on to explain that “certain clueless craftspeople” get into doing everything: “I raise the sheep, I shear the sheep, I spin the wool, I dye the yarn, I make the pattern, I knit the sweater….” They end up with a product that can’t be reasonably priced, and then wonder why their work doesn’t sell. The speaker moved on to the next person.

That wasn’t my problem, and I was pretty peeved. Afterwards, I went up to ask for clarification, and they apologized. “I wanted to make an example of you, because that comes up all the time! But I see now that isn’t what you were sharing, and I’m sorry.”

There’s a lesson there: Don’t make assumptions about the “stupid questions” people ask us. (As in, “How long did it take you to make that?” “It took me thirty years to make!”) (Yes, there are a dozen better ways to answer that question without making a joke at that potential customer’s expense!)

“Lack of focus” was not an issue for me. I already knew I was “doing it right”, FOR ME. I was perfectly comfortable with my multi-media choices, because I had a powerful story that united them. From the very beginning of my art career, people could recognize my distinctive style, use of color, and use of artifacts, even in the different ways I staged them.)

I wanted to know how to approach the top retail shows in the country that, typically, demanded I pick ONE medium to apply in. And usually my jewelry wouldn’t be accepted, because it’s a dense medium at high-end fine craft shows. Often half the applicants are jewelers! I wanted help figuring out how to get out of the “box” most shows and exhibits want to put us creatives in.

(I never solved that, but finally figured out ways around it.)

Nowadays, whenever I ask people about their creative work, I get a wonderful variety of answers. But the ones where I sense folks feel the most embarrassment is when they haven’t focused completely on “just one thing”.

“Oh, I’m not a real artist! I love oil painting, but I’ve also enjoy watercolor and pastels, and I’ve taken clay workshops and loved it, and I want to….” And then they sort of trail off, waiting for me to tell them to “focus”.

I refuse.

I ask them what their goals are, and listen. Unless they feel “held back” by their free choices, I almost always tell them to embrace their path.

From their reaction, I’m guessing no one has ever told them that’s okay. Which is sad.

Some of us know the medium that speaks to us. We leap into with all our heart, and pursue it, perfecting our skills, finessing our techniques, perhaps (hopefully!) even receiving recognition and acclaim for our work.

Others, like me, take longer to figure it out. We try different things, or keep up with several things, until we find our way through.

For me, I did fiber work for years: Cross-stitching (easy!), then embroidery (harder!), then quilting (so much time!!), getting smaller and freer and focusing on making something that looked aged and worn. I got to the point where I rarely bought new fabrics, and instead scrounged yard sales, thrift stores, and antique shops for unusual, vintage, and antique fabrics, and well-worn clothing. Eventually, when I couldn’t find what I wanted, I began to over-dye my own fabrics, and even carved my own stamps to print fabric.

When my kids were born, I knit them sweaters. (Hey, it’s faster to knit for a little kid than an adult, and they’re a lot less fussy about how it fits!) (But you also have to work fast, or they’ll grow out of whatever you’re making for them….)

Eventually, I was frustrated trying to find the perfect buttons for those sweaters, and so I began to make my own.

I couldn’t afford expensive jewelry, didn’t like much of it anyway. I loved the look of old pieces. I started buying broken or out-of-date bits and pieces, restringing them or salvaging the beads for other projects. One year, I was accepted into an exhibit for art quilts, and forgot to read the fine print: Beadwork was required. So I “explained” that the beads I used were too tiny to be seen in the photograph, and frantically added seed beadwork to the finished pieces. (I won a Judges’ Choice Award!)

And I also began using those sweater buttons as embellishments on my art quilts.

Are you sensing an epiphany here? It’s coming!

Until the day came where I stepped up to the plate with my “mom crafts” and found my powerful story, where I found my place in the world as an artist.

All those “little crafty things” I’d been doing for years all came together to make something different. Something unique. Something that became my signature, so that now, people who are familiar with my work, can spot it in almost any form.

If I had “found my perfect medium” all those years ago, I would not be making the work I do today.

Would I be better off? How do I know? We choose a path, and our story is changed forever. I don’t regret my “aimless wanderings” that eventually brought me the work I love with all my heart. I choose to celebrate the skills and insights I gained along the way.

Some of us will “do it right”, focusing on a specific medium and style. Some of us will explore, constantly adding, tweaking, mixing it up. And some may never “settle” into one or two things. They will explore, and experiment, and dabble for the rest of their lives.

My question for them: Are you happy with that?

Because if you are, that’s all that matters.

What matters, first and foremost, is that our work brings us joy.

Oh, not 24/7. I get that. Sometimes things just don’t click, or we get tired of the same ol’ same ol’. (Usually we get our happy back, though!) And if we want to get really, really good at something, we have to put in the time and the work.

Some people pursue one style, or medium, and then walk away from it and pursue something else. That’s okay, too.

And some of us find total joy in the new, the experimenting. Some people only make art when they take classes. Which, I tell them, is really smart! If you can’t make time for your art, then taking a class is an excellent way to set aside the time (to go to class), to experiment (with all the tools and expertise provided by the teacher that you’ll need) and come home with something you love (because you had the chance to actually finish it!)

In our modern times, art is both a necessity (for our emotional/spiritual health) and a luxury (we can all choose what, when, how, and why we “make”). We get to choose how we fit it into our lives, we get to decide whether it’s our “one thing”, our “main thing”, or our “fun thing”.

Somewhere along the line, the word “amateur” (which means doing something because you love it, whether we make money at it or not) became a hugely judge-y thing: “Oh, you’re not a professional, you’re just an amateur!”

In reality, “amateur”, “vocational”, and “avocational” are all on the same spectrum. We do it because we love it, and it supports us, financially, and we do it as if it really were our profession- doing all the steps that a “true professional” artist would do, even if we don’t actually make a lot of money at it. And a few professionals actually step back from that stance, because they find the demands of catering to a market, and having to do the same thing, the same way, for the same people, actually saps some of the joy from our process. They find other ways to earn income, something they’re good at that pays well, and that they like or even love, yet keep their artwork in their life, on their own terms.

It’s all good.

Because when we accept all the reasons that show us we’re “doing it right”, the more art, the more beauty, the more joy there will be in the world.

So keep on keeping on, I told those kids. Do what you can. Do what you want. Do what you have to do. You get to choose.

Make it work for Y-O-U, finding your unique happy place in the world with your art.

The whole world is waiting to see “what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life…”*

*From “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: Be Inspired, But Be Yourself

Luann Udell discusses how easy it can be to lose track of our own vision.
Luann Udell discusses how easy it can be to lose track of our own vision.

When we follow someone else’s vision, it’s easy to lose track of our own.

Continuing the series about advice for young artists (and us older ones, too!)

Years ago, before the internet was available to the general public, I met an artist who always did one-of-a-kind work, across a wide variety of media and processes. Each one was distinctive, and beautiful.

We were talking one day about “inspiration”, and I mentioned that sometimes, I paged through books and magazines, looking for new ideas.

They replied that, to the contrary, they drastically limit how much they looked at other people’s art. Since I usually found it enjoyable, and fun, I asked them why.

Their answer has stayed with me for decades.

They did not want to be distracted by someone else’s work. They did not want to “take on” another artist’s artistic “persona”: vision, process, aesthetics, etc. They wanted to focus on their own vision, aesthetic, and process. It was their way of keeping their work unique, faithful to their own style, and not diluting it by trying to imitate someone else’s work.

 I think about this a lot. Especially now, with a world of images available to us daily, wherever we go with our phones, on the internet, on social media, especially apps like Pinterest and Instagram.

It’s fun to search for unusual color palettes and combos. It’s educational to see the different ways people sculpt bears. It’s informative to see the newest trends in jewelry (unfortunately, minimalism is back—ACK!!), the latest gemstone shapes and colors, etc. It’s like browsing through those old JC Penney’s catalogs, seeing all the new designs, colors, styles available. (Er….did I just date myself here??)

I can learn a lot: How to make my own ear wires. Find what new tools I could work with. Exploring better ways to cram more stuff into my space use my studio space more efficiently.

But that artist’s words come back to haunt me when, eventually, I find the work of someone whose style/aesthetics/use of color are simply jaw-droppingly good. And how that sometimes made me feel “less-than”.

 Feeling “less-than” is not good for creative people.

Oh, it’s good to get a grip on our ego from time to time. Yes, there are people whose techniques are better, whose stories may be more powerful, whose skill set puts ours to shame. It can challenge us to mix it up, to improve our own skills, to step outside our comfort zone and experiment a little.

But comparing ourselves to others is usually unpleasant, and self-defeating: “I’ll never be as good as so-and-so!” “That person’s work is really on-trend, why can’t I ever get ‘on-trend’???” “That artist’s landscapes sell like crazy, maybe I should do landscapes, too….” “I’ll never be as famous as so-and-so, so why bother??”

Alas, another dangerous road also lies ahead, one where we consciously or unconsciously try to emulate that art hero, taking on their subject matter, their style, their techniques.

This rarely ends well.

In short, enjoy poking around. Borrow ideas (but don’t copy!) Use the inspiration to broaden your horizons (but value your own aesthetic.) Try something new, learn something new (but only use what makes YOUR work better.) Transform your views of their work into something you can truly call your own.

Look around, be inspired. But stay true to your inner vision, not someone else’s.

When it gets overwhelming, go back to your creative making space, and focus on what works for YOU.

Because you are the only YOU in the world. Honor that, respect it, and make the work that matters to YOU. Trust me, it will speak to someone else, too.

Tell the story only you can tell.

WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS:

There are many ways to be a force for good in the world!

I’ve met many creative people over the years. In fact, I might meet more than most other artists, because, a) I accept many ways of being “creative” in the world, and b) because I ask.

Ask what? Well, when new folks visit my studio for the first time, especially when they are still in the exploring/browsing stage (i.e., not actively looking to buy something), I often ask them, “What creative work do YOU do?

It breaks my heart when they protest they are not creative at all. Nope, not a creative bone in their body. Other people are artists, but not them.

When I tell them my definition of “creative” is pretty broad, that’s when the conversations really get interesting.

I explain that I can be a snoot about what is “real art”, too, but I prefer not to. “Shamans were healers, teachers, and artists,” I say. “So if you get joy from any activity that puts something in the world that wasn’t there before, and it makes other people’s lives better, too, well, then that is creative work, too!”

You should try this sometimes. The results are amazing!

People go from being apologetic and humble, to expanding (figuratively and literally.) They say, “Oh! Well then….” And stories come tumbling out.

There’s art, “fine art”, fine craft, functional craft, paper arts, etc. There are people who love the music arts (singing, composing, playing an instrument, dancing), dramatic arts (acting, writing plays, set designers, cinema), even comedy, mime, etc.

But there are also people who love to cook or bake. They take great pleasure in preparing a lovely meal and sharing it with family and friends. (By the way, baking is a lot harder to get right than cooking, especially when you are creating a new recipe. There’s science involved, just as tricky as creating glazes for ceramics.)

What about people who garden, or design landscapes, or arrange flowers, or work with dried flowers? (Yep, some of these are categories in the highly-respected fine crafts organization I still belong to in NH.) These are people who create something special for memorable occasions (weddings, funerals, Mother’s Day, etc.), or who make our neighborhoods, even our homes, look charming and lovely. It’s a lot harder than it looks (ask me how I know) to consider what blooms when, and how it coordinates or contrasts with other plants, whether it needs sun or shade, a dry climate or lots of rain, high maintenance or low. A beautiful plant can brighten someone’s hospital stay, or celebrate a birthday, or provide food for our family or the neighborhood.

What about healing? Some people just have a knack for getting to the heart of our aches and pains. They listen carefully, ask the right questions, and look for the best solution for us. They help us get better, they calm our fears and anger, they help us live our lives without pain, with clarity, without self-condemnation, and with better resources.

Then there’s nurturing. Some people are simply amazing with babies and youngsters, and whose care for the infirm or elderly makes a world of difference to those clients. We may not “see” them til we need them, and realize how grateful we should/could be.

Teaching can be an art. We’ve all had a teacher or two that made us wonder why they even bothered show up, who made our lives hell. And then there are those teachers whose grace and presence still echo throughout our lives, the teacher who believed in us when no one else did, who floored us with their kindness and attention, or pushed us harder to do better.

There are people who fix things and rebuild things, so that something we need to live our lives work better, last longer, and is more efficient. This becomes even more valuable in a world struggling with climate change and plastic debris, an instance where “less than” is actually a good thing.

What about the scientist who finds something unusual in that experiment, and ultimately finds a new medicine or treatment for millions of people who would otherwise live lives full of pain, disability, or mental anguish? If they save even a few people, how meaningful is their work? For those people, and their family and community, a lot. I started a list of other scientific life-saving and planet-healing stuff, but you get the idea.

Here’s why identifying these activities as “creative” is important:

I find when the person doesn’t do this work that means so much to them, it affects them deeply.

Sometimes it’s obvious. They seem wistful as they browse my studio. They tell a story about why they set that creative work aside. They “don’t have time”, or “it didn’t pay very well”, or “it isn’t ‘real art’”, or someone said they weren’t good at it. It seems like a luxury, something to be set aside when there are more important things to take care of. They miss it, but how can they justify the time and the energy when their lives are so full?

When that happens,I encourage them to do it anyway, however they can fit it into their life. After all, as some readers remind me, not every creative work we do can also earn us a living.

But as we talk, it’s very clear to me that they miss it. It brought them joy, it gave them energy, and now life just seems a little harder, a little crazier, a little more demanding.

They need to put it back in their life so they can live more fully, with a little joy and restoration to their higest, best self.

When I “decided” I wasn’t a “real” artist, there were other things that distracted me. But as I look back, they were creative work, too! Teaching, quilting, knitting, jewelry-making, all brought me a little comfort and joy through the years. It got me through, though, of course, “everything else” always came first: Childcare, housework, etc.

How did that work out for me? Well…it kept me in the look, until I chose to take it to a higher level. The quilting evolved into fiber collage. The buttons I started making (out of polymer clay) for my sweaters became horses, and fish, and bears. The jewelry-making got richer, better, and more uniquely my own. And teaching/sharing skills creates community.

I wish someone had told me there are a thousand ways to be an artist in our modern world, especially with all the new material, new techniques, and  new resources available to us.

I wish other people weren’t so quick to stick me in a box, either judging my worthiness on whether my work was art, or craft, or simply too different to be considered anything. (Let me tell you about my very first attempt to introduce a gallery to my wall hangings, when I was told my “design aesthetic was immature….”) (Let’s just leave it at how relieved I was years later, when reliable sources confirmed that person had “issues”….)

I wish all the boxes weren’t so “square” or so narrow. I remember the relief I felt when I applied for a major fine craft show. I called the show organizers when I couldn’t figure out what medium to check on the application. The person I spoke to said firmly, “I hate that, too! We should appreciate the artists who are SO creative, there’s no single category to put them into!” (I quit pursuing many of those shows because I would be juried in for one medium, but not the others, often excluding the one that generated the most sales: Jewelry.)

I asked the art students what their creative work was. At first I got the usual: “Painting!” “Graphite!” (Ha! What a great way to frame pencil drawing!)

But when I opened that door to a broader definition, one said, “I love baking!” They said it proudly, too! I rejoiced at that and told them so. They may also pursuit the more commonly-recognized forms of art-making. But they were reassured that whatever the work of their heart is, it deserves their attention and time.

There is something for everyone, and it doesn’t have to be what everyone else agrees is “real art”.

If it makes us a better person, if it makes the world a better place, if it gives even one person in the world joy, hope, and validity, well then, I believe that’s a good thing.

And I’m delighted these young people already know they are “doing it right.” I can’t wait to see what they do with their passion, and their skills.

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This article is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. Luann also writes a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explores 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. 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….”