This post 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...." You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.
Magicians don’t explain their tricks, and neither should you.
Last week, Keith Bond beat me to my own punch in his FAV article, How versus Why. He argues that anything we say about HOW we make our art is inherently less interesting than WHY we make it. I firmly agree. Thank you, Keith, for the perfect lead-in.
Not only is pure HOW boring, I’ve found that few people really want tons of information about HOW we make our art. In my experience, the people who are only interested in the HOW are a) other polymer artists and b) teachers. (They want to teach the technique to their class.)
And we love tell people HOW we did it, too. I’m revamping a friend’s artist statement for him. As I cull 30 years worth of previous statements, I find 90% is HOW he makes his work. Right down to the type of glue he uses to assemble his work and what temperature it cures at.
Why do we fall back on HOW? Because it’s comfortable. And safe. We know the HOW inside out. We’ve told the HOW for years. So why should we quit doing it now?
The biggest reason to stop is this:
Your true audience doesn’t really want to know HOW you do it.
They’ll SAY they do. In fact, the first question a potential customer asks is often about your techniques. But people ask this question simply because they want to talk with you. And this is the easiest way to get started.
If you take this question at face value, you are a like a magician who gives away his tricks.
Everyone loves a good magic show. It’s fun to believe, if only for a brief moment, that magic exists in the world—that a blindfolded person really can tell what you have in your pockets; that a rabbit really can disappear up a sleeve.
We ooh and ahhh and scratch our heads. We wonder, “How did he DO that?!”
Very few professional magicians will come out and tell you. Because they know….
Once you know how the trick is done, your response is disappointment and disillusionment.
Once you know what sleight-of-hand or misdirection that created the illusion, all the fun is gone.
That sense of magic is a huge part of the art sales process, and it’s a delicate thing. If you, the artist, take away the magic, you have to work really, really hard to get it back.
People who work with unromantic materials get this or die as craftspeople. We have to be careful how we present our medium. There’s a sculptor who makes simply beautiful, fluid work—out of plywood. He says so in all his marketing materials. Beautiful object—plywood! Plywood??!! Does…not...compute. I cringe every time I see his lovely work, and that awful word, next to each other.
I’ve learned the hard way, too. People would pick up a horse artifact and ask me, “What are these made of?” I’d say, “It’s polymer clay!” They”d put the horse down and move on. It was a sales-squasher.
I’ve learned to sidestep the whole question of HOW I make it.
Instead, I reframe the answer in the context of my story. I tell the truth, but I stress the WHY instead of the HOW.
Sometimes I ask them, “What do you THINK it is?” They usually say wood, or ivory, or fossil bone. I say, “I’m glad you think it looks old and organic—that’s exactly what I want it to look like!”
I tell them why the artifacts look that way. I encourage them to touch the piece and draw their attention to certain details. I talk about the cave as the source of my inspiration.
I relate the artifact to my own life, and to theirs. I ask which animal or artifact they felt most drawn too, then tell what that animal has meant to me. Soon they’re telling me what it means to them. A powerful connection is forged.
For those who want less talk, I have a wonderful little sign/display of objects I’ve made to use in my work—artifacts that look like real bone, ivory, shell and stone, shell--and suggest they look for those examples in my work. This gives them a chance to read, absorb, ponder—and then go look at the work again. The sign also says I have a powerful story to tell, how an ancient cave came to be a metaphor for my own life as an artist and writer. I chose polymer clay as a medium because it lets me tell that story seamlessly.
Need one more reason? Times have changed. Nowadays, anyone can easily learn about your techniques. As my friend says, “30 years ago, sharing my techniques was pretty safe. I was unique in my field. Even if I shared information openly, it was hard for people to learn more about it. These days, if I tell potential customers about my special glue, they hit the internet and instantly find all kinds of information, from descriptions to sources, even videos on how to use it. Worse, they might also find dozens of other people using the same technique.”
Fortunately for my friend, his combination of skill, technique, design evolution and reputation keeps him tops in his field. But he’s changing his approach to something that’s more about him, and his story.
Because the story of WHY you chose your work, and WHY you make it, will always be unique to YOU. Tell your WHY and your own unique, magical, passionate story.
No one can Google that away from you.