I felt like I ended the last post with such determination and finality that I hesitate to go back into the whole conversation but there’s a lot of thoughts I had along the way that I’d like to share starting with selling work which has never been easy for me. When I first started in art, I did what everyone else did—put price tags on everything I exhibited and hope that the work sold. The first goal was to sell enough to offset the expenses of framing and putting on the exhibition. The second was to make money. I wouldn’t know about that. I never succeeded in accomplishing the first.
I can’t remember exactly when but there was an exhibition after which I came to the conclusion that this approach was not good for my mental health. It seemed like a kind of self-induced manic depression—the intense working to prepare for an exhibition followed by the letdown which was compounded by the dashing of expectation due to the lack of sales. At this time I had begun to develop my bookmaking with children workshops and I decided that I would not concern myself with sales at all. The teaching would provide the income and the art and exhibitions would be about sharing the work and getting it out into the world unencumbered. It worked well for me, both internally and externally. Internally I was more at peace with the work. Externally I always qualified my life as an artist by adding “and I teach bookmaking in schools for my income.”
When I stopped teaching in schools, I had no idea that I would feel like I had lost a structural necessity to my identity. I had forgotten my earlier difficulties with seeing and presenting myself as just an artist. Even though I had gained twenty more years of experience in the intervening years, I felt new and raw again.
I think at my core I have a deep ambivalence about selling my art. On a functional level, selling is a lot of work and takes time away from the work of choice—the art itself. On a deeper level, it goes to the core of the question which Lewis Hyde addressed in his book, The Gift.
“It is the assumption of this book that a work of art is a gift, not a commodity. Or, to state the modern case with more precision, that works of art exist simultaneously in two ‘economies,’ a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without a market, but where there is no gift there is no art.”
While it is gratifying to have someone spend her hard-earned money on my work, I get just as much satisfaction of standing in a room full of Spirit Books with people who are inspired by their presence. I also think I am speaking truthfully when I say that I would rather teach someone to make a book of their own than have them purchase one of mine.
All this being said, I now do have an interest in selling my work. It is not about the money because there is no correlation of value between the time it takes me to make a Spirit Book and the amount that I can sell it for. It is about making room, both physically and mentally. I am so glad that I kept the Spirit Books together for as long as I did. They stayed together because, for much of the time, no one wanted to buy them and for the rest of time, I chose not to sell them. This enabled them to develop an identity of their own. There has been a dialogue over 23 years in which they have told me what they wanted to be as much as I have thought about what they should be. Keeping them together also enabled me to produce the Spirit Books catalog last year which I treasure as a document of the ongoing series.
Now it is time for the Spirit Books to move out into the world. They are now secure in their identity and existence. They no longer need me and I no longer need them. They have in fact become a burden. They no longer feel like art but just stuff. Their mostly unseen presence (they are stored in boxes) discourages me. Why make more so that there is more stuff in more boxes? Inwardly I need to free myself of the past so that I can continue to make art with a joyful and open spirit. Outwardly I need to stop feeling defensive or apologetic about my still ambivalent feelings about art and commerce. I am making progress on the path to being able to say with conviction: I believe in the rightness of the way I work regardless of the norms and expectations, real or imagined, of others. I am an artist in my own way and on my own terms.