A DEATH IN THE FAMILY

The month before my grandfather died, I came home from college for some family function. I don’t remember what it was. It may well have been his birthday. I remember it was a special occasion, and a happy one. It was held at a farm, I don’t know whose.

I remember a sunny, beautiful day, an old and unfamiliar farmhouse, a crowd of people, many relatives, many others who were strangers to me.

My grandfather, as usual, was apart from all the others, more emotionally than physically. I always see him this way in my mind: Silent, sitting quietly, apart, gazing on the activity around him, but not of it. Somewhat interested, but not especially so. (He’d suffered a stroke many years before.)

If you sat by him long enough, he would gasp a sudden remark, gruffly, but with polite interest. How was school? What was my major? After hearing a response, he would settle back into himself until moved by convention to make another comment.

It wasn’t until many years later, after he died, that I finally learned the real reason for this sadness and apart-ness I always felt in him. I always thought he was an especially wise and profound man, lost in his deep thoughts, until overwhelmed by the chatter and chirping of the rest of us, he would rouse himself to be a good sport, and join in. Until more weighty matters pulled him back into his rich inner world.

I always thought that if I could say the right words, ask the right questions, he would suddenly open up and include me into that head world of….what?

Now I know he was an ill man, not just physically, but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. He was diagnosed as manic-depressive, and the source of much pain and anguish in his family.

Time, and distance, old age, had softened many rough and bitter edges, but the sadness and solitude I sensed was a bitter one, not bitter-sweet. (Years later, my mother said she believed she was his “favorite”, and was always good to her. Not so much with my grandmother or the other four aunts and uncles.)

That day, though, he was simply my grandfather. I was feeling grown-up and socially “apt”. I remember chatting with him often, trying for and getting little smiles and a chuckle or two from him.

I remember a beautiful day, a cake, a crowd of people (some familiar and some strange.) I remember feeling part of a celebration, and part of a family.

Less than a month later, he was dead.

The call came from my mother, with the news. She told me the date of the funeral, and expected me home again.

I was a sophomore or junior at the University of Michigan, almost 3 hours away. (After they raised the speed limit, it became 2.5 hours.) I didn’t have a car. I usually snagged a ride from friends at college to travel home for holidays and break. No public transportation, of course. So getting home on my own was hard.

It was also my very first funeral, and I dreaded it.

I wasn’t very grown-up, emotionally. I think I was so self-centered that my thought was for my loss of my grandfather, rather than thinking of my mother’s loss of her father. I wasn’t grown-up enough to realize how much it would mean to my mother and to my beloved grandmother to be at the funeral.

I just wanted to remember him as I had seen him just a few weeks before: Sad, apart, yet more bouyant than usual. It seemed important to remember him that way, to remember happier times. I was afraid to see him dead, to realize I would never know what noble ideas he had, what secret thoughts he pondered. I was afraid to see my grandmother cry.

Somehow, I made it home. I remember very little except my mother’s anger.

For years, I could not remember what I did to bring this on me, I only remember I had done something thoughtless, something terribly wrong.

I remember how still my grandpa was in the coffin, like clay or soft stone.

My mother was angry, so angry she didn’t speak to me the rest of my time home. She yelled about what I’d done that had angered her, then her silence was like a stone.

Both of them seemed as far away from me as a star, cold remote, silent.

After the service, we went back to my grandma’s house. My Aunt Lou, my mother’s youngest sister, sat down on the sofa next to me. I loved my Aunt Lou. She was always kind to me. To everyone, in fact.

We talked about little things, nothing important. As we talked, she sat with her arm around my shoulder. She began to stroke my hair gently, pushing it back behind my ears, over and over. It felt wonderful. I was so miserable I thought my heart would break.

She asked if I liked my hair being stroked, and I whispered, “Yes.” “None of my girls do,” she murmured. “They tell me it bugs them. Grandma Paxton used to hold us when we were little girls and stroke our hair behind our ears. We loved it so much. I always thought I would do it for my girls, but they don’t like it.”

I remembered that when I was little, my mother stroked my hair like that. But not for years now. I wished she would do it then.

My grandfather had been dead for over 25 years when I got a phone call from my mom. (And now it’s 22 years that!) As usual, we chatted, keeping it light. Suddenly, she mentioned my grandfather’s funeral.

We had never talked about what happened. (We never did, about anything.)

She had been talking with a good friend about the funeral, and mentioned that she had been furious with me because I hadn’t worn a dress to the funeral.

I was stunned.

I didn’t even own a dress when I was in college.

“Did I wear jeans?” I asked cautiously, trying to remember what major faux pas I may have made.

“Oh, no!” she said brightly. “You wore a very nice pair of dress slacks.)

I couldn’t think of anything to say. (I did make a mental note that I should always wear a dress to any future funerals.)

I didn’t want to make the silence uncomfortable for my mother, so I said apologetically, “I guess that was kinda rude of me.”

“Oh, no!” she said again, brightly. “My friend said I should have been thrilled that you came at all, because so many kids your age wouldn’t have.”

When my fierce daughter flares up at me, I’m overwhelmed by my anger. Hers flames mine. I think harsh words which frighten me. I force my jaw closed, to hold back the bitter words which bite forever.

My anger is a chasm. We stand on opposite sides, and gaze at each other, remote, apart.

My hands yearn to stroke her hair, and touch her sweet face.

N.B. I wrote this when my daugher was nine. I was lucky. I began to realize my anger came from taking my daughter’s preadolescence angst personally. Once I set that aside, I always tried to meet her where she was. We made peace with each other. Forever, I hope. I’ve learned so much from her, in so many ways.

I am in awe of her.

And yes, that was as close to an apology as I ever got from my mom. She died early in 2018, after living with coginitive decline for about a decade, and my father died six months later.

And another N.B. Thank you (Susan D!) to those who pointed out all my typos! As I was writing this, a few family members were bugging me to let them use my computer, and I went too fast!!  :^)

 

 

BE THE HERO IN YOUR OWN STORY: Framing Is Everything!

It takes time, but somewhere down the road, there’s a powerful story in our darkest hours.

 We attended a gathering this weekend. Good food, great people, and beautiful scenery. That’s where the idea for this week’s article comes from.

I was talking with a younger person there, who’s right smack in the middle of a difficult life stage. I listened to their woes, which, to be fair, they put a good spin on. In other words, they weren’t whining, but they were definitely struggling, in a situation all too familiar to me.

Without loading them with too much advice, I mostly told them they were doing it right. They had the right attitude, they were seeking the help they needed, and they knew they were fortunate in so many ways, they hated to complain about the exhausting situation they found themselves in.

I gave them two pieces of advice. Or rather, insights.

One, I told them that people who have been through the same thing, will understand. And those who haven’t, won’t. I said, “Seek out the first group, and just ignore the second.”

Two, I told her this, too, will pass. It’s hard, and it’s hard to make it easier. But in the end, they will be okay. And when they get through it, they will be able to see the gifts and blessings along the way.

I get that when we’re in the middle of a big muddle, it can feel like there’s no way out. No solution, no quick fix, no “magic mushrooms” to make it right. It can be hard to have hope.

And yet…

When I look back at some of the hardest times in my life, I can see something of value there.

I can see the goods things that came out of it. I can appreciate the people I met along the way, people who often had exactly what I needed to get through one day.

I can see the hard-won lessons that proved so valuable later in life. I can see the blessings, the gifts, the jaw-dropping miracles that not only helped me get through, but formed me into the person I am today.

“You can’t see it when you’re in the middle of it, and that’s okay,” I told them. “Because right now, it just sucks. So take exquisite care of yourself every chance you get.”

“But years from now, there will be something beautiful here, something that will encourage you, inspire you, help you find your way. This will change you, and some of those changes will be powerful. You will find yourself in a place you never even dreamed of, yet.”

“It will always be part of your story, and YOU will get to decide how to tell it.”

No one would ever choose to be in that hard place. It will simply find us, no matter who we are, no matter what we do. We are going to have very, very hard times in our lives.

And not everything has a happy ending.

But there will be gifts, if we chose to look for them.

The trick is in how we tell our story.

In a slump with our artwork? Uninspired? Tired of the same ol’ same ol’? Someday, we’ll look back and see the wall we hit—and how it led us to an exciting new body of work.

Didn’t get into art school? Maybe the wild and crazy path you DID take, is what makes your art so powerful today.

Didn’t get into that gallery? Or exhibition? Or that top-notch show? Rejection feels like failure. But failures have a way of making us dig deep for our art. We can crumple up and walk away, leaving our creative work behind. Or maybe we realize someone else’s “no” can be our next “maybe”. Maybe I’ll try another gallery in the next town over. Maybe I can simply apply for more exhibitions, hoping I’ll get into just one.

Or maybe I realize that no one can keep me from my studio, and it’s time for me to get back to work.

It can be hard to be Pollyanna in the middle of despair. And yet…

What if we actively thought of ourselves as the hero of our own story?

What if the challenges we face, force us to rise to meet them?

What if that difficult person in our workplace finally inspires us to find another job, a better one, too?

What if our loneliness when things get hard, creates compassion in our hearts for others in the same boat?

What if physical setbacks force us to choose another path, one that has its own rewards? (I’ve met TWO potters this month who had to find another form of creating when their bodies couldn’t take the “weight” any longer.)

What if lack of sales, fame, and stardom as an artist, actually encourages us to focus more on the “why” of our creative work? Helps us pay attention to the joy we get from making our art?

What if all we really need to get through this day, today, is a six-minute film to bring us nearly to tears, filled with awe of the beauty of this perfect day?

Last week, I read an old journal from our last two months in Keene, NH, just before we sold our house and 80% of our possessions to move across the country.

I’d made note of some difficult times, people, and situations. But I was surprised at how little of them I actually remembered! I would read, “I hate Doris!” and think, “Who the heck is Doris?!”

When we were in the middle of that move, all I could see was total chaos.

But as I look back, I see what a powerful experience it really was, on many fronts.

The things I loved so much, it felt impossible to leave them behind—only to find out they were in much worse shape than I’d realized, and couldn’t go anywhere except the dump. (My cheetah-patterned sofa!)

The person who gave me a hard time, and now I can’t even remember who it was, nor what it was about. (As I deal with difficult people here in CA, I’m reminded there are difficult people EVERYWHERE.)

The people who didn’t show up to help (“I’m not going to do one thing to help you leave, because I want you to stay!”) and the amazing gift of the people who DID show up, every day, for weeks.

The fear that I would lose my audience in NH (which DID fall off for awhile), and yet realizing how quickly I could start growing a new audience here.

The people who were upset by our choice to move, until I shared with them our own “hero’s journey” that led us to that decision. (Hallelujah, they came around!)

Now, sometimes we just need to gritch. I get it. I love to gritch, too. It feels good to get a good whine in (with a glass of wine, too!) And it can be cathartic to blow off steam with a good friend who’s willing to listen.

But in the end, I choose to see the miracles, the gifts large and small, the Angels In Odd Places I find in almost every step along the way.

So the next time you get slapped in the face with a big ol’ whipping cream pie of rejection, or lack of sales, or whatever, take note. My bears’ story: “Be strong when things get hard. Listen more. Think slow. Love deep.”

Bear tells me, “Be strong when things get hard. Listen more. Think slow. Love deep.”

I process things by writing, but you may have another process. Maybe painting your heart out, or creating a song, or poem, or prayer. Maybe do something kind for someone even worse off than you. Perhaps a chance to simply blort with a loving partner, or a really good friend who is truly there for you.

Whatever works for you, embrace it.

Be the hero of your own story.

Tell the story only you can tell.

Because your story might  just inspire someone else to be a hero.

Do you have an example of a setback that proved to be a power booster for you? Share it here! It may be just what someone else needs to hear today!

And if someone shared this with YOU, and you like what you see, sign up for more articles at my blog here.

WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: Make Room for Art in Your Life!

WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: Make Room for Art in Your Life!

 

Bear has a story for when life gets hard.

Life is not “all or nothing”, you can make as much—or as little—room for art as you like!

More in the series about sharing my hard-earned knowledge with young art students. This one was hard.

I told them how I’d wanted to be an artist since I was three years old. Making stuff mattered deeply to me.

But my opportunities for learning and practicing were scarce. Materials were scarce, art teachers were scarce, art classes, even books about art were just not available. I got to the point where I dreamed of going to art school, college. I put away all my dreams until then.

And then it didn’t quite work out the way I thought it would.

I’ve shared this before, so to make it short:

I struggled. My teachers were either unengaged (they probably knew how few of us would go “all the way.”) Some of them were harsh. I didn’t enjoy drawing from life: eggs on a sheet of white paper, etc. My grades weren’t great, either. I wasn’t accepted into that school’s art program (I lacked a portfolio), and so I fell back to art history as a major.

I felt like I was simply not a good artist, and I let it go.

But that left me in a hard place for decades. Until (again, I’ll keep this short, I’ve shared it so many times before) I realized I was aching for art in my life again. And my total surrender to it—saying I didn’t care if I were a GOOD artist or not, I just had to do it—was a turning point for me.

For years, I felt like I’d wasted all that time, until I realized it created a unique path for me. And my revelation on how important it was to simply have in my life gave me power I’d never had before.

Over the years, I’ve met a lot of people who went further down their artistic path, and then fell away. Their work didn’t sell, or the gallery they tried to manage overwhelmed them. They didn’t think they were good enough. Or they didn’t have the time anymore, what with having “a real job” now. They believed if their creative work wasn’t painting, or sketching, then it wasn’t “real art”.

I’m happy to say that, meeting people where they are, telling my story, and simply encourage them to take small steps to put it back in their life, has actually worked! Not for everyone. Not all the time. Not right away. But there are people who have come to the same realization I did: When we are doing the work of our heart, whether it’s full-time, part-time, a little bit of time, whether they earn a living, make some money, or only a little money, or….none….that they simply feel better when it’s part of their life again.

And that’s what I told those teens.

Our lives are rarely a “sound plan” that we can maintain our whole life. We may change our priorities, or they may be changed for us. We may pick up a different kind of creative work, one that’s not officially “real art”, but fulfilling to us nonetheless. We may have to take a class to carve out that time, or get up an hour or two earlier in the morning. We may be so overwhelmed with those soul-stomping events in life that we have to step back temporarily.

But just like “putting on your gym shoes” in my series “EXERCISE FOR SUCCESS” I wrote here awhile back, sometimes those little efforts pay off. We say, “I’ll just carry a sketch book with me when I go to lunch today.” Or we write a page of our novel while we’re traveling on business. (One page.) Or we collect paint samples from the hardware store, or we take up embroidery, or pinch pots instead of throwing on the wheel (because we can do it in the living room while we watch TV here.)

We watch our kids fingerpaint, and suddenly, we want to squish paint around, too! Or we find an image online and the color palette fascinates us. “What if…..?” we think to ourselves and suddenly, we are inspired again.

Time and fortune will come and go, opportunities will expand and fade, life will be full and rich, and suddenly barren and sorrowful. We can only count on so much, and not nearly as much as we think.

But we can always….ALWAYS….choose to keep our creative work in our life.

The all-or-nothing approach never worked for me. It doesn’t really work for most people, actually. We forget that we have the power of our choices. We get to choose, every step of our way, how, when, where we fit our art in our lives.*

Because the “why” is always the most important part.

Why? Because it restores me to myself.

Why? Because it heals me.

Why? Because, even under crushing events, there is a tiny window of faith, of hope, a small opportunity to make room for art.

Why? Because when we share it with others, with the world, there is always someone who needed to see it, hear it, read it, that day.

And when we share our art, and it helps/encourages/inspires someone else, well, that’s pretty close to being a hero, in my book.

“I am an artist. What’s YOUR superpower?”

* My bear artifacts appeared during a difficult time in my life, and you can read the bear’s story here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I refuse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My question for them: Are you happy with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all good.

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

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

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

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

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

What Is The Story Only You Can Tell? Make It A Good One!

What Is The Story Only You Can Tell? Make It A Good One!

By Luann Udell

Image 3100480

4/27/2019 by Luann Udell

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.

We can’t control everything in life, but we can choose how we face it.

Years ago, one of my favorite writers, Martha Beck, wrote an article thathas stuck with me for decades.

Beck’s insights and advice come from her years as a therapist, observing how people get stuck and how to help them get unstuck. In this article, she describes two of her clients, two women named Mary.

Mary One has a sad life storyA parent dying young, obstacles, setbacks, health issues, etc. Just reading the list makes you wonder how anyone could survive what she has been through.

Mary Two has a wonderful life story. She inherited wealth, and was able to attend top-notch colleges. She is highly educated, and her career issatisfying. She is very close to her grandmother, who showers her with love and kindness. She loves to travel and has been all over the world. One cannot help but envy her good fortune.

The kicker?

The two clients are actually the same person.

This article was a game-changer for me. The lessons are obvious.

We have all had sadness, and joy in our lives. We have all experienced cruelty, and kindness. We all have victories, and setbacks. We’ve all had people who love us, and people who are toxic. We all wish we had more money, even though we know in our hearts that if a billion dollars is “not enough” for the wealthiest people in the world, how will we ever have enough?

The lesson for me was simple: We get to create our own story.

For years, my saddest story was that I couldn’t get into art school. My school, one of two in the entire county, in an agricultural area, didn’t have much money to spend on art programs. This meant my portfolio was pretty pathetic. And so, when I did go to college, I majored in art history instead, the traditional “shadow artist”, hovering on the outskirts of my passion and filled with envy for those who thrived with their art.

And yet….

I actually was accepted into not one, not two, but three colleges thatoffered art programs. Instead, I chose the one that was the most prestigious, where my best friend, my high school boyfriend, and my secret crush had been accepted. It was the only school that rejected my portfolio. I took a few art classes, but they were like bananas offered to amonkey in a cage, a prize I could never reach.

So “not being good enough” wasn’t really a thing, though it took me years to see that. It was just a “sad story” I held onto for a long time.

Although that boyfriend turned out to be fairly toxic, and much of my love life was pretty pathetic, it was in this same city that I met my husband, my life partner, and a pretty great one. We’ve been together over 40 years.

So with the power of hindsight/reframing, going to that college was actually a lucky fortunate choice. (Next week, I’ll share another storyabout “luck”!) Taking all those art history classes, starting with theLascaux Cave (the oldest human art in the world in the 1970’s) was apowerful, inspirational resource when I finally owned the power of my choices, and became the artist I was always meant to be.

And if I had actually been accepted into that college’s art program, I am certain I would not be making the work I make today. I don’t think my tender heart would have survived the toxic critiques many students had to endure (I hear schools do it differently now, but I take that with a grain of salt, as this intriguing memoir reveals.

In short, there may be one set of facts, circumstances, etc…

But there are a slew of stories I can tell myself because of them.

When I’m feeling “less than”, I feel embarrassed that I actually hate drawing. I resent that my medium of choice took years to gain respect in the art world. I know that some people still would not consider me a “real artist”. I remember every cruel or thoughtless remarks from ignorant, pompous, or deeply-troubled people.

But when I choose to see my power, I know I make art for myself, first. Making my art has made me a better person. I know that I use thatpower, the power of my choices, to not only make work that‘s so personal, my collectors can easily recognize my style and aesthetics, I’ve used that power to reach out and connect with others, always with the hope that doing so may elevate the hearts of others, as well.

Try this exercise today: Jot down all the hardships and crappy things thathave crossed your path this week, everything that made you suffer and seethe. (I didn’t say “in your lifetime” because that could take weeks! But sure, put in anything that‘s still hounding you.) List the deadlines you’re stressing over, the to-do list that never seems to end, the lack of respect for your style/subject/medium, the dearth of sales. Make note of how you feel when you’re done.

Now write down all the blessings and gifts that happened in the same time period: The car that let you merge safely into traffic, the person who stopped to let you cross the street, the new opportunity to show your work that‘s got you fired up about your new series. Consider the thank-you notes you got from the grateful customer who bought your work because they loved it. Think of all the things you did accomplish, and all the steps forward you’ve taken with your art, your personal growth, your relationships.

How do you feel now?

I always-always-feel better.

This is why I write. It helps me sort out the distractions from the real deal, the true life mission I carry in my heart from the road bumps. I get clarity on what I can change, and what I can’t change. I can feel my anger melt as I frame the difficult stuff differently.

All the naysayers, the critics, the trolls, the digs, the snark we encounter daily, suddenly feel more like annoyances than anything. I feel free to simply do what I love to do. I give myself permission to live my life theway I want.

A recent example: A dear friend and supporter shared with excitement the realization that their work is “on trend”. My lizard brain immediately buckled. The same trend was in force when I started making this particular aspect of my art, and I struggled mightily to overcome it. For afew moments, I was envious that this person, who has had my back for years, might surf that wave farther than I ever will.

And then I had to laugh. My work has never been “on trend”, and I’m glad! The courage it took to simply make the work of my heart has created my own wave I can ride as far as I desire.

I know now that the world is big enough for both us. If they aresuccessful with their work, if they get a “bigger piece of the pie”, thatdoesn’t mean my slice is smaller. There is an infinite amount of “pie” in the world, enough for both of us. Actually, it’s big enough for all of us.

I will simply not let that first story be the story I tell. I choose the second storythe one filled with mutual respect, joy, and kindness.

What is the story YOU can choose to tell, today?

If you like this post, feel free to spread the love! Share it with a friend, and let them know they can subscribe here.

FINDING HOPE IN THE HARD PLACES: My Blog Tagline Works Its Magic Again.*

Don't miss Luann Udell's words on finding hope, faith and inspiration in what you do
Don’t miss Luann Udell’s words on finding hope, faith and inspiration in what you do

FINDING HOPE IN THE HARD PLACES: My Blog Tagline Works Its Magic Again.*

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.

It’s been a year. A lot of death, a lot of loss, a lot of grieving.

Just when I thought it was safe to go back in the water…. (Cue “Jaws” music.)

After yet another emergency trip to the East Coast in mid-March, this last crisis seemed almost too much to handle. Our dog Tuck, our first dog, and the one who inspired not only my dog artifacts, and my dog story ***, but also this article that ran in the magazine formerly known as The Crafts Report became critically ill last week.

He stopped eating, he was misdiagnosed by our newest vet, and he ended up being hospitalized for acute pancreatitis and diabetes (as a permanent complication.)

The good news is, he has received excellent care, and may even be able to come home tomorrow.

The bad news is, this cost nearly as much as I made all last year in my art biz, including writing these columns.

I was afraid the high cost of emergency care would force us to make a painful decision. But my husband, as usual, gave clarity. “He’s part of our family,” he said firmly.

I was so relieved. We live fairly frugally (except for living in California!), so though this isn’t an easy budget item, it won’t destroy us. My heart goes out to people whose financial situation would force them to do otherwise.

Why am I writing about this today?

Because I could not stop thinking about this: The financial cost could have superseded all other factors in our decision. And yet, the devastation of losing our pet would have last for YEARS….

Love, and hope, vs. money.

In many ways, I cannot be counted as a “successful artist”, especially if money is used as the only measure of my success. Even at the height of my art biz career, I made less than minimum wage today.

I am not famous. Although I love it when someone stops me in mid-conversation and says, “Wait a minute….You’re Luann Udell?? THE Luann Udell?” it doesn’t really happen that often.  (Don’t let that stop you from saying that, though!)  :^D

So what is the “true value” of my artwork, my writing, my presence in this world?

Frankly, who can say? Who cares?

What really matters?

My art, my words, my actions, have given me a place in the world. The size of the return doesn’t matter.

My work has given me a voice in the world. The size of the audience doesn’t matter.

They have given me solace, an outlet, and much joy. What they do for others is an important, yet ultimately secondary effect.

The past 12 months have been filled with loss, exhaustion, despair, the feeling of not belonging, not being “good enough”, and not being valued. Even when I’ve traveled to be with those who are grieving, my only “gift” was being present. I could not “fix” their grief, or give them the answers they seek. I could only be a mom who cares.

But even now, I still rejoice at the prospect at getting back to work in my new studio. I know I will be restored to my better self. I know the healing power of my own art.

My words will probably never bring me wealth, or fame, nor will they end a war.

All I can offer, myself, with my art, the work of my heart, is this….

A small place for hope.

A safe place for grieving.

A little money to help those who are worse off than I.

A listening ear.

And sharing my stories, hoping someone, somewhere, they will help someone who needs to hear them today.

If you make tons of money for your artwork, I celebrate with you. I’m truly happy, because it means there’s a chance I will, too, someday.

If you have gained fame and fortune with the work of your heart, I hope you use it to make the world a little better than how you found it.

Although I usually tell artists not to “water down” their art by relying on sales of cards ($4,000 paintings, $4 cards??) I have to admit that such a card, sent by a friend recently, with their beautiful work on the front, lifted my spirits. A lot!

My hope for you today is that you feel the power of what you do. That you have faith in the power of what you do, no matter how much, nor how little, you can see.

And here are a few side notes on what the first vet, and the animal hospital did right, that also inform our art-making/marketing:

When the vet realized the condition was much, much worse than they thought, they immediately contacted us and referred us to a more experienced resource. Lesson learned: When your work gets in a rut, when things seem too hard, step outside your box and explore new options. Kick it up a notch! A class, a new body of work, perhaps even a new medium, can be just the uptick you need. Start that email newsletter! Clean up your website. Try Instagram?

The hospital saw us immediately. And every day, we not only received updates twice daily, we were allowed to visit Tuck. Which put our hearts at ease, and his, too. Lesson learned: Your audience wants to hear from you, too! Use your website’s “Events” features, your email newsletter, and other social media to let them know what you’re up to. You’ve created a relationship that goes beyond just sales. You’ve created a real human connection.

Most important, be grateful. Be grateful to those who know the depth and power of our love, for our family, for our pets, for our art. They will raise you up when things get hard.

Be grateful you are able to make room in your life for your art. So many people feel they can’t, that they aren’t good enough, that nobody wants their work, that they aren’t “successful” enough. It’s okay to want more recognition, to want more skill, to make more money. It’s also okay for “making” and “making it” to be enough, for now.

Hold on to your dreams. Know the power of love. And keep making your art!

And when we do lose Tuck (that day will come), I know we will still welcome another pupster who needs a loving home into our lives. “All dog stories begin with laughter, and end with tears.” Keep the laughter coming!

How has your work lifted the hearts of others? How has your work helped you get back to your happy place? I’d love to hear, and I bet others will, too!

*My art tagline is, “Ancient Stories Retold in Modern Artifacts. But my blog tagline is, “Muddling through life with the help of art.” (Some of my subscribers call themselves “Muddlers”. I love that!)

LESSONS FROM THE GYM: Be Kind, Unwind.

Luann Udell discusses how to seek out what brings you joy, and peace in your heart.
Luann Udell discusses how to seek out what brings you joy, and peace in your heart.

LESSONS FROM THE GYM: Be Kind, Unwind.

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.

Where is your happy place? Go there today!

I promise I will stop whining about my very hard year, but not yet. For now, it still holds many life lessons for me.

Life lessons are hard, though, especially when we love them so much, we learn them over and over and over again.

Maybe too many lessons this year? Loss. Grief. Forgiveness. Being vulnerable. Looking for the light. Leaving “the group”. Setting boundaries. Sometimes I think Brene Brown is writing just for me.

Mostly, though, I know we all struggle with who we are in the world, and who we WANT to be. Being human can be hard work. Being a good human is exhausting.

Except when it isn’t. And that’s what I want to share with you today, this holiday season.

Monday I spoke with a physical therapy person at the gym where I get (doh!) physical therapy. (I use their independent gym program. Most of the patrons are even older than I am. So at least I’m not looking at healthy, fit, beautiful youngsters working out at five times the level and six times the speed I am.)

I complained about the chronic aches and pains I’m struggling with. It never stops, and it never gets better. With everything else on my plate, it feels like injury heaped on insult. (Yes, I know I have that backwards, but it works here.)

They asked me about my activity level. I replied it’s minimal, because a) everything hurts, and b)….well, everything hurts!

They reminded me yet again that hunkering down makes everything worse. “Our bodies are made to move,” they said. “When was the last time you went for a walk?”

Er…..can’t remember???

All of us have some discomfort, or ache, or even pain. We all want a very simple solution: All of us want a pill to make it better.

A temporary fix, in most cases. And we all know the dangers of self-medicating. It helps for awhile. And then it doesn’t. Then the self-medicating creates its own problems.

So….no pill?!  Dang.

“Go for a walk,” they said. “If you can’t walk for 30 minutes, walk for 10 minutes three times a day. It’s not how long, or how hard, or how fast you do it. It all counts. Try it.”

Honestly, I wanted to cry. I want my simple, easy solution! It hurts to move! EVERYTHING hurts—my body, my feelings, my conscience, my spirit. I want to be distracted from my problems! I want to watch endless TV in comfort!! I want my Christmas cookies!!!

“Everybody hurts somewhere”, they said, with compassion. (The compassion part almost made me cry.) “Just try it.”

Fortunately, the next day was a beautiful, sunny day, a rare break from the winter’s rain. It was Christmas Day, but with no family here, a tight budget, a tiny tree that took 10 minutes to set up, there wasn’t much to do at home.

Remembering those words of wisdom, my husband and I went for a walk. Not a big walk. Just a walk through our neighborhood, but a new route. It’s a tradition we had back in Keene NH, where we would walk downtown every morning for coffee before we both started our day.

We’ve skipped that for years now. No coffee shop. Jon starts his day early, to catch up with co-workers on the East Coast.

We’ve missed it. So we walked.

It was great! We talked. The dogs explored new bushes to pee on. We imagined ourselves living in the pretty little houses with wonderful gardens. That garage could be a new studio! That house has a lemon tree! Wow, smell those roses!!!

We agreed it needs to be part of our day again.

I went to my normally-best happy place, my studio, to work. Unfortunately, it’s not my happy place lately. My future there is in upheaval, and everything there reminded me of that.

And yet….

I thought if I had more tiny wind-swept beach pebbles, I could use them to add a delightful accent to an assemblage I’m working on for an upcoming solo exhibition.

I remembered there are tiny, wind-polished beach pebbles on a beach at Point Reyes.

I’m a pebble puppy, and I’m proud!

I realized we had enough daylight left to drive out there.

I had a mission! And a clear destination. Fortunately, my hubby agreed, and off we went.

The drive to Point Reyes is exquisitely beautiful. Rolling grazing land with old valley oaks, amazing vistas, all bright green with the recent rains, and big blue sky. One of our joys as a couple is taking drives to amazing places.

There are many things that are difficult in California: The cost of living, the cost of housing, the woes that high-tech industries bring to big cities, wildfires, earthquakes, mudslides, I could go on.

But almost everywhere you go, there is jaw-dropping beauty. The mountains, the redwood forests, the deserts, the Pacific Ocean….

The ocean will take every ounce of your sorrow and sadness, your fears and self-doubt, and it will sweep them away.

The ocean here along the Central Coast and in Northern California is powerful, and dangerous. It’s not the gentle wash of the mid-Atlantic, nor the calm surface of a lake. You have to watch your back. Rip tides, king tides, sneaker waves, sudden storms, all await the careless or the unwary.

And yet watching waves roll in is strangely calming. It is unrelenting, never stops. It doesn’t wait for me, nor you. It is its own “thing”, with its own rules and purpose. It is totally unpredictable, yet always powerful…and astoundingly beautiful.

Kinda like life, huh?

We walked. Soon I found those special rocky patches in the sand, where small polished pebbles can be found. Jade, serpentine, jasper, carnelian, quartz, in shades of olive, sage, pine green, red, orange, amber, white, black, and brown. I happily hunted-and-gathered for over an hour, collecting about a cup of tiny stones.

I felt my heart slowly edge back into place, and my soul, just as slowly, open up a little.

The drive back was just as beautiful. Soaring vultures, diving hawks, sentinel herons, crows and starlings gathering in the dusk, a flock of bluebirds. Bluebirds! And gorgeous glowing pink cumulus clouds holding the last rays of the sunset….

We humans are hard-wired to be hunter-gatherers. Whether we emulate that in picking up pretty pebbles, collecting tools and brushes, teacups, Chilean cabernets, the sale rack at Nordstrom’s or the local flea market, it’s in us somewhere.

We are also hard-wired to pay attention to the horizon. Our ancestors watched for signs of danger. That evolved into being constantly aware of our surroundings. Our love of beautiful views and beautiful places, whether they are mountains and mesas or small gardens and sweet cottages, spring from this. We are soothed by sights, scenes, and vistas. (Landscape artists, are you listening?)

We are hard-wired to watch the sky. Is a storm coming? Is the day waning? Weather meant life-or-death to our ancestors. Still does, though more of an inconvenience for most of us, most of the time. Yet a beautiful sky is still a mood-lifter.

We are also hard-wired for water. A small babbling brook, a roaring waterfall, a koi pond (or aquarium!), a lake, even a bird bath, is a universal source of interest, comfort, amusement. But the ocean tops them all.

Me? I also have a superpower. I sort. I will enjoy some time picking through these pebbles today, sorting by color and size. (They need to fit into a tiny bottle!) I find sorting very soothing. Er….after I’m done screaming when I’ve knocked a box of beads onto the floor…

Got any little old crusty bottles you don’t want? (My version of “you gonna eat that?”)

As I work today in my studio, I will remember the wild storm surf, the wind, the big sky, deer and cattle, birds and clouds. And a handful of carefully gathered and curated pebbles. Oh, and all those times I spent collecting lovely little old glass bottles in New Hampshire antique stores….

If you are struggling this holiday season, if you are sad, or lonely, or fearful, if you are stressed, or grieving, take exquisite care of yourself.

If even your sacred creative space is (temporarily, I hope!) compromised, take heart. You will get through this.

It will never stop aching. But the sharp pain will (hopefully) soften. Time, love, friendship, solace, music, nature, will help you heal.

Seek out what brings you joy, and peace in your heart.

Find the beauty of the world. Let it heal you.

Then, when you are rested and restored to yourself, take up your tools again: Your pencils, your brushes, your pile of clay. Sit again at your loom, your easel, your worktable. Put on your favorite music, or sit with silence.

Share what healed you today. Capture it and share it, so someone else can be healed, too.

It’s what we artists do.

And we are really, really good at it, too. Thank heaven!