HATERS GONNA HATE: “It’s Just Chalk!”

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

 You don’t have to defend your choice of materials.

In fact, make it a selling point!

A quick return to my series on how to answer the innocent questions, the odd questions, even the hurtful questions our visitors ask.

 During one of the discussions on a post in this series, a reader related that someone had dismissed her choice of medium with a disparaging remark”

“It’s just chalk!”  Ow!

 I remember the very first show I did, selling pens I’d covered with patterned polymer clay. I sold them for $5. Someone picked one up, sneered, “It’s just a cheesy pen covered with some kind of cheap plastic!”, tossed it back onto the table and walked away. (I remember thinking, “Was that absolutely necessary??”)

Sometimes a remark like this comes from another artist. One of the oddest things I’ve found among artists (of all kinds) is the hierarchy assigned to various media.

For example, oil paint is often considered a more “professional” medium than acrylic paints. It’s traditional, it’s harder to master, and it takes time to dry. Once cured, it’s extremely durable. It’s versatile, perfect for mixing and layering, because of that longer drying time. In the hands of a master, it creates spectacular results. Oil paints have been around for centuries, and became the “artistic medium of choice” in the 15th century.  Art made with oils usually commands the highest prices in the art world.

More modern acrylic paint, created in the 1940’s, has a slightly less lofty reputation. It dries quickly, doesn’t have such a prestigious history. The very name “acrylic” suggests ‘plastic’, synthetic. Fake.

On the other hand, acrylics are valued more than watercolors, which are valued more than drawings, colored pencil, pastels. And don’t even open the door to photography, that’s not even art. It’s a craft! So are woodblock/linocut/etchings/etc., because you can make hundreds of copies. They aren’t considered “real” art forms.

When I entered the art world, my mind reeled trying to sort out the innuendos and rationale for these hierarchies. My own choice of materials are so non-traditional, my medium is greeted with some suspicion. I don’t get much respect as an artist, until people actually see my work.  Even then, people used to pick up a piece and ask what it’s made of. “It’s polymer clay!” I’d beam, and they’d quickly put it down again.

What’s going on here???

Some of this bias is historical, based in tradition. Centuries ago, drawings were considered simply a draft for the “real” art—a painting. Colors were made with Newer art materials may contain more synthetic colors. Some media are easier to master. And some, I suspect, is turf-building: “You don’t use the medium I use, so my work is automatically better than yours!”

But there are plenty of counter-arguments, too. The first artifacts made by humans were shell beads. Yes. BEADS. Early cave art involved drawing, with charcoal or other pigments, i.e., CHALK. Yes, later on, these pigments were mixed with saliva, or oil. But their first application was probably to decorate and color bodies and hair, a practice that still continues in some cultures today.

So what do we say when someone denigrates our medium of choice?

My first response is this:

It’s not WHAT the material is, it’s what you DO with it. 

The logic of this is irrefutable. 

When precious metal clay, a metal powder in a clay base that can be modeled, formed, and fired with a micro torch, first appeared on the market, I saw this push-back immediately. Some traditional metal workers—sculptors, silversmiths, jewelers, etc.—protested that this was a ridiculous, amateur-targeting material, that cheapened their reputations. Gone were the traditional skills—soldering, casting, chasing, etc. It couldn’t possibly be considered a “real” metalworking medium….could it??

Google PMC artist “Celie Fago” and you tell me. (Spoiler alert: Whatever medium Celie works in, she creates incredibly beautiful work.)

Last week, I showed an artist friend portraits of my kids by a friend. He thought they were oils. Yeah. Colored pencil artist Nicole Caulfield hears that all the time.  (See my favorites at http://www.nicolecaulfieldfineart.com/zen-series !)

Nicole Caulfield’s colored pencil work is often mistaken for oils

And my favorite story about art vs. craft came from a potter friend. “If I make a sculpture in clay, it’s considered ‘craft’ ”, she said. “If I send that model to a foundry to be cast in bronze, it’s ‘art’.”

And we have all seen atrociously bad art done with oils, and amazingly beautiful work done in….er, on….an Etch-a-Sketch.

“The Etch-a-Sketch work is by artist George Vlosich.”

A hundred hours and one unbroken line. That’s not easy.

And me? Fiber arts is often considered a craft, or a woman’s medium. Polymer clay is considered a kid’s play material. I had a lot of explaining to do when I first started displaying, exhibiting, and selling my work.

My second, even more powerful response:

I CHOSE this material, and here are the reasons why….

I use polymer because my hands want to SHAPE things, not carve them.

I love using it to create jewelry because even larger works are lightweight, and comfortable to wear.

I can make artifacts that look truly ancient. I have a story to tell, about the roots of our own humanity, inspired by cave art going back a hundred thousand years and more. I want that power and mystery to be an integral part of my work.

Also very important to me–No animals are harmed in the process.

I use polymer clay by CHOICE. It does exactly what I need it to do.

I could not have made this work 50 years ago. Thank heavens for modern materials!

When I began to share WHY I use the materials I use, it became a selling point.

Your homework today, should you choose to accept it, is to take a few minutes to think about WHY you work in your chosen medium. Share your thoughts, and feel free to ask for help, if you need it.

Most of all, embrace your choices. Never excuse or apologize again for your choice of materials, nor your techniques. Something spoke to you the first time you used a brush, or a palette knife, a pencil, or a fistful of clay. It agreed with your inner self, your preferences, your tendencies, the way you want to work, the way you want to create.

 Their question—“What are these made out of?”—becomes a powerful point of connection with your potential audience.

Share this with your visitors, and watch your connections grow!

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DYING OF EXPOSURE

When asked for a donation for a fundraiser, ask yourself what you’re REALLY giving away.

This is a reprint of an article I wrote five years ago. My good friend and fellow artist Nicole Caulfield came across it after a discussion about artists donating artwork. It still stands today, so here it is.

DONATION

A thread came up on a discussion forum earlier this week, about whether, and how, artists should donate their work to auctions for charity.

There was an earnest discussion about who donates to what, and how. But nobody pointed out the downsides.

It can cheapen your work.

For most artists and craftspeople, our cost of materials (except for gold and precious stones) are negligible. Our prices depend on our creativity, our time, our skill–and what people will pay for our work.

At an auction, what people will pay can be a disaster.

Because most people attend such charity auctions to get a deal.

If you don’t believe me, ask a gallery.

I did. They said they BEG their artists not to donate work, for this exact reason. Of course, they have something at stake–they want to represent your and hopefully be the only one in the area to represent you. But they also are vested in having your work GAIN value, not lose value.

It’s funny, doctors are not asked to contribute medical services, and teachers are not asked to donate tutoring. I’ve never seen lawyers donate free legal advice. They may do pro bono work, but that’s not what they donate to auctions. Not to say it’s NEVER done, but I’ve not seen it. I believe this says something about the perceived value of our work–because artists get hit up a LOT for donations.

“Struggling artists” (including musicians) are often encouraged to donate for the “exposure” the event will create for them. To quote Jack White, artist and author of books about the marketing of art, “Artists die of exposure.”

My personal experience shows what kind of “exposure” you are risking. Take this chance to learn from someone else’s (mine!) mistake for a change.

I donated a wall hanging to a prestigious benefit auction in Boston. The show was filled with work by well-known book illustrators. (By the way, illustrators–who make commissioned art for use in books–have already been paid for their artwork.)

I attended the event, excited about connecting with art lovers who might be intrigued by my work. It turns out it wasn’t really an art show. Ski trips, wine cases and gift certificates were also being auctioned off.

I overheard countless conversations by the attendees that distressed me. (I knew some of them and I knew how much money they made) They were chortling about how cheaply they could bid on their favorite items in the silent auction. One woman had her eye on a beautiful handmade quilt, with exquisite piecing and sewing. She absolutely loved it. It was wonderful!

She also didn’t want to bid more than $40 on it.

I left before my work came up for bids.

A year later, a couple with the winning bid on my wall hanging came to my booth at a craft fair. Okay! This was it! It was working! Now they were going to become my collectors!

Not. They’d come to brag to me how cheaply they’d won it.

They weren’t even looking for me. They’d come to the fair on a whim, for the first time. They just happened to walk by my booth and recognized my work.

My booth was full of customers. The couple told me (loudly, of course) about their experience. “We got it for $35!!”, they exclaimed. (This was a small wall hanging valued at $350.) They couldn’t believe their good fortune. “It was so beautiful, and nobody else bid on it!” They went on and on about how excited they were to get “such a deal!”

Then they left. They didn’t even buying a tie tack.

The silence in my booth was deafening.

They meant well, I suppose, but it was humiliating.

So much for “exposure”. My work had been “exposed” as being worth $35. A hall full of people had watched as my work was devalued and ignored, with a repeat performance there in my booth.

I didn’t acquire a new customer, because they didn’t buy anything else, and I never saw them again.

I didn’t even have the tax write-off for the act, because tax law clearly states ARTISTS can only write off the cost of materials in the piece. Only people who actually BUY your art and donate it can write off the full value of the work.

And I cringe every time I think of them showing off the work in their home to visitors. “Guess how much we paid for this!” they probably chortle gleefully. “Only $35!!” What a steal! What a bargain!

OUCH. NOT how I want to be remembered.

That was years ago, and I’ve learned my lesson. I now carefully consider how and when I contribute my work.

Ask any gallery that represents artists, and they will tell you the same thing. Those auctions may be dedicated to “a good cause”, but people buy for one reason–they’re getting a deal. A bargain. Is that how you want your work to be marketed?

The ONLY time I saw this work was with an artist whose work and reputation were already strong–a strong collector base already well-established. His work was in demand because he was already at full production.

His piece started a bidding war, and went for MORE than the stated value. But his was the ONLY painting out of HUNDREDS of donated works that did so. Everyone–I mean EVERYONE–else’s work went for a fraction of the stated value.

Strong words, I know. And this is not an iron-clad rule for me.

I’m much more willing to contribute money or time to a cause dear to my heart. There are a few organizations I have supported with donations of artwork.

But I’ve also learned to say no graciously.

Here are guidelines that help me narrow the field that might also help YOU.

If your aim is to gain “exposure” (and I’ve already cautioned you how this can backfire), then at least donate something people will SEE. Now, if I donate anything, I donate jewelry, because at least someone will WEAR it. If it generates comments, perhaps the person will rave about the piece instead of raving about how cheaply they got it…

I pick fundraisers I care deeply about. And I let them know I’ve made an exception for them because of that. (This also controls how often my work is seen at charity auctions.)

Better yet is to suggest a CUSTOMER donate your work.

Or to offer to donate a portion of your profits to the cause. I’ve made special pieces with this in mind. I displayed them with a sign saying, “Profits from this pin are donated to such-and-such organization”. This is win/win–for you, for the charity, even for the customer. Your work holds its full value, the charity gets its donation, the customer gets to participate.

Or donate something free WITH PURCHASE. A free bracelet with the purchase of a necklace. Or a free sculpture with the purchase of a wall hanging.

Or offer a ONE-TIME discount. Bruce Baker, speaker and writer on the business of craft, cautions that customers tend to view even “one-time” discounts as PERMANENT discounts. I tried it once, and he’s right. But it’s still an option.

At the very least, offer to provide the item for your wholesale price. That is, the charity acquires it for what a store would pay for it. And set a minimum bid. More and more art organizations are using this model for their auctions, because it’s more artist-friendly. One person from such an art org confided in me, “We realized that saying we supported artists, then constantly asking them to donate work, was a contradiction of our mission statement!” Yes.

How do you say no to such requests graciously?

Tell them you get asked so often for such contributions, you now contribute once or twice a year to carefully-considered causes. You consider all requests, then make your decision in….pick a month or two. Say, June and December. And you are very sorry, but you’ve already made your decision for the year.

If you like the organization, ask them to submit a request in time for next year’s selection process.

Buy an ad in their event program. It will get you the same exposure and you won’t be donating your work at bargain prices.

Or send them a check. At least that’s tax deductible.

TWO BEAUTIFUL OBJECTS IN SPACE

Just a quick note, artist Nicole Caulfield is doing a portrait of my daughter Robin wearing my “Gaia” shaman necklace. She just sent me the first draft and it is beautiful!

Can’t take my eyes off Robin or the necklace. I’m doubly blessed, not only to have such a great kid, but that she looks so good in my jewelry! (Doug is cool, too, but he won’t wear these necklaces….!!!)

Nicole Caulfield's portrait of my daughter Robin wearing my Gaia necklace.

Second portrait is the one I had done at a mall photo studio a few years ago. I still love this photo and use it as a large poster in my booth. It shows my daughter Robin wearing my necklace, “Ceremonial”, made with my horse, shell and bone artifacts. Charms made with antique trade beads, electronic resistors and vintage buttons, and tons of semi-precious stones such as turquoise, amazonite, jade, etc. The look is tribal and nomadic and fits my artwork beautifully.