“A Dime A Dozen”

Yesterday while making brunch for my Mother at her home, my sis and I were talking over our feast of food about what makes the difference between success and failure in business. My sister used local massage therapists in the area as an example.  She explained that massage therapists in the area are a “dime a dozen” and that some do well while others do not.  The difference, she observed, was how those therapists marketed themselves.  After all, she observed, there were many very gifted therapists who didn’t do as well as others with less experience or skill.  I had to nod in agreement because I was explaining this same principle to my students as we gathered for a reception to celebrate the opening of an exhibit of sculptural glass on the campus of Radford University where I teach sculpture.  The world is full of artists who lack great skill and creativity, but its the ones who persist in getting their work out in front of the public that seem to do the best.

I can hear the upset amongst some folks reading this…what about quality?  What about a masseuse that is the absolute best in her field who is fair and golden in her approach to working with her clients?  Well yes, this is certainly important, vital even, but without the support in the marketing arena, it is like a planted seed that gathers no water or sustenance for its growth. Sometimes the people who are more aggressive in their approach often tend to succeed the most.  There is a saying, perhaps another Anon person who said that persistence is key to success, not brains or talent, for certainly there are many people who are gifted in the grey matter department who do nothing with their gift.  There is certainly a great deal of uninspired art out there in the world that sells well, but it is selling because someone took the incentive to consider that they might do better if they got their work into a more high profile venue or to exercise one channel over another.

Consider the brand Chef Boyardee.  Long before the brand was known with the ubiquity that it has today in our shopping markets, the company landed a deal with the military to provide food for the troops back during WWII. it was a little company back then, but the owner found a way to make a form of Italian food affordably that would keep well for shipment overseas. Landing this contract was huge for the company, and it allowed it to have the resources to put their product on shelves all across the country and to vault it into a top product line in supermarkets. Troops that ate the spaghetti and meatballs would think fondly on their days in the trenches and would buy a can of the food for their kids once they got state side.  Ask anyone who prepares pasta and you will know that the worst thing you can probably do when preparing it is to CAN it.  And yet, despite its incredibly unremarkable flavor, Chef Boyardee has become a huge name over the years.  All of this has been brought to you by marketing. Some of you might want to add “…and a little good luck” and while there might be some truth to it, the owner of Chef Boyardee had to take his idea and shop it to the government in order to get the contract.  A huge effort had to be joined in order to make this happen.  This could only happen if Chef Boyardee came through on its contract and brought home the bacon.  So to speak.  Now I know that canned spaghetti might seem a world away from art, but the curious thing is that selling is selling.  Some things sell better by presenting them in different ways, but at the end of the day, a dollar is paid per dollar of value created.  I know it sounds terribly perfunctory, but its true.  Like gravity, you should just realize it is a force and work with it in the most productive way that you can.  You might think that working with gravity means you have just sold out to it, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Selling is selling and selling out means a compromising of your principles, your vision. In the eyes of some perhaps Chef Boyardee is something great unless you have been to Sicily and had their pasta in fish sauce…it may be more relative than you realize at first.  But there is no shame in selling.  All the successful artists are doing it, so there must be something to it that is important in the whole success thing, right?

So yes, it is important to return calls, to be attentive, and to have the best product that you can muster.  Yes. But just as important, maybe even MORE importantly is how you integrate marketing into your efforts.  This folds itself neatly and subtly into everything you do.  When you mention your upcoming show to a friend, that is marketing.  How you choose to design a postcard for a show or event also is marketing.  How you relate to people in a public way in connection to your work is also tied to marketing.  It is more than JUST getting the work out front and center but how you design that effort, who you get it out in front of.  Its a large inclusive package that isn’t just about creating an ad campaign.  The work itself is part of it, as well as everything connected to it.

The thing about marketing also is that it is incredibly creative.  You can very easily set yourself apart by designing work and advertisements that simply LOOk different or express a new sense of style or taste. This isn’t always a lock that people will respond, but you will certainly create a look that stands out from others. Persistence is key, though, and being able to build brand recognition is big. By doing this in the same way companies use a logo to clue their customers into who they are, you can, in a brief second, create the recognition of who you are in the newspaper, on the internet, or even on a billboard as people fly past going twenty miles over the speed limit.  It takes a fraction of a second for someone to recognize the Nike “swoosh” on a billboard and know that the ad is about Nike shoes instead of New Balance.

As artists, we wear so many hats.  Being an artist is the same as being a small business owner.  You wind up doing everything at least for a while (until you hire someone to do the books or packaging or…), and you have to do each task or wear each hat with the same effectiveness and style as all the others.  After we create a work, though, we wind up turning our attention to other things.  We feel like we have put our all into it and want to move on to other things.  And yet, most often what is necessary is that we stick with the project in order to do a good job promoting it and giving it the best chance for success. But as is sometimes the case, this part of the process feels like the most uncreative part of the whole effort and it often gets assigned to a gallery to take care of or is done in a more perfunctory way.  Sometimes artists actually FEEL funny about showing their work as they have some unresolved issues sometimes related to success and being shy about putting their work “out there.”  Some of us have a hard time assigning a price to our work.  The joy of making such a wonderful thing is like suddenly having to put a price on a child and selling them off to strangers who will adopt them.

I “grew up” in a very critical environment creatively as an undergraduate art student.  Our critiques were hand-wringing affairs full of anxiety and an on your toes approach where we had to perform.  Looking back at it, it was a b lade with two sides.  ON the one side, it was incredibly useful to learn how to talk about your work as well as to identify what needed to be improved just as much as knowing what was good about it. The other side of this sword was that when I started my business, I was incredibly hard on myself.  My work was developing, growing, yes, but it was not where I wanted it to be.  I had a relentless drive to bring it to the level I felt it needed to be.  I wanted it to be better, always better!  The downside to this was that I had a hard time taking compliments about my work.  I don’t know about you, but I have since learned how it feels when someone says what I said about my work when being complimented and it sure doesn’t strike me as very positive. I remember hearing someone paying me a compliment about the work and I’d engage them and explain what I was going to do different and BETTER on the next piece. It was entirely possible that I put a LOT of people off with this false sense of humility.  Imagine someone saying how handsome your son is and you turn and say “But I have another child who is going to turn out even better!”  Oh dear.  Now you get the point, right?  Well, I was late to the party, but I did manage to get it through my thick head that there was more than just my relentless drive for perfection.  There was also how the public responded to the work and I needed to honor that portion of the process just as much as I might have had a singular focus on becoming better and better.

Be willing to be complimented and capitalize on that because it is energy and energy can transform into success.  For each person who takes the time to say something to you that is complimentary, they are just as likely to crow about what they saw at a gallery, craft show, or open studio to their friends.  Word of mouth is the single most powerful tool in building businesses.  It speaks more loudly than any brightly printed advertisement and it involves close personal relationships. Most often our friends are our friends because we trust and like them.  So then, too, will we listen when they mention something that they saw that they liked. The truth is, as humans we LIKE to make deals with people we are introduced to first.  Somehow, by coming into the circle of friends, we feel more at home sometimes than when we meet someone we have never met. We kind of borrow that friend’s own sense of interest and put our trust in that.  Certainly we don’t do this blindly, no, but it certainly lends credence to the idea that its “who you know” not always WHAT you know.

As artist, we might be dreaming of new worlds, or trying to change the world.  In the midst of that, we still have to deal with the REAL world and the best way of doing that is being realistic about human nature and how alliances are forged and how vast networks happen.  This cab lead you to shaking lots of hands, asking questions, and listening a lot as an artist.  Listening to what people say they like, or don’t like.  All of this is rich compost for helping those seeds you are planting to grow.

You can be a dime a dozen, but how you go about running your business will make a huge difference.  A big part of this is how you go about getting yourself “out there.”  It can be a marvelously rewarding process where the energy of one person’s excitement feeds off another. It seems to be catching, and we need only foster it, encourage it and be graceful and thankful for when it comes.

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Unexpected Gifts

In my last blog entry I explained how the students I teach at Radford University in sculpture worked to make an installation of sculptural glass forms in an intimate courtyard space nestled in the center of the Department of Education.  I had approached Dr Ann Roberts who teaches there to see if it might be possible to do an installation of sculpture in glass in the courtyard garden.  Ann has taken on the care of this space and has filled the garden planter with an array of flowering plants and it is clear that she loves the peaceful space that hers and others’ offices look out onto.  In fact, she had mentioned something in the not too distant past about putting art in the space.  As I looked around campus for a suitable location for something like glass, I remembered the space she had mentioned and how well protected it was.  I knew my students and I couldn’t put this work just anywhere, so on my list of possible locations, I emailed Ann to see what she thought.  The result was being welcomed with open arms and being given a great degree of freedom to do whatever it was we felt we needed to do to pull it off in the space.  It was wonderful.  To my knowledge, nothing quite like this had ever been done, and many in the department remarked how they had talked about wanting to put art in the space but never got around to it.  So perhaps, in that small way, we served as a gift to the students, faculty, and staff who work in the building.

On the big day when most work was completed and we were hauling glass elements into the building from the parking lot, in walks a woman into the courtyard as I supervised the install who had a knowing look on her face who chats with me for a few moments.  This woman is the Chair of the department and I exclaimed to her how glad I was that my students were given such an opportunity as this.  But her look remained throughout our brief talk and it looked just as though the cat had caught the canary.  I felt like maybe I was in trouble, and as I looked at her and wondered, she said “You don’t remember me, do you?”  I eyed her closely and had to admit, “No, I don’t!”  She told me her name and it was then that I remembered those eyes!  This was one of two people who had made a real difference in my elementary education!  Dr Sandra Moore!  So odd, too, that I had tried to hunt them down over the past year without any luck.  I had wanted to tell them what a difference they had made.  And here she was standing in front of me, part of a process that was enabling my students and myself to realize what had just been a dream a few short weeks earlier.  The gift circle was complete.

Nearly.

The department faculty had taken note of how Dr. Moore had liked a water fountain my students had designed that was in the space and they wanted us to make her one as a gift for her service to the department.  Dr. Moore was stepping down as the Chair effective at the end of that semester.  As a result of this, I was asked to come to a luncheon that they were holding in her honor when they caught wind of how important she had been in my earlier life so I could add a few words.

So tomorrow I stop by and put in a few words about someone whose impact on my life was significant, an event tied up in yet another event (the installation) that was itself a gift not just to me but to my students as well.  Funny, too, since I had tried to track those old teachers down recently in a bid to let them know how much they meant.  Sometimes life throws you some unexpected gifts…

Glass Garden

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This semester, facing a dwindling array of options for how I might be able to engage and teach students sculpture, I decided to do something radically different.  Instead of letting institutional issues get in the way of providing a stimulating creative experience, I chose to go beyond limits and open the door of my studio to my students and to the world of hot glass.  The result was nothing short of amazing.

I was lucky to have attended two very different schools during my college career.  One, Berea College, was a small liberal arts college that charged no tuition and instead required students all to work to help offset their term bills and other costs.  In terms of a college community, Berea is in a class by itself.  There are very few schools that can do what Berea does so well.  The other, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, was a larger state school that had a very good arts program at both the undergraduate as well as graduate level.  While at Carbondale I observed first hand how both the glass and foundry program were run. In foundry, my professor had a visiting artist program that brought in luminaries in the art field like Ernest Trova, Linda Benglis, Rubien Nakien,  Daly, Richard Pert, Red Grooms, and many more.  They all came to make sculpture.  The students were there as assistants to the artist, and their access was total.  No faculty member was allowed to be onsite while the artist was at work with the students.  At the end of the day the students who had worked with the artist on that day all got together with the artist at one of the apartments of the students to have a potluck where stories were told and students had an opportunity to spend valuable social time with the visiting artist.  There was one evening set aside where faculty gathered to have their own social time with the artist, but for the most part, the students were given the lions share.  In the glass program, the glass club, Southern Glass Works served an important role in supporting the glass program.  When I was there the sales we held on campus during the holiday season garnered the club over six thousand dollars, which was enough to buy materials, supplies, tools, and enough material to build a 600 lb capacity cast zircon tank furnace.  The mobile unit that Bill Boysen had built back in the early 70’s affectionately named Aunt Gladys had been used to do demos of glassblowing all over the country.  When I was in attendance, we took the mobile unit out to Tucson Arizona to the Glass Art Society conference where she was used to demo the work of students all across the nation who wanted to try their hand at our delightful contraption that folded up like a fruit stand (actually the studio was built on the chassis of an old fruit stand on wheels). I was involved in doing the last rebuild on her furnace before she was replaced with a larger sleeker model just prior to Bill’s retirement.

I was able to see how business and education could not only mesh, but work together in a powerfully synergistic fashion, all for the benefit of the students.  When I hear educators in the arts bemoan the use of student labor in an art program (say for helping them make their work for example) I think how unfortunate that outlook is.  It exists perhaps because some have misused it in the past.  However, my experience has been that this has been one important route to getting to know the people your teacher knows, the galleries, as well as learning how they work in their own studio practice.  These kinds of experiences were invaluable to me and it is my sense that it is one way that students learn. By doing.  And in truth, the student is at a school involved in an exchange; paying money in order to learn.  But what about more expansive opportunities that would bring students right into the studio operations where they can see up close how things are made, how they are sold, and to simply become exposed to the real world of art?  it is kind of funny sometimes how we educate our students in colleges and universities. They spend all this time alone in the studio and then they go out into the world of work and there just aren’t any jobs that pay them to sit and make art.  There are no art factories or studios that will let them do what they did in school.  To do that, you have to begin your own business.  And you have to be savvy enough to do well so you can keep doing art instead of working a nine to five job in some other kind of work.

Needless to say, I have been anxious to find ways to incorporate these same aspects into my teaching.  Make it less abstract and more tangible and real world. This semester my students and I embarked on a rather courageous enterprise; take twenty kids who had never blown glass before and get them working on a project that would involve installing sculptural glass in a given location on the university campus.

The location had to be found first because glass couldn’t be displayed in just any location.  We needed good security and we needed a place that wanted us there.  We found it in the education department which was very interested in what we would come up with.  it turned out that there had been a lot of talk about what they could do with the garden in the way of art or similar kinds of things to help improve the space.  When we came along, it was like a feite accompli.

It turns out that I have an old friend and colleague who managed the space that we were interested in.  Dr. Ann Roberts had taken on the courtyard garden as her own pet project, weeding and planting flowers over the years she has been teaching at Radford University in Radford Virginia.  It was as if the tumblers all fell into place in perfect combination.  My students and I went to look at the space and we were welcomed with open arms.

We photographed the space, measured it, and then went back to consider the possibilities.  Within minutes of being in the space, students were already suggesting ideas. I stood back and let them ponder, imagine and create.  When an idea was too far afield for what was possible with glass or our collective skill set, I nudged the boat closer in to port.  After our initial meeting we had several main concepts that we wanted to try.  One was a series of staves, tall tendril like pieces that would become canvasses for a range of different color effects.  I had no idea they would expand into so many different combinations.  I had some glass color I hadn’t used in years that I felt like I could let go of and once they got a hold of it, magic began to bubble to the surface.  the way we worked was as a group.  I might suggest something, but I had to ask the group who was working at the time what they thought.  They did the same. “What do you think if we used green over the blue this time and added this colored frit on the surface?”  Sometimes decisions were made entirely in the moment with surprising results.  We considered making a fountain and a large bush-like piece that would have over 80 different glass elements attached to it. Could we get all of this done in three to four weeks, which was the time allotted for the project?  Could twenty students with no prior experience come up with something that would achieve our stated goals?  IMG_3466

Video was shot throughout the project and this is currently being edited for publishing on youtube.  Once that is done a link will be provided. Students learned how to heat up color bits, to gather at the furnace, to blow and shape the glass.  Students were eased into the process with a three hour intensive work period with their teacher, yours truly, in order to get them up to speed enough to be of assistance in the making of pieces.  As soon as that was done and several basic moves were mastered, off we went into the world of hot glass.  It was truly a learn as you go experience. Twenty students had to be trained in this way, and while there was some standing around at first, once students had the basics, we could begin building on those basics.

The ideas expanded to clear crystal flowers, several mushrooms, some pieces that looked like sea urchins, and larger flower forms.  In the end we have over a hundred different elements that went into the garden.

Once we were finished and the work was installed I asked the students what they thought.  They responded that they felt that the space needed MORE glass!  We had some students who hadn’t come out as many times as they should have so we were short some pieces, about twenty in all.  Students continued to come out to the studio additional times in order to make up the difference.  How is that for dedication?  Some how, somewhere, what was as simple straightforward class project had become something much more.  And that is as it should be.  When learning like this goes beyond the bounds of the classroom it enters into the realm of the real world, and when the university studio meshes with the professional production studio, very interesting things happen.

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Students got food and set up the reception.  A poster was designed and printed.  The word was put out.  The result was that the venue has garnered a lot of attention and has already spun off a commission as a result of the display.  Once the materials are paid for, the students will each get an equal share in whatever is sold out of the space.

I chose to donate the studio time to this enterprise just to get it going.  In exchange I got a huge influx of creative energy and ideas moving through the studio.  That is a win-win in my book.  Long after the show is down there will be new ideas floating around and bearing fruit.  it is this sort of collaborative effort that seems to offer the most amount of fulfillment for all involved.  yes, it cost money, but it was worth it to me.  It was a swift kick in the creative pants for me and it has helped me in ways I am sure I can only begin to imagine. As for my students, they have started something that was only a dream a month ago….

The images in this blog entry are all works taken from the installation at Radford University entitled Glass Garden.  It is the beginning of something new and interesting.