My column on February 17 on Fine Art Views.
(5 minute read)
There’s the family you’re born into, and then there’s the family you choose.
Thin people have thin parents.
The original series on weight loss included a discussion of the genetic components of good health. But what about those of us who aren’t fortunate to have healthy parents? Er…Successful parents? How is this useful for our discussion today??
Obviously, it would be difficult to claim that artistically successful people have artistically successful parents. It’s much more likely we are the only artistic person in our family history. So are we totally without hope for artistic success??
Let’s start here: What do we mean by “artistic success? Or even “success” in general?
“Successful” parents might mean people who have achieved “financial” success. But it could also mean parent who balance work with family life. Parents who make decisions to create a stable home for their family. Parents who love their work and do it well and with pride. Or it could mean parents who encourage their child to pursue the work of their heart, no matter what that is.
There were no artists (that I know of) in my family. My parents didn’t even have hobbies (except for my dad, late in life, after retirement.)
But they did provide me with a powerful meme that has stood me well in life:
Both of my parents made major life changes in mid-life:
My mother, a stay-at-home mom with six kids and a seventh on the way, went back to college in her 40’s to get a teaching degree.
My father sold the family restaurant around the same time. He was unemployed, and under-employed for a few years. But after a lengthy and varied job search (including working in a factory and running for public office) he found a new career, one he loved.
Those were scary times for our family. But as kids, we hardly knew it. Looking back, I see now how courageous (and contained!) my parents were.
I believe their example gave me courage to do the same.
Yet whatever successes our parents have, I would still revise this “secret” for artists. Especially because sometimes our parents and families don’t support our decision to make art. It’s weird, it’s scary, or it seems frivolous to them.
Let’s talk instead about the family we create for ourselves. Let’s say this instead:
Successful artists create networks and social circles for support.
Successful artists surround themselves with a “family” of people who believe in what they do.
Successful artists take note of what successful artists do.
And successful artists decide what “success” means to them.
When I teach professional development workshops for artists and craftspeople, I always end the final session by saying this:
“Okay, long after we’re (the ABI team) are gone, you’re still going to need the support, the inspiration, and the sharing of resources you found here today.
Look around the room. These are your peers. They are artists who have SELF-SELECTED to come here this weekend. They came to learn, to get resources to grow their business, to learn how to be successful.”
“Look around. Who did you talk to? Who did you bond with? Share your contact info. Call them up when you get home, email them, and meet them for coffee! Meet up with a small group once every few weeks, or once a month. Research and share ideas and resources. Inspire and support each other!”
“If they don’t live close to you, friend them on Facebook, or e-mail them! Some of my closest professional friends live across the country from me.”
What do you look for in your new professional “family”?
You can do this right now. Right now, as you read this, you are (or can be) a part of the FASO community, full of artists who have self-selected to grow their art biz: creating their own websites, creating an online presence in the world, creating email newsletters. Artists who are reading this email newsletter! Artists who write here, or comment on what others have written, artists willing to share their own experiences of what works for them.
Look for people who support your vision for success.
Remember that success can be different things to different people. Some people need to a little extra make money. Some need to make a lot of money, fast. (When you figure this one out, please let me know!) Others seek prestige, respect, and recognition. Some are looking for a better balance between home, life, art, and work. Some are looking to simply better their craft or product, or their business skills, so they are working smarter. Some are looking for their big Oprah break. (Good luck with that.) (No, really!)
Understand that you can support someone else’s vision even if it is not your own. This gets hard for me, when people dream small. But it’s okay–as long as they respect MY dream, which is not small.
Look for positive-thinking people. We all have enough nay-sayers in our life to last…well, a lifetime. Let the naysayers babble on, but don’t let them wear you down. We all carry one in our head, too. No matter.
Look for people that believe success is possible–because that belief helps make it possible.
Look for people who understand that life may intervene, that our dreams may go to go the back burner temporarily (or longer!)
But look for people who will always remember that you are an artist. They will let you turn down the back burner so your artistic “pot” can simmer, but they will not let you turn it off. (Oh, I knew a cooking metaphor was in there somewhere!)
Not everything is possible. Not everything is going to come up roses.
But making your art, and sharing it with the world, is a good start. Finding people who encourage you to keep doing that?
Unfortunately, artists are people, too.
I remember the first time I did a major fine craft show. It was amazing!
Oh, sure there were the expected (and unexpected) obstacles to overcome. These shows are incredibly expensive to do—booth fees, meals, transportation, marketing. The realization that your track lighting issues are going to get even worse. The nerve-wracking experience of packing, set-up, break-down, and everything in between.
But then there is the wonderful side, and that’s all about the people. Gallery owners who really love your work. Show coordinators who eventually become good friends.
And finding your tribe.
At one event, a major national wholesale show, I met people I previously only knew through our conversations on a professional discussion forum. (Remember those? I miss them. Sort of. Keep reading!) I distinctly remember thinking, “I’ve found my tribe!”
For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who were creative makers, like me. People who took their work seriously. People who were true professionals (for the most part) about getting their art into the world. People who focused on doing excellent work, who worked at their craft daily, who sent their kids to college and paid their mortgage doing the work of their heart. People who laughed, shared information readily, supported other artists.
It was a magical year.
After a year or so, though, a few chinks appeared.
There were people who took shortcuts in their process, making it all about the money.
There were people who copied, diligently.
There were people who resented “newbies”, angry about people who “hadn’t paid their dues,” people who were envious of newcomers who won accolades and awards so “easily”.
There were people who were envious. People who were intensely annoying. People with obvious mental health issues. People with egos so big, they took all the air out of any room they enterted.
I tend to accrue a lot of information when I try something new, and I love to share it. (In fairness, tru dat.) So a few people let me know I was an upstart know-it-all with a big head.
And a very few people went out of their way to be obnoxious, to the point of bullying.
Where was my tribe?? I felt broken-hearted.
It took me years to come to terms with this unpleasant knowledge. (I still struggle, I admit that freely.) And now I know this to be true:
Artists are people, too.
In fact, some of the factors that make for a successful (however we define “successful”) artist can make for a difficult human being.
We have to make your art a priority. We have to believe in ourselves, especially when times are hard. We have to trust our process, sometimes to the exclusion of everyone else’s process. We (sometimes) have to fight work hard for our place in the world.
Sometimes this means: We believe we are always Number One. We believe no one else’s opinions matter. We believe our way is the only way. We believe when someone else gets a bigger piece of the pie, we won’t get our own piece.
One summer, after a particularly grueling interaction with someone who was making my professional (and personal) life miserable, another artist finally said, “We can’t all be the Buddha.” “Hah!” I thought resentfully. “I’m just asking her to leave me alone!”
Unfortunately, we really can’t be the Buddha. And in my case, the Buddha would probably be, “Quit trying to fix/change/out-argue those people! You can’t win!”
Because life is filled with difficult people, and creative people are no exception. If anything, we get judged harsher because we are creative people, because we’re supposed to be happier, more fulfilled, livin’ the dream.
And so, instead, I try to see them as, not a problem to be fixed, but an obstacle to get around.
It’s hard. I want to be friends with everyone. (Don’t say it, I know. I know. I KNOW!!!) I have an open heart, and I keep forgetting to put up big effin’ fences when I need to. I consider myself a student of life, and pursuing my art has enriched me on all levels—especially the learning part!
So when it feels like you’ve been voted off the island, consider the source.
Do the people I know and trust support me? Or do they gently suggest I still have some growin’ to do?
Do these people really block my path? Or are they just an inconvenient moment in my life I have to get through?
Can I learn to truly see the good in people who kinda suck are not perfect? (Note: Please do not excuse or make up a story about people with extreme malignant narcissism/sociopathy. Just get away.)
And most important, when the weight of personalities lie heavy on me, I can always go to the sacred creative space of my studio, and get back to making the work of my heart.
Do you have a good story about how you dealt with a difficult person in your art career? Enquiring minds want to know!!
Which is worse? Leaving a tribe behind, or being ASKED to leave the tribe??
I wrote earlier about how hard it is to leave a tribe we’ve outgrown or moved past.
A reader reminded me it’s even harder to leave when you don’t want to–but everybody else wants you to.
Is this scenario familiar? You have a special group of friends, good buddies. You’ve all been together for awhile and things are great.
Then one day a new person joins the group, usually invited in by one of the members.
It may start right away, or it may be insidious, but eventually, one of the original members of the group–YOU!!–is slowly but surely forced out.
Maybe you find out everyone else was invited to something. But not you. Or you are accused of talking about people behind their back. Maybe the new person is rude to you when no one else is around. But when you complain, everyone thinks you’re making it up.
The more frustrated and hurt you become, the more the group shuns you.
And one day, you are on the outside looking in. You are no longer part of the group.
This happened to me. I was in my forties, if you can believe it. (This is still humiliating to think about, but I was accused of stealing a tiny Rubbermaid container with Cheerios in it.) And ironically, it was me who invited the newcomer to join our group.
It seems ridiculous now, but at the time it was devastating. It was one of the most emotionally painful events of my life.
I had no idea what to do about it. It took awhile to get over it.
Then, a year later, I read an article about the same thing happening to somebody else, a kid who was in high school at the time.
A new kid joined his group of friends, who had been tight since first grade. Then the new kid spread rumors about him. Everyone turned on him. He was ousted from the group.
Fortunately, he had someone to counsel him. The wise words went something like this:
You cannot control what happened, because you cannot control what other people think. Since it’s not in your control, you must learn to let go, and move on. You may never learn why this happened, and it’s not important that you do.
This is the only thing you can know for sure: People who do this to you are simply not your friends.
The sad thing is, they may have been “good enough” friends for awhile. Maybe even for a long long time.
But when things got dicey, they cut and ran. They did not believe in you.
And so they weren’t really your friends.
Because real friends don’t do that.
Stay your course, believe in yourself, and follow your heart. You will make new friends, built on a stronger foundation. They will be better friends.”
It seems too simplistic to be helpful. But it helped.
First was the realization that this happens to others, too. I didn’t feel like such a pariah any more.
Comfort also came from realizing I had no control over what had happened. Therefore, I didn’t have to figure it out or even fix it. It was over, and it was time to let go.
The kid in the article moved on. He went to college, and made new friends. He began to value other, deeper qualities in his new friends–mutual respect, integrity, trustworthiness.
And the day came when one of his old friends contacted him to tell him that the group had finally broken up when the interloper tried the trick again. Everyone realized what had happened. He apologized and said he was sorry he had believed the rumors and lies.
It was nice of the guy to do that. But it didn’t really change anything. They resumed their friendship, but at a very casual level.
Whether you leave the tribe, or the tribe leaves you, the same thing is true…
They are not your tribe. Not any longer.
As Greg Behrendt says in his book, HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU, don’t waste the pretty. Don’t lose any more precious sleep or brain cells on figuring it out. Just be grateful you are free to explore your next step forward. And imagine the lovely new people you’ll meet on your way.
P.S. Of course, there’s always the possibility it IS you. Who can say? But the same advice applies. Move on if it’s causing you pain. Find the group that embraces your unique brand of irony.
Your needs and goals as an artist will change and grow throughout your life. You will constantly gather the people you need to you.
And you will also periodically leave people behind.
I started this mini-series with a sort of Ugly Duckling story, as one reader noted. I told how my dog tries to be a cat, and why it’s a good thing he isn’t very good at it. When we find out we aren’t really “bad bankers” but are actually “really excellent artists”, it’s an amazing epiphany.
The second article talks about how to find your own tribe.
Interestingly, some people took that to mean searching out other artists who work in the same medium. Some took it as how some artists learn techniques from a master, then never really develop their own style.
Some even found their new “family”, but grieved when it, too, became contentious, confining and restrictive.
While some of us will be fortunate to find a wonderful, cohesive, supportive group of like-minded folks, others will struggle to maintain that in their lives.
Sad to say, but it happens.
The day may come when you have to leave your bright new tribe, and find another.
There are lots of reasons why this happens.
Sometimes the group is just too big. There’s no time for each person to have a turn to be listened to. You can feel lost in the shuffle.
Sometimes there aren’t enough “rules”. A few folks will take on the role of gadfly (aka “jerk”). Or there are too many rules, too much “business”. The lively group dynamic is strangled with too many procedural stops and starts. (I left one craft guild when the business reports began to take up almost half the meetings.)
Sometimes the group narrows its own dynamic. It can be subtle but powerful. You’ll start to feel constricted. Here’s a true story:
Years ago, a quilting guild I belonged to brought in a nationally-known color expert for a workshop.
During it, she commented that there were definite regional color palettes, patterns and technique preferences across the country.
I asked her how that happened. She said when members brought in their projects for sharing, some would generate a huge positive response from the membership. Others, more eclectic or “out there”, would receive a lukewarm reception. “We all crave that positive response”, she said. “It’s human nature. So slowly but surely, we begin to tailor our work to generate the bigger response.”
It hit me like a brick. Another quilter and I did more unusual fabric work. The response to our “shares” was decidedly in the “lukewarm” category.
And I had begun to do more work in the “accepted style” of the group.
I left after the workshop, and never went back. My fellow fiber artists were a great bunch of people. But I was not willing to “tamp down” my vision in order to garner their praise.
Sometimes, our course changes. We find ourselves in pursuit of different goals. Or we find our own needs sublimated to the needs of the group.
Or we simply grow faster than the rest of the group. You may even outgrow your mentor. If our work fosters jealousy–if our work becomes more successful, attracts more notice–then professional jealousy might raise its ugly head.
It can feel even harder to leave this new tribe that gave us so much joy at first. In fact, it’s brutal.
But it has to be done, if you want your art to move forward.
You cannot control the feelings of others. You can make yourself, and your work, as small and mundane as you can. But if someone is determined to nibble you, nothing can stop them.
Take heart in this knowledge:
This group served your needs for awhile. Enough for you to gain confidence, and to take a step forward.
And you will find another tribe. It may take awhile. But your peers are out there.
Consider that they may not even be working in the same medium. They may not even be visual artists. They may not be “artists” at all.
As long as they share the same values, or can support and challenge you in constructive ways, you can benefit from their company.
It may even be time for you to walk alone. Just for awhile.
Just long enough to really hear what your own heart is saying.