WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: Now There Are Artists That Look Like Me!

WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: Now There Are Artists That Look Like Me!

Art History hasn’t been historically inclusive, but that’s changing, for the better!

More insights for (and from!) the young artists who visited my studio last month.

I grew up in small, agricultural community that was white white white. I never saw a person of color—any color!—until I was standing in line at a McDonald’s in my teens, behind a person of color. I could not stop looking at their skin, because I’d never seen anything like it (in person, AND this was before we owned a color TV.) I hope they did not notice my interest!

I rarely saw a woman’s art in my art history textbooks in college. None in Janson’s History of Art, and a handful (literally!) in my other textbooks. There are a jillion paintings of nude women, and very few women recognized as “real” artists, even today.*

I’ve just realized I rarely saw the work of any artists outside the U.S. or Europe, either. I did take Asian Art History classes, so I eventually saw work from India, Japan, and China, but those were advanced classes. I do remember at the end of my senior year, one professor suggested that African Art seemed to be becoming a “thing”, and if we couldn’t find work in “regular” museums, we might consider exploring that “new field”.

As for genders, there were “men” and there were “women”, period. I knew nothing about people being gay, or lesbian, or transgender, or any other gender placement and didn’t know any people who were, until college, either. Of course, looking back, there obviously WERE people who blurred the lines, but we just considered them “odd” or “weird” or “different”, “not quite.” Or we didn’t talk about it. My heart breaks for what they must have endured their entire lives among people just as or (or even more) ignorant than I.

And the only religions depicted in traditional art were Greco-Roman mythology (not a “real” religion, of course, these were myths, right?) and Christianity. The big schism in religions were limited to Protestant and Catholicism. (As I branched out into more specialized Art History fields, I did encounter Buddhism and Shinto, so there’s that.)*

Things are much different today!

Where I live now has an amazing variety of many races, creeds, genders, and countries of origin. And most of the students that stayed to talk in my studio were Latina artist. (I’ve only recently learned that “Latino” is male and “Latina” is female. So….still learning!)

I shared my lack of exposure to artists who were women, to the point where I assumed women really couldn’t be “great artists”. After all, the experts said they weren’t, and I couldn’t “see” them. So it had to be true.

When I had my epiphany in my early 40’s, I still hadn’t embraced the bubble art history had put me in. I said I had to be an artist, and I didn’t care anymore if I were a good one or not. I just had to do it.

What a difference today!

David Foster Wallace and his famous commencement speech for Kenyon College This is Water is a powerful message to us all. If we grow up only seeing what others deem is “normal” to see, then we won’t be able to see the whole picture. If we never see women artists, we believe there aren’t any. If we believe the only “real art” is 2-D work, then we won’t believe other media “count”. If we believe there are only two “real genders”, we can’t accept as human beings those people who don’t fit into that box. If we believe only certain periods of history and certain places were the home of “real art”, then we can’t even see that the art of other times, places, countries, religions, etc. have their own respectable place in our world.

We still have a long ways to go.** But it’s getting better. And I encouraged these young women to see their art-making as a force for good in their journey.

I told them, “Don’t accept anyone else’s judgement of your worthiness based on your gender, your color, your country of origin, your religion, your personal beliefs and experiences. Do the work you love, grow, improve, practice, keep it in your life, and know that you are always worthy.”

They are fortunate. It was obvious they are already getting that support from their community, their teachers, and their fellow students.

I wish them the best of luck, and I hope you do, too.***

* “…9 percent of artists in the 9th edition of Janson’s History of Western Art are women, and 5 percent of artworks on major U.S. museum walls are by women artists….”

**”In recent years, museums across the United States have worked to diversify their collections, sometimes even selling work by white male artists to buy art by women and artists of color.

But according to a new study, they still have a lot of work to do.

Researchers examined more than 40,000 artworks in the collections of 18 museums across the US, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago, to analyze the gender and ethnic diversity of their holdings. They estimate that 85 percent of artists represented in these collections are white and 87 percent are men. (This is, notably, significantly out of step with the US population at large, which is 61 percent white and 50.2 percent male, according to census data.)…”

***No, I do not hate all white men, except when they persist in believing they are automatically better than anyone else, because….well, BECAUSE.

If you liked this article, you can find more at https://luannudell.wordpress.com/

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)

Holding Onto “Facts” That Hold You Back

(Originally published on my old Radio Userland blog on Friday, November 29, 2002. You can read the original post here.)

Years ago, when I was getting my master’s degree in education, I met a young woman in one of my math methods course.  We paired up for several projects.  I found her bright and funny and easy to work with.

One day we were doing some measurements for a hands-on project, and she stumbled on an easy mental calculation: multiplying something by 9.

I said something jokingly about her multiplication tables needing work.  “Oh, I never learned my 9’s facts,” she explained.  “I was absent that day.”

I thought she was joking.  Surely someone as smart as she was, and as someone who was taking master’s level math methods coursework, knew that elementary school does not denote one day out of the entire fourth-grade curriculum to teach the nines multiplication table.

But she wasn’t kidding.  She told me an elaborate story about being sick the day the nines table was taught, and so more than 15 years later, she was still unable to multiply by nine.

I think of that young woman often.

Coincidentally, in that same math teaching course, we were learning how to teach kids their math facts–addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  There are many easy facts.  Let’s take the multiplication tables.  Everyone knows what the ones facts are–1×1=1, 2×1=2, etc.  Next come the twos, and it turns out they’re pretty easy, too.   Most kids learn them quickly.   Next are the fives and the tens.  They’re easily mastered, too.  Also the “doubles”–3×3=9, 4×4=16, and so on.

Now if you were to map out a chart of all the multiplication facts, and mark off all the “easy” ones, including their reversals (2×3 and 3×2, for example) you’d find almost half of the facts accounted for.  And what are the strategies for learning those remaining facts?

The answer, it turns out, is not so much fun.  You have to memorize them.  Of course, there are some good tricks, like the nines tables.  (6×9, one less than 6 is 5, 5+? = 9?  4.  So 6×9=54.  Cute, huh?)

But the straight skinny is, ya gotta memorize them.  The math facts are one of the few academic skills that are ultimately only learned by memorization, and best reinforced by drill and practice.  (Acquisition of vocabulary, especially in learning foreign languages, also benefits greatly by this approach, by the way.)

So here we have two statements, or stories, about facts.  One is measurable, observable, concrete.  To learn the math facts, you gotta work at them.  You gotta memorize them.  You gotta be able to knock out the answers within a second or two of hearing the numbers.  But once you learn them, you never really forget them.  You might get rusty, or you might get stuck on one or two.  But the foundation, the habit, is still there.

The other story is harder to quantify.  Everyone will believe it, few will really examine it.  It goes like this:

“I have a special story about why I can’t do something.  It’s an odd story, but it makes me feel better about not being able to do that thing.  So I hold onto it fiercely….even when a calm, adult eye would see that it doesn’t even make sense anymore.”

What do you gain by holding onto a story like that?

Well…you don’t have to try anymore.  You can have a clear conscience about why you can’t do that thing.  Others might think you’re silly, but it’s possible no one would ever say that to your face.

In fact, probably other people, who have their own  “I can’t” story, nod their head in sympathetic agreement, relieved that someone else has such a story, too.  You may even get sympathy, or admiration.  “Wow, that’s quite a story!  How awful for you! No wonder you can’t do that!”

 

It also is a way to make sure you don’t have to do the real work of learning those new facts, those new ways of doing something.  It’s too hard,  it’s too time-consuming, it’s too late, it’s not possible, and so on.

But what do you lose with a story like that?  A lot.

You lose a lot of missed chances, missed opportunities, a whole world of missed possibilities.

I’m telling this story because I used to tell myself a story like that, too.

It was all about how I couldn’t do the things I really wanted to do–make art.  It was about how I couldn’t be what I really wanted to be–an artist.  It was about how I would never be able to sell my work, or find anyone who would want to buy it.

The biggest one? “There are no women in my art history books. My professors said there were no women in the Lascaux caves. So women can’t really be artists, right?” *

Surprisingly, once I realized my “stories” I told about myself were just that–stories–I found I could change the story to one I like better.  A huge paradigm shift occurred, and I began to see that all the things that “couldn’t happen”, could.

I now hear that same old story from people who ask me how I accomplished so much in the last five years.  When I tell them, they first tell me how lucky I am.  (I am, but not for the reasons they think!)

I soon hear their story.  They think it’s specific to them, a special story, an unusual story.   When I point out that I had the same story, they are quick to correct me that their story is different.

When I point out the inconsistencies of what they’re telling me, they tell me I don’t understand their story fully.

When I suggest ways they could tell another story, they are horrified.  They’ve put so much energy into holding onto this old story.  There’s just too much at stake.  It’s always a really, really good story why they simply cannot do the very thing they just told me is their true heart’s desire.

So my first question for you today is:  What is your story? The sad one, the one you were told, or learned to tell yourself, that keeps you stuck here?

What is the story you tell about yourself that is holding you back from doing the things you really want to do?

Fortunately, you can tell youself a different story. Tune in this Saturday for my Fine Art Views column about the power of affirmations.

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* No women in the Lascaux caves? Ha! Check out the link below!

Were the First Artists Mostly Women?