Bad/Mad/Sad Brain and “Aha!” Moments

Luann Udell shares how making the work we love, is a working meditation.
Luann Udell shares how making the work we love, is a working meditation.

Bad/Mad/Sad Brain and “Aha!” Moments

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.

Our brains are amazing! But we have to make sure we don’t overthink it….

After a full month of packing, one day of intense moving, and another month of unpacking, sorting, arranging, and making an empty room my newest creative space, my brain backfired Sunday.

I got to the studio nice and early. But my heart just wasn’t in it. I wandered around restlessly, moving a few things, put them back, and finally went home. I called my husband before I left, asking him if he wanted to blow off work and go for a drive. “YES!!!” he said. (He’s been working nonstop for months on a creative project, too.)

I thought that would take care of my ennui. Nope. Today is one of those days my editors, past and present, hate: I just couldn’t figure out what to write about.

And so here I am, typing furiously, to share the “aha!” moment I had today. (Technically, it’s still Monday on the West Coast….)

I got to my studio late. Yet again, I just wasn’t feeling it. I did sort a few things out, labeled some drawers, etc. (I organized my sticks. Yes, I have a picture.)

Yes, I sorted sticks today. DON’T JUDGE!!! 

But I just couldn’t get any energy to really set out my framed work, my jewelry, etc. (Most of the shrines are at a two-month long show at a gallery for another few weeks, which was a blessing during the packing and moving part!)

I couldn’t figure out why I was so unmotivated, after weeks of incredible energy and focus. And suddenly, it hit me.

I can’t figure out how to hang my work!

Bear with me here. I have quality picture hangers, I have just as much wall space as the old studio, and I’m pretty flexible about where they should go.

But the first time I hung one, I couldn’t hammer the nail-and-hanger into the wall!

At least that section of the wall is a sort of painted-over old paneling, the kind that has a lot of give, and probably isn’t real wood. I banged, and the wall bounced, and I got nowhere.

Okay, I thought, I brought in all those expensive stick-on hooks, the kind you can pull out the sticky strip later, and reuse. I was a little nervous about using them, because they have a tendency to not work well in cold or damp weather. But I gave it a long time to “set” and hung the first framed work. It look great!

It didn’t look so great an hour later, when it popped off the wall and shattered the frame. Dang!!! (That’s not what I actually said, but I’m trying to keep it clean here.)

The worst thing is, I couldn’t figure out what to do next.

Try another version of the same brand? Look to see if any of the walls are “normal” and “hammer-able”?  Check in with another artist there, to see if they had the same kind of walls? Check in with the building manager to see if he had any ideas??

Consciously, I thought I was “solving the problem”. But today, after two days of not coming up with a solution, I realized I felt “stuck”. And I couldn’t get myself to move forward.  It didn’t help that the next thing on my to-do list were taxes.

Oddly, that morning, at the gym, on my way out I said something to one of the employees. She was feeling a little off, she said. Me, too, I said. Maybe because it’s Monday?

But then I realized, Mondays don’t mean anything to me. They aren’t the day I “have to” go back to work I don’t care for. Monday is just another day where I decide what I need to work on. And it was sunny, after the “atmospheric river” that’s been hounding us for months. And it was actually almost warm. Why were we so down??

I shared with her a story I’d just read in a book I’m rereading, Unseen City by Nathanael Johnson. It’s a delightful book about how Johnson, wanting to share the wonders of nature with his three-year-old in Berkeley, CA, ended up learning—and learning to love—the species of animals and plants most people find offensive. He shares delightful stories about crows, pigeons, ants, snails, turkey vultures, and….

Gingko trees.

One day, as he walked along a street, he entered a mental state of high dudgeon. The world was an awful place. He felt angry, resentful. Then, a block later, he realized how good his life is, and felt normal again. He didn’t think anything of it until the next time he walked down that same street—and felt the same anger.

These bizarre mood swings continued for days, in the very same block, until he finally paid close attention to what was happening when they appeared.

He realized he was smelling a very foul odor, little whiffs. It actually triggered his inner feelings of disgust and anger, but unconsciously. When he looked for the culprit, he realized it was the fruit of a gingko tree, one of the oldest species still in existence today. The female gingko produces a fruit/nut that smells God-awful. (Words like dog poo, rot, and vomit are usually used. Oy!!)

A bad smell gave him hopelessness, despair, and anger.

So, two moments illustrating that what clouds our judgment, creates uneasiness and resentment, feelings of “less-than”, even anger, that had nothing to do with current circumstances.

Our brains are marvelous creations, capable of amazing feats. Our brains are also very ancient. Our brain is hard-wired to keep us safe from danger, like eating spoiled food or anything “disgusting”.  (For me, that’s broccoli!) As I mentioned in a comment in my last article, “keeping us safe” is also why we tend to ruminate over hurtful things people have said about us, or our work, while we forget all the wonderful things people have said. People who say hurtful things can be “dangerous”, and so their words “stick”.

And when we’re “stuck”, it keeps trying to work to find a solution, perhaps keeping us unsettled, unfocused, and vaguely uncomfortable.

When we are being “played” by our unconscious thoughts, we make up a story why we feel that way, just as Johnson thought life was unfair, unfulfilling, etc. before he realized he was being “triggered” by a bad smell. I made up a story about how I was too dumb to hang a picture right, that I felt stupid having to ask others how they managed. I was angry at my cat, my dog, and my husband, and I felt like I had nothing to say this week. (I do, bear with me.)

The solution? It’s another reason artists can usually deal well with adversity and obstacles, and persevere.

Making art, making the work we love, is a working meditation.

Doing work we find worthy, fulfilling, productive, actually brings us joy. It allows us to get into a deep, working mental space—literally, a working meditation–sometimes called “the Zone”. Time passes quickly.  We are immersed in our process. We are restored to our better selves.

So the more we “make”, the better we feel.

That’s when I realized that, though I would love my space to be “perfect” before I actually get back to work, it might be time to actually do some work.

So tomorrow, I think I’ll make something. Maybe finish that new bear I had to set aside two months ago. Maybe a new necklace. Heck, maybe I’ll take my sewing machine out for a spin!

I’ll try not to use my feelings-of-the-day to judge my life, or my art.

Fortunately, it’s not gingko fruit season. Yet!

Have you ever realized your downer mood was actually brought on by hidden thoughts or unrealistic goals? Or a gingko tree? (I don’t mean good goals, I mean like when I thought I could get my new space set up in three days!) What brought you back to your happy place? Lemme know!

EXERCISE FOR SUCCESS Tip #8: Get the right support.

Luann Udell discusses the importance of support.
Luann Udell discusses the importance of support.

EXERCISE FOR SUCCESS Tip #8: Get the right support.

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.

Find ways to “hold it together” during the hard times and the slow times.

We all need the right support, literally and figuratively.

In martial arts, no guy goes out on the sparring floor without a cup. And those of us women who are, er, heavily endowed on top need a sports bra for those more vigorous sports–jogging, kickboxing, etc.

And here’s my $100 tip for those women today: I used to spend big bucks and much time searching for the perfect sports bra, even by mail order. They either didn’t work as promised or I felt like I was girding chest armor for battle. Yuck!

Then I discovered you can simply wear TWO regular sports bras, even the cheapie brands. Together they work just as well as the much more expensive kind.

But the other kind of support that’s vital is the support of your community.

On the first level, in your intimate community, someone who genuinely wants you to lose weight and get fit (and surprisingly, not everyone in your circle wishes that for you.)

On the second level, in your immediate community it’s more fun to work out with others who are just as dedicated as you are to showing up.

And on the highest level, your bigger community, it’s a lot easier when you have the facilities of a local gym or Y. Or when your town provides safe places for you to run (good sidewalks, well-lit recreation areas, bike paths and bike lanes on roads, public-access basketball courts and ball fields, etc.) Sometimes we’ve lived in areas where even WALKING was not a safe activity, and pedestrian-access was limited.

The communities you find, develop, and grow for your art is just as important!

I wish our country’s public schools in supported the arts as vigorously as they do sports. (And I wish they supported the kind of sports EVERYONE could do for the rest of their lives (swimming, jogging, biking, walking, tai chi, etc.) rather than focusing on team sports only the best athletes can try out for after a certain age.)

That’s true with artists, too.

If your intimate circle is not supportive of the work you do–if they can’t respect your work time, or don’t value what you do–you need to keep your hopes and dreams to yourself until you find people who do. Write in a journal, or a blog instead. Find a family member who is on your team and share with them. Or mentor another family member–maybe you are someone else’s inspiration and cheerleader!

Find ways to share your art with schools, community centers, and other town/city resources. Show people that art isn’t “something special and precious” that only works for a privileged few. Show them that our creative work is a lifelong activity, a way to have a voice in the world, and a healing balm for our spirit.

Find people in your community who share your dreams and visions for success. Some of them may not be in your medium, some of them may be further ahead or behind than you in their progress. Some of them may not even be in the arts. They could be other small business entrepreneurs, or people who have strong personal vision for other good causes. You’ll find many of the same business strategies and exercises for staying focused and staying on your core vision are still similar.

And finally, find ways to make your greater community at large more supportive of the arts.

Tell people about what you do–open studios, press releases to your local paper, demonstrations and presentations to professional groups and schools.

Show up when development proposals come to your city council, and advocate for the arts.

Join local art organizations, and support them. Some of them are a time drag, and some are sorry things. But all of them work to increase the visibility of the arts, and their efforts may be the only way many people ever experience the arts. They at least deserve your money and word-of-mouth support. And you can always join their team and encourage them to find ways to be more effective and focused.

At their best, ones like the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen here in NH work tirelessly to promote their membership and the arts and crafts.

Support. We all need to get it and we all need to give it.

It’s the, um, foundation garment for what we do.

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EXERCISE FOR SUCCESS Tip #6 Measure your progress. And celebrate your milestones.

Don't miss Luann Udell's inspiring words on celebrating how far we've come.
Don’t miss Luann Udell’s inspiring words on celebrating how far we’ve come.

EXERCISE FOR SUCCESS Tip #6 Measure your progress. And celebrate your milestones.

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.

If we only look at how far we have to go, we forget to celebrate how far we’ve come.

This is one of the most important ways to encourage yourself to maintain an exercise program. And it’s one of the first things we neglect to do with our art and art business.

It’s such a simple concept yet so easily overlooked.

It’s a good short-term strategy to get you through your workout, of course. There’s a huge mental difference between the groan of “I’ve only done 20 pushups!” vs. “I’ve only got 20 more to go!”

But it’s even more critical for the long haul. “I can only do 25 pushups” is self-defeating. “I could only do four when I started this program, and now I can do 25!” is self-encouraging. Same number of pushups. Totally different mindset.

And guess which one will get you to the gym tomorrow?

It’s the same in your art, and your art biz. “I only have four galleries!” vs. “I had none when I moved here, and now I have four!!”

My first year in business, I had to save for three months to buy a piece of equipment that cost less than $200. That’s how much I sold one piece of jewelry for yesterday, in the first hour of my open studio.

I remember visiting the ACC-Baltimore show years ago, wondering if I would ever be able to get accepted to an amazing show like that. Then I applied, and was accepted. Now I wonder what all the fuss was about. It’s a very nice show, but was still just “business as usual”.

But is it really?

Looking at our accomplishments is important for several reasons. For one, it encourages us to stay the course. It helps us overcome feelings of discouragement, inadequacy, failure.

But most of all, it encourages us to turn around our whole way of looking at life.

You got rejected from that top-tier show? Well, you’re in good company. LOTS of great artists don’t get in every year. One well-known artisan shared that they apply to dozens of shows a year, hoping to get into a handful of them. Even the very best get rejected.

And look at you–an artist with great jury images and pretty cool work even applying to that show! Did you ever imagine you would ever CONSIDER applying to that show? And did you think you even  had a chance of getting in?

Look at you! You have the courage to follow your dream, make stuff with your own two hands, search out your venues, research your market, find a photographer, fill out those applications and get your work out there. Do you know how many people fail once–and never try again? Yes, you do. Because you yourself had to get over that mindset long ago to get where you are today.

Take a few minutes today and make a list. Start with everything you’ve already accomplished this year. Quite a list, isn’t it?

Now go back to last year. What did you accomplish LAST year? I’ll bet that’s quite a list, too.

Now look back five years. Ten years. Where did you start? How far have you come? Where are you now?

And look how much closer you are to where you want to be in the next five years! Ever so much closer than you were when you first started out.

When I first started out, I didn’t even know anyone who made stuff and sold it for a living. I didn’t have an idea. I didn’t have a photographer, a peer group, a network of friends in the biz. I didn’t have any idea how to sell my work, where to sell my work, or even who would buy it. I couldn’t see further than my own little town of Keene, NH for a market–though it didn’t take me long to figure out there was a big world out there!

I didn’t have a catalog, publicity, postcards, a body of work or any customers, let alone wholesale accounts.

I DID have a business plan. And every year or so, I pull it out and look at where I am in it.

It’s always an eye-opener. And it always needs updating.

No matter how big I dreamed, I always have to make the plan bigger. No matter how many goals I set for myself, I always have to add more.

Let’s make this beautiful day a “Pat Yourself on the Back” Day.

Let’s celebrate your progress, your efforts, and your future success.

Gosh, I’ve gotten myself so riled up, maybe I’ll make a list today, too.

Come back and share what surprised you on your list. What made you realize you are actually pretty good at what you do? Stick it above your work station. Let it remind you that one bad day/event/missed opportunity/year will not break you.

You got this!