TRIBES #3: LEAVING THE TRIBE

Your needs and goals as an artist will change and grow throughout your life. You will constantly gather the people you need to you.

And you will also periodically leave people behind.

I started this mini-series with a sort of Ugly Duckling story, as one reader noted. I told how my dog tries to be a cat, and why it’s a good thing he isn’t very good at it. When we find out we aren’t really “bad bankers” but are actually “really excellent artists”, it’s an amazing epiphany.

The second article talks about how to find your own tribe.

Interestingly, some people took that to mean searching out other artists who work in the same medium. Some took it as how some artists learn techniques from a master, then never really develop their own style.

Some even found their new “family”, but grieved when it, too, became contentious, confining and restrictive.

While some of us will be fortunate to find a wonderful, cohesive, supportive group of like-minded folks, others will struggle to maintain that in their lives.

Sad to say, but it happens.

The day may come when you have to leave your bright new tribe, and find another.

There are lots of reasons why this happens.

Sometimes the group is just too big. There’s no time for each person to have a turn to be listened to. You can feel lost in the shuffle.

Sometimes there aren’t enough “rules”. A few folks will take on the role of gadfly (aka “jerk”). Or there are too many rules, too much “business”. The lively group dynamic is strangled with too many procedural stops and starts. (I left one craft guild when the business reports began to take up almost half the meetings.)

Sometimes the group narrows its own dynamic. It can be subtle but powerful. You’ll start to feel constricted. Here’s a true story:

Years ago, a quilting guild I belonged to brought in a nationally-known color expert for a workshop.

During it, she commented that there were definite regional color palettes, patterns and technique preferences across the country.

I asked her how that happened. She said when members brought in their projects for sharing, some would generate a huge positive response from the membership. Others, more eclectic or “out there”, would receive a lukewarm reception. “We all crave that positive response”, she said. “It’s human nature. So slowly but surely, we begin to tailor our work to generate the bigger response.”

It hit me like a brick. Another quilter and I did more unusual fabric work. The response to our “shares” was decidedly in the “lukewarm” category.

And I had begun to do more work in the “accepted style” of the group.

I left after the workshop, and never went back. My fellow fiber artists were a great bunch of people. But I was not willing to “tamp down” my vision in order to garner their praise.

Sometimes, our course changes. We find ourselves in pursuit of different goals. Or we find our own needs sublimated to the needs of the group.

Or we simply grow faster than the rest of the group. You may even outgrow your mentor. If our work fosters jealousy–if our work becomes more successful, attracts more notice–then professional jealousy might raise its ugly head.

It can feel even harder to leave this new tribe that gave us so much joy at first. In fact, it’s brutal.

But it has to be done, if you want your art to move forward.

You cannot control the feelings of others. You can make yourself, and your work, as small and mundane as you can. But if someone is determined to nibble you, nothing can stop them.

Take heart in this knowledge:

This group served your needs for awhile. Enough for you to gain confidence, and to take a step forward.

And you will find another tribe. It may take awhile. But your peers are out there.

Consider that they may not even be working in the same medium. They may not even be visual artists. They may not be “artists” at all.

As long as they share the same values, or can support and challenge you in constructive ways, you can benefit from their company.

It may even be time for you to walk alone. Just for awhile.

Just long enough to really hear what your own heart is saying.

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #14: Artists Don’t Care What Other People Think

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…….

bwahhahahahahahahahaha!!

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.

Making Room

So what great insights came from my four questions session yesterday?

Carol and Barb came over for two hours. We had coffee and a quick nosh. (Can’t work on empty stomaches!) We “checked in” briefly to see what everyone was up to.

Then it was time to start.

What did I want to talk about?

I wanted to talk about my vision for my art. Wanting to catch everyone up on where I was coming from, I presented a five-minute summary of the last couple years:

My realizing I still have a vast new audience to present my current body of work to….(validation!)

Me knowing my work will evolve naturally and organically once I can clear space in my studio to get back to work….(relief!)

Me recognizing that writing, though abstract, makes me feel like I’ve done something…and may be distracting me from my actual art production time/energy….(hmmm…at least I see it, though I’m not sure what to do about it.)

Me remembering that last year my first surgery, and first foot injury happened two months before my big League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Craft Fair…(manageable, but still putting me off my game.)

and that it was the first fair I’d done in eight years without my daughter Robin assisting me every step of the way…(difficult.)

Me understanding the many negative things that happened to me at last year’s Fair (let’s just say that sometimes, there’s nothing scarier than your fellow craftsmen), and how long I’ve had to deal with the repercussions….(frustration.)

Me realizing my cancer scare began almost immediately after the Fair and lasted through several months of testing and follow-up….(emotionally exhausting.)

Followed by two more surgeries in December…(uh oh.)

Resulting in being housebound, in constant pain, inactive, incurring weight gain and depressed….(it was, well, depressing.)

And me now realizing we have to clear the garage for a new wood boiler, and clean out our house attic so we can insulate before winter….(yikes!)

And I still need to clean out my barn attic so I can begin to clean out my studio….(double yikes!)

There! “So,” I said, “I’m ready to talk about my plans for my art.”

“Not so fast, sweetheart!” exclaimed both my friends in unison. “We can see what the problem is here. And it’s not what you think.”

The problem wasn’t about the art. The problem was making room for it.

They both pointed out that the first step was to get a plan of action for this huge de-cluttering laid out–before I even begin to think about making more art.

They said they understood, because they’ve both struggled with the same issue. And gone through the process, and come out the other side–lightened, encouraged and energized.

And they said they both happened to be very, very good at creating such plans for action.

When they said that, a huge weight lifted from my heart. How perfect that these two people were doing this exercise with me.

I knew they were right. I knew I had to do this. I had no idea how I was going to do it.

It turned out they were going to give me exactly the help I needed.

They guided me through a visioning exercise. I mentally walked through my studio, “creating” the perfect new work environment. I thought about what really needed to be there and what didn’t.

Then we took a quick tour of the two staging areas. With their eyes helping, it was even easier to see what could be “at hand”, and what could go upstairs into the barn attic.

Shelves will keep my current storage containers more accessible, and labeling will help, too.

Teen-aged boys will be forbidden to set up a man-cave in the attic. (If you have teen-aged boys, you know what I’m talking about….)

The list goes on.

Someday, perhaps I’ll be able to section off part of the barn and actually insulate or heat it during the winter, so my office and shipping station can be upstairs, away from my actual workspace. (Email and internet stuff can be a huge distraction!) For now, there’s a lot that can be stored up there for quick grabbing when I need it. A little hassle to run upstairs (especially in winter!), yes, but better than tripping over E*V*E*R*Y*T*H*I*N*G underfoot.

My friends also offered to help.

It was so hard to ask! “Come on, Lu, say it—‘Will you help me?’–four little words! You can do it!” they urged.

I did, and they said yes. (They want pizza, beer and music. I think I can swing that!)

They encouraged me to make a list of other people I could ask for help, too, and how to make it easier for people to do so. (Keep the request to a couple hours, add the music and food.)

They encouraged me to set a deadline (three weeks!) to see how much I could accomplish by then.

They promised to come back for another session to make sure I’m making progress, and not getting bogged down in details.

As we stood by the top of the barn stairs and talked, I worried about how much shelving and labor would cost.

And then looked up and saw…..a stack of shelves, commercial-quality slotting and brackets I’d bought seven years ago, originally to use in my studio but set aside because I hadn’t needed it.

Here’s the funny thing. If you’d asked me where it was, I would have said I’d given the stuff away already! I’d walked by them a hundred times in the last few years, and yet not seen them.

Yet at the exact moment I realized I needed that stuff, there it was. (Okay, I’m not sure I can find the brackets, but those should be easy to buy again.) (I hope!)

In the end, nothing monumental or too big too handle. Just something that’s easy to do for others, and sometimes so hard to do for ourselves.

Update: I’ve already packed up six boxes of books for a prison library; set out a ton of stuff on our tree lawn which disappeared within hours; posted stuff on Freecycle which was picked up in minutes, and thrown out two bags of trash. I think it’s working!