SUPPORT YOUR MEDIUM: People Are Listening!

SUPPORT YOUR MEDIUM: People Are Listening!

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.

 

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I have very good reasons for choosing polymer. Simply put, I could NOT do the work I do without it!

I recently wrote an article called SUPPORT YOUR MEDIUM: Consider the “Why”. In it, I shared how we can positively frame our choice of media, especially ones that are considered “less than.”. (I was going to say “justify” in that sentence, but it sounded like an apology. Let’s just stick with “frame”.)

There is a hierarchy in art media, just like there are hierarchies in any creative human activity. For example, even the worse presentation of ballet may be seen as more “sophisticated” than tap dancing, or break dancing.

In art, oil painting may be considered more “real art” than acrylics, which is “better” than watercolor, which is “better” than colored pencil, etc. Many even consider pottery and fiber art to be craft rather than “real art”. (It used to be, if you wanted to start a flame war on the internet, you would just ask what the difference is between “art” vs. “craft”. Actually, that argument’s probably still raging!)

My friend Nicole Caulfield is an extremely talented colored pencil artist. She chose this medium for a variety of reasons. To my eye, they are as beautiful and compelling as any oil painting I’ve ever seen. Yet her work commands far lower prices than even a mediocre oil painting. Does it weigh her down? Nope. This is the work she loves, and excels at. In my mind, she is an art hero! (I’ve linked to one of her website pages, but her portraits are jaw-droppingly beautiful, too!

Over time, new media (especially polymer clay) do gain respect and followers. And yet, there will always be those people who will find fault with them. In the article, I shared how I got to the heart of my “why”—why I chose to work with this material, and its advantages over others, to make my art.

Today I share another insight into why it’s important for us to find these reasons:

When we are challenged by these people who imply (or outright tell us!) our materials are “less than”, we need to be prepared with a great answer….

Because other people are listening!

I did an entire series of articles on awkward, obnoxious, aggressive/dismissive, simply ignorant, or even innocent questions or comments that may startle or stun us.

As artists and makers, whatever our choice of medium, we need to be prepared for an answer that modifies and redirects the conversation on our own terms.  We need to do it with patience, and dignity, and without anger, defensiveness, or apologies.

For one, we gain nothing by responding with anger or snark. We’ve simply lowered ourselves to our detractor’s level. We help create a hostile environment that works against us. (In fact, that’s why some obnoxious visitors do this, consciously or unconsciously. Why else would someone go out of their way to be rude, when all they have to do is walk away??)

But more importantly, when we address our detractors, other people around us. Whether it’s at an art opening, in our booth, in our studio, or even in our family and circle of friends, other people are paying attention to how we handle it.

If we learn to handle these difficult situations with respect, and reframe it to our advantage, we will really impress the people who are listening, who are/could be our real customers.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had someone say something awful to me, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes because they are simply an awkward person, and sometimes, because my work has triggered something in them. (I’m guessing envy, and perhaps insecurity about their own creative efforts.)

I realized those questions and comments fall into several categories: My choice of media (not just polymer clay, but fiber, and jewelry.) My source of inspiration. My color palette.  How I talk about it.

I sat down and thought hard about how to respond in a positive way, without being defensive. This actually gives me the power to reframe the conversation in a way that serves me well.

And every time there has been an “audience”—other people browsing, for example—it’s obvious they’ve been listening to how I responded. Because they do one or more things:

They look even deeper at my work.

Often they come up to me afterwards and compliment me on my restraint. (Fortunately, no one can read my mind yet, where less pleasant responses are swarming.) (Yes, I have a lizard brain, too!)

They often buy something, too.

That “difficult person” gave me the opportunity to share my outlook on life, my art, and my medium, in wonderful, positive, life-affirming ways that resonate deeply with my audience.

Again, this took time. I was fortunate to find Bruce Baker’s seminars early on in my art career. For almost two decades, Bruce gave seminars and sold CDs offering great advice on marketing and display skills for artists and makers of all sorts. (He has now returned to his original work of jewelry-making.) [1]

I used his advice (and words!) when two women entered my booth at my very first major show. One looked at a large wall hanging, featuring my own handmade polymer faux bone artifacts. She said, “You’d have to live in a very different house to hang this. A VERY different house!” (It was obvious her “very different house” was not a desirable house…..)

I’d practiced Bruce’s suggested response to detractors, memorized it (so I wouldn’t be caught off-guard) and went into full reframing mode:

“Yes”, I replied cheerfully, “My work IS unusual, and unique. I’m inspired by the Lascaux Cave in France, which for decades was considered the birthplace of human art. I work with recycled fabrics to make each quilt, layered and stitched to look like it’s passed through many generations of family. I make my own faux prehistoric artifacts, one at a time, to embellish them.”

And the kicker line: “My work isn’t for everyone. But the people who do appreciate my work, love it passionately.”

Why is this so appealing?

I established my cred as an artist. I shared a bit of the process behind my work. I emphasized the time involved, and where the aesthetic comes from. I showed I’m not looking for mass appeal, but the story in my heart.

And I issued a small “challenge”: Maybe it’s not for you…or is it???

This is the power of discovering our “why”: Why we use this material. Why we make this work.

And why someone else’s negativity won’t stop us from moving forward with all our heart.

But the biggest gain was the people who came up to me after that person left, and congratulated me on my response!

They saw someone who hoped to get a rise out of me, sent on their way with courtesy, patience, and respect. They heard a response that answered some of their own questions, questions they may have hesitated to ask. (Because some artists can get pretty snarky about what they perceive as “stupid questions!)

It started a whole nother conversation about my work, where I could share how I came to be an artist, why I chose this cave, and why polymer is the perfect medium to tell my story.

So think about why you chose your particular medium. Think about why you choose to make what you make. Think about the questions that have stopped you in your tracks, making you wish you had a snappy response in return.

Then take out the “snappy” bits, and reframe it to your advantage.

Be careful about making a joke, because usually those jokes are at our customers’ expense! I myself have been the butt of such remarks, and even though they make me laugh, I’m also slightly ticked. (See that same “questions” series for ideas!)

And practice your response(s) until you don’t even have to think about it.

If you, too, have found a way to frame your response to detractors (it could be medium, subject matter, color palette, in a positive, respectful way that benefits you, share! Someone else is hoping you’ve found a beautiful way to not only deflect, but perhaps even engage, a difficult person.

Footnote: [1]  Bruce’s old website is long gone, but his excellent and informative CDs on selling and display for makers are still available! You can contact him by phone (802-989-1138) or email him at dunnbaker@aol.com  I assure you they are worth every penny!

SUPPORT YOUR MEDIUM: Consider the “Why”

Don’t focus on the “what”. Focus on the “how” and the “why”.
What’s it made of?
This used to be my most dreaded question to answer. Until it wasn’t.
Recently, Cynthia Tinapple, a long-time polymer clay artist/teacher/writer/curator, told about a recent visitor who said she “loved polymer clay.”
Cynthia was caught off-guard. Usually, we polymer clay users jump “defend” our choice of medium. This visitor acknowledged it, respected it, and praised it, all without prompting.
Polymer clay is an amazingly versatile, adaptable, and accessible art medium. And like any other medium, you can use it to make crap, or to make something astonishingly beautiful.
It was originally used in Germany as an art doll medium, and well-respected.
But when it was originally marketed in the U.S., it was framed as a simple clay for children and amateurs to use, especially Sculpey: Supersoft, easy to work, quick to fire in an ordinary toaster oven.
Those of us who worked with it soon found ourselves constantly judged as “less than”…. Less than “earth clay” artists. We worked in “plastic”. It was cheap, and it broke easily. I remember my first little craft fair, featuring pens I’d covered in patterned mosaic polymer, selling for a few bucks. A couple stopped by, and the guy picked one up. “What is it?” his partner asked, and he responded in disgust, “A cheap pen covered in plastic.” He put the pen down and walked away.
I felt flatter than a pancake.
Innovators like the late Tory Hughes (who inspired my faux ivory work), City Zen Cane, Kathleen Dustin, and many others, soon showed us what could be done with this material.
Still, the stigma remained.
Years ago, I noticed a disheartening phenomenon: Whenever a booth/studio visitor picked up my work and asked what it was, I’d reply brightly, “It’s polymer clay!”
And they would put it down again and move away.
I realized I had to reframe what this material meant to me, and why I chose to work with it.
First, I created a few small “sample” card of things I’ve made with the clay. There are faux bones and pebbles, mosaics and buttons, pieces of turquoise, coral, and amber, tiny fish and other wonders, all arranged attractively and attached to a piece of poster board.
Then there is my “Welcome to my world!” sign next to it.
I’m much wordier when I talk about it. I show them the little sign-with-samples that’s now an instant attention-getter in my studio and at shows.
I remark on what a miracle it is to have this material in the world at the same time in history that I’m in the world.
I put a little horse, or bear, into their hands, and tell them the story of a customer who chose her horse necklace based on how it felt in their hand.
I show them the grain, and tell them about the guy I met at the Boston Gift Show years ago, who owned a company that makes artifact reproductions for museum gift stores, who said they can’t make a scrimshaw reproduction that so beautifully mimics ivory like I do.
I share how important it is to make “bones” and “ivory” without harming animals, a choice that better reflects our modern times.
And I always add, “It’s not what the material isit’s what you do with it.
So once again, I am grateful to all the innovators and early-adaptors of polymer clay, for curators like Cynthia and others, new teachers who share their expertise and knowledge about this amazing medium, and the amazing, talented, unique artists who have chosen it to work with.  Thank you!!!
I would show you the sample card, but I’m not sure where it is right now. I’m moving to a new studio in a few weeks, and my space is filled with boxes, packing tape, and boxes marked like this:
moving studio box
Yes, I have a small collection of puppets in my studio. I LOVE THEM!!!
Which reminds me of when we packed for our move to California four years ago, and Jon labeled THIS box:
moving
I love this man. He always makes me laugh!

It is the fourth time I’ve moved my studio in four years, and we also moved our home twice times in four years.  I’m a lit-tul bit exhausted. But I think I see some light at the end of the tunnel!