Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Sweet Spot

I was thinking this morning about "one hit wonders". How certain musicians make it really big with a song. They rise to the top of the charts. You hear the song everywhere. But within a year, two, or maybe a few years they have disappeared completely from the radar. Or their song may still play from time to time on the radio, but they are more likely to become the subject of a trivia question. The same phenomenon can be seen with writers. A best seller, and then nothing that ever makes it as big again. Actors, directors, and many other creative fields can have the same pattern happen.

On the other hand their are the Beatles, composer John Williams, director Stephen Spielberg, actors Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, Robert Redford, John Malkovich. I am sure you can add plenty of names to the list of people who sustained their ability to perform and create at a high level, over and over again. You hear the name, and you know the talent that it represents. Robert Redford went on from acting to create Sundance, and John Malkovich also designs a line of clothing. The process of creating is like breathing for some people. How that gets expressed may not be singular.

Why am I bringing this up? I think the same pattern can happen with artists and craftspeople. We can be one-hit wonders as well if we don't avoid the pitfalls along the way.

If you look at a polymer clay artist like Kathleen Dustin, you will see a broad range of work over her career. Early on, she did beautiful millefiore canework and dioramas. She then developed the depth of surface technique that propelled her work to a new place. Her purses and jewelry were recognizable by the forms, the images and the technique. She is continuing to experiment and explore the medium, incorporating wood, badger hair, metal and other materials into her designs. Exploring the terrain, all the while, having a recognizable style and palette. Ford + Forlano are another example of polymer clay artists whose work evolved from the colorful, patterned style of City Zen Cane, to their newer which is more muted and organic, yet recognizable as the work of this duo.

I can think of several other artists who continue to change their designs, their palette, and explore new ideas. When I saw Judy Belcher at the ACRE show she had a new line of work incorporating metal and swivel elements. It had signature elements of Judy's work, yet it was going into new terrain for her. She is excited about this new work, and her enthusiasm is contagious.

Then there are artists whose focus is so intense that their design fails to evolve beyond the original concept. The artist and the work start to look tired. Perhaps there is a fear in moving away from the idea that brought them recognition and success. New work, when it comes, may not get the same enthusiastic response that the first work did. Especially if it is slow in coming. Too little, too late, to revitalize the crowd. They have already moved on to other things. It will involve a heroic effort to get their attention again.

This does not diminish the talent or skill that it took to develop the initial concept or execute it. The difference is, when the artist becomes entangled in that concept and can't move forward. It takes skill, vision and talent to reach success with any idea....as well as some luck. But no single idea has a life that is endless. Look at how many times Picasso reinvented himself and his work.

The Sweet Spot is that place between having a voice, and keeping it fresh. The Sweet Spot is not a static place. Once you get there, it moves. You need to continually reinvent yourself and your work. This does not mean a complete overhaul. But don't let your "signature" work become a ball and chain that you need to drag around. Because that is what it will be if you do not continue to feed the muse. And if you want to sell your work, you need to recognize the market will continually ask, "What have you done lately?" The "new" has an added value in the marketplace.

There is no map to the Sweet Spot. It is a journey for which we each need to cut our own trail. There is not a well worn path. What worked for one, will not necessarily work for another. But by trying to stay focused on that balance, you will feed your muse, and your business.

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