Keep your audience and collectors in touch with your art/life changes!
On my kitchen wall, the wall that shows up in my Zoom meetings, is a bright red maple leaf. Not a real leaf. It’s hand-carved and painted, in wood. It joins a collection of fall landscape paintings, and like them, holds many memories of living in the Northeast/New England. (A friend in New Hampshire told me that only three countries in the world host these amazing, colorful trees: The United States, Canada, and Japan.)
There’s a story behind this leaf. (Of course!)
It took place many, many years ago, at a huge 9-day show in New Hampshire, The League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair.
I was still pretty new to the show. Across the aisle from me was a longtime craftsman, who worked in glass. In between the previous year’s show and this one, he switched medium. He now made marvelous nature objects, carved from wood, and painted.
I loved his work, he loved mine, and we had several lovely chats during the show. He had a huge audience, having participated in the show for a long time, and always did well with sales.
Not this year!
His collectors and followers came to his booth. They were stunned to find a completely new body of work. And most of them left fairly quickly, without purchasing anything.
He was stunned to the point of having a panic attack near the end of the first day. (We were told at first he’d had a heart attack, which can mimic the same symptoms, but fortunately a panic attack is non-lethal!) A friend came to cover his booth, (he’s the one who filled me in on the backstory) and a few days later, the artist returned.
He was devastated, of course, and we had a lovely talk.
I told him his new work was beautiful, and in time, he would either regain his audience, or grow a new one. It wasn’t the quality of his work that was failing him. It was catching his long-time audience off-guard. He needed to give them time to adjust.
I know this phenomenon all too well! My work has never fit into anyone else’s “box”, and new work takes time to sell. (Okay, ALL my work takes time. That can get discouraging in hard times, but it has never stopped me.)
He was grateful for my encouragement and insight. The next day, he brought me my maple leaf! And sure enough, even by the end of the fair, his sales were inching up. (Many were new people who were unfamiliar with his former body of work.)
How does this relate to a turn signal while driving? (You know I’ll find a way!)
One of my biggest pet peeves while driving is, when people don’t signal a turn, or a lane change, until they’re actually acting on it. Which isn’t helpful or useful for those of us passing, or approaching an intersection.
Turn signals are for letting others know our intentions. We need to activate that turn signal to let others know we’re going to get into their lane, or slow down to turn soon. (Yes, some people leave them on, which is also confusing. But it’s better to slow down when we don’t have to, rather than maintain our speed, not knowing what they plan to do.)
If this artist had prepared his audience, alerted them of his intentions…
If he had send out a postcard, or an email newsletter, letting them know he was switching gears/directions/media…
They would not have been so surprised when he showed up with a totally new body of work.
Instead, he caught them off-guard, unsure what to say, being disappointed the work they’d grown to love was no longer available.
In fact, he could have even staged a sell-off of his other work from his studio. (This was before the days of online shopping and artist websites!) It would have given his faithful collectors a last chance to purchase his work, and generated some excitement and interest in his new work.
Of course, in these days of social media and our intense use of email newsletters, more people can be aware of our own life lane-changes. We can use these powerful tools to keep our audience informed: New work. New media. New techniques. New studio location.
That little red wood leaf is a powerful reminder for me:
A reader left a comment on a recent blog post, and raised a good point about whether our art is affordable, (including mine), and offered their conjecture on why it might not be realistically priced.
I started to reply, but four paragraphs in, I realized it was another post!
Re: Your question about whether the price of our art reflects the artist’s personal desire to be of worth at the expense of getting their work out into the world, and into the hands of a admiring owner.
Welp, yes, both of your points are valid.
ANYTHING we buy reflects the time, the materials, and the quality of the object, whether it’s a BMW, or a pair of pearl earrings from Tiffany’s, or a head of organic lettuce.
ANYTHING we make will appeal to many who can’t afford it.
And yes, sometimes a maker’s price may seem based on nothing but their own thoughts, though my experience is that’s more true of “brand” name products. (See luxury items above.) (Okay, organic lettuce isn’t really a luxury brand. But some folks are willing to pay more for it, and some aren’t.)
As for your thoughts about artists over- valuing their own self-worth, some creatives get to the point where they have to raise their prices. Which is a good thing!
Say we price a painting at $2,000, which is pretty reasonable. If it’s framed, that’s included in the price.
If we sell it through a gallery, the gallery will take up to 50% of that income. (In NYC, just before 9/11, some elite galleries took 60% commissions, with less than half going to the person who made the item.) And we pay income tax on that sale, too.
If I sell online, it takes time to take good-enough images, time to edit and upload them, time to create a listing, and time to prepare the item for shipping. An unbelieveable amount of time. I can’t tell you how much time it took to calculate shipping for various-sized packages to potential customers half a dozen countries around the world. (Thank heavens for Etsy’s new automated shipping calculator!!)
We may rent studio space (I have to, in California, and studio rent is not cheap). If we participate in art tours, I have to cover the fees for that, and I need a business license, and often liability insurance.
If we do shows, we pay those fees, and expenses for traveling to shows. I did that for years. Some of those major shows cost upwards of $2,000 or more to enter. And that doesn’t include the time to get there and back, our hotel stay, our on-the-road meals, in my case, the cost of shipping my inventory and booth since I never had the right vehicle to transport them.) In 2008, I spent over $15,000 on three major shows across the country, and sold about $2000 worth of work. That’s when I stopped doing those shows.
We do our own marketing (photography, ads, design work for postcards, business cards, ads, etc,) or pay someone to do it. We often pay for workshops to get better at our work, and/or better at our marketing.
Now let’s say we have good sales, and eventually the demand exceeds the supply. We can only produce a finite amount of work in a year (unless we hire help, which is a whole nother can of worms.) That means we can increase our income gradually over time, doing the same amount of work and time, only by gradually raising our prices.
It’s not our own sense of self worth. It’s our audience’s sense of our worth.
I’ve been told my prices are too high since I started my art biz almost 30 years ago. I charged $18 for a one-of-a-kind handmade horse artifact pin. And some people complained it was too expensive. As I raised my prices over the years, the comments continued. And yet my sales stayed relatively the same. Which tells me I have an audience, a small one, who will see its worth, and there will always be people who won’t pay my prices. I have to be okay with that.
Here’s the thing: I believe we simply can’t afford everything we like, and when we find something we like, we either recognize how unique it is–if we don’t buy that one piece, there will never be another exactly like it–and jump. (Which is why I offer layaway.)
Or we unconsciously look for reasons why we shouldn’t get it, such as price. This helps assuage our conscious about saying no. (I’ve done it myself.) There have been things I’ve jumped on, though I didn’t need another one, and the price was high. There have been lower-priced things that weren’t quite enough….and walked away.
I’ve had people with little income who find ways to collect my work, through trades, layaway, or buying a smaller piece.
I’ve had people who live in grand homes and drive pricey cars who say they can’t afford my work. (A lot of my work is still well below $100.) Of course, maybe that’s why they’re so rich! 😀
Frankly, my work isn’t that expensive relative to the “real art world”. Very few of my major pieces barely even compete with the lowest prices of local painters.
The day a good friend sold a $10,000 piece the first day of an open studio tour but complained sales were flat the rest of the weekend, I had to clutch my coffee mug. I was so envious! And yet, it only took a few seconds to get my heart in the right place to congratulate them. They have skills, they have a terrific reputation for great work, and I love their work. They have found their audience, an audience that truly values their work, and I’m still building mine here in California. That’s all.
Knowing our worth is not a bad thing. And though some artists will over-charge for their work, it’s still up to each of us to determine if it’s worth it for ourselves.
Now, as for getting our work out into the world:
I do that every day.
My art is hosted at my website, my Etsy shop, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linked in, and sometimes Tumblr. Also in galleries in New Hampshire and here in California. I have open studios, and guests are always welcome in my studio. My work is often purchased and given as gifts, which I love, because someone sees something in my work they know someone they care about will truly appreciate.
And every single time I’ve felt desperate for sales, every single time I’ve broken my own rules and offered “a deal”, it’s felt awful. Like I’m selling myself short. And almost every time, the purchaser admits they could actually afford it, they just thought they’d try to dicker to see what happened. And I fell for it.
And every single time I’ve stuck to my guns, politely and with integrity, I’ve been rewarded with a sale, maybe down the road a ways, maybe with another buyer, but still worth it.
And yes, I’ve already had my work found at estate sales and yard sales for a very low price. At first that was a little daunting. But again, every time that happens, the person has loved it so much, they’ve tracked me down to find out more about me, written to tell me how much they love it, and sometimes even purchased another piece.
Some people do literally give away their work, to support causes they believe in, or to simply bring joy to others. I’ve given away work, though never to people who dicker or complain about the price, but to those who I know have been through hell and back, who need the gift of my work to help heal.
I give back in the ways I’ve mentioned, and also through my writing. Through this blog, and I’m a columnist for Fine Art Views. I share what I’ve learned as an artist with others for free. Here’s an interesting fact: When I first started writing a column for a fine craft magazine and other platforms, I made $350-$500 an article. Today I get $45 an article, if anything, and a free website (valued at $35/month. You do the math.
But I still write, because I have to. I have to get my art-and-life lessons out, to get clarity in my head and love in my heart. Also because every single time I publish, I get at least one person who said it was just what they needed to hear that day. So my writing is my (free or almost-free) labor of love.
The last way I get my art out into the world is also powerful.
When I have visitors, especially younger people and millennials (whose buying habits inspired this series of articles), I don’t twist arms to make sales. I let them explore my space, examine my work, hold my work, and read my signs about my inspiration, my insights, my hopes and dreams.
Most can’t afford my work. But for them, the conversation turns into something else.
I ask them about their own creative work. They share what makes them happy, and I encourage them to make room in their life for it, whether they can earn a living with it or not.
It can be painting, cooking, gardening, teaching, construction, singing, any activity that, when shared with the world, makes other people happy, and makes the world a better place. (I tell them my advice is worth every penny they paid for it.)
So it’s okay with me if someone can’t afford my work (in a nice way, I mean.) I get it. It’s okay if they believe my work is overpriced, too. It just may not be worth it to them. It’s okay if they believe I’ve inflated my prices because I have no idea of its real (less-expensive) value. (Well….kind of okay….!)
In the end, I do what I can, I do what I have to, and I do what I love. That’s the best we can do, and that has to be okay.
I didn’t get to know Edith Grodin until she was dying.
Oh, I knew who she was, and spoke to her many times. She and her husband, Dick, were huge supporters of the prestigious League of NH Craftsmen. I often saw her during the Craftsmen’s Annual Fair in August. Once Edith bought a lovely necklace from me for her granddaughter, a Gulf War veteran. That was the beginning of many enjoyable Grodin family visits in my booth. Soon three generations of Grodins were wearing my jewelry. Husband Dick and son Richard gently refused my generous offers of earrings (but finally accepted a small horse sculpture.)
Edith moved confidently throughout the League and its activities, serving on the Board of Trustees. She was good friends with many craftspeople, and respected by us all.
I thought we’d have a lifetime to get to know one another better.
We had only a year.
There came a Fair where she did not appear. Instead, a little note appeared in the Fair newsletter handed out each day. “I’ve lost my battle against cancer,” she said. And she asked for visitors.
Still, I hesitated. Some families hunker down during tough times. They don’t welcome outsiders. But my hospice volunteer training had made me a bit braver. And so I called one day. Dick answered the phone and encouraged me to come by.
So began an amazing journey, rich in laughter, good cheer and life lessons.
Edith was able to remain in her beloved home until her death. She faced it with peace in her heart (though she was “busy” and engaged til the end.) I had the sense she had done–or tried–her best, and knew it. That gave her great comfort. She voiced no regrets.
There were many, many sweet moments: Learning how Edith and Dick met, and how they built their life together.
There were some sober moments: Speculating on an afterlife. Wondering how her family would cope with her loss.
There were many, many funny moments. Her sense of humor was delightfully sharp and quick. She hungered for tidbits of news and gossip, eager to hear about the outside world. I shared some of my favorite gossip, and she shared hers.
My favorite time was when I called her after having surgery myself. I complained that my family was very supportive and caring–the first few days. After that, everyone mysteriously disappeared early in the day, forcing me to struggle on my own for coffee and other necessities.
Edith confided that her family had done the same thing–so solicitous the first few weeks. Then, when the novelty of the situation had worn off, not so quick to wait on her hand and foot. “But Edith,” I exclaimed, “You’re DYING!”
“I know, right?” she replied cheerfully.
I won’t go into Edith’s (and Dick’s) many years of military service, their wide and varied contributions to their many communities and causes. There are others who can speak better about that than I. Suffice to say, the word of the day at the Grodin household is service.
There was their service to their country, of course, extending several generations. And their fierce love of family and friends. They supported many good causes, and gave generously not with just money, but in words and time and attention.
To them, being a good citizen was not just being involved. It wasn’t just contributing. What astonished me was Edith’s desire to build something for a community that simply wasn’t there before. They would see a need, and work to meet it.
She and her best friend started a craft show, and ran it for many years. No wonder she felt so at home at the League’s Fair! She campaigned fiercely for their new headquarters in Concord, and was overjoyed the transition was accomplished in her lifetime. I soon lost track of all her achievements and projects and contributions. The list is long, and all of it amazing.
Over those last months, my respect and awe for this woman grew and grew.
And so did my determination to learn from her courage and dedication.
It was like she left me with a challenge: Find a need, and fill it! Don’t just stand there–do something! If nobody else will do it, do it yourself!
In the past year, I’ve helped Keene start its very own Open Studio Tour. I also created an event that’s long been dear to me–a garage sale for artists and craftspeople. In fact, I may miss her memorial ceremony because it’s the same day as the Keene Art Garage Sale, and I’m the only one running the show. Somehow, I don’t think she’d mind.
Small projects, in the greater scheme of things, I know. And yet I never thought I was capable of doing something like this, or that I would enjoy it so much.
I have Edith Grodin to thank for that. Her quiet pride in her achievements, her natural tendency to create opportunities for other creative people, in addition to those she made for her country, her community, her friends and her family, all inspired me to think bigger and do better.
It was a short year, but a rich one, and one I will always remember.
Thank you, Edith, and goodbye.
“I live my life in widening circles
That reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete this last one,
But I give myself to it.
I circle around God, that primordial tower.
I have been circling for thousands of years,
And I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
A storm, or a great song?”
Sometimes we could–should–listen to our hearts instead of our bodies.
It’s been a long, wonderful week at this year’s League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair up at Mt. Sunapee Resort in Newbury, NH. Busy! So busy the time seems to fly by. Lots of new faces, and familiar ones, tales of happiness and sorrow.
My heart is full when I come home, but my body is racked with pain.
Last night, I had a session with a chiropractor, who, like me, has a martial arts background. I mentioned I was thinking of returning to my practice. The hurdle is this: Usually I return to classes to get in shape. As I age, I should really be in better shape before I attempt to do that.
He said it was a wise choice. I’ve had a lot of injuries and another surgery in the last year, and things–alignment, balance–are out of whack. “If you return now, without letting your body heal, your muscle memory will kick in. Your body will try to do the things you used to do. But you can’t do them right now, and you’ll injure yourself trying.”
Aha! That’s why some of my ‘returns’ have been so short-lived!
That phrase–muscle memory–stuck in my mind, and helped me understand where some of my discomfort at the Fair comes from.
Most people think we artists and craftspeople are like a big family. Well, that’s more true than you know. When I first joined the ranks, I felt like I’d found my tribe, my true heart’s home. It was a shock to realize it really is like a big family. (I have personal experience–I’m the oldest of seven children.)
Some of us don’t speak to each other. Others come to us for support and comfort and inspiration constantly. Professional jealousy rears its ugly head constantly. And there are others who cheer us on with every step.
Set-up is the hardest. One minute you’re offering someone your precious stool, and the next you’re snarling at them to move their junk out of your booth space.
Sometimes too much has passed between you. Then there is no opportunity missed for a caustic remark to be made, even as you win an award. Some cannot even bring themselves to greet you as you pass on your many trips to the bathroom or Fair office (or the bar at the top of the hill.)
For these times, there is muscle memory: Your body, remembering the acts of unkindness, shrinks when you see them, and you cannot bring yourself to even pretend to be polite anymore.
And sometimes it’s us. We’ve done somebody wrong, and it’s time to admit that. Take responsibility for it, and say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me. And if you can’t, I understand.”
Then try to live with the fact that we, too, are imperfect people.
I have done things I’ve had to ask forgiveness for. And sweet Jesus, I received it. I have others who have asked forgiveness from me, and I am overwhelmed by their humility–and courage. It takes real courage to apologize. I know. I’ve been there.
In the end, we have to trust the work of our hands, and the work of our hearts. We live in this tribe, in many tribes, actually. We live in this world.
I like to think if we could trust the muscle memory of of hearts and spirits, a little more than the muscle memory of our bodies, just a little….
Then maybe someday we could even have peace in the Middle East.
Okay, that last line is a family joke, and perhaps not even a very good one. (“I hat you” is also a long-standing family joke.)
But that’s what families are for–a place where we can work out our little dramas and big heartaches, and ultimately find a place where we can stand and say, “You’re a poop, but I love you, and yes, I forgive you. Seventy times seven.”
And cross our hearts and hope for the best.
May you be able to forgive, seventy times seven. And may you also be forgiven, at least ten times as much.
Being a part of someone’s life, because of the work we make, is a powerful thing.
Today is Day 4 at my big retail show, The League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair. It’s been exciting, exhausting, enervating, exhilarating, excellent and entertaining. Sort of New Hampshire’s own Big E.
Years ago, a mother and her young daughter came to my booth. The girl–around 9 or 10–fell in love with my horse jewelry, and begged her mom for a necklace.
“No way!” exclaimed her mom. “You always lose your jewelry. You lose everything!”
The girl pleaded her case, promising she would cherish the necklace. There was a little bargaining involved, I found a horse necklace that was a little less expensive, and both of them left with their Luann Udell horse.
Scene: My booth, one year later. A girl and her mother walk in the booth. The girl is wearing–my horse necklace!
We hug and laugh. Her mother tells me the story: “Every night, before she goes to bed, she takes off her necklace and places it in the gift box you gave her. And every morning, she puts it back on. It is the last thing she does before she sleeps, and the first thing she does after she wakens.”
I was so moved that she loved my work so much. I told this story to a friend. She said, “Do you realize, Luann, that YOUR jewelry is her first piece of ‘grown-up jewelry’? Your necklace took her to the next place in her life–you’ve been a part of her growing up.”
Now they come back every year. Sometimes the daughter buys a pair of earrings, sometimes her mother buys a necklace. Sometimes they pick something together, agreeing to share it between them.
It is beautiful to watch them.
They came this year. The girl is a young woman now. There is talk of college, maybe even a gap year program. As always, the love and warmth between them is obvious. She picks a pair of earrings, Mom picks a beautiful necklace–with a promise to share. They may be back for the girl to pick another ‘big’ piece for graduation. As they leave, I feel tears coming.
Yes, their purchases over the years have supported me as an artist. They are lovely people and I’m honored they love my work.
But even more, I am humbled at the idea that I am now a part of their family story. My work, from my hands, graces their lives. It encouraged a child to take her first steps to adulthood, and greater responsibilities. It’s been part of her life for almost a decade now, and will be with her on her first steps out into a bigger world.
I have been a witness to this. I’ve been invited to be a part of this. My art has been my ambassador, and I am astonished and grateful.
Today another young girl and her mother came to my booth for the first time. The girl begged her mother for a horse necklace. I shared this story with them. They laughed, the mother looking thoughtful. They looked and tried on a few pieces, then moved on to see the rest of the Fair.
I have a feeling they’ll be back.
As hard as it is to do this show, these moments, these precious moments, remind me of what the world asks of me. They remind me that my gift serves others, sometimes gentle, sometimes obscured, but always with purpose.