Commissions Are Like Picking Scabs


Of course I know better. It will just re-open the wound and make it worse. Maybe leave a scar.

And there I am doing it again: saying yes to a commission proposal, when I swore them off.

I’ve had some gratifying commissions in the past. The requesters are enthusiastic fans, wanting something special from my hands. Perhaps it’s a personalized beer can for a daughter-in-law, or matching tobacco cans for a family to commemorate a father, or an oil can with pour spout inscribed to honor a motorhead buddy. I treasure that they are nearly always special gifts for a loved one.

The collectors describe their idea, maybe they even come for a studio visit. We email, we exchange images. I make a sketch. We email again. Eventually we settle on IT. I name my price. A deposit is made and then….

I’m in trouble. (Actually, I was in trouble at the outset.) And it’s all my own doing. With a number of commission successes behind me, what could be the matter? I wasn’t sure until I started asking around.

Exactly NONE of the artists I’ve queried are enthusiastic about commissions. If they say yes it’s often against their better inclinations and usually for one of two reasons:

1. They believe they need the love, money, fame or doors opened.  Or,  2. They don’t know how to say no.

Or both.

I do both. The money, fame, or open doors don’t usually motivate me, but offer love (appreciation) and  I’m  Just a Girl That Cain’t Say No.

Am I that much of a needy pushover? Naw, I think I’m just unskilled and unpracticed. After a decade of saying yes to everything, I’m now learning that not every opportunity is MY opportunity. (Thank you coach Cynthia Morris for this concept.) My spheres of creativity, my pursuits, my priorities have shifted, taking my studio rhythms with them.

Sometimes the right words come along in the moment as in, “Let me think about it.” But more often it’s a version of “I’d love to, thanks for thinking of me” and right where I should insert the lovely ironclad refusal….. I say OK and am all in. Oops, I did it again.

I need a Ten-Second Elevator Regrets Speech to parrot. I have Justine Musk’s crazy sarcastic list, It would cause the slow withering death of my soul ” + 75 other ways to say No, which is definitely good for Creative Badass laughs,  but it still won’t get me the phrase I need:  the pleasant, clear-eyed refusal that leaves the asker not feeling sorry they asked in the first place and me with my studio schedule intact. Still Friends.

Just what IS the rub about commission work? Most times the problem is not the patron, or even the commission concept — although I have experienced disasters with both — it’s that the art-making is for someone else from the get-go. And immediately the choo-choo train of creative process needs a giant cowcatcher strapped on the front to fend off the extra assortment of expectations, assumptions, explanations, interpretations and arbitrary agendas. The presence of the patron never really leaves.

I thought the pains I felt over commission work, the procrastination, the pique, the self-doubt, were just me being temperamental. But other artists tell me of similar thoughts and feelings.  So it’s with glad relief that I’m reading Jonathan Fields’ book Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance which defines The Rub. He says free-range creativity takes a huge hit when it is subjected to expected evaluation. He speaks of the the differences between intrinsic (soul) work and extrinsic (paid) work as motivators, with the intrinsic work being more venturesome in all respects. To back this up, he cites a study by Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School  in which 23 artists created 20 works each: 10 as commissions and 10 as they wished. The artists did not know this, but afterwards all the works were put in front of a panel of artistic experts — museum curators, art historians, gallerists and the like — to evaluate for creativity and technical excellence. While they found no separation between any of the works in technical excellence, the commissioned works were rated as significantly less creative than the non-commissioned works.” Significantly!

It’s starting to seem obvious. “When you know better, you do better.” (Maya Angelou) For the good of all — me, them and my best artwork —  I need to put a bandage over my automatic-yes-to-commissions habit and let it all heal.

~Liz Crain, who enjoys the fact that even the venerable late Victor Spinski once got so irritated at a collector’s request for amendments to his work, he took the piece – a trompe l’oeil garbage can – put it out with his regular garbage and photographed the garbage collector’s surprise at breaking it. She’d like to have overheard his explanation to the collector as he returned the money.










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4 thoughts on “Commissions Are Like Picking Scabs

  1. Hey Liz,

    I’m not sure that the question of motivations has been pursued very deeply in its own right. I’m still looking for anything that addresses the topic in general terms rather than taking one angle and running with it. For instance, there is the whole “whiteness” debate that is raging through discussions of privileging cultural practices (and not just in the arts). There the assumption seems to be that the only reason things get done is through stylistic or group identity related motivations. These do seem important factors in many cases, but identity itself can also be drawn in personal terms, or in the wider terms of our shared humanity. It only seems that our conversations too often get fixated on the limited perspective (patrons understanding only their own desires, etc) and not on more general issues of the sheer diversity of things that move us and ways we act….. I hope we can broaden our horizons, and I think artists are the perfect example of how no one source of motivation truly captures all that we do.

    So I’m actually starting a project that will ask individual artists to examine these ideas in relation to their own work and working practices, and ask them to submit essays on what they think. I’ve given the project a home at and I’d like you to write an essay if you are interested. Its a project that is just getting off the ground, so I am delaying widely soliciting essays until more of the groundwork is done. So far I’ve just posted my own essay and some thoughts about the project and some ruminations on the question I’m asking. Have a look and see if you are interested.

    Thanks again, Liz!


    1. Yes, Carter, yes! I’m completely interested in this slippery topic. Can’t wait to see what develops with it. I have a lot of reading to do (your list)! But then again, I have a lot of self-awareness to practice and notes to take. I definitely will write an essay! Thanks for sharing this project.

  2. Liz, your posts are always so thought provoking! Thanks so much for sharing with us!

    Lately I’ve been eaxamining my own motivations for making pots, and have realized its not a simple thing. As you nicely state, adding an external reason to make our art only complicates this further. But what I’ve found is that I’m not always aware of where my own motivations are coming from, and it seems that this is probably something others deal with as well.

    For instance, sometimes I’m interested in making a ‘good’ pot, whatever that means, and at others I’m interested in expressing a particular style or idea, with only half an eye on quality. At other times I’m engaged in exploration, and style has nothing to do with it and the rules for its particular quality have yet to be written. But mostly I do these things without actually being aware of them. Making doesn’t always mean we know why we are making…..

    I think one of the reasons things like commissions can be so unsettling is that we seldom have a grasp of what exactly motivates us or why. And I wonder if this lack of clarity can or should be addressed…..

    I’ve been hanging around the fringes of arts advocacy and arts policy discussions and the sense I get is that few are aware that these concerns are even an issue. Commissioning art work is seen as being as unproblematic as commissioning a loaf of bread or a building a bridge. And I think that arts advocacy and policy both suffer as a result. Art gets viewed as simply one more cultural artifact that is there to be handled in political or economic terms. And as the study you reference points out, the art itself suffers….

    Any thoughts?

    1. Wow, Carter, I enjoy your additional thoughts on this discussion. I share your various complicated motivations for artmaking, and I’m right with you on the point that often I don’t know where I’m going and I LIKE it that way.

      Our art is surely is not a loaf of bread and so completely not a straightforward endeavor. Ceramics, especially. That’s what I can’t quite explain (and really don’t want to) to folks wanting commissions. It takes all the fun and mystery out of the process. And heaven help me if the collector tries to drive the whole creation. I gave one too-directive gentleman his money back, but only after suffering over it for several months.

      Never again! I’m finishing up my last (lovely) commission this spring, but that’s the end of it.

      Do you have any other thoughts or links on this one? I would enjoy reading more.

      I wonder if we all think we’re the only artist who isn’t overjoyed about commissions, or even wholesale orders, which I have only done a few of.

      Thanks for commenting…and I look forward to more from you.

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