Creating custom artwork is the highlight of my artistic practice. Being invited into the lives and stories of others cultivates a kinship and connection that feels divinely serendipitous. To be entrusted with their offering and turn it into a physical work of art is an absolute honour - one that I treasure deeply. When Alexandra reached out to me with the shattered remains of a decorative plate (one that had been beautifully painted with her own hands many years ago), I knew that this was going to be a special project. She shared the history of the plate and all the many layers contained within these broken pieces of pottery. They symbolized so much and Alexandra felt it was time to take them out of the box they had been tucked away in so a new chapter could be written. What a privilege to be part of the story.
Forget your perfect offering
Alexandra shared a quote from Leonard Cohen's song, Anthem, and his words once again became a meaningful reminder of the beauty that can emerge from broken places. As I reviewed the notes of our conversation and began the process of preparing the design concept, I was reminded of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing pottery. Kintsugi is a technique that uses gold and resin to join together broken pieces of pottery - the value of the vessel believed to be more valuable for having been broken and damaged. This fits hand in hand with the Japanese aesthetic philosophy, Wabi Sabi, acknowledging the beauty found in the imperfect, incomplete and impermanent. This project became a representation of all three.
Imperfection: Using a variation on Kintsugi techniques, the plate was restored to its original shape leaving seams with visible variances. I applied variable pressure as I joined each piece, allowing the golden resin to ooze from the cracks, representing the tension of imperfection in our lives and our reluctancy to accept the possibility of its beauty.
Incompleteness: There were pieces missing from the plate that left larger gaps to be filled. Rather than filling those gaps with gold, I wanted to leave room for something new to emerge from that space. To represent that life and growth, needle felting and embroidery were used to create moss. Lichen was harvested from the surrounding boreal forest and preserved before incorporating it into the design.
Impermanence: The sculpted elements of this work highlight various stages of the wild rose's life cycle. Flowing from the rose in full bloom, hand painted on the original plate by Alexandra, a singular branch emerges. The branch follows the life cycle through the end of Autumn, showcasing parts that may often be overlooked or unappreciated. The thorns have been carefully removed from a living wild rose bush and painted gold before being secured to the sculpted branch.
This work holds space for the tension that exists in acknowledging and accepting beauty where we are usually reluctant or unwilling. It does not ignore or gloss over the grief, loss, or heartache - it is all still there, a part of our story. In the midst of it all is an invitation to see beauty among all the cracks, shattered parts and missing pieces that we collect along our own cycle of life. Might we be able to lean into all that has been broken and allow something new to emerge?
I’m looking at the sweetest vase I purchased this spring, hand crafted by an Albertan artisan. I normally have a mound of flowers displayed in it but even empty it’s a work of art in its own right. It makes me smile and I’m so happy it’s in my home. Yes, Marie Kondo, it sparks joy. However, it took me a year to make a purchase from this artisan and this has me baffled. When I saw the series of vases in a gallery I ooh-ed and aah-ed, giggled at their whimsy and reluctantly walked away without taking anything home with me. Why did it take me so long to feel like I could justify buying something I loved, especially when I know - and believe in - the value of the work artists create? Haven’t I learned this lesson before?
Can you relate to having to justify purchases - especially ones that extend beyond your basic needs? (And this basic needs deal can get rather ridiculous because there’s not much that we own that we fundamentally need.) I find that purchasing artwork easily falls into this category and the higher the price point, the harder it is to be okay with making the purchase. I feel like I’m always looking for a deal and struggle with feeling guilty about purchases that go beyond the key necessities. Yet, we’ll drop quick money on consumable items (like that fancy latte) without batting an eyelash - and those purchases add up! Both as an artist and as a consumer, I find myself wrestling with the monetary value we assign to things, how much and when to spend, and when to embrace the inner bargain hunter.
Many moons ago I had a friend begin to change the way I looked at money - and it had a surprisingly spiritual connection. Behind the important skills of budgeting, balancing the chequebook, and making wise financial decisions, was a philosophy that was bigger than her. She believes that the money in her bank account isn’t actually hers but God’s, entrusted to her. This leads her to make decisions that will benefit, support and encourage others (in addition to taking care of her needs and wants). This certainly challenges our societal way of looking at money as something that is ours - something we have earned primarily for our own benefit and enjoyment. The other key moment that impacted my financial philosophy was a sermon I heard. The pastor also held the belief that what we have is meant to bless those around us. He shared the example of hiring a friend for a job you need done in your home. Instead of thinking of hiring the friend for your own benefit (because maybe they’ll do it for free or cheap), flip it around to make sure that you’re hiring this skilled friend as a way to support them. When you hire this friend, do not expect them to give you a deal. Pay them their full wage and tip them too. He encouraged us, when we are able and in the position to do so, to be that blessing. We get the service or product we desire while we bless someone else in the process. The more we look outwards in this manner, the more needs would be met, hearts encouraged and passions/gifts supported - what a beautiful way to live our lives.
These two philosophies have continually challenged me through the years. I must admit, the default mode is living out of a place of scarcity, looking to save as much as possible. I wonder what we compromise in the process? We have been taught in our commercialized society that the lowest price is always the answer but perhaps saving money shouldn’t be what drives us. What if our finances became a vehicle for something so much bigger than us? What if we began to consider how our purchases are a mutually beneficial transaction? I purchase something I want and/or need - a service or a physical object - and I support the person who provides the item or service I require. They are able to continue to provide their product or service and on the cycle goes. Another aspect to consider is that our dollars have the power to ensure fair and ethical treatment of workers, if we so choose.
We can unpack this endlessly... So, let’s focus in on how the consumeristic culture affects the arts. As an artist, it is difficult to navigate this insatiable appetite for bargains. As I shared in the previous post, there’s quite a bit that goes into pricing artwork and offering discounts can be detrimental to the value of the artwork (although it certainly is an effective marketing technique that we all love). It is important for an artist to keep their pricing as consistent as possible. And there’s the reality that many artists are not appropriately pricing their work to ensure that they have a sustainable income... all because of the feared perception of not being “affordable”. It’s difficult to feel the pressure of having to prove that you have value that is worth investing in - that your time, talent, and artistry are worthy of the dollar amount attached to each work or service. Even as a working artist, I constantly have to remind myself of this when I consider other artists work. The ‘get-a-deal’ root runs deep in us but we need to stop expecting others to take a cut for our benefit. If someone wants to offer a discount, it should be their choice, their gift - not an expectation or a demand from us. And when someone does choose to offer us a deal, we can accept the blessing from them, realizing that an outward (rather than inward) approach to finances has a profound ripple effect. Sometimes we can be the blessing, other times we humbly accept it. But, when we are constantly looking to save a buck, we end up diminishing the value of the product/service being provided - which can very much feel like you devalue the soul behind it.
What would be the impact if we began to make purchases from those we want to support - whose work resonates with us? I am convinced that this would make us more thoughtful spenders - more mindful, responsible and less frivolous. This isn’t about living beyond our means, it’s about living with values and actions aligned. Can I be courageous to challenge the fears behind my penny pinching? Imagine a world where that lovely shop on the corner doesn’t have to close or the artist doesn’t have to work three unrelated jobs because we stopped to challenge the voices that made us reluctant to purchase the work that we just ooh-ed and aah-ed over.
I love my little vase. I could have lived without it but I didn’t want to. And the funny thing is that it wasn’t even a big purchase that I needed to budget for yet I still found myself in default purchase mode. I finally challenged all those thoughts that needed me to justify why I’d buy it and realized that it simply came down to this: I could afford it, I wanted it in my life and I wanted to support this artist. May I encourage you, as I continue to challenge my own financial philosophies, to consider the impact of our purchases? How can we enable and support? What are our excuses and what are our limitations? Where can we cut back on mindless spending so that we have an increased budget from which to buy those products and services that we want? What would happen if we made our purchases with a different perspective - a different focus? Would it have a meaningful impact?
Have you ever wondered how visual artists go about pricing their work?
After an art exhibition a number of years ago, I had a man approach me and tell me that although he liked my work he thought it was too expensive. He then made a comment about how nice it must be to be a rich artist. (Enter blank stares and the sound of crickets). I honestly didn’t know how to respond. What it did reinforce was the serious gap in understanding of artistry as a profession, and the apparent mystery of pricing structures for artwork.
When you purchase artwork (just like when you purchase an item from any store) it’s not simply the physical item you are paying for. An artwork purchase covers materials, time, skill, education and professional development, rent, heating, insurance, etc. It’s much more comprehensive than the finished product. This is referred to as the Daily Cost Of Doing Business (DCODB). (If you’re an artist who is curious, there’s calculators online that will help you figure out exactly what you need to financially support your artistry!) Artists need to do more than just cover the material costs of creating the work, they must be able to pay themselves a salary to live on that enables them to continue to create new works and support themselves through life (just like with any other work path). Artists must be able to create a fair and sustainable salary for themselves in their pricing framework.
Pricing is a great source of stress for many artists. Our society is so accustomed to sales and low prices offered at box store chains that we easily wince at price tags. We're quick to compromise quality if we can get something cheap. We sure do love a good sale. (And there’s a lot of psychology that goes along with it, by the way.) A visual artist who is selling their own work can not and should not compete with box store pricing and bargain hunting tendencies. Mass produced artwork is a completely different commodity with factors that individual artists cannot compete with. There are other aspects to consider as well - the artist does not get recognition for their work and we have no way of knowing if the work has been appropriately licensed.
So, I have a challenge for us. Next time we see a work of art, let’s take a moment to consider everything that went into creating it. Think about the basic cost of materials, the labour time - all that the artist would need to make it happen. It adds up quickly. Does the price represent those basic costs in addition to their DCODB? As we start to do a quick little calculation, we will likely see how many artists actually undercharge! And remember, artists only get paid if they sell the work. There's a tremendous amount of overhead, investment and risk involved. There's also a great deal of work involved apart from artwork creation that takes up an artist's time and energy. All aspects of this profession should be accounted for.
If the man, who thought I was overcharging to live the high rolling life, had taken that moment to consider the cost of an entire gallery of artwork - the result of my full-time work for a year and a half - perhaps his comment would have been, “How can you make a living as an artist?” As I look back I realize I actually significantly undercharged because of the fear of someone commenting on the price. I didn't want to have to justify my value. But I have sold pieces that didn’t even cover my time and materials because of that fear. Thankfully I have had mentors and clients that did see my value - even before I saw it myself - and that has helped me to continually examine my pricing structures to better reflect the comprehensive, true cost of artistry.
It was the third time I had been in his art gallery. I was filled with joy and told him so. I gushed how much his artwork spoke to me as I poured over each piece. And then I left. I walked about half a block down the street and became acutely aware of my hypocrisy. It was uncomfortable. If I loved his work and it meant so much to me then why on earth was I not considering a purchase? How did my words actually support him? I knew exactly what I needed to do. I looked at my husband, talked realistically about our budget and walked back into the gallery.
I said to the artist, “I can’t ooze about how much I love your work and then fail to tangibly support you. I am able to spend (x amount) of dollars. What do you have available in that range?” As a show of appreciation he offered me a discount. I declined. That was not the point. I needed to fully walk the talk. I needed to put my money where my mouth was. I wanted to show the artist that his work was worth more than my words and that it had true value - value that I was willing to invest in.
Here’s the thing. I would love to not talk about money. I have had encounters (some that I will share in future posts) that have me feeling nervous about talking about cashflow for artists. But those encounters tell me that it needs to be talked about and the reality is we all use money to provide for our needs and pay our bills. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if we returned to trading goods for goods - would it be any better? My art purchase isn't about an artist's greed or preoccupation with money (trust me, most artists aren't in it for the money), it is a tangible symbol of support. It is a way to demonstrate that I see the artist's value and I want to support the work they do. And by supporting their work in a tangible way I spur them on to continue to create.
If we believe in the value of the Arts then we must support the Arts. And if we want to support the Arts we must tangibly support Artists.
Encouragement is wonderful and valuable in its own right but words plus action have significantly more impact. I don't want my words to become platitudes that leave someone questioning my sincerity. If I love their work as the words coming out of my mouth clearly state, then what action can I take to demonstrate what I claim? Was I all talk? As it was on that day outside of the gallery, I came face to face with the reality of whether or not I was willing to act on what I believe. I didn't have a huge budget that day but I did what I could in order to align my values with an immediate action I could take. Some days I can make the purchase. Other days, I can't. But I realized I was never making the purchase and that made me concerned.
The question of whether or not I am walking the talk is something I am continually asking myself. We are all works in progress and change comes over time. So, I keep asking the question, checking in with myself and letting myself grow. I approach it with curiosity and challenge, not with guilt or shame. Am I supporting artists to the best of my ability - where I'm at right now? As an artist, am I participating in activities that undercut other artists or compromising values that ultimately hurt Arts advocacy? Is there a change I could make that would help me to take a step in the direction I want to go? Is there something else I can do that would help me put my money where my mouth is? I know the power of one simple step and the ripple effect it has. That's change I want to be part of.
Post Two: What Do Artists Do All Day?
Post One: An Introduction
Have you ever seen the BBC documentary series, What Do Artists Do All Day? Each episode follows an established visual artist around for a few days and we are given insight into their creative process. It’s wonderful - I love those behind the scenes moments! To watch a visual artist, a musician, an actor, a dancer, or a writer in the midst of their process is amazing, inspiring and captivating. It’s incredible to watch them do what they do. The process is rarely easy - when it appears that way, it’s years of practice that has prepared them to work with the excellence they do now. I’m so grateful for artists, how they see the world and how they persevere to bring us their perspective through their artistic discipline.
How poignant that this process is not often viewed as work. Artists are frequently confronted with all sorts of stereotypes. When asked what I do for work I often get a cocked eyebrow and clarifying questions, “No. I mean, what do you do for money?” "What do you do all day?" The legitimacy of an artist and the work they do are constantly challenged.
Isn’t it peculiar how we are prone to jump to conclusions about what we do not know? Take social media for example: we see perfectly curated family pictures of someone’s life and we assume that their life is easy, that they’ve got it all together. Yet, we neglect to tell our rational selves that they’re probably not posting all the mess and struggle. Even when someone has a life trajectory that is similar to ours we still assume that they’ve got things more figured out than us. Is that how it is with artists? Because we’re only seeing the highlights we figure that their lives are filled with wine, paint and contemplation? Are we filling in the blanks with assumptions and stereotypes?
And the creative side is only one part of an artist’s work equation. We have easily recognized the administrative side of many occupations so why not with artists? As an artist I am the CEO of a creative business. I also manage all administrative, operational, financial and creative aspects of this business. I must balance the daily demands with creative output. I aim to follow my creative calling but also am faced with the reality of bills that need to be paid - and have to find a way to navigate this challenge. And I must resist the urge to overwork to try and prove my worth in a world that challenges the validity of my profession.
In the introductory post of The Cost of Artistry I spoke about having to advocate for the value of artistry and how the Arts are often viewed as a luxury. It pains me to feel like these conversations are necessary - to be put in positions where I have to talk about artistry as a legitimate, worthy career choice. But these conversations must continue until we see artists fully integrated into culture, where artists are commissioned and paid on a regular basis, where artists do not need to supplement their income with other work, where organizations do not approach artists with “opportunities for exposure” but with offers that make it worth the artist’s time and talent, where art inquiries are given with adequate time allowance and event budgets have artists at the top of their priorities. I look forward to that day.
Through these posts I will continue to remind us that change really does start with each one of us. We "prove" the value of the Arts by ensuring that we are indeed valuing the Arts in our own lives through our actions. Our talk must match our walk - and that is a work in progress for all of us. Next week I will share a story about a time when I realized that I wasn’t walking my talk, how it ended up teaching me a powerful lesson and encouraged me to make a change.
I have been sitting on a series of posts that I began in 2014 about life as an artist: The Cost of Artistry. They never made it past the draft stage yet there they sit... and I still find myself often thinking about their contents. As I continue to engage in the same topics of conversation and wrestle with the same issues I know that it's time to finally share my perspective. It is my hope to offer a little insight into the sometimes mysterious and often misunderstood life of an artist. My perspective continues to grow and develop in how to best cultivate an arts culture that is thriving and valued - I suspect sharing these thoughts and stories will continue that process for me and perhaps for you too.
I have been involved in the arts my whole life. Music was my first love and it felt like a natural progression to study music and education in University. Classes on theory, composition and orchestration were combined with hours in the practice room, preparing pieces for masterclasses and juries. The education side taught us classroom management, lesson planning and curriculum development. All of this was expected. As were the lessons on how to advocate for our jobs when the inevitable budget cuts impacted Arts education. The Arts are often deemed a luxury - something that is entertained when everything else is taken care of.
As University students we studied scientific research so we could prove the positive impact the Arts has on child development. We felt the pressure to perform and have our students perform at high levels so that we could prove that our programs had merit and worth. We experienced the familiar ache when watching movies like Mr. Holland's Opus or Music of the Heart that addressed the widespread reality of funding cuts for Arts education. We had experienced it as children in arts programs and we were picking up the baton to fight on in our adulthood. It saddens (and frustrates) me that 20 years later these struggles continue. I suppose that's a big reason why I never published these posts. I want it to be rainbows and butterflies. I want it to be easy. But we're still having to prove the worth and value of the Arts and it's wearying.
If you're reading this I likely do not need to convince you of the value of the Arts. We know that the Arts helps us to view life with a depth that isn't possible by any other means. Through music, painting, dance, poetry, sculpture and countless other artistic expressions, we have the vehicles in which to examine life. These are not luxuries - they are necessities. This is not a competition between science and visual art or arithmetic and music, it all has its place. However, the richness and fullness that the Arts brings has been overlooked and undervalued. It is an essential element in our lives, one that many of us acknowledge yet the same struggles remain.
As I begin a new chapter in my own life I still feel the need to continue advocating for the value of the Arts but I no longer feel the same need to prove their value. The Arts have value and worth whether or not it is seen and upheld. But for those of us who know and have experienced the impact and necessity of the Arts in our own lives, it is up to us to support artists and ensure that they have the means to continue to create. That is the place from which I share. Even as a professional artist I am still being challenged on how to best support artists and I hope that sharing my experiences helps us all to find more ways to ensure the health of the Arts in our communities.
I find myself at the end of every year, wondering where the time went. I begin every December desiring the quietness that comes with a fresh blanket of snow, yet only being able to carve out little moments, here and there. The hustle and bustle carries on and then it's over before I can fully take hold of anything. Holiday movies end and clearance sales begin. Christmas music and the cheerful greetings are silenced. I've attempted wishing people a Merry Christmas after the 25th and it was met with cocked eyebrows. There's a time limit on the merriment, don't you know?
With every year, I become a little more rebellious and push the limits of the season. What is Christmas if I cannot carry it over into the new year? Would not my heart and yours be better off with a season that lingers long into the frozen new year? What if we continue to look for and embrace the Light of the World in the dark days of January?
As the advent calendars are tucked away, I choose to remain in the Light of Jesus - to bask in the hope, joy, peace and love that is the foundation of all that truly feels like Christmas. I attended a liturgical church in my youth and we didn’t actually begin singing songs about Jesus’ birth until Christmas Day and through the 12 days until Ephiphany (when the three wise men were acknowledged). Advent was a time of longing and waiting. I wonder if we end up missing out on all of it. I have spent this week in pursuit of the still small voice I always long to hear when the busyness of December takes over. It was as I suspected... in every snowflake, singing bird and frosty tree.
You came like a winter snow
Over the Family Day long weekend, my husband and I, along with 3 other couples from the Wood Buffalo Photography Club, journeyed up the winter road to Fort Smith, NWT. Traveling over frozen rivers and icy marshes, through lush forests and over winding sand hills, the trip is an experience like none other. Having made the trip before we knew more of what to expect and added an extra day to soak up the experience.
The first day we drove all the way from Fort McMurray to Fort Smith, arriving 11 hours later with our hearts full from the foxes, ptarmigan and northern hawk owls that came into our view. The beautiful white ptarmigan were on the top of my wish list so I was over the moon to finally see them! The road North takes us through a variety of landscapes, each of them stunning in their own special way. The next morning, in particularly frigid temperatures, we were privy to a lovely soft sunrise, with the fog from the Pelican Rapids streaming across the Slave River valley. We made our way back through Wood Buffalo National Park where we saw many signs of the bison who make their home there but they chose to stay tucked out of sight. The next night was spent in Fort Chipewyan where we were greeted with a huge sun dog over the Canadian Shield and we had the opportunity to learn about some local history at the Bicentennial Museum. I am eager to visit Fort Chipewyan in the summer months and see it when all the ice has melted. It is an absolutely stunning area with a rich history.
Our last stretch back home was a snowy day but we were delighted to see great grey owls and witness a flurry of activity involving an otter, a snowshoe hare and some panicking ptarmigan. I'm already wondering what wonderful things we will see on our next journey North.