NO POWER: Lessons From the Fires

NO POWER: Lessons From the Fires

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.

Sometimes we have to lose our power before we realize we've had it all along.

Sometimes we have to lose our power before we realize we’ve had it all along.
Today’s been a fun day. No electricity. Maybe none for another five days….OY!!
Two years ago, our city was hit by an out-of-control wildfire that destroyed over 5,000 homes and killed a dozen people. It turned out our regional power company was at fault. High winds, blowing east-to-west in the fall, had downed several power lines. These set trees on fire, and the high winds blew the destruction over miles and miles.
Unfortunately, our fire crews were overwhelmed, because of a similar situation in another part of the the state. So rather than an influx of support, our teams were quickly overwhelmed. Buildings couldn’t be saved, only saving lives mattered. The last line of defense was taken outside of two area hospitals, which, incredibly, were saved with little damage.
Of course, this is no longer an anomaly.  Other cities and towns in California experienced even worse fires in the years following. PG&E has struggled to develop a plan-of-action during these high-risk weather situations. The current plan? Shut down power before the winds hit. Like, a day before the winds hit. Like, today.
So, unfortunately, this plan was put into effect 24 hours BEFORE the high winds are predicted. We are among the 240,000 people affected.
We woke up to no power.
The weird part? Everyone two blocks to the west of us, and a few miles north of us, has power. (Why electricity in our town was shut down at all, when the fires were generated many, many miles EAST of us, is a mystery.)
Fortunately, my studio has power. And here I am today, thinking about “power”.
Yesterday, the price of gasoline jumped at least 50 cents a gallon. My husband shook his head at the price-gouging, til I reminded him that gas stations have a very narrow profit margin. And when the power goes out, they won’t be able to sell gas, perhaps up to five days. Yes, they were taking advantage of a freaky situation, but otherwise, they could go out of business. Not good.
Supermarkets were swarmed by people stocking up on supplies. Oddly, our favorite store had already run out of water. (Our water was not turned off, but when you hear the words “emergency”, you don’t want to take anything for granted. Also, most of of these stores may have to close when the electricity gets cut. They stand to lose millions in refrigerated and frozen food.
It got me thinking: What is the power source of an artist? And what happens when we lose that source, even temporarily?
One power is ingenuity. We are very good at solving all kinds of problems and issues, from figuring out which medium works best for us, to sussing out shows, galleries, and events that garner us the most in sales and exposure to new audiences. If we were to lose that “power”, we would probably curl up into a ball like a hedgehog, waiting (uselessly) for the world to “change” to our advantage. But artists are very good at “keep on keeping on.”
So our next power could be perseverance. Knowing when, and how, to keep moving forward, to hold hope in our hearts, even when the world is full of uncertainty. This can be tough. I’ve seen artists’ sales rise and fall, surge and ebb over the years. (I’m currently in that sales fall-and-ebb state. It’s not fun.) I can’t imagine what it would feel like to believe this would never change.
And yet most of us do. Many artists lose hope, and some actually walk away from the work of their heart, believing they will never earn a living from it, or even help pay a bill or two. (Some just want to pay their expenses.)
I’ve always known I can’t walk away from my work (until I’m physically forced to!) But I know it’s a thing, to believe we can never make it work. It breaks my heart. It’s hard enough to deal with hard times. Taking away my ability to make art would break me. That’s why, when I found that wonderful “Sally Forth” cartoon, with it’s powerful statement, “It’s not about having an audience, it’s about having a voice”, I realized I had “permission” to continue this work, no matter if I have to eventually find other ways to earn $$$. It’s what keeps me sane, and whole, it a dark and weary world.
Stockpiling is another power. I’m really good at buying in bulk to save money on materials, even if it sometimes mean I have to sell some of it off as my work takes another direction.The trick is to stockpile the right stuff. And also, to be able to repurpose those supplies into other uses. (Ask me about S-clasps that can also be used as connectors!)
Last night, my husband bought a ton of his favorite foods. Unfortunately, this morning he realized that if we don’t get power back soon, it’s all going to go bad in the refrigerator. (I did buy some cheese, but it will last a day or so without refrigeration. I also bought crackers, too. No cooking!) So knowing how and when to stockpile, and how to find a new use for what we have, is a good skill set.
Another good power to have is flexibility. During the fire in 2017, our neighbors not only lost power, but also their internet. (It depended on who the carrier was. Ours still worked, theirs didn’t.) We were able to use our phones as hotspots, and they were able to “coast” on our internet. Today, I was able to use my studio laptop to write this. I’ll be taking it home with me tonight. My husband also mentioned we’ll be able to power our cellphones with laptops. I did not know that!
Me? I’m gifted with this power! When I first started out making my art, a lot of people gave me grief because I worked in so many different media: Fiber. Polymer. Jewelry. Monoprints. Assemblage. But my superpower was my story. People can now recognize my work in almost every medium I work in, because of that. Some even recognize my non-polymer jewelry, because of my palette and my designs. That’s a good thing! Also, I can sell my work through different galleries that specialize in different media. And jewelry always sells, even when my higher priced 2D work doesn’t.
What thrives in a power outage is community. Just as we helped our neighbors in 2017, there are times when friends, family, and neighbors, can leap to our aid.
Artists often work in isolation, and some of us have lived in areas and times where artists are few and far between. And yet, our attempts to form an artist community can be powerful. My own current artist support group lagged when it came to trying the exercises I told them would be powerful. We coasted on updating, kvetching, and advice-giving, until finally, a few months ago, one person was willing to try the process of “active listening”, and the Four Questions.
It worked! It was so powerful, they want to do it again, and again. I even got a chance, and it was powerful for me. I’d forgotten what it was like to simply talk, with very few interruptions, to be able to grieve without other people trying to soothe me out of it. It was amazing, to work through my own issue with my own insight I couldn’t get solely by being in my head. And I am grateful.
In a way. I strive to use my column as that opportunity for YOU, too. I want to hear your stories, your struggles, your successes, and I want you to reach out and support others who are going through the same thing. Nobody knows better than an artist what it feels like, when it seems the world does not want nor value our work. And yet, we need to do it, if only for ourselves. (Because making the work of my heart heals me, and I know it can for you, too.)
The last power (because I know you have other things to do this morning!) is courage. It takes courage to take up brush, or pen, or clay, or our guitar, to express the truth that must come out. It takes courage to accept that what is in us, must be shared. If not for ourselves, then for someone else who is also sitting in a dark place, who also worries the world does not want their work. Someone else who needs to hear “you are not alone” (though yes, you are unique), someone else who is doing all the right things, but still isn’t having the success they dream of. Someone else who is afraid they are “doing it wrong”, when they simply have not found the right audience for what they’re doing right.
Sometimes it takes a power outage to realize the real source of power is hiding in plain sight:
In our hearts.
In our art.
In our community, family, faith.
In our own experience, and generosity.
Do you have story about how you got through a power outage (real or metaphorical?) How did you find your source of inner power? Share it so someone else will be inspired!
If you enjoyed this article, pass it on to someone else who might like it, too.
And if someone sent you this article, sign up for more advice for artists at Fine Art Views and/or sign up for more of my writing at my blog at https://luannudell.wordpress.com/

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Editor’s Note:

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THE AGE-OLD (war) STORY: Art vs. Craft

Luann Udell shares how society defines art vs craft have changed through the years.
Luann Udell shares how society defines art vs craft have changed through the years.

THE AGE-OLD (war) STORY: Art vs. Craft

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.

Times have changed. Have we?

(7 minute read)

If you want to start a flame war/troll fest on the internet, just ask the difference between art and craft. (PLEASE don’t do it here, though.) This is a collection of thoughts about why that line is so hard to define.

A reader recently sent me a story. On the urging of their collectors, they approached a local art organization in their area to see if it would be interested in displaying their work.

But the person who viewed their work said it was craft, not art. They implied the work would probably not be accepted for the more-prestigious art-and-sculpture section of the gallery.

Before we go into strategies about how to move forward with this, let me share my own experiences.

When I first took up my creative work, I thought for sure I knew the difference between art and craft. Pottery was obviously a craft, for example, while oil painting was true art.

Until a potter friend of mine, who made each pot they made by hand (not even a wheel), one at a time, fired in pit rather than a kiln, and each one was distinctive, shared this little insight with me:

If they make a beautiful clay piece, it’s craft.

If they take that same piece and have it cast in bronze, it’s art.

So that next step which is a commercial, industrial process outside the parameter of almost any artist, determines that category. (I am not saying it’s a simple process, or doesn’t involve creativity in its own right. I’m saying casting is beyond the purview of many folks such as silversmiths, or those who work with metal in any form. And for those who do, it’s a case where….um….size does matter. Casting a ring is vastly different from casting a large bronze sculpture.)

Another definition often depends on whether the product performs a function (say, bowls which hold food) or is strictly decorative (art!)

So what would you call a clay sculpture? Can’t be used to serve food, unless you can balance a dish on it. So can we really say that everything made with clay is craft?

A third definition is whether the work is one-of-a-kind, or done in a series. Prints are done in series, for example, while most 2-D work is a one-off. (A series might contain the same subject, or a related theme, but each one is different.)

I submitted prints made with my own hand-carved stamps to the print-making jury at a prestigious fine craft organization. I brought samples of different series I’d made.

But after I described my process, I was deferred. Because I used multiple stamps to create the piece. Three. Because I wasn’t carving “one plate”, and so capable of making multiples, it was determined my work was art, not craft. It was technically a “monoprint”, which is not “craft”. (A pretty nice rejection, but still.)

And yet many of the printmakers in this organization create multiple plates for multiple colors, one for each. One could argue that, if each color used in the series (which could be made in several print runs on different dates) were not exactly the same, would those not be monoprints, too? (I started to look up prints vs. monoprints, and monoprints vs. monotypes, but I got lost in the rabbit hole….) So the intent is craft, but the reality is, you can often tell the prints are dissimilar.

How about digital art? When digital art first appeared in the creative world, almost everyone (including me) did not consider it “real art”. It was made with the aid of a computer, which could, supposedly, be recreated easily by anyone else. Therefore, it was more like calling a coloring book “art”. Nope.

Until I talked with one of these early adaptor artists about their work. Turns out there was a huge amount of uncertainty, and serendipity, random factors involved but not controlled, even in this art medium. They would try for a certain effect, which could result in something unpredictably amazing, and difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce exactly.

And of course, computers are now used for many commercial, and artistic purposes. I’ve met a lot of graphic designers along the way, and despite the common knowledge and tools needed to do their work, each one has their own unique and distinctive style.

Sorta starting to look like art, doesn’t it?

Fiber arts is a whole nother ballgame, too. Yes, anyone can knit a sweater pattern, or make a quilt using templates. But then we come across this designer (following her own original sweater patterns) and find this.

Art? Fine craft?? If my artifacts are in jewelry, probably fine craft. In a fiber collage? Anybody’s guess! Small sculpture? Maybe art. Oh, wait. It’s not cast in bronze!

If we consider that these fiber media have been labeled “women’s art” for years, not measuring up to “real art”, what can we say about “urinal art”? The only component showing a contribution by the actual artist is the signature. And it’s in a museum. In fact, the first sentence of this article is, “Fountain is one of Duchamp’s most famous works and is widely seen as an icon of twentieth-century art…..” It’s an unmodified urinal with a fake name on it.

My point here is not to define these two categories, and I refuse to argue about what is art and what isn’t. I am simply pointing out that the lines are wavering, the boundaries are fuzzy, and it’s simplistic to define “art” strictly by the gender of the artist, the medium they choose, nor even the subject matter. (Mary Cassatt’s work was dismissed as “domestic art” for years, because she painted actual mothers and their children. Now if only she’d painted Mary-and-baby Jesus…..)

Back to my friend’s setback. I went to the organization’s website. Yep, they’ve acknowledged that they accept fiber art. Good for them! I checked out the work my friend submitted, and compared it to the gallery images shown. Their work was comparable/compatible to several paintings in their collection: Color palette, check. Subject matter, check. Quality of design and composition, check. There was a colorful hand-dyed, handmade dress featured. So, functional work. Art? Craft? It’s in the art section. (My friend’s is purely decorative, not functional.)

In this case, I believe the person working that day simply had their own ideas about what is art, and what is craft. The actual work is supposed to be submitted and judged by a jury. (In some galleries, yeah, that could be one juror, usually, the owner. But an art organization? Usually a committee.)

I suggested they fill out the submission forms, following the rules and guidelines exactly. Then wait to see what happens.

If they are accepted, yippee!

If not, they can inquire about the reasons for the rejection, respectfully, to find out how they can “improve” their work to meet the standards. (It’s important to keep your cool here! Being angry or difficult will just strengthen their resolve to keep you out.)

I applied to three different media jury processes with that fine craft organization. If work was rejected or deferred, it was part of the jurying process to advise the artist exactly what they had to do to meet the standards.*

If the reasons are, as above, vague, inappropriate, or seem personal, then it’s time to request a presentation to the board of directors. Not as a fist fight, but to politely, calmly share some of the thoughts in this article. Where…and why…are they drawing that line? (Especially when it’s obvious this artist’s work is just as good, and unique, as their own current gallery artists.)

In a professional manner, they can cite the org’s mission statement, and inquire (again, calmly and politely, out of real curiosity) how they decided this artist’s work does not meet those standards.

If that doesn’t work, at least it will be clear that their actions do not really support their mission statement. And I hope there are other galleries and venues where this person can apply to with their work.

I hope when their passionate collectors take their business to that other venue, it might encourage that org to reconsider.

Again, please, no definitions, no troll wars or flaming swords. As I said, we are all entitled to our own opinions.

Just consider the many, many ways creativity can manifest itself in our modern world. You are entitled to your own opinions, and I truly respect that.

My intention was to share how I’ve changed my own opinionabout this. To suggest how to influence the attitude that the lines between art and craft are written in stone, and will never change.

And consider how many times the creative, innovative, beautiful, powerful work, the work of the heart by others, has been relegated to a back seat on the bus, instead given the chance to stand in the sun, too.

If you know someone who needs to read this, someone whose beautiful work has been rejected for shaky reasons, send this on to them.

And if you’d like to read more articles like this, sign up at Fine Art Views, or subscribe to my blog at https://luannudell.wordpress.com/

*And when at some point, that part of the process ‘disappeared’, too many jurors took advantage of the situation to willy-nilly reject anyone’s work with no reason besides “just because.” They are in the process of correcting that, after they found out many very talented people had been rejected for vague, inappropriate, or even personal reasons. They may also be considering ways to broaden their own definitions of what is “good enough” work. Yay!

If you found this article helpful, feel free to send the link to someone else who might, too. (Thank you!!)

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