Content: talking about the work we make

February 24, 2012

I was at 9 x 22 this week, and witnessed a common occurrence: an artist having trouble talking about the work they make.

And, I get it.  It's really, really hard to communicate something that is so deeply personal- something you live with everyday.  It's hard to step away from your work, and to gain some perspective on what you do, who it's for, and what you're aiming to accomplish next.

Hard to talk about.

But, it's essential.  SO ESSENTIAL.

If you are a working artist, you make work to share.  And, to make shareable work, you have to be able to talk about it-- to prevent audiences from feeling completely alienated from it.  If you are a working artist, you are probably at least partially dependent on funding.  To get funding, you have to be able to talk about the work.

I was having lunch with a friend of mine who works for a large arts funding organization.  She confirmed my suspicions: a lot of very talented artists have a hard time getting grants, because they can't write articulately about what they do and why they do it.  And, to award grants, the granting organization needs this information.

I looked at a lot of artists and organizations I admire, scouring their websites and bios.

The bottom line?

Be specific. Be simple. Make it feel like YOU.  My favorite descriptions help me visualize someone's work: they give a picture.  The challenging ones leave me tuned out-- the words are vague, or too complicated to understand.

And, whether you are writing a grant application or talking about your work with a new acquaintance, I hope these ideas are helpful.

Try answering these questions:

1. Where have you been?
  • Sit down with a friend, and go through your work samples.  Have them write any impressions/striking images/connotations/immediate responses.
  • Take note of reviews and language that people use when talking about your work.
2.  What sets YOU apart?
  • What life experiences have you had?
  • What do you like?
  • Who are you influenced by?
2.  What sets your work apart?
  • What drives you to make the work in the first place?
  • What common themes do you notice emerging in your work?
  • Have you approached the creative process the same each time?
  • What is changing?
3.  Who is the work for?
  • Who has your audience been?
  • Do you always make work for the same kind of audience?
  • What audience are you targeting in the future?
4.  Where do you want to go?
  • What are three goals you have for your future work?
  • How specific can you be about this (i.e. not just saying 'I want to make a living as a performing artist' or 'I want to make a full season of work')?
  • What are three intermediate steps you can take between where you are now and where you want to go?
The key is figuring out how to take your big ideas (and, heck, emotions) and craft them into digestible nuggets of information that reflect YOU.  Ideally, your mission statement can be distilled into a sentence.  And, the work you are making can be directly traced back to this statement.

I really liked reading these mission statements and artist bios: Open Eye Theatre, Springboard For The Arts, Emma Freeman Photography, SunsetGun Productions, Theatre Forever, Sarah Montour, Karen Sherman Performance (specifically, the first paragraph), Red Eye Theater.

So- what tips do you have for talking about art?  What are your favorite mission statements?  How do you capture authenticity, while still keeping your words grant-appropriate? 

Tuesday, with Fred.

February 23, 2012

Mondobeyondo is over.

(cue deep sigh.)

It was so nice to have support in making things happen.  Those San Francisco folks know how to keep the faith!

Now I'm working at making the dreamy things happen myself.

And, that's how I found myself spending Tuesday night in the Minneapolis suburb of Roseville at National Camera with a guy named Fred.

When you buy a camera from National Camera (a local store!), they give you coupons for free photography classes.  I showed up at digital SLR 1 without having done the required manual reading (rebel).

Everything was still alright with the world.  I got a handy class outline, and was exposed to Fred's incredible enthusiasm for shooting wildlife and his kids' sporting events.

Today, when I returned to my camera and outline, I didn't know where to start, and got frozen thinking about ISO and aperture and shutter speed.  So, I started with what I know: I have two attractive cats, and one of them loves having his photo taken.

Maybe you like attractive cats?

Posed for the camera.
Serious Little.
He's a model idiot.
At rest.

Yes, I'm SMILING!  I've come so far from this.

Of trees and ladders

February 20, 2012

I helped someone find their business tree!!!!!!

Maybe you're wondering what that means.  You know, business trees?

Actually, I made that term up.

I made it up after I was talking with Ben about a business meeting he had with a local choreographer (over beers, of course).  She was talking about working artists and ladder danger.  (Actually, I think I made that term up, too.)

Ladder danger is creating a career largely out of opportunities that depend on getting the grant or being given the performance opportunity.  It might looks like this:

The danger is that it has your putting a lot of energy into developing work for one type of audience-- the audience that likes to sit in their finery and pay $30 for a ticket to see art.  The danger is that someone has to say YES to you- and this doesn't always happen.  And, the danger is that you don't have any kind of guaranteed stability when you reach the top of the ladder-- what do you do when the funding runs out?

This artist Ben was talking to brought up  branching-- finding lots of different ways to create and deliver work in the community and across the country, too.  I think this is really smart.  I think it's really smart for all kinds of people who work for themselves- not just artists.

So, I thought some more about it, and made a business tree.  I thought a lot about how we can all guarantee a little more stability in a field that is, well, unstable.

And, ever the weekend, I worked with a really kick-ass small business owner on developing her business tree-- creating methods for stability in the health coaching business that she's starting.

The business tree has three main branches, and, unlike the ladder, only one of them directly involves the product that you're producing.  The rest of the tree is about developing support-- finding people to collaborate with (especially people outside of your field!), finding new audiences, and developing content that translates the work you're making.  In other words: finding new ways to say this is what I do, and this is why you should care about it.

And, the idea is that off of these three main branches, you develop lots of little tiny branches (that might intersect with one another), brainstorming many ways of developing connections, material, and ways of sharing it.

I will be over here eating slaw.

February 17, 2012

This Asian slaw, posted by Rachel who writes Heart of Light, is one of my favorite new recipes.    What makes it so delicious?  Probably the cilantro, the mint, the serrano chilis, and the dark sesame oil.  SO. GOOD.

Getting Yourself Un-stuck

February 16, 2012

This week I was feeling exceptionally stuck.  I was trying to wrap my head around how I was feeling and why I was feeling that way, in hopes that there was SOMETHING that could make things, well, easier.

I'm a very action-oriented person.  I like to see:

1.  What's wrong.

2.  What I can do to fix it.  

But I was too worked up to really see either.  My personal stuck-ness usually involves one of the following:

1.  Creative stuck-ness: A lack of creative juice, or knowing what to do next or how to find the next wave to ride.

2.  Life imbalance: An inability to balance things in a way that helps me accomplish what's really important to me AND feel like a happy human being AND be a non-martyring and present partner.

So, that.  This week's stuck-ness was related to #2.  AND, wouldn't you know it, but just as I was stomping my feet at my desk, it turned out that my dreaming class (in it's final week- *sniff*) featured an interview with Michael Stanier on..... (drumroll, please) BEING STUCK!

Well, shit, if that wasn't convenient.

The guy is really smart.  He's an advocate for asking yourself questions when you feel stuck.  And, I thought that his method was worth writing about here.  He suggested three approaches, in hopes that at least one works for you:

First of all, list your problem or concern.

Then, ask yourself:
  • What do I need to stop doing?

  • What do I need to start doing?

  •  What do I need to continue doing?

Ok.  So, maybe that helped you/me/us see more clearly, and maybe not.  If not, Michael offers the following: "Life's challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, but they are supposed to help you discover who you are" -Bernice Reagon

That said, Michael asks:

  • Who else has faced a challenge like yours?

  •  What did they do?

  •  What ideas can you borrow?

Again, maybe helpful for you, maybe not.  The last thing he offers up is this:

  • What are you creating?

  • What would make it beautiful?

  • If you had an unlimited budget, what would you do?

I like these questions because they take something that is weighted with frustration (feeling overwhelmed by problems/stressors) and encourages a pragmatic lens.  Which, is a nice alternative to wallowing.  And, seeing things in terms of the bigger picture is helpful.

Also, these questions are relevant and helpful, whether you're trying to figure out why the play you're directing isn't working, or whether you're trying to figure out what needs to change in your partnership or at your job.

Do you get stuck in stuck-ness?  What do you do?  

The Babbling Brook of Love

February 14, 2012

It's Valentine's Day, and I pretty much like any excuse- commercial or non-  to say HEY!  Let's hear it for LOVE!  Because loving is one of the nicest things.  It's made me more vulnerable and more kind, and it's helped me lose my hard, cynical edge-- well, mostly.

There are plenty of things that still made me uncomfortable about love in my early 20's.  Like pet names, and public declarations of love.  And then I started dating my friend Ben, who I'd known for a couple of years.  Ben loves so many people and things-- he meets people, and just falls for them.  He loves dogs and sunsets and driving listening the just the right song.

I like lists.

It's a good thing that I met him, or my heart might just have turned into a lump of coal.

For our first Valentine's Day, Ben, who was dabbling in creating movies featuring angel food cake vomit and other such fun, made me this movie: The Babbling Brook of Love.  It was specially made to trigger all of my love discomfort buttons, starting with the title that refers to me as 'his little koala'.  Pretty much the best gift ever.

Happy Valentine's Day!  I wish you a babbling brook of love.


February 9, 2012

In the past year, we had lots of dear friends move away to far-away places: Austin, New York, Los Angeles.

It so happens that Ben and I love to travel.  It also so happens that we're great at making excuses for why we don't: the money, the time, the family plans that keep coming up.  It's harder to travel when you are a freelancer/small business owner team, in that paid time off is never an option.  However, it also means that we can pretty much make our own schedules.

So, when we discovered that our LA friends had several days off in the middle of the week, we decided to take advantage.

I had forgotten the perspective that goes hand-in-hand with travel, leaving cold, grey Minnesota and finding palm trees and sand on the other side.  It makes me dreamy.  It zooms me out of my life, which usually feels so gosh darn immediate.

It was a way-too-short baby vacation, but it was vacation.  Because we were visiting foodie friends, we ate a silly amount: Korean food, Malaysian food, Caribbean food.  I even learned to make homemade pasta.  We sat around talking, and drank coffee and scotch and wine.  And, that's pretty much the best.

Our friends who moved away are doing big things, and wresting with big new plans, each in their separate part of the country.  They are contemplating jobs and having babies and wondering how to make friends, and having big conversations.  And, getting to see some of it in action, I got it.  I truly miss them, but I'm thrilled for their adventures (and plan to make some of my own).

Dough Relaxation

February 3, 2012

It's the weekend, so maybe you'd like some pizza.

Last weekend we ate ours with a dose of Downton Abbey, because, why not?  Making pizza dough is therapeutic.  It tastes delicious, but I really like the process: the slowing down, and  the glass of wine I drink while kneading.

And this one is easy.  Really, really easy.  The dough recipe I always use is from Jamie Oliver.

Pizza Dough:

1 1/2 Tablespoons active dry yeast

2 Tablespoons honey

just over 2 cups of water, slightly warmer than luke warm

6-8 Cups bread flour (just over 2 pounds-- I guess I start with 6 cups and add more, if needed)

2 Tablespoons salt

1.) Dissolve the yeast and honey in half of the water.  (Note: If it's too hot, it will kill the yeast, and if it isn't warm, the yeast won't grow.  Slightly hot to touch is a good marker.)

2.) In a large bowl, make a pile of the flour and salt.  Make a well in the middle, and pour in the yeast mixture.  Slowly start mixing it together, gradually adding the rest of the water when you need more moisure.

3.)  Knead!  Mix the dough for about 5 minutes.

4.)  Make a round, flour the top, and score the dough with a knife.  Place in a warm-ish place (i.e. around a stove) to rise for about 40 minutes.

(This is when I make the sauce- see below.)

5.)  Break into 2-3 balls of dough, depending on the size of pizza that you want.  Knead each a bit more and roll into a round with a rolling pin.  Fold up the edges, depending on the kind of crust you want.

Here's the sauce part, for while the dough is rising:

Pizza Sauce:

I large can of fire-roasted chopped tomatoes

3-4 cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon fennel

1 onion

a squirt of honey

salt + pepper to taste

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/2-1 teaspoon smoked chili powder

1.) Saute the onion and garlic in a little olive oil over medium heat, until the onion has softened and browned a little bit.

2.) Add the tomatoes, and let them simmer until some of the liquid cooks off.  

3.) Add the seasonings and honey.  If you like more spice, add a bit of cayenne.  

After you've rolled your dough into rounds and made your sauce, assemble your pizzas.

We topped ours with mozzarella, tomato sauce, fresh basil, spicy chicken sausage, red onion, and bell peppers.  I think a butternut squash, goat cheese, and arugula pizza would be amazing (hold the tomato sauce).

Happy weekend!

The World Needs More of You

Last week I stood in line for three hours at Park Square for dollar tickets to Ragtime.  While in line, tired and jammed next to the waiting masses, I consoled myself with lyrics from the show.  Because, friends, there was a time when I knew them all.  There was a time when I got on a bus with my high school choir and traveled from Marquette, Michigan to the big city of Chicago to see the Broadway touring production of Ragtime.  Truth: I pretty much listened to the album on repeat for a couple of years.

I brought with me to the show this wench, who was once equally in love with musicals.

The show was directed by a former, beloved college professor of ours, and we felt very proud (and shed many tears) from our fourth row seats.  My heart was pretty much on fire-- for the story, the heartfelt musical numbers, the quiet moments.

And then I started realizing how strange it is: I no longer belt showtunes, or sing in German, after spending years performing.  I could tell you a dozen geeky facts about Sondheim musicals, and find a quote of his to answer every life dilemma, but my musical theatre days are a thing of the past.  (Except *cough* for that upcoming gig choreographing Guys and Dolls.) So, um, were those just wasted years?

I’m not alone in having a past life.  We all have experiences (and training) that we sometimes forget about, skills we once honed, but don’t directly use, and old obsessions (or hidden ones).  After thinking about it, I’ve decided that they are probably the best parts of our creative endeavors and businesses.  I don’t think that any of those experiences were in vein.  When acknowledged and utilized, they allow your audience or client to see more of you- what you love and connect with and know- and that’s the whole reason that they are seeing your art or working with you in the first place.  

Alexa, for instance, used to be a theatre director, and now is a photographer.  Her experience with performance and crafting a stage picture feeds directly into her photography.  And, her obsession with live music (namely, Bruce Springsteen) gives her music photography so much energy.

My sister, Lisa, spent years as a ballet dancer, and now uses her knowledge of the body (and experiences with injury) in her Cranial Sacral Therapy practice.  And, our friend Jess’ writing and theatre training are total assets to the advertising agency she works for.

As I'm jumping into new endeavors, I'm thinking carefully about where I am and where I've been.  Rather than panicking about years spent on other pursuits or skill sets I wish I had, I’m trying to figure out how to identify and utilize what I have.  I’m asking:

 Where have I been?

 What did I gain from this experience?

 How is this applicable to where I am today/what I’m attempting to do now?

Once you have this, it's about finding simple ways to infuse this into your endeavors.  Maybe, like Emma, you include details about the things you love (film!) on your website.  Maybe, like Ben, you talk with clients about how your past experiences influence your work (Ben was trained as an actor, and now a videographer for live theatre).  Or, maybe you use your past life as fuel for your creative process, like my mathematician-turned-choreographer friend, Elsie.

Infatuation is exciting.  So is authenticity.  People want to experience YOU, and your passion for life.  I'm realizing that much of what I value about my past experiences is that they made me realize what makes me heart catch on fire.  And, that's pretty invaluable.

{You can catch Ragtime at Park Square until February.  It’s pricy.  And worth it.}

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