Feeding the ghosts

“Are they your relatives?” People ask me that all the time, when they see all the old pictures in my pieces.

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The answer is “no”. I don’t have many very old pictures of my relations, because they got left behind in Cuba when my family fled. But these are not them, in any case. These people are hungry ghosts. A concept in Chinese Buddhism that refers to a spirit who has no living person to venerate and feed them.

They have no history or context when I find them. Sometimes there will be a name, date or location somewhere. Handwritten on the back or embossed on the front by the photographer. But more often than not there is nothing. They’re strangers, piled in a box or basket at a flea market in dusty stacks. Forlorn and forgotten.

I find it indescribably poignant that these were people with stories, once. The invention of photography has given a depth to the idea of people that never existed before the ability to capture the true to life image of a thing. Sure, you know that humans have been alive for millennia. Feeling, breathing, living humans. But the advent of modern photographic technology gave us the ability to give that concept a face. Posture. Dress and adornment that expresses an individual’s taste and preferences. Their wealth or lack of it. Their features, and the expression in their eyes. Little details that make people real. These people had conversations and aspirations and foods they hated and people they loved. And pets. And hats. And favorite songs. And now, nobody knows who they are.

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So I give them new stories. I take my boxes of junk and bones and broken things and I knit together a story and put them in the center of it. I make a spirit house for them to live in. Someplace to come to on All Souls after they visit their burial place, maybe. Someplace for candles to burn near, so the light can guide them back. Maybe my customers don’t know they’re feeding hungry ghosts by looking and thinking about the story. Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t care. That’s fine, too. They’re self sustaining ghost houses. No maintenance required. Just look. Just brush your eyes across the picture and the art does the rest.

But I know. I like to think all those hungry ghosts are sitting there, patting full bellies, wandering no more.

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Chickens and eggs

Oh Re: Craft & Relic, I’m very disappointed in you.

So when this show was pitched to me by the original second in command (they’re on their third one of those, btw. They’ve also changed their layout twice and raised their fees twice. Portentious, or merely noteworthy? For me, it’s starting to sound like people in way over their heads and scrambling. But what do I know.) it was pitched as a fine junk meets fine craft meets fine art arrangement. Which sounded AWESOME. And everyone I tell that to says it sounds awesome. And my neighbors 3 Wren Street, the pickers that I was back to back with for most of the times I’ve done the show,  and I found such sales mojo in that idea. People asked me “Where do you find all this stuff?” and I would turn and point to them, and people would ask them “What do you do with this kind of stuff?” and they would turn and point to me. It was wonderfully symbiotic and profitable for both of us.

The first couple of shows there was a good mix of the aforementioned species of vendor. Fewer fine artists than crafters or junkers but that was ok. It was still a category well represented. And I did alright there. Not bangarang by any means, but certainly worth going and worth committing early to the next date, even though it was a lower profit show because thanks to travel costs it was as expensive to do as Lakeview. But I had total faith in the vision of uniting under one roof all of the Things.

There are two main ways of running a show, broadly speaking. You can be strict about what sorts of vendors you have, trusting that the vibe you create will draw the crowd you want for the kind of event you want to have. And it will. It won’t pay off as quickly, and you have to do a lot more legwork, but if you build it, they will come. Or, you can just let a sort of Darwinism rule and the kinds of vendors who apply to your show will naturally slant towards whatever the crowd that’s handy wants, because that’s who does well there and keeps coming back. But you end up with more of a flea market than an art/craft show. Which is exactly what’s happened with Re:Craft & Relic. I was one of four fine artists this go around. There were few fine crafters (fine craft includes things like jewelry and body products/home products too), and everybody else was either a junker or people who quite clearly were doing the least amount of work possible for their products. So your event starts looking like a Hobby Lobby or a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store crossed with a flea market. The average demographic of your crowd starts moving towards older women and moms who are not looking to spend any more than $20 on anything. And the natural result is that the actual makers who can’t compete with people who aren’t making a damn thing stop doing your show.

So. Here we are, RC&R. I had me some real talk with your number 2, and it was not reassuring. She told me you never billed yourself as a fine arts venue, which isn’t entirely true, but isn’t entirely false either. She also gave me the, “Well, that’s what this area wants” kind of thing. Which is true, but doesn’t have to affect the show if you’re willing to put in the time. Franklin is a very churchy, conservative area. But Milwaukee is right next door, and Wisconsinites are extremely willing to drive to get to things, unlike Chicagoans. Traffic and parking in a city this size makes everyone want to stay within a few El stops of their homes, but Milwaukee and its environs is totally different. You can get a city crowd to come to BFE in Wisconsin, and they did at first. When they were actually trying.

Bottom line is, if this isn’t my crowd anymore, it’s not my crowd and that’s just something I have to deal with. But the total lack of discrimination when it comes to who they’re allowing to vend there is disappointing in the extreme. I would never in a million years knock a good flea market. If this were turning into one then I don’t belong there as a vendor but I would part with no regrets. That’s not what’s happening though. What’s happening is what happened to ren faire and so many other solid shows. They’re going profit over content, not being picky if the “handmade” is done in China, but still billing themselves as a show that promotes unique handmade goods. Those that are actually making such things are left to struggle to get their prices with people who are definitely not. And the majority of the crowd really doesn’t know the difference. All they see is something priced at $20 versus something priced at $40. Those who know and appreciate the difference stop coming to the show because there’s nothing they want. And so it goes.

Part of me thought it was too tasty a concept to work in the long run. I guess my skepticism was well warranted. Though it was groovy while it lasted. I’m still on the fence as to whether to give it one more go in November. I had been doing fine there right up until this time around. Though the vendor profile has changed rather abruptly.

But this kind of thing, in case anyone was curious, is why all of us makers of things are always hollerin’ shit like “buy local” and “pay the artists” from the rooftops. Because resellers will infiltrate the best of shows, and it’s important to know the difference between something someone made and something someone bought wholesale.

If you believe in handmade, walk your talk. Don’t patronize the shows that let a buncha mass produced crapola pass as art. Don’t be lied to. Support the arts by going to the shows that support the artists (slash crafters, slash fine junkers, slash upcyclers, slash insert word for not made in China here.)

 

“Where do you learn all this stuff?”

I’m a reader. That’s answer I give to this question, which I get at shows all the time. Usually after an excessively rambling account of the way Catholic and West African beliefs combined in diaspora religions, the history of the term “burking”, popularity of postmortem photography in the Victorian era, or the feeding habits of corvids and their relation to mythological traditions in northern Europe. Or, “I’m a nerd”. This is very true. When other kids had video games, I had a library card. Well, I had video games too, but after I won Contra I lost interest in the whole thing and never picked up a console again. My very first book was called “Misty and Me”, a feel good little bit of fiction geared towards that age group in between Cat in the Hat and Miss Peregrine, about a girl and her puppy. And I picked it out at the book store at the age of six, after convincing my dad that I was ready for a “real book” as I called it. That is, one without pictures and huge type. Dad didn’t believe me, which, fair enough considering my age, and asked for a book report when I was done. Then I started making my way through Nancy Drew, and they never argued with me about my reading habits after that. I think they were disappointed that I didn’t turn out to be some genius prodigy, but I guess that’s a parent’s lot in life sometimes.

Since Misty broke the seal, I’ve been – consuming, is really the appropriate word to describe it – literature at a high rate. I never don’t have a book. If I can’t find a good book I will read a crappy one, but I have to be reading. SF/fantasy, biography, comic books, poetry, history, biology, anthropology, religion, memoir, physics, criminology, field and survival guides, sociology, chemistry, fiction, huge ass picture books of art, entomology, big, sexy word combinations with hyphens like socio-biology and ethno-botany. There isn’t anything I won’t read. If it’s crap and I have options, I won’t finish it, but that’s about the only deal breaker. Genre doesn’t matter a bit, so long as the writing is tasty or the subject so interesting the writing isn’t an issue.

I find “autodidact” to be a clumsy and ugly word, but it’s what I have been since the alphabet began to make sense to me, and I never looked back. College was a nightmare of intellectually stifling maze running for this rat accustomed to following her nose over hill and deep into thickets of connected subject matter, wherever the path, beaten or otherwise, seemed to most interestingly lead. The problem with a system like the educational one for a person like me, is that they want your brains to function on a track, like a well managed freight train, while mine is…not. It’s like a thing that wanders around quite a bit. Insert preferred metaphor here. A brook, butterfly, squirrel, jabberwocky, nargle. Whatever makes you happy. That’s my brain. A wander-y thing that is very VERY hungry and has to eat information constantly to stay content. I have in my bookshelf subjects as diverse as the history of table salt and its effects on the development of cross continental trade routes and human culture, and a boxed set of Bunnicula books. Does this make me a better artist? I dunno, but it does make me a hoot (or a nightmare, depending on the sorts of guests you have and how easily they are made uncomfortable by discussions revolving around the finer points of dermestid beetle feeding habits) at dinner parties and an epic pain in the ass in an argument. It makes me take a very macro view of human culture in my time and place. A mixed blessing, that I won’t wander into here because time management. I’ve been called smart, but I don’t know that I’m smart, or just have a super absorbent brain. Like a Sham-Wow. Things that stimulate me lodge in my skull and become part of my world. My brain is a nomad before colonialism threw arbitrary borders on the map. It goes everywhere. It sees all the things. And it gets nutso if it has to stay still, overgrazing the same territory and contributing to desertification. Alright, maybe I took that particular metaphor further than makes sense, but you get my drift.

So next time you’re in my booth and somehow the conversation turns to coming of age ceremonies in Pacific islands tribes or why fortune cookies are so ubiquitous, and you’re all, “How the hell did we get HERE?”, now you know.

 

 

Year End Blog: Salutations, thank yous, Things!

Hello, and a merry Whatever Holiday You Celebrate If Any. This is my end of year ramble, which is not going to be about all the shows I did this year, because mostly I did the same ones but for a couple. I can sum those two up thusly; Bucktown,ugh. Not remotely worth the pain in my ass. Chicago Art Girls, holyshityay!

Finally it seems I’m finding the shows, the audience, the mojo, that I need to find. We makers of things all do. We need to not just find our audience, but also find our shows/galleries/wherever the rad people come to experience what you make and hopefully let you make a living making. Making a living making is more than just selling the work. It’s also the connections and the community that you find while you’re at it. The importance of that can’t be remotely overstated. So, THANK YOU. You are so freakin’ beautiful and weird and awesome that I can’t even. There’s no doing this without you and I treasure your presence and participation. Those of my friends and rennie peeps who were among the first to follow the Facebook page, fellow artist/sans/makers, and those of you who just hopped on at the last show, or however you found your way here, you’re all in my black little heart and I love you. Like, for real.

2016 has been…challenging. To say the least. I am, like everyone, dealing with that as best I can. But speaking from a strictly shows and art life place, this season has been wonderful. I haven’t done the numbers yet, so I don’t know if I mean that in a financial sense, but this job isn’t exclusively about paying rent. This year stands out for having many bigger pieces finding homes, and many of those homes being with people who have bought from me before. I have collectors y’all!! That tells me something important. It tells me I’m connecting with people. I’ve talked before about how art is a desire driven purchase. It serves no practical purpose, and there’s no good reason to budget for it from a cost/benefit standpoint. We’re not looking at psychological stuff. Pure nuts and bolts I’m talkin’. So when people are spending on something with no purpose other than to be looked at, it’s speaking loudly and insistently to something rooted in their guts and souls. And that’s an artist’s freakin’ JOB. I am doing my job! And I appear to be doing it passably well. I probably can’t properly articulate how exciting that is for me. I have never comfortably referred to myself as an artist, because I never really thought of myself as one. That whole imposter thing is a thing. So for me, it’s beyond dope that I feel like I’m doing the job of making art. You did that! Give yourselves a cookie, because you made someones day.

In the coming season I want to build on that momentum and sense of growing community. That’s going to mean exploring new venues. New shows, always and of course, but also open studios and funky spaces of all sorts that support the artists. If all goes well you’ll find me right back at the shows you found me at this year. Glenwood, Lakeview, Edgewater, Craft and Relic, and Art Girls. Because those all continue to rock. Not Bucktown. Yes, that one turned out ok in the end, but the vibe was wrong for me, and I’m learning to trust my gut when it says “nope”. I hope to extend a tentacle into Logan Square this time around, so that should be interesting. Indiana will wait til next year because of family stuff, but it’s on the radar. There are some events in Milwaukee I’m eyeballing too.

And, Patreon. Is going. To happen! In the coming months, in addition to making All of the Things, I will be shooting video and giving a serious think on rewards (exclusive blogs! live chats! dinners! classes! art!) and whatnot for the various patron levels, so that I can make this happen. If you, oh hive mind, have any suggestions on such things I welcome your input. I don’t know what someone who pays me whatever, say $5 a month, to make art would like to have access to, so I’m open to ideas.

The opportunity this vehicle gives artists to connect with people all over the world is incredible. And the opportunity it gives people of modest means to be part of supporting the arts is mind blowingly awesome. I love tipping buskers. My dollar isn’t much in this day and age, but it’s not the only dollar in the hat. The hat contains many dollars from many people like me who want to be some part of that artist’s success. Patreon is the hat for people whose art doesn’t translate to a busking sort of situation, or a busker who wants a way bigger stage. A global hat to pass, with the opportunity for real interaction between artist and patrons. I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to that, but I have no idea what I’m doing in general, so I’ma just do it and see what happens.

Thank you thank you for being here my lovelies. 🙂

Here’s to a safe and sane (or insane in a really great way) years end.

 

 

“Doesn’t it suck if people don’t get into your art?”

It used to. I mean, it still does on a large enough scale, because this is how I make my living and if an entire show goes south that’s me having a pretty bad day. But on an individual level, like a person not getting into what I make, not anymore. At first I was really sensitive about it. I think that’s normal. I don’t know anyone making any kind of art that isn’t emotionally invested in it. But I feel like if you’re going to do this full time you need to disentangle your feels from the business end of selling your work.

The difference between opinion and critique is an important one. Lots of both will get thrown at you if you do…anything. Anything at all. Someone is going to have something to say about it. Some of it will be right on and some of it will be dookie. Some of it will be either/or, depending on where you stand. If what you’re doing is something you’re emotionally invested in, it gets even more complicated.

I started out as a crafter, so I’m no stranger to being told how wrong I’m doing something. You can’t learn to do a thing without screwing that thing up a few times, and your teacher is going to tell you about it. If they’re not a jerk they’ll do it pleasantly, but either way, you get used to being told what you did wrong and how it needs to be fixed. Opinion really didn’t factor into it. I was manufacturing someone else’s designs, and once I started doing it correctly, nobody had anything negative to say to me about it.

That all changed when I started making my own thing, and that thing was something with a subjective definition. I had to learn the difference between an opinion, “This sucks” and a critique, “The glue is sloppy”. And how to not get butt hurt about either one.

Opinions are awesome when they’re nice and hurtful when they’re not, but ultimately something I try not to get hung up on. I mean, I’m selling stuff, so I want to cultivate good opinions of me and my work, but I don’t let that be what validates me. The part I focus on are the happy customers. I’ve had customers say some of the most utterly humbling words to me about the effect my stuff had on them, or someone they love (and in the case of one therapist, on his patients). The kind that make ya almost tear up, and you’re all, “They are talking about someone much cooler than me”. That is life affirming shit, and will carry you through many “Is that supposed to be art?” kinds of interactions. Making art exposes some part of your inner life to the world for it to look at and judge. That’s just how art works. It feels very weird to have people treat the puzzle pieces of your heart like they’re shopping for tires or picking out a new set of highball glasses. Not everyone will, obviously. Some people will totally recognize heart parts. Some people’s own hearts will squee or cry when they recognize them and that’s an amazing thing.

Critiques on the other hand, are always useful, even when they’re off, or not applicable to whatever thing. It gives me a reality check. Makes me look at what I’m doing and reassess whether I’m doing it to the standards I want to be at. If someone has technical advice for you, listen. You don’t have to act on it if their advice isn’t useful, but listen. They may save you from reinventing the wheel at some point. Opinions though, you can learn to take or leave as you like.

 

My focus needs more focus

Does everything fall apart at 40, or am I just having a challenging year?

I’m going on day five of mild tachycardia. If you’re all, “WTF is that”, it’s when your heart rate revs up for no real reason. It’s basically an electrical malfunction, often hereditary, almost always harmless, though it can be very scary and can sometimes make you pass out. I’ve had it since I was a teenager, and it’s connected to my anxiety disorder. It usually manifests suddenly when I randomly compress my diaphragm in the wrong way. My heart starts beating so hard and fast that you can see it swelling my chest and neck. It’s creepy. It can last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes (once for an hour, THAT was fun) and leaves me somewhat dizzy and tired. After Katrina I was having it two or three times a week and had a full cardiac workup, because damn. And the government handed us all a bunch of “Here, go somewhere else for awhile” cash (thanks FEMA!) so I could. They’re like, “You’re basically ok. Reduce your stress”. I don’t know about you, but I love it when people who don’t have an anxiety disorder tell you to reduce your stress.

Since I started training in fightsports, I almost never get it anymore. Apparently punching the crap out of things is cathartic. When I do it’s much milder than it used to be and lasts less time. Till four days ago. Every time I bend over, crouch, lean, sit or take a deep breath, my heart stutters, beating harder and faster for a few seconds. All. Day. Long. The reason I didn’t get to go visit my dead peeps on Dia de los Muertos is because I was at urgent care getting an EKG. I’m not used to more than an hour of it, let alone three days at that point. The upshot is, not dying. The downside is, I’m still having this, I don’t get a halter monitor (to record the “event” as they call it, which makes it sound like a Prince concert or something but I can tell you from personal experience is nowhere near as entertaining or sexy) til Monday because Medicaid, and in the meantime, I’m having a hell of a time focusing on the work I should be doing for the show that’s a week away, and the three after that.

This is just the latest in the line of weird medical crapola that has comprised my year thus far and done its best to tank my productivity. In April I had kidney stones that sent me to the ER, which led to weeks of discomfort and doctors visits, and a followup with the Worlds Most Sexist Urologist, which was triggering in ways I didn’t expect but should have. Ever had a cystoscopy? I don’t recommend it. Especially when the a-hole neglects to give you a local. But I bet he billed Medicaid for one. Just a hunch.

Earlier in the year, I totally had finger cancer. Ok, it was a really weird, blistery rash all over my hands that my mom’s no nonsense dermatologist who was nice enough to take a gander at it said was caused by stress. Guess what his advice was? You guessed it. “Reduce your stress”. Sigh.

Hypochondria is such a huge slice of my paranoia pie that this is been trying AF. My brain misunderstands reality a lot. It’s part of the wacky wiring that makes me so very entertaining. So my body is kind of sacred space for me. It possesses a solidity that nothing else does. Unlike that bunch of cats that aren’t really in my closet or the trumpets I hear in the background when the checker at Whole Foods is asking me if I want to keep or donate my bag credits. When most people hear the term “hypochondriac” they get dismissive. Like someone is making up illnesses for attention (which is a real condition, it’s called Munchausen’s, and you can totally Google it). People who have hypochondria aren’t doing that though. We are honest to FSM convinced we’re dying like, all the time, and it can be really terrifying (which ups your stress level, which leads to more weird shit going wrong with your body…). We’re also often ashamed of feeling that way, and hesitant to seek medical attention because we’re afraid both that we’re right, and that we’ll be totally dismissed by doctors. For example, I never tell a doctor I have an anxiety disorder, because when I do, they stop listening to me. I will often not tell them I have MDD either, because they all want to put me on SSRIs. Been there, done that, tried to kill myself. Kthnxbye. But I digress.

All this takes a hell of a toll on your energy and productivity. Making art takes energy and focus. Anyone who tells you it doesn’t is lying, or is one of those people you sometimes get at art shows who is all, “Oh, my 8th grader makes dioramas!”. I’m always like, “Great! Does she want a job?”. I’m a rennie. Rennies never shy away from putting children to work.

It’s tempting to say “Take some time off”, but I don’t know of one full time self employed person who can even afford that. Now take their finances down six more pegs if they’re an artist. In any case, I will focus through the (I’m convinced) impending heart attack and finger cancer and (probably) kidney disease, and I will get work done. Not as much as I’d like to and not as fast as I need to, but I’ma do this. I guess the point of this ramble is that. That I’ma do this. So can you, through whatever challenges are taking a poop in your Cheerios this year. But I felt the need to say it out loud. They say that you’re more likely to accomplish things you state your intention to accomplish. I have no idea if that’s true, but why not? I intend to accomplish Things! There. That should do it.

 

Imposter Syndrome

A friend asked me a question in a letter not too long ago. One that I’ve asked myself a million times, and I’m sure every artist/san/crafter asks themselves too. “Are my friends just being nice?”

Over the course of the last two shows I’ve had several friends drop many dollars in my shop and walk away with multiple pieces each. It’s wonderful and humbling and makes me all verklempt. After the last such multiple piece purchase I turned to my bestie and said, “Man, maybe I don’t totally suck at this?”

It’s interesting that validation from strangers is easier to accept, but validation from loved ones brings up this kind of insecurity. Do we think, what, that we’re tricking people, and strangers are ok to trick? Or strangers have worse taste than our friends, who of course wouldn’t want the shabby products of our hamfisted attempts at creation if they weren’t just being nice? Why do we think that way? I’m not saying you should go around thinking you’re all brilliant and Aaahtist-ing all over people, because ego like that is gross. But can we at least go around trusting our loved ones judgement? We don’t have to agree with it. We should learn to give it the same weight as our own in this case though, even when it conflicts with ours. Maybe their perception here is right and yours is completely whack. It can happen. You could be…wrong. You might NOT suck!

Ok, if you can’t accept that at least accept your potential whack-ness of perception.

While we’re at it, accepting things that is, lets get something straight. Loving you is a perfectly valid reason to support what you’re doing. You are the work, the work is you. Art is an expression of the self. So supporting you is supporting the work, whether the work is something they’re totally into or not. If someone loves you enough to buy a piece of art they think is hideous or that just doesn’t speak to them, you’ve done something right in one of the most important relationships in your life. Someone values you and your path a lot. “Take the doughnut”*, as my new favorite book on living a creative life advises. Go you!

But lets get pragmatic, because love is lovely but I’m a cynic. Unless your friends are very wealthy people, nobody is buying art just to be nice. The scale of being nice is a very short one and your friends are probably on a tight financial leash like most everybody else. Your broke ass peeps will maybe spend a fiver on being nice. Maybe a ten or even, possibly, in a good week, a twenty. Additionally, whatever they buy from you has to go somewhere. Nobody spends money on something they’re gonna bin. So in addition to parting with funds, they need to negotiate for space with all the other things in their home. I don’t know about y’all, but I have neither money nor space in any great supply. Most people just don’t. And when they budget enough of both for your work, that’s more than loving you. That’s a sincere appreciation for the work you’re doing and a desire driven impulse to support it with their filthy lucre. Which is awesome.

But either way, the question of if your friends are sincerely loving your work, or just loving you? They are of equal value here. They both say good things about you and what you’re doing. Take the doughnut.

 

 

*In Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking, she tells a story relating to this subject. I won’t go into a lengthy explanation here. You can get the whole thing by reading it if you like (and I recommend you do because it’s a great book). Short version; the “doughnut” in question becomes a metaphor for help and/or validation in whatever form it comes. Just accepting that help without making it into a “Do I deserve/am I allowed” kind of thing. You deserve it. It’s allowed. The art police isn’t coming for you for impersonating an artist. You are one. No papers necessary. Take the doughnut.