TELL ME A STORY: Novelty

Tell Me A Story: Novelty
by Luann Udell

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. Luann also writes a column “Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explores 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. 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….” You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

Remember, to ordinary people, We are the people who ran away to join the circus.
Use the magic.

We humans love the odd and the curious.

The Guinness Book of Records. The story in your local newspaper about the calf born with two heads or the gardener who grew a monster-sized squash. The Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs TV program with Mike Rowe, who volunteers to try out the nation’s dirtiest, most disgusting work. And P.T. Barnum’s famous (or infamous) sideshow attractions. The proverbial “man bites dog” (vs. the boring and predictable “dog bites man”) stories.

What’s at the root of all these?

Novelty.

Although many of you have been inspired by this series of articles on using news values in your marketing, I know some are unconvinced of their value, and grumbling on the sidelines.

I know if some have protested the value of using sex and romance as a story hook, the idea of using novelty in our self-promotion (press releases, artist statement, advertising, etc.) will make them grind their teeth. I can hear it now….

“I’m a serious artist! I don’t want to even be considered in the same (news) ballpark as giant squash and weirdo publicity stunts!”

You—and I—are proud of our business skills, our hard-won credentials, the prestigious exhibits our work has appeared in—and rightly so. We’ve worked hard to get to where we are today, and we want to be taken seriously as artists.

We aren’t some ‘novelty act’ scrounging for a sound bite on the radio or conniving for a mention in the ‘weird news’ section of the newspaper.

Maybe. And…maybe not.

Consider this: In other people’s eyes, our very existence is the novelty.

I’ve sat through many, many seminars conducted by nationally-known speaker Bruce Baker, who talks about displaying and selling art and fine craft. Bruce is a compelling and entertaining speaker who’s spoken to tens of thousands of artists over the years, sharing his insights and observations on marketing. He has a knack for turning a phrase, and one of my favorites is this one:

“Above all, you as artists and craftspeople must remember: To the ordinary public, you are the people who ran away to join the circus!”

He means that our customers, the general public, and yes, sometimes our mothers, think of us as odd and highly unusual people. We didn’t grow up to be insurance salesmen or doctors or shop clerks or teachers. (Or, if those are our ‘day jobs’, they don’t completely define us.)

We are wild and crazy artists.

Oh, yes, we may be successful at what we do, and we may be as disciplined as a brain surgeon when it comes to refining our skills; we may be as focused as a CPA about our bottom line; we may be as dedicated as a teacher and as creative as…well, an artist.

But we did something most people only dream about—we ‘ran away’ from the ordinary life, and did something wonderful.

We work for ourselves, not a corporation or a boss. We set our own hours, create our own practice, follow our own professional goals.

Every day, we create something astonishing out of simple, common materials: A little paint, a few pencils, a glop of clay, a piece of wood.

We make something that looks so real, you want to reach into the canvas and stroke it. We create something that wasn’t there before, perhaps not even imagined before. Our work is found throughout human history, from the earliest dawn of prehistory to the newest 3D movie magic in the theater.

Sometimes the meaning of our work is crystal clear, at times so mysterious others can only guess at the story. When our work is good, it can transport people to another time, another place, another attitude, a deeper understanding and appreciation of their world.

It’s like we’re magicians. It’s like we’re…circus people! Off in our own world, traveling from show to show, creating marvels and miracles, and leaving our mark in people’s homes, in public places, in museums.

We ARE the novelty.

Put some of that magic, that awe, that suspension of belief into your writing. Use the special!

Now, of course, there are more ordinary uses of novelty. (A strange sentence, yes?) Perhaps, even among artists, you are different.

You may grind your own paints or use egg tempura in your murals.

You may specialize in painting airplane nose cone art, or balloon animal art, or other esoteric subject matter.

Perhaps, like Andy Goldsworthy, you’ve pioneered or popularized an unusual or ephemeral art form.

Or you’re the sidewalk artist who incorporates striking optical illusions in your chalk paintings.

Maybe you were an early adapter of the ATC (artist trading card) phenomenon, or the Painting a Day movement. What caught people’s attention was the novelty of the idea, the discipline of daily creation, the accessibility of small works and the (initially) low prices of such work. And, of course, the new idea—the novelty—of being able to view and trade or purchase such works on EBay.

Scratch the normal surface of what it is you do, and how you do it, and why you do it, and see if novelty is a story hook worth your consideration.

And even if it isn’t, understand that you yourself are also a novelty.

And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

A SIX-YEAR-OLD CAN DO IT…You Can, Too!

Gulping my coffee this morning, watching the latest storm roll over Keene, New Hampshire, and reading our very own local newspaper, The Keene Sentinel. The Sentinel is noted for being the fifth oldest continuously published newspaper in the U.S..

I’m intrigued by an article in the business section. It’s by Rick Romell of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (Aside: Milwaukee is another cold, cold city. I Googled the latitudes of both cities and found that Milwaukee is at 43.04N and Keene is at 42.933N. Brrrr!)

You can read the entire article here. It’s about a professor of marketing who conducts market research with methods that resemble psychoanalysis.

So what does a marketing research technique that uncovers the real reason “real men” buy power tools have to do with your business in art and craft?

Because the most powerful technique they used was “…a rigorous format that includes repeatedly asking “Why?” like a persistent 6-year-old.”

Does this technique sound familiar?

I’ve never heard of the ZMET technique, though I hope to learn more. I discovered the power of “why” almost eight years ago, at a gallery talk for a juried art show I was in.

I’d never been to one before, and hoped to hear what drove the passions of my fellow exhibitors. I was disappointed to hear a lot of acadamese instead. In my ignorance and eagerness to learn what “real artists” thought, I kept pressing the speakers, asking “why” over and over. To a photographer who used images from a sole Greek island as her subject, I asked, “But why this island? And why this particular point in history?”, she finally revealed her personal and heartfelt inspiration. To a fiber artist who had used unusual materials to construct a coat with an “inside story”, the question revealed what that inside story was–and it was powerful.

It was a hard process, and not appealing to everyone–the newspaper review of the show later referred to me as “the persistent woman in the audience who kept asking ‘why?'” But every single artist came up to me afterwards and thanked me. One said, “You know, at first I was annoyed that you kept asking. But then it all came pouring out…. I never really knew before what drove my work. And now I do.” Another said, “I never realized the power of speaking my own story, my own truth, til you pushed me there. Thank you!”

I have used this technique when teaching artists how to write effective artist statements. I’ve used it in workshops to develop a story hook for press releases. I use it simply talking to people who pique my interest, wanting to find out what makes them tick.

I have never been disappointed by the answers I get to this question.

Who knew that simple question of a six-year-old could teach us so much?