Category Archives: Creativity

Why Self-Employment Is Like the World’s Longest Job Interview

One of the biggest challenges my fellow creatives have to face is self-promotion. A lot of people who excel at creating art, music, writing, performance and so forth, who can express themselves beautifully through their chosen media, freeze up like the proverbial deer when it comes to promoting what they do. Sometimes it’s an acute case of introversion, something I had to work hard to overcome. And it’s no secret that there’s a high correlation between creativity and low self-esteem and/or excessive self-criticism. Plus when it comes down to it, most of us would rather be making cool stuff than telling people about it; we like to show, not tell.

However, if your art is going to end up being anything more than a hobby–and it’s okay if it stays that way–you have to be good at getting the word out and talking up your creations. Or, to put it in more blatant terms: you have to be able to sell yourself. (Cue dramatic scary music.) This, of course, bothers a lot of people. We’re taught not to brag, and that anyone who stands out will end up getting knocked off their pedestal soon enough. And, sadly, many of us have had people in our lives telling us that we were worthless, or that our art wouldn’t go anywhere. Years of that can really do a number on your confidence.

Even among creatives, there’s this narrative that if you promote yourself and your work you’re narcissistic, selfish and only in it for the money. I tend to think that’s rather a sour grapes sort of attitude, but it’s also symptomatic of that ongoing tendency toward self-devaluation, in this case projected outwardly onto more active promoters.

But you know who else has to be self-centered and all about the money? Job candidates. Nobody complains about them talking about themselves, or negotiating a higher pay rate. Hell, those things are encouraged and praised! They’re signs of a real go-getter that you should totally hire for your company! It’s just another way in which self-employed people, especially creatives, are held to unfair standards in this society.

What if you thought of yourself as being a job candidate every time you promoted a new show you were doing, or a new piece of artwork, or story or book or article? You’re putting your best foot forward, fancy outfit and all. Okay, maybe in some cases the outfit is actually a book cover, but you get the idea: first impressions are important. And you have a limited amount of time in which to engage your potential employer, convince them of your skills and qualifications, and keep your fingers crossed that you get hired. “Being hired” may mean selling a concert ticket or a book or a print, but it still comes down to someone considering what you have to offer of sufficient value for them to compensate you for it.

Really, the main difference is in scale and timing. In a day job, you interview with one or more people at a single company, and if they accept, then you either sign on for a contracted time, or you stick around until either they get sick of you or you get sick of them. Either way, a successful interview means you get to stop interviewing for a while. With self-employment, every day has interviews, and that will always be a permanent part of my work. My day is full of them–with potential art customers, potential publishing allies, potential event venues, potential reviewers, even potential artistic patrons. On the bright side, I can get a lot of these interviews done in one fell swoop. My blog post earlier today about preorders being available for my newest book reached lots of blog subscribers, and will continue to catch the attention of people who come across my blog. The only further communication necessary is if someone either contacts me with specific questions, or make my day and buys the book.

And you know what? Interviews are just a normal part of my job–and yours, too. It doesn’t mean you’re a narcissist, even if you *gasp* enjoy the promotional end of things. Nor does it make you a money-grubbing sell-out; as detailed here, it’s totally okay to want to have a roof over your head so your art supplies and computer don’t get wet in the rain.

If you still have misgivings about that whole promotion thing, that’s okay. But you can at least lay to rest the worries that putting yourself out there somehow makes you less moral than someone with a day job.

The Price is Right: On Haggling, Piracy and the Value of Art

Last week, a couple of things of note popped up on my social media radar. One was this excellent article by Miranda Campbell, Culture Isn’t Free, talking about how expecting artists and creatives to work for “exposure” leaves the creation of culture largely in the hands of those who hold the money. The other was yet another “paganism on a budget” Tumblr post collecting links to sites where you can download free, pirated pagan ebooks, still under copyright rather than public domain. That post had over 2,000 likes/reblogs, if I recall correctly, and likely has more now.

The first one I read and appreciated, then shared on Facebook. The second I forwarded to the publishers whose books were listed so they could file DMCA takedown notices with site hosts. The difference? Ms. Campbell had an agreement with Jacobin as to how her writing would be distributed and how she would be compensated (if at all; I’m not privy to their arrangements). Such websites want links to their content to go viral, and I thought it was worth sharing. But with the website that was linked on the Tumblr post, there was a violation of the terms that the authors of the books had originally agreed to. Part of the publisher’s job is to maintain the terms of the contract, to include fighting privacy; they have more resources, on average, than a single author does.

The publisher-author relationship isn’t perfect. Ten percent royalties is still only a couple of bucks per book, and most authors don’t make a living on their writing. But the author still has the choice to negotiate a contract, and then sign or not sign it. It’s their decision to make their work available through a particular, if often imperfect, avenue that will at least get them some compensation for their effort. And in an economy where creatives are increasingly asked (or told) to work free of charge, some compensation (protected by contract) is better than none.

And to be fair, the publisher does a lot of work. When I sign a contract with a publisher for one of my books, I’m getting free editing, proofreading, layout and distribution, along with a certain amount of promotion. With my artwork, on the other hand, I’m carrying almost all of the burden, from materials acquisition and design creation to actually making the art to selling it in person and online. Either way, each sale of a book or piece of artwork funds far more than just the item itself.

Fang and Fur mediumSo we have to put a price on that time, effort and investment of resources. One of the biggest challenges I’ve seen artists (especially newer ones) face is how to price their art. A price is not merely a number. It’s a statement of value. What is this item worth, not only for its content, but the human resources that were poured into it from start to finish? What costs were incurred in its gestation and birth? And, more importantly, what is the value of the human life that was invested in it, time that needs to be measured in dollars rather than breaths? It’s a difficult thing to determine, and even after almost twenty years I still struggle with pricing my work. (My publishers make the job easier by setting the price on my books themselves, gods bless them.)

Eventually a price is determined, and placed out for the public to view. That price says “This is the amount of money that I will accept for this product of my work.” It’s the same as a contractor saying “I want this much per hour to fix your sink” or a pizza place stating “Here’s how much a large cheese deep dish pie will cost you”.  It is an invitation to an economic contract that is signed when the money is passed over. A simple agreement, sure–you give me that thing, I give you this thing, we consider it a fair trade, we go on with our lives.

There are always people who try to weasel their way out of that agreement. Some of them steal outright. I’ve lost track of how much of my artwork has been shoplifted from my booth at events I’ve vended at over the years. Only once has anything been brought back, by a tearful preteen girl flanked by her angry mother. The rest is spirited away by malcontents and children who don’t seem to understand the damage they do by their actions. But books get stolen, too, and far more often in the digital age. Every person who downloads a pirated .pdf of a copyrighted book is a thief*. It’s not the same as a secondhand paperback bought new and then sold used later on; that’s a single copy that was fairly compensated for, and it will never multiply into more copies (at least not without the help of Xerox or a scanner.) But a .pdf multiplies by its very nature, and within seconds. Whereas a paperback can pass from person to person in a circle of friends, and perhaps circulate among a dozen people in a month if they’re all fast readers, a .pdf can go to thousands of people in a day, and they get to keep their copies no matter who else they pass the book on to. Either way–art or books–the creator is the person who loses out in piracy.

But that’s not the only way the “I offer you this in exchange for this” agreement can be damaged. Allow me to present to you: the haggler. This is that person at events (or via email) who, dissatisfied with the numbers on the price tag, and weaned on Wal-Mart’s “Low Price Guarantee”, decides that they should have the privilege of paying less for a creation than its creator has valued it at. And so they approach said creator and, holding up a piece of art like a yard sale discard, ask “Will you take five bucks for this?”

To be honest, I consider it somewhat offensive when someone asks if I’ll accept a lower price on something I’ve created. I know it’s likely not meant as an insult; the person asking just wants to save a little money. Who doesn’t want that? In an economy where big box stores lure people in with ever-bigger sales and price slashes supported by government subsidies and slave labor, consumers have been trained to get bargains and they never think of who actually pays the costs for their savings**. It smarts more personally, though, when they try to do it to an individual artist. It’s not just that they’ve asked the creator to take less money; it’s that they treat the creation like it has no personality, no love poured into it. It’s just a thing to them.

Haggling, shoplifting, piracy–all these are symptomatic of a bigger cultural problem: the devaluation of art. I have yet to meet an artist who hasn’t at one point or another heard some variation on the following:

“It’s just art, you have fun making art, so it’s not actually work.”

“Will you make me this thing for free, or the cost of materials?”

“It’s exposure–it’ll get you more customers, really!”

“Oh, my aunt/kid/friend made something like that!”

“I bet I could make that!”

“It’s easier to be an artist than a scientist/real estate agent/hotel manager so you shouldn’t expect to get paid like one.”

adaptable4Sure, lots of people make art as a hobby, and even for those of us who do it for a living it can still be fun. But as I wrote last year, Art is Work. If what you do for a living is fun, then you’re doing something right. But that doesn’t take away the amount of effort you put into it. And only you can truly know the value of that work, and decide whether the compensation you’re getting is worth it or not.

When someone shoplifts your art, or pirates your book, or tries to haggle you down from your prices, they are saying that they don’t think your work has as much value as you say it does. And in that moment they are insulting you and your work. Any compliments they have given “Oh, I love this piece, it’s so pretty” is tainted by their unspoken follow-up “….but I don’t think it’s worth all that much.” It’s up to you as to how you want to deal with them, but don’t for an instant think that your work isn’t worth what you value it at, no matter the words of thieves and hagglers.

We are artists and writers and creatives. Our work and our time have value, and we deserve to be compensated for our effort, and to be able to decide how our work will be distributed and offered to the public. Nothing less is acceptable.

* For those pagans on a budget who try to justify their piracy by saying “But I’m poor/young/etc. and can’t afford to buy these books”, most authors have blogs wherein they share their writing for free to anyone who will read. Many also write for websites, again for free. Some will even happily answer your questions via email. With all that free writing available, you have no excuse to steal their books. Save the books for when you can at least get secondhand copies, and honor the value they put on their work.
** It would take an entirely separate post to get into the problems of not putting the full value on mass-marketed items like made-in-China clothing, or a farmer’s crop of wheat. We may give art more aesthetic value than these things, but the human effort behind them is no less important or deserving of value. And those low, low prices ignore the human rights abuses and environmental destruction that result from the manufacturing process.

The Litany of Nature; Or, Time For a New Journal

Townsend’s chipmunk.
Bleeding heart.
Chicken of the woods.

Earlier this month I experienced an important milestone: I filled up my hiking journal.

Most hikes I’ve gone on in the past seven and a half years, I’ve toted along an increasingly battered, well-loved spiral-bound blank book that was a gift from my aunt who has always indulged my love of journals. The covers are decorated with art by biologist and artist Heather A. Wallis-Murphy, rendered in lovely watercolors. (I highly recommend her journals, cards and the like on her website; you’ll need to order via snail mail, but it’s totally worth it.) And the pages are nice quality paper, perfect for jotting down notes and sketches.

Old man’s beard.
Sword fern.
Douglas squirrel.

I first started writing in this journal in September of 2007, a few months after I moved to Portland and began exploring the wilderness areas in the Columbia River Gorge. I was just getting into neoshamanism at the time (that’s about when I started blogging at Therioshamanism, the predecessor to this blog). So my excursions into wild places were punctuated by spiritual impressions and beings and meanings, and my journaling reflected that. There were rituals, and meditations, and other things besides simply hiking. There were reflective essays on how I’d developed since the last hike, complete with “Here’s where I am now, Journal!” walls of text. I did record the animals and plants I recognized; only a few at first, but more over time.  Still, those took a backseat to the longer-form writings.

As the years went on, the content of my entries changed. They were less about “me, me, me!”; instead, the focus shifted to more observations on the world around me. In my previous relationship which I’d been embroiled in at the start of the journal, I’d gotten into the bad habit of navel-gazing so hard that I ended up processing in circles. The same problems kept coming up over and over again, but ultimately were never solved (hence the end of that relationship). I began doubting the effectiveness of all these abstract symbols of the wilderness, and thinking maybe–like the constant “internal work”–they were distracting me from what was really important.

Fly agaric.
Lobaria pulmonaria.
Mountain chickadee.

It took years to finally get to the point where I felt I could admit that what I really needed wasn’t what I had been striving for–a more structured neoshamanic path. Instead, I yearned for a falling away of abstractions and symbols and other things that distanced me from the purest manifestation of nature. I required nothing less than immediate and direct contact with the physical world, not in myths or superstitions, but in soil and species and the ever-shifting clouds overhead. I wanted only the deepest, least cluttered connection I’d had as a child, when the sacredness of nature first became known to me. And so I lost my religion, and in doing so gained the world.

My journal entries shifted as well. I stopped trying to wax eloquent on theology and the dramas of my everyday life. Instead, I began to do more listing. Animals. Plants. Fungi. Even geological formations. Everything I noticed and could identify, I made note of. Even if I didn’t know the exact species, I took note of field marks and looked it up later when I was home with a reliable internet connection. It didn’t matter that no one else could read my horrible chicken scratch scribbled handwriting. What was on those pages was the blossoming of a curious mind that had been entangled for decades.

Red elderberry.
Common raven.
Black morel.
Sandhill crane.
Red admiral.
Hemlock.
Maidenhair fern.
Cooper’s hawk.
Miner’s lettuce.
Evernia prunastria.
Steller’s jay.
Skunk cabbage.
Mule deer.
And more.
So many more.

journals2In the years since that shift, my time in the woods has been better, more productive, more calming. I no longer care whether that bird I saw was really a spiritual messenger and I shouldn’t offend it. It is enough that my path crossed with that of another living being, one I might not get to see in my everyday sphere of existence. I no longer try to map out the Upper, Middle and Lower worlds. I content myself with vast, interrelated ecosystems, more full of wonder and magic than I had remembered from childhood.

And in my journal, I could trace that growth. My lists of beings I could identify was no longer a small handful, but dozens, and with many more to be learned and known and understood. Animals were no longer the main focus; I beheld entire systems, of which the wildlife was only one part. I recorded my excitement at seeing a new-to-me species or a behavior I hadn’t witnessed before. And I became hungry for even more.

My new journal is another Wild Tales creation, this time with eagles as the theme. It is pristine, but for the first few pages. These carry the memories and lists of my Oregon desert adventures, transcribed over from temporary paper while the journal arrived in the mail. Already the corners are a little bent from being shoved into my day pack in my subsequent hikes; my name and number adorn the cover, just in case I lose it somewhere. I suspect I’ll fill it up a lot quicker than the last one. I’m hiking more often, and I have a lot more to record. There’s the litany of nature to record, after all.

Yellow-headed blackbird.
Sagebrush.
Sunburst lichen…

Plastics, Resins and Foams: On Trying to Be an Eco-Friendly Artist in an Era of Synthetics

“Hey, can you make me a pouch, but with fake fur instead of real?”
“I really like your animal headdresses, but can you make one with a taxidermy form and glass eyes in it?”
“Have you seen those resin rings with moss in them? I bet you could make an even better one!”

These are just a few of the suggestions I’ve gotten over the years as an artist. And I really do appreciate when people try to turn me on to new ideas, materials and the like. It shows that they’re paying attention to my work and they want to see what happens when I turn my creativity in a particular direction. (In other words: please don’t stop making suggestions just because of what I’m about to say in this post!)

Eco-Art and Styrofoam

coyote3Some of these ideas work really well. Others…well…they don’t even get out of the starting gate. Some of them are axed due to the limitations of physics (real, triple-curled ram’s horns are very heavy and don’t work for the sort of headbands I use–and also my neck says ouch!) Others are no-go due to legalities (sorry, I can’t make you earrings with real raven/crow/hawk/blue jay/owl feathers since it’s illegal here.) And some, like the suggestions in the first paragraph of this post, I opt out of because I don’t feel they’re going to help me create more eco-friendly artwork.

One of my biggest challenges as an artist and an environmentalist is finding eco-friendly art supplies. As with everything else in our industry-heavy society, most art supplies have been created solely with human need in mind; the environmental effects are much a much lower priority, except where regulations have induced manufacturers to comply with certain standards. Therefore our art supplies are full of plastics and other nonbiodegradables, along with a host of synthetic chemicals, unsustainably mined metals, and other environmentally unfriendly components.

So the very last thing I want to do is to add to that. I’ve had a LOT of people criticize my use of real fur and then suggest I use fake fur instead because it’s supposedly more “eco-friendly”. What they mean is no animal immediately died to make fake fur–but their fakes are made of plastic-based synthetic fibers. These plastics are often derived from petroleum, coal and other pollution-inducing materials, and the entire manufacturing chain for fake fur causes more animal (and plant and fungus) deaths than the death of a single fur-bearing animal. They also don’t biodegrade, and as they break up into ever-tinier bits of plastic they cause even greater pollution and destruction, up to and including killing zooplankton that eat the tiny fragments. (We need that plankton–it’s the backbone of the ocean ecosystem!)

The same thing goes for the polystyrene taxidermy forms on the market, and which people keep insisting I use for taxidermy headdresses. I am not about to take a brand-new chunk of non-biodegradable styrofoam and shove it into the head of a headdress, never mind the additional ecological burden of the hide paste (often polymer-based), plastic fake teeth, and mass-manufactured glass eyes used in the making of taxidermy. As for the resin jewelry? It’s made of acrylic, and I’ll explain why that’s a problem in a minute.

Allow me me make something clear: I’m far from innocent, even as I eschew the above suggestions. While I try to be mindful of my supplies, I’m as deeply embroiled in this system of toxicity as most other artists. Let’s look at a recent piece of mine as one example.

Deconstructing a Fox

coyotenecklace

This is a fox skull necklace I created earlier this year for an art show. It’s pretty typical of my work–lots of yarn and beads and paint, with real bone as the centerpiece. Pretty eco-friendly, right? Well, let’s dig into that a bit more.

The skull itself came from another artist’s leftovers; it was likely from an animal hunted or trapped for its hide. More people are reclaiming the bones from these animals so that more of the remains are being used rather than discarded. When other artists sell off their supplies or collections I like to buy them up when I’m able to afford to; it keeps me from having to buy new ones, and it lets me put a bit of money in the pocket of an individual who needs to pay the bills.

Bone itself is pretty environmentally neutral, but remember that in this case I coated it in acrylic paint. I use acrylic for all sorts of projects; it adheres well to both bone and leather, comes in a variety of colors, mixes easily and dries quickly. It’s durable enough to be put on drums (with sealant) and it’s inexpensive. It’s often upheld as a good alternative because it’s water-based rather than oil-based, and other than acrylics made with cadmium and other heavy metals they’re relatively free of pigments commonly thought to be toxic. But what about the acrylic itself?

Acrylic is a thermoplastic made from applying heat to certain organic compounds. At least one of which, acrylic acid, is very corrosive to human skin, so don’t think “organic” equals “harmless”! All an organic compound is is a molecular compound containing carbon–many of which can be man-made. Additionally, the craft-grade acrylics I usually use often have vinyl or polyvinyl acetate (in other words–more plastic) mixed in for better stickiness and to cut costs. Both acrylic and vinyl are polymers, which means they’re made of very long chains of molecules. It also means that they’re next to indestructible, and therefore not easily biodegradable. So essentially what this means is when I paint a skull with acrylic paints, I’m putting a very thin layer of plastic on it. Even if I forgo the acrylic sealant (which would add yet another layer or three of acrylic), it’s still a lot of plastic molecules that are eventually going to flake off into the environment, and even tiny bits of plastics can have a devastating ecological effect.

The skull is strung on a necklace made of braided yarn and embroidery thread. I did buy the thread and yarn secondhand, since the thrift stores are full to overflowing with craft supplies around here, and I can get big bags of the stuff for relatively little cash. So I’m able to cut down on the demand for new manufactured goods, but what happens once the cord wears out and has to be replaced? Well, the yarn is–surprise, surprise!–acrylic. The embroidery thread is “mercerized cotton”. What the hell does mercerized mean? In short, it’s a process wherein cotton fibers are wrapped around a polyester (plastic!) core. I can only imagine the chemicals that went into the dyes used to bleach and color these things. Here’s a partial list of what could be in them. The dyes used in clothing, which likely have some overlap with yarn, are supposedly “nonpoisonous”, but again they’re only looking at the direct effects on humans who accidentally ingest them, not the massive environmental effects of the production of these dyes.

Finally, let’s look at the metal content of this piece. The cord is adorned with brass bells and copper beads, both from India, which means more shipping costs like ocean pollution. The copper wire was reclaimed from old computer components, so at least that’s a reclamation. All of these metals were probably mined in less than environmentally satisfactory manners, with resultant pollutants and other damage. Even in areas with regulations, violations of these laws are all too common. While the brass and copper itself may naturally corrode over time, the chemicals used in its mining, treatment, and manufacture into crafting materials likely won’t break down so easily.

Reducing the Impact

foxesinthehenhouse3I’ve been aware of the environmental impact of my artwork for years. It’s not feasible–or desirable–for every artist to entirely switch to a completely guilt-free medium all at once. An established oil painter wouldn’t do very well to suddenly start making all of their art out of old bottle caps and twist ties. But we can look into ways to more organically shift our materials in an environmentally conscious direction.

–Secondhand first (and local when new)

This is currently my most common solution to the environmental conundrum. Most of my acrylic paints are secondhand, either from SCRAP, local thrift stores, and even free boxes on Portland curbs. These sources often yield other treasures, like perfectly good paintbrushes, beads, yarn and related materials. And, as I mentioned earlier, I try to buy hides and bones secondhand as often as I’m able. I don’t remember the last time I actually bought something from Michael’s; the last new thing I bought was a couple of tubes of paint (acrylic and tempera) from the local family-owned art supply store around the corner from my apartment.

–Use it up, wear it out, make it do…

I throw very little away when it comes to my art. Tiny hide scraps and ends of thread end up as pillow stuffing. Old paint brushes get repurposed into assemblage materials. I don’t get rid of a tube of paint until I’ve squeezed the past tiny bit out of it. I also don’t buy things I don’t need. I have one pair of jewelry pliers I’ve been using for almost twenty years. While certain parts of my art might be a little easier if I owned an airbrush, I prefer to keep making the acrylics dance to my tune.

–…or do without

Sometimes I just say no, like with the taxidermy headdresses and resin jewelry. I already make awesome headdresses and beautiful jewelry without adding more to my plastics load. I don’t need to jump onto the next trendy-trend, especially if my conscience really isn’t okay with it.

–Finding alternatives

For the past few years I’ve been wanting to experiment with better alternatives to some of my materials. It’s only been recently I’ve started trying these new media, though. My most recent experiment has been testing tempera paint to see how it compares to acrylics in my usual creations. I’ve thought about making paints and glues from scratch (like these Earth Paints that my friend Autumn reminded me about recently), though I do have to be mindful of my time restrictions and the relatively small amount of paint/glue I use in one project. But it’s still an option on the table.

I also have to make sure the alternatives aren’t just as bad as–or worse than–what they’re replacing. I occasionally use hemp cord instead of yarn for necklace cords. Trouble is, it’s a lot harder to find it secondhand, which means I almost always have to buy it new. That means I’m contributing to the more immediate demand for this resource, which is often manufactured overseas and then shipped over here with a heavy environmental toll for the trip. And like other industrial crops, hemp is grown as a monocrop, which means miles upon miles of natural habitat chewed up for fields that only produce hemp, wildlife displaced and native plants exterminated. So in this case, at least, I figure secondhand yarn is the better option for me.

–Don’t take too much

It’s become en vogue in recent years to incorporate pine cones, seed pods, dried leaves and other such things into artwork, particularly assemblage and jewelry. Unfortunately, this can be devastating to a local habitat, especially if over-harvesting is done on a regular basis. I tend toward materials that aren’t in any danger of being extirpated; after a windy day I walk around my neighborhood and pick up sticks covered in lichens since they’re just going to end up mulched anyway. I leave nettles alone, though, because in Portland the numbers of red admiral butterflies have plummeted in recent years thanks to overharvesting of nettles for food by would-be back-to-nature fans. (Thanks to Rewild Portland for being honest and spreading the word about that unintended consequence!)

–Give back

Nothing is better than reducing your impact. But everything we do in this tech-heavy, resource-hungry culture has a negative effect on the environment, and so sometimes we can help through a sort of rebalancing. In addition to trying to be a more mindful artist, I give funds (and some volunteer time) to environmental nonprofits who can do more to make big changes than I can. I’m not a lobbyist, I don’t have the paperwork to go into parks and start planting native species, and I don’t have money to buy conservation easements. But I can at least funnel some of my income towards the people who do these things and more. And while I’m a busy self-employed person, I at least have enough schedule flexibility to do some volunteering now and then, whether it’s litter pickup or water testing.

When it comes to art and the earth, there are no quick and easy answers; using fake fur won’t automatically make you a more eco-friendly artist than I am. But if we keep having these conversations on what’s the best alternative for our own needs, and if we keep sharing information and resources, we can start shifting the attitudes that have led to our primary options being toxic and destructive, and move toward a more mindful and responsible way of creating our art.

elk2

Song For the Elements

I sing of water
Dripping in every pore
Sloshing through every vein
Pooling in each organ.
I drink deeply of the cool draught;
The tap carries Bull Run into my soul.
Rain peers out of my eyes,
And mist infuses every exhalation.
I carry the ocean in every cell.
Not an ocean, mind you.
The ocean.
The one that birthed all life,
The mother of all of us.
Every sip we take is us returning to Mama for a visit.

******************

I sing of earth
The rock that builds my bones
And teeth like storm-smoothed agate.
I have arches in my feet
And gullies at the corners of my eyes,
Through which flash floods rip at a moment’s notice.
I am mountains and hills in all the good places
And valleys so serene you’d swear it was paradise.
I have moss-soft flesh, and steel covered in velvet.
Long ago I was lava.
Tomorrow I’ll be dirt.
And in a week I’ll dive beneath the nearest plate
To build myself once again.

*******************

I sing of air
Nature’s own balloon
Filling in the spaces between things,
Because no one is truly empty.
I am the breath that cries
And laughs
And whispers fear in the night.
I am bubbles in the stomach
And molecules surfing the blood.
I convey memory and thought
Like ravens’ wings from synapse to synapse.
There is the low rolling tide of the lungs,
The approaching roar, the alveoli stand wide to receive
A flood of Os, satisfaction gained–
Death is averted once more.

*********************

I sing of fire
Fever’d skin and boiling blood
And the ache for a lover’s touch.
“Feed me”, I say,
And the furnace opens up for business.
No mere chemical reaction, this.
Only the most hellish and needful thing
That we scare each other with on Sunday morning–
And warm each other by of a Saturday night.
Every cell in my body is a flickering flame
A candle formed of fruits and meats and good fresh veggies.
The bread burns as brightly as the tallow.
Someday every one will wind down and become cinders,
But for now I burn brightly,
Fearful symmetry and all.

**************

Happy Earth Day, all. I hope you enjoyed the verse above. I also invite you to read and, if you agree with it, sign A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment. I was one of several people who worked on this statement over the past several months, getting it ready for today’s official unveiling.

So Here’s What I Think of Patreon Seven Months In

I’ve had several people ask me how Patreon’s been working out for me, so I decided I’d just write out a post for general consumption. I started my account back in July 2014, and as of this writing I have 35 Patrons and a total of $531 in monthly pledges, which is pretty damned good, all told. Overall it’s been a worthwhile effort, but here’s a more detailed breakdown.

Benefits:

–It’s a fun way to connect with people who like my work and treat them to exclusive stuff.

I love connecting with fans of my work. If I can create something that makes someone else happy, then I’ve done a good job. Patreon is essentially a regular feed of my writing and art, both online and via snail mail. Patreon offers two different ways to get paid for your work, either a pledge per individual project or a flat pledge per month. I am a very frequent poster; in seven months I’ve posted almost 250 projects, or about 35/month. A lot of these are work in progress shots that are only visible to my Patrons, though the completed works are there, too. (I use the “activity” tab for updates and check-ins with my Patrons.)

So this means that every week my Patrons get an eclectic mix of work in progress shots, final projects, sneak peeks of blog posts that haven’t gone live, and whatever other fun things I decide to post. And then once a month I get to send out the monthly rewards. For those pledging $5 or more, that’s the profile I post of a different animal, plant or fungus totem each month. Starting at $15, I start mailing out actual physical goodies, ranging from art to books to the makings of a cabinet of curiosities. I really get a kick out of mailing these little “care packages” to folks, and I hope they look forward to them at least as much as I look forward to sending them.

–It’s a fairly steady amount of money each month.

The first of the month is always a challenge financially. Not only is rent due, but so are several other decent-sized bills. So it’s a real boon to get an extra chunk of change in the bank account right about then. Patreon usually starts charging Patrons the first of the month, though there have been one or two times where they were delayed for a couple of days. However, they’ve gotten faster about processing since I signed up, and the money generally shows up in my account within 24-48 hours after I initiate a transfer.

–It’s a great way to try out crowdfunding without a big risk.

If you’re thinking about crowdfunding but you’re unsure whether you’d get a project fully funded, Patreon is a good training ground. I’m planning an IndieGoGo (or similar) campaign this April to help fund the Tarot of Bones; it’ll be my first time-limited, single-project crowdfunding effort. Patreon has been a good way to gauge interest in my work, and to help me brush up on my promotional skills, and I feel more prepared for the spring fundraiser than I probably would have without Patreon.

Drawbacks:

–It’s not a 100% predictable amount of income.

People can sign up as your Patron at any time, but they can also end their Patronage at any time, too. And while Patreon emails you whenever someone signs up or changes the amount of their pledge, they don’t let you know when someone drops off, so it can be a little disappointing to go to your profile and see your pledge level has dropped unexpectedly. I have had former Patrons message me when they dropped their pledge to let me know why, which is always appreciated. But it’s best to see Patreon as a supplement unless you’re one of those rare folks who has hundreds of Patrons giving thousands of dollars a month.

–You don’t get to keep all the money that’s pledged to you.

Patreon takes a BIG chunk of money out. From their FAQ:

Patreon takes 5% and the creators cover the credit card transaction fees which are generally 4% across the site. Also remember that some pledges will fail due to declined credit cards. We’re happy if a creator sees around $0.90 of every dollar!

As as an example, of that $531 in pledges that I had at the beginning of February, after Patreon’s fees and two declined cards I received $463.88. It’s still a nice bit of money and I’m grateful for it, but I feel it’s important for readers to know that what it says I get per month on my profile won’t necessarily be what ends up in my bank account.

Additionally, I spend a fair bit of each month’s pledges in shipping costs. Granted, they’re factored into the pledges, but I routinely spend between $3 and $9 to ship an item to a Patron. This month my shipping charges were well over $100 because I promised if I hit $500/month in pledges I’d send all the Patrons who helped me achieve that goal a little natural history specimen as a gift, and so I had to send out over 30 packages, including a few international ones. Had this been a normal month I would have sent out seventeen packages, but the shipping would still have been in the $60 range.

–It’s a LOT of work.

When I started my Patreon account in July, I didn’t automatically have $500 worth of pledges flood in. I did hit the $100/month milestone within the first few days, which honestly blew my mind. And in January I managed to go from $401 to $531 in a matter of something like two days because I did a bunch of “Woohoo! Help me hit $500!” social media posts.

But in between $100 and $401 was a ton of work. As a self-employed creative person I have had to perfect the art of self-promotion–or at least work toward perfecting it. I mention it multiple times a week on Facebook, Tumblr and elsewhere. I talk it up when I vend in person. I let my online customers know about it. In short, I do my damnedest to let everyone know that “Hey! I have a Patreon and you can get all kinds of cool stuff that no one else gets if you sign up!

This means you have to be absolutely tireless in your promotion to make it work. I mean, if you already have a platform of tens of thousands of people ready to throw money at you then your Patreon should fill up quickly. But for the rest of us, it’s a hell of a slog, and I am absolutely grateful for every one of my Patrons, past and present. (And would-be–I know there are folks out there who’d love to pledge except they can’t afford even $1/month right now. Totally understandable.)

Platform-specific Complaints:

–No way to browse individual artists (“Creators”) as opposed to projects.

If you go to Patreon’s homepage, there are only a few ways to find Creators.  Below the initial “Hey, we’re Patreon!” video you can see five featured projects. And if you click on “Featured” on the bar at the top of the homepage you get a couple dozen more features projects. That “Featured” page also has a left menu of categories, but again it it only takes you to individual projects, not Creators. The only way you can find individual Creators who take pledges on a monthly basis rather than a project-by-project basis is if you search for their name or keywords in the search bar at the top of the site, so it’s well-nigh impossible to be discovered by a potential Patron who didn’t already know who you are.

I’ve contacted Patreon about this, and they claim they’re working on a solution, but I’ll believe it when I see it. As it is, I have to rely a lot more on my own promotion and the word of mouth of others than Creators who pledge per project.

–Back-end navigation is a little counterintuitive and disorganized.

You would think that if I wanted to edit my profile (which shows what I’m offering the world) AND my Patreon Manager (which tells me who’s pledging what) I would go to one central location, right? Nope. To get to the former there’s a dropdown menu accessible from the upper right-hand corner of the screen, marked by my logo. To access the latter, I have to click on “Home” (not “Patreon”), and then click on the little button that says “Patron Manager”.

And it just gets more unwieldy from there. Each month’s record of Patrons has its own individual page, meaning a lot of clicking through and having to compare each month from its own tab. I’m sure they’ll keep upgrading it, but for now it’s kind of a pain in the ass to navigate.

Conclusion:

Gripes aside, I see Patreon as a way to get guaranteed custom work each month. I have a group of people that I know I’ll be making art for, and I have people I know I’ll be sending books to, and I have folks who will be enjoying little exclusive treats in my feed throughout the month. I’m quite used to having to work hard promoting my stuff, so this is just one more thing for me to offer.

Speaking of that–if you want to be my Patron, here’s my account again! You can become my Patron for as little as $1/month, and help me keep writing posts like this one. And thank you!

Announcing My Newest Project: The Tarot of Bones

Happy New Year, all! For the past several weeks I’ve been dropping hints here and there about a big, super-secret project I have in the works, and now I’m doing the big unveil:

After almost twenty years of practicing nature-based spirituality and creating art with natural materials, I am creating a tarot deck. The Tarot of Bones is an ambitious project combining the nature-inspired symbolism of animal bones with the tarot’s well-loved archetypes to create an unparalleled divination set for the 21st century. As animals exist within vibrant and complex ecosystems, the bones will be ensconced in permanent assemblage artworks using natural and reclaimed materials reflecting both the animal’s habitat and emblems of their respective cards.

The Tarot of Bones will be a complete 78-card tarot deck with both the Major and Minor Arcana, each card featuring a full-color photograph of the assemblage piece I create for it. A full companion book will also be available, detailing the symbolism and potential interpretations of each card, as well as sample layouts and other material of use to the reader. The Tarot of Bones will be self-published to allow me the greatest amount of creative control; I will be organizing a crowdfunding campaign later in 2015. If you would like to support my creative endeavors in the meantime and get access to exclusive work in progress photos of the artwork for the cards, please consider becoming my patron on Patreon.

For more information and updates please refer to the pages and other links at the official website; you may also wish to join our Facebook page (make sure you turn on notifications!) I’ll be posting pictures of the assemblage art for each of the 78 tarot cards in the deck-to-be. The first one will be up later in January; in the meantime, I invite you to take a peek at some of my other artwork on my portfolio; you can also see specific samples of my work on the main page of the Tarot of Bones website to give you some idea of the style I will be using for this deck.

And please share, reblog or otherwise pass this post on to anyone you feel may be interested; as I will not have the promotional power of a publisher behind me on this project, word of mouth is going to be a really important component of making it happen. Thank you!

Art is Work

My friend and fellow creative person, Liv Rainey-Smith, shared a fantastic article by Sarah Manning over Facebook earlier this week. Entitled The Pomplamoose Problem: Artists Can’t Survive as Saints and Martyrs, it neatly skewers the idea that artists (and writers, and other creatives) shouldn’t seek financial recompense for our work, and that artists who place money as a priority are automatically sellouts. There’s a quote I particularly like:

It’s a dangerous, impossible standard that is repressing self-expression and killing culture…The American artist is expected to be both a saint and a martyr. Operate outside the capitalist system and we’ll praise you for your creations, call your poverty a quaint kind of martyrdom that has nothing to do with us, and at the same time resent you for being holier than thou. Try to operate within the capitalist system and we’ll call you out as an imposter.

With my own work, I find this attitude complicated further by the spiritual dimensions of my art and writing. Within the pagan, New Age and related communities, there’s a deep vein of mistrust of money and materialism, to the point where any sort of material comfort is seen as a dangerous seduction into evil. (There’s a great rebuttal by Jake Diebolt in this week’s guest post at my other blog, Paths Through the Forests.) Those seen as leaders (or who at least manage to publish at least one on-topic nonfiction book) are held to especial levels of scrutiny; spiritual enlightenment supposedly makes one immune to the needs of the physical world; achieve a certain amount of transcendence and you no longer need to pay rent, or so the theory seems to go.

Well, the only level of “transcendence” I know of in which a person no longer needs shelter is death, and I’m not there yet. Moreover, I intend to keep it that way as long as I can. And since I just got done talking about how we artists never seem to run out of ideas for projects, I think I can safely assume that most of my fellow creative types would like long lives full of opportunities to make neat things happen.

Peixe010eueThis means we need to have a place to live, food to eat, access to health care, and all the other things everyone else requires. And somehow this comes as a shock to certain people who appear to be under the misapprehension that, like a goldfish in a bowl, artists will happily subsist in the most minimal of living conditions simply for the joy of making art. What people often don’t realize about both goldfish and artists is that these minimal settings are inadequate. Goldfish are a type of carp which can grow quite large, and a plain bowl of water without regular filtration can quickly accumulate toxins, leading to either an unhealthy or dead goldfish. And while a human being can ostensibly live in an overcrowded slum apartment with bad food and alcohol taking the place of medical attention, over time such a lifestyle takes a serious physical and psychological toll.

So it should come as no surprise when an artist finds a way to crawl out of that level of destitution, we take it. That’s when the real fun begins. We’ve ceased to be the romantic notion of the artist nobly starving for their art, putting the creative process and the spiritual efforts far above any material wants or needs. Instead we now demand the same realistic treatment as everyone else.

Most artists have day jobs; most of those who don’t have a spouse or other person taking care of their basic financial needs. That rarest of creatures, the creative person who subsists entirely on income from their work, is held up as the magical “someday goal” for those artists still chugging away as a barista or retail clerk or warehouse worker. “Maybe someday I’ll be a good/popular/prolific enough artist to get to that point!” they think. That dream carries them through the drudgery of what actually pays their bills. But it’s not all dreaming and scheming; when the toil of a job they hate becomes too much, they may lash out at their self-employed counterparts with a flail of envy. And that is part of what feeds into the “Artists shouldn’t make money from their art!” attitude. It’s spoiled dreams and sour grapes all the way.

Not every artist with a day job is so embittered. Some are quite content with what pays their bills; art has remained a hobby for them, a nice diversion at the end of the day to blow off some steam. They may give away everything they create to friends and family, buying more supplies with the surplus from their paychecks. Or they sell their wares for next to nothing, undercutting everyone else’s prices on Etsy or at the craft fair. There is no desperation there, no drive to draw a profit. Nothing wrong with that approach in and of itself. But it begs the question: why don’t more artists just go get day jobs in their field?

American_crow_From_The_Crossley_ID_Guide_Eastern_BirdsFor many artists a steady gig, even if it is making art for someone else’s specs, is the ideal balance between paying the bills and expressing one’s creativity. Unfortunately, even freelance work is scarce, and the competition is vicious. Most of the jobs are for graphic artists, so anyone working in other media is likely to find slim pickings at best. And a full-time permanent position with benefits? You may as well toss a handful of chocolates into a throng of starving crows and watch the murder commence.

And yet, this is what’s held up to us as the solution to our problem. Go draw a steady paycheck like everyone else. Stop charging more than pocket change for your own work. Keep your art marginalized and low-paid so we can keep living down to that image of starvation and conformity. Be the shining example of uncorrupted creativity, untouched by filthy lucre.

Yes, what about that notion of corruption? Don’t sellout artists end up churning out crap because they’re more concerned with money than art? No more than anyone else. Everyone does what they need to to stay fed and sheltered; for some people that’s wrangling numbers in an accountant’s office, for others it’s detangling spaghetti code, and for still others it’s creating whatever commercial art an advertising studio wants. Sometimes artists do end up pandering to popular trends because that’s what pays the bills. it doesn’t mean they no longer put their creativity into the process, nor do they stop making more experimental art on their own time (and dime.)

Personally, I’ve found that an artist with the bills paid will make better art. When I have time to myself, when my commission list is empty and I don’t have any upcoming vending events, when I’ve made enough cash to cover rent and bills and other expenses, that’s when I really shine. Those are the golden moments when the stress of deadlines no longer holds me back, and I can make whatever the hell I want. I can try out new techniques; I can explore projects that may sit around unsold for years simply because they’re fun to make; I can try writing in a new genre I haven’t played with before. I couldn’t do these things if I wasn’t able to literally buy myself the breathing room to do so.

I want you to notice something very important: taking commissions and selling simpler, more popular pieces to pay the bills doesn’t take away my creativity. These “bread and butter” art sales are my equivalent to a day job; they enhance my ability to create the more experimental pieces I do on my own time. And unlike someone working a desk job, I am constantly using my artistic skills and keeping them honed; there’s no transition from work headspace to art headspace. It’s only a matter of what project I’m focused on at any given moment. I love every piece I create, too, from the simplest little pouch to the most elaborate headdress, and all points in between. But I also love having a roof over my head, and so I deliberately apportion time to different sorts of project so that I make sure I still have a place in which to work and materials to create with.

This is the reality of artists today: We are not your romantic notions, your symbols of the sylph-like elevated creative; our art is not automatically enhanced by hardship, nor should you enforce our hardship just to make us make art that you consider to be more “genuine.” We are people with real needs and problems, and we have to eat, too. We work every bit as hard as you do for each and every dollar, often for longer hours and less security.

And that’s the thing this culture needs to come to accept: art is work, and it’s okay to pay us for it, dammit.

Do you enjoy my writing and art? Want to make sure I can keep making cool stuff? Consider being my patron on Patreon, purchasing a piece of my art, or giving one of my books a home! And don’t forget to share this post on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, too.

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Spoiled For Choice

Oh gods. It’s happened again.

I’ve found myself in between projects. There’s paint drying on one piece, and I just finished up the thing I was doing while waiting for each coat to dry. Suddenly, I’m off my rhythm. It’s no longer “dab some gold trim on this, then get back to stitching that.” Now it’s “just a little more burnt umber here….and now what?”

I look to my work table. There are a couple of project ideas sitting there, but nothing really inspires me. Hmm, I can’t work on that one until tomorrow since the downstairs neighbors wouldn’t appreciate me running the Dremel at this hour. And that other one there just hasn’t come together in my head yet. One of these days, but not now.

Alright. Back to the back bedroom where I keep the bulk of my supplies. Jinxed again! When I’m busy cleaning this place up, I’m rife with ideas for things to create with my little treasure trove. Not now, though. I pick up a metal lid with a decorative pattern that I’d thought to put into an assemblage piece–but then there’s a hide I’ve been meaning to make into a bag–and over there is a pile of secondhand necklaces I haven’t yet disassembled and salvaged for beads.

Worse yet, it’s after ten at night and I have a limited shelf life before I need to sleep, caffeine or no. And I have a busy few days, so anything I start now will likely have to be shelved til the weekend. Oh, the frustration of it all!

*********************

If you’re a creative sort, the above dilemma likely sounds familiar. When we artists (by which I mean all sorts, not just visual artists) have the freedom to start any new project we want, the choices can feel overwhelming to the point where we end up stuck. This isn’t quite the same as the usual understanding of writers’ block or similar woes. That’s the opposite issue–there are no ideas, no inspirations, nothing but dull emptiness where creativity usually resides.

No, this is an overwhelming flood of possibilities, each one clamoring for attention as loudly as the next. There’s almost a sense of guilt in picking one out, as though the others will feel left out and unloved. How can I create all my projects at the same time!

But that’s one of the greatest fuels for the artist’s fire: the fact that no matter how long we live we will never, ever run out of projects. I have no doubt that on my deathbed I will still have a long list of things I wanted to create, and I only hope my joy at all the things I did manifest will outweigh the regret of the never-weres.

And art can be patient, too. The project waits for the artist until both are ready to dance. Right now, a lot of my creative effort–and, quite frankly, time and energy–is going into making my yearly arts festival, Curious Gallery, come together next month. I just finished a book manuscript up last month, and I’m itching to start on one of the two dozen ideas on my ever-growing books-to-write list, plus a pretty massive art project I’ve been planning for some time. However, those will have to wait. I can only really tackle one Big Project at a time, with other more routine, small art and writing projects tucked in around the edges. But I know these Big Projects will still be waiting for me after the middle of January, when Curious Gallery is done for another year.

But that’s then. This is tonight, with a scant bit of time before I go to bed. The paint’s dried, and I find myself most of the way through writing this post. How did I get here? I chose, looking at a few factors as I did:

–Time: I realistically only had a couple hours at most before fatigue set in. And I didn’t want to get into anything too involved, just something to do in the bit of time I had. A blog post would suffice.

–Need: It’s been a few days since I last posted here. I didn’t have the time or energy for a really deep, involved, or emotionally taxing post, so I decided to keep it light and on the topic of the moment.

–Energy: Creative pursuits are fun, but they can be really exhausting (which is why it can be infuriating when people treat all art as a hobby, not actual work.) Since it was late, I didn’t really have it in me to start on some elaborate thing that would require a dozen different materials or a proper opening topic sentence, though I tried to offer some substance, at least.

–Demand: You, my audience, are a fairly easy crowd to please. Yet I feel the need to switch up my publicly consumable creations. If I let the blog lie fallow for too long, interest wanes, and some of you are mostly here for my writing. However, my more art-inclined fans like having a fresh infusion of hide-and-bone-and-stuff goodness, and I don’t want you neglected, either. And there are those of you who are creative omnivores, and I like giving you a balanced diet of works. So since I’ve been a bit heavy on the art lately, I thought a blog post would be a nice thing to wake up to.

–Attention: All of the above is fairly logical and planned out. However, there’s intuition to it as well. I just can’t get into a project if it doesn’t capture my attention, and you artists know how it is trying to force yourself to complete a project you have to do but don’t really want to do right this moment. So even if all the other factors come together for a particular project, if my heart’s not in it I’m not gonna do it.

Mind you, this isn’t a perfect recipe for artistic success every time. I very nearly spent the previous hour and a half scrolling through Tumblr, Wikipedia, and other places where I can let my brain relax a bit before bed, and there have been plenty of occasions where I’ve crawled into the sack at 2am thinking “How the hell did I just spend two hours doing nothing?” Sometimes it’s good for me to do nothing for a while. For those times where I absolutely must be productive, though, giving myself the opportunity to settle on one of many projects tends to stand me in good stead.