A peek into my production process and aesthetics, and why a messy desk works for me.
Three new necklaces!
Ah, winter. Full of holidays mere days apart, especially the big ones. Someone wrote recently, “When Christmas is done, it’s DONE!” They’re right. One minute I’m trying to find a tree that’s small enough to fit in our little rental home, the next I’m finishing off the last of the eggnog for a whole nother year.
Winter is not as cold here in Northern California, not nearly as cold as Michigan, or New Hampshire (40 degrees below zero sometimes) but I’ve also never had unheated studios before, either. My former studio at A Street was pretty cold, but small-ish, so easier to heat with a space heater.
My newest studio at 33Arts (3840 Finley Avenue in Santa Rosa) is bigger, harder to heat quickly, too. It can only accomodate one space heater, it’s on the main floor, and it faces north. I wore three wool sweaters today, and a wool hat, and my hands were still freezing! Not conducive to working with polymer clay.
But it’s spacious, the light is steady, I have plenty of worklights, it’s beautiful, and I can tolerate cold better than heat. And it’s pleasantly cool through spring, summer, and fall. So, no complaints
Now the peek into my design process.
I made three beautiful new horse necklaces this week. Two faux ivory horses, one strung with rose/blush pink/pale peach semi-precious stones and pearls, the other with sage/pale olive same. And a blue faux soapstone horse with pale blue and aqua. It was so hard to condition the clay (polymer clay does not like cold) but I figured out how to get it warm enough to work.
Many layers of beads, many choices…
I have beads I’ve collected for almost four decades, from local stores, online shops, bead and gem trade shows, bead traders who come to my home with their wares, thrift shops, and antique stores. Some of my beads are new, most are vintage, and a lot are antique-to-ancient. Most are imported from Europe: France, Venetian glass beads from Italy, Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia) all well-known producers of antique glass beads.)
I also use beads from Africa (trade beads, handmade pot metal beads in all shapes and sizes), India (semi-precious gemstones), Japan (who pioneered cultured pearls, now known as freshwater pearls, also glass beads), and China, a new leader in all, but especially freshwater pearls and semi-precious gemstones.
Oooh, almost forgot the beautiful “Roman” glass beads, actually made in Afghanistan from broken/misshapen perfume bottles and bracelets, rescued from the midden heaps of ancient glass factories along the Silk Road trade routes and reshaped into new beads.
I love them all! And I get very particular about which ones I use in each design. Size, shape, hue, texture (matte, polished, faceted), all matter.
This is why it takes me hours to string a beaded necklace. I never know where I’m headed, but I always get there….
And each of these higher-end pieces get a special finishing touch. A tiny pendant at the clasp, and my signature (literally!) horse charm in sterling or antique brass.
Its all in the details…
In this series, I wanted subtle variations in the colors. For this, I need good lighting, a wide choice of beads: Real pearls, semi-precious gemstones, glass, stone. All in a variety of sizes, shapes. I love matte texture, and facets, too.
And the justification for a messy studio?
Noted writer Austin Kleon shares and insight in how a messy studio contributes to our creative process, here.
I know other artists have cleaner spaces. Fewer options, perhaps because it helps them focus. Or they know their path, and they don’t need to wander away from it. They may know what works for them, and sometimes I wish I were wired that way, too.
In the end, this is how every space I occupy, this is how it looks. “Good bones” as one visitor put it. Everything is arranged and organized, yet attractive and intriguing. I usually try to clean up most of the “creative mess” for open studios, but most of the time? I just leave it there.
Because I like to work during such events. I want people to relax, dig in, really engage with my work. When they’re ready to talk, they’ll ask a question. And I’m there for them, ready with a book about the Lascaux Cave with great photographs. Ready to share my inspiration, my stories. Ready to encourage them to pursue their own creative work, the work of their heart.
Because I know when I make room for my art in my life, when I embrace my messy, making-self, my trial-and-error designing self, my love for certain color palettes, but also being open to new ones, my almost-obsessive need to keep collecting the materials and supplies that speak to me, to make the work that pleases me (and hopefully, YOU), I am in my highest, best place in the world.
So there you go. To make is human, and making takes time, space, and sometimes messy habits.
horse necklace trio
I think they turned out pretty well!
I use mostly sterling silver for my accent beads and findings, but antiqued copper looks soooooo beautiful with blush pink pearls and peach moonstone. The blue soapstone horse called for pale blue/pale aqua beads this time. I like it.
Here’s how they look in my studio. Pretty good fit!
And now you know why these pieces start at $350, too. A lot of work and time, and precious materials go into each one, including the artifacts and beads I make myself. And no two are alike.
What is YOUR creative process? Be sure to share it with me the next time you visit! And if you can’t wait til my next open studio, you can always email or text me to confirm a time to visit.
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 get to choose what you do, how you do it, how many things you do, and you can change it whenever you’re ready.
When the young art students came to my studio, most of them were still in the exploring stage of art-making. Some already felt “more comfortable” with a specific media, but most were trying this and that, and some hadn’t found what really felt right.
That’s normal! I encouraged them to keep exploring. This stage could take a few years, it could take a decade, it might take more than that. Maybe…..for the rest of their lives!
I think some of them were a little surprised by that. It seemed that some were already feeling the pressure to pick “just one thing” or “just one process” (painting, for example, or drawing, etc.) (It may have been more societal pressure than pressure from their teachers.)
I told them, “If you’ve already figured that out, good on you! But if you haven’t, that’s normal, too. These are the perfect years to explore and experiment. In fact, you might incorporate “new and different” for the rest of your life! And that’s okay.”
Focus is a good thing, of course. When we push all our efforts in one direction, into one medium or process, we can make enormous strides in our skill set.
But that’s not the only way to be a “real artist”. And when people tell us it IS the only way, and we don’t want to do it that “one right way”, it can feel soul-crushing.
Years ago, I attended a seminar with a well-known speaker who created a series of workshops about all kinds of artist/maker issues: How to market our work, how to display it at shows and in galleries, how to talk with customers, etc. All excellent information, garnered not only from their own career as a maker, but from dozens of others who shared their insights with him.
When it was my turn to ask a question, I started to frame my body of work: “So I do jewelry, fiber work, and printing, and I’d like to know…..”
They interrupted me mid-sentence: “FOCUS!!!!”
The whole room erupted into laughter, and I was humiliated. The speaker went on to explain that “certain clueless craftspeople” get into doing everything: “I raise the sheep, I shear the sheep, I spin the wool, I dye the yarn, I make the pattern, I knit the sweater….” They end up with a product that can’t be reasonably priced, and then wonder why their work doesn’t sell. The speaker moved on to the next person.
That wasn’t my problem, and I was pretty peeved. Afterwards, I went up to ask for clarification, and they apologized. “I wanted to make an example of you, because that comes up all the time! But I see now that isn’t what you were sharing, and I’m sorry.”
There’s a lesson there: Don’t make assumptions about the “stupid questions” people ask us. (As in, “How long did it take you to make that?” “It took me thirty years to make!”) (Yes, there are a dozen better ways to answer that question without making a joke at that potential customer’s expense!)
“Lack of focus” was not an issue for me. I already knew I was “doing it right”, FOR ME. I was perfectly comfortable with my multi-media choices, because I had a powerful story that united them. From the very beginning of my art career, people could recognize my distinctive style, use of color, and use of artifacts, even in the different ways I staged them.)
I wanted to know how to approach the top retail shows in the country that, typically, demanded I pick ONE medium to apply in. And usually my jewelry wouldn’t be accepted, because it’s a dense medium at high-end fine craft shows. Often half the applicants are jewelers! I wanted help figuring out how to get out of the “box” most shows and exhibits want to put us creatives in.
(I never solved that, but finally figured out ways around it.)
Nowadays, whenever I ask people about their creative work, I get a wonderful variety of answers. But the ones where I sense folks feel the most embarrassment is when they haven’t focused completely on “just one thing”.
“Oh, I’m not a real artist! I love oil painting, but I’ve also enjoy watercolor and pastels, and I’ve taken clay workshops and loved it, and I want to….” And then they sort of trail off, waiting for me to tell them to “focus”.
I ask them what their goals are, and listen. Unless they feel “held back” by their free choices, I almost always tell them to embrace their path.
From their reaction, I’m guessing no one has ever told them that’s okay. Which is sad.
Some of us know the medium that speaks to us. We leap into with all our heart, and pursue it, perfecting our skills, finessing our techniques, perhaps (hopefully!) even receiving recognition and acclaim for our work.
Others, like me, take longer to figure it out. We try different things, or keep up with several things, until we find our way through.
For me, I did fiber work for years: Cross-stitching (easy!), then embroidery (harder!), then quilting (so much time!!), getting smaller and freer and focusing on making something that looked aged and worn. I got to the point where I rarely bought new fabrics, and instead scrounged yard sales, thrift stores, and antique shops for unusual, vintage, and antique fabrics, and well-worn clothing. Eventually, when I couldn’t find what I wanted, I began to over-dye my own fabrics, and even carved my own stamps to print fabric.
When my kids were born, I knit them sweaters. (Hey, it’s faster to knit for a little kid than an adult, and they’re a lot less fussy about how it fits!) (But you also have to work fast, or they’ll grow out of whatever you’re making for them….)
Eventually, I was frustrated trying to find the perfect buttons for those sweaters, and so I began to make my own.
I couldn’t afford expensive jewelry, didn’t like much of it anyway. I loved the look of old pieces. I started buying broken or out-of-date bits and pieces, restringing them or salvaging the beads for other projects. One year, I was accepted into an exhibit for art quilts, and forgot to read the fine print: Beadwork was required. So I “explained” that the beads I used were too tiny to be seen in the photograph, and frantically added seed beadwork to the finished pieces. (I won a Judges’ Choice Award!)
And I also began using those sweater buttons as embellishments on my art quilts.
Are you sensing an epiphany here? It’s coming!
Until the day came where I stepped up to the plate with my “mom crafts” and found my powerful story, where I found my place in the world as an artist.
All those “little crafty things” I’d been doing for years all came together to make something different. Something unique. Something that became my signature, so that now, people who are familiar with my work, can spot it in almost any form.
If I had “found my perfect medium” all those years ago, I would not be making the work I do today.
Would I be better off? How do I know? We choose a path, and our story is changed forever. I don’t regret my “aimless wanderings” that eventually brought me the work I love with all my heart. I choose to celebrate the skills and insights I gained along the way.
Some of us will “do it right”, focusing on a specific medium and style. Some of us will explore, constantly adding, tweaking, mixing it up. And some may never “settle” into one or two things. They will explore, and experiment, and dabble for the rest of their lives.
My question for them: Are you happy with that?
Because if you are, that’s all that matters.
What matters, first and foremost, is that our work brings us joy.
Oh, not 24/7. I get that. Sometimes things just don’t click, or we get tired of the same ol’ same ol’. (Usually we get our happy back, though!) And if we want to get really, really good at something, we have to put in the time and the work.
Some people pursue one style, or medium, and then walk away from it and pursue something else. That’s okay, too.
And some of us find total joy in the new, the experimenting. Some people only make art when they take classes. Which, I tell them, is really smart! If you can’t make time for your art, then taking a class is an excellent way to set aside the time (to go to class), to experiment (with all the tools and expertise provided by the teacher that you’ll need) and come home with something you love (because you had the chance to actually finish it!)
In our modern times, art is both a necessity (for our emotional/spiritual health) and a luxury (we can all choose what, when, how, and why we “make”). We get to choose how we fit it into our lives, we get to decide whether it’s our “one thing”, our “main thing”, or our “fun thing”.
Somewhere along the line, the word “amateur” (which means doing something because you love it, whether we make money at it or not) became a hugely judge-y thing: “Oh, you’re not a professional, you’re just an amateur!”
In reality, “amateur”, “vocational”, and “avocational” are all on the same spectrum. We do it because we love it, and it supports us, financially, and we do it as if it really were our profession- doing all the steps that a “true professional” artist would do, even if we don’t actually make a lot of money at it. And a few professionals actually step back from that stance, because they find the demands of catering to a market, and having to do the same thing, the same way, for the same people, actually saps some of the joy from our process. They find other ways to earn income, something they’re good at that pays well, and that they like or even love, yet keep their artwork in their life, on their own terms.
It’s all good.
Because when we accept all the reasons that show us we’re “doing it right”, the more art, the more beauty, the more joy there will be in the world.
So keep on keeping on, I told those kids. Do what you can. Do what you want. Do what you have to do. You get to choose.
Make it work for Y-O-U, finding your unique happy place in the world with your art.
The whole world is waiting to see “what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life…”*
My head’s been in a whirl the last few months. I think I’ve entered that stage in a move where it feels like my life feels like a dream. Not the great glow-y kind. The kind where I find myself picking up dog poop and I keep finding hamburger patties in the dirt and I think, “Geez, this is weird. Wait a minute…..Am I dreaming?!” (I was.)
On one hand, there’s all the wonderful, heady stuff that comes from a major life change (the good ones, that is.) We go for a drive and suddenly remember this is an incredibly beautiful area, and the ocean is half an hour away. There are the marvelous moments, like learning our resident hummingbird darts into his nighttime resting spot in our little tree in front of our front porch, at exactly the same time (relative to sunset) every night. We sit and watch for him almost every night, and get a tiny frisson of joy when we catch him in the act. (It helps that he sits in exactly the same branchlet on the tree, too.)
On the other hand, there is the sudden realization that there’s no one to call up and say, “Hey, let’s go out for a drink!” Not that I could, anyway. Since we’ve been here, I can barely stay up past 9 p.m. Sooo…no one to call up and say, “Hey, let’s go to Happy Hour for a drink!”
I miss lakes, and rivers. There are lakes and rivers here, but not so much after four years of drought. I miss thunderstorms.
(OTOOH, I don’t miss mosquitoes, black flies, humidity, nor the season of funny smells.)
A few days ago, I had the scariest change of all.
I should preface this by saying my “year” tends to begin and end at my birthday. That sounds pompous, and I don’t mean it that way, really, I don’t. It’s just that when I realized the cave of Lascaux was discovered very nearly on my birth date, and other big events that cause me to stop and gasp (my birthday is 9/11), I often have reason to stop and take my measure. This month has been the same.
I was making a ‘batch’ of horses, as I usually do. Over the years, I built up to making my animal totems in batches of up to, oh, a couple dozen or so at a shot. It made for real efficiency, shaping them all, doing all the manes at once, all the eyes at once, all the markings, etc. (Even in a good sales year, I average about $2 an hour. Maybe I should go work at McDonald’s…..) (Nah.)
Lately, the batches have gotten smaller, down to one dozen, then half a dozen.
This time, I stopped at one. A feeling of revulsion overcame me. I was overwhelmed with this awful, awful thought:
I didn’t want to make any more batches of little horses.
That stopped me dead in my tracks. WHAT??!! What…is up with THAT??!!
But instead of panicking (what would I do without the heartstone of my work??!), I got quiet. I asked myself, where is this coming from? And what do I mean by that?
And thank the powers that be, it came to me:
I want to make one little horse at a time.
And so I did. I made two little horses that day. Each one, totally one at a time. Each got its own shaping, then its mane, then its eyes and nose, etc.
I then made other artifacts that take less ‘soul’, if you will, easier work, and popped the whole bunch in the convenction oven in my home studio.
This may not seem like a big change to you. It sure started out as a big change, but ended up being a very small change.
Or is it?
My horses have always ended up as completely individual and unique. For years, I’ve been telling folks how collectors look for ‘their horse’ when shopping.
I don’t know how to explain this, except that this, for some reason, feels even more important than ever. So important, I felt the need to slow down, to get calm, to get centered. To really see the power, and the blessing, inherent in everything I do.
There’s something growing here in California, something big. When people are attracted to my work, they fall hard. The things they tell me about it, are powerful. My internet sales are growing, from people back in New England who are either missing my work, or have recently discovered it. More and more people are telling me about how the work feels, on many levels.
It’s scary. Someone asked me why, and I couldn’t say. It’s something about, with my work having that power, comes great responsibility, something I don’t know how to handle personally. It feels like the time a bigger-than-life visitor exclaimed, “You’re a shaman! You’re a shaman!” when he first saw my work–like my work is bigger than I am. I’m not putting that right, but it was exciting, and wonderful, and scary at the same time. It was a powerful experience, and propelled me forward in ways I could not have imagined.
Something like that may be growing now. All I can do is listen. Pay attention.
The past year was all about realizing the harm brought into the world by people who don’t know what they don’t know.
Last year, a fellow artist and I put on Keene’s very first open studio tour, the Keene Art Tour.
Few things in life are harder than getting a couple dozen artists together (figuratively), collecting checks (Paypal button next year!), gathering images and artist statements for the brochure (“Just take it from my website!”) and everything else entailed in creating a city-wide event. Fortunately, it was hugely successful, for visitors and artists alike.
The only thing harder?
Doing it again.
Artists forget how good the crowds were, how much they sold and how much fun they had. That’s normal. Artists, being human beings, are sort of hard-wired to only remember the hard work, the studio cleaning, and how much we hassled them for said images, statements and money.
I’m learning that as a show organizer, “getting an early start” this year really means, “Let’s spend longer trying to get the same components together as last year.” That’s a good lesson to learn.
Some of the cold feet-itis is understandable, too. The last few years have been hard for creative folks. Some have hunkered down, some have moved on, some have diversified, and others are in that awful stage known as “transition”–moving on from what we’ve done while not quite knowing what’s next. Change is hard, and rarely fun.
“I don’t have anything to sell!” says one artist. Another says, “The kind of work I do, I don’t have ‘things’ to sell. So why would I want to have an open studio??” “I don’t have any new work!” says another. “I might be busy that weekend. When do I have to let you know?” (The answer to this question, by the way, is “Two months ago.”)
So here’s my response to all these questions:
An Open Studio isn’t just about selling your work. It’s about telling your story.
It’s the strongest way to form a powerful connection not only with new customers, but also with current customers, your community, and with future artists. And it’s a way to revitalize your own connection with your art.
There’s one artist who does murals for public places. No ‘things’ to sell in their studio, so they don’t want to participate.
What a lost opportunity! Now, I have no desire to buy a mural. But I’ve always wondered what’s entailed. How did they get started doing this? How do they find out about proposals for public art, especially internationally? What is the design process like? Do they hire other people to help? How long does it take to paint a mural? What kind of paint do they use? How long does a mural last? Where is their work displayed? Do you get to travel a lot? What are the fun parts? What are the downsides? What the heck does their life LOOK like???
There’s a couple who are working on a graphic novel. No ‘art’ to show in their studio. People would be bored.
Really? I can think of a few dozen young artists who would give anything to know that that process looks like. How do you get started? Are you self-published or are you working with a publisher? What does that look like? Do you do the writing and the drawing, or do you collaborate? Is it possible to make a living doing this? Do you teach classes?
There’s an artist in transition who needs to sell their old work before they can can make new work. And they’re not very far along in the new work.
Artists go through transitions? Just like other people?? Is it hard? What made you stop making your old work? What would you like to do next? What do you think will stay the same, and what will change? What inspires you and sustains you through this difficult time?
There’s someone who has new galleries, and may not have any work available for sale.
Actually, this is one of the best problems to have. Do you have earlier work that you’ve kept? Do you have works in progress? And the finished pieces you’re ready to ship–can we just LOOK at them? If I want one, can I commission you to make one? There’s a waiting list?? Oh my gosh, I better get my order in NOW!
Meanwhile, in your horde of visitors (and everyone had hordes of visitors), there are people who wish they could do what you do. They want to meet the people who ran away to join the circus. You are actually in your studio, making incredible stuff every day–how fabulous! Be their art hero.
There are people in transition who need to know there’s a ‘there’ after ‘here right now.’ That perseverance and vision and hard work will get us through. Be their art hero.
There are people who hope someday to be in your shoes. There are artists-in-waiting who need to know that it’s possible to have that life, to make their own work, to carve out a place in the world for themselves. You are living proof that it can happen. Be their life hero.
There are all kinds of creative folks in a community, artists of all sorts who make this town a better, richer, more beautiful place to live. We do more than just fill art galleries or people’s homes with our work. We teach, inspire, enrich, model our values to our community. Be that community hero.
Open your work space, that incredible place where the magic happens, where your vision for your art becomes a reality. Let people see what your life looks like, for two precious days in November. Be that art hero.
Give yourself the gift of seeing yourself through other people’s eyes–the people who see you as creative, gifted, exciting, interesting, fortunate, blessed. Because we are. It’s easy to forget that in the slog of making our way in the world. Let our community help you remember.
Thoughts for my new series are still roiling and boiling in my brain.
The ideas come from many places and times. Some as long ago as I can remember, and others as recently as today. Some was inspired by seeing how another assemblage artist organized his materials. “THIS should be your art!” I exclaimed. He was not amused.
But it got me thinking.
All of this is based on my favorite activity, which I refer to by its ancient designation, “hunter-gathering”.
I’ve always loved picking up pretty pebbles, twisted twigs, sea shells, bits of rusted metal. This actually translates in a beautiful (and sometimes devastating) way to shopping. I love poking through piles of stuff, looking for the perfect little something everyone else has overlooked.
Last month I found a huge box of shells at a local antique shop. It was marked way, way down. But still a little pricey at almost $60. I won’t say I had buyer’s remorse when I got home, but “What was I thinking?!” was flying around my head. (It’s not buyer’s remorse if you’re still secretly glad you bought it….)
So here’s where the shells have gone. Here:
Now the last pic is especially telling. Because when I go to the beach, I come home with this:
And they quickly get displayed like this:
Which got me doing this a few years ago:
So in my head are images of artifacts, collections, gatherings of objects, museum display, shrines and altars. Add to that a shaman’s gathering of healing herbs, objects of power, talismans of hope, magic stones and mysterious bones.
I don’t know exactly what it is. I have only vague ideas of what it looks like. Sometimes it frightens me. Sometimes I wish I could drop everything else to work on it. Sometimes it seems too much like play to take seriously.
Trust me, your artistic self is just as powerful as a postage stamp. Maybe more.
Fresh off my first Open Studio tour of the year, and boy is my studio CLEAN! I love open studio events for many reasons, but more on that later this week. I have something else on my mind that has to come out today.
As you may know, my soapbox speech is about finding out what makes you, and your work, unique.
We hear all about how no two snowflakes are identical, and how our fingerprints and DNA are unique to us.
You’d think, with all this unique-ness pouring out of us, we could a unique way to talk about our work.
I’ve been in a lot of group shows this year, seen a lot of lovely work and talked to a lot of passionate artists. What strikes me is how everyone says the same things about their art.
We talk about our compositions. We talk about why we love pastel, or oil, or clay. We talk about light and shapes.
If I hear “I just love color!” one more time….. Well, it won’t be pretty.
So let me share an ‘aha!’ moment I had years ago.
I was doing a mail art project, and wanted old postage that would reflect the theme of my piece. I found an older couple who ran a stamp collecting business out of their home.
As I scrabbled through the trays and books of postage, we talked about stamp and the stamp collecting biz. They shared stories about stamp collectors. I asked her what kinds of stamps people collected.
The woman said, “You know, in fifty years of selling stamps and doing shows and talking to collectors, I’ve never seen two people collect exactly the same thing.”
Now think about that a minute.
There is no creativity per se in collecting stamps. Collectors don’t make the stamps, nor are they handmade by other people. Stamps are produced en masse, and have been in production for years.
But how they collect is so strongly individual and personal, each collection–each act of collecting–is as unique as….well, the human being who put it together.
Some collect by country, or region or language. Some collect by subject matter. Politics, places, people, animals, plants, themes, designs, plate designer…. There is simply no end to the possible combinations of appeal.
If we could get away from the mundane–what our materials are, the fact that we love certain colors or lines or compositions…..
If we could dig a little deeper and think about why we make the art we do….
If we could tell a richer, more personal story about our art…..
If we were willing to go the scary, deep place of who we are, and who we yearn to be in the world…
…People would see our work as the miracle in the world it truly is.
Sharing ‘unique’ processes, ‘unique’ inspiration, ‘unique’ love of color/shape/style, separates us from our audience.
Discovering what makes us tick as a human being, sharing what is truly in our hearts, connects us with our audience.