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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"Dear Artist, Congratulations…"

Thus began the letter from the Santa Cruz Art League. It said that my work was accepted into their upcoming Beasts On Broadway, Animals Galore exhibit, which was juried by George Rivera, Executive Director of the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, CA.

Well, triple yippee to that! This letter is also heaps sweeter in ways beyond its YES! to my art and my efforts to take it into the world for Show and Sell. It says YES! to rats and YES! to pertinacity.

Here’s one piece that will soon be a Beast on Broadway. It’s titled Ratty Got Her Wings. I made it this past summer while studying at Skyline College in San Bruno, CA with the inspiring and wise Tiffany Schmierer. (I put 2,500 worthwhile miles on my car in order to receive her inspiration, guidance and feedback! I can’t wait to share this good news with her.)

Rats are one animal that get a bad rap over their historically, and admittedly not undeserved, bad rep. Yet to categorically reject all rats is, well, Rattism. You can find lots of positive action websites dedicated to easing that prejudice. Look, there goes one now.

My piece is more personal than political, though. Rats, even pet ones, just don’t live very long. Two-three years. This life-size rat sculpture is for all the gentle females that came to be cared for and then leave my sons: Zelda, Kiwi, Latte, GL (short for Greased Lightning,) the One-Who-We-Can’t-Quite-Remember-Her-Name-Right-Now, and dear Moose. They are buried in a group in our redwood grove with a sign, RaT pAcK, posted on a nearby trunk.

Ratty Got Her Wings is my way of saying a heartfelt thank you to those animals. I’m certain that the intimate knowledge of their bodies and movements allowed me to fold that love into the sculptural form I had in mind. Here are two more detail shots of the piece: Oh my, that dreaded snaky tail and a perky face because a rat knows you,just like a dog does.

So, what about that acceptance letter’s ratification of pertinacity (a $2 word for doggedness)?

Like Weight Watchers, I have joined the Santa Cruz Art League at least four times since I moved here in 1989. I’d join for a year, desultorily put something in the everyone’s-included Annual Members’ Exhibit, never quite figure out what else I could do to become involved there, feel awful artistic angst and let the membership lapse. In a common case of sour grapes, I mentally thought of it as The Fart League, which surely is neither clever NOR original. Last year, however, I joined with some goals in mind and I knew that if I did not see them realized, I would understand why, not feel bad and move on to other venues for my work.

I think that a more professional grade of doggedness led me to both better art and better ways to present it and it is what ultimately got me into the animal show at SCAL. To my way of thinking, it is decidedly all connected

In one way or another, though, I have been perfecting my art my whole adult life. But I have been effectively perfecting how I package and present that art less than a year. (Read my last post about my business card saga, just to hear one story about this.) One of my undeniable artbiz mentors is Alyson Stanfield. And now, as I wind up an online blogging class with her and Cynthia Morris, I can say a personal but public thank you to them. And to the other students I have struggled alongside, who I have come to know through their questions, humor and writing: Dear Artists, Congratulations!

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The Focus Pull

In the world of filmmaking, when the camera changes focus during a single shot, (say from Mrs. Robinson’s half-stockinged leg to Benjamin in the background, conflicted and staring) it directs the viewer’s attention in a powerful narrative manner. I want to borrow this focus pull concept and play with it a little in the realm of this blog. Let me steer our collective attention beyond the deliciousness of thinking, making, showing and blathering about ceramics and creative process for just a bit.

You see, I went and signed up for another of Alyson Stanfield’s oh-so-valuable online classes: Blog Triage, and it started today. This class is different for at least two reasons right from the start: One is Cynthia Morris, the co-instructor, who adds another mindful mother lode of experience to the work at hand, and Two is the fact that the class assignments will, like as not, play out here with all of you, dear readers, and not just in my private office or studio.

Case in point: the first assignment asks for me to essentially pull focus and blog about what I expect to get from blogging and just who I would like to be reading my posts. This request creates a heady funhouse mirror effect on me, but I know the point of looking at things from other perspectives is to be more than self-referencing, that the meta-awareness generated is gold for the narrative comprehension.

I have read and followed some blogs for years…I just did not know they were blogs! I guess I thought they were highly entertaining, active and personal websites, which, after a fashion, they were. As a blog consumer, I enjoy warmth, humor, community and an artful turn of phrase, even profundity, in the writing. I usually want to think or learn something too. I want to connect and feel moved, to sense the passion and pulse of that living human on the other end. Even if I never comment! Please don’t ask me to separate the trivia from the minutiae: if I read about your capricious kid, your trip Down Mexico Way or your braided body hair, I want to be invited along with you and not merely asked to stand and admire! P.S. You are allowed, nay, encouraged in, your detailed techie-nerdy passions, though. Su embebecimiento es mi embebecimiento.

Now that I have a blog of my own, I’m expecting myself to generate at least the level of excellence I find engaging as a blog-sumer. I need to keep me entertained! It is harder than I thought, too, but not because I bore easily. I figured my understanding and meaning-making would come in the doing, and it has.

Here’s what I like so far about SoulCeramics:
~I am gaining a much clearer and confident artistic voice! I prefer to play with words and ideas, layering many concepts and kinda quirky references into my writing, and, funny thing, I like doing that with my art too. Neat!
~Love, LOVE, LOVE being able to make hyperlinks to some of my obscure observations… fosters greater understanding all round. (Thanks to my phenom-son Roger!)
~I am forging a powerful community of readers and commenters who tell me in many specific ways how they enjoy and benefit from my musings. I am meeting like-minded folks, not all artists, a lot of them bloggers about hiking or beer brewing or Silicon Valley in the Early Days.
~I am proud to invite others to my blog…and I had not thought that was the case until today.

But, who do I want to attract here? Can I even describe this micro-demographic? Starters are starters, so here is a first, impromptu attempt:
~Family, friends, colleagues….everyone I already know.
~Ceramic artists, heck, all artists, really. I love cross-pollination.
~Thinkers and readers.
~Lurkers and Laughers (having been one at times.)
~Pranksters and Cosmic Thieves (put these in to wake you up….if you’re still reading… I know this is a long post….)
~Folks who can give me good support and professional connections, whoever and wherever they are now.

So, some things once seen cannot be unseen, and pulling focus has revealed a plot twist. Blogging about blogging has changed my blogging. Good for us!

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