Hearing the Call…

Homelessness is a problem not unique to California, but it can be more obvious because, obviously, the gentler weather works in their favor. There were plenty of homeless people in every placed we’ve lived over the past five decades.

My first art studio in Santa Rosa was near a park that had been a hot mess the years before I moved there. Rampant drug use and sales were an issue. But over time, this was mostly resolved, and now it’s a place where anyone can enjoy a little bit of nature.

I met quite a few homeless people, which was disquieting after the coffee shop next door closed for the day at 3 p.m., and again when it closed for good. Fortunately, I had a Dutch door, which allowed me to chat with them when they knocked on my door. I could assess them slightly, and simply close the top of the door when things got iffy. I had quite a few rich conversations with some.

My most frightening encounter was during an open studio event one evening late in the year, when night comes early. My tiny studio was filled with visitors, all happily exploring my space.

Until one older woman in a cheetah coat erupted.

She overheard me talking to someone about how I imagined myself an artist of the distant past with my artwork. It had been a long day, I was tired, and I said “pretended” instead of “imagined.”

She exploded. “Pretend” seemed like a fake façade to her, and she ranted on for several minutes about lack of integrity.

I was stunned, and tried to clarify my intentions. But she wasn’t having it. The push-back made her angrier. And everyone else fled my studio in a heartbeat.

Except for two women who stood silently by.

I am not good in these situations. When I’m scared, I run. I am not good in conflicts, and aggressive people scare the bejeezus out of me.

But something in me was paying attention. Something in me realized I was “doing it wrong”.

So instead of being defensive, I focused on connection.

I can’t remember what I said at the time. It was wasn’t about me, it was about the cave. How climate change caused those people to see their whole way of life disappearing in a handful of years. How those paintings were a prayer, calling the horses back. How the horses represent hope, and courage, for me as an artist, and for the world.

She calmed down, and listened.

And then I gave her a little horse. I put it in her hand, put mine around hers. I told her I wanted her to have it as a reminder of that. That we all matter.

Then I gently led her to the door and said goodbye.

Now, to be fair, in my mind, I figured giving her something was a good way to get her to leave. But that’s not how my two remaining visitors saw it.

Turns out both of them had experience with this. One was a psychiatric nurse, one had a similar background. Both of them said, “We knew she was going to be trouble. We knew it could go south in a heartbeat. And we weren’t going to leave until we knew you would be okay.”

Wow! Talk about angels in odd places….!!

They both said I had handled it beautifully. Met her where she was. Saw her as a fellow human. Being kind and patient.

I was flabberghasted. I felt I didn’t deserve the praise. I told them my own selfish intentions. They wouldn’t have it. (One of them still shows up to my events from time to time.)

Now, as an insight, that was pretty powerful. But it gets better.

A couple years later, I saw her picture in our local newspaper, The Press Democrat.

It was an article about people who lived on the streets who had finally been rehomed. She was on of them. An apartment had been found for her. In fact, she’d been in it for a couple months by the time she came to my studio.

What blew my mind?

She said that living on the streets was so traumatizing, it had taken her a looooong time to heal and recover. She said she was still ‘crazy’ for almost a year after, and she was just beginning to envision a normal life for herself.

It made me realize that even a home for a homeless person is not enough. They need support services, some for awhile, some for the long haul. They need to finally feel safe. And they need people who care.

That made me a teensy bit bolder in my interactions with this population. I remember a beautiful conversation I had with one person who was transitioning to female. At the end of our conversation, I asked her what she needed, expecting to hear “money”, and I would have given her some. But said, “I’m just so hungry right now.” Fortunately, I had a giant bag of granola I’d brought in for my snack stash. I asked if that would work, and she lit up with joy. I gave her the whole bag. (A year later, she appeared in a similar article. She now lives in a tiny house settlement outside Santa Rosa. Another artist in my community at the time had donated original hand-painted house signs for each unit.)

My assumptions about how to help others has gone through many transitions over the years. First it was, “Don’t give them money, they’ll just spend it on booze and cigarettes!” So I didn’t give out money. Until our same local newspaper shared that, if people on sleeping on a sidewalk, and cigarettes and booze help them cope, why should we judge that?

From then on, I would give pan-handlers $10 or even $20, after reading it could make a difference. One elderly gentleman danced for joy when I gave him a $20. “I’m gonna go over to that (fast food place) and buy breakfast!”

But later I learned that money is better spent supporting the non-profits that serve the homeless. Money gained through begging simply encourages them to “stay put”. In fact, my new studio is close to a residential facility that is the first step towards rehoming this population. It’s temporary shelter that works with people who have taken that first step.

I drive by there at least twice a day. It can be daunting at times. There’s often someone who will walk in front of my car as I drive by, on their way to the bus stop up the road, sometimes obviously intentional. During the hours they need to vacate the premises, they gather along the street. They leave trash behind. It can be annoying.

But then I think, if this is their only feeling of control in their lives right now, I can handle that.

And if you’d like to read a story about the best public art project I’ve ever witnessed personally, check out this excerpt in article about Bud Snow’s project in my Learning to See series:

Bud Snow was someone I met during my studio years at South A Street in Santa Rosa. They do large-scale public art, colorful, vibrant murals, usually up high. The featured work on that page I linked was a mandala painted on a cemented area on the ground, in a park near my studio. It took them much longer to paint than usual, because passers-by could stand and watch them as they worked, asking questions and in total awe of the work.

Soon Bud Snow offered every visitor a chance to help paint the mandala! I did, and over a period of four days, I saw them interact in a beautiful, powerful way with every single visitor: Parents picking up their kids from the elementary school across the street. Local workers and business owners. Homeless people. Every single one of them was thrilled to take part. It was one of the finest, truest examples of ‘public art’ I’ve ever seen, involving members of the very community the art was meant to serve.

Yes, Bud Snow was paid for the mural. (Though the extra time spent with the public tripled the time it took, so they took a hit.) Yes, Bud Snow’s work is now a sort of very-public advertisement for their work. Each one enhances their reputation and their asking price.

And yet cities pay for public art because it’s considered a powerful force for good for their citizens. The premise is, art really is a gift that everyone deserves, not just wealthy collectors who will pay hundreds of millions of dollars for a single painting (of a long-dead artist)….”

I still remember the homeless guy who showed up as night fell, on Julia’s last day of painting the mural. He had a flashlight and held it for us as we helped Julia pack up her stuff in the dark.

It was obvious that he was happy to be part of a group, happy to help her, happy to be ‘of use’. He smiled the entire time. I can still see his face, gently revealed by the light he held in his hand.

I’m still learning, of course. But maybe some of my experiences can be a source of hope for others.

NextDoor, an online resource for individual neighborhoods, is often a place where people can complain at length about this issue. And sometimes, the lack of compassion, anger, resentment, and general angst about this population can get out of hand.

The latest outrage about homeless people is directed at a woman who helps herself to flowers in a neighbor’s yard. When told not to pick them anymore, she got angry. She now picks them and throws them in the street.

The discussion is almost evenly divided between “please be kind” and “get rid of these creeps!” Some of the responses were downright scary, scarier than most homeless people I’ve dealt with.

Here’s what I wrote today:

“FWIW, my partner of over 42 years brought me flowers on our first meet-up. They looked freshly picked, and he told me he’d picked them from a tree lawn on the way over. (He didn’t have a car at the time.) I told him most people do not want their flowers picked, and he said, I thought that’s why they put them near the sidewalk, so people could pick them. So there are plenty of people who think “public” flowers are for the public to pick. 😀

I want to say thanks and love to all the folks here who show some compassion for the homeless population. They are not all one population, not all live with addictions, not all have mental health issues, a lot of them age out of foster care, or have young children, or injuries that affect them deeply, and MOST of them do not want to be homeless.

But all of them want the power of their choices, as do we all. Even when they step up and transition towards a home, it can take months, if not years, to heal from the trauma of living on the streets. They can be annoying, they can be problematic, they can be downright scary, and some we SHOULD be scared of.

But they are all also unique human beings who cannot afford services on their own. If we really want to consider ourselves true human beings, we have to start by seeing them as human, too, as humans who have not had our own advantages of support, income, homes, health care, good choices (that worked out for US), and people who care.”

We have to understand that part of why we see them as “other” is a way to distance ourselves from their situation. We want to believe that this could NEVER happen to us.

And yet we all know we may be one accident, one paycheck, one disaster away from being in that same situation. It could happen to a loved one. It could happen to us.

We can choose to look away.

Or we can choose to find even the tiniest way of helping. With our donations, with our taxes, with our volunteer time, with our work, with our compassion.

Part of me desperately wants to volunteer again with schools, with animals, with hospice.

But something is telling me my next service might be right in front of me. It’s scary. I’m still afraid.

But it won’t hurt to find out.

 

WHY MILLENNIALS DON’T BUY OUR ART: The Hardest, Harshest Reason(s) of All

There are many ways for our work to become a part of someone else's story, someone else's world, and someone else's journey.
There are many ways for our work to become a part of someone else’s story, someone else’s world, and someone else’s journey.

WHY MILLENNIALS DON’T BUY OUR ART: The Hardest, Harshest Reason(s) of All

WHY MILLENNIALS DON’T BUY OUR ART: The Hardest, Harshest Reason(s) of All

(11 minute read)

The next-to-last article in this series about why millennials etc.

We’re on the home stretch!

In my articles, and in the comments section, we’ve shared many fact-based, data-driven evidence about the different world millennials grew up in. It is simply different than the one we grew up in. EVERY generation faces the same challenge: New conditions, new “rules”, new obstacles, new solutions. The bad parts aren’t necessarily our fault, and it’s usually not their fault.

I also shared these setbacks and obstacles with one hope: To soften, and encourage us to change our assumptions and opinions. Only when we open up to seeing life from the other’s person’s point of view can we connect, with compassion and respect.

I knew there could be tremendous pushback against these thoughts, and there was. That’s okay. I will say it again and I will keep on saying it:

My art is not for everyone.

And neither is my writing.

Which means your work is probably not for everyone, either.

I’ll be honest. It’s hard to hear the anger and criticism these articles have generated. Just as it for all of us when someone walks into our booth, and then declares in a loud voice that they don’t like our art, and then proceeds to list the reasons why.

We may be angry, threatened, threatening, sad, resentful. These are human responses, normal responses, when we encounter something that seems harsh, insulting, frightening, upsetting, or baffling. It’s called a flight-or-fight response. It’s almost impossible not to feel these reactions when we experience something that seems to upend everything we thought was true.

But one of my superpowers in life, a hard one to use, but one that’s served me well is this:

We can’t change how we FEEL. But we can choose how we ACT.

This has helped me change my opinion about quite a few big issues in my life. It’s expanded my world view, opened new territories, and inspired me to write so I can share these insights with others who are ready and/or willing to consider them.

Not everyone will. But again, it’s their choice.

So take a deep breath, because today we’ll talk about the most important reason millennials don’t buy our art:

1)    The don’t like your art; or

2)    They don’t like you; or

3)    Both.

Harsh, I know. But take a deep breath, settle your heart, and read on.

Because these are also the reasons why all our non-buyers don’t buy our art, too.

This is the harsh reality of all the endeavors we take up in the world.

There will always be someone who couldn’t care less. There will always be someone who is lukewarm about our work. There will always be someone who doesn’t like it, for all kinds of reasons, reasonable and unreasonable.

But there will also always be someone who loves it. Even if they can’t afford it, or have no room for it, or they aren’t at the point in their life when they can act on their love for it. It won’t matter how good you are, nor how bad we are.

So if someone tells you/lets you know they don’t care for your art, what is your reaction?

Some people get cold and huffy. Some act out on their feelings. There are groups on Facebook for creatives to vent their anger at ignorant, insulting, clueless, gross visitors at fairs and shows. It can be fun to read these stories, because it helps us see this is a pretty common phenomenon. We are NOT THE ONLY ONES who experience rejection, not just from galleries, or juried shows, or guilds/leagues, awards, etc.

But when the stories get toxic, it gets harder to read. Because artists also share their sharp retorts, their indignation, their snarky thoughts about those visitors.

It’s okay. I get it. I love to blort with the best of them.

But what happens is, this turns a potentially powerful human connection into a battleground.

It’s not necessary to get into that fight. In my blog series and eBook “How to Get People OUT of your booth”, I discuss how difficult people can be challenging. But there are diplomatic ways to circumvent their behaviors, ways that help get us to our happy place, so we can deal more effectively with the people who DO enjoy our work.

Because the worst thing that can happen when we “let loose” with anger and bile is this:

OTHER PEOPLE ARE LISTENING.

In encounters where someone has said something rude, mean, whatever, and I meet them with serenity (YES, the serenity is a facade, I’m seething underneath. I’M HUMAN, just like you) other people in my space come up to me after, and say something like, “I can’t believe how kind/patient/powerful you were with that person!”

They now know that even if THEIR question is “dumb” or unintentionally rude, they will still be treated with respect and kindness.

In other words, it is SAFE to interact with me.

When we eagerly jump on others who we believe are behaving badly, there’s a side effect: We contribute to the toxic environment ourselves.

I was lucky. Early on, I held back from “confronting” and “challenging” visitors who were less-than-enthused about my work, (and my writing.) I had the good fortune to live in the same region as Bruce Baker, a former nationally-acclaimed speaker about how to strengthen and improve our creative work on many levels: Booth display, jury slides, signage and customer relations. He drew from his own wisdom gained from doing shows and fairs, but also benefited from other like-mined, experienced artists who shared what had worked for them.

The trick is to anticipate the questions and comments that might trigger us (the flight-or-fight thing), and practice our best response to them.

Because if someone asks us what we consider a “dumb question”, or says something insulting (whether deliberate or unintentional), and we respond with our “fight” reflex, other people who DO like what they see, will think twice before asking their own questions.

Because once people have entered our booth, once they’ve had a chance to look at our work and decide they kinda like it, once they’re ready to talk, they do the thing that will determine where we both go from here:

THEY ASK A QUESTION.

Maybe they can’t afford it – yet. Maybe it won’t fit in their living room – yet. Maybe it creates yearning whispers of what it might be like to pursue their own work of the heart.

Yes, maybe they’re so clueless about “good booth behavior” that they bungle the question. We can get really good with that, if we are willing to change our own attitude, and meet them halfway. (Or 3/4 of the way!)

If we can do that, a door opens. There is an opportunity for a rich exchange of questions and insights, a chance to either a) inspire a sale, if they’re ready, or b) lay the groundwork for future sales. At the last show I did, the second one after a total flop the year before (5 attendees for the entire day, no sales), a customer approached me and declared, “I saw your work last year, and I COULD NOT STOP THINKING ABOUT IT.” They bought a special item and companion piece for themselves, and pricey gifts for two friends. I could hardly operate my Square, I was so excited!

If I’d harbored resentment about the lack of attendance, if I’d sat around complaining within hearing of guests about the lack of sales, I could have squished that connection forever.

Instead I have a new collector who has already shared their love of my work with their friends, who may also consider buying my work. And share it with THEIR friends.

It all starts with staying calm. Leaning in. Curbing toxic assumptions and impulses. Staying focused on our work, the work we love, the work we make room for every day (if we can) in our lives.

If millennials are not your audience, let it go. We’ve shown that they have perfectly good reasons, just like ANY OTHER people who aren’t.

But if you are committed to blame them (especially for the reasons that are beyond their control, and NOT THEIR FAULT), believe me, they will know.

To all the people who commented with compassion and empathy, to those artists who (mostly) contacted me privately (I’m guessing because they didn’t want to expose themselves to criticism) who ARE MILLENNIALS, THANK YOU! Your experience either confirmed my research, experience, and thoughts, OR you were willing to reconsider what is going on. I’m grateful.

To all the people who disagree, please, as always, do what works for YOU. My advice and words are free, and therefore worth every penny you paid for it. :^)

Next week, I’m going to ask people whose work DOES sell for millennials, what has worked for them. Is it their style? Their subject matter? Their price points? Their willingness to engage and connect? I’ll do my best to collect the people who have already shared, and put that in the article for your convenience (and theirs.)

But I do want to leave you with this last story, which isn’t mine.

It’s my daughter’s.

First, both my kids were the inspiration for me to step up to the plate with my art. When my daughter asked if she could work booth with me at fairs, I agreed. It was a powerful shift in our relationship as she entered one of the most difficult part of her life.

She began her art collection with purchases from my fellow exhibitors, and continues to this day. You may find some valuable insights into millennials and their buying habits this Fine Art Views column from last March.

And here is the “spoiler” from that column:

“My daughter still wants something of beauty that came from another person’s hands, and heart, especially when she started to make and sell her own work.

As she browsed for an urn for the ashes of her stillborn child (Sam died 8 months into her pregnancy), she became frustrated with the same ol’ same ol’ look of them. Nothing felt personal enough, or fit the emotion of the event. When I suggested that a good friend who works with wood might make something especially for her, she lit up. (She found a maker on Etsy who resonated with her.)

This box will be in their home forever, and every time they see it, it will bring a bit of solace amid the sorrow. They may not know, or care to know, the story of the maker. But it holds their own story of this time, and that’s what matters.

I just spoke with my daughter again, and she added more about her purchase.

She wanted something unique, related to cherry blossoms, because that’s around the time of his birthday, when the cherry trees bloom here in Washington, D.C. She wanted wood because it’s warmer. She wanted something personalized and not mass-produced.

She wanted “something that fit us”, her and her partner.

There is appreciation for the maker, as it fits her needs as the collector.

The maker may have no idea of what my daughter and her husband were (and still are) going through.

When I hear people my age disparaging this age group, it breaks my heart.

And when I hear people with their own thoughtful, kind, compassionate, positive, uplifting experiences, my heart is healed.

So when you go to your studio today, when you make that time to do the work that is important to you, know that someone, somewhere, someone will be lifted up.

When you are discouraged because you can’t figure out why your art doesn’t sell, focus first on the fact that it uplifts YOU.

When you put it out into the world, know that someone, somewhere, needed to see it, for reasons we cannot even imagine.

And when you are healed, and share it, someone else will be healed too.

Next week, I’ll compile and curate the ways some of us have found a way to gain millennial collectors. There are some strategies that will work for some of us, but maybe not all.

My only goal was to encourage your heart to open up to new understanding, and new possibilities. To expand our rock-hard definitions and assumptions that not might only hurt others, but might also hurt ourselves.

And to echo the last words of that column I wrote, “So let’s open our hearts, and our minds, to these changes which time will bring.

There are many ways for our work to become a part of someone else’s story, someone else’s world, and someone else’s journey.

Keep hope in your heart, and be open to new possibilities. And be patient with yourself, as we all navigate these new waters.

Art is part of us, no matter what it is, no matter where, or how, or when we find it. Online markets can be just as powerful as in-person encounters, if not more. (Many in this age group never even think about going to traditional art galleries. Yet.)

And I will hope ALL of our art, mine, and yours, will be “found”, someday, by the people who will love it and enjoy it for the rest of their lives.”

As always, if you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share it. And if someone sent you this article and you liked it, you can sign up for more articles at Fine Art Views or more from from my blog by subscribing (upper right hand corner of this page.)