I was having lunch with an artist I share some shows with not too long ago to facilitate a creepy doll transfer, and while talking shop we happened to turn to the whole make stuff people like, or make stuff you like, conversation.
In a perfect world, your customers are attracted to whatever it is floating your artistic brain boat at the moment, and cheerfully buy it all up. In the actual working life that’s not always the case though, and the question of whether or not to devote time to commercially viable stuff you don’t love to make just to pay the bills is one that every artist making any kind of living with their art asks themselves and each other. I know that answer is personal and situational, and I’ve waffled on it numerous times, as I’m sure I’ll waffle again depending on life stuff. It’s not a hard and fast rule. At least not for me.
Last winter I spent an insane amount of time making mini shrines. I had like 125 of them by the time my season started. It was redonk. I had them laid out by the dozen like cookies on trays in various stages of completion. I did this because I couldn’t keep them in stock the previous season, and they’re my biggest online seller. But by the time I was done, I was DONE. It happens. You get on a groove with a thing, and it’s like you exhaust the energy you have for that particular thing and never want to look at it again. And interestingly, the second I ran out of energy for those, they stopped selling so hotly at shows. They’re still my biggest online seller, but more people are getting into the assemblage than the folk art in person. My aforementioned luncheon companion (A miz Margie Criner by name, you guys should look her up on FB if you dig awesomely weird dioramas. I know I do.) put forth the notion that if your heart’s not in it, it comes across to customers. I think that’s absolutely true in some ways. Consciously or not, when you’re less enamored of a thing, you’re not working as hard for it. But regardless of whether I’m putting out some “done” vibe or not, when you’ve moved away from something, you don’t enjoy doing it, and it becomes tedious and harder to do. In some professions tedium is just par for the course. Nobody thinks working on the line in a factory or being a plumber is super stimulating, but some people work to live, some live to work. If everyone had the same needs, we’d have nothing but artists or rocket scientists or whatever, and nobody to manufacture cars or pick up the garbage or service the gas lines.
I’m a live to work person, and can’t seem to handle feeling a thing is tedious (bullshit threshold of 2, remember). And I’ve definitely come to feeling that way about shrines. I’m always going to be into mythology and belief systems and all manner of nerd-tastic anthropology stuff, but I don’t wanna make ’em anymore. I’m happy to do them for custom orders, but I’ve already stopped replacing sold out stock.
I had a gal on FB ask me at one point if I did stuff people wanted, or stuff I wanted. And the answer was “both”. And it still is. But, and what ratio of commercially successful to personally satisfying you’re going to have is totally subjective, I find I have to constantly check in with myself and ask how I feel about a thing. If I’m getting bored, it’s not getting my best attention and energy. The quality of the work doesn’t suffer, because I started creating as a crafter and crafters learn to be persnickety as hell (Just ask my bestie, who has had to deal with my dissection of his creations before I deem them ready for posting. It’s taken him from tradesman to crafter*, but is probably annoying AF.). Eternal gratitude to my crusty old leather monger teachers for that quality having been drilled into my brain. However. When your heart isn’t in it, especially when it’s something artistic, there’s good reason to ask yourself if it’s worth continuing to do.
For some people that answer is going to be “yes”. Blue dog guy seems to be making a decent living, though he’s got to be sick of painting that dog by now. Though I could be wrong. Blue dog guy might just be totally obsessed with blue dogs and that’s all he wants to paint. Either way, not judging. I guess in some ways my not making of a decent living leaves me freer to make the decision to stop making time for things that don’t stimulate me anymore. If I were making 50 grand a year on shrines, the answer might have to be different.
There’s also that pigeonhole thing. You get to be known as “That Guy who…” for anything and suddenly your options get narrowed. Both by your own sense of responsibility and by the expectations of others. By far the most favorited things on Etsy are the shrines. The irony of an atheist being popular for her religious folk art is not lost on me, but whatevs. I still don’t want to get boxed in. Again, for some people, this isn’t a problem. They really love painting fairies or blue dogs or busty fantasy novel cover babes, or whatever their thing is and it’s totally cool that that’s what everyone wants from them. For me, not so much. If I suddenly want to take up oil pastels or sculpting with ground beef and Marmite or what have you, I want my customer base to be like “Sweet. Here’s some crazy new shit she’s on to.”, not “But it’s not a saint covered in glitter…hashtag sadface”.
Sometimes I wish I was that guy who. That I had a thing that was so absorbing to me that it was the focus of my life. But I have no such thing. I’m in love with all the things. Very problematic for making a living. Maybe. Unless my customers are all, “Wheeee!” on board the S.S. Frankenjunk with me. Then, maybe not.
*PS – Said bestie has never referred to himself as an artist, so I don’t call him one. If he ever decides to, he’ll be one according to my philosophy of “It’s Art If You Think It Is”, and I’ll change the nomenclature.