TESTING THE WATERS: How to get past “too much” and “not enough” to “just right!”

Don't miss Luann Udell's discussion on finding a balance
Don’t miss Luann Udell’s discussion on finding a balance….

Testing the Waters

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.

How to get past “too much” and “not enough” to “just right!”

Over a decade ago, we bought our first hot tub. It made New England winters soooooo much easier to bear. We immediately invited friends over to share the joy.

We thought we were being so generous with our tub, and then we found we’d been a little too generous. After our first week of glorious steaming under the dark and starry winter skies, we discovered we’d given a dozen of our friends a whopping case of hot tub rash.

Unfortunately, we had less-than-spectacular support and service from the company we bought the hot tub from. It turned out the “natural” ingredients to control for acidity and such, simply didn’t work very well.

We eventually switched maintenance service and products to another company in town. We learned how to test our water samples, adding this chemical and that to maintain the right balance. With this procedure, we were finally able to keep our hot tub water clean, and healthy, and safe.

Normally, I’d be too ashamed to admit this. But today the metaphors are just too spot-on to pass up.

As I tested and tweaked the water, I got to thinking:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could test our lives the same way?


When things get toxic, or simply just smell “off”, you could pull out a little test strip and add the balancing elements you need to get back on your path.

(OK, hot tub rash isn’t toxic, just highly annoying. It itches.)

Is the water too acidic? You find yourself being impatient and unkind? Your outlook on life has become a little too caustic? Time to add a buffering agent–maybe a little kindness and understanding. When was the last time you felt fully engaged with your art work? (Me: “umm…….er…..”) (To be fair, setting up a new studio space, organizing, culling, finally having clarity about what needs to go where, feels pretty creative right now!)

Not enough acidity? Are others are being caustic to you? Do others around you feel free to take “nibbles”?  Maybe it’s time to get tougher, set stronger boundaries, and ask for what we need from those around us to restore the balance. This book, The Nibble Theory, changed my life, and it could change yours, too.

Is the water cloudy?  Are the treatments still not working? Maybe it’s time to look at your filtering system. Does it need to be cleaned or changed to make sure it’s scouring those bad influences out before they get recirculated back into your life?

Check your take on life. What color glasses are you looking at life through? And how do you handle the dreck that spills over into your life? Do you hold on to the bad stuff and setbacks in life, ruminating over them at night, accepting them as your “truth”?

Or do you let go and flush it out? (Apologies, I did not mean to introduce a toilet metaphor…!) Check out This amazingly simple document for some insights and simple actions to start feeling better.

Evidence of toxic infiltration? Sometimes toxic elements accumulate, and before we know it, we’re knocked completely off our path. Time for a shock treatment! Sometimes you need extreme measures to get those negative influences and toxic relationships out of your life. (Please do not resort to violence. It always ends badly.) Last year, I simply had to hunker down and be exquisitely kind and gentle with myself. It was surprisingly hard! But I think this is why I am now embracing the studio set-up. Every day brings a little more clarity about what I need to do. And nobody gives me grief about it. It’s all me!

Is the balance still not right? Then you may have to empty the tub and start all over again. Maybe even try a whole new system to get the results you want. I’ve been meaning to get back to work in my new studio. But then I got carried away setting up my lighting. Which led me to search for more of my lighting stuff. Which led me to clearing a path in our garage so I could get to my old booth setup. Soon the entire afternoon was gone. I still haven’t made anything, and now I’m late with my article for FAV!!

But I got rid of some stuff, cleaned some stuff, repaired some stuff, found some stuff I needed, and have more insight into what I need to do next.

I’ve done that active listening thing for several friends in the last few weeks. My husband said, “So when is it YOUR turn?” I realize that process may indeed be a good water balance test strip. Er, life balance. A quick check in to see if I have the balance I need to make my art the best it can be.

In lieu of little paper water testing strips, what can we use to measure what we need?

 A little group of artistic friends can help. Make sure they “have your back”, know your heart, and treat you fairly. Checking in with people you love and respect, who love and respect Y*O*U, can do wonders to get our balance back.

I hope my columns help, and the wonderful conversations that have grown around them. I believe it helps to know we are not alone, no matter where we are on our life-and-art journey.

Some find balance in family, pets (big and small!), traveling, exercise, SHOPPING (oops! Did I say that out loud??), a class, a night out with friends, a great movie…almost anything can tilt that little testing strip toward the healthy medium we’re looking for. Whatever restores us to our best self, so we can get back to making our art. In fact, from what I’m hearing, most find that going to the studio and getting to work is the best strategy of all.

For me, it’s all of the above. But mostly, the “aha” moments come from writing. It helps me untangle the knotty problems and worried thoughts in my buzzy brain.

That’s another blessing with cleaning part of the garage today: I found all my old journals! And poetry I’d written years ago, much of which I’d forgotten about. I found beautiful letters from good friends and perfect strangers, people who had thanked me for the gift of a horse necklace, for reaching out, for having the courage to make a connection. It made me feel more “me”, if that makes sense.

Because, I just realized (see? This is why I write!) each journal, each note-card, letter, poem, every small item I had set aside for my kids (their poetry, stories, drawings, etc.) brought back to me just how lovely my life has been, and how much love, joy, and connection my artwork, and my writing, have created, for myself, and for others.

As I’ve said so many times, we tend to think of the times we “did it wrong”, the times we struggled with, the mean things people say, and the art project that didn’t quite work out.

But my life test strip was there to tell me it’s all okay. In fact, it’s all really good.

Time to see if it’s safe to go back in the water.

The hot tub is long gone. When we sold our house to move to California, the new owners did not want it. We were able to sell it for half of what it cost us. My husband and the husband/dad part of the new family were there when the guy came to pick it up. (They had just moved to NH from the Midwest, and had never had a hot tub.) As the guy loaded it onto his truck, Jon said, “Man, I don’t know how we would have gotten through those last few winters without that hot tub!” And the new owner, confused, said, “You used it in the winter?!” (Jon said he could almost see the wheels turning in his head, and the guy looked a little regretful.) Oh well.

Hmmmm….maybe we could use a little hot tub, ourselves? (California evenings are certainly cool enough, even in the summer!)

P.S. And if you DO give your friends a hot tub rash, be sure to say you’re sorry. And take them out to dinner.

Maybe even buy them a bottle of their favorite single-malt whiskey. Or two. Or three.

THIS IS LOVE

For Bobbye…..

20161020_121649
Bobbye Sansing’s beautiful handformed, pit-fired pottery vessels.

I felt something was wrong for weeks.

I sensed it when I first reached out to an old, dear friend, months ago. I was relieved to find she was glad to hear from me. Yet no new messages followed.

We hadn’t parted on bad terms, really. Oh, I look back and cringe when I see how I sometimes took her friendship for granted. And how I pushed–too much–for her to get her art out into the world.

She was my Wise Woman friend for years, as I slowly broke out of my eggshell beliefs that I wasn’t good enough to be a real artist. She was in my first “artist retreat”, a workshop led by another Wise Woman, about how to find true support from a small circle of trusted cohorts. We would celebrate each others’ successes when the world noticed us. We would raise each other up when the world took us down a peg.

As I grew more confident, and knowledgeable (I thought), I began to urge her to be more visible in the world.

It’s easy to believe we know better than others. I felt I knew what was best for her. And she (rightly so) resisted, firmly.

So we drifted gently apart for awhile. And then both of us eventually moved thousands of miles away, until we both found ourselves out West, me on in Northern California, her in Nevada.

My early blog posts and personal journals are filled with her words of wisdom. She taught me so much. She could be so honest, it hurt. But not in a mean way. In a way that held my feet firmly to the fire of my own self-doubt and whine-iness. (Yes, I’m a bit of a whiner. There. I said it.) Because of her, I began to grow a backbone. (Still growing. Not done yet.)

In a few small  ways, I helped her, too. She is a potter, specializing in pit-fired vessels. Determined to be professional in every way, she asked us (our group) for help to build a body of work for exhibiting and selling.

After several suggestions were shot down, I thought to ask her this question: What is your production process now?

She explained how, when her husband got home from work, they would eat dinner and watch TV together in their warm and cozy den, and talk. Every night, almost without fail. She hated working in her basement studio, alone. She wanted to be with Bob, and so she chose him.

As they sat, she worked a lump of clay, turning it into a beautiful hand-pinched pot, ready for the kiln.

“Every night?” I asked her.

Yes.

“And every one is a good one? Good enough to exhibit, or sell?”

Yes.

“So at the end of a year, you have over 300 good pots?”

Yes.

“Is that enough for a year’s worth of exhibits and sales?”

Uh…..yes.

So she had a reliable process that slowly-but-steadily created a beautiful, substantial body of work. Why would she mess with that??

She said it didn’t sound very professional. She felt she was doing it wrong.

I hope in this single, small way, I helped her realize that any way you get your work made, and out into the world, is ‘professional’ enough.

So today I just learned that her husband died.

Almost half a century together. So many years. So much love.

I took her pots out today. I only have a few, but I treasure them.

And when I look into the graceful swirling edges, the haunting mystery of their interiors, the hand-polished exteriors, everything of her hands and fingertips, their shared hours of companionship, togetherness, a life built from fragile–yet resilient–human clay, filled with laughter, and children, and family, and friends, and home, and art.

Each pot, made with love, surrounded by love, infused with love.

This is love.

20161020_121950

20161020_121658

20161020_121944

 

ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE

I’ve become one of ‘those people’–people who feel sad about their art. I hat them.

I was fussing and fuming in my head this morning, about how nobody wants my artwork anymore stupid stuff, when I realized I’d become one of “those people”.

The whiney, self-absorbed, time- and energy-consuming, nobody-can-help-me, hugely annoying artist, drowning in a sea of self-pity and ennui. The people who start off any conversation, professional or personal, by heaving a soul-weary sigh and declaring…

“I feel sad about my art.”

I’ve been in several artist support groups in my art career. I’ve learned to duck and run for cover when someone takes this stance more than once. Especially if, when you offer feedback or advice, they argue with everything you say.

I hate it because I’ve always believed this is a cheat, a cop-0ut. A way of letting yourself off the hook, to shirk responsibility for getting your art out into the world.

And now I’m one of them.  Let me take a moment to search for a cartoon on the internet to illustrate my point. Got it!

Over the years, as I learned to supress my urge to kick these people became a better listener, I realized there are really two kinds of whiners:

There are those who unconsciously use the mud they’re stuck in to excuse their own inaction. Sadly (but true), nothing will work, nothing will help, no advice or suggestions will get through, until they’re ready to change it up. They may need a new creative outlet, a new way of thinking, sometimes even a new partner/lifestyle/career. But that’s their journey to make, not ours.

Others truly are aching to get out of the mud. We just haven’t been taught or shown how to do that.

And most of us, their friends, their supporters, haven’t learned how to really help.

We haven’t learned how to listen–deeply, patiently, fully.

That’s what a great support group does. No advice. No cheering up.

Instead, we listen. And ask questions. And more questions. We poke at that person, gently, until we understand better what it is they’re really asking, and what they really need.

And usually, what they really need? They either need better information, a little moral support, and/or affirmation for their creative self.

Sometimes our sense of failure is based on misconceptions. Sometimes we’ve been knocked down by a particularly rough spot in our life. Sometimes, we’ve just never actually thought about what it is we really, really, really want, in our life or for our art.

And that’s okay. In a world awash in information, it can be hard to sort out the bits that are right for us. In a world that’s always full of uncertainty, even danger, and death, it can be hard to create a space for peace and wonder and hope. In a world that measures success by our income, our celebrity, our website hits, our Facebook likes, it can be hard to know what really makes us feel whole.

I’ve been whining a lot lately. And fortunately, along with the silly (though thoughtfully offered) advice, there have been some wise listeners. too. They pointed out some thing that could save me from working at McDonald’s help me earn some kind of income in 2016, and would still be a way of teaching/sharing/giving back to my community.

So to all the sad-about-my-art people out there, I apologize. My friend Nicci once said, “When you point your finger at someone, three more are pointing back at you.”

I hope, if you really do want to not be sad anymore, you find the peeps who will help you do that. I hope you find people who care, who listen, who shine a light in front of you, so you can simply see your next step.

Til then, another Jessica Hagy illustration, to give you a better way to look at the mud.

BOXES: More Thoughts

Not the final version, but getting there!
Not the final version, but getting there!

I’m almost finished putting my window display together for Keene’s Art Walk 2013.

I actually added another box soon after taking this picture. I’ll try to get another shot of the completed set-up later this morning.

I finished exactly on time yesterday–I gave myself until 3:30 yesterday, and I finished at 3:35. Whoo hoo!

I was worried, because two dear friends, Jenny and Roma, finally had time to meet for lunch Tuesday. Our joint schedules are crazy lately, and we don’t see each other often anymore. And because I was so behind in pulling this together, I considered skipping lunch with them.

At the last minute, I realized that the pattern in my life for projects is, they take up exactly as much time as I allot them. I decided to risk shaving a couple hours off my prep time in order to spend time with them.

If you’d overheard our conversation that day, you might have thought, “Women gritching again!” We took turns listening about where each of us were stuck. We try not to “fix” things for each other–that never works! But we listen, ask questions, and support each other.

At first, I felt even worse. It’s been a very bad week emotionally and spiritually for me. (By spiritual, I mean when I feel my true self feeling achy and lost, un-centered, unmoored and off-course, that goes deeper than “emotion”.)

And none of our “issues” were easily “fixed”. I felt better when we disbanded, but not for any reason than that I’d spent time with people I care about, and who care about me.

But today, after reading my inbox, I see that everybody feels better. In one case, talking about other possibilities encouraged someone to find out more. Turns out they don’t have to take action on their situation right away, maybe not for a long time. Whew! Something that’s blocked them can now be set aside.

The other person just feels better, and knows no matter what she chooses to do, she will have our support.

And it came to me why I love meeting with these women:

We are always talking about our future, and how we can work our way toward it in an artistic way, with love, with creativity, with integrity.

We are always talking about how to be our best, most evolved self, while still caring and including the people we love.

It occurs to me that there’s bitching, and there’s bitching. There’s the kind of bitching where you throw away everything you thought you cared about into a wastebasket, but a wastebasket that never gets emptied.

And then there’s the bitching where you look at your hopes and dreams, examining them closely with the art of possibility, sharing how to bring them fully into the world.

And putting them back into a precious box for safekeeping, to be taken out and cherished another day.

Perhaps even tomorrow.