WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS:

There are many ways to be a force for good in the world!

I’ve met many creative people over the years. In fact, I might meet more than most other artists, because, a) I accept many ways of being “creative” in the world, and b) because I ask.

Ask what? Well, when new folks visit my studio for the first time, especially when they are still in the exploring/browsing stage (i.e., not actively looking to buy something), I often ask them, “What creative work do YOU do?

It breaks my heart when they protest they are not creative at all. Nope, not a creative bone in their body. Other people are artists, but not them.

When I tell them my definition of “creative” is pretty broad, that’s when the conversations really get interesting.

I explain that I can be a snoot about what is “real art”, too, but I prefer not to. “Shamans were healers, teachers, and artists,” I say. “So if you get joy from any activity that puts something in the world that wasn’t there before, and it makes other people’s lives better, too, well, then that is creative work, too!”

You should try this sometimes. The results are amazing!

People go from being apologetic and humble, to expanding (figuratively and literally.) They say, “Oh! Well then….” And stories come tumbling out.

There’s art, “fine art”, fine craft, functional craft, paper arts, etc. There are people who love the music arts (singing, composing, playing an instrument, dancing), dramatic arts (acting, writing plays, set designers, cinema), even comedy, mime, etc.

But there are also people who love to cook or bake. They take great pleasure in preparing a lovely meal and sharing it with family and friends. (By the way, baking is a lot harder to get right than cooking, especially when you are creating a new recipe. There’s science involved, just as tricky as creating glazes for ceramics.)

What about people who garden, or design landscapes, or arrange flowers, or work with dried flowers? (Yep, some of these are categories in the highly-respected fine crafts organization I still belong to in NH.) These are people who create something special for memorable occasions (weddings, funerals, Mother’s Day, etc.), or who make our neighborhoods, even our homes, look charming and lovely. It’s a lot harder than it looks (ask me how I know) to consider what blooms when, and how it coordinates or contrasts with other plants, whether it needs sun or shade, a dry climate or lots of rain, high maintenance or low. A beautiful plant can brighten someone’s hospital stay, or celebrate a birthday, or provide food for our family or the neighborhood.

What about healing? Some people just have a knack for getting to the heart of our aches and pains. They listen carefully, ask the right questions, and look for the best solution for us. They help us get better, they calm our fears and anger, they help us live our lives without pain, with clarity, without self-condemnation, and with better resources.

Then there’s nurturing. Some people are simply amazing with babies and youngsters, and whose care for the infirm or elderly makes a world of difference to those clients. We may not “see” them til we need them, and realize how grateful we should/could be.

Teaching can be an art. We’ve all had a teacher or two that made us wonder why they even bothered show up, who made our lives hell. And then there are those teachers whose grace and presence still echo throughout our lives, the teacher who believed in us when no one else did, who floored us with their kindness and attention, or pushed us harder to do better.

There are people who fix things and rebuild things, so that something we need to live our lives work better, last longer, and is more efficient. This becomes even more valuable in a world struggling with climate change and plastic debris, an instance where “less than” is actually a good thing.

What about the scientist who finds something unusual in that experiment, and ultimately finds a new medicine or treatment for millions of people who would otherwise live lives full of pain, disability, or mental anguish? If they save even a few people, how meaningful is their work? For those people, and their family and community, a lot. I started a list of other scientific life-saving and planet-healing stuff, but you get the idea.

Here’s why identifying these activities as “creative” is important:

I find when the person doesn’t do this work that means so much to them, it affects them deeply.

Sometimes it’s obvious. They seem wistful as they browse my studio. They tell a story about why they set that creative work aside. They “don’t have time”, or “it didn’t pay very well”, or “it isn’t ‘real art’”, or someone said they weren’t good at it. It seems like a luxury, something to be set aside when there are more important things to take care of. They miss it, but how can they justify the time and the energy when their lives are so full?

When that happens,I encourage them to do it anyway, however they can fit it into their life. After all, as some readers remind me, not every creative work we do can also earn us a living.

But as we talk, it’s very clear to me that they miss it. It brought them joy, it gave them energy, and now life just seems a little harder, a little crazier, a little more demanding.

They need to put it back in their life so they can live more fully, with a little joy and restoration to their higest, best self.

When I “decided” I wasn’t a “real” artist, there were other things that distracted me. But as I look back, they were creative work, too! Teaching, quilting, knitting, jewelry-making, all brought me a little comfort and joy through the years. It got me through, though, of course, “everything else” always came first: Childcare, housework, etc.

How did that work out for me? Well…it kept me in the look, until I chose to take it to a higher level. The quilting evolved into fiber collage. The buttons I started making (out of polymer clay) for my sweaters became horses, and fish, and bears. The jewelry-making got richer, better, and more uniquely my own. And teaching/sharing skills creates community.

I wish someone had told me there are a thousand ways to be an artist in our modern world, especially with all the new material, new techniques, and  new resources available to us.

I wish other people weren’t so quick to stick me in a box, either judging my worthiness on whether my work was art, or craft, or simply too different to be considered anything. (Let me tell you about my very first attempt to introduce a gallery to my wall hangings, when I was told my “design aesthetic was immature….”) (Let’s just leave it at how relieved I was years later, when reliable sources confirmed that person had “issues”….)

I wish all the boxes weren’t so “square” or so narrow. I remember the relief I felt when I applied for a major fine craft show. I called the show organizers when I couldn’t figure out what medium to check on the application. The person I spoke to said firmly, “I hate that, too! We should appreciate the artists who are SO creative, there’s no single category to put them into!” (I quit pursuing many of those shows because I would be juried in for one medium, but not the others, often excluding the one that generated the most sales: Jewelry.)

I asked the art students what their creative work was. At first I got the usual: “Painting!” “Graphite!” (Ha! What a great way to frame pencil drawing!)

But when I opened that door to a broader definition, one said, “I love baking!” They said it proudly, too! I rejoiced at that and told them so. They may also pursuit the more commonly-recognized forms of art-making. But they were reassured that whatever the work of their heart is, it deserves their attention and time.

There is something for everyone, and it doesn’t have to be what everyone else agrees is “real art”.

If it makes us a better person, if it makes the world a better place, if it gives even one person in the world joy, hope, and validity, well then, I believe that’s a good thing.

And I’m delighted these young people already know they are “doing it right.” I can’t wait to see what they do with their passion, and their skills.

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This article is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. Luann also writes a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explores 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. 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….”

  

WHO IS A REAL ARTIST?

My column for Fine Art Views, on all the ways to make room for your art:

Who Is A Real Artist?

MY THREE CATS and the Real Artist

I may not like your art, but I celebrate the fact that it means so much to you, that you have a voice, a vision, and that you chose to share it with the world.

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for Fine Art Views. 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.

I have three cats. One I’ve had for over a decade, the other two are very new. (And coincidentally, both are black and roughly the same age.)

Old Kitty is affable, gets along with the dogs, moves like a raccoon, and does not adjust well to other cats. If I laugh out loud at something she does, she does it again. She hates to be held, but loves to be petted. She prefers floor toys to “air” toys.

Middle Kitty is also affable, and also gets along with the dogs. She gets along well with other cats. She will tolerate being held, but hates to be petted. She loves air toys, and is extremely athletic. She, too, is very funny to watch, but doesn’t seem to repeat when she hears me laughing.

New Kitty is anxious. She’s afraid of the dogs, she’s afraid of the other cats, she’s afraid of sudden moves and loud noises. But she is fearless about moving from her ‘safe’ place in our basement up into the living areas of our home. She’s determined to become a part of our household. She loves being held, and loves to be petted. We took her in off the streets, and she is only just now learning to play. She’s not very funny to watch.

Which one is the best cat?

Huh?

Why on earth would I rate my cats? After all, animal lovers know that our pets are as unique as people are. They have their good points and their annoying habits. They vary in the degree of affection they demand and give. And the value they add to our lives is impossible to quantify. Yes, we can live without pets in our lives, but if you love animals, you know life is richer for their presence.

(If you don’t care for animals, substitute ‘children’. Or ‘friends’. I was going to say ‘or spouses’ but I’m not going there.)

Why, then, do we so easily discuss artists in terms of who’s good, better, best?

I do it. You do it. We all do it. We’re competitive by nature, and our human culture stresses that competition.

Who’s the best student in the class? Who draws the best horses? Who won that race? Which baseball team won the World Series last year? Who makes the most money, and who’s the smartest person in the room? (Notice I am deliberately not including politics.) (Oops!)

And yet, it’s also human nature to embrace individuality, and inclusiveness. We strive to help those who have less than we do. We try to create a level playing field for people who live with disabilities so they can thrive. We applaud those who fight for the underdog, the underserved, the overlooked, those who are ignored ridiculed, or even attacked for being different in any way.

And yet we are so quick to judge the work of other artists, and even our own.

We argue about the difference between what is art and what is craft. Some people believe any work of 2D art is worth more than the finest example of handcraft. We talk endlessly about what a ‘real artist’ is. We even create levels of respect for the medium we work with: Oil is ‘better’ than acrylic, acrylic is ‘more respected’ than watercolor, anything is better than colored pencil or sketching, and this is often reflected in the price people are willing to pay for these categories. Consider a clay sculpture that is then used to create a mold for a bronze sculpture. Which will call for the higher value—the original clay piece? Or the cast item that can be made into multiples?

Who’s the most skilled? That’s a can of worms. Next!

Who’s the most famous? Who sells the most? Shaky ground. You may be a ‘successful’ artist (and we’ve had many discussions on exactly what that really means, you may be in all the fine galleries and in all the art books and magazines. But put ten people in a room, ask them who is the best artist out there right now, and I can almost guarantee there will be at least one person who disagrees).

Years ago, I participated in a workshop called “The Picasso Principle”. The instructor examined Picasso’s undisputed fame, yet listed many artists who are historically considered ‘better’ than Picasso at drawing, composition, color, painting, etc. But no one was better than him at marketing. And so today you can ask any person on the street to name an artist in history, and most will say “Picasso!”—even if they cannot name a single work by him.

Yes, there are standards and measures of technique. There are competitions, there are honors awarded, there are noted ‘masters’ throughout art history. (Though again, I will also point out that entire genders, race, and countries were systematically left out of the so-called definitive textbooks of art history.)

And yet all of this is based on opinion, personal, professional, and historical.

I bring this up because of several conversations I had recently with other artists. In one, someone mentioned a gallery run by two artists. “Now, Joe Blow is a good artist!” they said. And pointedly did not mention the other.

In another group conversation, a fellow artist walking by, and I jokingly said to the others, “Now there’s a real artist!” A person took it personally, and reacted badly. Lesson learned. (My jokes are bad.)

The last was a discussion about artists who have been in a guild a long, long, long time. “Their work is stale, and some haven’t even created new work in years!” one person exclaimed. “They shouldn’t be included anymore!” I disagreed. It costs us nothing to include them, they contribute to the demographics and our finances, they have their following, and their body of work. Who knows why they aren’t making new work? Health issues? Financial problems? I would hate to have anyone judge me based on my occasional fallow periods. “If they were good enough to get in, they should be allowed to stay until they decide to leave. If and when they try to re-jury back in, then we can judge.” And the others agreed.

It all boils down to this:

I may not like you, and/or I may not like your art. I may not like your medium, or your process. You may not meet the standards of whatever group you’re trying to join; they may be wrong, or they may be right. You may be ‘successful’, or you may feel like you’re not doing it right.

But if you are doing your best to make your art
If you have something to say with your art, even if it’s only ‘look what I made!”
If you have a vision of the world, and you share that
If your work connects emotionally, spiritually, metaphysically with others, even one person (notice I did not say ‘physically’ unless your medium is glue.)
If you strive, as you can, to make it better, to improve your skills, your marketing, your relationships with your audience
If all you do is make the world a better place for even one person

Then you, and your art, have a place in the world.

And you are a ‘good enough’ artist for me.

chai mouse
Old kitty, aka Chai

noddy and nick
Middle kitty, aka Noddy, Naughty, and Nutty

bean 2
New kitty, aka Bean. Yes, I can tell them apart, but our dogs can’t.

 

DIFFERENT KINDS OF SMART

A reader left a comment on a post I wrote years ago, refuting my belief that artists come in all shapes and sizes, and that innate talent alone does not determine who is and who isn’t an artist. ( They pointed to an interesting study showing that artist brains are indeed different than normal brains. (Aha! We ARE crazy!)

I liked the article. The findings did not change my mind, especially since the study focused solely on drawing. I drew a lot as a child, so many people called me an artist. But I never really progressed past drawing horses, mice and rabbits. I took a few figure drawing classes in college. I enjoyed them–I like drawing bodies!–but didn’t pursue drawing after that. I still don’t really care for it.

I have no idea if I have that “innate” talent for drawing or not. I don’t know if I have the “artist’s brain” the study described, or not. And I don’t care. I rarely draw out my designs before making them. I work them until they feel “right”.

But I can see the headlines now: “Luann Udell Finally Unmasked! NOT A REAL ARTIST after all!!!”

Drawing is an admirable skill. But what about a beautiful singing voice? What about a honed sense of rhythm, timing and hand coordination that’s so critical to drumming? What about making a beautiful pot? Or weaving/quilting/wood working and other fine crafts?

Why do we value one form of art-making above all others, and make that the definition of an artist?

And why do we value one kind of intelligence–I.Q.–above all others?

So here’s my meandering thought trail….

1) When I was in middle school, there was a bright, well-liked young man. He didn’t get good grades, so I assumed he wasn’t a good student. After getting a particularly bad grade for a project he’d poured his heart into, he ran out of the classroom. I hate to admit this, but we laughed.

And the teacher–Mrs. Nancy Nash, one of my favorite teachers–scolded us. She said, “You think he’s not smart. But he is! He’s just not good at reading. Haven’t you ever realized how well he does in class discussions?! You should be ashamed!” She went out after him, and eventually they both returned to class.

And we sat, chastened. And thinking.

This was in the early ’60’s. No one knew about dyslexia, or learning disabilities. If you didn’t get good grades, you weren’t smart. Period.

But now there was a new thought in my head….. Different kinds of smart.

2) Fast forward to freshmen year in college. No, I wasn’t in art school. I couldn’t get in! But another woman across the hall from me was. Curious what a “real” artist looked like, I asked her about her major.

She was taking the prerequisite drawing classes, the ones every art student had to take. She hated them. She sucked big-time at drawing. (I know–I saw her work!) So why was she in art school?

“I don’t want to draw! I want to make stuff! Things that do things!” she exclaimed. Like what?, I asked. She pulled out some of the items she’d made in her high school art classes. We sat on the floor while she showed me all her little mechanical contraptions.

And one of them was a traveling salt cellar.

I don’t know why it stuck with me lo these many years. It was a silver salt holder, with a tiny handmade silver spoon, mounted on a sort of cart-like contraption with little wheels. You pushed it across the table.

It was adorable. Badly made, but adorable. The wheels were uneven and not mounted properly on their axles, so the salt shaker sort of lurched across the floor.

“I need to know how to make good wheels that really work. I need to know mechanics or something. I don’t know! But I can’t do anything else til I take all my prerequisites!” Which at the time was about two to four semesters of…..drawing.

I know there is discipline to drawing. I know it is a deep way of really “seeing”. I know for many people, drawing is a way of working out design elements, structural elements, etc.

But this woman had taught herself casting and soldering and metal working. Figure drawing didn’t figure into her game plan. (Sorry for the pun.) Her “smarts” were in a different area, one that, at the time, was not acknowledged or respected in regular “art school”.

3) Now let’s really fast forward to the mid-90’s. I’m a Tae Kwon Do student with a wonderful teacher who later became a good friend. He was patient, accepting, emotionally-evolved and funny. As I got to know him better, I learned about his school days.

Allyn never graduated from high school (though he did complete his GED). He had severe dyslexia. Like my fellow student in the ’60’s, his not-understood and not-diagnosed condition meant he didn’t do well in school. He did so poorly, in fact, that when he was in middle school, he was given a “permanent hall pass.” What does that mean, I asked him one day. It meant that he was considered stupid. He was so “uneducable” that he was allowed to roam the halls during regular classes, as long as he stayed out of trouble. Everyone pretty much assumed (and some still assume) he’s just not very bright.

Allyn also happens to be one of the most perceptive, insightful, emotionally-evolved, and intelligent people I know. He listens deeply, and observes carefully.

Whenever I encounter a puzzling social situation (and I encounter many, because that’s who I am), I call Allyn. And within a few minutes, he can tell me exactly what’s going on. In one sentence. I kid you not, he understands the motivation, the behavior and the dynamics and can summarize it quickly and easily.

I mentioned this to a friend who was taking graduate coursework in stuff like organizational dynamics. What she told me knocked my socks off.

Turns out that many people with so-called “learning disabilities”, especially dyslexia, cannot easily process information through reading. But their brain, like anyone else’s brain, is still trying really, really hard to learn, to make sense of their physical, social and emotional environment.

So these non-readers pay very close attention to everything that’s going on. They learn to see, to observe, and assess. They become highly skilled in areas that don’t involve reading and writing.

Unfortunately, since so much of our educational system is based on reading and writing, they rarely make it to college. They aren’t considered “smart” by most of the markers we consider for intelligence.

A different kind of smart……

I think it’s getting better. We “normal people” are learning.

We’re learning that there are indeed many kinds of “smart”. There are many kinds of “talented”. There are all kinds of “artistic”. There are a jillion kinds of “beautiful”. There are a cajillion ways of being kind, and accepting, and tolerant. (Cajillion is a whole lot more than a jillion.)

I like to think that if we spent less time drawing lines around who is and who isn’t an artist, who is and who isn’t talented, who is and who isn’t creative, who is and who isn’t smart/pretty/famous/whatever…..maybe we could simply be astonished by the incredible diversity around us, the remarkable creative range and emotional depth and loving heights the human spirit is capable of.

Maybe we could just let people enjoy the making of whatever makes their heart sing, and give them permission to do so.

And in the end, it’s not so much what’s in our brain, as what we do with it.