PROBLEM-SOLVING FOR CREATIVES #1: The Things That Hold Us Back

PROBLEM-SOLVING: The Things That Hold Us Back, Including Our Own Self-Doubt

When we get really good at making our art, it's easy to forget how hard it was to get there in the first place!
When we get really good at making our art, it’s easy to forget how hard it was to get there in the first place!

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.

PROBLEM-SOLVING: The Things That Hold Us Back, Including Our Own Self-Doubt

How Thomas Edison, Scarlett O’Hara, and Cake helped me through some hard places.

Years ago, the band Cake came out with an adorable video about their newest song, “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”.

In the video, people on the street are offered a chance to listen to a new song by an unnamed band (Cake) and asked for their opinions.

I love this tune! Every time I hear it, I want to get up and dance. It’s swingy, it’s lush, it’s pure-d fun.

In the video, about a third of the folks hate it, and tell us why. Another third like it, commenting on the parts that work, and don’t work, for them.

And the ones that absolutely love it? They don’t even talk.

They just dance.

They move to the music, oblivious to everyone else around them.

Why bring this up today?

Because I’m in the middle of a dream project I’ve carried in my heart for years.

It’s a new series of box shrines, made with antique, vintage, and distressed new wood boxes, painted, antiqued, screwed together in stacks, and mounted on wood bases. I will fill them with my own handmade artifacts. You can see them here on my Instagram account.

I’ve made them before, big ones. I had access to a friend’s woodworking studio, their tools, and their expertise.

This time, it’s just me.

Many, many things have held me back. Relying on antique and vintage boxes meant it was hard to have exactly the right stock for every configuration. I decided against using construction glue and epoxy this time around, because I found out the hard way that old wood can be more fragile than those glues. I still wasn’t sure how to mount the artifacts in the perfect way.

In short: I believed I couldn’t just start until I had everything figured out.

Which meant I didn’t start for more than seven years.

The pandemic changed everything. I had nowhere to go, no open studio events, no galleries open to selling work.

And also no excuses.

So I changed my attitude and my strategy.

I would start with what I had. If I could only put together a couple shrines, well, okay then.

And I decided I would just keep making and moving forward until I hit the next roadblock. And then I’d figure it out.

Guess what?? It’s working!

Every purchase that was a mistake? That was information on what would work better the next time.

I found sources for new wood boxes that I could distress and texture to look old, to fill in the gaps in my collection. A friend sent me a bunch of small handmade parts drawers.  I bought brackets and braces, experiment until I found the right ones.

Like Thomas Edison, I found hundreds of things that didn’t work.

And then I found exactly what did work.

One of my biggest hang-ups was finding shallower/flatter boxes to use as bases/foundations. They gave the shrines a more ‘finished’ look, but finding ones the right size and price was tricky. Until I finally found these affordable wood painting panels in a variety of sizes and shapes, that worked perfectly.

I agonized about how to make my own museum mounts for positioning and displaying the artifacts. But instead of waiting to find “the perfect one”, I bought one type. Instead of lamenting my inability to weld or braze, I thought of different ways I can make them myself. (And just as I’m writing this, I’m realizing I did a huge favor recently for another artist who is a life-long welder. Hmmmm……I think I know a favor I can ask of them!)

I worried about how many and what kind artifacts I need to make. But I’ve put that off for now because warmer summer months will be better for working with polymer clay. (My studio’s average winter temperature is 48 degrees.)

And the last barrier getting in my way? I wake up at 3:00 a.m., realizing my studio is now filled with soooo many shrines, there’s no room to even adequately display them all. And I’m worried no one will buy them.

My solution to that? I use what I call my “Scarlett O’Hara” approach: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

I tell my lizard brain to go back to sleep. It’s not about the selling right now, it’s about the making.

I’m sharing my progress on social media. That helps me not only record my progress, I also get to see the response. Which has been favorable!

Most people seem fascinated. They can’t wait to see where I go with them. Some have been inspired to explore their own versions. Many people are interested in a class, which, now that I have sources for affordable new boxes, could be possible.

And today, I came across an old journal from 2015, with those insights about Cake’s new song, which in turn inspired this article.

There are people who will love these shrines. There will be people who won’t.

And some won’t have any words.

They’ll just dance.

·        Just for today, don’t worry about who will and won’t like your work.

·        Just for today, don’t worry about whether it will sell.

·        Just for today, start that project you’ve always dreamed of. Experiment. Trial-and-error. Tiny steps forward.

·        Just for today, share your progress and process with your audience on social media.

Just for today, make the music that is your art, that makes you want to dance.

Ironically, today I also found this quote on Cake’s website:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

—Martin Luther King Jr.

Your comments are always welcome, often insightful, and sometimes inspirational, too! Shares, the same. You can find more of my articles at Fine Art Views, and/or visit/subscribe to them at my blog at LuannUdell.wordpress.com.

DREAMERS AND MUSIC-MAKERS

My original shrines made a great display of my work! And now the dream continues….

Sometimes I surprise myself.

When I wrote “Art for Money, Money for Art”, I was solidly grounded in my story, my artwork. But the world sure wasn’t. Ever since I’d started my professional art career, it seemed like every day, the news was full of something dire. It began with 9/11 and marched through invading more and more Mid-Eastern countries. Galleries struggled, sales wavered, and then finally, the Recession of 2008 put a dagger in my hopes of becoming a “rich and successful” artist.

And yet, my principles remained strong. I knew I was making my work for all the right reasons, even as some people mocked me for being a “Pollyanna” about my slumping sales.

When the Recession hit a few years later, I did get a little desperate. For the first time, I submitted jewelry work to a mail-order catalog. I learned a lot, a few items were accepted and published, and I made enough sales to heal my drained bank account.

But I also learned that making something strictly for money, something that was a ‘sure seller’, something I had to make hundreds of, was not for me.

Okay, I’ll admit, if I had to actually pay my own rent and put food on the table, I would do it differently. As my wonderful partner has said, “I get paid pretty well to do the work I love. It’s not your fault the work you love doesn’t pay too well.” Thank you, sweetie!

It’s just that making something to please someone else, making the exact same thing in multiples, over and over, and the betting on a sample that might bring in some money but probably not, became pretty stressful. It drained me. I was relieved to return to my happy place in my art-making.

Segue to the pandemic, where sales dropped for everyone….

One day in my studio, as I was composing yet another beautiful necklace, it hit me. I love making jewelry with my artifacts. It’s my best-selling category, too.

But I realized my studio is already full of jewelry. I don’t really need to make more, except that making makes me happy. (I’m sure autocorrect is going crazy right now…)

And I realized there was a big project I’ve been holding in my heart for almost a decade or more. I could feel it calling to me: My shrine series, from 2013.

What held me back?

  • Some technical issues I couldn’t figure out.
  • A lack of materials.
  • Worrying about whether it would sell.

I decided to simply start with what I had, and see what happened.

What happened was a small miracle.

  • Yes, I hit those technical issues pretty quickly. And guess what? After some trial-and-error attempts, I eventually figured out a good way to manage them. They were so good, I actually went back and took some earlier pieces apart and redid them.
  • I started work in a series of colors, making multiple versions that were still unique.
  • I found sources for almost everything I needed: Tiny brackets, even tinier screws, new candidates for smaller boxes and drawers, and work-arounds for every issue that cropped up.

I now have almost completed fifty shrines in my studio. (“Completed” is a relative term. Next come artifacts, and then mounting them in the box shrines.) I have so many, I’m now panicking about an upcoming open studio in June. Because my shrines have commandeered every inch of space in my studio.

Thanks and a hat tip to Natalia Gorwalski, who generously gave me these little tool/parts drawers, now painted and waxed and ready for stacking!

What kept me awake in the middle of the night?

Wondering if they would ever even sell.

I know this worry for what it is: My brain trying desperately to find a “solution” to an overabundance of shrines.

So today’s article “Fresh Drive” by Sara Genn, landed at just the right time for me. (Sara continues the journey of her father, Robert Genn, with their blog, The Painter’s Keys. Any creative can benefit from their shared insights and wisdom.)

I am again restored me to my highest, best, artist self.

Genn discusses “intrinsic vs extrinsic drive”. Extrinsic drive are the external rewards we seek from whatever we do, based on “if/then”. “If I stick to my diet, I can lose weight.” “If I work overtime, I can get make more money.” “If I create a chart, I can get my kids to do their chores.” Extrinsic drive is good for establishing new habits, getting things done, attaining our goals, etc. I would add, ‘seeking fame and fortune’ to those extrinsic goals, which is also a common goal for artists.)

But it turns out that extrinsic drive can be toxic to creative work. “Artists, it seems, are inspired by everything but an extrinsic reward.”

Aha!

“Intrinsic motivation is dependent upon three main factors; autonomy, or auteurship; mastery, or the pursuit of excellence in a given skill; and purpose, the soul-driven intention behind a quest or endeavour. Finding out one’s purpose is a lifelong exercise — and should be mutable and ever-evolving.”

My drive to make these shrines is a way to use this pandemic to work on something that has no endgame right now. I want to see them in the world. Every new one I put together is so satisfying!

I was delighted to see my “Pollyana” outlook reinforced by Daniel H. Pink, one of my favorite authors:

“Daniel Pink, an expert on human motivation, has made a case for imploring businesspeople to understand what artists innately already practice: in the near-carrotless world of fine art, where the journey is often the only reward, the ideas are inherently better. Without a known destination or straight path to victory, artists dwell in the periphery of problems and solutions, forced to look around and take time to contemplate options and routes to discovery. The secret to meaningful conceptual thinking is to circumvent the obvious and embrace the mysteries. This is how we surprise ourselves and push beyond the “first thought.” While the first thought may be the most expedient, it will not advance the artform. You must commit, over and over again, to putting yourself in the arena of better ideas, so that a process of discovery can take hold.”

Once again, I feel validated.

I started with a “first thought”. Then I quickly ran into every obstacle that’s held me back for years.

But this time, Instead of setting everything aside until I had a ‘perfect’ solution, I simply started.

As problems arose along the way, I figured a way through them, one at a time. I changed my mind about a lot of things, and learned a lot along the way. And as I got better, so did my strategies for solving problems.

I still wake up in the wee hours, wondering how I’m going to handle this or manage that. I still look at my studio and wonder, “Where will I even put all these??” “Will these ever sell??” “Should I start looking for a gallery to send an exhibition proposal to???” “Are these as wonderful as I think they are, or am I just kidding myself?????”

Go back to sleep, lizard brain. I got this! My newest mantra for my lizard brain is, “I’ll figure that out when I get there….” And so far, it works!

So for all the artists I’ve heard from over the years, especially this past year, who worry about sales, who struggle to keep making their work, who want to know how to recreate a successful time in their art career, who wonder if it’s even worth it if they can’t sell it, etc., here is my free advice:

Do what you have to do, to survive these troublesome times.

But never surrender the work of your heart, your art, your dream project.

 Find a way to dive in, today, now! Make a little room in your day for it.

Set aside your self-doubt, your worry, your self-judgment for now. Do what brings you joy. (Says Luann, scrubbing turquoise paint off her hands and face for the tenth time this month.)

We are not wishful thinkers. We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

Know that our artwork can inspire others on so many levels, in ways we can’t even imagine.

Follow your creative heart and never let it go.

Your comments are always welcome, often insightful, and sometimes inspirational, too! Shares, the same. You can find more of my articles at Fine Art Views, and/or visit/subscribe to my blog.

Small shrines, big shrines, and everything in between….

THE FOUR QUESTIONS #7: What Is Your Next Step?

Trite, but true: Every journey begins with a single step.

(7 minute read) 

Okay, you big dreamers, procrastinators (moi!), those who are stuck (oops…me, too!), and people who need it all figured out before they do anything, listen up! Question #2 can be even more important that Question #1!

Question #1, What is your greatest vision for (insert-your-heart’s-desire-here), is a great exercise for going big. Especially for those artists -who have been noticeably absent in art history, art galleries, and art museums, who don’t see evidence they, too, can be successful artists: Women, minorities, other cultures and ethnicities, etc. (Well. Women do show up a lot in art, but usually as subjects, and thus without clothes.)

But for us to “get big”, it’s not enough to just have a dream.

We have to do the work to make it happen. Or at least possible.

That means figuring out a path, no matter how vague, or improbable, to head in the general direction of our goals.

This can still be hard to wrap our heads around. “How the heck do I know what I should do next??”

Consider the following strategies, and hopefully, one will resonate with you.

1)    Eliminate the all-or-nothing approach.

There’s nothing more daunting than an ultimatum. 

The person who dreamed of accepting an award for a movie? They had stopped their film-making. They couldn’t figure out a way to support themselves with it, so they took a well-paying full-time job for a national service corporation.

But they were so exhausted by their day/desk job, they didn’t have the time or energy to create films. Since they simply couldn’t quit their job, obviously they had to give up their dream. Right?

The problem with this approach is, life rarely gives us the perfect opportunity, and all the breaks we think we need to move forward.

Sure, we all hear about people who took the big leap and landed it. They left their job, struggled for a couple years, and now they’re making six-figure incomes doing what they love.

The problem with this thinking is, in our hearts we recognize how rare this is. The older we get, the more responsibilities we take on: Family, aging parents, mortgages, preparing for retirement, health issues, etc. The reasons why we shouldn’t move forward can feel overwhelming.

A small solution to this problem is to carve out a place in your life (if you haven’t already done so) to acquire the skills, the experience, and the joy that comes from making your creative work.

This wonderful little article on how to move forward when we don’t even know what we want shows the importance of making room for doing what you love. It restores us to ourselves, so we can dream bigger.

The film-maker realized making a small, intimate, low-tech, very personal film around a major issue in their life could fit the bill. No expectations of greatness, fame, money, etc. Just something they’d dreamed of doing for awhile. And the scale made it highly doable.

2)    Start small: One action step in the next 24 hours.

What is one thing you can do TODAY to move you forward? 

One small step gets you off your…er…chair…and into active mode. I cannot emphasize how important, how empowering, even a tiny action can be.

First, you have to get out of bed. Not kidding!

I’ve been in a funk the last few months. Family issues, health issues, money issues. It’s consoling to let my art-making slack off (“I don’t feel like it!”) and feel sorry for myself.

I thought the issue was unsolvable. If a huge part of my work’s attraction is seeing it in person, even touching/holding it, (just ask my editor!) then how do I use the internet to market it?? If only a tiny number of my potential local audience ever even sees my work, let alone comes to my studio to experience it, how will I ever grow an audience large enough to support it?

After journaling about this, I realized that representation by a very few, but “good-fit” art galleries and museum stores could help me achieve this.

And instead of slogging through the hundreds or even thousands of potential galleries I could research, I could simply ask my community—those familiar with my work, and me—if they knew of such places.

I reached out on my blog, and Facebook, with my criteria: Would my work fit with the gallery’s aesthetic (and therefore, their audience?) Are the venues close enough that collectors could visit my studio here in Northern California? Is the gallery’s clientele willing to pay my prices? (I know with the right demographic, my prices are actually extremely reasonable for what I do.) Are the galleries close enough I can actually approach them in person with samples? Etc., etc.

Yes, a few people responded with well-intentioned but wild guesses. But a savvy few are responding appropriately.

Now I can use the internet, to research these galleries! Then decide which ones to visit in person.

The beauty of this small step is, even if none of these galleries work out, I’ve found that if the gallery owners/managers like the work (even though it doesn’t work for their customers), many are willing to suggest more appropriate venues—which will save me hours of research and legwork.

If your goal is so big, or so far beyond your imagining you can’t even begin to imagine how to get there, then Strategy 3 might prove helpful: 

3)    Work backwards from your goal.

You can’t win the lottery unless…..

One of my favorite all-time jokes is a minister whose church is in need. Every single day, he prays earnestly, “Oh Lord, please help me win the lottery!” This goes on for months. Until one day, the clouds roll, the lightning flickers, the thunder rolls, and a great voice speaks: “Do me a favor. BUY A DAMN LOTTERY TICKET!!!!”

Years ago, I attended a conference called Craft in the Digital Age. One of the speakers shared a linguistically unique way another culture expresses intention can have wonderful insights our own:

The first panelist was Lynn Martin Graton, Traditional Arts Coordinator for the NH State Council on the Arts… She spoke about living in Japan for some years, and her difficulty learning a language so different than the more familiar Romance languages.  She spoke about having to learn totally new concepts dictating how ideas were expressed, different expectations of the culture.  One example was how the English statement “I need to finish warping this loom today” would be expressed as “If the loom is not warped today, then nothing else can happen” in Japanese.  Part of learning such an unfamiliar language is to actively embrace the different cultural traits that spawned it….

For an expanded take on how this can work, read A Review of the Re-Do of the To-Do List.

Again, the way we tend to frame this feels like an ultimatum: “I have to do this!” Reframing it (“For the cloth to be woven, the loom must be warped”) makes it possible to happen.

To put this into practice, think what your ideal outcome is. Perhaps it’s “win an award at a prestigious art show.”

What would have to happen before you win? “Create an astonishing new work of art.”

What has to happen before that? “Start working on a new body of work, then pick the best one in that series.”

Before that? “I need more canvases!”

Or maybe your steps go (in reverse order), “Be accepted into that show”, after “Apply for the show”, and beginning with “Get the prospectus for the show”.

Why do such simple little “first steps” help so much?

In a series of goal-achieving blog articles I wrote awhile back, I talked about “micro-steps”: Why does something as simple as putting on your work-out shoes increases your chances of actually going to the gym?

People: It’s science! Studies showed that even that tiny step of putting on our sneakers can increase the likelihood we’ll follow through with our intentions.

It’s back to that old saw: How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

For the person who is asking the questions, when you and the speaker get to this question, your job is to keep asking, “What has to happen before this step?” (“For the cloth to be woven, the loom must be warped.”)

And for the person who thinks they had to clean their entire studio to get weaving again, remind them: You only have to clear off the loom.

I don’t have to clean my studio (today.) I just have to clear a little space.

Stay tuned for next week’s next question! It’s a doozy! Bring your hankies!