WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: You Can Be Focused, You Can Be Diverse, It’s All Good!

WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: You Can Be Focused, You Can Be Diverse, It’s All Good!

Topics: advice for artists | creativity | FineArtViews | inspiration | Luann Udell | originality

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.

Luann Udell shared how to be focused and diverse in your art career
Luann Udell shared how to be focused and diverse in your art career

You get to choose what you do, how you do it, how many things you do, and you can change it whenever you’re ready.

When the young art students came to my studio, most of them were still in the exploring stage of art-making. Some already felt “more comfortable” with a specific media, but most were trying this and that, and some hadn’t found what really felt right.

That’s normal! I encouraged them to keep exploring. This stage could take a few years, it could take a decade, it might take more than that. Maybe…..for the rest of their lives!

I think some of them were a little surprised by that. It seemed that some were already feeling the pressure to pick “just one thing” or “just one process” (painting, for example, or drawing, etc.) (It may have been more societal pressure than pressure from their teachers.)

I told them, “If you’ve already figured that out, good on you! But if you haven’t, that’s normal, too. These are the perfect years to explore and experiment. In fact, you might incorporate “new and different” for the rest of your life! And that’s okay.”

Focus is a good thing, of course. When we push all our efforts in one direction, into one medium or process, we can make enormous strides in our skill set.

But that’s not the only way to be a “real artist”. And when people tell us it IS the only way, and we don’t want to do it that “one right way”, it can feel soul-crushing.

Years ago, I attended a seminar with a well-known speaker who created a series of workshops about all kinds of artist/maker issues: How to market our work, how to display it at shows and in galleries, how to talk with customers, etc. All excellent information, garnered not only from their own career as a maker, but from dozens of others who shared their insights with him.

When it was my turn to ask a question, I started to frame my body of work: “So I do jewelry, fiber work, and printing, and I’d like to know…..”

They interrupted me mid-sentence: “FOCUS!!!!”

The whole room erupted into laughter, and I was humiliated. The speaker went on to explain that “certain clueless craftspeople” get into doing everything: “I raise the sheep, I shear the sheep, I spin the wool, I dye the yarn, I make the pattern, I knit the sweater….” They end up with a product that can’t be reasonably priced, and then wonder why their work doesn’t sell. The speaker moved on to the next person.

That wasn’t my problem, and I was pretty peeved. Afterwards, I went up to ask for clarification, and they apologized. “I wanted to make an example of you, because that comes up all the time! But I see now that isn’t what you were sharing, and I’m sorry.”

There’s a lesson there: Don’t make assumptions about the “stupid questions” people ask us. (As in, “How long did it take you to make that?” “It took me thirty years to make!”) (Yes, there are a dozen better ways to answer that question without making a joke at that potential customer’s expense!)

“Lack of focus” was not an issue for me. I already knew I was “doing it right”, FOR ME. I was perfectly comfortable with my multi-media choices, because I had a powerful story that united them. From the very beginning of my art career, people could recognize my distinctive style, use of color, and use of artifacts, even in the different ways I staged them.)

I wanted to know how to approach the top retail shows in the country that, typically, demanded I pick ONE medium to apply in. And usually my jewelry wouldn’t be accepted, because it’s a dense medium at high-end fine craft shows. Often half the applicants are jewelers! I wanted help figuring out how to get out of the “box” most shows and exhibits want to put us creatives in.

(I never solved that, but finally figured out ways around it.)

Nowadays, whenever I ask people about their creative work, I get a wonderful variety of answers. But the ones where I sense folks feel the most embarrassment is when they haven’t focused completely on “just one thing”.

“Oh, I’m not a real artist! I love oil painting, but I’ve also enjoy watercolor and pastels, and I’ve taken clay workshops and loved it, and I want to….” And then they sort of trail off, waiting for me to tell them to “focus”.

I refuse.

I ask them what their goals are, and listen. Unless they feel “held back” by their free choices, I almost always tell them to embrace their path.

From their reaction, I’m guessing no one has ever told them that’s okay. Which is sad.

Some of us know the medium that speaks to us. We leap into with all our heart, and pursue it, perfecting our skills, finessing our techniques, perhaps (hopefully!) even receiving recognition and acclaim for our work.

Others, like me, take longer to figure it out. We try different things, or keep up with several things, until we find our way through.

For me, I did fiber work for years: Cross-stitching (easy!), then embroidery (harder!), then quilting (so much time!!), getting smaller and freer and focusing on making something that looked aged and worn. I got to the point where I rarely bought new fabrics, and instead scrounged yard sales, thrift stores, and antique shops for unusual, vintage, and antique fabrics, and well-worn clothing. Eventually, when I couldn’t find what I wanted, I began to over-dye my own fabrics, and even carved my own stamps to print fabric.

When my kids were born, I knit them sweaters. (Hey, it’s faster to knit for a little kid than an adult, and they’re a lot less fussy about how it fits!) (But you also have to work fast, or they’ll grow out of whatever you’re making for them….)

Eventually, I was frustrated trying to find the perfect buttons for those sweaters, and so I began to make my own.

I couldn’t afford expensive jewelry, didn’t like much of it anyway. I loved the look of old pieces. I started buying broken or out-of-date bits and pieces, restringing them or salvaging the beads for other projects. One year, I was accepted into an exhibit for art quilts, and forgot to read the fine print: Beadwork was required. So I “explained” that the beads I used were too tiny to be seen in the photograph, and frantically added seed beadwork to the finished pieces. (I won a Judges’ Choice Award!)

And I also began using those sweater buttons as embellishments on my art quilts.

Are you sensing an epiphany here? It’s coming!

Until the day came where I stepped up to the plate with my “mom crafts” and found my powerful story, where I found my place in the world as an artist.

All those “little crafty things” I’d been doing for years all came together to make something different. Something unique. Something that became my signature, so that now, people who are familiar with my work, can spot it in almost any form.

If I had “found my perfect medium” all those years ago, I would not be making the work I do today.

Would I be better off? How do I know? We choose a path, and our story is changed forever. I don’t regret my “aimless wanderings” that eventually brought me the work I love with all my heart. I choose to celebrate the skills and insights I gained along the way.

Some of us will “do it right”, focusing on a specific medium and style. Some of us will explore, constantly adding, tweaking, mixing it up. And some may never “settle” into one or two things. They will explore, and experiment, and dabble for the rest of their lives.

My question for them: Are you happy with that?

Because if you are, that’s all that matters.

What matters, first and foremost, is that our work brings us joy.

Oh, not 24/7. I get that. Sometimes things just don’t click, or we get tired of the same ol’ same ol’. (Usually we get our happy back, though!) And if we want to get really, really good at something, we have to put in the time and the work.

Some people pursue one style, or medium, and then walk away from it and pursue something else. That’s okay, too.

And some of us find total joy in the new, the experimenting. Some people only make art when they take classes. Which, I tell them, is really smart! If you can’t make time for your art, then taking a class is an excellent way to set aside the time (to go to class), to experiment (with all the tools and expertise provided by the teacher that you’ll need) and come home with something you love (because you had the chance to actually finish it!)

In our modern times, art is both a necessity (for our emotional/spiritual health) and a luxury (we can all choose what, when, how, and why we “make”). We get to choose how we fit it into our lives, we get to decide whether it’s our “one thing”, our “main thing”, or our “fun thing”.

Somewhere along the line, the word “amateur” (which means doing something because you love it, whether we make money at it or not) became a hugely judge-y thing: “Oh, you’re not a professional, you’re just an amateur!”

In reality, “amateur”, “vocational”, and “avocational” are all on the same spectrum. We do it because we love it, and it supports us, financially, and we do it as if it really were our profession- doing all the steps that a “true professional” artist would do, even if we don’t actually make a lot of money at it. And a few professionals actually step back from that stance, because they find the demands of catering to a market, and having to do the same thing, the same way, for the same people, actually saps some of the joy from our process. They find other ways to earn income, something they’re good at that pays well, and that they like or even love, yet keep their artwork in their life, on their own terms.

It’s all good.

Because when we accept all the reasons that show us we’re “doing it right”, the more art, the more beauty, the more joy there will be in the world.

So keep on keeping on, I told those kids. Do what you can. Do what you want. Do what you have to do. You get to choose.

Make it work for Y-O-U, finding your unique happy place in the world with your art.

The whole world is waiting to see “what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life…”*

*From “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

What You and M. Night Shyamalan Have In Common

What You and M. Night Shyamalan Have In Common

(Hint: It’s what ALL artists have to ignore!)

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.

(Hint: It’s what ALL artists have to ignore!)

I’m so overwhelmed with packing up my studio, I look for any excuse to take a break.

I came across an article, an interview of M. Night Shyamalan by Sopan Deb of the New York Times, about Shyamalan’s newest movie, “Glass”. I did not realize he was only 29 when he made the extraordinary (literally!) movie “The Sixth Sense”. The reveal—that the main character was dead—was as startling as Agatha Christie’s novel, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” in 1926. (Spoiler alert!! The narrator turns out to be the actual murderer, a twist that redefined the genre, and created quite an uproar at the time.)

For years, Shyamalan created movies ahead of his time. “Unbreakable”, about the origin of a superhero, without spandex, was made years before the massive onslaught of comic book hero movies. (It’s actually gained in popularity since.) He was typecast as the movie guy with a “twist”. He’s been criticized as always having a twist, or ironically, the twist not being “twisty” enough.

“Glass” is considered his “comeback movie”, and many critics are roaring about it being “less than”, in their eyes.

Two things:

First, we went to see it last weekend. We both loved it!

The approach is very different than current action-superhero movies. Not a lot of CGI, which makes it feel more grounded, more realistic. The camera action draws us in, making it feel like we are in the same room as the protagonists. The tension is maintained throughout the movie.

The ending was deeply moving, and the twist? Well, I love spoilers, but since most people won’t, I won’t provide them here.  Suffice to say, we are left knowing the pain and suffering of all its characters, and the flip side of the “villains”.

Once again, Shyamalan has created a complex, and deeply human film.

Second, what deeply resonated with me in the article was when the interviewer asked him about how the movie is framed makes the film seem like a “comeback” for him, making it seem like his work has been “less than” in the years between. “Was that frustrating for you?”

Here is what Shyamalan says, a response worthy of all creatives:

“No, the journey isn’t really about what others are saying about you. It just can’t be. You’re taking all of your power away from you. That’s not where your energy should be….”

Artists and all kinds of creative people get criticism all the time. Some is constructive, but much of it isn’t.

It’s our human nature to listen. We are hard-wired to want to belong, to be part of a community. Criticism can feel like we don’t belong.

It takes courage and perseverance to recognize the flip side of this innate trait:

Our desire–our NEED–to be seen as an individual.

When we recognize that our work may sometimes (or often!) be seen as “not enough”, or not worth the price, or some other “less than”, and keep making it anyway, because that is how we see ourselves in the world, it’s powerful.

Yes, we can all improve our work. Yes, we can all do better. We are all a “work in progress.” Sometimes negative feedback and setbacks take their toll, and sometimes it only spurs us on to greater heights.

But in the end, the only person we have to answer to, is ourselves. Only you can determine what, if anything, needs to change in your art.

Lots of things (recessions, war, living in a small town or an isolated area, places where there are few people who like our work, or few who like it but can’t afford it), it feels like the world doesn’t want our work.  Thanks to social media marketing, we can overcome location, in time. Recessions ease and pass. The day I learned everyone’s sales had slumped awhile back, was a lit-tul embarrassing. (It’s not always about me–doh!)

But that feeling can be hard to ignore.

In my fierce beginnings with my art, I knew that if only one in a thousand people liked my work, that meant there was still an audience of over 7,500,000 in the world.

And if only one person in a million were willing to actually buy it, that’s 7,500 customers in the world! Years ago, it might have been almost impossible to find them, but it’s a lot easier today. (And of course, there are more than one customer in a million….)

Now, almost 25 years later, I, too, often succumb to self-doubt and despair. And yet….

I still remember that day I met my husband at the door, telling him I realized, “I have to be an artist, or I’ll die. I don’t even care if I’m not a GOOD artist.  I just have to do it.” That was the day I released every emotional shackle I’d placed on myself.

I still need to remember that. Every. Single. Day.

That same weekend we went to see “Glass”, it grossed over $47,000,000 and was the top movie at the box office. (And I’m glad we were a tiny part of that validation!)

The last thing (OK, there were three things….!) is Shymalan’s answer to whether he’d ever direct a “Star Wars” film.

His answer: He believes it’s best to stick with what works for him. “There are filmmakers who don’t fit easily into a system, and probably I’m one of those.”

He could make a Star Wars movie that would gross even more, and establish his “comeback” forever.

But he will stick with what he does best, and what he loves: Making original movies, making thrillers. And he will be happy.

The next time someone disses your medium, your choice of subjects, your plein air work vs. your studio work, how much (or how little) time you take to do your work, whatever… remember these three things:

Different can be good.

The work of your heart is the work only you can bring into the world.

Respect your process.

 Be all you can be. Rejoice that you can be an artist in the world today, with few restrictions, except for the ones you take on yourself.

As the beloved poet Mary Oliver said in her beautiful poem “The Summer Day”;

Tell me, what is it you plan to do 

With your one wild and precious life?

We Are Enough (and So Is Mary Oliver)

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not.

It was the last day of December, the last day of 2018. It’s been a hard year in so many ways. I don’t know whether to embrace or watch with suspicion the dawn of this new one. Do I move forward with hope, and courage? Or do I hunker down until it’s safe to come out?

But a book arrived in the mail that day, Mary Oliver’s book of poetry, Blue Horses. As always, it’s an unpected gift at just the right time.

I’m a fan, and not just because I love her poetry for what it is to me. I used several of her works when I created a grief writing workshop as a hospice volunteer. Her poems are accessible, full of the beauty of small moments in nature, with a big bang of wonder and insight inside. They always draw a gasp of amazement, and they often make us cry.

I don’t know much about her. I only recently discovered she was in a relationship with a woman, Mary Malone Cook, for over 40 years, and her partner died in 2005 I didn’t know about the hardship and abuse she suffered as a child. I didn’t know she lived in Ohio but took up New England as her home years later. And as I read “Blueberries”, with her musings about eating blueberries year round, something new for her, I wondered where she lives now.

And so I Googled “Mary Oliver where does she live now” and came across a Wikipedia entry. And found this somewhat disturbing entry in “Critical Reviews”:

Vicki Graham suggests Oliver over-simplifies the affiliation of gender and nature: “Oliver’s celebration of dissolution into the natural world troubles some critics: her poems flirt dangerously with romantic assumptions about the close association of women with nature that many theorists claim put the woman writer at risk.”[13] In her article “The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver”, Diane S. Bond echoes that “few feminists have wholeheartedly appreciated Oliver’s work, and though some critics have read her poems as revolutionary reconstructions of the female subject, others remain skeptical that identification with nature can empower women.”[14] In The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Sue Russell notes that “Mary Oliver will never be a balladeer of contemporary lesbian life in the vein of Marilyn Hacker, or an important political thinker like Adrienne Rich; but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”

I had to stop reading.

Who are these people??

Who are they to judge a poet’s work based on how “political” her thinking is, or how much she aligns publicly with her gender?

My husband, an English major as an undergrad, contemplated a career in academia briefly. He says this is exactly why he didn’t pursue it. “It’s just academic-speak”, he says.

I think it’s more than that.

Someone is saying Mary Oliver is “not doing it right”.

They are saying she is not enough.

Jon said, “You read poetry? I haven’t read any poetry since college!” What?! “You haven’t read “Wild Geese?!”

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Even as I tried to read it aloud to Jon, I knew I couldn’t. Tears were already welling up. I handed him my phone to read it.

Or how about “Summer Day”?

Summer Day

by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I’ve rarely enjoyed poetry “analysis”. I’ve never understood the desire to write in specific forms or meters as a professional challenge, unless the rhythm and patterns lend themselves to even deeper feelings of connection. (As in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”:

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
I understand there are hidden gifts in complex musings, and challenges that can deepen our experience. It’s like doing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle as opposed to the 5-minute versions that always appear in our local newspaper.
But there are reasons it’s okay for poetry to be accessible, and simple.
It’s okay not to speak for everyone. Geez, white guys of Northern European descent have been doing it for years.
It’s okay for a writer to simply share what’s in their heart.
It’s okay to make people cry with our beautiful words.

If I Wanted A Boat
by Mary Oliver, Blue Horses

“I would want a boat, if I wanted a
boat, that bounded hard on the waves,
that didn’t know starboard from port
and wouldn’t learn, that welcomed
dolphins and headed straight for the
whales, that, when rocks were close,
would slide in for a touch or two,
that wouldn’t keep land in sight and
went fast, that leaped into the spray.
What kind of life is it always to plan
and do, to promise and finish, to wish
for the near and the safe?  Yes, by the
heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want
a boat that I couldn’t steer.”

What do I hear in this?

It takes courage to let go of trying to control our future.

Or this one:

WHAT GORGEOUS THING

by Mary Oliver

I do not know what gorgeous thing
the bluebird keeps saying,
his voice easing out of his throat,
beak, body into the pink air
of the early morning. I like it
whatever it is. Sometimes
it seems the only thing in the world
that is without dark thoughts.
Sometimes it seems the only thing
in the world that is without
questions that can’t and probably
never will be answered, the
only thing that is entirely content
with the pink, then clear white
morning and, gratefully, says so.

It tells me it’s okay to seek solace in the tiny moments in life. To hold the simplest things and see. To listen. To wonder.

They won’t fix everything. Maybe they won’t fix anything. 

But if they give me a teensy break, a moment of relief and respite, I’m taking it, with gratitude.

Fortunately for my mood today, I came across this lovely article by Ruth Franklin in The New Yorker: What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand. It helped me back to my happy place. Still, a few off remarks: Oliver didn’t write much about her lover, and she rarely writes about the dark places in her life. Such a lack “…flattens her range….” in the opinion of this writer.

Whatever. I’ve been writing articles, essays, and blog posts for almost two decades. I never write about my relationship with my husband, and although I write about what it feels to be in dark places, I keep away from the deeply personal. And don’t bury myself in the dark.

I don’t, except in my “blort book”, because it’s my dark place. Yes, it’s part of me. But I get to decide how much I share, and when, and how.

When I’ve had suicidal thoughts (and I’ve had them all my life), I know what they are: A response to the despair and hopelessness I’m overwhelmed with. I also know it will pass. It looks like an escape, but I know it will only bring enormous pain to those I leave behind.

(To be perfectly frank, I’m also a chickenshit. I’m afraid I’d mess it up and have to live with pain, and shame, and disability the rest of my life. So no, I’m not gonna do it.)

But most people will “hear” a plea for help. They will respond with a “solution”, a “fix”.

There isn’t one. Or at least, it’s never the right one.

My truth: I’m kinda hard-wired to be in mild despair. I always expect the worst.

But I choose to look for the light instead. I choose look for the life lesson that will help me move forward. I choose to seek out the folks I know I can trust, who know who I am, and who I want to be, to help me find my way back.

I also want to respect my partner’s privacy. We’ve been together 40 years. That wouldn’t be true if he weren’t a good human being, worthy of love, who is simply trying to do the best he can. He has saved my sanity a jillion times. At his best, he meets me where I am, and helps me take a step forward. At his worst, he is bad about cleaning up after himself. Not too shabby, in my book.

I even want to protect the privacy of those who have hurt me. It’s on me to work my way back to the light. They have their own story, and it may involve things I know nothing about, no matter how much pain they’ve created for me.

That’s my choice. It doesn’t make me “less than”. (Yes, I am a proud member of the “#metoo” moment, but it’s just not for public consumption. For now.)

I’m not going to hold it against Mary Oliver, either.

Thank heaven for the last part of that “critic review” section by Sue Russell:

“…but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”

So go forward today, with the joy you find in the small things. For me today, it’s Noddy wanting a drink from the kitchen faucet. Chai trying to sneak a lap of milk from my cereal bowl. Tuck wanting a butt-scritch. Jon reassuring me that academic critics live in a world of their own making, and not to worry about it.

The sun shining, for the fourth day in a row.

A flock of bluebirds in the California winter.

A murmuration of starlings in the evening.

Another poem by Mary Oliver.

Hey! A new year!

Now I feel like can can deal with it.

baby goat
A baby goat!
rocks on a beach
Rocks on a beach!
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park!