Monday, July 28, 2008

Creative Retreat

Each year, for the last few years, I have tried to attend a creative retreat. A chance to get away from the normal routine and immerse myself in a creative environment. I recently returned from the Connecticut Polymer Clay Guild Clay ConneCTions 2008 retreat. It was held over the past weekend, and I had a wonderful time, learning, meeting, re-connecting, and claying. The Connecticut Guild is strong, and does a wonderful job putting together this biennial retreat. The very first retreat I attended was put on by the Connecticut Guild in 2004.

One of the best parts of a retreat is the opportunity to meet, and begin to know, people who you might otherwise not get the opportunity to spend time with. Whether it is the person who is sitting across the table from you, or someone leading a demonstration of a technique, or your neighbor at the breakfast table. There are many opportunities to connect, and get to know more people in the broader community. This retreat was no exception for me. Some acquaintances were renewed or deepened, and others began. Either way, it was one of the most valuable gifts that I take away from any retreat experience.

I had a chance to learn a few new tricks and techniques. One of which I have already played around with, and may incorporate into some new crane patterns for next year. I now am a "licensed operator" of the Polymer Clay Express extruder, and will play around in the coming months with some of the new extrusion dies I purchased at the retreat. I love the openness of Polymer Clay Express to consider adding new dies based on requests from users. This makes for a richer tool base for everyone. I am awaiting the delivery of one of their new clay rollers....NOT a pasta machine!....but one built for the strains of conditioning a stiffer material. Wider, stronger, and better designed. I was told it is expected to be delivered in December. I also purchased a motor for my pasta machine. I have begun to experience tendinitis in my elbow....perhaps from all those cranes I have been making!

Over the last few years, I have begun to witness the downside of retreats. It is not something that is in the control of the organizers, and it is behavior that is not limited to creative retreats. Get enough people together, and you are bound to have a bit of toxic energy infecting the event. Fortunately, it is generally so far under the radar that most people do not see it, nor are they affected directly by it. But, it can have long term consequences that can affect all of us.

The source of most of it, is the source of most toxic stuff that floats around in our lives. Envy, deception, misunderstandings, etc. Most of it can be cut short, and often is. But sometimes, it becomes strong enough to do damage. To hurt the vulnerable. To discourage them from attending these sorts of events in the future.

There are definite "classes" within the creative world, just as any other community. We may talk about how wonderful it is that we all get along, and share, and respect.....but, when people are at different places on various spectrum; from experience, to ambition, to knowledge, "classes" form. I remember when I was at the Synergy conference in Baltimore in February. This was one of the best conferences I had ever attended. The concentration of talent and experience in one place was amazing. But it also could easily bring out the most deep-seated sense of inadequacy in nearly anyone.

I remember walking into the large main room at one point, and noticing a table full of "names"...people of significant profile and accomplishment. My first reaction, was one that I am not proud to admit. Why are they all sitting together, isolating themselves? I reacted from a place of inadequacy. That I was not feeling "good enough" to sit at that table. Then, thank goodness, I stopped right there and realized something deeper was going on. I was looking at this table by looking at the surface accomplishments of this group. In reality, this group of people had known each other for years. They had watched each others struggles and growth, and were there for each other through personal challenges, and triumphs. This is why they were together. They were friends relishing in the opportunity to see one another, and catch up with each other.

How often do we look at someone who has accomplished something in their artistic career by their resume? How often do we attempt to get to know that person as a person? Are we hoping to get something from being in proximity to them? And if they disappoint us how do we react? Do we translate those disappointments into an assessment of them as a person? And if we do, is it valid?

I have seen people hurt by the thoughtless spreading of nothing more than gossip. What happens when you are on the receiving end of some of this "hot stuff". Gossip that has it's primary value in the name attached to it? When we pick up the ball and spread the dirt, we are complicit in the damage done. We can say we were only passing on what was told to us. We did not start it. But it is feeding the beast.

What if instead, we turned to the source and said "No, thanks." Deflate the balloon a bit. As soon as we hear it, we feel the need to do something with it. Just don't pick it up. Put it down, and walk away.

And if it is about someone you like and respect, explicitly turn it down. What happens when we just pass the dirt along to the target of the gossip, "so that they know"? Hurt. Hurt with no outlet. No way for the issue to be resolved. The best thing is to just walk away. If someone feels more important by knocking down another artist, then you have elevated them by receiving the gossip. Don't do it.

As my profile in the polymer clay world has risen, the gossip value of my name has most likely increased. I try to stay away from the places where the gossip is most prolific. I have built a virtual cocoon of protection around myself. Not that I want to live in the illusion of my perfection, but rather, I don't need to hear idle speculation or gossip about who I am, and why I am doing things. I am deeply familiar with my own inadequacies. When the gossip does filter my way, I am often surprised as much by the content as by the source. Having that chatter in my head does nothing to nurture my creative self. If anything it chips away at it.

As an artist, we have duty to protect ourselves. How can we be creative if we don't? Your real friends will help you see the full you, but in the context of a relationship built on knowledge and understanding. They will help you be a better you. Gossip never does that. So the next time it comes your way, say, "No thanks, I'm on a gossip-free diet. It doesn't agree with me." You'll feel like you just lost ten pounds!

Don't let the possible negatives keep you away from a wonderful nourishing and enriching experience. Don't expect a lot of work to be done. But do plan on laughing, playing, and making a few new friends.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Are You Running a Non-Profit?

Back to the issue of pricing.

I recently wrote about how I had to make a dramatic increase in the price of my cranes, and I want to explore a little further one of the traps that caught me, and I think sometimes catches other people in a pricing bind.

Have you ever said something along the lines of, "I want people to be able to afford it."

I have.

When I have talked about the crane pricing with people, who were often encouraging me to raise the price, I would say something along the lines of, "It's just an ornament. How much will people really pay for it? I can't really charge more for it."

Maybe. Maybe not. I had raised the prices incrementally a few times, but never as much as I really should have been.

The question that is being ignored in this type of market focused pricing is, "Can you afford to sell it at that price?" Are you essentially subsidizing your product? And is that really your intent?

When I finally started to look at the grim reality of the time I was putting into the cranes, and how much I was charging, I began to realize I was underwriting people's desires to own a crane, without taking fully into account my time and expenses. I am usually pretty generous, but even I saw the extremes of the situation I had created. I responded to the market demand for more intricate patterns on the surface of the crane, without adequately compensating myself. There was important information that I refused to see. Looking to the market is important, but not all the important information is found there.

Prices are often based on "How much would someone pay for this?" It can be easier than figuring out actual costs. And, it is easier than trying to determine how much our time is worth.

But, is it sometimes translated into, "How much am I comfortable asking someone to pay for this?" "Will people think less of me if I charge too much?"

Some people might. But some might also think less of you for charging too little. Guess what, it doesn't matter. What matters is what you need to earn to make a reasonable wage for your efforts. You are the one with the best information about what that might be. Not the people with all the opinions. They might also think that your hair is too long or too short. Or that you should wear blue more often. People have opinions. It does not mean we have to tie ourselves up in knots trying to satisfy everyone's perceived opinions and needs. We need to take care of ourselves, and respect our time and effort. Setting a fair price...for you, as well as for the market, is where to begin.

What if the product is just too expensive if you make a fair wage?

There are many options at this point. You can stop selling, and decide you want to just make things for the joy of it. You can consider how to make the product for less. What steps or elements can you eliminate? Think about what are the essential elements of your work. Can you focus more on this, and eliminate the extraneous? Can you purchase your materials for less? Exercise your creativity in a new way. Brainstorm about how to make your product affordable and profitable.

Since I have raised the price of the cranes, I have not received any new orders. But it is summer, and it is typically slower. New jewelry orders are more than taking up the slack. In the end, I am fine with whatever happens. I could not afford to continue to wear myself out. I showed one of my accounts the new solid colored cranes this afternoon, and she liked them better than she thought she was going to. She said she will order some of them in the fall.

The joy of doing work you love is quickly erased when you work your fingers raw, and find your bank account is not reflecting your energy expenditure. Making art is doing something wonderful for the world. But, you still need to make a living. Don't lose sight of that essential truth.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Can You Afford NOT to Advertise?

Do you do advertising?

Where, and how often?

Advertising can be a leap of faith. It is often hard to measure the effectiveness of an ad, at least in the short-term. And ads will often need to have repeated exposure to maximize their effect.

I am relying more and more on advertising now that I have focused on wholesale, and have virtually eliminated the retail side of my business. With a disciplined approach, and some effective images, ads can definitely work.

I do most of my advertising through They offer a few options. One is their Buyer's Guide, which is like a catalog of craft artists. It has ads ranging in size from full page to 1/12 of a page. I have run 1/12 , 1/6, 1/3, and soon will be running a full page ad in the Guide. And I have found, size matters, as does repetition. The most recent guide went out a few weeks ago, and I came back from New York with three messages on my machine, and continued to get calls through the week. Not all are placing orders, and the orders placed have been conservative. No surprise there.

But part of what has helped me is that I am sticking with the advertising, in spite of being fully aware of how bad the economy is right now. The last Buyer's Guide was the thinnest I can recall seeing. Especially for that time of year. I had a third of a page ad, and it got noticed. People are asking for information, visiting my page on, and placing orders. Three good measures of an ad's effectiveness. With less ads, it is easier to be seen. With pictures that I know work well, it is easier to get a good outcome.

I debated whether I should run another ad in the next issue which will go out in September. I finally decided that I should. People will place orders for the holidays, although they are likely to be smaller and later. And from the sounds of it, fewer artists will be running ads. I was offered the chance to bump up to a full page ad at a terrific price. It was a no-brainer. Yes.

The biggest obstacle to the decision is truly psychological. Am I the type of artist who would run a full page ad? In other words, had I crossed some imaginary line in my head that gave me permission to be so bold? No, but I decided I needed to do it anyway. Act as if. The best part is that I had fewer creative limitations. I could design the ad myself. I love doing that sort of thing, and spent too much time this weekend designing and refining my ad.

In addition to the Buyer's Guide I often run a co-op ad in Niche magazine. Niche goes to galleries across the country who purchase handcrafted work. My target market. I get a better price by doing a co-op ad with And I get exposure to the market that would be most interested in buying my work. It has led to some terrific accounts.

How can I afford it? I guess I have come to see I can't afford not to. If I hold back from advertising, I will disappear into the ether. Visibility matters if you want to sell your work. It is about seeing your work as a product, rather than an extension of yourself, and then doing what it takes to make sure that your market sees your work, and knows about it. I have said this before, and I likely will say it again. Marketing your work is a bit like dating. Sitting at home waiting for Prince Charming to come knocking on the door is about as effective as making your work and waiting to be discovered. Might happen. But, probably not. It takes effort. It takes putting yourself out there for others to see. Simply listing your work on, Etsy, or Trunkt is not enough.

Sellers on Etsy rely on the Showcase, and Treasuries to be seen. Flickr users will often join many groups where they can post their pictures to increase their exposure. I have come to look at the expense of advertising as the equivalent to the booth fee at a retail show, with less wear and tear on my body and my work. It takes time to build an audience for your work, but given enough patience and time, and yes, money, it is possible.

What do you do to have your work seen?