974_The Orange Tree

I had dinner with my friend, artist and designer Tom Stanley the other night. We both attended Art Center College of Design together umpteen years ago. The conversation meandered around to our artistic paths, our careers and what was hard in the beginning that was not now.

Tom said that what had recently created the most positive change was the fact that he recently redefined how he wanted to run the business side of his art making. Remarkably, he had changed his thinking about how his creative business should be run.

He said that he originally went into a creative field because he just loved making things and that somewhere along the line in trying to make it a business, or at least following all the “shoulds” about how to be successful, he had become overwhelmed with a whole slew of tasks that were no where near as enjoyable as just making his art. Endless self promotion, pushing your work even though you have already grown tired of it, endlessly toiling away on your website, pursuing clients who might one day need your work, being strategic about negotiating prices, and of course constantly having to shore yourself up emotionally in the face lackluster sales.

He wondered why he had to spend so much time and energy on all the unpleasant “shoulds” in order to finally just make his work. Shouldn’t he just be spending most of his time and energy on making his art?

Tom decided it just wasn’t worth it. He said he realized his design; art business was just like managing a massive orange tree farm. He was solely responsible for planting and nurturing the trees, haggling with the markets to get the best prices, watering acres and acres of trees just perfectly, worrying about frosts in the winter, and basically overseeing thousands of trees every day just to hopefully stay in business. It had become all too much.

So instead, he decided that he would rather live like a single orange tree. That instead of spending most of his time doing aspects of his career he disliked, looking after all the other trees, he could simply spend most of his time just making perfect oranges; producing amazing design solutions as well as his more personal fine art for a small but growing number of specialized clients and fans. His life became simpler. He stopped promoting, chasing clients and abandoned his website.

He took the chance on just staying in one place, growing in the sunshine with plenty of extra time to just make work that was more satisfying. And not surprisingly, it became better. It promoted itself. He didn’t try to be noticed, he just started paying attention to just making the world’s best oranges and, as a result, he is not only becoming more known and successful but most importantly, he is happy doing it.  If people want the best, he came to realize, they would have to look for it themselves. Eventually those most interested in quality would find their way to the top of the hill, to this one particular tree, that makes remarkable oranges. They would have to come to him.

Today Tom has found himself in the enviable position of actually doing what he loves on his own terms. From my own experience of a lifetime of making art and helping others do the same I know how challenging this is to pull off.

Tom’s story reminds me of the importance of keeping a huge part of your life force available for making the work you love. Make it great for yourself and the rest will often take care of itself.

Has your creative life become simpler or more complex? Are you happier doing what you do now then when you originally started?

Tom Stanley lives and works in Santa Barbara making art and design. His most recent work can be seen in the entire redesign of the McConnell’s ice cream brand and store right downtown on State street. Inspirationally