THE MOST IMPORTANT W: Chose Your Humanity Over Your Credentials

Let the world see who you are and why you matter!
Let the world see who you are and why you matter!

THE MOST IMPORTANT W: Chose Your Humanity Over Your Credentials

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.

Let the world see who you are and why you matter!

Awhile back, I attended a seminar on professional development skills for artists. I love to hear from other people on what has proven important for them to get their art into the world. And I almost always learn something, too.

This seminar focused on creating a cohesive body of work; approaching galleries; the pros and cons of framing, and more.

This presenter was articulate and organized, the presentation covered a lot of ground, but the time passed quickly. They mostly focused on 2D artwork, so much of it didn’t apply to me at all. But I appreciated their expertise in their medium, and how clear their presentation was.
When I got home, I visited their website.
And here is where I was totally baffled and frustrated:

There was absolutely nothing there about the “why”.

There was plenty of information, especially around credentials. In fact, the bio/about-the-artist section was nothing but credentials. Degrees, prestigious galleries that represent them, the famous collections their work is in, the other roles they play in their art community, etc.
Their work was varied, across several different media (but almost all 2D, hence the blind spot in the presentation).

But I couldn’t find anything about what the artist wanted to say in the world. I couldn’t find an artist statement. There was nothing about that that said anything about what they wanted to say, nor who they wanted to be in the world, nor why I should even care.

Now, to be fair, maybe it’s on the website somewhere. But I only spent about 15 minutes poking around until I gave up. Since the work wasn’t personally appealing to me, I wasn’t determined to do any more deep digging.

The website may prove this person is WHAT they say they are: An accomplished and successful artists.

It said nothing about WHO they are.

No, I am not a wealthy art collector.
I am not an art expert, concerned about where this person’s place in history will be.
I am not a prestigious client, an art critic, or anyone else who will matter to this person.
I am, however, another human being, who is curious about why their work is appealing to their audience. I am curious about why they create the art they do. I am curious about how they relate to potential collectors. I am puzzled about why the “why” is so unimportant to them.

Now, it’s possible that they create a new “artist statement” for each exhibit proposal, or that their audience and the gallery they co-manage is so well-known, anyone who needs to ask is NOT their ideal client.

But for the rest of us, that might be exactly what a potential buyer needs to know before they invest their hard-earned money in our heart-born work.
Sometimes, WHO an artist is doesn’t matter to me, nor WHY they make the work they do. I have bought work that simply spoke to me (if I can afford it!). And maybe this dynamic is working for you.
But I also know that if our work is unique, if it’s not something people see every day, if our choice of materials is odd or unusual, if our work is outside the box….
Then telling your story is the best, most powerful way to connect your work to potential collectors.
Even as I write this today, I’m realizing this is the gift of being that ‘outside the box” artist. When people saw my earliest work, it took time for them to understand what they were looking at, and why it attracted them. My story helped bridge that gap between “It’s beautiful and I’ve never seen anything like it” to “Oh, WOW, that’s even better!”

There was power in hearing, “I’ve loved your work for years, and wanted to own a piece, and THIS piece just leaped out at me today! I have to have it.”

There was gratitude in me hearing, “I love absolutely love your work, but I can’t afford it” and turning that into, “Your layaway plan is too wonderful to pass up!”
There is humility in learning someone found a piece of my work at a yard sale, fell in love with it, and went to the trouble of tracking me down, through online research, galleries, etc. until they found me so they can let me know how much they enjoy it–and bought another piece. (VERY different than those people who bragged about how nobody else wanted my work, so they got it for a song.) (Phrasing, people! Phrasing.)
When we create our artist statement, or “about the artist”, or even our bios, we naturally look to how other artists (especially hugely successful artists) write theirs. And if yours works for you, don’t change it.

But here’s the thing for me:

I don’t care what school(s) you attended.
I don’t care how many awards you’ve won. (Well. I’ll be a little envious, but I’ll get over it!)
I don’t care about the artists you admire. Especially if you list a dozen. Especially if you only list famous 19th century European men.
I don’t care what your medium is.
I want to know, what did you learn at that school that changed your life.
I want to know why you choose to make the work you do.
I want to know why your medium is the perfect medium for you.
I want to know who you are, and what you want to say to the world.

I’d also love to know if you’re a good person, with good energy, but sometimes that doesn’t matter to me. Unless it’s a situation where I have to deal with you a lot (like an artist in my own community), because if you’re a jerk, eventually every time I look at that piece I bought from you, I’ll be reminded of that. In which case, I will give it away or give it to a charity auction. (Ha! Another solution for last week’s topic!)

You are an artist. You are brimming with creativity, full of passion for how and what you make, with strong preferences for a medium that matches what you want to make.
You are a human being, with a powerful story about how you ended up where you are today, and with a yearning about where you want to go.
You are a person who is like no other person on this planet.

Don’t hide behind your artwork, your website, your credentials.

Tell me your story. I’m listening.
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THE HARDEST QUESTION

(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?

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.)