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.
Put Those Hurtful Comments in Context, and Move On With Your Art.
I’m gonna go out on a limb here.
When was the last time someone said something sort of mean about your art?
It’s kind of like the Gong Show, right? You’re going along, making time for making your art, putting your heart and soul into it, telling yourself it’s worth your while, worth your time, worth your best effort, deserves your best, no matter what.
And then someone comes along and says something devastating.
Or worse, something that isn’t devastating, per se, but the more you think about it, the more it hurts. Crushes your soul. Makes you wonder why you even bother getting up in the morning.*
“Hmmmm….unusual color choices….”*
“Oh. Never mind. It’s just some kind of cheap plastic.”*
“You’d have to have a very different house to hang that piece. A very different house….”*
“Oh, my daughter makes these!”*
“Are you being honest about your work? I see you making the same tired old work using the same tired old techniques…”*
“$650? Huh. Would you take $375?”*
“I love your work! I’m going to go home and do this, too!”*
“What are you doing at this show??!!” **
Any of version that translates to, “You’re doing it wrong.”
*Actual comments I’ve received about my work over the years.
** Actually, this was an extremely wonderful compliment, from a person who greatly admired my work and was astonished to find me at a gift show.
If you are successful with your art, it may be years since you’ve heard statements like these. Lucky you!
If you are just starting out, if you don’t feel you’ve “made it” yet, if you are reinventing yourself and your work, if you are rebooting (moved across the country, for example, new to the art world, trying a new technique/subject matter/process, etc.) then these mindless statements can be devastating.
They can elicit anger and frustration. They can hurt, deeply. They can kill us, literally and figuratively. The very first year I did my first major fine craft show, I was across the aisle from a wonderful gentleman who had switched from glass work to woodcarving. That year. Unbeknownst to his faithful glass-collecting followers. On opening day, the biggest day for sales, his collectors came, looked, scratched their heads—and left. He ended up in the emergency room that evening, with what everyone thought was a heart attack. (It was a full-blown panic attack, which looks and feels like a heart attack, especially to the person who’s experiencing it.)
No one had actually said anything mean, except in their response—confusion, and retreat. But the message was loud and clear. “We love your glass work, what the hell is this?!
When we are confronted with such resistance to what we’re doing, it’s easy to experience hurt, dismay, panic, even anger.
The trick is to not act on those feelings.
I wear my heart on my sleeve. When I’m angry, everybody knows it. There are very few situations where I can totally contain my feelings. But I’ve learned to do this in my space, whether it’s my show booth, my studio, my galleries that host my work, even my home, if necessary.
Because I realize that I want to be at my very best, at my most evolved, in sync with the angels of my better nature, when it comes to being an agent for my artwork in those situations.
Inside, I might be fuming. But I know with time, I’ll get back to my happy place. Here are some of the insights, and strategies, I’ve found work well for me, and maybe they will help you, too.
1) We are fortunate to be able to make, let alone display, exhibit, and sell our art.
Seth Godin said, “To be irritated is a sign of privilege.” It took me awhile to wrap my head around this, but he’s right. By the very act of being an artist, we have elevated ourselves to a position many, many people would do anything to attain. We have the time (to make our art), we have the money (to buy supplies, to have a website, etc.), we have the resources, the skills, the schooling (even self-taught artists taught themselves something), the determination (aha!), to dedicate some portion of our lives to our art. So very many people in the world spend all their time simply trying to survive.
2) Those who want to be artists, but can’t/won’t/don’t know how, are in a world of hurt. In fact, take an hour to read up on shadow artists, a term made popular by artist/writer Julia Cameron in her seminal book, The Artist's Way. She describes people who, for many different reasons, are artists who have not followed their call. Many shadow artists work behind the scenes to help other artists—they manage art events, work for art organizations, write about, or collect art, etc.—in positive ways. We must be grateful for their support.
But many, many shadow artists are beside themselves with envy at those who actually take that step. They are tortured by the sight of other people ‘living the dream’ they cannot create for themselves.
Some are even artists themselves. (That remark about my ‘tired old techniques”? Written by one of the most successful polymer clay artists in the world, who is internationally acclaimed and lauded. Go figure.) They see someone going somewhere they cannot go, creating something they cannot create themselves. And it’s killing them. When you do something they can’t, it brings out the worst in them.
3) Some people are in a world of hurt, and they are going to take it out on Y*O*U.
An older gentleman came into my booth one year, and took issue with me on one thing after another. My subject matter. My materials. My inspiration. My philosophy.
I was new to all this, and simply met him where he was, addressed each barb and contention with the eagerness to win him over. I so happy, so earnest, each attack with my whole heart. I was puzzled, to be sure. But I didn’t give up.
Finally, his wife appeared. “What are you doing?? Are you harassing another artist?! What is wrong with you?! Stop that!” And she led him away.
I mentioned this to a mentor later, asking him how I should have handled this situation. He simply said, “Not everyone is your customer. Cut them loose, with tact—always with tact--and move them on.” Wow! Permission to not treat every visitor as a deeply honored guest!
4) Some people are so self-absorbed, they have no idea how obnoxious they are.
They say they are ‘collectors’ to get your total attention. They ask a million questions, but never listen to your answers. (It’s only a way for them to tell you how special/knowledgeable/important they are.) They find fault in trivial matters.
Awhile back, I wrote an article on how to use polymer clay to repair ceramic pieces. (I used it to repair a large spongeware bowl that was badly chipped.) Many people commented: “Thank you for this, I’m going to try this!”, “Wow, great idea, thanks!”
Some people assumed my reason d’etre was repairing all kinds of collectibles. “I have a what-cha-ma-doodle that’s broken, how do I repair that?” Um….I have no idea.
But the most surprising was the comment, “I can still see the repair.”
Yes, I could have been more careful about the shade of blue paint I used. OTOH, my previous strategy had been to simply place it with the big chip in back, where no one would see it. The commenter turned it into some kind of “contest” I’d failed at. Oy.
So how do we handle these people who seem determined to bring us down to their level?
In a word: Don’t.
Don’t engage on their level. George Bernard Shaw said it best: “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it…” The guy who was going from booth to booth, annoying artist after artist? The best response, besides totally ignoring him, was what I did—responding with my best intentions and a whole and happy heart. He could not break through.
Don’t take it personally. Who you are, what you’ve made, may be their trigger. But 99.99% of the time, when I work it through, I realize it’s more about their own sh** than me. Almost. Every. Time.
Move them on. In my e-book, How to Get People OUT of Your Booth I share many strategies for identifying sad, annoying, maddening, okay-dude-you-are-seriously-making-me-contemplate-assault-and-battery-here people on their way, graciously, without creating mayhem or hard feelings. (See below.)
Look for the blessing. It’s my way of making lemonade out of lemons. What did I learn from this encounter? How could I do better next time? How can I use this to my advantage? (The next time I had a difficult visitor? I encouraged them to go visit the artist who’d bad-mouthed me.) (I never said I was a saint.)
Remember, other people are listening. When you have a strategy to handle difficult questions and difficult people, other people—potential collectors, who worry that their questions might be considered difficult or awkward—are paying attention to how you’re handling it. As I’ve said before, when visitors have seen enough of your work and they are ready to talk to you, they often ask that “stupid question”. (“Are these wood?” “Is this a cat or an otter?”) If you respond to that DQ/DP with diplomacy and graciousness, these other people will feel comfortable engaging you. Some people have even approached me after a difficult encounter, saying, “I can’t believe how patient you were with that jerk! You’re amazing!” Yay! I took the higher ground, and gained a new admirer! I’m also grateful they didn’t see the part where I was chewing on my pencil.
Let’s round this up. Remember the former glass artist-turned-woodcarver? When he came back, he told me how awful it felt to be so roundly rejected for his new work. “You caught them by surprise,” I pointed out. “You have an entirely new body of work, in a whole new medium. Give them time. You built a faithful audience for your work over the years, and you will do it again. You’re starting over. But you’re not starting at the beginning.”
Our paths never crossed again. But I still treasure the carved red sugar maple leaf he gave me the last day of the show. It is a constant reminder that our appeal may grow and fade, our admirers may come and go.
From my "wall-o'-fall" collection, and the carved wood maple leaf I still treasure.
But the heart that produced this beautiful work will continue on, until the day it stops.
And all that matters is, we put that work of our heart out into the world, and let it go.
A great place to see artists daring to be different is the BoldBrush Painting Competition. It's a great place for you to show how different you are, too. Remember, FASO members get a FREE entry every month! Not a FASO member? Join our art community today with a free, no obligation 30 day trial, click here.