"For Love and Money" by Maureen Carlson

walking_txt.jpgDo you ever wonder if you're doing the right thing when it comes to how you spend your creative time? I do. Still. Always. Except when I'm immersed in the actual act of making art. Then, what I'm doing at that exact moment seems to me to be the perfect, right and only thing to be doing.


I have to admit, though, that it doesn't take much for my attention to stray, especially if my practical self steps in and takes over and I start thinking about money. This happened to me last week. I was poking what seemed to be the 40th polymer clay leaf into a headpiece when a conversation with Wisconsin artist Laura Timmins flashed through my mind. Earlier this year I had asked her advice on pricing my work.  I loved her fabulous mixed media jewelry creations, and I was impressed by the manner in which she marketed them - and herself.  I was curious as to what she would say.  One of the things that she recommended was that I triple my cost per hour of design work, and thus triple the price of my pieces.

Remembering what she had said, and realizing that it would be hard to charge for the hours that I was putting into this particular piece, I started muttering to myself, all the time continuing to poke the leaves in place.  "You're a dummy, Maureen.  You should switch to something more marketable.  Work smarter, not harder.  With the number of millefiori slices that you're using, you'd have 20 pair of leaf earrings half finished by now instead of just a half-done sculpture.  They'd be more affordable, too.  And the audience would be larger.  What ARE you doing making sculpture instead of jewelry???" 

I kept working on the piece, titled Walking Along Together, because I loved making it, and because that's what I do.  I create figurative sculpture.  That doesn't mean that I don't from time to time make jewelry.  But the truth is, I'm not very good at finishing it.  The resulting pieces don't have the exquisite elegance of Sandra McCaw's feather-light earrings, the intriguing combination of colors that set Klew's designs apart or the creative genius that shines from the work of Leslie Blackford.

I sighed, and then I smiled.  And I stopped listening to the negative self-talk.  As facilitator of Maureen Carlson's Center for Creative Arts, I have attended lots of clay retreats and classes.  I have witnessed what happens to people when they listen to their own hearts and create from the space that connects their heart and mind and soul.  For some people the focus is jewelry, for others it's books or surface design, and for some it's characters.  Whatever it is, when a project resonates with a person, you can see the glow in their eyes and hear the excitement in their voice.   They report that time seems, well, timeless.  The resulting pieces carry an energy that is authentic, and the pieces speak to the viewer as well.  I know this to be true.

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I also know that once our art becomes a business, it's easy to get lured away from the primal fascination with creating art.  If we have loyal customers who expect a certain look from us, or a comfort zone of techniques which allow us to quickly turn out marketable pieces, we can become trapped.  Once that feeling of responsibility settles over us, we lose time for the passion that brought us into making art in the first place.  We know that we need to let go in order to stay in touch with the wild abandonment of our creative muses.  But, we also know that letting go and working for success don't make good business partners. 

This is when it's important to have mentors, creativity coaches or a community of fellow artists who can walk with us as we maneuver along the path of opposites that makes up a balanced life - and business.  It helps me to figure all of this out if I take the time to notice how others do their work, and to be able to call up those stories and images when I am in one of my in-between funks.  Here are a few examples that I have stuck away in my internal memory card for future use.

In a recent Christi Friesen Fantastic Animals class, I watched one of the students, Julie Johnson, attempt her first sculpture.  Julie, an established jewelry artist, was feeling the stress of being out of her element, of not knowing what would happen next.  But she was determined to stick it out and see what happened.  The end result was wonderful.  I don't know when, or if, Julie will make another sculpture, but her artistic tool chest has now broadened to include polymer clay sculpture as within her realm of possibilities.  She took a whole weekend away from her schedule of creating jewelry for her upcoming show, but, by the look on her face, her well of creative energy was replenished and renewed.

Wisconsin dollmaker Diane Keeler, was, in the 80's, one of my first polymer clay students.  Now she is a popular sculpting teacher.  I remember her first eager efforts.  She quickly mastered the sculpting of characters and the construction of millefiori canes to create funky jewelry.  She successfully sold her pieces for a number of years, but she was drawn to dollmaking.  Her first results were whimsical - and funny - but still very sellable.  However, she wasn't happy to stay there.  Her creative muse was encouraging her to step out of her comfort zone and learn new skills, which she did.  Was she guaranteed a market for this new work?  No.  Were her original customers happy that she changed her focus and stopped attending the local art fairs?  Probably not. A visit to her website today reveals dolls so breathtakingly real that you almost expect them to move.  Because she trusted her vision, she has now become one of the most acclaimed polymer clay dollmakers in the world.   

keelerdoll_txt.jpgI believe that as artists we are challenged to step out of our comfort zones and explore new ways to express ourselves.  To take some chances.  To see what resonates with us.   Perhaps one day we'll stop and claim a new signature style for our work, and perhaps we won't.  But if we listen faithfully to our internal creative muse, we'll know if - or when - its time to make a change. The key is to stay passionately involved in the creation of our art so that we are able to make authentic choices as we grow and change. 

And me?  I'll continue to make figurative sculpture because that's what I love, though I'm exploring some new styles.  I'm working hard to be responsible for the health of this business of art which I have chosen as my life work.  I know that the dollar income from my work is one way to measure how successful I am at doing that.  And the jewelry?  I'm looking at some changes there, as well.  I think I can be passionate about creating a certain style of wearables, so I'm working on a line of figurative art wearables for 2008. 

I'll bring my walking stick to the Synergy Conference in February 2008.  If you see me walking along, I invite you to walk with me for a bit and share your journey.  I'm curious as to how you balance all the demands on your creative time.  We each have a story to tell, and we can help each other by telling them.