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.
Years ago, an artist friend said something that threw me for a loop.
I was just starting out as a full-time artist and craftsperson. I was open to everything. How-to books, craft magazines, patterns, you name it, I had to have it. I wanted constant inspiration and distraction, and I wanted it NOW.
She said she didn’t read many books or magazines about art or craft, and didn’t go to many exhibitions or shows. Her work was highly original and personal, she said. (It was, too.) She found that if she looked “outside” at what others were doing, it distracted her, and muddied her personal vision.
Her words made me rethink that practice. No, I didn’t turn the creative faucet off completely. But I learned to recognize the times where I needed to isolate myself from the rest of the pack, and simply focus on my own work.
Of course, it was a LOT easier to hunker down and stay focused in those days before the internet. That faucet of ideas and inspiration has turned into a fire hose.
Now there are dazzling images and beautiful works available at a moment’s notice. In an instant, we can look at the work of artists halfway around the world, from beginners and amateurs to internationally-acclaimed artists, in any medium you can think of.
But I still try to limit my gazing at the works of others. It keeps me from incorporating too many “trendy” elements in my work. Instead, I immerse myself in images of ancient art, antique trade beads, exciting new minerals in gorgeous hues and cuts. I look for new textures in textiles, home furnishings, natural materials, fabulous costumes.
Of course, there’s another, more embarrassing reason I avoid looking too much at other people’s work:
It’s daunting to see how many artists doing work that’s better than mine.
Too many times, especially if I’m in a slump period, I find too many artists whose work seems more powerful, more evocative, more compelling than mine. I see artists working in my medium exhibiting in prestigious invitational shows, museum shows, art books. Or they’ve already made a thousand sales online. My own little artifacts seem...little and limited. It can take me days, sometimes weeks or months to shrug off the feeling of inadequacy. A classic case of Anna Rose Bain’s FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) syndrome.
So I usually forbear and work in isolation.
But something happened this week that both confirmed my worst fears, and celebrated my greatest hopes.
I fell in love with another polymer artist’s work. I noticed some of her techniques looked a little like...mine! Sure enough, when I purchased a piece, she wrote back to say my own work was an inspiration to her. Intrigued, I dug further back into her work.
The little lizard brain popped up for a little while. Her work is gathering international attention and kudos, while mine sits on a back burner. (Especially as I sit on the sidelines this year with my recent surgery.)
Curious, I decided to explore the other artists she’d listed on her site as inspirational and attention-worthy. (Darn! I wasn’t on the list!)
That began an online journey that lasted almost all day. And my head is still spinning.
As I looked at the work of those other artists, I could see the echoes of their work in hers. Similar elements, but different, in just the right way. Inspired, and echoing, never outright copying. The other artists worked in metal, or paper, or even paint and canvas. Their motifs were gently reworked in her polymer, with beautiful results.
In particular, I admired one technique. I wanted to try it, too. Was it her unique creation? Would that be copying??
Nope. As I searched, I found dozens of other jewelry artists using the same simple technique. (Odd to see that a few of them seem to think they’d invented—and owned—the technique, though many other artists’ work predated theirs.)
It intrigued me to see that each person, like my artist, used the same technique, with highly individualized results.
Some had settled for the “flavor of the day”—they never progressed passed their first clumsy experiments before moving on to the “next big thing”.
Others had transcended, making the technique distinctly theirs. Some even wrote up tutorials, encouraging others to experiment. Aha! I thought. So it will be okay for me to play with these, too.
As I browsed. I saw overlap in techniques and designs even among the big names in my field.
No blatant copying, let me hasten to add. Just…as someone came up with a cool idea, it quickly spread through the community. Others added a bit of it here or there into their own work. Each artist put their individual spin-and-take on it. It was working the way it should—new ideas spreading, changing, re-emerging through each artist’s personal vision and interpretation.
It was all beautiful.
Today I’ll retreat back to my artistic bear den, and pull my gaze inward again. My friend’s advice is still true. For me, it’s wise not to look too long or too hard at what everyone else is doing in the world. Good advice!
And yet a little wandering goes a long way. I’ve come back from my little journey with new ideas and renewed energy.
I’ll find a way to incorporate those inspiring images into my personal work, with my own unique twist.
I realize that the people who tried to COPY my work failed miserably. My work is just a trendy little bump in their artistic road.
The people who took what I do and did something personal and inventive with it, added something beautiful to the world.
And how ironic to be inspired by someone who was inspired by me!
My advice to you today?
Find your own distinct balance point of gazing inward, and outward.
Recognize the signs that you’ve explored far enough. Know just how much internet surfing you can handle, and set your personal limits.
Afraid of being copied? Step outside of that little spiritual prison.
Afraid YOU will copy? Accept that it’s human nature to sniff out the new—it keeps our work fresh and accessible. Those who can ONLY copy will never go far. Those who incorporate and transform an idea will never stop their journey.
Take what speaks TO you; transform it into something that speaks OF you.
Then turn around. Give back. Let go.
And let the world do the same with YOUR distinctive work.