craftpeople are you selling your heart and soul?

I think it is common for craftspeople to have very ambivalent feelings about selling their work. On the one hand it can be a wonderful experience when we meet someone who really apreciates what we are doing and will enjoy the objects we make, on the other it can leave us feeling cheapened, as if our work has been turned into a mere commodity. Most craftspeople find it difficult to actively sell their work.
What is the problem?

I think it comes down to what we put into the work.  Louis Nizer said.

“A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist”

I would argue that any good craftperson works with hand, head and heart. And this is the problem. We actually put quite a bit of ourselves into our work. Everyone knows this is the case with artists and nowadays it is fashionable for artists to be very explicit in baring their personal stuff. Craftspeople are not so up front but still we care passionately about what we have made. To take this work and put it on a display at a show and stand by whilst folk talk about it is exposing yourself in a very vulnerable way. It really can feel like putting your soul on display for open critique. If nice people like it, say nice things about it and buy it then it is a tremendously affirming experience, though it can work the other way too. Showing what you made is taking a big emotional risk.

The commissioning process can be particularly difficult, especially at that moment when you finally hand the piece over. At that moment the patron is unlikely to say “well actually that isn’t what I had hoped for.” So the craftsperson is wracked with uncertainty, did they really like it? One nice thing about working to commission is that it is quite easy to end up with a long waiting list, this is good for the craftspersons feeling of self worth and also has a self limiting effect on the type of people that want to buy. A third effect is that having waited for many months increases the feeling of specialness when the work finally arrives. Those of us that just make stuff and then sell it avoid any doubt about whether the customer liked it. If the customer sees the work and chooses to hand over hard earned cash then they clearly value it.

In an ideal world perhaps we would be able to choose our customers as well as them choosing us. I know many craftspeople that effectively do this by not promptly answering emails and phone calls and just being difficult to buy stuff from. The customer has to make a real effort which acts as a filter, the folk that just want to buy a pot go elsewhere and only the ones that really understand what this person is trying to do and want exactly that pot will persevere and succeed in buying. The capitalist would of course say this is the time to put your prices up and only those that can afford it will buy and having paid a high price they will value it. But we want to select the customers that will really appreciate our work most not just the ones that will pay most for it.

I don’t know if it is a symptom of the sort of work I do being sort of humble functional ware for everyday use, or whether we just have the right sort of web presence but I do seem to have very nice customers. I regularly get letters and emails from folk telling me how much they enjoy using the bowls and plates. Best of all some even send photos. One day I should get round to putting up a gallery with photos of customers with their bowls they are so heartwarming to me.

Here are a few of my favourites

Of course all this is all a luxury of living in a rich society and I would like to spare a thought for all those craftspeople in the world for whom it is simply a question of churning enough work out in the day to buy food for their kids. Though there is perhaps little better for the soul than working hard to feed your kids.

6 Responses to craftpeople are you selling your heart and soul?

  1. bodrighy December 23, 2010 at 12:15 pm #

    I couldn't agree more with what you are saying. I don't do many shows but those I do often have people looking at my work and being complimentary which is good. genuine criticism I don't mind as it helps me see things I missed or perhaps a new way of doing things. Like you I do functional things albeit on an electric lathe and these often engender repeat customers which I still find very encouraging. Wanting to be the best I can at what I do is a part of the process and I find that too many 'craftspeople' are happy to just chiurn things out in the 'that'll do mentality which does no good to those of us who genuinely care about our art / craft. Have a really good Christmas, you and your family and keep up the 'crusade' for our craft Robin.

  2. Joel December 23, 2010 at 12:41 pm #

    Absolutely right Robin. Too many people have no appreciation of the work that can go into making something by hand. I have had idiot once questioning why something made by hand should be more expensive than something made in a factory somewhere…If they can't think why by themselves, there is no hope!I really try and do the best I can when I make something. It would be nice to be able to sell what I made for a reasonable, fair price!Maybe I should start calling myself an artist, wear silly artists clothes and spout some pretentious artistic guff…

  3. Alviti December 23, 2010 at 9:31 pm #

    Your blog is so beatuifully written it's aways a joy to read. As a carpenter I experience the same sort of thing as you've described. I can be working on a customers house and because I'm so critical of my own work i'm always worried what they will think – I've had no complaints yet but I always think that there is someone out there who does it faster and better than me! But then the compliment I normally get is to be asked back to do more work.As for my craftwork (woodturning), this is purely for friends and family this year. Although I'm planning on slowly making this a small part of my business, so I'll problably give myself something else to be critical of.

  4. Kepis December 23, 2010 at 10:49 pm #

    Well said Robin.I've had people stare longingly at my leather work and then question the price and actually offer less than half the asking price, because that's what they think it is worth – go figure, never mind the fact that it's taken me hours and hours to do, same with some of my spoons as well at a show i did back in September, afraid it's the throw away world we live in, nothing has any value anymore, i stick to my guns though, i know what it's worth and im not going to cheapen myself by selling things ive made for less than i know they are worth.You & Nicola have a great Christmas and a happy and healthy new year.All the best

  5. T.L. Cooper December 24, 2010 at 6:49 am #

    Very nice piece. Very thoughtful helped me think though some tough issues. Since early on I've been very picky about I will and will not make. But the more I realize I would like to have an family someday. The more willing I'm willing to do thing that don't really suit my fancy. I am also realizing like you said there are people who's main concern is just that feeding their family. I have come to feel guilty for being so picky. When other this world. Are so will to so much with so little. I like the pic of the child slurping from your bowl it's fun.Thank for taking the time to write this.

  6. Greetje Penning December 24, 2010 at 1:43 pm #

    Exactly; My craft-art-measure-thing: if it doesn't come from the heart, it will not reach people's heart.Have a good Christmas!