LEARNING TO SEE Part 2: Checking Our Assumptions

Not everyone will like our work. Those who love it, may not be able to afford it.
Not everyone will like our work. Those who love it, may not be able to afford it.

LEARNING TO SEE Part 2: Checking Our Assumptions

LEARNING TO SEE Part 2: Checking Our Assumptions

Not everyone is our customer. But our admirers/supporters might be right in front of us!

Years ago, I joined a local group of creatives called “Creative Professionals”. It involved all kinds of people who did work most people wouldn’t call “art”: Professional photographers, graphic designers, writers, etc.

Led by a person who soon became a dear friend, we came up with the idea to have an unusual exhibition: We would each provide a sample of our day job work, and an example of our “real art”. A photographer, for example, might select a product photo created for a client, and a photo taken for pure pleasure. A graphic designer might select a logo created for a customer, or a pamphlet, and a sample of their original “just for me” art. I submitted a humor column for a craft magazine I once wrote for, and some of my poetry, including my artist statement.

We worked with a local business who provided us with exhibition space, and got to work.

My friend, oh heck, I’m just gonna give her a shout-out here, because she deserves it. Roma Dee Holmes is a wedding photographer (now exploring even new territory with her camera!) She’s also one of those rare people we are fortunate to meet in life, the ones often referred to as an “old soul”. Her insights and wisdom have helped me through some truly difficult times in life, and helped me see the beauty in the ordinary. I am in awe of her.

She led our little group with extreme patience and professionalism. Because creative professionals can be just as difficult to “herd” as cats and other artists. My admiration at her ability to efficiently run a meeting and make everyone feel heard is what blew me away at first. But her insights as a professional made me fall in love forever.

We wanted our event to be well-attended, and we were hoping more people other than just other artists would attend. (If you are already sitting up straighter, keep reading, because I got this!) We did the usual media blitz: Press releases, online media, radio spots, etc.

Roma went further, with this suggestion from her, regarding our unusual event, that’s one I’d never heard of before, and have not since.

She offered to handwrite 100 invitations on our behalf. All we had to do was submit a few names per participant. She would take care of the rest. Or we could write our own, no matter, just let her know.

What? INVITE people? With a handwritten note??? WHO?? WHY???

She explained that we probably all had a “big name” in our heads, an influential person, a potential buyer, someone we’d long hoped would find our work and buy it someday.

Dream big, she said. Just ask them to come.

I struggled with this. Me, who ran workshops and wrote articles about publicity for artists and art events, who got feature articles in our local newspaper and beyond with my press releases. Just ask them to come?

But I came up with my own little list, wrote the invites, and mailed them.

One was to the editor of our local newspaper, a really nice person with a great sense of humor. They were already an acquaintance. We’d met at the playground at the elementary school where both their child and mine went to school. We used to chat. I didn’t know what they did, and they didn’t know what I did for years. Then one day I said something and they exclaimed, “Wait, you’re Luann Udell?? I’ve read about you!” (I may have figured out who they were, because after all, their name was in the paper every day.) Then we’d play catch-up on our respective projects and big plans ahead.

They were at the top of my list.

I included people I knew, people I’d heard of, people I knew but never discussed art with, people who had good income, people I’d heard collected art, etc. Mailed them, and waited to see what would happen. So did everyone else.

Our little art event was one of the most highly-attended I’ve ever seen. The place was packed, and the energy was a-buzz.

Yes, my editor friend was there, too. And they said something I’ve never forgotten.

“This is amazing! The art here is so interesting! I didn’t know so-and-so did this other work! I’m amazed at your writing, I didn’t know you were a writer! I’m so glad you invited me!” And then these words:

“I’ve never been to an art reception before!”

What?? The person who sees all this stuff, all these events, in their own newspaper every single day – had never been to an art reception? I asked them why not.

Turns out they’d assumed only “real art collectors” were welcome. “I didn’t know ordinary people could come!”

This person, one of the most well-known, well-liked, well-respected person in our community, did not know they would be welcome at an art reception. (I also loved that they referred to themselves as an “ordinary person”!)

I’m sharing this story with you today, inspired by something I read in The Painter’s Keys a couple weeks ago. The article talked about open studio events, and how to interact with visitors. I loved everything in that article except one comment. “In my mind”, they wrote, “(visitors) should also be a bit special in their exclusivity.”

I know the point is that not very Tom, Dick, and Harry (Ann, Fran, and Sally, to be more inclusive) should necessarily be there.

But if artists truly are “the people who ran away to join the circus”, it’s ordinary people who might very well be the ones who need to see the magic in what we do.

Not everyone will like our work. Those who love it, may not be able to afford it. As I’ve written for the past several weeks, there are many reasons why people can’t, or won’t, buy our work.

But we also may overlook the very people who could help with that.

My newspaper editor may or may not collect art. But they were actually a creative professional, too. And like us creative professionals, they had an opportunity to peek behind the tent curtain to another world.

They also know a lot of people in our community, from all walks of life. I know that the next time they met with those folks, there’s a better chance they would recommend my work, simply by sharing what they loved about it. We forget that everybody knows other people, including people we don’t know.

And if they needed a special gift for someone, say, a beautiful little horse necklace, they now know where to get one.

Roma wisely encouraged us to use our own current social connections to help us get the word out about our event, and our art. (I can’t remember if any of my other invites succeeded, but some of the other artists’ invites did.)

I just remember the joy and astonishment both me and my invitee felt. It reminds me that art is for everyone. It reminds me that all creative work is always about connection.

And connection can be found in both the strangest, and the most ordinary, of places.

LESSONS FROM THE GYM: Working That Tiny Muscle

by Luann Udell
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.

Sometimes it’s tiny adjustments that bring about desired outcomes. 

I’ve written a series of articles on my blog about the conversations I overhear while working out at the gym. 

This isn’t quite the gym you’re thinking of. The physical therapy group I use also provides an independent gym program: When a client completes their physical therapy plan of care, they can chose to continue using the facility’s equipment on their own. I follow an exercise plan created especially for me by their PT or athletic trainer. The advantages are, it’s inexpensive, I receive continued monitoring by the staff, I get regular updates to the exercise plan, and I’ve found wonderful social connections. I love these guys! (Er…I’m from the Midwest, so “guys” means men AND women.)

Many of the articles in this gym series are insights I’ve gained from overhearing remarks and conversations between therapists and clients. (I never reveal health issues, therapy, nor treatment, not even the gender of those involved.) These observations spawn many “aha!” moments in my growth as an artist.

I’ve also watched many young people, people who want to pursue physical therapy, observing and ‘shadowing’ the therapists, accumulating hours for their own degree programs in this field. I love to ask each one of these observers, at the end of their time, a simple question:

“What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned from your observations here? Something you did not, or could not learn or observe in the classroom?” 

Surprisingly (or not!), every single person has learned something different.

The most recent observer noticed two things, and today’s article is about her first “surprise”.

They watched one therapist working with a client.  The client tried an exercise the therapist had given them, to help restore strength and function to a weak muscle. The therapist watched and then said, “Okay, when you do this exercise, you need to rotate your foot slightly, to here (gently repositioning the foot) to target this specific muscle we’re working on. Otherwise, you’re engaging and working a different muscle, and you won’t gain the results we need.”

I asked the student why that was surprising. They replied, “I had no idea that such tiny adjustments could alter the outcome of the therapy.” 

What a subtle observation! I have no doubt this young person will become an excellent therapist in the years ahead.

How does this relate to artists? So glad you asked!

To start with, keen observation is the very heart of an artist. There is something we “see” in the world around us, whether it’s a beautiful landscape, the way whiskers in an animal portrait catch the light (from a comment by a reader a few weeks ago!), the colors we hope to capture in a vessel’s glaze. A split second of action, or the deep emotion of the moment we hope to freeze in a photograph. The intoxicating aroma of a new perfume, or the feel of a handwoven shawl, the tacit feel of a hand-carved object. All these are tiny details, aspects of the world we notice that many do not. These details are the things we yearn to recreate, or capture, or echo in our own work. Then our mission, and hope, is to share these observations with an audience.

Yep. I’m that person at the ocean, looking at…..rocks. Every. Single. Rock.

Then there is the power of those tiny details in our work. These details are exactly what my audience loves about my work: How it looks, how it feels, are all small pleasures they experience, and enjoy. Every one of you has something, often tiny, often overlooked, that you pay deep attention to, to help you connect YOUR work with YOUR audience, too.

There are the tiny skills we acquire, sometimes over years, sometimes over a lifetime—how to utilize an ordinary pencil to its deepest purpose, to recreate a three-dimensional object, or an intricate pattern, a shadow, or a splash of light. Something most people use (if ever) for their shopping list hanging on the fridge, becomes a powerful tool in the hands of an expert. And the same for manipulating paint, paper, clay, metal, fiber. If you’ve ever watched a potter centering clay, then pulling up a form, you know the magic of what looks like the clay forming itself into a beautiful shape. It looks so effortless, yet if you’ve ever tried it yourself, you immediately appreciate the incredible skill and interplay of arms, hands, fingers needed to get it just right.

We use another set of tiny skills in the ways we let the world know what we’ve made. Advertising, marketing, doing shows, open studios, demonstrations, word-of-mouth, business cards, are all ventures comprised of a million tiny, individual, focused decisions, actions, and steps. Don’t we know it!  From deciding which images to use in our self-promotions to what shows and galleries we should consider, all break down into very tiny steps: Researching that gallery online. Visiting that show. Posting our work on social media. Filling in our calendar with deadlines. Skip some of these tiny steps and skills, and you may end up spending a lot of time and money on a show that does absolutely nothing for your art business. Just like my column on why our work costs so much, for every hour we spend “on the stage”, there are thousands of hours, spent on just as many teensy tiny tasks that helped us get there.

Is social media become a daunting task for you? I’ve learned that simply posting a single image (and comment) to Instagram is a tiny, efficient way to keep my work in the visual stream. I’ve set up my account to repost to Facebook and Twitter. My blog is set up the same way. I may not have the time to devote hours to social media daily, nor do I want to. But this is a very small effort that feels rewarding.

We know the power of committing some small part of our day to the service of our art, every day. It’s so easy to look at our to-do list, and promise to do our work “tomorrow”. But very tiny adjustments can help. Just as simply putting on our gym shoes can help us be more vigilant about exercising, I find that setting something I need to take to my studio (a piece of fabric, a string of beads, a half-finished artifact) on the kitchen counter the night before helps solidify my plans for the day.

And last but not least, very tiny revisions to how we approach customers can create great changes in our connections.

We now know that the greeting, “Can I help you?” will be usually be met with a “No, thank you, just looking.” While the greeting, “IF I can help you, just let me know!” will be met with a heartfelt, “Why, thank you!!” and the visitor digging in for a really GOOD look.

We know that saying, “It took me 39 years to make that pot!” may get a laugh, but not a connection. But saying, “As a child, I was very close to my mother, who was a potter, and I used to sit and watch her in the studio while she worked. I’ve been fascinated with clay ever since, and I’ve been working with it for over forty years. And when I make a beautiful pot, I think of her…..” may start a rich conversation.

We’ve learned to identify the questions that deserve a good answer, and the ones that really don’t. We know how to tell the people who are really are our allies, and the people who will never be—and that this is not our fault.

As artists, we all know the power of those very tiny adjustments can make all the difference in ourselves, our art—and the world.