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.
If you enjoyed this article and know someone who might enjoy it, please feel free to forward this to them.
If you received this from someone, and liked it, you can subscribe to more artists’ views at the Fine Art Views blog.
And if you’d like to read more of my stuff, you can subscribe to my blog at LuannUdell.wordpress.com.

COWS: A Circular Story That May Mean Everything, or Nothing.

My DH is a good man. I knew that very soon after I first met him almost 40 years ago. What it took me awhile to discover is, he’s not very good at remembering important dates. Ocassionally, that bugs me a little bit. Uusally not, though. And I can get a good laugh out of it, too.

On Monday, September 11, I decided to wait to see how long it would be before my husband remembered it was my birthday. Around 1:00 pm, I posted something to that effect on Facebook.  He didn’t see it.

By 7:30 pm, I couldn’t bear it any longer. I told him I was going to the grocery store to get a cake. (Which, btw, I never do, because, you know, I’d eat it all.)

When I arrived home, he came outside to help with the groceries. He was stunned to find only a frosted carrot cake. He looked at me, and I said, “I SAID I was going to get a cake. For my birthday.” A panicky look crosses his face. As I walk into the house, he follows me, saying, “But TODAY’S not your birthday! Is it?? It’s not! Is it??”

True-to-form. And me, too, because I ate almost all of the cake in five days. (In my defense, it was a single layer.) (The frosting!!!!)

On September 12, 1940, four teenaged boys in near the small village of Montignac, in the Dordogne region of France, discovered the cave of Lascaux.

lascaux4b
Aurochs!

On Tuesday, September 12, we knocked off early from the day and drove out to Bodega Head, our favorite cliff site overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We passed a lot of cattle in the grassy rolling hills on the way.  Jon asked how I could tell beef cattle from dairy cows. I said I am no expert, I just know the most popular breeds and their purpose: Black-and-white Holsteins, with the occasional fawn-colored Jersey and Guernseys, vs. Black Angus and white-faced Herefords.

My husband asked if cows were ever tri-colored, as in white/black/brown, like calico cats. I said I’d never heard of that. I couldn’t think of a reason why that wouldn’t be so, so I said I’d look it up. I mentioned how surprised I was to see grey cattle on our trip to England more than 30 years ago. (We’d gone to Paris to visit good friends, then gone on to England to visit more friends there.) Jon doesn’t remember noticing the cattle. I did, because I’ve seen a lot of cows in my life, and those grey cows were different. The warm color of pewter.

On our next trip to France, two weeks after 9/11/2001, we visited Lascaux II, the beautiful reproductionn of one of the main cave galleries of Lascaux. I saw the aurochs, and the horses, those beautiful running horses that are the heart-center of everything I do. Jon was worried “second-best” would be disappointing. I kissed him and said it was enough.

After making art for more than two decades inspired by that cave, I realized just a couple months ago that “aurochs”, the name of those prehistoric cattle depicted on the cave walls, sounds an awful lot like our modern word: “ox”. I wondered if they were connected. But I kept forgetting to search for that.

Tonight, I was on my way to bed when, for some reason, I can’t remember why, I remembered I wanted to look up  tri-colored cattle breeds.

So I did. One of the images was of a breed that resembled the auroch images in the cave of Lascaux.

DreamCheerE
DreamCheer, a heifer born in 2000, sold at action in 2003, in Texas.

Which reminded me that I still hadn’t looked up “aurochs” and “ox”.  I did. Bingo! They are related! In fact, the word “aurochs” is the name of a species of European wild cattle (Bos ursus) that went extinct early in the 17th century.

In the process, I realized that what I’ve thought most of life were Guernsey cows are actually probably Brown Swiss cows (also milk producers). Or maybe even Charolais, which are not (which is embarrasing. Because that would mean I only use color as a determinant. )

And those “ancient-looking tri-colored cattle”? They might be Normande cows, introduced to Normandy, France in the 9th and 10th centuries by…Vikings!

Prehistoric aurochs, wild aurochs that disappeared in the 1600’s, aurochs-looking cattle brought to France by Vikings….

The mind boggles.

And of course, it was on my 49th birthday, September 11, 2001, that I wrote the story about my artwork that still means so much to me today.

What is old is new again, a meme for my own artwork and my own interpretation of this famous cave. Which makes this this project to restore those same ancient aurochs so compelling.
Brown Trade Bead Ancient Bull Necklace

And because of all this, I want to share with you my favorite (and now ironic) quote from the 1996 movie Twister:

Jo: [cow flies by in the storm while in Bill’s truck] Cow.

[cow flies by in the storm]

Jo: another cow.

Bill: Actually I think that was the same one.

 

 

 

ARTIST STATEMENTS: How to Explain the How With a Why

You can still share the how, but ground it with your ‘why’.

This week on Fine Art Views, I wrote about why it’s more important to share the ‘why’ of your artwork (why you make it) than the ‘how’ (how you make it.) Like a magician sharing how he does his tric, focusing only on the ‘how’ takes away a huge part of the magic of what you do.

Readers raised a few interesting points, noting that our customers do want to know how–so they can tell their friends, and be more invested in the artwork they’ve purchased from you.

I couldn’t agree more. As I said in the original article, I do provide a simple explanation that describes my process. Puff pastry, Samurai sword-making, scrimshaw.

But I believe that why you chose the ‘how’ is even more important to your audience.

One of my best signs in my booth is this one:

Welcome to my world!

I make artifacts from a lost culture, an imagined prehistory.

 My work is inspired by Ice Age cave paintings and other prehistoric art.  I want my artifacts to echo real ivory carvings of horses, deer, bear, fish and birds.

I use polymer clay, stacked in layers and stretched to make a block that has the grain and the feel of ivory. I make each animal one at a time, then bake, carve, and polish. The hands you see are miniature images of my own hands. A scrimshaw technique brings out the details of the markings.

I use polymer because I can make it look like real ivory, soapstone, coral, shell, and bone.

Unlike working with real ivory or bone, no animals are harmed.

Polymer is durable, yet lightweight and comfortable to wear.

I want my artifacts to look like they’ve been worn smooth by the touch of human hands. (Feel free to touch!)

I imagine the stories they carry. I retell those ancient stories, with these modern artifacts.

I use antique trade beads, semi-precious stones, and other collectible beads, to give my jewelry the look of a treasured piece, handed down through time, and many hands, and many hearts, connecting those ancient artists of the distant past, to you.

Do you see how the ‘why’ of my choice of techniques and materials, fits into my overall story about my art?

To get back to Bruce Baker’s comments that I mentioned in my Fine Art Views column, explain your choice of technique in terms of how it benefits your collector. “I use titanium glazes because they let me create colors that are richer and more vibrant. I use a higher firing temperature because it makes my pots more durable, so they’ll last a lifetime.”  (I have no idea if this is true, I’m not a potter myself, so I made it up.)

Another point was raised about being generous in sharing our techniques. I agree whole-heartedly.

But I’m not paying booth fees to give people a one-on-one class in how to do what I do.

As I said in my column, there are people who are only interested in your techniques. That’s fine, but they don’t get to use up my precious energy when I’m doing a show, or hosting an open studio. When people want more technical information on how to create faux ivory with polymer clay, I tell them it’s practically in the public domain, and recommend websites and how-to books to check out. Or I ask them to contact me after the show. 

There’s being generous, and there’s being generous. Only you can decide how much of your time , and energy, you want to spend teaching in the middle of selling your work, and whether or not you want to be compensated for that. I’ve found my own middle ground that reflects my integrity and priorities. You are always free to find yours, and it’s perfectly fine if it’s different than mine.

HOW TO SOUND SMARTER THAN EVERYBODY ELSE

Artist statement resources for the folks who are smarter/better/more educated/more sophisticated/more talented than me.

Short story:
It’s our choice. We can make the commitment to say something meaningful and compelling about our work.

Or we can stick with the attitude that people need to educate themselves in order to really appreciate our work.

I’ve been writing a series of articles for Fine Art Views newsletter about how to punch up your stories–Your artist statement, your artist bio/cv, your press releases. This series, TELL ME A STORY, starts here. The second article is here:, and the next two will appear June 23 and July 7, 2011. Mark your calendars! (Or just subscribe to Fine Art Views newsletter–it’s free!)

Some people are ready to hear this stuff. Others, not so much. When I get resistance, I hear one of two things:

“Can’t you just give me a template, and let me fill in the blanks?”
or
“I really think art critics, galleries and art-collecting audiences want something more….sophisticated than a ‘story’.”

Well, say no more! If this is what you want, I’ve found just the tools for you.

This tongue-in-cheek artist statement template-driven generator by 10Gallon.com is perfect for those who just want to fill in the blanks. My first attempt resulted in this distinctively different artist statement:

Through my work I attempt to examine the phenomenon of Quick Draw McGraw as a methaphorical interpretation of both Georgia O’Keefe and fixing people.

What began as a personal journey of frackism has translated into images of cookies and arms that resonate with Caucasian people to question their own aquamarineness.

My mixed media dog images embody an idiosyncratic view of Billy Graham, yet the familiar imagery allows for a connection between Janis Joplin, cats and french fries.

My work is in the private collection of Darrin McGavin who said ‘Yeow!! That’s some real shapely Art.’

I am a recipient of a grant from Folsom Prison where I served time for stealing mugs and tie clips from the gift shop of The Peabody Museum. I have exhibited in group shows at McDonald’s and the Pucker Gallery in Boston, MA, though not at the same time. I currently spend my time between my den and Berlin.

I’m sure with a little practice, you could get something a little less silly.

For the academically-minded crowd, this artist statement writing tool site from Gurney Journey will surely appeal. It’s actually easier to use than the previous one. No need to even fill in the blanks! Try it. It’s a handy little exercise to create a bang-up, very academic-sounding artist statement in no time flat. All you have to do is combine any items from three different lists, and voila! An artist statement that is sure to start a spirited discussion about your work among the (g)literati.

But for those who don’t even have time to read through the lists, there’s more! This totally mindless automatic artist statement generator it sooooo easy, you don’t have to do anything except click on a tab.

My first result using the Arty Bollocks Generator was promising:

My work explores the relationship between the body and skateboard ethics.

With influences as diverse as Wittgenstein and John Lennon, new combinations are crafted from both simple and complex layers.

Ever since I was a student I have been fascinated by the ephemeral nature of meaning. What starts out as triumph soon becomes corroded into a tragedy of power, leaving only a sense of decadence and the possibility of a new reality.

As shifting phenomena become frozen through boundaried and diverse practice, the viewer is left with an insight into the limits of our era.

Hmmmmm. Not…quite. So I tried again. I got a message that said I was a little hard to please, and this new statement:

My work explores the relationship between new class identities and midlife subcultures.

With influences as diverse as Wittgenstein and John Lennon, new synergies are generated from both simple and complex textures.

Ever since I was a teenager I have been fascinated by the ephemeral nature of meaning. What starts out as vision soon becomes corrupted into a dialectic of greed, leaving only a sense of what could have been and the prospect of a new beginning.

As temporal impressions become clarified through emergent and diverse practice, the viewer is left with an impression of the inaccuracies of our era.

I still wasn’t satisfied (and the ABG got a little crabby), but I persisted. I clicked the tab again and came up with this one:

My work explores the relationship between postmodern discourse and urban spaces.

With influences as diverse as Nietzsche and Andy Warhol, new synergies are crafted from both simple and complex textures.

Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by the theoretical limits of relationships. What starts out as hope soon becomes debased into a tragedy of temptation, leaving only a sense of chaos and the inevitability of a new beginning.

As shifting forms become clarified through boundaried and diverse practice, the viewer is left with a statement of the edges of our condition.

Wow! Pretty good! But why settle for pretty good when I can have the best? My next try resulted in this one:

My work explores the relationship between emerging sexualities and urban spaces.

With influences as diverse as Kierkegaard and Francis Bacon, new combinations are created from both explicit and implicit layers.

Ever since I was a student I have been fascinated by the traditional understanding of relationships. What starts out as triumph soon becomes debased into a tragedy of lust, leaving only a sense of decadence and the inevitability of a new synthesis.

As spatial impressions become frozen through diligent and personal practice, the viewer is left with a glimpse of the inaccuracies of our world.

The ABG grumbled that I was a bit of a perfectionist, but I just couldn’t resist one more try:

My work explores the relationship between postmodern discourse and recycling culture.

With influences as diverse as Blake and Roy Lichtenstein, new tensions are created from both traditional and modern textures.

Ever since I was a teenager I have been fascinated by the theoretical limits of meaning. What starts out as hope soon becomes debased into a cacophony of lust, leaving only a sense of decadence and the prospect of a new reality.

As temporal phenomena become transformed through emergent and diverse practice, the viewer is left with an impression of the edges of our future.

I decided to quit while I was ahead, and told the Arty Bollocks Generator, “Enough already.”

Yep, I had a good laugh. But the scary thing about these very tongue-in-cheek exercises?

These actually sound like real artist statements..

I’m not highly educated, but I do have an MA. And half the time, when I read these ‘sophisticated statements’, I have no idea what the person is talking about. Are these really the things they lie awake nights thinking about? ( Me? I tend to lie awake trying to remember if I let the cats in.)

Remember–It’s our choice.

We can stick with the attitude that people need to educate themselves in order to really appreciate our work.

(Let us know how that works for ya, okay?)

We can try to sound like every other artist who wants to sound intellectual, academic, and obtuse.

Or we can do some work. Get real. Get sincere.

Say what is in our hearts.

We can strive to say something meaningful and compelling about our art that anyone can understand.

ARTISTIC LICENSE

What do you do for credentials when you don’t have any?

(This article was originally published on March 7, 2003.)

Recently, an artist on a discussion forum I participate in posted a plea for help. Her work was accepted into an exhibition. The organizers requested the usual artist credentials from her: resume, artist bio, degrees, etc.

After “wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes”, the she began to panic. Her work is something she’s picked up late in life. She didn’t attend art school. She hasn’t exhibited before. Though she feels her work is solid, she just doesn’t have the credentials. What should she do?

Here was my advice:

It would be tempting to puff up the slim credentials you do have (remember the ‘domestic engineers’ of the 1970’s?) Don’t do that.

Our society seems to demand credentialing for everything. If a plumber has to have a license, or a hair stylist, then maybe artists need one, too.

But what are credentials for, anyway?

It’s wicked easy to get caught up in the credentialing thing, and to overlook what’s really important.

A resume, bio, list of exhibits and a stack of art degrees amount to paper affidavits. They are “proof” to the world that you have been educated in your art; that you’ve paid your educational dues; and that you’ve made the effort to get your work out there through exhibiting and shows.

There are some situations in life where this kind of proof is important and necessary. We don’t want to have surgery by someone who “feels in touch with his inner surgeon” but hasn’t gone to med school.

Fortunately, being an artist does not require a license.

If you haven’t gone the traditional route of artist credentialing, then use another way to present a cohesive, narrative story about the who/what/when/where/why and how of “you, the artist.”

Who you are, what you make, why do you make it, and how did you get to where you are now? Where do you plan to go next? And how serious are you about this whole thing, anyway?? That’s really all that the bio/degree/award/exhibit thing is trying to say, in a more “official” format.

In my mind, a lack of credentials can be freeing. Starting from “nothing” gives you an open door to talk about your art in a more direct and down to earth way. Here are tips on how to do that:

1) An art degree shows you’ve taken classes to master your techniques.

So how did you learn yours? Did you take workshops? Read a book? Stay up late after work and on weekends, painting/knitting/carving into the wee hours? Did you teach yourself? Do you now teach others? Did you swap sculpting lessons for babysitting? Did you apprenticed yourself to a potter?

Talk about the passion you discovered in yourself for this art stuff, and what lengths you went to acquire the skills to do it.

2) An art degree shows you had a vision or goal to make art part of your life. You studied it, and put in the time and effort to get a degree.

You can demonstrate that you, too, have a vision for your work, and that you have steadily pursued it. What are your processes and techniques? Did you experiment? Did you develop them yourself? Did you research antique processes and recreate them? How did you come up with that particular approach or outlook? Have certain artists, cultures, whatever, influenced your style?

3) Use the education you have.

I have two college degrees. Neither of them are in art. So I mention them in relation to how they’ve influenced my work. For example, coursework for an education degree taught me the importance of storytelling. My art history classes provided me the original inspiration for my Lascaux cave-themed imagery, as well as a well-rounded education on art made around the world, and throughout history.

But don’t just stick in stuff hoping to “fill up” the page. Whatever you put in, make sure it relates in some way to your artistic self.

4) Exhibits show that you’ve made a serious attempt to get your work out in front of a variety of audiences, and that your work was good enough to be selected.

Remember: We all have to start somewhere. Everyone has a ‘first show’. So, this one is yours!

You can present enough “credentials” for this purpose by providing a brief summary of what you’ve done to get your art out there. You can show you’ve been making the same kind of effort. Have you done craft shows? Do you have an audience, and steady sales? How has the audience for your work grown since you started?

Awards simply show that someone thought your work was pretty darn good, or unusual. Are there other ways for you to demonstrate that? Anybody famous buy one of your pieces? Has your work appear in a magazine or on TV? Did you get into a terrific, exclusive craft fair the first time you applied, just because your work was so drop-dead terrific?

4) Credentials only encourage a collector who already likes your work.

Keep in mind that ultimately, the person who purchases our work isn’t really buying it because of a list of shows or exhibits I’ve been in or how many awards we’ve won. It may help them feel more confident about their initial desire to buy, but that isn’t why they buy.

They buy it because it moves them emotionally, and because it says something special to them. Something powerful is going on in the work, and they respond to that. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

In fact, years ago I revised my own brochure.

I used to have a list of exhibits and books my work has appeared in, in an attempt to establish myself as a ‘serious player’.

I took it all out,. I replaced it with a little blurb about why I make the art I make.

I’m learning that people only have to talk with me a few minutes to realize I’m a ‘serious player’. Ultimately, it’s all about my work, not the hoops I’ve made it jump through.

When you put your piece together, avoid the ordinary. Be bold! Don’t go on about how much you love color–heaven help us, all visual artist love color!

Don’t make too big a fuss about how much you wanted to be an artist when you were little. It’s cliched. Say what you did. Me? I papered my freshly painted bedroom with hundreds of drawings, all carefully hung with six or seven pieces of scotch tape, as high as I could reach. (Standing on furniture to do so.) My parents were impressed, but not in the way I’d hoped.

Think about the special things in your life, things that may seem ordinary to you from familiarity. Is your studio on a mountain top? Did you build it yourself out of hand-hewn lumber? Are your materials unusual? Do you go dumpster-diving to find your stuff, or hound recycling centers for their glass bottles?

What do you do that no one else does? What is your inimitable style? What is your personal story?

On the other hand, don’t get all obtuse on us and try to bury your lack of credentialing paper with high-falutin’ phrases and five-dollar words. As Bruce Baker, a consultant and speaker for craft and art world issues always says,

“People have a built-in bullshit meter. If you rock that meter, then they will never believe whatever else you have to say. Make sure what you say is true.”

Stick to the essence of who you are and what your art is. Make it interesting, and make it unique. Keep it true. Keep it simple. Make it powerful.

Oh, and remember…Use the credentials of this show as credentials for your next one. There! Your first official credential!

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR–You Might Get It!

When it seems like nothing you wish for comes true, ask yourself, “Am I dreaming big enough to last a lifetime?”

(This post was originally published December 11, 2002.)

“Be careful what you wish for….” This has to be my least-favorite proverb in the world. It’s like those folktales about fools wasting silly wishes (“The Sausage“) and bargains with the devil (“The Monkey’s Paw.”) People get their wishes granted, but live to regret it.

Making wishes is dangerous business, these stories seem to warn us. You can wish for the most wonderful thing in the world and the powers that be will twist it against you. Fairies’ gold turned to dry leaves in the morning light.

It takes the very joy out of wishing, doesn’t it? And what a depressing view of the universe! “The universe likes nothing better than to give with one hand and take away with the other.” Yow!

Taken another way, though, this proverb is actually excellent advice. Instead of a dour caution, see it as an challenge to dig deep into your heart, to what you really want.

When we regret a wish we’ve been granted, it’s often because we unconsciously limited the dream before it left our heart. We down-sized it to increase our chances of getting something. We don’t allow ourselves to dream big. We’re afraid to ask for too much.

Because we don’t really believe our wishes can come true.

You can see this limiting process at work when people take their first tentative steps in their work. I did it. You’ve probably done it, too. You ask for so little. Then when you get it, it’s just not enough. Or it’s just all wrong.

Years ago, I reclaimed my artistic self. (I know, I know, it sounds like I picked up my dry cleaning….)

I didn’t ask for much. I attended a seminar for women artists. I told a roomful of strangers my dream was to make wonderful little toys—tiny dolls, knitted sheep—that you could hold in your hand and marvel at. I wanted to make things that made people happy.

It’s a nice thought. But in reality, I couldn’t imagine affecting people in a more profound way than to appeal to their sense of playfulness.

I didn’t think I had anything deeper or more substantial in me.

So I wished for a way to sell lots of my little toys. Of course, each one took a minimum of two hours to make. And I wanted to make sure they would sell, so I kept the price really low.

After doing some very small local craft shows, I got my heart’s desire. A local store requested four dozen sheep, and of course, they wanted them yesterday.

I spent the next two weeks doing nothing but knitting sheep.

At first it was fun. Each sheep was so cute! But after five in a row, the joy faltered. It was… Hmmmm… Let’s just say that knitting little sheep—lots of little sheep—gets boring fast.

After twelve, I never wanted to see another skein of cream-colored yarn again. At #24, all I could think of was, “Twenty-four down, twenty-four to go.” By #42, I was sick unto death of little knitted sheep.

And I still had to sew them up, and tie little tiny bells on each one.

I managed to squeak out all 48. And swore I’d never make another.

I kept one or two of my stash, because they are so darned cute. And also as a reminder of a lesson learned.

Because in addition to all that knitting, I messed up on figuring my wholesale price. I’d simply cut my retail price in half. So I got $5 per sheep. Ouch. I probably made less than $2 an hour, after my cost for materials.

I didn’t see this granted wish as a disappointment. Okay, I’ll be honest. At first I did.

But then I saw it as a blessing. Thank heavens I hadn’t gotten more orders!

So here’s what I learned from this experience:

I learned production work was not for me. I learned how to establish a decent wholesale price. And at least I had $240 in my pocket, enough money to finance my next endeavors. (Hint: I did NOT buy yarn to make more sheep.)

As time went by, this process occurred over and over.

More ideas and more opportunities crossed my path. Each time I’d think, “Maybe this is the thing that will take off!” They always did—just enough to buy more supplies and make my hobby pay for itself—but not in the way I’d hoped. I followed them til they either petered out or til they grew into something that took me too far away from my heart’s desire. Then I’d let go, and move on.

Along the way I learned a lot about making and selling things. I learned how to sell wholesale to retail stores. I learned about signage and display. I learned how to price my work, how to create a distinctive and original product, how to locate wholesale sources for supplies. I took my profits and reinvested them in my business.

I learned the pros and cons of building a strictly local audience. I learned the potential–and the limits–of advertising. I learned how to promote myself and my work.

I taught classes when I could, but soon learned a little teaching goes a long way for me. I’d rather make more and teach a little. (But I also found I could teach through this blog.)

Finally, I learned what I really wanted, what was truly in my heart.

If you had asked me way back then what I wanted, I would have said, “I want to make something that makes people happy.” I wasn’t digging very deep into what makes me tick.

It turns out there was a story there, a story about how my dreams were echoed in the prehistoric artwork from a cave in France. I thought about why this story was important to me, and how I was going to share that story with the world.

I found a focus and a drive I’d never experienced before. Everything I’d learned about business was now centered on getting my story and my art out into the world.

When I ran into what seemed like insurmountable difficulties, I solved them through perseverance, research and experimentation.

And I loved the entire process. Even the parts that drove me crazy. I was learning so much about myself, my art and my business.

Everything began to fall into place. Opportunities lay everywhere, more than I could take on. Doors opened, people appeared in my life, solutions beckoned.

I still experience failure, but it doesn’t stop me now. It’s a call to evaluate what I really want and whether I’m still on task to achieve it.

I see the presence of something in my life that treasures my creativity, that supports me achieving my dream.

If my true wish had been to sell lots of knitted sheep, there are business models to support that. I could have hired knitters, located a sales rep, done gift shows. But my real wish was to make something totally of myself, so fulfilling and intriguing that I would not tire of the production process; and to make something with such value and power, people would pay a lot to own one.

I had a wish big enough to last me a lifetime. That was the right wish to be granted!

Most small business experts say it can take five years to get a new business off the ground. Even the IRS recognizes that. There’s a lot of learning and failing, growth and change in five years of business….

So look at what you’re doing now. Think about your biggest, deepest wish.

Will you outgrow your current dream? Will you still love it five years from now? If my first wish had been granted five years earlier, I would have outgrown it within six months.

Are you digging deep? Get past the “nice” things to say (“I want to make people happy”) and find your true story. There’s power there.

When it seems like nothing you wish for comes true, ask yourself, “Am I dreaming big enough to last a lifetime?”

UNLOCKING YOUR STORY: The Artist’s Meaningful Message

Help me stamp out boring, pretentious artist statements!
Let’s connect your audience to the real story behind your art!

On Thursday, February 17, 2011 I’ll be teaching a workshop on creating a powerful artist statement:

“Unlocking Your Story: The Artist’s Meaningful Message”

This is a hands-on workshop. We’ll look at a few samples of powerful artist statements, and get right down to work. We’ll do some fun exercises to get the pens rolling. Then small group work to help you get the feedback you need to uncover your own unique and powerful story. I’ll demonstrate a technique for digging even deeper, using the power of being a witness to the heart’s work. Sounds very mysterious, but I guarantee you will leave with the tools you need to connect your art more deeply with your audience, whether that’s music, writing, craft or fine art.

The workshop will run from 6-8:30 p.m. at the Sharon Arts Exhibition Gallery, on Depot Square in Peterborough, NH. You can read more about the class at the Sharon Arts Center’s website here. (My workshop is on page 6.) Or call them SOON at 603-924-7256 to register.

The class is $40 for SAC members, $55 for non-members. Bring samples of artist statements you like, your current artist statement, and materials for taking notes. Actually, all you REALLY need to bring is the note-taking stuff–paper/notebook, and a pen you like to write with. Oh, and a sense of humor and a temporary suspension of belief. Cookies, too, if you got ’em.

Please–sign up NOW! Some financial assistance may be available if you need it. Even if you can’t make it, please help me spread the word, okay? One of my life goals is to rid the world of boring and pompous artist statements. Let’s find the audience who will love your artwork, and your story.