A reader left a comment on a post I wrote years ago, refuting my belief that artists come in all shapes and sizes, and that innate talent alone does not determine who is and who isn’t an artist. ( They pointed to an interesting study showing that artist brains are indeed different than normal brains. (Aha! We ARE crazy!)
I liked the article. The findings did not change my mind, especially since the study focused solely on drawing. I drew a lot as a child, so many people called me an artist. But I never really progressed past drawing horses, mice and rabbits. I took a few figure drawing classes in college. I enjoyed them–I like drawing bodies!–but didn’t pursue drawing after that. I still don’t really care for it.
I have no idea if I have that “innate” talent for drawing or not. I don’t know if I have the “artist’s brain” the study described, or not. And I don’t care. I rarely draw out my designs before making them. I work them until they feel “right”.
But I can see the headlines now: “Luann Udell Finally Unmasked! NOT A REAL ARTIST after all!!!”
Drawing is an admirable skill. But what about a beautiful singing voice? What about a honed sense of rhythm, timing and hand coordination that’s so critical to drumming? What about making a beautiful pot? Or weaving/quilting/wood working and other fine crafts?
Why do we value one form of art-making above all others, and make that the definition of an artist?
And why do we value one kind of intelligence–I.Q.–above all others?
So here’s my meandering thought trail….
1) When I was in middle school, there was a bright, well-liked young man. He didn’t get good grades, so I assumed he wasn’t a good student. After getting a particularly bad grade for a project he’d poured his heart into, he ran out of the classroom. I hate to admit this, but we laughed.
And the teacher–Mrs. Nancy Nash, one of my favorite teachers–scolded us. She said, “You think he’s not smart. But he is! He’s just not good at reading. Haven’t you ever realized how well he does in class discussions?! You should be ashamed!” She went out after him, and eventually they both returned to class.
And we sat, chastened. And thinking.
This was in the early ’60’s. No one knew about dyslexia, or learning disabilities. If you didn’t get good grades, you weren’t smart. Period.
But now there was a new thought in my head….. Different kinds of smart.
2) Fast forward to freshmen year in college. No, I wasn’t in art school. I couldn’t get in! But another woman across the hall from me was. Curious what a “real” artist looked like, I asked her about her major.
She was taking the prerequisite drawing classes, the ones every art student had to take. She hated them. She sucked big-time at drawing. (I know–I saw her work!) So why was she in art school?
“I don’t want to draw! I want to make stuff! Things that do things!” she exclaimed. Like what?, I asked. She pulled out some of the items she’d made in her high school art classes. We sat on the floor while she showed me all her little mechanical contraptions.
And one of them was a traveling salt cellar.
I don’t know why it stuck with me lo these many years. It was a silver salt holder, with a tiny handmade silver spoon, mounted on a sort of cart-like contraption with little wheels. You pushed it across the table.
It was adorable. Badly made, but adorable. The wheels were uneven and not mounted properly on their axles, so the salt shaker sort of lurched across the floor.
“I need to know how to make good wheels that really work. I need to know mechanics or something. I don’t know! But I can’t do anything else til I take all my prerequisites!” Which at the time was about two to four semesters of…..drawing.
I know there is discipline to drawing. I know it is a deep way of really “seeing”. I know for many people, drawing is a way of working out design elements, structural elements, etc.
But this woman had taught herself casting and soldering and metal working. Figure drawing didn’t figure into her game plan. (Sorry for the pun.) Her “smarts” were in a different area, one that, at the time, was not acknowledged or respected in regular “art school”.
3) Now let’s really fast forward to the mid-90’s. I’m a Tae Kwon Do student with a wonderful teacher who later became a good friend. He was patient, accepting, emotionally-evolved and funny. As I got to know him better, I learned about his school days.
Allyn never graduated from high school (though he did complete his GED). He had severe dyslexia. Like my fellow student in the ’60’s, his not-understood and not-diagnosed condition meant he didn’t do well in school. He did so poorly, in fact, that when he was in middle school, he was given a “permanent hall pass.” What does that mean, I asked him one day. It meant that he was considered stupid. He was so “uneducable” that he was allowed to roam the halls during regular classes, as long as he stayed out of trouble. Everyone pretty much assumed (and some still assume) he’s just not very bright.
Allyn also happens to be one of the most perceptive, insightful, emotionally-evolved, and intelligent people I know. He listens deeply, and observes carefully.
Whenever I encounter a puzzling social situation (and I encounter many, because that’s who I am), I call Allyn. And within a few minutes, he can tell me exactly what’s going on. In one sentence. I kid you not, he understands the motivation, the behavior and the dynamics and can summarize it quickly and easily.
I mentioned this to a friend who was taking graduate coursework in stuff like organizational dynamics. What she told me knocked my socks off.
Turns out that many people with so-called “learning disabilities”, especially dyslexia, cannot easily process information through reading. But their brain, like anyone else’s brain, is still trying really, really hard to learn, to make sense of their physical, social and emotional environment.
So these non-readers pay very close attention to everything that’s going on. They learn to see, to observe, and assess. They become highly skilled in areas that don’t involve reading and writing.
Unfortunately, since so much of our educational system is based on reading and writing, they rarely make it to college. They aren’t considered “smart” by most of the markers we consider for intelligence.
A different kind of smart……
I think it’s getting better. We “normal people” are learning.
We’re learning that there are indeed many kinds of “smart”. There are many kinds of “talented”. There are all kinds of “artistic”. There are a jillion kinds of “beautiful”. There are a cajillion ways of being kind, and accepting, and tolerant. (Cajillion is a whole lot more than a jillion.)
I like to think that if we spent less time drawing lines around who is and who isn’t an artist, who is and who isn’t talented, who is and who isn’t creative, who is and who isn’t smart/pretty/famous/whatever…..maybe we could simply be astonished by the incredible diversity around us, the remarkable creative range and emotional depth and loving heights the human spirit is capable of.
Maybe we could just let people enjoy the making of whatever makes their heart sing, and give them permission to do so.
And in the end, it’s not so much what’s in our brain, as what we do with it.
We are creative because that’s part of being human. I believe the greatest harm, the greatest loss, is when we deny the world–and ourselves–the beauty and power of our individual creativity.
I got a comment on a blog post I wrote awhile back. You can read the original article here: TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS (That Will Prevent You From Becoming a SUCCESSFUL Artist…”
The reader wrote a scathing argument against my assertion, noting the usual suspects (Mozart, et al.) “Artists ARE born! Talent IS innate!”, the writer stated.
I thought long and hard about my decision. I love to hear your thoughts, your insights, your experiences, and I especially love to hear that what I’ve said has resonated with you or helped your on your own artistic journey. And I don’t mind being corrected from time to time (unless I suspect your motives.)
But finally I deleted the comment.
Let me tell you why.
First, I don’t write this blog to argue with people.
This isn’t a forum. This isn’t a venue for debate.
These are my opinions, my thoughts. My blog is a vehicle to get those thoughts out of my head and share them with others.
This blog is part of my creative process.
I totally get that you may violently disagree with me. If that’s the case, go start your own blog. Seriously. I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Just not here in my living room.
Second, the reader totally missed the point of my article.
Of course talent is innate. Of course Mozart had tons of talent. Of course most of us aren’t Mozart, and no amount of practice will ever make it so. Heck, I can barely carry a tune anymore, let alone play an instrument.
My point was, that many, many people don’t recognize the talent they have.
They believe they’re not “good enough” to use their talent.
They believe that because they’re not good enough, there’s no use putting their work out into the world.
Look, creativity IS innate. Everybody is good at something. Even a sociopath is very, very good at lying.
Creativity is a human trait. It’s just that throughout the ages, the definition of creativity–the lines we draw around it, the forms we deem acceptable–have narrowed, and broadened, and narrowed again.
We don’t just use our hands, or our voices, to grub for food, or to yell when a predator appears on the horizon. And we don’t just use our hands to draw things. We use our hands to make things, build things, grow things, cook things (yummy chocolate things!). We fix things, heal living things, comfort living creatures. We sing, we write stories, and poetry (and blogs!) We work for peace, or freedom, or equality. We work for understanding, and acceptance, and recognition.
Even destruction can create a space for something new to appear. (I am not advocating destruction, I’m just sayin’ that Shiva’s dance does both.)
When we create, we are all that, and more.
I believe the greatest harm, the greatest loss, is when we deny the world–and ourselves–the beauty and power of our creativity.
We get way too judgy about creativity. (I made that word up. See how creative I am?)
We care waaay too much what the world will think of our efforts. We care way too much about what WE think of our efforts.
Quick story: My husband’s mother was a talented pianist as a young woman, with dreams of performing in public. But at some point, she realized she would never be a world-class pianist.
She never played the piano again.
Another quick story: My husband has been “noodling” on a guitar for as long as I’ve known him, thirty-five years. The last few years, he’s gotten more dedicated about it. He’s reaching out to play with others. He’s found new online methods of learning. He’s taking lessons. He’s considered performing in public venues, on a very modest scale. He reads books about music, about musicians, about the effect of music on the brain. He watches documentaries about music. Lord love him, he tries to drag me to every live music performance in the area.
Will he ever be famous for his guitar playing? Probably not.
Will he ever make money doing it? Nah.
Is he good? I think so, especially when he actually plays instead of practices. (I’m one of those people who winces at every sour note.)
So why does he do it?
Because he likes it. Actually…he loves.
And it makes him happy.
When I look at him, deep in his practice, struggling to master a new tune or a new technique, I know he is also deep within himself. Truly himself. In the best way possible.
And that, my argumentative friend, is all that truly matters.
I subscribe to a great newsletter by Canadian artist Robert Genn called Painters Keys. Sometimes it’s about technique, sometimes it’s about marketing, sometimes it’s about the journey of making art. It’s always an interesting read.
Today’s letter about artist credentials reminded me about an article in my series, specifically, the one asking DO YOU HAVE TO GO TO ART SCHOOL TO BE A REAL ARTIST?
It came at a good time. I’m feeling self-judge-y and unfocused today. (That’s what happens when I clean my studio.)
But I know when a surface is cleared and I sit down to work, the muse will return.
No license needed to practice art.
A quick segue today, before the amazing artist statement I promised you yesterday.
I’ve had to eat my words re: what I said about going to art school.
Here’s what I said in a reply to a comment on that post:
Actually, Aza, I recently had an experience that made me see the value of a good art school education. And that is the connections and opportunities that are made possible. I attended a workshop presented by a young woman who just finished post-graduate degree studies at a prestigious art school. In the course of her studies, she visited the studios of many well-known artists; gained access to facilities (museums, galleries) beyond the reach of most people, even allowed access to their “backstage”, so to speak.
It was enough to make me wish I’d gone to art school, too! :^D
I think everyone has their own needs and desires re: art school. If you feel drawn to it, go. Explore. Take what you need and leave the rest. Take advantage of every opportunity to connect, network, and experiment.
And then, be sure to come back and tell us what you learned.
I’ve never said you shouldn’t go to art school. I say you shouldn’t rule yourself out as an artist if you don’t go.
I remember bugging a friend who decided to go to art school late in life. She was already a productive artist–why did she need an art degree??
She replied that no one in her family had ever gone to college before her, and certainly no one had ever achieved a master’s degree.
She wanted to be the first.
I realized that mattered very, very much to her. And that was a good enough reason to do it.
Sometimes you need a college degree for credentialing. Sometimes you need it to prove something to yourself. And now I know the connections, networking and opportunities you get can be worth every penny.
Just know your reasons.
And don’t use not going as an excuse to not make art. Because I know better.
We all need a hero.
And we can all BE a hero.
We do need another hero. Lots of ’em.
I’m often asked how I got started making my art, and I’ll share it here.
I was the typical “class artist” throughout grade school, drawing at every opportunity. (Mostly horses, come to think of it.) Then drawing for other kids (“Draw a dog for me!” “Can you draw a mouse?”) Then cartoons for the school newspaper (and writing a funny column, come to think of it).
I couldn’t wait to go to college, so I could learn to be an artist. (Our school’s art programs constantly fell victim to budget cuts, so I had very little access to making “real” art.) That didn’t happen, for a lot of reasons, none of them very good in hindsight.
And so I left my art as a young person. Mostly because I believed so many MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS.
I backed away from it later because when I stayed home with my children, it was so very very hard to make time for anything beyond trying to be a good wife and a good mother. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever introduced yourself as “(your child’s name here)’s mom”. I still introduce myself to some people as “Doug’s mom” and “Robin’s mom”.)
There was barely time to knit a hat or finish a project before I had to clear the table for lunch, or dinner, let alone take on any serious or involved ventures.
I actually got to the point where I decided to simply focus on good wife/good mom, and wait til there was more time/money/opportunity to do differently.
I thought it was the right thing to do. There was some relief in “letting go” of that dream.
But something in me was sad, too. I pushed it down and tried to forget about it.
Shortly after that, as I watched my darlin’ three-year-old daughter at play, I found myself daydreaming about her…
What would her life be like? It seemed to spread before us like a tiny brook, growing into a mighty river.
What kind of person would she be? I hoped she’d be the same person she was now: Quiet but deep-thinking; shy but fierce in her beliefs; talented in so many ways; loving yet independent; quirky, different, her own person, comfortable in her own skin.
What kind of work would she do? There were so many possibilities.
Who would she love? Would she marry, too? I hoped she’d find someone who would respect her strengths and encourage her dreams. I hoped she’d find a loving partner who would let her shine, who would let her simply be herself.
And then an epiphany whacked me right over the head. Three big questions tumbled into my brain. In big glowing capital letters.
1) Did my mother want that for me when I was young? (I still don’t know the answer to that one. I was the oldest of seven, there may not have been time to spend daydreaming!)
2) How could I want that for my daughter, and not want that for myself?
3) How will my daughter know what that looks like–to be all she can be–if I didn’t model that for her?
I knew I had to be a hero for my daughter. And for me.
I knew I had to be authentic for my daughter. And for me.
That was the day I knew I had to be an artist. Or die.
That was the day I knew it didn’t even matter if I would be a good artist. I just had to do it.
It’s a perfect inspirational story for parents. These are powerful questions for breaking through the barriers we erect between ourselves and our dreams. It’s amazing to see the look of shocked enlightenment on the face of something who “gets it”:
“What am I teaching my kid??”
Are you actually teaching them to NOT live their dream? (Because you’re not?)
Are you showing them they shouldn’t try if they think they might fail? (Beause you’re afraid to?)
Are you telling them that someone else’s needs always outweigh their own? (Because that’s what you always do?)
Ow. Ow. OW!!
If you don’t have kids of your own, maybe this would be helpful:
“Someone–somewhere–is looking to you to be a hero.”
Maybe someone we care about deeply. Maybe not.
Sometimes it’s easier to be brave for someone else we care about, braver than we would normally choose for ourselves. Hopefully, as we grow older/wiser/more evolved, we choose to follow our power because that’s the right thing to do. (See the Martha Graham quote here.
But til then, altruism can be a force for good that’s also good for us.
Be someone’s hero. Be your own hero.
MYTH: Real artists have the courage of their convictions. They don’t care what other people think.
REALITY: Oh, it’s sad, but we care very very much what you think!
This is a myth that started out as “Real artists are loners”. Well, some are, and some aren’t. It’s that simple.
But it quickly got tangled into another myth we hold about artists, one that gets pretty jumbled. So bear with me as I untangle some of the threads.
Yes, some artists do need solitude to create. We need time to explore an idea, to follow it through to all its possibilities. Some people can’t listen to conversation or even music lyrics while they write. Me, for one.
Sometimes talking too much about what we’re doing, or our next project, feels like actually working on it. And our creative energy dissipates.
Other artists, however, work well in partnership and collaboration. They find the give-and-take of brainstorming invigorating, forcing them to go further and higher than they ever imagined.
Our own creative processes are so individual to us, it would be impossible to determine any one way any given work of art gets made.
It’s who we hang with, and why, after the work is created, that gets a little dicey.
Artists may act like we don’t care what other people think about our work. You’ve probably met some (or you are one.) You ask them about the work and you get a snotty reply or a cold shoulder. Or you talk with them at a party and they can only talk about how talented and creative they are.
But it is almost pathetic how much we care what others think.
It would be wonderful if we didn’t. A lot less pain in the world, and I probably wouldn’t have to write this series of myths.
But we do care very very much what you think.
And we are terrified you’re going to tell us.
We hope you love it. We hope it knocks your socks off. We hope you think it’s the most marvelous thing you’ve ever experienced.
And it’s so very, very hard to hear, if you don’t.
This need to have our work loved is so powerful, I hate to share it with you.
Because this knowledge is a terrible weapon in the wrong hands.
I don’t mean we’ll necessarily change it if you don’t love it. We have our artistic integrity, after all.
Wait for it…….
Again, some people will stand firm, and others don’t mind using a little less blue or a few more dots, if that will win approval. It’s your choice.
Even my fiery artist friend Lee, who fiercely created his art at all hours when the muse struck, sometimes going days without sleep, would call me up to come and see the new work. And he waited anxiously, child-like, yearning for my approval. Not my judgment–he was extremely proud of his artist title–but he wanted others to see what he saw, and appreciate what he created.
But the world is not kind to artists, especially those of us who wear our hearts on our sleeves.
After all, human beings are creatures of opinions. We all got ’em, and we have one on everything. Even the things we don’t know much about.
And of course, we all have a little mean streak in us. It is so easy to criticize what someone has made.
But some people cultivate their mean streak. It is very important to recognize and avoid those people.
Caveat: I know the role of the art critique is a hallowed tradition, especially in art schools. I’ve been to literary gatherings where writers submitted their latest piece and subjected it to a group review.
I know that not all art is beautiful, wonderful, powerful or narrative. There’s a lot of stuff out there I don’t care for.
I myself have served as a mini-consultant for artists and craftspeople, evaluating their current work and assessing whether it is appropriate for their perceived goals and venues.
But I see that function as a way of gently aligning what people say they want, and what they do.
All too often, that critical process is used as a chance to savage the work of someone whose talent threatens our own little jealous lizard brain.
If someone says they are an accomplished seamstress and they want their work to sell, they sabotage their efforts by making shoddy work quickly so they can sell to a lower end market. If someone says they’re a writer, but they don’t blog or submit manuscripts or otherwise get their writing out into the world, then I encourage them to show the rest of us that they are, indeed, a writer.
I don’t try to rip them a new one and denigrate their efforts.
Am I saying we should be namby-pamby and never offer honest feedback about the work of others? Or we are so weak in spirit that we can’t handle a little criticism?
Nope, not saying that. What I’m saying is that we must be aware of our need to have approval–and not let others, whose intentions may be less than honorable, use that as a knife to cut us to the quick.
When we make art, it will be stronger if we focus on what is inside us, what we want to say and what we want it to do.
In a perfect world, we then let go. We know it’s done, that it’s out in the world. And we have to truly not care what other people think. That’s hard, but we can at least try.
In the meantime, be very particular who you show your work to, especially during the creative process. We all know people who, for who-knows-what reasons, cannot celebrate our success with us. They will sabotage your efforts in refined and subtle ways.
Instead, create your own artist community.
These workshops by Deborah Kruger, fiber artist extraordinaire, are excellent. Similar to Julia Cameron’s work and The Artist’s Way. (Just don’t do what so many artists do, and focus on all the meetings and exercises instead of making your art!)
Yes, we all need honest feedback. And sometimes criticism spurs us on to do our most truly powerful work.
But it’s a harsh diet to live on all the time. Someone who tries to destroy your spirit with criticism is not your friend, and not your supporter.
Choose your friends carefully when it comes to you and your art.
Myth: If only I could get into X Gallery/get Famous Person Y to see my work/get a website, I would be successful!
Reality: No one person, event or venue will make or break your vision.
When I first started showing and selling my art, I read these very wise words somewhere:
Every day you will find an opportunity to move your art/biz forward. Every day you will overlook an opportunity to move your art/biz forward.
I quote them now because a reader posted this comment on my blog recently, and with her permission, I reprint it here:
Hello, again! I get what you’re saying, Luann, I really do. But right now I’m really in a down space.
Filled with excitement, I opened up a space in Etsy back in September thinking that *there* I would find people who would see value in handspun hand-dyed yarn. They do, apparently–there are lots of other spinners on Etsy–but evidently they don’t see any value in mine.
Lots of looks, a few hearts, no sales.
One part of me is bugging me to get busy and make more yarn, but the other part of me is saying, “Why make MORE beautiful yarn that no one will want to buy? What’s the point of doing that, when no one wants what I’ve already made?”
I’m sorry for dumping on you my own pity-party, but I need someone who is an artist and “gets it” to vent to. ..
Maybe the Lord is trying to tell me to give up and become a boring housewife who grades papers and washes dishes and remembers when she used to make beautiful stuff. I don’t know.
Dear Reader, I give you permission to wallow for awhile. Things do get hard, and we all get discouraged. (See Myth #14 about this.) (Not yet, I haven’t written it yet!!)
But I can assure you wholeheartedly that the Lord is not telling you to stay small and regret your lost dreams. 🙂
Sometimes we take that leap and many things fall into place. Sometimes we take that leap–and things stay hard.
In fact, that is the major purpose of my blog: To chronicle my journey pursuing my art, with honestly and self-examination. And hopefully, a huge helping of inspiration.
Because, as my husband pointed out to me a short while ago, we always hear about the instant overnight successes. (What I call the Cinderella stories.) And we also hear about the not-so-overnight success stories, where the hero struggles and perseveres, and finally gets a lucky break.
The point is, we already know how those stories end. We know the goal was achieved, because the tales are always told afterwards–not while the ball is actually in play.
My blog is all about the ball being in play. And sharing that process with you.
So here are some possible scenarios regarding this handspun yarn biz, but don’t take the “you” thing personally. These are just some things to think about:
1. When we stand at the beginning of our stories, we cannot see the end.
Sometimes, we can’t even see what our ultimate goal will be. Longtime readers may remember my sad little story about wishing my handknit toy sheep idea taking off.
And when they finally did, how I discovered how much I hated knitting toy sheep.
If your handspun biz where to be an instant hit, you could be locked into a business that takes too much time away from your other pursuits right now. Or you might find spinning is fun for a few hours a day, but not so much fun doing it all day. Maybe you’ll realize you like writing about the process, or teaching the process, more than making yarn to sell. (Although that piece of it will give you the insights you need to do the other stuff–writing, teaching, demonstrating, etc.) Maybe you’ll end up developing a therapy program with your skills. Who knows what the possibilities are?
So maybe right now you think your dream is to sell handspun yarn. But maybe even bigger things are in store for you.
2. We cannot tell what strategy will work, and which ones will peter out.
Etsy looks like a “sure thing” from the outside, but having an Etsy shop does not guarantee success.
We dream of getting into “that great gallery”, sure we will be successful if they would only represent our work. We dream of finding “the perfect show” where we will find all the buying customers we need. We know if only we had a great website, we would be flooded with orders.
In reality, there is no “perfect venue” or “perfect strategy”. There is simply another opportunity to try.
Maybe e-commerce will work for you. Or maybe your yarns would sell better “in person”–at small local shows, or certain events. (We have a big “Wool Tour” here in New Hampshire on Columbus Day weekend. People come from hundreds of miles to tour small farms, see llamas and sheep and angora goats and bunnies, and buy fleece, roving and finished yarns.) Maybe people need to touch your yarn to fully appreciate it first, and then you turn those customers into online customers with reorders.
Maybe a “new product release” about your yarns to a knitting or spinning magazine would bring interested buyers to your Etsy store.
3. We may be trying to sell to the wrong people.
Etsy is the biggest and best-known venue for handcraft. But it’s also a huge venue for vintage goods and craft supplies. And it’s a big shopping venue for other artists. So you may be inadvertently trying to sell to people who can make it themselves.
At a friend’s suggestion, I used Etsy as a way to sell to my current customers. I didn’t actually think I could join an already established, close-knit online community (no pun intended) and create a strong presence there.
Even so, I didn’t have a single sale on Etsy. I’m exploring other ways to sell online, and will use Etsy to offload my old supplies.
4. It just may take more time than you think.
Another reader posted a reply to the original comment, and it’s a good one. (In fact, I just realized I’ve repeated a lot of what Kerin said!! oops…)
And see item #1 above, where things taking time can be a good thing.
5. And sometimes it’s just hard.
It’s true–it’s just hard sometimes. There are days when we just feel like the universe is saying “no”.
But what does your heart say?
Because if you give up, there is only one thing that can happen: Nothing!
If you persevere, anything can happen. Including failure, but failure is not necessarily a bad thing. (Go back to the knitted sheep thing.)
#5: What is “success”, anyway? What does it mean to Y*O*U?
Right now you haven’t had any sales. Is that your only measure of success?
Have you learned how to spin and dye beautiful yarn? You’ve successfully developed a product.
Have you learned how to photograph it? Have you successfully uploaded images to a website? You’ve successfully done something millions of people have no idea how to do. (Since I lost my photographer, I’ve had to work on developing a whole nother skill set, and that learning curve is steep!)
Have you learned how to talk about it, write about it? You’ve learned how to pitch your product.
And have you learned how to create a unique product? Which leads us to….
#6. Are you telling your real story?
Sometimes, especially when we first start out making stuff and getting it out into the world, we focus on the surface of the process. When you hear artists say, “I just love color!” or “I just love knitting!”, we are listening to someone who has either a) not bothered to dig deeper; b) doesn’t know how to dig deeper; or c) or is afraid to dig deeper.
What is it about hand-spinning and dyeing that excites you? What does it mean to you? Don’t say, “Oh, it’s fun” or “Oh, it’s relaxing.”
Tell us why.
Here’s a perfect little example that Bruce Baker tells in his seminars.
A potter makes tiny little pots with lids, very charming. But so what?
She explains that her life is so hectic, so harried, that when she takes time to make these tiny wonders, she envisions she is creating a little moment of serenity, of quiet. “And then she draws up the tops, and makes a little lid, and there is a little moment of time preserved….”
Doesn’t that make you want to own one of her little pots? And when you are harried and frazzled, you can lift the tiny lid….and there is your own little moment of quiet and peace.
She told us the “why”. And when you purchase her product, you can have a little of the “why”, too.
7. If it brings you joy, you should not–cannot–stop doing it.
It’s hard when it feels like the world does not want our beautiful work. But remember when I said, “I have to do it anyway, or I’ll die?” That’s what got me through.
Yeah, I know I wouldn’t drop dead if I never made another little horse. But I know something inside me would wither away. And the world, whether it knew about the loss or not, would simply be a sadder place for it.
I want to believe in my heart that somehow, in ways I may not see or could even possibly imagine, that the world is a better place for me making my work. For me being in the world. I have to believe that. Because to believe otherwise is to give in to self-doubt, and eventually, despair.
And whatever we believe in, whatever our religion or creed or ethics, if we are creative people, then we have to believe that creativity makes the world a better place. That anything we make–a lovely skein of yarn, a useful pot, an inspiration movie, a beautiful song, a warm and loving home for those we care about–the world is a better place for that.
Or what are we here for?
So keep making your yarn, because it makes you happy. Don’t give up, but be open to where it leads you (because it may not take you where you think you’re going!) Take the opportunities you find. Let go of the ones you miss, and move on. Think about the deep “why?”, and don’t be afraid to share it.
And know that whatever happens, it’s all good.
MYTH: Creativity never sleeps. If you hit a wall, then you aren’t a real artist.
Truth: The Muse will come and go, but give her half a chance and she will always return.
Today’s myth was inspired by a blog post from Danielle LaPorte, whose website White Hot Truth…because self realization rocks is becoming one of my favorite reads.
“Life balance” is an insidious myth. Picasso, Oprah, Steve Jobs, Einstein, Maria Callas – they weren’t aiming for balance, they were aiming to rock their genius, and they’ve all had periods of burn out.
This was a little spooky. Okay, a LOT spooky. Because I got the old synchronicity thing going again.
Because a few days ago, for the first time in like two years (or more???), I sat down and began working on a new series of fiber work.
Danielle’s post today was actually the third or fourth synchronistic thingie. The second was her post from a few days ago, about kissing up to your muse.
I woke up in the middle of the night a few days ago with a great idea for next month’s column for The Crafts Report. At first I rolled over to go back to sleep. I’d just sent in my column and had a few weeks before the next one was do. I was sure I’d remember the great idea.
But something in me said, “No. Get up NOW. Just go write it.”
I went with it. And wrote almost the entire article in one sitting.
The spooky thing about that? It was the night before her post on don’t-dis-the-Muse. (Cue Twilight Zone music…)
The synchronicity thingie piece before that happened at dinner out with friends last week. Turned out one of our dinner companions is the daughter of another good friend who’s a painter. Her dad has a new series of artwork on exhibit, after a hiatus of many years from painting.
I mentioned I’d tried to buy one of his paintings a few years ago and he wouldn’t sell me one. She said yeah, he had a “thing” about not selling any until he had a body of work produced, even though he hadn’t even started his new phase when I’d tried to buy one. “He’s funny that way,” she mused. (Pun intended.)
Funny? Hmmm….. He wouldn’t sell his old paintings…. He’d stopped painting…. Now he had a new body of work.
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
I hadn’t made any new fiber work because it had stopped selling a few years ago. I don’t care what the newspapers say, artists and craftspeople know the recession started a lot further back than last year. Oh, I sold a few, but it was tortuous.
When people stopped buying, it wasn’t exciting to make more. And as they sold (slowly), I unconsciously held on to the ones I had left.
So that, if the muse never came back, I’d have something on hand to prove I really had been an artist.
I know it’s it’s desirable to grow and change as an artist. But change for change’s sake was not desirable (for me.) I was stuck.
Awhile ago, I realized that even if my fiber work remained what it was, and I never had a new idea, well, having that one really great theme in my life would be “good enough”. That cracked the door open again.
The remark that made me realize I was hoarding my old work opened that door a little wider.
Getting up in the middle of the night to write blew it open. Danielle’s post was like putting a door stop in it, to keep it open.
And then I sat down at my sewing machine and thought, “What if I just do some simple little pieces….? Just for me.”
Her post today was the final nail in the coffin. Er, door. Should doors be nailed open?? Okay, forget that metaphor, it stinks.
So being willing to be a “not very good artist” again (making the same old work) and realizing what I was holding on to (“I was once a pretty good artist!”) was enough to get me in front of my sewing machine once again. (Which is when I also sewed through my finger, but I’m not going to let that stop me, either, though I worry that my machine has now tasted blood.)
Danielle’s observation–that the muse may come and go, but if we care enough, we will just hang in there–was powerful. Letting go when the inspiration wanes, knowing we will come back, somehow, some way, even though we have no idea what that will look like, that feels like jumping off the edge of the world.
But now I know, as long as I persevere, it will indeed come back.
Because it has to. Or I’ll die.
It may be the same stuff. If so, then I will keep making it. I will rejoice and be grateful I had at least one really good thing to offer the world.
It may start the same and change. That’s okay, too. It will be what it will be.
What’s important is–it’s back.
I don’t care what it looks like anymore. I don’t care what other people think about it anymore.
I just have to do it.
oooh, I’ve always wanted to use the word “segue” in an essay!
In my last “Myths About Artists” post, a reader said there are some people who , feeling entitled, simply want to simply “be” an artist, with all the fame and glory and controversy they think automatically comes with it.
Several themes came to me after reading his thoughtful comments.
First, as a parent, a former teacher, and even a former child (yes, and please, no comments about not having enough fingers, toes or other digits to compute how many years ago that would be), this sounded very familiar.
We all have a desire for our work to gain some attention and respect in the world. And if you’re like me, you probably wish we didn’t have to constantly work so darn hard to get there.
This is a very human trait, after all. Yes, some people work very hard at becoming excellent at their craft, whatever it is. But many of us start out dreaming of an effortless success.
When I dreamed of horses, and of riding horses, I pictured myself riding fearlessly a beautiful horse, galloping wildly across a boundless plain under an open sky.
I did NOT dream of the long and often painful process of learning how to acquire my “seat”–how to sit comfortably for hours on a horse, how to balance instead of bounce (ow, ow, ow), how to control a horse (because atop a wildly running horse can actually be a frightening place to be.)
I did NOT envision the hours of hard work involved in caring for a horse, including grooming, mucking stalls and tacking up. And of course, boarding fees, vet bills and farrier costs never entered my pleasant daydreams, either.
No, it’s all too human to see the glory, not the grit, in our dreams.
But the person who believes they deserve an easy success? This is not the person I have in mind when I write these essays.
In my mind’s eye, I always speak to the person I used to be–the person who never believed that dreams can come true.
I was lost because I was too afraid to pursue my passion, and suffering because of it. I made the lives of my loved ones miserable, because I could be difficult to be with. (Er…still am, actually.)
In the words of my favorite bumper sticker, “Those who abandon their dreams, will discourage yours.”
Eventually, the pain of NOT being an artist surpassed the fear of failure. And that’s when I took my first steps to becoming not just an artist in name only–but an artist with gumption.
When I had the courage to take those first few tentative steps–and to keep on taking them–then I was truly on the path to becoming a more whole person.
That’s what it felt like, anyway. As my pursuit of art became more habit than daydream, my ability to love more freely, to judge less harshly, to be more fearless, to be more thankful, also grew.
Am I perfect? Heck no. I am still racked often–even daily!–by self-doubt, envy, fear, jealousy and sour grapes.
But I just keep on plugging away. Because I believe trying–making a true effort to attain our goals and dreams–matters.
A good friend sometimes says I make too much of this “thing about the horses”. She makes the case that if my current art changed, if I took up another art form, even if my ability to make any art were to disappear, I would still be me. I am not my art.
I get that, I do. But I am still pathetically grateful I had the chance to make this work, and took it, even so.
And every word I write is with this intention–to encourage even just one more person on this planet to do the same.
I encourage you to take the same journey, in your very own individual, inimitable way (of course!)
To paraphrase another friend’s words, I truly believe our acts of creation, by putting positive energy out there, by becoming a more whole human being….
By believing we can all achieve something good by making something that is useful, or beautiful, or both…
…is ultimately an act of peace, and makes the world a slightly better place for all.
Okay, I know I just quoted a hobbit here, but that’s what I believe.
MYTH: Real artists paint, or draw. And they draw stuff right out of their head! They don’t even have to look at the subject.
REALITY: Art is bigger than any box you try to put it in.
If I had to choose a myth that’s done the most damage–that’s created the narrowest limitations on what we see as art, and who we call an artist–it would be this one.
We can get very picky about what is art and what is craft. I remember a friend of mine who worked in clay. “I’m considered a craftsperson for making this”, she said, showing me an object she’d made. “But if I used this same object to make a mold, and had it cast in bronze, it would be considered fine art.”
Media and technique have always been strong predictors for saying what is art and what is not.
High praise is reserved for people who draw, or paint. I think it’s because a beautiful drawing or painting has something of the “magic trick” about it. A flat rendering of something that’s recognizable as a real-life object just seems….magical.
I’ve discovered recently that there’s even prejudice among painters and pencil artists about working from a photograph of the subject, as if that were a form of “cheating”.
Oddly, among the folks who don’t draw at all, the highest praise is reserved for those who “don’t even have to look” at the thing they’re drawing.
And yet, drawing and painting are skills that almost anyone, with a practice, can acquire.
Look at the vast number of senior citizens who finally take up a long-treasured desire to paint. In past times, young ladies of certain social standing weren’t even considered “refined” unless they had acquired some artistic skill with a pencil, or needle, or musical instrument.
Drawing can be a valuable skill, of course. But it’s not the only artistic skill, nor even the most important one.
But that’s what we’ve been trained to believe.
Years ago, when I went looking for studio space outside my home, I met with the owners of a large local building being renovated for offices and studios.
They asked me what I did, and I said I was a fiber artist. I’d already won a national award for my unusual work with textiles and prehistoric themes. I was feeling pretty good about my work.
The conversation meandered and later, the same guy mentioned a local watercolor artist in town, someone with very modest talent.
“Now Bert, he’s a real artist”, he said. “He’s a painter.”
I tried not to wince.
I honestly don’t think the guy meant to be insulting, he was just expressing his admiration for someone he was in awe of. He heard “fiber artist” and thought “quilts” and he thinks that’s just squares of fabric sewn together.
But someone who can paint Mt. Monadnock….now that takes skill!
When I was a kid, I loved to draw. I was actually pretty mediocre at it, though, because I never developed that skill. And I rarely drew what I saw, only what I could imagine–running horses (of course!), puppies, cartoon mice, intricate doodles.
But that was enough to get me labeled “artist”.
When I returned to art as a middle-aged adult, it was with different media, one that many people do not recognize as “real art”.
Ironically, the first people who did recognize my body of work as “art” were….other artists. People who did shows and craft fairs, who saw a lot of art and craft, and saw something very different and very powerful in mine.
And the biggest irony of all?
Drawing is a skill set. And anyone can learn to draw.
Drawing is about seeing–really seeing–and being able to reproduce what is seen on a two-dimensional surface, without falling prey to any of the “tricks” and preconceptions our brain insists upon. Understanding perspective, observing how shadows truly fall and how they affect color… All of these are about truly seeing what is in front of us with precision and clarity.
The mind falls into almost a meditative state as we begin to process what we see in a different way. Not a “red apple”, but an apple with flecks and shadows and shine. Not a “puppy” but a living, solid form with musculature and bone, and fur that rises and falls, and those eyes….
I like to do things fast, so sitting still and simply observing was crazy-making for me. I can do it. But I don’t enjoy the process.
Not even all forms of drawing are considered “fine”. Cartoons, doodling, graffiti…. Most people would scoff at the idea that these kinds of drawing are “art.”
We are not born “knowing” how to draw, anymore than we are born “knowing” how to play the piano, or how to drive a car.
What we are born with is fearlessness and joy.
Almost every child I taught in preschool considered themselves an artist. And they were! They drew fiercely with pencils and splashed paint and molded little glops of clay with abandon. They were always very proud of their little creations.
“Look what I made!”
Slowly, that gets knocked out of us.
Some of us are better at making a dog that really looks like a dog, and they are “talented”. Some of us really love that state of mind that drawing demands, and we are “real artists”. Some make things that combined crazy colors and looked like nothing at all, or they become obsessed with one color, or one kind of object, and they are labeled weird, or goofy. (Now, of course, they are labeled “visionary”.)
We can’t even agree on what is “art”. (American version of the British TV show “Creature Comforts” so the lips don’t line up too well….)
My personal breakthrough to becoming the artist I’d always dreamed of being came with this statement:
“I have to make art, or I’ll die. I don’t even care if I’m a good artist or not. I just have to do it.”
I’d given up putting any qualifications on what I felt compelled to do. I just had to do it.
My life changed from that moment on.
There are people who would not consider the work of artist Andy Goldsworthy, any kind of art. Throughout history, there are huge periods of time when he would not be considered an artist at all. Yet a viewing of the movie Rivers and Tides erases any doubt in my mind. How about yours?
Good art. Real art. Great art. Appallingly bad art. Tasteful art. Fart art. (Did you catch that at the end of the video?)
Who can say? Who can judge? I have my opinion, of course, but nobody pays me for it.
We can’t even judge our own. When we do, the creativity stops. We’ve put a dam across the flow, forced the river between artificial embankments.
Art will not put up with this. We cannot control, nor barely see, where it goes once it leaves our hands.
Don’t compare yours to someone else’s. They have their journey. You have yours.
Leave the labels and boxes for others to worry about. There will always be somebody eager to apply those labels and boxes, but that is not our task.
Our task is to simply get it out into the world. Share it. Express it. Show it. Perform it. Play it.
Focus on making what brings you joy. Pay attention to what makes your heart sing.
Find what is in you that nobody else but you, can bring into the world.
MYTH: You need an MFA to be a real artist!
REALITY: The real proof is in the work.
I couldn’t get into the art school at the university of my choice (The University of Michigan.) So maybe my attitude about art school is pure sour grapes.
On the other hand, the reasons I chose U of M seem pretty silly in 40 years in hindsight. My best friend, my first boy friend and my first crush all went there, and they said it was the best school in the world.
So I wanted to go there, too. I gave up going to other schools with art programs that had accepted me, just to be with the boy who dumped me four months later.
I hope I’m a little more sophisticated about my choices now. (But I’m probably not.)
I’ve come to believe it’s a good thing I didn’t go to art school there (or anywhere.) I may have been an artist sooner.
But I would not be the artist I am today.
Getting a degree from an art school has its advantages.
Credentials, for one. A degree says you completed a course of study. It says somebody deemed you good enough to complete it successfully.
Art school gives you other precious gifts: Time, tools and resources to actually make art. You have many opportunities to experiment with different media and different techniques. Many students develop important relationships with teachers who become mentors, and with other talented students.
Art school also allows you to immerse yourself in a community that supports art. If you come from a family or environment that’s baffled (or even threatened) by your artistic attempts, this immersion can be powerful stuff. You may feel like you’ve finally found “your people”.
And of course, there is the confidence and validation you gain from holding a degree that proclaims you an artist.
But there is a downside to art school.
You spend a huge amount of time making work that fits someone else’s agenda and criteria, not your own.
You may find it hard to develop your own style. You are surrounded by the vision of other teachers and other students, and it can be hard to figure out what your particular vision is.
Or conversely, it’s all too easy to be influenced by the vision of others.
Or your vision doesn’t get the “strokes” from the group you desire, so you unconsciously begin to modify it so it does.
Or you don’t modify your style, and suffer the consequences We’ve all heard the appalling stories of vicious group “critiques” and the lasting emotional damage they can cause. We’ve all heard of the nasty teacher who never missed an opportunity to denigrate someone’s work.
You may fall for the tendency to make high-falutin’, theoretical, worldly/academic “statements” with your art. Read almost any art statement, preferably one you barely understand, and you’ll know what I mean. The actual approach to your art may be taught as a purely intellectual or academic exercise. There is value to understanding and practicing art this way, of course. But I personally feel something is lost when art is made only to provoke, or satirize, or insult, with no real emotional connection, personal experience, or “heart” in the effort. IMHO, of course.
And the biggest drawback–you may not ever actually encounter any working artists.
I once spent a day giving five high-school art classes a presentation of the business of art. I opened the first class with this question: “How many of you believe it is impossible to make a living by selling your art?”
The teacher raised her hand.
Some people who teach art do so because they don’t believe they can be successful selling it. (Though many teach so they can have the freedom to create the art they want, without worrying about having selling it.)
You can often tell which teachers are working artists and which ones aren’t. The working ones are making their art, at some level–entering exhibitions with new work, selling, taking commissions, whatever. The ones who gave up are telling you why it’s impossible to sell your work. These are the ones who make terrible role models.
Almost as bad are the teachers who convince their students that the art world is out there just waiting for them to graduate. Instant success is within their grasp. Famous galleries in New York City are eager for their work, and the party starts as soon as you walk out the door. Then, when it doesn’t happen in six months, or a year, or three, the new grad begins to think she doesn’t have what it takes–and gives up.
Some art schools now incorporate business skills for artists in their curriculum. Yay!
Either way, the art school experience can make the issue black-and-white. There are “artists” and there are “non-artists”. There are “rich/famous/successful” artists, and there are “failed artists”. No gray. No spectrum. No range.
Know that there are many “levels” of keeping art in our lives.
There are as many ways of making that work as there are artists.
Some will make good money with their pursuits. Others will cobble together different ventures and venues that makes them happy. Some will go into fine art. Some will go into design, or graphic arts. Some may teach. Some may do the show circuit. Some may find gallery representation. Others may find ways of using the internet to market directly to customers.
Some may find other work that is rewarding and makes them happy, and keep their art practice solely for their own enjoyment. And some will run up against life’s hard walls all too soon, and have to carve out tiny chunks of time to keep their vision alive.
Maybe we can’t all be rich and famous. But there are many ways to create a life that includes art as a daily practice. And there many ways of sharing our vision with others.
So go to art school, if that is your dream. Squeeze every drop of experience and knowledge you can from it. Revel in your freedom to immerse yourself in an art community. Learn to protect yourself against the nay-sayers.
But if you didn’t go to art school, know that you simply found your life’s work by another path. It may have wound around in the woods for awhile, it may have taken you longer to get here….
But you simply had a different experience. That’s all.
And those unique experiences are what made you the artist you are today.
UPDATE: See what Canadian painter Robert Genn says about artist credentials in his well-known Painters Keys newsletter.
ANOTHER UPDATE: So embarrassed that I missed this for YEARS, but I just found a powerful video/poem by Beth Murch, who says she was inspired by this article! So, proof positive that when we share the work of our heart, our unique vision, with the world, it will cross the path of someone who needs/wants to see it. It’s like tossing a pebble into a great lake. We may not see where the ripples go, but they are there. Thank you, Beth!
Myth: Real artists devote their entire life to art; real artists never compromise! (And its corollary: Artists sleep til noon because they don’t have real jobs to go to.)
Reality: Any time you can make art is a good time to make art!
I’m beginning to think that history books and movies have been the source of most our myths about artists.
Again, remember that what makes for a good “sound bite” doesn’t always reflect real life.
We’ve all seen the movies about artists who devote themselves passionately–and exclusively–to their art. Marriages, kids, friendships fall to the wayside in their relentless pursuit of their vision. Charlton Heston as Michaelangelo, lying on his back painting the Sistine Chapel as he exchanges barbs and retorts with the pope. Or Ed Harris as Jackson Pollack, fierce in his artistic throes, with the entourage that devoted themselves to promoting his art (who ended up tossed by the wayside as they burnt themselves out doing so.)
And what do we know about artists throughout history? Usually a sentence or two, or at most a paragraph in the history books. An entire chapter, or maybe even a book, for the stellar ones.
So we’re only a “real artist” if we devote every waking minute to our art, and plow through our personal relationships with the sensitivity of a back hoe.
There are other ways to make art, of course. And the artists involved are just as “real” as you and me.
Yes, some artists are fortunate enough to pursue their art full-time. But their art becomes their profession–they work just as hard at it as anyone else does in THEIR profession. If they sleep til noon, it’s because they just spent 36 hours straight completing new work for an upcoming exhibition, or they put the finishing touches on a new CD, or they finally figured out how to use QuickBooks to bill their galleries, or they just got back from a grueling four-day wholesale show on the other coast.
Real artists run the gamut of everything you can say about artists. Some are so successful selling their work, they can support themselves and a family doing so. Some work part-time or even full-time jobs to pay the bills, painting in their spare time. Or they marry someone whose passionate profession pays more money than making art does.
Some get famous, some don’t. Some blow through people like kleenix, others have solid relationships and happy families. Some create public murals that cover tall buildings that thousands see every day. Others make wonderfully tiny artifacts you can cup in your hand and known to literally a handful of people.
Again….there’s room for us all.
Of course, the converse is also true. If you work full-time or engage in other activities, and don’t make time to make art, then you may be an artist at heart. But there will be nothing in the world that reflects that intention.
If you watch TV, do housework, put everyone else’s priorities ahead of yours, then your art will indeed only take up only the tiniest space you’ve allotted for it–nada.
Yes, life happens, especially if you are the caregiver in your family, the social planner, the “fall-back” person. Our sales fall off and we have to scramble to pay the bills. We get sick or injured, or a loved one does. We enter periods of self-doubt and despair. Our desire to create can seem fragile, tenuous during hard times.
But ultimately, we have to come back to this–the only person who can make your art is YOU.
Whether it’s a song, a prayer, a painting, a dress, a garden, a play, a dance, a necklace, if it’s in you, find a way to get it out into the world as soon as you can.
So make time for your creativity a priority. Carve out a little space for it in your life. Plan for it. Honor it. Respect it.
Because if, like I did once, you walk away from it entirely, you will always feel that empty space in your heart.
I will never go “there” again. And my wish for you is that you never go “there”, either, at least not for very long.
Tip: This is where a well-written, passionate artist statement comes in handy. The kind where you really talk about the WHY of what you do. When you read yours, YOU should be inspired to get back in the saddle and ride off into the sunset with your art.
MYTH: Real artists never compromise. They never make art that has to matches a sofa.
REALITY: Just exchange “some” for “real”, and “sometimes” for “never”. Oh, heck, just stop making things black and white, and let some gray area in.
Art has fulfilled powerful roles throughout history. From our human need to know and touch our gods, to our cries for social justice, art has served many purposes. Cathedrals are attempts to do the first, Picasso’s Guernica strove for the second. Conceptual art explores ideas at the expense of materials or process.
So…Art is profound. Art says something. Art is provocative. Art demands reaction, engagement, comment.
But art is also….beautiful. Art is healing. Art is quiet, or simply enjoyable.
And we all know art that’s just weird, dumb or shallow.
Art is all of these things, because beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. One generation’s “good art” is the next generation’s sentimental tripe. And one generation’s “garbage” is another generation’s masterpiece.
“Guernica” is a powerful work of art. But it’s also perfectly acceptable not to want it in our living room. For one thing, it’s huge! (And there’s only one, so only one of us could have it.) (I know we could all have prints of Guernica, and its message is that important to some people. But I like to have real stuff that a real person has made–that’s important to me, too.)
Art in the widest sense can fill the smallest spaces. Not every song is a symphony. Not every dance move is a ballet. Not every scribble is a cave painting. Not every poem is The Iliad.
Art is big enough to find a place in everyone’s life. And the world is big enough for all our art.
It’s okay to paint a lovely landscape to grace someone’s home–even one that goes with the sofa pretty nicely. Although it’s also cool when someone chooses a sofa to go with the painting.
Years ago, a visitor to our home perused our record collection (which tells you how long ago this was) and sniffed, “You can tell a lot about people from their music collection.” To which another visitor replied coolly, “Yeah, you can tell what kind of music they like!” I love that! We don’t all like the same kinds of music. But there are very few people who don’t love music, some kind of music, period.
I started my art path by making tiny fabric dolls and knitted animals. They were sweet and adorable. They were not “powerful” by any means. They had nothing to “say”. Or so I thought. But in them were the the tiny seeds of my desire to make something that made people happy. As my desire to connect in a different way grew, so did my handiwork.
And I’m still not done growing yet.
Make the art that’s in YOU. Don’t worry if if’s not “serious” or “profound”. Try not to compare yourselves to others. It’s hard, we all do it. But don’t stay there.
Don’t be embarrassed that we aren’t a Mozart, or a Picasso. Those incredible folks are art’s aberrations, not the norm. There is plenty of room in the world for the rest of us. There is a need for a well-made pot, a truly comfortable chair, a lovely flower arrangement, a catchy song.
Just make it. Bring it into the world. You and your art may “grow”, or not. It doesn’t matter.
Because the art that is in you, is unique to you. And it yours–all yours–ONLY yours–to give.
What you make, may be just what the world needs, today.
MYTH: Artists are crazy people who are willing to starve for their art, and they drink too much, and, oh, they cut off body parts, too.
REALITY: Normal people are artists, too.
We love a good story, don’t we?
“Van Gogh cut off his ear and sent it to the woman he loved. Or maybe it was his dealer? Jackson Pollock was a drunk and a wife-beater. He was crazy, too. Or depressed. Whatever. Gauguin abandoned his wife and children and ate kiwi in Tahiti. Warhol was just weird, right? And what’s with that soup can thing??”
The list goes on.
No matter that there are plenty of people with mental illness, with alcoholism, with abuse issues who aren’t artists. But “crazy” and “artist” just seem to go together, don’t they?
No wonder our families freak out when we start talking about making art. They’re terrified we’re going to smoke dope and drink too much wine and hang out with fast women and loose cars. Er….loose women and fast cars. Loose men. Whatever. (Actually kinda sounds like fun…)
Artists wear black clothes, especially black berets, and if they’re men they have funny little mustaches, and if they’re women, they not only wear black clothing and black berets and black eye shadow, they also like black underwear. I’m not making this up. (Yes I am.)
Of course, many artist wanna-be’s are actually hoping that’s the case. We all knew artist-types in high school and art school who studiously practiced being moody and odd, who drank their coffee very very black very very late at night, and who tried to grow little mustaches, with varying degrees of success.
And of course, we rarely hear about the artists who simply do good work, who are good parents and loving spouses, and who in general behave like grown-ups.
Because that would be boring.
Human beings are drawn to the novel, the strange, the outre. We love a good thrill. That’s why the news is filled with stories of disasters in places you’ve never heard of, stories of murder and mayhem in cities thousands of miles from where you live, stories of oddities that are….well, odd.
In fact, if you imagined the world depicted by the news, you would never know there are any ordinary, reasonably happy, healthy people going about their business, taking care of their families, being nice to their neighbors, attending PTA meetings or going on vacations without international incidents.
The artist-as-crazy-person makes a good story. Good stories make good fodder for best-selling novels and blockbuster movies. We tend to remember the good stories, too. Ooooh! Ask anyone about Vincent Van Gogh. They know he cut off his ear. And maybe they know he painted sunflowers. Never mind that he seems to have had a decent childhood with a loving, supportive family. (In fact, I’ve studied his work in my art history classes, and I didn’t know this about him til I looked him up just now.) Few people know of his brother Theo, who ceaselessly supported and encouraged him. We focus on the last ten years of his life, as an artist with mental illness, and we feel we “know” him.
An artist friend with mental illness does not “cherish” his condition. He did not give everything up for art. Mental illness took everything from him–except art. And he would give it all back to have some degree of normalcy in his life.
(For the record, my friend strongly objected to the phrase “wild and crazy assemblages” in that essay. It angered him because it sounded like I called his art “crazy.” I’m sorry I can’t access that site anymore to change the offending word.)
But reality usually makes for a more boring story. Most artists are just ordinary people. They just happen to want to play with paint, or clay, or an oboe, or a new dance move.
They want to use wood to carve a bowl instead of hammering it to make a house. They want to throw clay to make a pitcher instead of using clay to make bricks. They want to create beautiful landscapes instead of creating blueprints for a building. They want to play music instead of playing baseball, or write books instead of writing grant proposals.
In fact, look a little closer, and the line between “normal life” and “artistic life” gets a little blurry.
I bet you could find creativity in almost anything people turn their minds–and hands–to….
Of course, it is fun to dress like an artist at cocktail parties. I’ll be sure to try it if I ever get invited to one.
Myth: My art speaks for itself. I don’t have to explain anything!”
Reality: Your art will sell better if you can tell your story, create an emotional connection with your audience, and inspire a desire for your work.
We all know the scene:
Artist’s work on display, artist standing off to the side, aloof and austere, sniffing at any plebeian who dares ask a stupid question like “What is your work about?” or “So why do you like to paint green people so much?”
If we can’t tell what the work is about, it’s clear we shouldn’t expose our ignorance by asking.
Here’s my own personal observation:
Artists who won’t talk about their art, often can’t talk about their art. That is, they don’t know how.
Knowing how to talk about your work will also help you write a stronger artist statement. A strong artist statement is important because it is often the first way many people will “hear” you tell your story about your art.
There are as many ways to approach making art as there are artists, and as many reasons to buy art as there are customers.
Here are some ways not to talk about your art:
PROCESS If we talk about our work at all, we often fall into the easy trap of talking about process.
Process is important, to a degree, but there’s gotta be more. I’m not going to pay you by the hour to mow my lawn with a pair of manicure scissors unless you have a really compelling reason.
Yes, some people want to know how we make our stuff, where we learned our craft, where we get our materials. But in my humble experience, many people who care only about my process, want to make something like my work, not buy it.
Here’s a good example. For years, if the first question people would ask me was, “What are these artifacts made of?”, I’d answer, “Polymer clay”.
And once I said that, rarely did the person actually buy something. Often, their first reaction was to actually put down the object they were holding.
Even talking to them at this point, telling them why, had little effect. The spell was broken, and their interest was lost.
I finally wised up. Now I say, “I use polymer clay, and if you look over here, there is a wonderful little piece I wrote on why I chose to use it as my medium.”
Now people are engaged again, reading a short but powerful sign with beautiful examples of all the artifacts I make. And this has ended in more sales. (Hint: The key to why this works is in this paragraph…)
ACADEMIC when I read an artist statement filled with academese or art speak, I sense someone who is afraid to get up close and personal about their work. That, or my eyes roll up into my head, my toes curl and I fall over from total boredom. But then, maybe that’s just me.
RESUME At most shows, when you read the accompanying artist statements, artists carefully list their education, the classes of other, more famous artists they’ve studied under, and the awards they’ve won. Most sound like they were written to impress other artists, perhaps a worthy goal, but I’m guessing most of us would rather impress our customers. They may not realize their statements sound like every other artist in the show. Or they think that’s the way it “should be done.” At the very least, they sure don’t know how to make theirs stand out.
FUN Frankly, I don’t care when an artist tells me they had “such fun” making their latest design. Because why should I care if they’re having fun?? I want to know why I should be compelled to part with my hard-earned money, and make space in my already-crowded home for something new. I can tell you it won’t be because the artist giggles while she works.
I’ve taught many artists about how to write a compelling artist statements, how to write a strong press releases, how to give a powerful interview for the media. It’s very simple, really.
All we really have to do is think about a little three-letter word….
I tell them why….this cave. Why…this point in my life. Why…I use polymer clay. Why…I use these fabrics, those markings, this presentation. I even have a story about the beaver-chewed sticks, and how they contribute to the story.
So why do you do what you do? Why do you choose to do it this way, with these materials?
Most importantly… Why should your audience care??
I believe the work I make sells to people who a) are blown away by the work itself, and b) feel a powerful connection to the stories I tell about the work.
When we talk in a deeply meaningful way about what our work means to us, other people listen. They will feel the truth of what you say. Remember all the times my customers say, “When you said that, a shiver went down my spine”…? Or, “Look, my hair is standing up!” (Yes, these are actual customer quotes.)
They are hearing the power of what my work means to me, and they are responding to it with something going on in their own lives.
That is connection. Human to human connection. Empathy, resonance, heart to heart. Inspiration. The recognition that we as human beings have these things in common: A need to love, and be loved. A desire to belong, and be an individual. A need to protect, and be protected. A desire to remember, and be remembered.
Don’t be ashamed or self-conscious about admitting your humanity. It is to be embraced and celebrated. Hey, we’re all in this together, and nobody gets out alive.
And when you do that, with honesty and integrity, you will find other people will respond.
How do you know if you’ve done a great job either talking or writing about your art? Basket artist Joanne Russo passed on a terrific tip she heard: An artist statement should make you want to go back and look at the work again.
If you still don’t know what to say about your work, then invest in Bruce Baker’s CD on “Dynamic Sales and Customer Service Techniques”. It will be the best $20 investment you ever make in your art biz.
Myth: Artists are not business people.
Reality: Successful artists have good business skills, or they marry*/partner with/hire people who do.
(This marriage tip courtesy of Wendy Rosen of The Rosen Group in Baltimore MD.)
A common myth about artists is that they are not good at the business end of making and selling art. The reality is, the better you are at the business skills necessary to promote and market your art, the better chance you have at being a successful artist.
I have a theory about artists and their lack of business skills. I think we tend to not like skills like math (balancing checkbooks, statistics, recording expenses). When it came to math, I liked story problems–if Bill and Jane decide to buy a house, and their options for borrowing money are a loan with an interest rate of 9.8% and no points, or a loan with an interest rate of 7.2% and 3 points, which is better? Because I liked to think, “Well, how much money does Bill make, and what if Jane has gone back to school to get a teaching certificate? And what if Bill gets a better job offer–is there a chance they might have to move in two years, and sell their house in a buyer’s market? Do they also like expensive cars, or do they shop at Salvation Army? Do they fight about how much to tip the waitress at a posh restaurant? Are these two even compatible enough to make a marriage work??” (You see the story potential here?)
Artists think they won’t need to take typing classes because they’re not going to be a secretary when they grow up. (We could not foresee the Internet and the importance of keyboard skills in 1968.) Talking about net profit and gross profit seemed, well, gross.
So we decided we would be artists. Famous artists. Successful artists! So successful that galleries would take care of all that bookkeeping stuff and marketing stuff for us. We would simply show up at the opening receptions in our cool black clothing, sip white wine and schmooze with our collectors.
That worked well enough for a fortunate few, for a few good decades. And then times changed. We grew up and realized we needed to pay mortgages, have health insurance, put kids through college. The artists who stuck it out had to learn how to sell, how to market, how to maintain positive cash flow.
And many of us found that these weren’t such awful skills to learn, and acquire, after all.
The same way artists are made, not born, business skills can be LEARNED and the incentive is huge. The more you understand the consequences of your business decisions, the better your decisions get.
Days of galleries “handling” all your business matters are gone, and as the Bernie Madoffs of the world should have taught us, good riddance. We’ve learned the hard way that galleries can go out of business (taking your art with them). We’ve learned that locking totally into wholesale strategies can also lock down your artistic aspirations, when galleries only want the work that sells. Even if we did embrace the business side of our art, strategies that worked beautifully in the 80’s and 90’s don’t work so well in the post 9/11 economy.
It’s always good to to know your bottom line. We need to know how to sell work, if only to understand why people buy it in the first place, and what they need to know in order to buy it. (More about that in Myth #5)
Marketing, promotion, sales, research and product development, teaching, writing–these are all business of art/craft skills that are good tools for a successful artist to keep in her toolbox.
Why was Picasso famous? Most people assume it’s because he was such a great artist. Well, yes, he was. But there were other artists of his time who were better at drawing. Other artists who were more skilled with color. Other artists who were better at all kinds of artistic things.
But Picasso was a master business person. Because he was a master at self-promotion and publicity, he was able to translate his name into the name everyone comes up with when asked to name an artist.
I read a story years ago about Picasso owing his tailor a large sum of money. He wrote the man a check. Then suggested the tailor not cash it because someday his (Picasso’s) signature would be worth more than the check was written for.
Not all of us will end up that famous (or with that much chutzpah. But learning appropriate business skills to get your art out into the world goes a long way to ensuring your efforts will come to fruition.
In fact, I’ve found I enjoy many of the business aspects of my art biz more than I thought. Because they are a labor of love. I choose, knowing the consequences, good and bad, of each informed decision. Gambling on formerly “sure thing” avenues is no longer part of my marketing strategy. I constantly forced to think hard about who my target audience is, and why they buy my art.
And I think I’m a better artist for it.
MYTH: “There’s no money in art, you’ll starve!”
Fact: There are ways to supplement your income or even support a family making art.
Here’s the third myth from my series called, “TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS (That Will Keep You From Being A SUCCESSFUL Artist”. “Artists Starve in Garrets.” (What IS a garret??) Corollary: “Real artists don’t care about money” and “You have to sell out in order to sell your art”.
Yes, real artists DO care about money. They have to eat and pay taxes and live somewhere just like us. They may even want to eat out or see a movie from time to time, or go on a vacation. Or have nice clothes. They may even (horrors!) want to send their kids to college, or go to France. And see the works of artists there who may or may not have starved in garrets.
There is nothing wrong with wanting compensation for your skill and hard work, whether your work is laying bricks, raising potatoes, putting together a corporate merger, or creating a beautiful pot or painting. We do many things out of love and skill, but we don’t tell our dentist, “I know how much you love your work, so you don’t expect to be PAID for removing that impacted molar, do you?”
There’s also nothing wrong with people wanting to pay you for your art. Just as we long to have a nice lawn, pretty flowers in our garden, matching towels in our bathrooms and a really really big flat screen TV, many of us long to have attractive and/or meaningful things in our homes.
Hence, many people who cannot make the art you make, will want to pay you so they can own some of yours.
It’s a thrill when someone else loves your work so much, they are willing to part with their own hard-earned money for it. It is the ultimate compliment. Don’t let anyone tell you different.
You can make a living with art. You can make a living selling the art you want to make—IF you take the time to find your audience. It helps to recognize that the business of art is just that–a business. You are creating a product just as if you were in the business of writing a white paper for a venture capital company, or raising corn, or making and selling food at a restaurant. We’ll look again at ways to look at art-making as a business, but for now, try to lose the idea that making art to sell is somehow WRONG.
And re: “selling out”…making modifications (temporary or otherwise) in order to make your art more marketable is good business sense. NOT selling out.
There is no right or wrong way to approach the business of selling your art. There are CONSEQUENCES that result from your choices, however. Be aware and prepared for those consequences.
For example, some people want to make something that sells easily and quickly. They study the market to see what’s hot or trendy and what’s selling. That gives them a good shot to get their business up and running fast.
There are consequences for choosing this business model. First, fads come and go seemingly overnight. They are bell-curved in nature—a very few people buy the idea at first, followed by a small but growing swell of followers. Then the boom hits and EVERYBODY wants one. Soon, though, the boom ebbs, and you are left with stock that’s out of date. By the time you get through a season, it’s time to completely redesign your work.
Also, do you think you’re the only person who noticed what was selling? Your competition is right at your heels, sometimes in the booth next to you. It’s hard to create a look that’s significantly different from hundreds of other artists working in the same fad.
Plus you are not really creating something that comes from your heart, from where YOU stand in the world. You are constantly looking out into the world and following someone else’s lead.
On the other hand, some people are determined to only create work that totally pleases them. They are the people who are determined to crochet granny square vests in neon acrylic yarn. Since this look is actually coming back, I’ll just go on to say this proves my next point: You CAN sell crocheted vests made of granny squares in synthetic neon-colored yarn if you can wait long enough to grow an audience for it.
The advantage is you will be working very close to your “greatest vision” for your art. It will be highly individual in nature and a unique expression of your vision. It will be difficult for anyone else to copy or follow in your footsteps.
The consequence here is it can take time, a long, long time, to develop a following for something. If you don’t care about getting cash flow going, or are extremely patient and unconcerned with the opinion of others, then you can afford to work this way.
But as in real life, you don’t have just two choices. Just like most decisions in life, you can construct something that lies somewhere in the middle.
Somewhere in the middle could look like this: You spend the time developing a highly personal body of work, work that has your distinctive and individual mark in it.
You invest the necessary time developing that style. At the same time, you find ways to connect it to a larger audience than your current audience of one (you.) You either offer less-involved versions that appeal to more people. Or you find ways to tweak it in small ways that don’t dilute the artwork’s vision itself, that makes it more marketable.
You still have the strength and power of a unique body of work, sacrificing more time and effort to develop your ultimate audience. But you also have something that’s somewhat marketable in the meantime, and bringing in cash flow so you can continue to grow.
Another approach could be to start smaller. You make something that IS trendy, or simple, or just fun to make. It’s not super-special, you just like doing it.
You sell some here, you sell some there, and over time, your audience grows. The fad goes away, but your work has evolved past that. As you go, you constantly tweak it here and there, adding touches that are unique to YOU.
Your interest pulls you to explore farther and farther. Your work becomes even more an extension of you. Your audience comes along gradually, growing larger and more appreciative.
One day, you realize your work has slowly evolved into something that is still recognizable but so distinctively YOU that anyone could look at it and say, “That’s a Joanna Smith!” On your journey, along the way, you made a million little choices by following your heart, resulting in a body of work only YOU could have made.
The point is you don’t have to choose between selling out and not selling at all. Life is rarely about black-and-white choices. It’s about finding the way BETWEEN you can live with. Sometimes through compromise and negotiation. Sometimes through small, unconscious changes. But always in balance.
P.S. A garret comes from an old French word, refers to the space inside/under the roof a building, and is simply a very classy way of saying “attic”….
Caveat: A friend who’s a lot of research about “successful” artists found that many don’t really make a living from their work. Some of the names would surprise you. Some are supported by spouses or trust funds. Some rely on academic careers for their bread-and-butter. On the other hand, I DO know people who support families while making work they love. Yet some people wouldn’t call them “artists”.
The moral of the story here: Don’t let anyone else define “success” for you! It will be different for each of us. And there is room in the world for all of our versions.
For a pithier (and funnier) version of this philosophy, see this post at the IttyBiz blog.
Let me share a story, one of the stories that got me thinking about these “artist myths”–myths like “Artists are born, not made” and “Only the best artists succeed.”
A few years after I finally started my own art journey, I was invited to do a series of artist presentations in a nearby school system. I was to visit three elementary schools in one day, sharing my artwork with students and telling them about the Ice Age cave art that inspired me.
I met the woman who set up the presentations, Nancy Brown, and she drove me from school to school. She was very pleasant, and we chatted animatedly between “sets” about family and life.
At the first school, I introduced myself at the main office but was met with blank stares. They’d never heard of me. But when I explained, the office person exclaimed, “Oh, you’re going to talk about CAVE ART. We were expecting an artist named ‘Kay Vart’!” She pointed to the chalk board behind her, and sure enough, “Thursday 10:00–Guest Artist Kay Vart” was carefully written there.
At the second school, we arrived a little early. “Oh, goody!” exclaimed Nancy, “We can play in the gym!”
Baffled, I followed her into the school cafeteria/gymnasium to a piano in the far corner. “This room has the most amazing acoustics!” Nancy said happily. She plopped herself on the piano stool, broke into a few chords on the keys, and began to sing.
To this day, I cannot describe that moment adequately.
Her voice was…..incredible. Astonishing. Powerful. Rich. Her voice filled the room with a moving variation on a Shawn Colvin piece.
I kid you not–a thrill ran down my spine.
I stood, entranced, as this perfectly ordinary little woman revealed a talent as big as the ocean. I will never forget it. It moved me to tears.
When she finished, I broke into applause. I told her she had an amazing voice.
“Actually, my voice is quite ordinary,” she said frankly. “I don’t have a natural ‘voice’. But I am passionate about singing, and I have studied and trained my voice to the nth degree.”
I was dumbfounded. Not being knowledgeable about things music, I had assumed only people born with a naturally beautiful voice could sing like that.
I had no concept of training an ordinary voice to be beautiful.
It was an epiphany.
I had seen–I had heard–the power that comes, not from natural talent, not from luck, but from dedication and determination. The power that comes from passion and training, and indomitable spirit.
I’ve lost track of Nancy. She moved in and out of professional music over the years and eventually left the area.
But I have never forgotten that beautiful moment, when time was suspended for a few precious moments. An empty school gymnasium, a grand old piano and passionate woman with a bold and beautiful voice.
An extraordinarily beautiful….a beautifully ordinary….voice.
Myth #2: You not only have to be good, you have to be the best.
Fact: You just have to be “good enough.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Mostly because the single biggest block owned by many artists–visual, musical, performance–is they feel if they don’t “make it”, it’s because they aren’t “good enough.”
I love to quote my friend Lori W. Simons on this one. Lori is not only a talented artist, she is also a writer. I was curious if the 2-D art world sorts itself out so neatly. Do the best artists become the most successful artists? She hesitated and then said quietly, “Being good HELPS.”
What does that mean? It means that you can be successful at whatever you throw your heart into, and it isn’t directly related to how good you are. Or whether you’re “the best”. Or even whether you’re one of the top 10.
It’s about how badly you want it, and how hard you’re willing to work at it. How smart you are about maximizing your opportunities, and how savvy you are with managing the business side of your art.
No one ran harder or farther from their art than I did. But it just wouldn’t go away. I finally gave up. My turning point was when I realized that if I did not pay attention to this, I would be destroying a part of myself that was too important to my very life. I had hit bottom, too. My exact words to my husband were these:
“I have to be an artist, or I’m going to die. I don’t even care anymore if I’m a GOOD artist. I just have to do it.”
Period. Nuff said. I had to swallow my pride, give up making judgments about how good I would/could or wouldn’t/couldn’t be, and just do it.
And you know what? Once I gave up basing my entire act on caring what others thought, that’s when my art began to hit its stride. Once I was making art I cared about, deeply, and once it came straight from my heart, that’s when I began to achieve some success with it.
That, and a lot of hard work, too. Ya gotta wanna, but ya also just gotta DO it.
This doesn’t mean the road was easy after that. There were still a lot of twists and turns. There were adjustments, suggestions, modifications along the way. But the core vision was always there. I had a story to tell, and a story to get out into the world.
Which brings us to this corollary to our #2 myth about artists. “Only the best artists are successful artists.”
Once more, with feeling. It helps if you’re good. You’ll get a little further a little faster. But just being good won’t ensure your success. And conversely, you can be highly successful even if you’re not the BEST.
Need proof? Look at Olympic-quality athletes. Sometimes they lose by 1/100 of a second, or 1/100 of a point. When we get into subjective judgment about who is “the best”, and that is determined by what the temperature was that day, or whether those new athletic shoes were rubbing the wrong way, or whether a competitor turned an inch too far back, we are talking about, “Who was the best, in the minds of those particular jurors, at that particular moment on that specific day.” Are we saying those other competitors were not sucessful, too? Nah… It may not have been their day, but they are still amazing athletes.
Now…would you rather run a 24-mile marathon, or get started on a new piece today?
Get in that studio! Don’t worry about how good you are. Just do it good.