HATERS GONNA HATE: “It’s Just Chalk!”

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.

 You don’t have to defend your choice of materials.

In fact, make it a selling point!

A quick return to my series on how to answer the innocent questions, the odd questions, even the hurtful questions our visitors ask.

 During one of the discussions on a post in this series, a reader related that someone had dismissed her choice of medium with a disparaging remark”

“It’s just chalk!”  Ow!

 I remember the very first show I did, selling pens I’d covered with patterned polymer clay. I sold them for $5. Someone picked one up, sneered, “It’s just a cheesy pen covered with some kind of cheap plastic!”, tossed it back onto the table and walked away. (I remember thinking, “Was that absolutely necessary??”)

Sometimes a remark like this comes from another artist. One of the oddest things I’ve found among artists (of all kinds) is the hierarchy assigned to various media.

For example, oil paint is often considered a more “professional” medium than acrylic paints. It’s traditional, it’s harder to master, and it takes time to dry. Once cured, it’s extremely durable. It’s versatile, perfect for mixing and layering, because of that longer drying time. In the hands of a master, it creates spectacular results. Oil paints have been around for centuries, and became the “artistic medium of choice” in the 15th century.  Art made with oils usually commands the highest prices in the art world.

More modern acrylic paint, created in the 1940’s, has a slightly less lofty reputation. It dries quickly, doesn’t have such a prestigious history. The very name “acrylic” suggests ‘plastic’, synthetic. Fake.

On the other hand, acrylics are valued more than watercolors, which are valued more than drawings, colored pencil, pastels. And don’t even open the door to photography, that’s not even art. It’s a craft! So are woodblock/linocut/etchings/etc., because you can make hundreds of copies. They aren’t considered “real” art forms.

When I entered the art world, my mind reeled trying to sort out the innuendos and rationale for these hierarchies. My own choice of materials are so non-traditional, my medium is greeted with some suspicion. I don’t get much respect as an artist, until people actually see my work.  Even then, people used to pick up a piece and ask what it’s made of. “It’s polymer clay!” I’d beam, and they’d quickly put it down again.

What’s going on here???

Some of this bias is historical, based in tradition. Centuries ago, drawings were considered simply a draft for the “real” art—a painting. Colors were made with Newer art materials may contain more synthetic colors. Some media are easier to master. And some, I suspect, is turf-building: “You don’t use the medium I use, so my work is automatically better than yours!”

But there are plenty of counter-arguments, too. The first artifacts made by humans were shell beads. Yes. BEADS. Early cave art involved drawing, with charcoal or other pigments, i.e., CHALK. Yes, later on, these pigments were mixed with saliva, or oil. But their first application was probably to decorate and color bodies and hair, a practice that still continues in some cultures today.

So what do we say when someone denigrates our medium of choice?

My first response is this:

It’s not WHAT the material is, it’s what you DO with it. 

The logic of this is irrefutable. 

When precious metal clay, a metal powder in a clay base that can be modeled, formed, and fired with a micro torch, first appeared on the market, I saw this push-back immediately. Some traditional metal workers—sculptors, silversmiths, jewelers, etc.—protested that this was a ridiculous, amateur-targeting material, that cheapened their reputations. Gone were the traditional skills—soldering, casting, chasing, etc. It couldn’t possibly be considered a “real” metalworking medium….could it??

Google PMC artist “Celie Fago” and you tell me. (Spoiler alert: Whatever medium Celie works in, she creates incredibly beautiful work.)

Last week, I showed an artist friend portraits of my kids by a friend. He thought they were oils. Yeah. Colored pencil artist Nicole Caulfield hears that all the time.  (See my favorites at http://www.nicolecaulfieldfineart.com/zen-series !)

Nicole Caulfield’s colored pencil work is often mistaken for oils

And my favorite story about art vs. craft came from a potter friend. “If I make a sculpture in clay, it’s considered ‘craft’ ”, she said. “If I send that model to a foundry to be cast in bronze, it’s ‘art’.”

And we have all seen atrociously bad art done with oils, and amazingly beautiful work done in….er, on….an Etch-a-Sketch.

“The Etch-a-Sketch work is by artist George Vlosich.”

A hundred hours and one unbroken line. That’s not easy.

And me? Fiber arts is often considered a craft, or a woman’s medium. Polymer clay is considered a kid’s play material. I had a lot of explaining to do when I first started displaying, exhibiting, and selling my work.

My second, even more powerful response:

I CHOSE this material, and here are the reasons why….

I use polymer because my hands want to SHAPE things, not carve them.

I love using it to create jewelry because even larger works are lightweight, and comfortable to wear.

I can make artifacts that look truly ancient. I have a story to tell, about the roots of our own humanity, inspired by cave art going back a hundred thousand years and more. I want that power and mystery to be an integral part of my work.

Also very important to me–No animals are harmed in the process.

I use polymer clay by CHOICE. It does exactly what I need it to do.

I could not have made this work 50 years ago. Thank heavens for modern materials!

When I began to share WHY I use the materials I use, it became a selling point.

Your homework today, should you choose to accept it, is to take a few minutes to think about WHY you work in your chosen medium. Share your thoughts, and feel free to ask for help, if you need it.

Most of all, embrace your choices. Never excuse or apologize again for your choice of materials, nor your techniques. Something spoke to you the first time you used a brush, or a palette knife, a pencil, or a fistful of clay. It agreed with your inner self, your preferences, your tendencies, the way you want to work, the way you want to create.

 Their question—“What are these made out of?”—becomes a powerful point of connection with your potential audience.

Share this with your visitors, and watch your connections grow!

BOXES

Horse in box

I’m feverishly working on a new presentation for my work. It involves boxes.

A lot of boxes.

I scoured junk yards and antique stores for months, compiling a collection of likely candidates. At first it was hard because I didn’t know what I was looking for. (Let me introduce you to my collection of cigar boxes….)

I had no idea how I would restore them, either. I mean, I had a vision of them in my head–worn, beaten, discolored and encrusted by age and dirt.. But how to get that look? Leave them “raw”? (A greasy, dirty box looks wonderful, but real grease and dirt are stinky and messy.) Paint them? (I’d lose a lot of the writing and markings that make the boxes interesting.) What kind of paint? Latex? Milk? Chalk?

I finally hired a friend, a furniture-maker, to let me work in a section of his woodworking shop. I get to use his tools and supplies, while he guides me through the basics of surface treatments and finishes.

It’s been a nice relationship. And most of all, I’m getting a lot of work done. Nobody can “find” me here, and I work for hours uninterrupted.

P1010324 (318x800)

Soon I learn which boxes work, and which ones one won’t. Cigar box walls are too thin for my purposes, though maybe I’ll find another use for them. Some boxes were promising, but proved to take too much work to restore them. Others that looked grungy clean up surprisingly easily. Some have to be washed and scrubbed, then set out to dry. Others just need a little scrubbing with a brass brush and a couple blasts of compressed air. (Note to self: Compressed air would be AWESOME to clean house with!)

As we work on our respective projects, Gary and I have many discussions on design versus technique. Some boxes are extremely simple–not much fine woodworking technique involved. Sometimes just a few well-placed nails hold everything together. But their dimensions and proportions are beautiful, and the wood soaks up the glazes, paints and wax beautifully.

Some of my favorite small boxes are handmade sets, made for homemade storage chests. They are made from cut-down cheese boxes or slats from fruit crates, painted in gay colors that are now muted and worn. Odd specialty nails act as “pulls” on the fronts. They are simple, lovely and intriguing.

Other boxes look intricate and wonderful. But the quality of wood is poor. Or the box has been cut down badly. Or the finishing is bad, or the “faux aging” techniques are faulty (wear marks that are arbitrary, for example.) Or cheap backing materials are used instead of wood. Eventually, I learn which ones aren’t worth my time to refinish or restore.

A lot to think about from an artist’s point of view. Technique or design? Gary weighs in heavily on design, his forte. His techniques are solid, too, but he believes technique is nothing without exquisite design.

As a juried member of the League of NH Craftsmen and other fine craft venues, it’s tempting to go that route. Easy to judge and feel superior. Sometimes my lizard brain goes there.

But then I remember there’s a place in the world for all. I tell Gary about my dad, who took up woodworking after he retired. He claimed he couldn’t make anything unless someone drew a picture of it for him. He needed measurements and drawings to make his craft. Everything he made was well-made, from good wood. It won’t appear on the covers of any art magazines, though.

And yet, when I look around my home and see the pieces he made for me–a table for behind the sofa, lamp tables, a step stool, a coffee table (why do I always ask him to make tables for me??), I know they are as priceless to me as a Van Gogh.

Something made with love has its own inestimable value.

Unmatched shaman mask earrings, in faux ivory--polymer clay

Unmatched shaman mask earrings, in faux ivory–polymer clay

ART AND FILTHY LUCRE: Does Making Art for Money Muddy the Artistic Waters?

My art’s bigger/better/purer than your art. So there!

Hierarchies come easily to many living creatures.

It can be a brutal process. For birds, hierarchy can mean life or death. That phrase ‘pecking order’? It’s real. I’ve lost chickens and cockatiels to the process. The bird on the lowest rung of the ladder may not get enough to eat. An even slightly injured chicken will be attacked, killed, even eaten by the rest of the flock.

We humans have hierarchies, too. Our fascination for English royalty, our obsession with celebrities, our own yearning for fame and fortune, all are social constructs based on hierarchy.

Artists and craftspeople are no exception.

People who make their own jewelry components sniff at ‘bead stringers’–people who use only purchased components in their designs. The people who do some wire work or only make their own beads, are sniffed at by silver- and goldsmiths.

Glass artists have been the top of the heap in the collecting world for several decades now. Before that, it was something else. Maybe clay. I dunno–I wasn’t in the biz then.

Fine artists look down on all crafts. Once I introduced myself to a small group as a fiber artist. “Hunh! That’s nice…” was the general response. Ten minutes later, a local oil painter’s name came up. “Now he’s a real artist!” someone in the group exclaimed.

But fine artists have their own internal order, too. Pastels are better than colored pencils, watercolors better than pastel work, acrylic paint is better than watercolor, and oils are better than acrylic.

And of course, across all media is the hierarchy of purity. Who makes money from their art, and who makes art purely for art’s sake? Who sullies their ethos for filthy lucre? Is teaching the purest form of sharing our art with the world?

It gets kinda confusing–and funny–after awhile.

If you are in a group of artists who sell their work, the mark of a ‘professional artist’ is your ability to make a living from your work. How much money you make is your achievement award. It’s proof that you are a serious, full-time artist.

Or people place you on the ladder by the prestige factor of the shows you do. Small local shows don’t count, of course. Why, they let just anybody in!

Being vetted by an organization helps, too. I’ve had people express polite interest in my work until I mention that I’m a doubly-juried member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. Suddenly, I’m treated with respect and deference.

But there’s nothing like the disdain amateurs–those who can’t-won’t-don’t sell their work–hold for an artist who actually, actively seeks sale–those artists who want to make their work and get paid for making it. The disdain the amateur holds for ‘professionals’ is huge.

They have history behind them. The word ‘amateur’ originally meant someone who pursued an activity purely for the love it of it. Now it ranks right up there with ‘dilettante’–someone who pursues an activity superficially. (ouch!) Amateurs, by definition, make their art without the requirement of making money from it. Art for Art’s sake. The purest state of making art.

The reality? Not for me to judge. It’s all good.

I’ve been everywhere on the spectrum in my career.

I began by making jewelry entirely from purchased components, and making traditional quilts. I did a very few small local shows, but mostly I gave my work away.

Then I dedicated myself to finding my own personal vision. It was a powerful step. I was grateful to even be making my art. The thought of being accepted into a show, or of someone even buying a piece, seemed too much to ask for.

As my skills and self-confidence grew, the next step was entering exhibitions across the country. Someone had told me they thought the phrase ‘nationally-exhibited artist’ sounded so wonderful, they made that their goal. I made it my goal, too. And I achieved it within a few years by methodically applying to as many opportunities as I could.

When ‘nationally-exhibited artist’ lost its luster, I turned to money as a measure of my success. It was important to me to make sales. The more money I made, the more successful I felt.

After years of making money, I wanted to be in the ‘good’ shows, the prestigious shows that look on a resume. With time and effort, I managed that, too.

And then I went back to square one.

I transitioned from focusing on these external goals, to thinking about the place in the world I occupy. I’m still selling–better than ever, in fact. But that transition came from a powerful place in my heart, and that is more important to me than ever.

Now, according to many people, I can be placed at every step in the art hierarchy. I’ve been ‘pure’, I’ve been ‘mercenary’, I’ve been ‘published/exhibited’, I’ve been hunkered down.

And yet, it’s the same work. And I am the same person.

Hierarchies evolved as a way for a species to survive. The weak, the sickly, were left to die, so that the flock/herd/group could survive.

We humans can–and do–choose differently.

We try to heal our sick. We care for the weak. We are present with the dying, to comfort them.

We’ve learned that even someone who is sick, or weak, or slow, or awkward, or fearful, or (gasp!) untalented, still has a place in the world.

And given that chance, and that place in the world, the gifts they offer can be profound and huge. At the vary least, they are happier for doing what they do.

So make your art.

Sell it, if that’s important to you. Don’t resent others if they sell theirs, and you can’t seem to sell yours.

Don’t excuse yourself by judging others. They are either on a different path, or (like me) simply in a different part of the cycle.

Recognize the hierarchy of who’s making ‘real art’ for what it is–a way to hide our jealousy of people who seem to have something we want for ourselves. A survival strategy we can choose to ignore.

Decide what you want, right here, right now.

And know that you can change your mind, any time. And do something different.