art

the question of when

Hops. Photo by Kate Ter Haar

Hops — photo by Kate Ter Haar

When is it time to stop daydreaming and start doing?

I don’t have an answer to share with you, but I’ve fallen in love with the question. Let me explain.

I started this blog to explore how people transform artistic talents and outlandish ideas into real, viable careers. I wanted to hear about business models and self-promotion, not to mention multiple revenue streams and how to balance creative exploration with paying the phone bill.

All these stories are fascinating – and I still think they’re helpful for anyone who’s reading, scheming and planning. But last Saturday, I was chatting with the owners of a two-year-old Pacific Northwest craft brewery. (Please stay with me; this has nothing to do with hipsters and everything to do with creative business). Between sips of winter ale, I realized that I had one big question for the couple behind the taps: when?

When did you know it was time to stop boiling hops in the basement or backyard and start a commercial business? When did you know you were ready? The tasting room suddenly filled up and I didn’t get to ask the question, but the answer, I suspect, is both personal and practical. Surely, it’s a complex equation with variables like money, timing, bravado, serendipity and boredom. That’s what makes it so interesting.

When new marketing tactics feel tired by Friday, the question of “when” is refreshingly stable. It’s constant. Because really, once you make the no-turning-back decision, you can figure out everything else. Log the endless hours and assemble the puzzle. After, that’s what mentors, sleepless nights and the internet are for.

Bottom line: I’m on the hunt for interesting stories of “when.” If you’ve got one, please get in touch. God knows I’m spotty on social media, but I’m quick to make personal connections. Send me an email. I’d love to hear from you. Oh, and these stories don’t need to feature lightning bolts or lottery wins; just real, true examples of knowing when the time is right.

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posted 19 Mar 14 in: art, business, inspiration, interviews, media, retail. This post currently has no responses.

off the pedestal

Fuel for thought

I’ve been away from this space for a while. Yes, I was busy, but raise your hand if you think the word “busy” is meaningless. That’s not what I’m writing about today.

Instead, it has taken nearly a decade for me to learn that my creative rhythm (and my career as a whole) has two equal parts:

1. Exploration, experimentation and outreach

2. Production, focus and introspection

I continually move back and forth between the two. Sometimes it happens within a single day or week. In other cases, I go into one mode for months at a time – and that’s exactly where I’ve been. Space #2: working, thinking and producing.

I used to fret about this perpetual opposition, but I’ve learned that it’s entirely natural. I’m not going to apologize for anything – what I do, which projects I choose, or how I operate. To be blunt, I don’t care what my career looks like from the outside.

Instead, I value relationships, experiences, improvement, learning, humility, failure, strength, and satisfaction. That’s what matters, and the last several months have overflowed with all of the above.

I’ve also learned another huge and highly liberating lesson in recent weeks. Maybe it sounds familiar to you, too.

When you’re lucky enough to build a career around a talent and deep love, it can take you in some unexpected directions – namely, you often use your skills in ways that don’t uphold the fantasy. Maybe you apply your drive to real-world problems instead of fiction. You sweat through stuff that won’t hang in a gallery or live between book covers. But that quiet, behind-the-scenes work isn’t any less valuable.

The soft-focus version of creativity worships sleek offices, inspirational mornings, curated lives and clothes and spaces, and the idea that art is 100% pure. It’s tucked up on a pedestal, safe from the grit of money and time, confusion and exhaustion. If you work (and I mean really work) to pursue a craft, you know the difference between reality and the romantic cultural filters.

Don’t get me wrong; I love that everyone is creating and sharing such gorgeous images. Glossy blogs, pins, articles and photos provide endless inspiration and a stimulating daily escape. They celebrate the everyday beauty in this world. Elevating only camera-ready creativity to a mental (and public) pedestal is problematic, though, because it can diminish the joy that lies in everything else you do. You know, all your other work.

I used to think that I was failing if I didn’t have an independent side project on the go. But the past several months of focused production have revealed that it’s all creative. It’s all valuable. I truly love what I do – from technical, corporate writing to journalism to editing and everything in between. It’s honestly a joy and a privilege. Each project feeds the next and teaches me something startling and new.

Where have I been? Learning to lose the soft focus, and if you’re worried about how your art “looks,” I encourage you to do the same.

Work how you want. Live how you want. Creativity and true satisfaction can flourish in the most unexpected places.

posted 18 Feb 14 in: art, business, essential posts, inspiration, media. This post currently has 2 responses.

clear it up

clear labelling always helps

You all know that I’m obsessed with finding clarity in chaos. I still love a good creative mess, but clarity is my north star. I get ridiculously excited about patterns and structures, because they scrub away the grime and let your work shine through.

Clarity is also one of the “principles of awesome content” in my new ebook. To help you create with more clarity, I’ve made a five-step checklist.

1. Use simple language.

You’ve heard this one before. Unfortunately, when most people sit down to write, they try to WRITE with a capital “W.” Formality can defeat the purpose, which is to communicate clearly. Straightforward language with a dash of personality always comes out on top.

Here’s an example from Nest, a great company that makes thermostats. Sexy? Hardly. But they do a damn fine job of explaining how their product works, why it’s needed, and why it’s unlike anything else on the market.

From the Nest website:

“Most people leave the house at one temperature and forget to change it. So Nest learns your schedule, programs itself and can be controlled from your phone. Teach it well and Nest can lower your heating and cooling bills up to 20%.”

Now in jargon-y “business” copy:

“The Nest programmable thermostat includes robust controls that provide mobile access capabilities, significant thermo-electric cost savings and a market-leading ROI. Our innovative technology enables domestic users to adapt the wall unit according to their individual needs.”

My re-write is pretty over-the-top, but you get the point. Write as you speak, and as if you were talking to a friend. Then go in with your best editing eyes and tighten it all up. No excess words.

2. Use metaphors (carefully)

A metaphor states that two unlike things are actually the same. Metaphors promote clarity because they help the brain transition between a known concept and a new idea. Here’s a (fake) example:

“The RocketBean brewing system adds jumper cables to your everyday coffee pot.”

Sketchy proposition and not the most elegant metaphor, but it quickly conveys the idea of enhancing something familiar with a novel twist. Just remember; where there are metaphors, there are also clichés. Every tired, terrible cliché was once a fresh metaphor.

3. Anticipate your audience

Get inside their heads. Once you’ve written a description or an introduction, think like your desired readers. What haven’t you said? If this was the first time that you encountered the product, service or idea, what else would you need to know? What’s the next logical question, and how can you answer it before you readers even get a chance to ask?

4. Apply the party test

You’re mingling, cocktail in hand, when the host asks about your work. It’s time to explain your project in 2-3 concise, yet creative sentences. I know, you’re sick of elevator pitches (yawn). What I’m talking about here is using enough detail, yet enough mystery to spark someone’s interest – a raised eyebrow and the phrase “oh, really?” You want to elicit follow-up questions, not the conversational kiss of death: “That’s nice.” Now apply this principle to your writing.

5. Wrap it in a story

Facts can taste bitter, but they’re infinitely more palatable when wrapped in a story. Here’s another strong Nest example:

“We didn’t think thermostats mattered either. Until we found out they control half of your home’s energy. That’s more than applicances, lighting, TVs, computers and stereos combined.”

Oh, really? Tell me more.

 

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posted 3 Apr 13 in: art, books, business, design, inspiration, media, retail. This post currently has no responses.

what is a website?

glastonbury90

The Cure’s Robert Smith, Glastonbury, 1990

The first website I ever visited was a music database. After waiting 15 minutes (no exaggeration) for the page to load, I would pick my favourite band and gorge on all the info. It was exciting to have so many current details gathered in one place. There were photos, too, but they added another 30 minutes to the wait time. In those early days, many websites served as digital encyclopedias.

Around 1999, I pitched a magazine story about “weblogs.” New software had made it possible to publish writing in reverse chronological order (newest entries first) — and you didn’t need to know HTML to share your journal with the world. My editor declined the story. I think he had visions of lock-and-key cat diaries and rambling teen angst. Fair enough, but we all know how that turned out.

I’ve been working on two new content strategy projects this week, which has led me back to the basics: What is a website? In 2013, what is it for? Why do we have them? Here’s what I’ve concluded.

Today, websites (and their related apps) have 7 main purposes:

1 – Commerce. Buy, browse, exchange, claim discounts, ship and receive.

2 – Legitimacy. Portfolios, galleries, resumes and digital references confirm experience and gather work in one place.

3 – Editorial. Newsletter, magazines, blogs, journals and other hybrids.

4 – Service. Find a library book, book an airline flight, manage your bank account.

5 – Info aggregation. Weather forecasts, stock prices, travel research. Movie trailers and health tips.

6 – Communication & connection. Places to talk, meet, date, rant, chat, rate services and products, or express ideas.

7 – Advertising, marketing, cataloguing. Learn a company or a creator’s story. Check their prices. Watch a video. Research products or services.

Everyone who uses the web intuitively understands these functions. Many sites also blend several purposes. An artist, for example, might have an online portfolio (legitimacy) with a web store to sell her illustrations (e-commerce). She also shares behind-the-scenes photos and sends a monthly digital newsletter (marketing). An airline site includes commerce, service, information and marketing in a single hub.

I’m sharing this list not only to state the obvious, but to give you a clear lens through which to view your website. When clients say they need site copy, my next question is always, “what is your website for?” You have to clarify exactly what you want to accomplish online in order to be successful — and those decisions directly influence the design, writing, programming and functionality. It sounds simple, but very few people do it well.

I also want to encourage you to cut the digital shackles. If your site is purely editorial, make it an immersive and truly engaging experience. If it’s designed for commerce, make it ridiculously easy for people to buy what they want. Cut the excess. Break the rules. Express yourself and screw convention. And be grateful that 15-minute page loads are now a distant memory.

Have I missed any functions? Please let me know.

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posted 15 Feb 13 in: art, business, design, inspiration, music, retail. This post currently has one response.

obsessions

Surfers at Venice Beach – December 2012

We’ve been completing a little office renovation around here, and I’ve realized how impatient I am with tasks like painting, gluing, and sanding. The tape measure is not my friend. I am imprecise and irritable.

I’ve also been finishing a new e-book and editing another one for my friend, Paul Jarvis.

I’ve done at least 10 full edits on each book – yet every time I start back at the cover page, I’m happy to read the same words over and over again. I enjoy hunting for errors and ideas that need clarification. I love smoothing out clumsy spots that disrupt the flow – and I actually relish the fresh eyes that come with each read-through. The work can be (mentally) tiring, but it’s never a chore.

When I consider the day-to-day activities of my friends who are photographers, architects, web and graphic designers, I can’t imagine filling their shoes. Sure, it’s easy to daydream about location scouting or sketching a brilliant design before breakfast, but I know there’s also serious minutiae involved that would send me into meltdown.  Every industry, even the most iconically creative ones, have dull tasks that require focus and slogging. No way around it.

But when you find yourself deep in obsessive territory, not caring that an hour passed while you re-worked a single paragraph, that’s the real creative destination. That’s where you’re supposed to be. Loving the tedious moments (at least most of them) is also essential to completing projects that challenge your mind and stretch your skills. I guess it’s also how we rack up those 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell measured so eloquently.

So embrace your unique obsessions. Track them and use them to nudge you ever closer to success. The real achievement, however, is the daily sense of contentment that will sit quietly on the sidelines, watching you do the work.

posted 14 Jan 13 in: art, business, design, fashion, inspiration, music. This post currently has no responses.

lessons re-learned

Some experiences provoke immediate and lasting change. You make a mistake, pick the wrong door, or do something that you vow never, ever to repeat – and you don’t.

Then there are those frustrating moments that you manage to replicate a hundred times over. You keep falling down in exactly the same way. You don’t even notice the pattern until suddenly, it’s as clear as a crop circle.

In the spirit of sharing hard-won wisdom, here are 10 lessons that (I think) I’ve finally learned.

1. Mediocre ideas can’t be polished into great ones. It’s always worth taking the time to keep scheming and revising.

2. One cup of coffee sharpens my brain. Three cups in a row? It’s a pinball machine with faulty wiring.

3. True gut instincts are never wrong. Hear them and trust them completely.

4. Every now and then, creativity arrives in a flash of inspiration. Mostly, though, it’s about spending time in the salt mine. Show up, stay focused and do the best you can in the moment. Then revise. And revise again.

5. Choose people over subjects and individual projects. Even better, choose to work and collaborate with smart, kind and generous people who are thrilled about what they do.

6. Sleep and sweat will clarify even the toughest creative puzzles and teeth-gnashing problems.

7. There’s no such thing as listening too much.

8. Always make the last phone call, double-check the fine print, or explore that one nagging idea that just might be crazy enough to work.

9. The fearlessness you had at age 21, plus the wisdom gained in every subsequent year is a magical combination – but it’s not always easy to harness. Keep trying.

10. Find the high road and take it, even when it feels like a tightrope.

posted 6 Nov 12 in: art, business, inspiration. This post currently has 3 responses.

a spring feast

all photos by Jamie Mann

On an unseasonably warm night in late May, about 35 people gathered at Vancouver’s Zientte to eat, drink and laugh together. It was a diverse group, but we all had one thing in common: We love Zoe Pawlak and her work.

I barely knew Zoe when we first chatted about art and business. In the meantime, she’s become a treasured friend. What also became clear on that lovely spring night, at her annual collectors dinner, is that everyone who is lucky enough to spend time with Zoe feels the same way. Even better? Having her work hanging on your wall.

As we tasted each delicious course prepared by Chaperone Catering (owned by Zoe’s husband, Seamus, and his business partner, Brendan Ladner), Zoe thanked everyone, individually, in front of the group. She described which of her pieces each person or couple had collected, and how they came to own the work. She also explained how the purchases had directly affected her family’s well-being. It was classy and heartfelt — and surprisingly emotional for many people in the room.

Talent blended with business savvy will take you a long way in this world. If, like Zoe, you also have a sincere, open heart, plus a good dash of humility and humour, literally anything is possible.

Want to attend next year’s collectors feast? Buy Zoe’s paintings!

 

 

posted 16 Jul 12 in: art, business, design, food, inspiration. This post currently has no responses.

handcrafted commitment

from the U.S. National Archives

Humans are visual creatures. Read me a statistic and I’ll forget it before I’ve finished my coffee. Show me a graph, an illustration or a photo that conveys the same point and I’m far more likely to tuck it away in my frontal lobes.

We’re hardwired to absorb ideas through images — and that’s why film is such a perfect medium for storytelling. Thanks to available bandwidth and increasingly inexpensive, high-quality cameras, more and more people are learning to harness the emotional power of documentary-style video.

A recent favourite is the Made by Hand series produced by the Bureau of Common Goods, a Brooklyn-based film and digital content studio. Made by Hand is  “a short film series celebrating the people who make things by hand — sustainably, locally, and with a love for their craft.” The two videos currently available online feature Breuckelen Distilling founder Brad Estabrooke and knife maker Joel Bukiewicz, who launched Cut Brooklyn. There’s also a profile of beekeper Megan Paska in the works.

Lovingly captured in black and white, the films explore how Brad and Joel each began, and what drives their work. The images are absorbing, no question, but I especially appreciate how the creators address struggle and challenge head-on. We never assume that their businesses sprang up overnight. Joel failed, cut himself, and misjudged the market along the way. Brad fought to get non-believers on board, namely plumbers and cranky landlords. These details contest the tired “investment-banker-turned-cupcake-baker” narrative that emerged during the 2008 recession and still plays out in numerous publications (especially women’s self-improvement mags).

I understand that many corporate refugees find greater fulfillment by pursing a long-delayed, often handmade dream, but stories of instant transformation ignore two facts:

1. Working with your hands, while potentially satisfying, is still hard work. It will inevitably require repetitive physical and mental labour. In short, baking cupcakes might be just as mind-numbing as crunching spreadsheets.

2. As Malcolm Gladwell suggested in Outliers, it takes at least 10,000 hours to achieve proficiency in your craft. If you’re aiming for mastery, prepare to log many, many, many more.

The Bureau of Common Goods team hopes we’ll be inspired by these stories of handcrafted commitment. I think they’ve achieved that goal.  This series should also remind storytellers (and dejected creators) that every great tale requires conflict. Without struggle, there’s no sense of achievement. And without failure, there’s no reason to keep pushing; no reason to wake up eager and hungry for more.

posted 11 Jan 12 in: art, business, design, inspiration, retail. This post currently has no responses.

a hunger for learning

George Eastman House collection, 1950

There’s something in the air. Every day I hear about a new conference, workshop, speaker series or educational event — and many of these sessions are aimed squarely at artists and creatives.

Online technology has made it easy to watch presentations long after the seats are empty. At the same time, in-person learning feels increasingly rarefied. We all have crazy schedules and a thousand voices competing for our attention. Taking the time to attend a live event or class (unless you’re earning a degree) is a leap of faith; you want to leave feeling inspired, and at the very least, better informed.

Here’s a sample of the growing number of creative learning events, Vanity Fair style.

1. The elder statesman

We all know and love TED — the speaking series founded in 1984 as a conference for technology (T), entertainment (E) and design (D). Today, there are two annual TED Conferences in Long Beach and Palm Springs, the summertime TEDGlobal Conference in Edinburgh, and a variety of affiliated fellowships, prizes and independently-organized TEDx events. With a mission to spread ideas, TED “brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives.”

TED became a widespread phenomenon, however, when the TED.com site launched in 2007. Suddenly, we all had a front-row seat for the world’s best TEDTalks. They’re free to watch, legal to share and re-post, and they’re very, very addictive. The most viewed talks of all time come from author Elizabeth Gilbert, scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, musician Jake Shimabukuro, and education professor  Sir Ken Robinson, among others.

TED

2. The rebel

Night School is what happens when a distinguished Seattle boutique hotel hosts filmmakers, writers, bartenders, artists, and musicians for salon-style conversations and eclectic performances. Established by curator Michael Hebb and Barbara Malone, co-owner of the Sorrento Hotel, Night School offers a bold mix of creative programming that’s designed to inspire and provoke. Expect to see more of these casual-yet-brainy gatherings at an indie venue near you.

Night School

3. The go-getter

Designer Tina Roth Eisenberg (a.k.a. Swiss Miss) launched the CreativeMornings breakfast lecture series in New York City in September 2009. The free monthly format has now spread to 16 other cities and counting. The predominantly tech-savvy crowd arrives bright and early to hear smart speakers and chug the free coffee. After all, there’s a still a full workday ahead once the applause dies down.

CreativeMornings

4. The local

Here in Vancouver, we’re lucky to have an intimate and increasingly engaged creative community. In addition to our own Tedx conference, we have CREATIVEMIX and a new CreativeMornings team, plus the big industry events, such as the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Vancouver International Writers Festival and many, many more. From Portland to Melbourne to Hong Kong and Copenhagen, I’m sure there’s a similar story playing out in your city. Creatives are hungry to learn — and they’re getting organized.

5. The iconoclast

Tomato, ToMAHto, PechaKucha or PehCHACHka; however you say it, PechaKucha night is a global phenomenon that blends learning with self-promotion in a lively social setting (drinking is encouraged). Launched in Tokyo in 2003 as a forum for young designers to share their work with peers and the public, PechaKucha presenters show 20 images for 20 seconds each and describe what’s up on the big screen.

Some talks are funny, some are dull, and some are downright exceptional. You never know what you’re going to get — and that’s part of the beauty of this fast-paced night out. The concept has ignited in cities and towns around the world. Wherever you are, there’s probably a PechaKucha night in the works.

PechaKucha

posted 9 Nov 11 in: art, business, inspiration, media, performance. This post currently has no responses.

halloween in the house

I’ve long admired Vancouver’s In the House Festival. Born in 2003, this creative performance series transforms private homes and living spaces into temporary theatre venues. The eclectic, intimate shows often fuse music, dance, storytelling, film, theatre, spoken word, acrobatics and burlesque to create unique cultural experiences for hosts, audiences and artists alike.

Yesterday afternoon, I got a sneak peek at their third-annual haunted theatre installation. Just in time for Halloween, the House of Faerie Bad Things is a mash-up of puppetry, opera, aerial circus, belly dance, film and music. The one-hour tour takes you through 14 different faerie environments in a labyrinth-like space. Eight shows run nightly from Oct. 29-31st with an after-party for all ticket holders following the last tour.

“It’s a very different kind of scare than ‘here’s a dude with a chainsaw,'” explains In the House artistic director and show co-producer Myriam Steinberg, who suggests the eerie tour is best suited for visitors ages 12 and up. All the scenes pull their dark, often gruesome and macabre content from old faerie tales. But, “there are a few moments that are hauntingly beautiful,” adds Steinberg.

So why faeries? What’s so frightening about Tinkerbell, Ariel and her winged sisters — and what’s the connection to Halloween?

“It’s all linked to the same culture,” says artistic director and co-producer Chris Murdoch, whose studies in comparative mythology revealed that nearly all pre-Christian societies had faerie-related celebrations around harvest time, during the period we now mark as Halloween. People believed that the veil separating the earthly world from the supernatural grows thin as winter draws near. The stories and fables passed down from early civilizations provide a cautionary tale for the season. “I really enjoy faerie mythology and the tongue-in-cheek, dark humour in it,” says Murdoch.

I have to confess I’m usually a Halloween killjoy. Save for the occasional set of Mickey Mouse ears or the year I played a vampire victim, I usually let the day slip by without celebration. The House of Faerie Bad Things offers a new way to explore the dark holiday without resorting to the usual clichés. You’ll get an excellent dose of local theatre culture — and hopefully a good scare, too.

To buy tickets (they’re going fast) or for more details, visit the In the House Festival website.

posted 25 Oct 11 in: art, dance, interviews, media, music, performance. This post currently has no responses.

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