LIFE, DEATH, FAME, FORTUNE, AND ART: What’s In It For YOU?

(This article was first published on September 1, 2018 on Fine Art Views)

It’s the little things that matter, and the story.

(10 minute read)

My Mom died earlier this year. Soon after, my pregnant daughter lost her first baby. And earlier this week, I took a redeye flight to Michigan to say goodbye to my Dad.

I got there just in time to say the things I needed to say. And although he was not “conscious” in our sense of the word, I know he heard me.

My hospice volunteer experience taught me so much. All of that was visible in my dad’s last few hours on this planet.

My dad was a long-standing, prominent figure in my little hometown. From a co-op dairy project started by my grandfather that eventually turned into one of only two family restaurants in town, (which also provided jobs to dozens, if not hundreds of teens and adults over the years), to his years of volunteering, (serving on school boards, supporting our church), socializing (visiting elderly former employees in their last years, meeting almost weekly with friends for bridge, for potluck dinners, for parties, hosting all his kids’ weddings in his backyard), he wove a winding path through our small farming community.

As life approaches the end, it gets smaller. Friends and family moved away, or died. The town got bigger, so more people were ‘strangers’. Eventually, his world was only as big as the assisted living staff, family members who remained nearby, the people he ate dinner with every night.

And of course, it all ends in a hospital bed, surrounded by those who loved him, holding his hand, whispering in his ear, saying a prayer.

His passing was peaceful, with little pain, and not much suffering, unlike those he leaves behind.

But this is how it goes. And this was as good as it gets.

Now for the next thread: Last month, a friend in New Hampshire told me of a friend of hers who found one of my horse sculptures at a yard sale.

Put a pin in that. (For those who don’t know what this means, it alerts you that I intend to circle back and connect all these little “bits” on this “bulletin board.)

I’ve just finished watching a Netflix comedy special “Nannette”, created by Hannah Gadsby, an Australia comedian who identifies as lesbian. Her comedy was searing, and hilarious, honest, and gut-wrenchingly powerful.

There were so many words of wisdom she shared as she told the hardest stories of her life, stories she had edited for pure laughs in her ten-years-plus career. This time, she said, she has to tell the whole truth. Because without it, we cannot truly understand her pain, the shame and humiliation she suffered because of something she did not choose, and how she rose and grew as a human being through her art.

She is, like me, also an art history major. And she spoke deeply and clearly about that, too.

Put a pin there.

I struggle writing for Fine Art Views. I mean, I LOVE writing for FAV! I love the people I’ve met through my columns, I love the respectful discourse, I love it when I see I’ve helped lift people’s hearts, if only for a day, by encouraging them to make their art.

I’ve been a professional artist for over 20 years now. I work hard at what I do. I’ve created a solid body of work. I’ve entered, and been accepted, into prestigious organizations, some of the top fine craft shows in the country, and sold work to some prominent people. I’ve educated myself about marketing, display, and customer service. I have a following on my blog, and a good-sized email list of customers.

But I’m not sure I can call myself a “successful artist”. At least not by the definition many people assign to that term.

In only a handful of years did I ever break the $20,000 income for the year. So, technically, I am at poverty level. (Fortunately, society values my husband’s work a heckuva lot more.)

So when a reader wrote recently asking for a favor, saying they knew I was busy because I am so successful, I felt a little embarrassed. Yes to the busy. Er…not so much for the “successful”.

And sometimes, although I know (and follow) most of the practices (that work for me) to advertise and market and sell my work, I can’t “prove” my credentials (no art degree! No museum shows!)

So who am I to advise you on marketing?

Simple. I am a fellow traveler. I share what I’ve learned. It’s up to you to decide if it works for you, or not. I simply have to write about it. It’s part of my story. 

Also, to be easier on myself, it’s possible I will become a tremendously famous artist after I’m dead. Like Van Gogh, and Emily Dickinson, whose poetry was never published in her lifetime.

I will never ever say that following my advice will guarantee you fabulous sales. I don’t have a $2,000 “product” (course, book, seminar, etc.) to sell you  that promises to make you famous, or rich, or even make enough money for the babysitter so you can do shows. ((except a few eBooks running around $5 each that will help you get toxic people out of your sacred creative space, and how to improve your display.)

Of course, that illusion of artistic success (“Van Gogh is a brand, and look how much his paintings sell for! Branding is the key!”) is just that: An illusion. More on that….

Let’s pick up some of those pins.

In her performance, Gadsby quotes people who rave about Van Gogh’s fame, framing it as a rags-to-riches story. “He was broke, and crazy, and starving, and now look at him!”

“But he’s dead,” she replies quietly.

“Yeah, but he’s very successful!” they argue back. They offer more “assumptions” on why his work was not successful in his lifetime, and why it is now.

She goes on. Van Gogh wasn’t “ahead of his time”. He was a Post-Impressionist painter at the height of Post-Impressionism. People didn’t “not buy” his work because his style was inaccessible.

He lived with severe mental health issues. He couldn’t “network” because he was extremely difficult to deal with. People crossed the street to avoid him. His “brand” was “crazy”.

His art did not spring from his illness. He sought help from psychiatrists, he was medicated, and some of his vibrant color choices were actually visual side effects from the medications he was on. He made his work despite his mental illness, because it meant so much to him.

Gadsby, with words that broke my heart, says, “We have Van Gogh’s sunflowers not because he suffered, but because he had a brother who loved him.”

And here’s where the Dad pin comes in.

My Dad was not a famous person. He was not extremely talented. He was not wealthy. He was not “artistic” (though he took up woodworking in his retirement.)

He was simply a good man, who provided for his family any way he could, because family was important to him. Someone who always did his best. All of us in the room knew he loved us, and showed it, the way he had been taught to show it.

And as he left this world, I know this for sure: He knew we loved him, too.

Now the back to the art marketing pin.

You can follow all the marketing advice in the world. You can brand yourself just like cowboys and steers. (That’s where the word comes from.) You can strive to get into those perfect galleries, those top shows, be featured in elegant magazines, and win Best-in-Show so often, the committee will eventually have to take you off the ballot every other year so that other, just as commendable artists will have a shot.

It will guarantee you nothing.

And even if it brings you wealth, and fame, in the end, we will still all end up in a hospital bed in our bedroom, working our way to our last breath. Hopefully, at peace, without pain, surrounded by love….

And with luck, no regrets.

No one came to tell my Dad what a great restaurant he ran. (It was very modest, not an haute cuisine thing. Just home-cooking, great ice cream, and pie.) No one came to tell him how his wealth and power inspired them. (He had neither.) No one ever rushed to grab his autograph, or have a selfie taken with him. There is no history book that will refer to him, ever.

People tell us he gave them their first job. People tell us he was generous with his time. People tell us he made them laugh.

As artists, we have a unique gift. We get to choose every step of the work we do. We do it our way. We make it our way. We get to choose how well we do it, we have some choice in where we show it, and who sees it (even more with the Internet), and if we’re lucky, we learn how to best connect with the people who will become our customers. We choose how to promote it, how to sell it, how to advertise it.

But none of these efforts can guarantee us success. Nothing and no one can ensure we will make a living, or even make very much money at all with it.

Hannah Gadsby suffered for years because of her trauma. She transformed that into a healing experience we can all benefit from. She shares what truly connects us: telling our stories; and what most assuredly will destroy us: anger, and hate.

Art is how we tell our stories. The medium does not matter. Stories can be told through oil paintings, pastels, clay, and stone. Polymer clay, voice, music, film, books, plays, food, and comedy. Relief work, healing, teaching, mending, any human effort that brings more light, and love, into the world counts as creativity to me.

Yet even this may not be enough to assure our place in the world, now, nor for all time.

We have no control over our stories, while we live nor when we’re gone. As I looked through the boxes of photographs my siblings had gathered together, I realized I, as the oldest, was the only one who knew some (but not most) of the people featured, the places, the events, depicted in them. People leave before us, and at the end, we may not leave that much behind. Eventually, no one will care. Life goes on.

All that matters, at the end, is that we do it. That we do the work of our heart. That we fit it in somewhere in our life, whether it’s full-time, part-time, down-time or me-time. It only matters that we do not leave this world with regrets.

All that matters is that we do our best. That we make friends, and cherish family. That we do what we think is right. That we give solace to those who suffer, that we feed those who are hungry, that we home those who are lost. That we forgive those who have hurt us (truly forgive, which means freeing ourselves from the pain they bring us), and heal ourselves, even though we can’t fix it or change them. (I’m still learning about true forgiveness. Not there yet! Getting closer….)

All that matters is that we do the work that heals us, so we can be in the world. It’s the only way we can truly tell our story.

As for the yard sale find, I was a tiny bit dismayed. So soon? My work is considered “worthless” so soon? No Van Gogh moment of discovery?? Wah!

And yet….

At a yard sale, someone found something that spoke to them. They bought it. It brings them joy. They treasure it. They tried to find the artist, and they did. I have a name now.

I myself have quite a collection of thrift shop finds, flea market treasures, and other “uncurated” works of art, craft, and otherwise. Some are signed, but because of the time they were created, there’s not much to learn about the artist. Others are anonymous, but no less treasured.

I love them all, They bring me joy.

That is what I choose to focus on today. What matters, at the end. Fame, fortune, cannot survive. We will not live forever. Even love may fade into obscurity.

But maybe a piece of our life will survive to raise another’s heart. In a song, in a book, a life we save, a bowl, a painting. A little horse sculpture.

Make your best work.

Put it out into the world. Make it visible. Make it accessible.

Do your best.

Then let it go.

GRATITUDE

Take a tiny moment to say ‘thank you’, and count your blessings!

I’m an artist. And as an artist, my first responsibility is to make my art. It’s what restores me to my better self, makes me whole and centered. I make it for myself, first.

I know this first-hand, and many good friends remind me of this constantly. For example, the one who sent me a card with this quote:

People like you must create.

If you don’t create, Luann, you will become a menace to society.

(the note also says, “With apologies to Maria Semple, author of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”. See last paragraph in Part 3.”) (Thanks and a hat tip to Amy Helen Johnson!) (Yes, I bought the book.)

Our second responsibility is to put it out in the world. We mostly interpret this as selling our art, and making a living with our art. Some fortunate, hardworking few can do this. But walking away from the work of our heart, simply because we can’t sell it, is  hurtful. (See “first responsibility”, above.)

There are lots of ways to get our work out into the world. If you make art, you can make it, share it, give it away, sell it, exhibit it, teach it, collaborate with it, write about it, donate it, etc. etc. The same with writing. The internet makes this almost effortless.

Yes, selling is wonderful–unless you get caught up in the selling, to the exclusion of everything else. Vincent Van Gogh’s work was only sold to his brother. (Do you have 3 minutes? Watch this heartbreakingly powerful snippet of a video about this.) (I dare you not to tear up.) And ironically, the most commercially successful artist of our time seems to have lost everything of value in a life dedicated to fame and fortune.

Somerwhere in the middle is where I’d like to end up.

So I recently stepped up my game in regard to selling. This came after realizing I was struggling to sell a $24 pair of earrings to a casual visitor in my studio. Realizing that one gallery hadn’t sold one single piece of my work in a year. Reflecting that most of my out-of-state galleries were struggling to sell my work.  A local gallery that reached out to represent me, finally said they love love love my work (another line that’s fun, but not my “heart” work) just wasn’t selling, and they needed to set me free.

I felt like a failure. (Hey! 2017 was a weird year!)

Then I realized, why should I focus on making $24 earrings??? Why should I base my definition of success on income alone? Why was I falling for the same emotional/spiritual/inaccurate measuring stick I constantly counsel and warn artists against????

So…I upped my game.

I cleared my studio of the fun-but-inexpensive work, focused on the work of my heart.

I realized that just because I’m now writing weekly for an art marketing newsletter doesn’t mean I’m off the hook with my blog.

I reevaluated, recentered, and refocused on my biggest vision for my art. And I cleaned house on my Etsy site, and focused on the work I have on hand, my best work, and moved forward.

I decided to make the work that makes me happy, and not the work I think I can sell.

What happened?

Another gallery in the same town as the one that cut me loose, took on my work two weeks. And they’ve already made a sale.

The gallery in Santa Rosa has been selling steadily, and it just keeps getting better and better.

A gallery that hadn’t sold any of my work in a year, sold a MAJOR PIECE. And another big (for me) piece the same day.

And I’ve had five sales in my Etsy shop this month. (A lot for me!)

But that’s not all. Every single sale has resulted in a message from the buyer, telling me how much they love love love what I do, how it speaks to them, and how even more amazing it is in person.

Wow. Just…..wow.

Today I got home to a beautiful email from a delighted buyer. I always respond, with gratitude and joy.

But because I’m human, because I’m afraid to be too happy, afraid to be too hopeful, I tend to respond well outside. But inside, I hold back. Thinking, “Well, that’s great, but…..” “Don’t get a swelled head, because…..” “Don’t get your hopes up because…..”

But this time, I read that email. And something told me….

Be in this moment.

Embrace this moment. Stop and celebrate it.

This moment is the blessing, the extra gift, that comes for making my work and getting it out into the world.

Take note of this moment.

I remembered, decades ago, a wise woman I crossed paths with, who shared a powerful insight with me.

When we really want something, she said, there is a centering, empowering way to ask.

Stand up, head bowed, humbly. Think of what your heart desires. Breathe in, breathe out. Then stand tall. Expand.

Raise your head, open your arms, and hands. Look to the heavens above.

And simply ask, with all your heart, what it is you desire.

The very first time I did this, I was in an antique store. I’d been looking for years for a wonderful book that was long out of print. (This was years before I finally discovered Bookfinder.com, the absolute best tool for finding any book in the world.)

I thought, what the heck? I did the mantra.

And when I was done, I look up. I saw a bookcase in the booth across the room. I walked to it.

And I found the book.*

So today, before I could diminish my joy, before I could “be logical” about my delight in this sale, and this email note from my buyer, I decided to take a moment to celebrate.

I did my little ceremony.

But instead of asking for anything, I simply said….

“Thank you.”

In these days of “Be careful what you wish for”, in these days of “Yeah, but….”, in these days of, as Anne Lamott succinctly put it, “…compar(ing) our insides to other people’s outsides”, in these days of internet fame and viral prodigies, in these days of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), in these days of wondering, “Will I ever be a successful artist?”, without ever stopping to think of what “success” means to YOU….

Take a minute to give thanks.

To count your blessings.

To feel the full joy of having a voice in the world.

And the unexpected delight of having someone else hearing your song.

Now…go to your studio and make stuff.

 

*David and the Phoenix (Illustrated) by Edward Ormondroyd, if you want to know, and it’s been reprinted since then.

(OH,  and you can see my Etsy shop here.)