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Finding Inspiration


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Artist often speak of seeking inspiration, or going to “find” inspiration. They take off, sketch book tucked under their arm for the sometimes-elusive moment of inspiration.  The truth is, this is an important aspect of the art making process that doesn’t get taught in schools.  It doesn’t get taught probably because its not seen as a search for knowledge, and most schools only deal with things they feel they can measure or crunch the numbers on.  Inspiration and the act of being creative has in many ways eluded many scholars and researchers.  Granted, there has been more study on this elusive state than every before, but there are aspects of it that simply are too difficult for the number cruncher to deal with.  As a result, its hard to quantify, grade, or evaluate.  We certainly see the results of it, but rarely do we ever try to explain or teach it.  How do you grasp the wind?  How do you define mystery?  For me, this is where a very juicy conversation can begin. 

I can’t say that I can teach you how to be inspired because inspiration is a choice.  It may not seem that way, but inspiration is the confluence of a number of different parts of your brain all operating in synchrony with one another, and the choice comes in choosing to feel differently. But how do we feel differently?  Most people settle into a comfort zone where they can begin to imagine and let the creative wheels roll.  Rarely do we reflect on just what it is that we do or what we need to do when that special moment eludes us.

Below are some simple things that you can do when you want to feel creative.  Some of them are to first be consider rationally and then use without being too overly self conscious about them. 

Stop The Noise

The first one is to learn how to stop thinking in the way you may be used to.  When I say this, I mean, stop trying to overthink something, and stop the mind chatter.  You know what I am talking about;  you sit down to make the next masterpiece and all you can do is wonder if you will have enough time tomorrow to pick up the dry cleaning and whether you will have enough money at the end of the month to pay for some airline tickets for a trip you have been wanting to go on.  Stilling thought is more an art I think than anything.  Some will say you can’t still thought, but I know that it can because I often do it in my work.  I am even in the process of developing a way to help people to be more creative by giving them things to do that will naturally still thought.  When you do this, you also still anxiety and uncertainty which go to rob you of precious energy that could be put to better use in being inspired.  

So much of this process is about allowing.  How does that happen?  You allow your thought to be stilled.  Part of this process involves relaxing.  When you can be relaxed and remain relaxed, your tendency to dwell on even the slightest sliver of uncertainty will slip away from you in an ever-increasing way.  The benefits to you are huge, and it also helps with the quality of your creativity.  In fact, when I speak to artists about this, they all tend to say about the same thing; inspiration normally comes when the mind has been stilled. 

We are always thinking, I suppose, but the quality of the thought changes.  We move into a more feeling and thus receptive place first as the clutter of thought thins out.  It feels like riding a boat in choppy water with trees all around only to break out into the open sky with smooth water.  The effect is freeing, and just as you clear space on your computer hard drive, you too can free up space on your own brain desktop so different kinds of experiences can take the place of what was there before.

This is in truth very much what zen buddhists do when they meditate.  They allow the mind to go quiet and its in this relative silence that the Tao, the universe, emerges.  For you, its inspiration, and it is exactly the same thing. The difference between a monk and an artist is that the monk is banking the energy while the artist is making a kind of exchange where the energy is being used to create something.  For some, it feels like a force, a change in your body chemistry at minute and subtle levels.  You feel more calm and your more rational mind switches off and your more intuitive self switches on. I am describing it this way because this is how it seems to most people when in truth we live in our rational minds a lot.  Maybe too much.  This overemphasis in the concrete and rational means that there is less of a balance between the two hemispheres in your brain.  We tend to lean to the left brain operation so it only seems like we are switching it off.  We are in truth deemphasizing it for a greater give and take.  I think it is true that true creative inspiration is not one brain or the other, but both.  When we are able to balance both sides in a natural manner.

I will say unequivocably that your body will mirror your thoughts and feelings in an immediate way.  If your thoughts are always on the uncertain future before you, you will remain distracted, nervous, anxious, and scattered. This is hardly a good place to be when you want to be in full command of your creative juices.  As an artist you ARE the “machine” that is manufacturing magnificence, but what you make will only be as good as how you feel.  Certainly you can sit down at the bench and continue crafting a piece of jewelry as if on auto pilot while your head is stuffed full of things, but try being creative when you are over burdened in this way.  I say that in the hectic life we lead, it is important to make good transitions from the life at the office or out running errands to the sacred space that is our creative minds and beings. 

The best way to connect with your creative self is to think back on your childhood before you started to set up perceptual barriers to your creativity.  I come across this all the time with my students in college.  Today we began a project in glass that involves making a clay pattern that we will make a mold of that will hold the glass which will be slumped into the mold. We talked about the project our last class period and I asked for students to come with a drawing.  At the very least, they would have an idea, a game plan for what they were going to do even if they wound up changing the idea in mid stream, which of course I allow in my classes simply because this is part of the learning process.  Sometimes you have to think you want to do something only to actually learn you really didn’t like the idea to begin with.  Getting in touch with your natural self and your natural likes and dislikes is an important part of finding your own creative and aesthetic vision.  Today, though, everyone sat looking down at the clay on their board with giant question marks above their heads. Some had an idea, some did not.  I explained that they simply had to start.  “Just jump in; this is like swimming.  Stop worrying about how cold or deep the water will be and jump in.  Once you do, you will find that it is not as bad as you had thought.”  Slowly, they began building their pattern.  In the process, though, people began to play.  They began to do just what they did when they were kids.  In fact, when I asked some of these students what they were doing, they looked at me and said they had no idea where it was going.  Normally, I think we tend to feel like this is a bad thing, but you see this is just what we do as children. Making art is not about making art but is instead play. And very often, play is tied up within discovery. If you KNEW what you were going to do, it wouldn’t be an adventure, right?  Part of the joy and fun of it is actually in not knowing.  In this state a part of you stands back and watches.  Another part is bringing form to something and another part is busy imagining what the next big idea will be in its development.

It is here, in this state, where you are potentially the most creative. I explain to my students that whenever I get stuck or feel anxious about what I am going to do next in any type of creative work I imagine that I have all the money in the world.  When I do that, it triggers all of the barriers within me to drop and I create with wild abandon.  It loosens me up enough to be willing to consider the possibilities. It also allows me to flow.  I feel more at peace, I feel happier, and I feel like I drop into this really great groove where everything is perfect. It is here that I let accidents happen and it is the happy accident that often serves to suggest some new direction that I myself had never thought of before.  Granted, this kind of thing can’t happen in my glass studio or else I would never get the production work done, but it sure can be a great way to brainstorm because interesting things happen when you aren’t so rigid and allow yourself to play and discover. 

Part of this involves this idea I mentioned earlier having to do with stopping thought.  A very curious thing happens when I do this, and I suspect it is identical to what the monks experience because their description of it and what I encounter are identical. There is an upwelling of energy that is very peaceful but also blissful. This energy isn’t inactive, though.  It is very dynamic.  Normally the reaction to this state is to USE the energy for something, and it often tends to get bled off with our gazillion thoughts that we have every hour of the day.  But imagine turning that off or tuning that part out.  Imagine being amazingly present but without any intervening thoughts whatsoever.  This is a state where you feel something called “Presence.”  It is like someone is standing quietly next to you, but not saying a word.  You can feel as though the train has simply stopped or is frozen.  There is a sense of time being suspended and there is a very different quality to your awareness. There is in truth a great liberation felt in this moment.  All thought goes out the window, or maybe its as though you simply walked up one floor above all the hub-bub and are now silent as the party downstairs rages on.  There are many ways to get to this place within, and most often it does take some practice.  For the artist, I think that this can be easier for them than other people.  In the same way that monks busied their minds with prayer beads, the artist can keep themselves busy with the making of something while they experience this quietness of mind.  The advantage here is that when you do this your ability to really see your surroundings increases significantly.  If you are drawing a flower you are no longer trying to get it to look right, you are merely observing what is there and getting it as close to that as possible. 

One of the great advantages to stopping normal thought is that you can for longer and longer periods, become much more observant of your surroundings.  If you are doing a figure study, you simply cease having all those nagging thoughts running around in your head. Where do I have to go after this?  Will I pass my test tomorrow?  Will I have enough money to make it through the month?  See, when you can still worry and anxiety, you quite naturally shift your attention out of the what-ifs and you shift into the NOW.  Its here in the NOW that your attention will bring you the greatest return.  Staying in the future or the past will be like tossing all your energy and inspiration into some unknown future or some unchanging past. Its just not productive.  But if you can still your mind you also still anxiety which naturally keeps you distracted and diverted from the task at hand.  When you can be quiet and calm like this, you are much more available to the figure study or the work that you are involved in. 

Nearly every student who has had problems with a project has also had problems with worrying how the project will turn out.  The problem with this way of thinking is that students wind up pondering a step that they have not even gotten to yet.  This takes them out of the moment and it also destroys any possibility for reaching this state of quiet presence I mentioned earlier.   If you stick to what is happening now and allowing what is not yet done to take care of itself once you get to it, you are naturally so much more present for what is happening NOW. So stop worrying, stop thinking about the future and cultivate a sense of mindfulness about the NOW.  If you do, you will invariably find that you are more at peace and a lot more calm.  Details will take care of themselves once you get to them.  Work speeds up, and you become more fluid.  You will also be much more effective at doing, say, that figure stuff because you are now using ALL of your faculties of observation instead of being scattered with so many worrisome thoughts. It takes some getting used to, but if you can do it, you may find that your powers of observation along with your creativity goes up significantly. 

Be Like a Child. 

When you were four or five and were involved in an art project, you most often were incredibly present for the activity.  You had nothing to divert your attention.  You had no worries that whatever you were doing didn’t LOOK like something.  All of this gets built or driven into us as we get older and our own innate creativity suffers as a result.  It is now known that people who try to imagine what its like to be a kid are actually more creative when they imagine in this way.  This is, I suspect, because the mere act of imagining it brings on those qualities from childhood that will assist you greatly in being creative and free.  Sometimes not knowing what is next in your project can actually be incredibly freeing.  A child is ready to explore each piece, never totally sure what will come next.  This is actually a cornerstone event….

Let Yourself Screw Up – The Happy Accident

Do you know that nearly every time I have ever allowed myself to go off plan or do something different than the way I had done it before and wind up screwing up, I have had some of the THE most interesting discoveries happen?  Sometimes I can get so caught up in how I think something is SUPPOSED to look like that I never allow myself the freedom to just wander, play, or even screw up.  So screw up.  Let yourself do something you didn’t intend and then see where it leads.  Jackson Pollock developed drip painting entirely by accident. One of the more significant stylistic developments all due to an accidental drip!

There is also clear evidence that when people are observed in a competitive event that when they can screw up that this seems to let off some steam or anxiety.  Once they have gotten the screw up out of the way, they are free to push as hard as they can.  It is a curious trait and it has to do with fear. It is less about our being capable of something and more about our fear of not being good enough.  Once we can get it out of the way, performance, in some cases, will increase. So don’t try to be perfect.  Don’t always try to be Mr. Impressive or Miss Amazing.  Its great to feel like you are all that, but the reality is that it is also a lot of pressure. When you stop doing this FOR someone and do it for the fun of it, the pressure is off.  You are free to explore, and as long as there is no plan, then “messing up” can simply be folded into the activity.  This only works if your environment allows for it. I have long since abandoned the idea that as teachers we need to hold a whip in one hand and push students hard.  I had teachers like that, and the only thing it ever did for me was to dry up an otherwise fluid creative river inside of me.  Fear and creativity simply do not go together. 

Don’t Wake Up Too Fast/Don’t Go To Bed Too Quickly

Its true that when we wake up, we can still be in a highly dissociated state. These states are most often linked to high creative output.  On the one hand, you might be slow to wake up and feel groggy, but if you allow yourself some time to just imagine and think widely during this time in the morning or as you begin to go to bed, you might well find yourself thinking thoughts or coming up with ideas that you just aren’t as adept at when the clock strikes noon, for example. Experiment with letting yourself have an extra half hour to an hour in the morning to laze around in bed while directing your attention to any number of ideas to see what happens.

I have also observed that some of my most creative and visually engrossing ideas often take place at a time when I am finished dreaming but am simply resting deeply.  As a result I have found that when I awake at four in the morning, I can have some really great ideas surface. My mind seems able to borrow the rich visual world of dreaming and tack it onto the world of my waking self. I am also very clear and rested.  I most often am also able to drift back to sleep after half an hour of wakefulness. I understand that this may not work for you, but I would urge you to try it.  It might mean going to bed earlier, or it might also mean going to bed later so that you can slip back into sleep easier. Waking at four in the morning and not being able to get back to bed might make for a very long day!  What works for me is I try not to get out of bed if I can help it. 

Do What Relaxes You

Its true. When you can relax, you can drop into brain states that are much more susceptible to being creative. Do things that make you feel good or that relax you.  Take a nice long shower, or do something where you are completely relaxed in your own thoughts.  This might be as simple as taking some time to go to a private place in nature to relax and doodle or write or lay in the grass for half an hour each day while being alone.  It seems, at least for me, that all of nature itself is perfectly content being where I am soaking up the sun and simply existing.  I think we actually miss doing this because we miss the state of mind that we reach when we go there and reach such simple states of calm. 

Breathe

There is a technique that can be very powerful if you can use it to your advantage.  It involves breathing.  We all know intuitively that breathing cams us down. When you get really upset over something what do people most often say for you to do?  “Breathe!” they will admonish or remind you in that moment of excitement or upset.  There is a reason for this.  Now let me tell you a secret technique that can help you calm down very quickly.  If you try it, let me know what you think of it. 

The technique is really simple.  First, hold one of your nostrils closed and as you do this, breathe in through your other open nostril.  Do this about four or fives times and breathe in a long and full breath.  Exhale with your finger holding your nostril closed each time.  Take your time with this.  Don’t be in a rush.  Pause as you reach a full breath and when you have breathed all the way out.  You then switch to the other nostril and do the same four or five inhalations and exhalations just as you did before.  Once you have done this, examine how you feel.  If you were feeling excited or upset, can you remember what had upset you?  Do you feel relaxed?  This is an excellent way for me to transition from one activity to another. It is also very helpful when dealing with anything that might upset you or throw you off balance emotionally.  Being an artist or creative person, you are only as good as your own state of mind is, so it helps to do everything you can to chill and flow. 

Avoid Crowds

I know it can be hard to do this in a university town, but finding places where you can be alone can be very helpful.  Brainstorming is in truth something that happens best when you are relaxed and not self-conscious.  Sometimes being able to go to a coffee shop where people are all in their own worlds can be helpful.  Bury yourself in a book, or your sketchbook.  Find a time during the day when you know your roommates will be away in order to spend time alone in your room. I used to have to get of campus before I could relax completely when I was in college.  I looked forward to Fridays when I’d go with a friend to her house where we could sit and just hang out.  The nice thing about being with her was I never felt like I had to entertain her or say anything.  She very much accepted me as I was or HOW I was.  That was incredibly freeing and I felt a sense of solitude and lack of self-consciousness.  I just needed some away time and in this case, being at her place provided that.  Maybe you have other friends who “get” the same thing and might give you some space just to be “alone” or alone feeling.

Set Limits

Sometimes creativity is spurred when you limit the options available to you.  When you are given less, its more of a challenge to turn it into something MORE.  In this case, writing haiku is a very appropriate example of less is more.  By giving yourself certain boundaries in creating, you give yourself the challenge that your own nature may often relish and dig into.  Sometimes we all just love a challenge.

Be Happy

We know that people are more creative when they are happy.  Elevated mood can lead to a greater sense of optimism which helps to shake off any uncertainties you might feel about a project.  The key to being happy is not in dwelling on things you cannot control.  Much like being present, only concern yourself with what you CAN control NOW.  Worrying about the future wont get you there.  Taking care of the present will.  Now:  be happy!

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Art 204 Breaking Cognitive Biases


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Part of the course I teach at a local university is helping my students to realize what issues hold them back from thinking and feeling differently.  The following article and exercise is part of Art 204, a course in sculpture and will be used to begin to help students to, as I call it, “self illuminate” and begin the process of reflecting on their most cherished creative tool; their minds. So with that in mind, a brief introduction to the concept of cognitive bias.

Our brains are amazing biological machines.  They are known to record perfectly the events that happen around them.  It is known that underlying our cognitive function is a perfect record of what has taken place in our lives.  The only problem, though, is that we aren’t merely recording machines.  We have all kinds of filters that are thrown into the mix and many of these resolve around unresolved emotional issues that serve to direct or distort memory.  We wind up seeing or experiencing things differently than perhaps they are.

The writer Anais Nin once said that we do not see the world as it is but as we are, and this helps to explain the concept of cognitive bias very well.  The effect is that of carrying material from our past into new events in the present and then either reacting to them with the old bias in place or remembering events differently then how they actually happened.  Its a process of seeing the world through tinted glasses or blinders.  What blinds is is most often unresolved emotional material and we have a very hard time often even admitting that these blinders are in place.  It’s probably pretty obvious how such blinders can effect you as an artist.  When so much of making art involves questioning what has come before or seeing the world in a new way, addressing these cognitive biases in your own life can lead to new ways of seeing and feeling as well as impacting your creative life.  Most of the movements in art would not have been possible were it not for artists who were willing to see and think different, to ask hard questions not only of their culture or world, but also of themselves.

The article I am including a link for that will help to provide the bulk of the information on cognitive bias has about 100 different types of biases listed. Click on THIS to go to the article.  As a student of Art 204, you will need to read through the list to familiarize yourself with the material.

In this exercise I want you to look through the following article on Cognitive Bias and find four biases that you have found yourself falling for or suffering from, and then work through some strategies for overcoming them. Knowing what you now know, how do you avoid the issue in the future?  Think about times when you may have been affected by this cognitive bias. It may take you some time to realize that a given bias is one that has affected you.  It might be helpful to read through the list and then spend a few days just thinking about them in order to gain a clearer picture of how it has had an impact on your life. Then think about strategies that will help you to avoid this cognitive bias in the future and record them.  These will be shared in class and I will be taking them up after the class in order to grade them.  Be complete and descriptive in your response, although you could easily use bulleted responses that get directly to the point.  Offering more than one strategy for overcoming a given bias will be graded more favorably.

Creative thinking is influenced by the patterns that we  fall into. Learning to be both aware of and able to work out of those patterns is part of seeing, thinking, and feeling differently.  This will naturally have an effect on your own creative process.

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How To Effectively Sell Your Work


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Selling your work is one of the most critical aspects of making it as an artist, and yet it is also the one element in many artist’s professional lives  that is the most fraught with challenges and frustration.  Even when you have an agent or galleries that do the selling for you, you still have to be able to be the person who presents the face for the product, and that means selling.  While this may seem distasteful to some artists, it is a reality.  The trouble I often have seen both in myself and in other artists is that there is a cognitive bias about what selling ones self is all about.  It doesn’t automatically mean that you are somehow compromising your principles, or selling out.  Selling is a multifaceted activity that achieves many goals, the last of which is selling your work so that you may support yourself so that you can go on to make still more work.  When someone wants to buy your work, most often, they aren’t JUST buying the object, they are buying YOU.  They are buying your skills, your effort, your love and grace.  they are buying the idea that there is someone who is brave enough to step out into and put their work out there so that it can be shared.  I learned this when I began selling my work at art shows and craft fairs all across the country when I began my business in 1997.  People wanted to know how it was made, how I got into the field, and anything else I cared to share.  Were my pieces a big surprise when I got done?  How did I achieve those layers of color and how DO you get something suspended in the center of the glass like that?  Many liked to put their work on show in their homes and it was a point of pride and conversation for them to be in the know about this artist instead of it being a faceless name whose work they found online.  Many of my customers are buying more than just a piece of art glass, they are buying a story as well as a way of life.  They are also participating in an effort that is more than the artist alone but makes up galleries and customers who all take part in an effort that makes it possible for an artist to do what she or he does.  It is not so unusual for art afficianados to actually care about more than JUST the work, but the spirit and the human touch of the person who laid paint to canvas, or sculpted a delicate figure out of porcelain.  At its best, the industry is about love. When I go into a craft gallery who sells nothing but handmade, it is very rare that I ever come across sales staff and owners who seem aloof.  they are all excited to be living this kind of life and selling work that they feels makes the world a better place.  They get to see people coming into their gallery on a daily basis who are amazed at all the things that are on display that were made by hand.  Sure, those in the industry are shrewd business people, but they have learned that you have to be in order to survive and thrive in the world of art and craft.  That goes for the artist as well, at least in some measure.

How you present yourself is crucial to creating a look and a feel that will help support your business. You will attract different kinds of people as customers and clients based on how you present yourself. If you can convey your own sense of style and taste in how you dress, how you design your booth or studio gallery, these things all help to convey who you are in little and big ways (and this is not always easy for everyone).  This is a fine art in presentation and communication. It all works best when it makes intuitive sense to the public that you are attracting. This is why being yourself is so important. You don’t have to pretend to be anything that you are not, but you certainly have to come across as comfortable and confident. This does not mean that you do the hard sell.  In fact, most selling of yourself is best done when you are simply you. Its in understanding the psychology of selling that makes all the difference, and you do not have to be a great salesperson in order to find your way.  you just need to understand what goes through everyone’s head when they go into a retail outlet, a store, mall, or gallery, or booth at an art or craft fair.

Artists can be horrible at selling their work. I say this because I was in this camp. I was always curious about the psychology of selling as I was growing up as an artist  because this is one aspect that we were simply never taught about.  Most of the material on the bookshelves about selling had to do with  mainstream forms of merchandising like selling cars or clothing.  So how was I going to make a story about selling a shirt apply to selling a sculpture or a piece of decorative blown glass?  When I graduated from college I decided I didn’t want to do any art for a while.  Instead, I decided to do something I had never done; I took a job selling  water treatment equipment!  What this experience did was it revealed one side of the sales industry with its own ideas about how things are bought and sold.  I quickly grew jaded because it was a formulaic approach;  there is an average number of times that a person will say no, make sure you make eye contact during a certain part of the presentation, you need to make sure that you emphasize certain words at the right time, etc.  After a certain number of no’s,  they will tend to give up and start saying yes. The strategy was to get them to say no even if it wasn’t even a resistance to what you were trying to sell them. There were certain presentation methods that were based on making assumptions in the hopes of selling some option or service in order to increase the bottom line for the company. It all felt like so much manipulation!  It just didn’t feel honest to me.  The only problem, though, was this was how so many in the sales field sold things from vacuum cleaners to siding. Remember the movie Tin Men with Richard Dreyfus and Danny DeVito?  If you do, you have a pretty good idea what kind of environment I had walked into.  Don’t get me wrong, it did teach me some things, but after a while I found I just could no longer sell,  and I moved on to other things.  Its not surprising that we all could be soured on the idea of selling when we only think about unscrupulous tin men…..but as it turned out, there was a whole other world to selling, and none of it had anything at ALL to do with sneaky tricks, manipulation, or pressure in the least!

The big a-ha moment came for me when I bought a very unlikely book while attending the Buyers Market In Philadelphia.  Outside the exhibit hall there were vendors for things like boxes and bags, as well as books on how to promote and make yourself into a more effective business person. The artisans were located in the hall adjacent to these vendors, so I would walk past them as I came into and out of the conference hall each day.  The book I picked up was entitled No Thanks, I’m Just Looking!  by Harry J. Friedman (ISBN 0-7872-5350-2).  It was when I read this book that I was able to draw comparisons between the world of merchandising and the world of my own form of merchandising.  I forgot that the author was talking about a shirt, or furniture and started to consider the psychology of buying itself, which of course was what the book was all about. I found that instead of picking up tricks or techniques, all I had to do was to think about what it is like for me whenever I walk into a store. that really was the very crux of the book, and my reactions in a store turn out to be just like everyone else’s!  It became a simple way to simply put myself in my customers shoes as they browsed my booth or gallery.  This wasn’t selling; this was empathy!  Big light bulb moment.

What the book was so effective at underlining was the psychology of buying.  What was so interesting to me was how it did not provide tricks or formulas;  this book was about stepping back and thinking what its like when you first enter a store and the phases that most people go through when shopping.  To understand this, you need only to think about how you feel when you go into a store.  What happens?  Most people don’t pause to reflect that there are very definite states that they enter when just browsing and when they are ready to BUY.  You might be a lot like I was when I first started reading the book, which was that I never paused to consider what those different phases or states of mind were whenever I went into a store.  The book was presenting the idea that if you understand these clues as they are being presented in store guests, you could become a more effective sales person  not because you are going in for the kill or that you are using pressure tactics but that you can then become a facilitator for what the person may need or want.  Its interesting how this all happens, and it makes all the difference between your buying and not buying. I put myself in those shoes and only then did it make sense why I was doing all the wrong things when I was trying to sell my work.

First of all, when you enter a store or a booth or gallery, its an adventure.  You might go in for a shirt, but you really don’t know what you will find. The world is open to you, and your mind is in that wide open kind of space.  I just went shopping for clothes and all I knew was that I needed shirts and some jeans and some slacks and socks.  I just had no idea what I would find, but if I found what I LIKED, I was going to buy it most likely if the price and look was right for me.  You MIGHT wind up buying a different shirt than the one you originally had in mind, but you have to see what there is to see just to make a decision.  At this early stage, you are excited with all the new sights and sounds.  You have to get oriented, you have to look around some.  You are in browsing mode.  You need to be left alone.  For a little while.

You are not in buying mode yet, and if someone walks up to you and starts peppering you right away with questions about what it is you need or want to buy, it will simply turn you off.  The desire to buy simply has not been aroused just yet, and all of this helpfulness so soon can often wind up being a turn off or irritation.  this is where you allow your imagination freer rein.  “Hmmm….that shirt sure looks nice…I wonder how I would look in it….it doesn’t really match anything I have…..maybe I will keep that one in mind as I go look at those other shirts…”  You see what I mean?

The first lesson  is to let people walk around and look, and dream. Give them the room to do this because it will only be as a result of seeing all the possibilities that the desire will arise to buy anything.  You have to see thirty polo shirts all on a wall in thirty different colors in order to buy just one.  Being able to sit back and imagine how that shirt will look on you, or how that piece of glass or sculpture or painting will look in your home is critical to entering the next phase.  Most people simply have to be let alone in order to do this.  By approaching people too soon, you make them more self conscious and being self conscious is a killer for desire.  People have to want or desire your work.   People need the room to be seduced by what they see and then to get excited enough to buy.  When you are sufficiently aware of how this all works and plays out in the real world, you can quite literally feel the shift from dream mode to buying mode. Something heats up and the energy changes in a noticeable way. People move from a very passive activity and body language to much more “aggressive” behavior.  All of this is very subtle and you need to know what to look for. I have never been able to discern if it was just a “vibe” or if I was picking up on a stream of small body language signals, but I have learned to be tuned in to it. Knowing when this is happening is crucial because this step can wane without support from the clerk or artist in the booth or gallery. Everyone is different, though and I can tell you  that I have also  had people who walk right into the booth and pick up a piece, present it to me for buying and leave quickly and quietly.  Others need to browse, daydream, chat, and talk with their friends.

Its true. But just as important is having a good sense of timing as the seller of your work.  You can’t simply leave someone to drift through the store or booth or gallery. This is where your own instincts for knowing when to walk up to the person for the next phase of the process.  If you come on too strong, you can scare them away or just turn them off. People may have questions but they may not want to ask you these questions.  They want to be served, and this is where you have to be ready to answer their questions and help them with knowing the many options available so they can make an informed decision.  So instead of going for the hard sell, you ask questions which also help steer them in the right direction.  This often began, for me, in asking how they are doing first.  Sometimes its as simple as saying hello, a signal that you know they are there, and that you do are not acting in a presumptuous way, but that you are simply there for them. Your body language can help when you stand off to the side, ready, but not too ready. You let them know in a very simple way that whenever THEY are ready, so are you. You are there to serve them.

This is why I was able to see that there were certain things I said would always be a sale killer in my work.  I had this tendency to say “Let me know if you have any questions” because I thought this was the best way. No sales EVER resulted form this approach. Why?  I was in a very subtle way letting them know I was ready to sell them work. It was a very very subtle form of trying to make the sale.  I changed all of this when I observed people looking at my work and would ask “Which is your favorite?”  Sometimes I would pick up a piece that they were looking at and I would say in an off hand way the different ways it could be lighted.  I had pieces that looked great even in low light, something people had a hard time believing.  One of the problems people had was that they KNEW I was displaying the work to its fullest potential.  Of course it would look worse in their home.  This is the first kind of refusal for buying the work.  I often would take work out of the booth to show just how well the work would look in less than ideal situations.  This was a major hurdle for them without their realizing I was in truth beginning to sell the work.  I learned to do it in such a casual way that it didn’t read as any form of pressure.  I totally understood how you wanted the work to look as good as it did in the booth.  People will not buy in a perception of remorse.  By removing that and showing unequivocally that this isn’t a big concern, one less hurdle existed for them.

In the end, all buying comes down to how relaxed someone feels during buying and how excited they are about buying it.  Part of this is how you present yourself.  People aren’t just buying a product, they are also buying into the fact that it is hand made and made by someone they met.  Many of my buyers will tell stories to their guests who see my work about the conversation they had with the artist. Most often I know someone is closer to buying when they ask how its made. This is not a guarantee, but its a sign.  Sometimes people with the most questions also do the least buying.  I have seen the same person come to my booth over several years only to chat with me to find out how the work is made. The less someone knows about a medium, the more they will tend to ask. They cannot appreciate what goes into the making of a piece until they reach this understanding or level of education. it is corny and very true that the gateway to appreciation is through education. So I knew that I had to educate all the time.  It was like an investment, and I did this with no expectation of ever selling a single piece.  Those would would reach the requisite level of appreciation would buy and some would not.  I gave of my time freely and without expectation.  It was hands off. But I was in the process friendly affable, and easy to talk to. I did not bludgeon my guests with information, but would always given them a positive experience in our talking together.  They had to feel comfortable with me.  They had to know I was the real deal.  They had to feel into all of this to know it was right for them. I managed to go from being quite inept at selling my work to selling my work not through pressure or gimmicks but by simply understanding how people wanted to be treated.  it wasn’t foolproof, but it worked far better than any other method I had tried.

All of this culminated in one of the single best shows I had ever had.  I was simply doing what I did best, which was to engage my guests and potential customers without seeming the least bit desperate to sell.  In fact, I was completely relaxed and at ease.  I felt confident.  I had stopped worrying about having a good show and this let my own uniqueness shine through. A veteran of these shows whose booth was across from me came over the second to last day of the show and said “You know, I have been watching you with your customers and I have to tell you that you are so good with them!  You seem so natural.  I know so many exhibitors who allow themselves to get frustrated when they don’t make a sale and it winds up effecting the rest of their day….”  This was perhaps the single best compliment I could have gotten from a colleague.  I considered myself something of an amateur at all of this in so many ways and here someone who had been at it for over 20 years was so kind enough to point out what she thought was effective in how I did what I did.

The thing about this is that selling yourself in ANY situation is a lot like this, whether you are selling directly to the public or to a gallery.  I have always been the most effective when I let all of my anxiety about whatever it was I was doing go and let myself be me. I found that my promotional materials like web site, letter head and work itself all needed to have a sense like they all came from me.  This is what many in the industry call branding, and the problem with most branding is that the WAY in which you present your work and your business can be at odds with who you really are.  If a logo or design was made by someone else who has a poor ability to fit your own style with the branding, something will simply read as being a little off. Here, there are no hard and fast rules because all of this tends to be very intuitive and somewhat under the radar. You have to make sure that branding, however it is done, fits who you are.  If you do not have an investment in it, how can you expect others to plug into it?

If you make work that is abstract, spare, and quiet in its visual impact, it doesn’t make much sense to splash your web site with wild colors and forms when your own work does not do this. Somehow it all has to make sense.  It all expresses worlds of things that some people do not immediately pick up on but that all play a part in creating an overall impression.  This impression can make the difference between attracting a certain customer or client or not. Are you a quiet retiring type, or are you gregarious and really out there?  Are you loud and edgy?  Are you a nuanced renaissance person with many different qualities?  How you present yourself in print and on-line will help to support this. If it doesn’t, it could be a small glitch in the road to your door where something just doesn’t seem or feel right.  Again, this is all pretty subtle, but everything is important.  The font is important, the color and feel of the paper your catalog is printed on, the images used on your business card, and how your web site is designed to tell the story of who you are.

One very important part of selling is pricing your work, and this is where you send a strong message to the buying public.  It also determines how you sell your work.  If you sell inexpensive work below $300.00, for example, you will naturally have to position yourself in a market where you can sell a lot of work and often.  If you sell work that is in the $10,000.00 range, then what you do to make the sale will be very different from what you do to sell one print.  I once stopped selling Christmas ornaments at shows because there was a glassblower who sold almost nothing BUT ornaments.  He also sold them cheaper than anybody else.  When I stopped trying to compete with this guy and stopped selling ornaments, I found an interesting thing had happened.  I found that there was no discernible difference in my bottom line by dropping the ornaments.  Every year I always made a different figure for my income for that year, but there was nothing that suggested to me that I had somehow suffered from dropping the bottom end of my market.  in fact, this gave me more time to focus on selling pieces that were $75.00 and up instead of $15.00 or less.  If you price your work too high, you will suffer from slow sales.  However, you can suffer in different ways if you under price your work.  In an effort to make sure their work sells, many artists tend to devalue the potential of their work to support them by keeping prices low so that they will have plenty of sales.  The only problem is that if you do not value your work enough to give it a fair price, then how is anyone else going to value your work as well?

In 2006 me and my siblings sold land to a local government that had been in our family through two generations.  We formed a corporation in order to manage a large farm that was big enough to warrant forming the corporation. For years, we knew that the value of this land was significant, but the market just wasn’t there.  It was a farm, but it was a farm in an area of the market that was near D.C., so near in fact that to sell it as farmland would have meant that we would have to sell it cheap.  We weren’t ready to do that.  We knew the value was much higher.  The local government had not assessed property yet, but when they did, they placed it more in the area of value where we felt it should be.  Before that, offers from the customer, or this government body, were all low-ball.  Once the assessment was made, it helped to support our feeling that this was a valuable piece of land.  It had location, it had development potential.  Once the assessment came through, the government acted.  they realized that the only place for the value of this property now was up.  Developers could easily come along and offer us more than assessed value.  Houses were going up, malls and supermarkets were being built.  It was only a matter of time.  We knew the value and we held fast and did not sell until our market was there.  Once this happened, we were in a very good position to negotiate a very good price and we did.  On behalf of this corporation, I had to make sure that in each negotiation with the government, with attorneys, with CPA’s and with real estate agents, that we preserved the value for ourselves.  Everyone had their own interests, which was to either get the property as cheaply as they could, or to get a piece of the pie that was as big as they could get.  What this experience taught me is that you have to realize what the value is of whatever it is you have to offer snd believe in what that value is and then find your market.  This sometimes means waiting until you find that market.  Sometimes it means sticking to your guns.  Eventually, if your sense is on the mark, others will see the same.  The lesson is you have to believe in what it is you are doing or else no one else is going to.  You have to find your buyers and market the property correctly, and you also have to have something that other people want.  If you create value and demand, this is the very force that will draw customers and will hep support the right prices.  If market issues change, so will the price, which means you also have to be realistic, but not hasty.  You need to be shrewd.

if you price your work too high, you can have trouble moving work quickly enough.  If you price it too low, you can starve yourself of the resources that you need.  there are plenty of businesses that are busy making work hand over fist and making a very thin margin by the end of the year.  it may all look good from the outside, but it is like someone climbing a great mountain while breathing air that is so thin that they are about to pass out.  the trick is in finding the right balance.  This is always a judgement call and it is why judgement is so important.  it is true that some things may only take a small amount of money to make, but the value of that object made is so high that the price has to be adjusted to match the value involved.  If you are the only person making something completely unique, who is to say what price should be set?  If no one is making anything like your own and you can develop a market and create demand, the price that is involved in creating the object is often besides the point.  I can probably learn to pain like Monet and yet, what I make wont BE a Monet.  What is the difference?  The difference is the fact that the people are buying into the PERSON.  They want more than just a picture of a Monet.  If that were the case, they could buy a calendar with Monet reproductions and they’d be happy.  for those buying art, the reasons are very different.  Knowing how to first pricing your work where you get paid AND so the price reflects the value that you bring in your work is the combination of elements that need to go into pricing work.  Price it too low and you may never attract the better galleries and buyers because a low price often signals your need to sell at whatever cost.  Price it too high, and you could outstrip the perception of value that does exist and sales slow or stop.  Knowing how to do this requires some experimentation and observation.  When I doubled my prices, I found I no longer had people wanting to haggle with me over prices.  My price point was still fair but it eliminated those people who could only afford a small amount, thus the haggling. But what I did not realize was that most people who were looking for quality didn’t believe they saw quality with my prices so low. It is a little funny, but it is true.  If something look like a Mercedes, then the price tag should match, otherwise there is a lingering doubt.  The truth is, you are not just selling work, you are selling an idea.  And unlike paint and canvas, an idea is immaterial and thus does not adhere to plain black and white figures.

You may not like the idea that YOU are a product, but the truth is, you cannot fully disentangle yourself from this reality because you will always be the person who created that installation, that sculpture, the pot, the weaving or print.  Because of this, people will naturally be interested in you and show their friends “This is my painting by Richardson,” while beaming with pride.  Perhaps the problem is only in how you are choosing to relate to this.  If you are yourself, then what is there to worry about?  People want to know who you are and they wont get this unless you are.  If you are comfortable in how all of this happens, it isn’t like you are some object, you are an experience that many people seem to need to help fill in the cracks in their perception of you.  The more confident you are in yourself, the more natural and the more comfortable people will be around you, its just that simple. People buy the product, but they also buy the sizzle because there is real excitement in finally reaching the decision to splurge and buy something like art.

If you can bear these things in mind, you will become a much more effective and natural promoter of your work.  Its hard enough as it is sometimes to put yourself “out there” so being able to know what is good about your work is an important aspect in being able to present yourself in your best light.

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The Soul Of Glass


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I wanted to start talking about glass, to explain what interests me as an artist, and why I have stuck with it for so long.  What is it about glass that makes it so seductive?  In a series of posts, I am going to explain the art of glass to you, not too laden  with technical jargon, but just enough to give you a feel for the stuff.  Maybe a few videos thrown in, and a lot of work.  Perhaps in there somewhere, what I do will begin to make a little sense to you if it hasn’t already.  For some folks, glass is still a bit of a mystery.  We, artists from all walks  of life, are involved in changing that, and bringing this material forward as an expressive medium.

Consider this….glass can be cut and polished at room temperature in order to shape it.  It can be put in a kiln and gently draped over a mold, or in a mold, or poured HOT into molds.  It can be blown, it can be shaped  solid. It can be rolled.  It can be ground up fine and packed into molds for a real nice effect called Pate De Verre. There are now dichroics, thanks to the space age and the lunar rover (this stuff was designed for the camera on board that craft) It can probably be other things we haven’t even dreamed of yet. We are working on that part.  And I am here telling you about it.

Its ancient technology resting on the edge of cutting edge tech.  Some tools have remained unchanged for thousands of years.  Some change yearly.  Perhaps its the same with other things, other media.  Perhaps I am biased; glass always seemed like a miracle to me.  That it was even discovered is a miracle in and of itself.  And its story is an interesting one since glass was not taken up as a breakthrough that covered the globe.  No, it was discovered in ONE place by ONE people and then spread from there (in highly secretive fashion lest anyone uncover the secret to making glass from the raw ingredients!).  But that is a story that I will save for another post, a little later.

There’s no doubt about it.  Glass is a terribly seductive material.  Having worked in a variety of media, I can say unequivocably that there is no other material quite like it.  Glass must be kept molten in order to work it, so it “exists” as a plastic material only in those higher ranges. This means the studio is an engine of heat.  Furnaces blast using specially designed equipment capable of achieving, and then maintaining about twenty-five hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

When I first began blowing glass, I was a grad student at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.  I was there studying sculpture and had just completed my first semester when I discovered that there was a glass program there.  The guy who was hoping to find a replacement for his job at the University Museum told me about the job as well as the class.  I wound up taking his job at the Museum so he could move to teaching glass.  And that is how I started blowing glass first at Carbondale under Marshal Hyde, and then Prof. Bill Boysen.  I wound up falling in love with it.  It was instantaneous.  From the moment the bubble emerged from the blow pipe, I was hooked.  It was that simple.  I continued my studies in sculpture and completed my M.F.A in sculpture, but when I left Carbondale, I was also a glassblower.  Impatient with getting a job in academia, I chose to go full bore in the studio biz and did, designing and building all my own equipment in a bare little space of a studio which I turned into a humming world of molten lava until I moved to SW Va and to a very different studio space (you gotta promise to come visit the gallery and the studio–its a great sandbox!).

In order to work glass with any degree of speed or facility, you have to keep the material within a fairly narrow temperature range.  If you work the glass too cool, it takes forever to get a piece done since its plasticity is limited.  If you work too hot, you could lose the piece as it careen out of control by becoming TOO plastic.  Everything with glass happens within a pretty narrow window, and as a glass worker, you are able to gauge what this window is both by look as well as feel.  I can remember working alone and realizing I could gauge temperature strictly by how the glass resisted my turning it on the pipe.  When glass is hot, it will “lag” behind the turning of the pipe.  This is because it is semi-fluid.  its like getting a small pool of water to turn in one direction using your hands.  It doesn’t all start the same way a solid object would start to turn; it is more like getting MOST of it to turn and then the really hot soft stuff that is “lagging” catches up through sheer peer pressure.  Well okay, not peer pressure. Its just not an exact thing.  Its a coaxing thing, a cajoling thing.  This is what makes glass so hard to master.  It seems to have a life and a mind of its own.  It is what also makes glass frustratingly difficult.  And rewarding when you get it.  Its a miracle that the material can even be shaped, or kept that hot, let alone transformed into objects of great beauty.

Each time I blow at the bench I think about this small miracle.  It keeps everything fresh for me as I refuse to stay entrenched in what I think the material is capable of.  Its capable of more than I can even conceive.  I just have to learn how to tease those new secrets out of it!  And so you get an idea of what I go through when making my stuff.  Or new stuff.  New stuff is interesting for how, even now, I go partly by instinct and partly by something that is entirely mysterious to me and I am sorry that its like this, but that is what it is.  This is the miracle side of the thing.  Its how I come up with the coolest ideas.  They can even seem or appear as accidental. Some are flat out accidents.  You heard me.  I discover the most when I relinquish the greatest control.  Then the glass shows me, and I follow.  Its accidental like that.  I know it probably sounds like mumbo jumbo, but its very significant mumbo jumbo and that’s just how it is.  Its a mystery,  And you and I have to deal with that while we sit back and enjoy the fruits of the days’ labors.  Don’t get me wrong; I couldn’t do any of this if I didn’t know how to blow glass.  The blowing part I have down.  Its what allows me to do what I do with minimal effort, the part that frees my mind and spirit to soar.  You can’t always do that if your mind is burdened or you are still working on getting technique or form.  It actually has to be set free.   I haven’t figured out a way to do this while constantly having to figure out if I am doing the technique right or if I am having trouble keeping everything centered.  Its why artists create.  Its a touchstone to something still larger.  And deeply rewarding.

This is what is called the glory hole.  It’s also called a reheating furnace. Some people snicker at the term which is now used for a very different meaning.  I could give you the history of where glory hole came from (gold rush actually) but I will just let you stare into the intense heat of the furnace for now.  Its so hot that the flame from the burner isn’t discernible.  Everything becomes incandescent at these elevated temperatures.  In just the right place within the glory lies a swath of insulative material that isn’t just yellow, but white.  I aim for that spot, knowing by its color to be the hottest spot in the entire place.  Here is where the glass will quickly melt and become soft and pliable.

There is little more capable of capturing the sense of flow and liquid the way glass does.  Having said that, glass is also expert at turning into just about anything, and that includes things that don’t flow.  There is nothing contradictory in what I just said!  Right?

For me, I enjoy the fusion of hot with cool, the water and fire all at once.  I enjoy watching the material go through a transformation from hot to cool.  And truly, it transforms.  Colors change, some colors seem to radiate light while they become opaque and dark once cooled.  Sometimes it feels as though you are looking into the secret life of glass.  Like the hot side is its undercover identity, and few ever see it.  In this state, in this phase of its expression, things are VERY different.  And as quickly as it began, its over.  The piece is quickly broken off the punty and dispatched to the annealing oven so that it can go through a special heat treatment that is absolutely necessary.

I think annealing is like a big mystery to most people, a kind of invisible process that you can’t see or touch or taste or watch as it happens.  This all happens inside the safe confines of the kiln or oven.

The speed at which glass exits its plastic phase into its solid phase can result in considerable stress being built up in the body of the glass, a type of thermal stress that is never seen by the eye, yet is lurking there, ready to strike at any moment.  If the glass is taken through the liquid to solid phase and below to quickly the glass will register this stress invisibly, and it will also break if it continues its march much below 750° F in too rapid a fashion.  Instead, the oven or kiln is used to slow that descent so that everything cools just right.  Too fast, and stress can be reintroduced, and too slow and the glass could slump at the higher ranges (deform slightly from the high-end heat).  There are ways to calculate all of this and in general a note is made of what is the thickest piece in the kiln because that batch’s annealing cycle will be determined by the thickest cross-section of glass in the kiln.  the thicker it is, the longer it takes for the annealing cycle to work.  Glass is, you see, a very poor conductor of heat, so it takes time to get heat INTO the ware or work, and it is slow to take it out of the pieces.  Again, this is why if you cool too fast, you can actually cause work to break (everybody make a sad face now).

Inside of glass is a world where nothing is real, where light bends, where solids register as etherial sprites.  Nothing is as it should be and yet, it all feels perfect.  Looking through glass is somehow like looking through a womb, a world made of water and muffled sounds.  There is nothing about it that suggest cold hard reality, although I am sure there are people who are whipping their glass into such submissions of shape and form.  But not me….at least not now…

The expressive potential of glass is huge.  It can be made to be soft edged and water.  It can be turned into angular rock-like forms and made to fool the eye.  it flows and yet it is solid.  May describe the medium as a super cooled liquid, and to this I would agree, but absent the thought that the material keeps moving (that is an old romantic tale that some seek to back up with various inaccurate “evidence” which just isn’t so, sadly, but I wont go into here….maybe later…if you are interested…)

Most often, my work with glass is in letting the material speak its own language of molten fluidity. I add my own contrasts to highlight my own preferences and turn of mind, but homage is given in my work each moment to the amazing fluidity of this material.  I have only begun to scratch the surface of the potential this material has…

When glass exits the furnace where it is “gathered” or twirled onto the end of a blowpipe, the molten shapeless gob of glass (yes, “gob” is actually a technical term in the glass forming industry; so appropriate!) is allowed to cool and be shaped.  A bubble is inserted through the long blow pipe in order for the glass to be inflated and have a hollow inner core.  If this is going to be sculpture that isn’t hollow, the glass isn’t blown in the traditional way, but is instead “solid formed” which means that no air is blown into the center of the molten material.  Instead of blowing up like a balloon, its more like dipping hand dipped candles; layer and layer, the wax or glass builds up on the outer-most layers until the achieved size is realized.  Through a series of as many as fifty different moves, a relatively modest vessel can be formed, such as the perfumer to the left.  For larger more elaborate objects, the number of steps can treble and the need for assistance from others in on the team effort can sometimes be required.

All blown glass, or hollow vessel forms always begin the same way on the blow pipe.  They are blown and then the vessel has to be cracked off the pipe and a new tool, called a punty, a solid rod with a dab of glass on its end is used to temporarily stick to the bottom of the vessel so that the broken ends can be heated, trimmed, and then heated until it is either spun out (for a bowl) or it gains enough plasticity so that it s top section can be formed into a long graceful neck for a vase or some similar kind of form, depending on what the artist has in mind.

Glass has remarkable expressive potential.  It can be blown, it can be formed in a kiln (fused glass) it can be worked on the end of a small metal rod in the making of beads, and the glass can be ladled molten into molds while hot for cast glass.  It’s an amazingly versatile material that makes glass containers, windows, windshields, beakers for chemistry experiments, platters of Pyrex for cooking the roast beef, and beautiful objects of art adorning the home the same way jewelry would adorn a woman’s body, helping to add that special visual accent or looks that helps to make the dress, or evening.  This is how we adorn our lives through intelligent designs that help shift how we look and how we respond to a space.  We can add any number of looks or sense of taste to a space depending on what we choose.  Good design matters, and handmade matters most!  Okay, so now  its the next big thing….is it history?  or do I delve into the forms themselves?  Good museums for glass to go to?  Other artists?   A blog on the renovations going on at the studio?  A few videos?  Hmmm….there is a lot to consider.

(All images are my own, and if you would like to use them, you have to ask permission)

©Parker Stafford, Stafford Art Glass