Artist’s Statement ….Part Two

The Pale Rook

So remember that thing I applied for?

My application was successful.  I was selected to take part in a project at Scotland’s Craft Town,  the wonderful West Kilbride.   I’ve been a massive fan of the Craft Town since I first found out about it a few years ago, so I’m massively chuffed to be a part of it.  The project I’m involved in takes selected craft makers based in Scotland, at various stages of their careers and gives them specialist business mentoring and studio space for six months.   For the first time in over a decade I am being mentored rather than mentoring others, which has been quite a shock to the system.

The first meeting of the participants, organisers and business mentors involved an exercise where we had to think of things that limited our business or things that we were worried about and then we had to decide whether these things were Financial, Operational, Creative, or Emotional. I do these kind of exercises with my students, so I wasn’t too surprised when most of the participants put a whole lot of their worries, fears and anxieties about their work in the Emotional category. I didn’t because as far as I was concerned I’m not caught up in my emotional issues, not me, nuh uh. I am wiser than that.

Or not.

Later that day I had a one to one meeting with my business mentor, a fabulously astute and direct woman who called me on my bullshit within about twenty minutes.

My mentor asked me to decide how much I hoped to earn in terms of my salary, and to price my work accordingly. I did it the other way around. I worked out how much I wanted to earn from each individual piece (and other stuff that I can’t tell you about yet), then I added up how much I would likely earn over the course of a year and then once I saw the total I decided that it was way too much, that I didn’t need that much and that I didn’t deserve that much, so I’d just have to earn less.

Seriously.

And the worst part was that I didn’t see anything wrong with this. In fact, I thought that earning a good salary for my work was somehow unfair to the rest of the world. So I reduced the price of the thing I can’t tell you about yet and went into my meeting with a nice clear idea of how to avoid earning more than I felt I deserved.

I’m not even joking.

So there we were in our meeting and my mentor patiently listened to my stream of ideas and plans and hopes and fears about where I want to take my work and how I want to develop the business side of things.

Once I’d stopped for breath, my mentor told me that she thought my pricing was too low. I explained that I didn’t think it was. She told me again, that it was indeed way to low, and I explained that pricing it higher wouldn’t be fair to people who wanted to buy it. Then she said something that made absolutely no sense to me. She asked if my feelings about pricing were somehow connected to something within me, or more specifically if my feelings towards the people who buy my work were fulfilling some need within me.

I had absolutely no idea what the hell she was on about. Remember, I teach this stuff. I am a master at pointing out the root of my students’ issues and creative barriers and I could sort of see what she might be getting at and why what she said might have meant something to someone else, but I really had no idea what relevance it had to me.

Until the train ride home.

Here’s what I realised about myself.

I feel bad about people paying for my work because I think that the people who buy and even those who appreciate my work are somehow being duped. I keep feeling that at some point I am going to be found out to be an imposter.  I feel bad when my work is considered valuable.

There.

Issue number one; I do not trust or value my talent.

And there’s more.

I worry that I am somehow going to get into trouble for showing off.  I feel that if I openly value my work then people might not like me.

I know.

Issue number two; please like me, please like me, please, please like me.

OK, so this is all deep down, little girl fear and anxiety stuff, it’s not up there on the day to day surface of things, but it’s still there, and in my experience the deep down stuff has a way of making itself heard in one insidious way or another.

I see it constantly in my female students. I’m sure men and boys experience it too, I know they do, but in my personal experience it’s women who consistently undervalue their work, their time and their talent and it’s women who desperately seek approval by making themselves small.

I have sat through literally hundreds of student presentations, from high school to post-graduate level and women consistently and persistently do one thing when they present their work, regardless of how good it is or how hard they have worked on it or how good they believe it to be – they apologise for it.

Over and over, throughout my career I have heard women and girls tell me all of the things they should have done differently and all of the ways they could have made their work better and all before they’ve even opened their portfolios or begun their presentation. Even when given positive feedback, they tell you how it should have been better and how it would have been better if only they had done something differently. They deliberately make it less than it is.

So about six years ago, I banned my students from saying the word sorry, and we did a little experiment. They had to present their work without saying a single negative word about it, and throughout the exercise they would have absolutely no encouragement or feedback from me whatsoever. So no negativity from them and no approval from me.

What happened shocked me. Some students weren’t even able to begin speaking. They looked at the floor, they took deep breaths, they took several minutes just to find words to begin with that wouldn’t include any sort of apology. Some were even brought to tears by the sheer frustration of not being able to criticise themselves.

Let me be as clear as possible; speaking about themselves without negativity reduced several women and girls to tears and silence.

And I hadn’t asked them to glow with self congratulation, false pride or confidence, all I had asked them to do was not criticise or apologise for their work.

I ask my students why they feel it’s so difficult to not devalue themselves. Their answers are always, always the same. They tell me that they don’t want other people to think they are arrogant. They worry that if they say their work is good, other people will point out that it’s not. They worry that if they appear to think they are better than others, then those others won’t like them.

Which brings us right back to me on the train.

Up until that point I had subconsciously believed that valuing myself meant devaluing others which would make them feel bad which would make them not like me. I had kept myself in a nice little box that would be no obvious threat to anyone and this deliberate devaluing of myself was making it’s way into my life in my reluctance to make a reasonable amount of money for my work.

The sad thing, the thing that made me furious on the train when all of this hit me, was that I knew, I KNOW that valuing yourself and your talent and your work, truly valuing your best qualities does not bring trouble, criticism and rejection; quite the opposite.

About half way through some of the student presentations something else would happen. After a few minutes of speaking hesitantly, through deep breaths and almost uttered “sorries”, something would shift.

There would come a moment when the student’s voice would even out.

Because I wasn’t giving them any feedback, encouragement or prompting, because they were getting absolutely nothing back from me, they would begin to say what they wanted to say. Not what they thought I wanted to hear, not what they thought was expected, not what they thought would make them likeable, but what they truly felt and thought.

There would be a change in tone and volume that was so moving, so utterly inspiring that I can’t even describe it to you. They would speak without apology, explanation or expectation, about what they loved about their own talent. Then they would realise that no one was laughing at them, no one was horrified, no one had stopped liking them, and that they weren’t in trouble, then their voice would get stronger and clearer and calmer.  And when they shone, something would happen to the other students in the room, and to me;  we’d feel just a little bit closer to our own value because we could see someone else connecting with theirs.

It’s worth pointing out that I have done this same exercise all over the place, with different age groups, different academic levels, different nationalities and the results are pretty consistent. About twenty percent break down in tears, around sixty per cent struggle to speak, about eighty per cent reach a moment when they begin to shine.

I would also like to point out that I would never and could never force anyone to do anything in my class. Everyone who participates does so openly and willingly and the ones who cry are the ones who hammer on through with the greatest determination because they are usually the ones who have the most buried within themselves. Just thought I’d point that out in case you had some sort of image in your head of me inflicting emotional and psychological torture on unsuspecting art students.

I could write forever about why we have all of these layers of apology within ourselves, why we feel we need to be small, to be liked, why we need to undercut our own value to feel comfortable. I won’t though because I’ve got way too much to be getting on with and I’m sure you have your own story to tell about all of the times you insisted on less than you deserved.

So go try this.

Talk to yourself about yourself, your work, your talent, your virtues, whatever you like but do it without apology and do it out loud.

It’s harder than you think.  I struggle with it.

I’ve always imagined that as an artist, I should devalue my work, that it’s up to others to see and judge it’s worth and that if I ask for just a little I won’t be disappointed when I get just a little.  After my meeting with my business mentor though, I realise that I have been seeing myself and my worth in exactly the same self depreciating way my students do.   My ideas about being a struggling artist are really just a reason to keep myself small, unthreatening and likeable.

I’m not going to suddenly increase my prices or change the way I sell my work, but I’m no longer going to limit myself in terms of what I achieve through my work.  I’m not going to prevent myself from earning more than I think I deserve.

From now on, I refuse to reduce my own value.

I’ve never been a materialistic person and I’ve never seen financial success as a goal in itself, but what I’ve realised is that until now I have seen financial success as something that I should avoid, something that I don’t deserve, something that might make people not like me, and that has limited me creatively.

So I’m not going to make myself small any more.  I’m not going to keep myself in a little box and whatever comes out of me next will come without any apology or fear of what it might achieve.

And there’s that thing that I’m planning that I can’t tell you about yet.  I’m not afraid of that thing being a success anymore.  I’ll tell you about it next time.

The Pale Rook

 

 

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416 thoughts on “Artist’s Statement ….Part Two

  1. I loved it! It is so relatable 🙂 I’m a new Blogger. I write funny, sentimental, and motivational blog posts… So do give it a read. They may not be as good as this beauty right here, but please give my blog posts a chance 🙂 Your feedback will be much appreciated
    🙂

    1. I bet you didn’t realize it, but you devalued your work immediately. STOP IT! You have something wonderful to offer; right now, just as you are.

  2. Wow, it’s a bit of a relief knowing that someone so experienced could feel this way too. I’m always hesitate to charge too much, thinking that “if I was more experienced or skillful, I would”.
    Sometimes I envy how accountants can just charge $100 for taking a few minutes to look at a few documents, I know they studied it. Well, artists have spent countless hours/months/years getting to where we are…and it’s often not something you can be taught in a class either!
    Now, if only I could walk the walk and not devalue myself and my work…

  3. Thank you for writing this… I devalue my own work every single time I reveal one of my creations to the world and I didn’t even realize it until now! I have always, always made excuses for my work… I almost cried myself just reading this!

    I’ve already saved your post to my bookmarks and I’m going to go back and read it, often!

    This is exactly why I want to do SO much more with my art and never do, why it’s taken me until a week ago to start a WordPress account, and why I really want to market my creations but never have. Thank you! Thank you for inspiring and empowering me!

  4. Very familiar feelings. On the one hand you have to be proud and confident about your own work. On the other hand, when you ask for feedback from other artists (photographers in my case) they tell you to join a club, post on critique sites, listen to the criticism other people give you and learn from that – the implication always being that only other people have the right to decide whether your work is good enough. All you can really do is stand up for yourself but it’s still tough to open yourself up by putting your work out there for sale.
    Anthony

    1. I think critique is really important, in fact it’s vital if you’re going to develop, but what I’m talking about here is needless apology. I think there’s an important difference. Critique is about being aware of where you need to develop which ultimately leads to honing your strengths, preemptive apology is about deliberately appearing weak to avoid any potential confrontation.

      1. What an important add on to this wonderful piece. To know that you will listen to criticism and take what resonates and leave the rest to take your next step is a protection. Not to brace yourself to be crumpled but to use criticism to begin to discuss with others, or just yourself, and deepen your work. Thanks for shining the light on this.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this truth. Today I was listening to a story on NPR about how Hurricane Katrina’s devastation had provided opportunities for artists to create out of the detritus. One man said he’d just moved to New Orleans a week prior to the hurricane to go to medical school, but then the school was closed because of damage. So, he went around and began collecting pieces of wood–all manner of wooden objects, structures, and started making art out of them. An architect saw what he was doing, bought the piece, and voila, he now has a career making art. And before my joy, “How wonderful that he turned that pain into something beautiful,” could come forth, my cynical, “Right. He probably has a trust fund, parents to support him in the first place, and then . . . right away he has patrons!” Envy ate at me. I’ve struggled for decades to create really, really good art: art of substance (I’m not saying his isn’t), art that has social merit, multiple layers of meaning, wit and intelligence, excellent craftsmanship, and I still can’t get people to buy it! I don’t know what the answer is. I appreciate this opportunity to rant, and want, do so want, to get to that place where my art is supported. Thank you. If you’re interested in seeing some of my art, here’s a link to my website: http://www.darleneolivo.org.

    1. Hi Darlene. I used to feel the same way about people who seemed to find success over night from something seemingly random. You don’t know that guy’s story though, maybe he always wanted to go to art school but ended up choosing medicine instead. Maybe his stuff just came around at exactly the time a lot of people were ready to embrace it. I struggled for a long time to make work that was meaningful to me and it was only when I stopped caring that others started to take notice of what I was doing. I really like your religious shrine sculptures, thanks for sharing your website 🙂

  6. I started reading this post ten days ago & just got back to finish it. It has resonated with me, pushed me to reflect on certain things. You had me at: “Bullshit.”

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. To the point

    To the point! Hit right home. I have a problem with pricing. I have hit a wall presently. The energy and creativity that bubbled over 4 years ago and led to my creating mask images has just stagnated. Did 2 shows, sold nothing and in my mind kept thinking “I priced them too high.” Meanwhile the art sits in my closet, hidden from the world. After reading your piece, I will work on myself, pick up the pieces and start over again.
    My website, if you would like to look, http://www.maskemotions.com.
    Keep writing, you inspired me today.

  8. Wow. This just answered a lot of issues I have about my own work and myself. Thank you for taking the time to open up and write this. I truly appreciate it.

  9. This is pretty to read, and I’ve been hearing and seeing a lot of this stuff around lately, but the fact of the matter for many people (myself included) is that, if they priced their work at what it was actually worth in terms of just materials and time, people wouldn’t buy it. This is all well and good if you have a bankroll to promote yourself or a name from networking, but if you’re just starting out, you have to undervalue yourself otherwise you’ve got no chance.

    Pretty words and it would be nice if they were true for everyone, but they’re not.

    1. I have never had a bankroll to promote myself or a name from networking. I have also experienced starting out at the bottom working without pay, without thanks and then going to work twelve hour shifts as a waitress to pay my rent, so I’m well aware of how hard it is.

      What I’m talking about here is my own personal experience of being reluctant to accept a higher salary even when my work is in demand and what I think my reasons are for feeling that way.

      You say you have to undervalue yourself to have a chance, but there’s a distinction between undervaluing yourself and your talent, and underpricing your work and time in order to get a toehold in your field. At no point do I mention what anyone should charge or demand, that’s purely down to the individual and their situation.

      You also say that my words aren’t true for everyone; they were never supposed to be. I am writing a personal blog not a decree.

      I’d say I was glad that you thought it was pretty, but I have a feeling that you don’t mean that as a compliment.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts though. I’ve been through the same thing and I agree that, unfortunately, that’s the way it sometimes has to be. That’s not what I’m talking about in this post though.

      Take care, Johanna

    2. What a strangely negative reading of such a positive piece of writing… Lucky that your surmise that you need a bankroll or ‘name’ to get anywhere is not a universal truth either.

  10. This was such a beautiful and well-written piece, describing exactly what I’ve always struggled with in terms of my work without being able to describe it. I actually am afraid of every Etsy review I receive before I read it, for fear it will finally call me out on what I believe I have been fooling everyone into not seeing: “This work is not worth the price.” I always have an apology in the back of my mind if a customer is unsatisfied, with the excuse that I’m not a professional, it’s just a hobby (which it’s not). Thanks for writing this!

  11. Really, really interesting! Art has always been just a hobby but recently it has started to become something more than a hobby and already I recognise a lot of these feelings. I started my blog wwww.feltiefare.com only yesterday and already I feel like I’m being arrogant by displaying my work on the internet! Great article, thanks for writing. I will read it whenever I feel I need a little pep talk 🙂

    Shona

  12. Well written and described – you have definitely captured the experience perfectly there. And – real advice too! I love your work and your posts; glad to have found the blog and will share abundantly;)

  13. I stumbled upon your blog as I was searching through “recommended blogs” and I must say, I am highly intrigued by it. I absolutely love the idea of making dolls. I had a few attempts when I was around 8 years old. Made my own paper doll and made her paper dresses. Later, my mom helped me design and created a couple of stuffed dolls. Nothing highly sophisticated like this, but your blog just brought back some really lovely memories.

    I am now contemplating a mini paper doll collection. If I do work on a project like that, I would be happy to show you what I end up with. (:

    Thanks a bunch for this blog. I will definitely keep coming back

    Regards,

    Núray

  14. I’m very touched by your words here. I discovered you via Pinterest, followed the image of a beautiful, heart stirring doll, which led directly to this blog post with just the words I needed to hear. Thanks for both. Your work is stunning. Karla Van Vliet

  15. Your post just brought me to tears. A fellow blogger friend referred me to this after reading a post I wrote this week. I’m so grateful she led me to you, as we’re exploring some of the same questions, you and I. I support you on our path to value yourself boldy and without apology! (Funny, I also felt a tiny bond with you immediately, as I use the Sketch theme, too. Based on visual feel alone, your blog makes me feel oddly at home.) But of course it’s your singular content that stands out the most!

  16. I just read this after it was shared on staffrm. Stunning writing and so interesting. I wondered whether self-deprecation is a British thing but you seem to suggest not.
    Keep fighting the fight.
    Maybe l’Oreal’s message was more profound than we knew…

    1. Hi, and thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂 From the international response I’ve had to this post, I really don’t think that self deprecation is only a British thing.

  17. love this, thanks so much for sharing such a personal delema, it’s been a rough road for me personally to price my items according to a formula I’ve worked out and still to this day find myself listing things for less than I should, thinking “that’s too much” despite all the hard work that’s gone into it, I do this in spite of knowing full well my time is valuable AND despite me telling other arists not to undervalue their work. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve come a LONG way from where I was when I first started out but I know there’s still more work to be done on that little voice in the back of my mind. ❤

  18. I hope you don’t mind but I share this post with a private group because it is extremely relatable! Thank you for writing it! Many don’t realize they do this and I was once guilty of it. No more! No excuses, no sharing of my personal thoughts as I introduce my work. A simple “Here it is.” And that’s it!

    Again, thank you for this valuable insight on something we should all stop doing!

  19. I’m the newsletter editor for a weavers’ and spinners’ guild, and we’re having a talk next month about “Pricing Your Work”. I think your blog post is spot-on about how we undervalue our work. May I share your post in our newsletter, or quote and post a link to it? I have already linked to it on our FB group but not all of us are on FB.

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