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.

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THE MIND OF A FERAL CAT: It’s Me

The hardest thing in life is to start over. The best thing in life is, we can.

It’s been just over a year since we moved to Santa Rosa, California. We are well into feet-on-the-ground stage of our life reboot.  Except, well….things seem to be getting harder instead of easier.

Fortunately, a little stray cat provides my life lesson for today.

Near the end of summer, Jon and I were sitting on our little front porch, waiting for ‘our’ hummingbird to appear. Every night, at the same time (relative to sunset, that is), he’d appear, and zip into our little tree lawn tree to settle for the night.

Suddenly, just as the hummer appeared, a black cat also zipped across our tree lawn, ran under the fence, and into our backyard.

I thought it was our rescue cat, Noddy. “How the heck did she get out?!” I sputtered. But when we went inside, there was Noddy. (aka, ‘Naughty’ or ‘Nutty’, depending on her behavior at any given moment.)

Soon it became apparent the nightly visitor was younger, and a lot skinnier, than Noddy. I finally tracked her down to the little garage in back, which we use as storage space for my booth stuff. I began to feed her in there, and within a week, she was approachable. So, not a true feral, but a well-socialized little cat–who desperately wanted to join the fold.

After weeks of trying to locate her owner (yes, I went through all the steps, offical and social), I finally got her inside. Turns out she is a lovable, loving, very affectionate cat. Can’t get enough hugging and petting. She is now fed, safe, and happy, except for one issue:

She’s terrified of the other cats, and especially the dogs.

It’s understandable. On the street, other cats are threats. And the dogs chased her every time they saw her in the backyard. Even inside, when the cats get in a dust-up, their spats and yowling trigger a massive reaction from the dogs. (I can just read their little dog brains: “Fight! FIGHT!! Let’s go get ’em, too!!”)

How does this relate to life reboots? Plenty.

I’ve convinced myself I need to partner with a few local galleries, and small fairs, to reboot my art biz. The most powerful connections are made in my studio. But in the meantime, I’d like to get my name out there. And frankly, I’d like to make a little money, to at least carry my own weight out here.

The stress of negotiating this new (or better, revisited) territory, is fierce right now. Struggling to figure out how to simply my old booth set-up, so I can do it in an hour instead of 2 days. How to manage my inventory so I can introduce my highest art, while selling the less-heavy (figuratively) items I make (vintage button, and vintage resistor jewelry.)

ButtonJewelry02
Actually, I LOVE making these! It’s pure D love of color, shapes, and history. Come to think of it, the concept of buttons is prehistoric, too.

I bombed at my first show, and now I’m freaking out about my next one, this holiday weekend. It didn’t help when a studio neighbor mentioned that a following will grow, but it will take 4-5 years.

Four. To five. Years??!!  Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh……

I began to whine. But my neighbor, a cancer survivor, would have none of it.

“Life is all about starting over, Luann,” she said sternly. “And it’s always hard, and it’s never easy. And sometimes, you lose everything.  Everything...” Her voice drifted away. “But that’s what life is.” I could hear the unsaid words. Everything can disappear. Life. Love. Even second chances.

I’m used to pep talks lately. My straight-talking life buddies are three time zones away now, and I don’t get to hear their words of dead-on wisdom so much anymore. But I was embarrassed enough to realize I cannot equate fear-of-doing-it-wrong with the disruption and displacement of my fellow life travellers. And I’m sure a few billion people in the world–people who would gladly exchange their life of hazard, hardship, homelessness, nation-less-ness–would gladly trade places with me, and my meager problems, that are pitifully small, even for me.

Even worse, I cringed when I thought of all the whining I do, looking for sympathy and reassurances that I’m a good person, and a good artist. Hoping people will see how hard I’m trying, and take pity on me, and, oh gawd, like me. (OH, my skin crawls to think of it.)

That night, as I drifted off to sleep, my lizard brain kicked in again. I’m scared. I need kind words. I need promises that everything will work out. Nobody wants my work. I’m doing it wrong.

And then I thought of Bean, our newest kitty, and almost laughed out loud.

Bean’s emotional life careens between two extremes: Desperate for affection and affirmation (well, in a cat sense), and extreme fear. There’s not enough love in the world to conquer her fear. Only time, and patience, small steps to introduce her into our household, will do that.

Or her anxiety may be a permanent trait. She may never adjust to two bouncy big dogs who love to ‘play’ with cats. (God help any creature who runs from them.)

But she is still loved. She has a place in our lives. And she has a place in the world. Can’t I learn to accept that about myself, too?

So maybe my lizard brain needs a new name: Feral Kitty brain.

And maybe a bowl of kibble.

SELLING YOUR WORK: Far Afield? Or Close to Home?

There are pros and cons to being a ‘local artist’, and many artists opt to ‘get out of Denver’ as quickly as they can. But there are deep reasons to building a local audience first.

I got an email newsletter from artist and writer Robert Genn. I always enjoy his thoughts on making and selling art. He’s a good writer, and a thoughtful one.

Today (insert link here) he tells why he decided to skip a local market, and developed more distant venues to sell his paintings.

I felt the same way when I started out with my art. I feared that ancient ponies and bone awls would never find a hold in a traditional New England marketplace. I did a few local shows, just to prove to myself I needed to go further afield. And then I did just that.

But I’m here today to eat my words. (I do that a lot.) There are lots of good reasons to start local. And I’ll give you suggestions on how to make it work.

You’ll learn how to talk about your work.

“I hate talking about my work!” “I don’t know what to say.” “My work speaks for itself.” “I’m shy–I just can’t talk to people!” I’ve heard–and said–these words so many times. Let’s cut to the chase. Art rarely ‘sells itself’. Somebody has to talk about it. If it’s not you, then it has to be your gallery or sales rep.

And how are they going to know what to say about it unless you give them a clue? If a thousand artists paint a picture of a tree in a field, then how will someone decide yours is the one that goes home with them?

If you believe that artistically knowledgeable people can tell the difference between your tree and 99 others, or a thousand others, or 10,000, then you’re going to have to be the absolute best painter out there.

In reality, many collectors aren’t looking for ‘the best out there’. They want to believe the one they like best, is the best one.

And your job is to tell them why your painting is the best for them.

You can do it with credentialing–art school degrees, awards, honors, solo shows, etc. You can do it with publicity–press releases, getting your work published and exhibited, etc.

The easiest thing, of course, is to just tell them. You share your technique, your process, your story. Whatever works best to connect them to your work. (You know I vote for ‘story’, but if it feels safer to start with ‘process’, go for it.)

Of course, a gallery will do this for you. But who tells the gallery? Yup. Y-O-U. I got practice talking to my customers. By the time I talked to gallery owners, I was comfortable and confident.

You’ll discover what people love about your work.

I talked easily and readily about why I loved my work, once I got used to the notion. It’s when I shut up and listened that I found out why others loved it.

What other people say about your work is powerful. People overhearing someone else saying something wonderful, is even more powerful.

People saw things in my work that astonished me. As they told me how it affected them, what it meant to them, I became even more dedicated to making it. I realized I need to make it. And others need to see it.

That’s hard to do when your work–and your audience–is a thousand miles away.

And it’s powerful to be able to say to a prospective gallery, “This is what people say about my work….”

You’ll perfect your booth, your display, your signage, your entire presentation.

Let’s say you do get that perfect out-of-state show with the oh-so-sophisticated audience, or the super duper gallery with the big name artists roster. What will they say when they see your awkward framing? Your lack of support materials?

What do you do when your far from home and realize you’re missing a critical piece of your booth? It’s one thing to run home and grab it. It’s another to be looking for the nearest Home Depot at night, in a cab.

Doing local shows was an education. I learned the hard way how to streamline my set-up and breakdown (as much as I can with jewelry cases, table top AND wall displayed items!) I learned they hard way what was essential and what wasn’t. I learned through practice the best ways to display my work.

And then I did my first big out-of-state show. When I did, I hit the ground running. (Well. Running, yes. But there was still a lot I had to learn!)

You’ll generate enough money to keep going.

Getting into an out-of-state art exhibit was exhilarating. It forced me to get good images of my work, and to go looking for opportunity.

But it wasn’t great for sales.

It was a small but steady stream of local sales that kept me going. My local collectors supported me just enough for me to always take the next step. And that was really all I needed.

You’ll learn that you are responsible for your success.

Local market or farther afield, it still takes dedication and work to build your name as an artist. It’s easy to say, “Oh, no one around here appreciates good art” or “People here are too cheap to buy real art.”

I would have an easier time believing that, if I didn’t hear artists from around the world say this. All. THE. TIME.

We all like to blame others when our efforts don’t fly. I do! I want to blame everybody except myself.

I know we can’t control everything. I know we can’t command success. I know sometimes even the best efforts fail.

But we are responsible for doing the best we can.

As I learned how to do better–as I knew better–I did better, and I got better. My presentation improved. My ideas grew. My self-promotion got better. I learned how to believe in myself, and my art.

And I found it a lot easier to learn how to do that, with local venues and local customers.

The biggest reason I’m glad I started local?

When times got hard, I had a safety net.

When the recession hit, and the sales at big shows fell off, when galleries were closing left and right, my local audience saved my ass.

In all the years I’d bemoaned the lack of a ‘local audience’, my small band of collectors and supporters was actually growing quietly and steadily.

My open studios became more successful. My sales at state craft venues climbed–the League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair; the League shops: the Sharon Arts Center. Each year, just as sales tapered off at one venue, another would leap ahead. (For various reasons, my work tends to ‘cycle’ in popularity. Instead of despairing when sales falter, I now know to sit tight and come back with new work in a year or two.)

I now feel honored and supported by my local community.

As I said in my article about local self-promotion, publicizing your successes goes a long way to building that local audience. But I’ve learned it’s well worth the effort.

With the ease of discovering new markets and venues on the Internet, I don’t feel any artist is limited anymore to a local market. But I wouldn’t discount them, either.

Put your eggs in both baskets, and see what happens.