LEARNING TO SEE #9: Do the Right Thing

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.
What is our area of expertise, as artists? Use it!
This morning I read a column in our local newspaper, “The Right Thing” by Jeffrey L. Seglin. It was titled, “What is the right kind of help?”
Seglin mentioned that he’s had many discussions over the years about the role altruism plays in our actions, pondering whether any reward–a tax deduction, publicity, something nice for our resume or college application–negates our altruism.
And now someone was asking if we simply enjoy our action, doesn’t that diminish the outcome, too?
Seglin outlined a logical and reasonable response. But there was one point that in the past has simplified this feeling for me.
Here’s what I wrote to him today:
I read your column today in the Press Democrat newspaper, about someone who felt critical of people who volunteer to do things they enjoy.
This happened to me almost a decade ago. I was a hospice volunteer for five years, before we left NH and moved to CA.
If I mentioned this to people, people who had no experience with this work, they would act like I was an amazing person. “I can’t imagine doing that!” they’d exclaim. I would feel guilty, because I got a lot out of my volunteering. I learned so much about the end of life. Every single client I worked with was a different experience, some sweet and tender, others challenging. (Fortunately, I had an AMAZING supervisor who listened to all my questions and kept me grounded.)
I told my very-wise daughter this. (She became a hospice volunteer in her teens, and went on to become a social worker specializing in elder care.) I said I felt guilty when people praised me, as I enjoyed my work so much and learned so much.
She said, “So you should volunteer to do something you hate?”
Simple answer, putting all your own points into personal perspective.
We don’t have to suffer in order to do the right thing.
And if the “reward” is simply growing as a human, and being aware of that, it’s definitely not a “wrong thing”. If more of the world valued that “reward” over money and self-righteousness, I’m guessing the world would be a better place for all of us.
Why am I sharing this on Fine Art Views today, when we’ve been encouraged to only focus on art marketing during these challenging times?
Because as a creative, I can sometimes feel guilty about my own actions.
Is it right to focus on art maketing during times like these? Is it self-serving to post my newest work on Instagram, and Facebook? Does it ring hollow to ask for advice about a piece, in a posted pic, when people are dying in our streets, in their homes, on a walk?
I’d like to address these thoughts here, hoping I can walk you through this conundrum.
I love making my art. When I can’t get to it, on any level, I get ‘art withdrawal’ symptoms. I can even feel guilty about enjoying my making so much. After all, I don’t make much money at it, which is usually a major factor in evaluating the value of any activity. Saying it helps me feels pretty selfish. (I hear this from other artists, too!)
In this pandemic time and shelter-in-place orders, it can feel selfish to be able to continue this work. Why should I actually enjoy these restrictions, when others are losing everything: Income, human connection, health, even their lives.
With the protests, marches, the courage others have to take up an extremely important cause, why should I get to go to my studio and make little plastic horses?
And even my usual message, about sharing our art in the world so it can help, heal, and inspire others, seems pretty selfish right now. Hoping that share will help sell a piece seems pretty self-oriented, too.
And yet, there are plenty of ways I can use my art to help others.  There are plenty of ways I can contribute to do that without setting my art aside.
Here’s the thing: Years ago, when my partner and I were in couples counseling (we’ve been together over 40 years, so yeah, it works!) we had a fight about how some of our joint decisions were made.
Our counselor (who was amazing!) gave us the key phrase that clarified everything:
Listen to which of you has the most expertise in that area.
This simple insight has curtailed a lot of arguments…er, negotiations… in the years since.
What the heck does this have to do with art marketing?
Let’s start here: Our art is your area of expertise.
We know how to do it. We know we love doing it. Even if it is not our sole means of financial support, we know when we can’t/won’t/don’t make it, we feel something is missing.
Through my articles, I hope many of you see that our art can do this for others, too. People buy our work because it speaks to them, whether this is landscape of their favorite view, a subject matter dear to their heart, or simply something that brightens up their whole house. (Yes, it’s okay if it goes with the sofa!)
Even if they can’t afford our work, or don’t have room, or it’s not really something they’d actually buy, sharing it with the world has the potential to give something back to those who see it.
The fact that we love making it, that it heals us, that it brings us joy, doesn’t mean sharing it is selfish. Selling work doesn’t mean we only care about the money.
Making it is our reward. Sharing it rewards others.
If we think there’s more we can do to support the causes we care about in the world, there are ways to do that, too.
We can raise money with our work, if we choose: Donate to a fund raiser. Start a Go Fund Me campaign, with small rewards to donators (cards, prints, etc.) over a certain amount, and donating the proceeds to organizations who are forces for good in the world.
We can share our gifts: Offering classes to young people of different races and religions. Give talks in schools and expand the history of art to be more inclusive. Volunteer in any way that speaks to us. For example, I taught a grief writing workshop during my hospice volunteer years. It was a way to use my skills to encourage others to process their unique grief, in their own way, in their own time. We could volunteer in so many ways by sharing our skill sets!
Bud Snow was someone I met during my studio years at South A Street in Santa Rosa. They do large-scale public art, colorful, vibrant murals, usually up high. The featured work on that page I linked was a mandala painted on a cemented area on the ground, in a park near my studio. It took them much longer to paint than usual, because passers-by could stand and watch them as they worked, asking questions and in total awe of the work.
Soon Bud Snow offered every visitor a chance to help paint the mandala! I did, and over a period of four days, I saw them interact in a beautiful, powerful way with every singler visitor: Parents picking up their kids from the elementary school across the street. Local workers and business owners. Homeless people. Every single one of them was thrilled to take part. It was one of the finest, truest examples of ‘public art’ I’ve ever seen, involving members of the very community the art was meant to serve.
Yes, Bud Snow was paid for the mural. (Though the extra time spent with the public tripled the time it took, so they took a hit.) Yes, Bud Snow’s work is now a sort of very-public advertisement for their work. Each one enhances their reputation and their asking price.
And yet cities pay for public art because it’s considered a powerful force for good for their citizens. The premise is, art really is a gift that everyone deserves, not just wealthy collectors who will pay hundreds of millions of dollars for a single painting.
Does this give you inspiration to do something similar? I hope so! Especially if, as the old Greg Brown song goes, “Time ain’t money when all you got is time.” Our time can be a powerful donation.
But there are plenty of other ways to use our art, and sharing our artto serve a higher purpose.
Maybe all we can do is donate money. In my case, I’ve made a habit of setting up small monthly donations to many of the organizations working to make this world better for everyone.  This is a good thing, because these folks know exactly what is needed, and they know how to work to get it done. 
Maybe all we can do is give others a bit of joy by sharing our work online. I have a friend who posts a work of art every day on Facebook. They are not a visual artist, they share the work of other artists, usually works I’ve never seen before. They are all beautiful, and speak to her. Then she shares them and it speaks to me. They are one of the most aware people I know when it comes to the difficulties of ‘people not like us’ I know. Yet she also knows a bit of beauty can give us the inspiration to feel better. And when we feel better, we can choose to do better.
So yeah, it can feel weird to keep up with our online marketing in times like these. It felt weird to be making plastic horses on my 49th birthday, on 9/11.
It felt privileged, and entitled. I had to work that through, in my writing, to realize my desire to make art, to make this art, the work of my heart, was indeed a worthwhile thing to offer the world.
I rarely feel ashamed, or less-than, or guilty about it anymore.
Neither should you.
Make your art. Share it. Use it service, if you can or want to. Use it to get you to a place where YOU can be of serice, if you choose.
Art is not a luxury. It is a gift we’ve been given. It’s a gift we need. It’s a gift everyone needs, us, and the people who love it. We can practice it ourselves, or with others, for ourselves, and for others.  We can share it with others. And we can encourage others to find and use their gifts with it, too.
How are you using your art today? How are you sharing it with the world? I’d love to know, and others will, too!

As always, if you enjoyed this article, let me or my editor know! If you’d like to read more, you can either read more of my articles on Fine Art Views or subscribe to my blog at LuannUdell.wordpress.com. You can visit my older articles in the wayback machine at Radio Userland. (They are harder to search for, but they are also shorter!)

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BEING NICE vs. BEING KIND

“Being nice” is about caring about what other people think. “Being kind” is about you caring–and choosing–to be a better person.

From the moment we tried to grab a toy from another kid, (or tried to get back the toy they took from us) we’re told to “be nice”.

When that boy in on the bus said horrible, horrible things to us, we were told “he didn’t really mean it.” We’re not allowed to be  angry. We’re told to “be nice”.

Even Disney rubbed it in,  when Thumper says, “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” (Bambi)

“Nice” is a facade, a mask we’re supposed to wear in order to be seen as a ‘good’ person–especially women. At best, we may do it out of fear, to protect ourselves, or to avoid confrontation.

At worst, we do it so we don’t have to go deeper. It lets us off the hook for meaningful engagement. So being ‘nice’ can also be a social cop-out

Being ‘nice’ simply in order to get something you want is patronizing and shallow. When I hear about a guy complaining because a woman they just met, doesn’t want to sleep with him, even though he’s a “nice guy”, I want to say, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” (Courtesy of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride.)

To this day, even when someone is behaving badly, even to me, to my horror, I rarely ever confront them (except my poor husband). Instead, I back off or walk away. To call someone on their behavior is “not nice.” Heaven forbid I hurt someone’s feelings after they’ve just shredded mine.

Being nice hasn’t served me.

On the other hand, what about kindness? Let’s strive for that instead.

Being kind means being a real person, and striving to see others as real people, too.

Choosing to be kind is to create a state of compassion, to have empathy with another person or living thing.

It can be as simple as seeing–really seeing–another person, even if you cross paths for a few seconds.  A smile. A step aside to let them go by. Holding a door.  Even a quarter in the cup.

It can be as powerful as being a witness, recognizing what someone else is going through, and celebrating if-and-when they reach the other side. Being present, during a rough patch in their life, or at the end of life.

I’ve spent a lifetime being nice.

Now I want to focus on being kind.