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.

OPEN STUDIO for SOFA ART WALK

My brand new studio door. The studio is new, the door sign is new, and the door is freshly painted. So...new studio door!
My brand new studio door. The studio is new, the door sign is new, and the door is freshly painted. So…new studio door!
There are so many reasons why artists and other creative types should have open studios. You’d be surprised how many of them aren’t about the money.

Our big move to California last September upended a lot of things for both my husband and I. For me, I missed the League of NH Craftsmen’s Fair, which generates almost half my annual income for me. I’m also missing the FFAST open studio tour, and the Keene Art Tour, which I co-founded a few years ago.

I left without saying goodby to many lovely, loyal friends, collectors and patrons of my art.

And arrived in Santa Rosa where nobody knows my name. (OK, you folks in the back row saying, “Oh, WE know who you are, you smart aleck…”)

Today is the SOFA Art Walk, and my first really truly open studio, in my brand new space, filled to the brim with artwork, displays, and supplies.

I’ve been worried about the lack of traffic that usually happens down my little alley. I was worried about the massive construction project going on in the cafe around the corner from me, and the fact that Atlas Coffee won’t even be open this weekend. I’m worried my new visitors will suffer sticker shock. I’m worried about…..

Luann. STOP.

Finally, my right brain kicks in. Just as reasonable as my left brain, too.

It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter how many passers-by I attract to my studio today. Walk-ins were not how I grew my audience in Keene, NH.

It doesn’t matter that Atlas Coffee is closed. The owner has his own dreams, and his own audience. This is when the work had to be done (and you can already see how beautiful the improvements will be.) If anything, people will be just as interested to see the work-in-progress there, though we all miss their coffee. Depending on another small business nearby is not how I grew my audience in Keene.

It doesn’t matter that my prices may seem high. They’ve always been “high”, especially compared to big box stores and other small producers. Low prices and appealing to the masses is not how I grew my audience in Keene.

I think people grew to love my work for many reasons.

I’ve always wanted them to feel comfortable in my studio and in my booth. From the start, I’ve encouraged people to actually touch my work, pick up a little bear, or horse, or fish, and hold it.

I’ve always shared my stories, and my passion for my art. I did learn not to overwhelm people with my yakking (somewhat.) I let them browse, read, ponder. I let them really sink into the work, and wait for them to let me know they want to hear more.

I’ve (mostly) handled even rude and difficult customers (few and far between, thank, goodness!) with courtesy and patience.

I grew my customer base slowly, over the years, with these principles in mind.

And the same will happen here.

In my heart, I know it. As surely as I know, in my heart, that my work has a place in the world.

(And it helps that I also have a really great layaway plan!)