Ceramics as a Means: An Exploratory Series into Surviving as an Artist

It’s been feeling like an extra tedious chore to try to build my career when this pandemic seems never-ending. In the beginning of March, I would have confidently said that my summer was going to be filled working for the studio at my college. Although, once everyone started understanding the severity of the virus and community spaces closed, it became clear that I was going to have to think a little more creatively on how I planned to put in my time as a ceramist.

I found out about the Studio Potter internship by googling “remote ceramics internships 2020” after one too many days of just sitting around my apartment playing Animal Crossing. My initial reaction was excitement because this internship compiled a lot of my interest – ceramics, writing, and web design – into one summer-long job. While I gathered my materials for the application, I felt the first hint of an anxious doubt. I was not doubting whether or not I wanted to intern here this summer; I knew I did. This is an anxious doubting that manifests when I know I want something, but am afraid that I am setting my ambitions too high.

There are a lot of things pitted against me when it comes to my expectations and decisions surrounding my career. I am a perfectionist, which, in turn, makes me somewhat of a defeatist, because it’s exceedingly hard to achieve perfection under my standards. I tend to avoid situations where I could potentially make people disappointed by not following through. On top of it all I am a Virgo, so basically all of the above amped up about two hundred percent. These thoughts of self-doubt magnified when I took into consideration that I knew I would feel like the odd one out as a Black girl interning for a ceramics journal. 

Prior to my internship with Studio Potter, my perspective into the ceramics profession had been one that excluded Black ceramists. Most of the ceramic artists I am assigned to research in classes are White. Most of the students in my studio are White. None of my professors are Black. As I make the necessary moves to pursue ceramics and creating as my career, it’s sometimes rudely apparent that Black creativity is not uplifted. Otherwise I would have a plethora of Black ceramists to look up to and use as a guide for my success.  

This summer I made it a point to curate a creative space to learn and connect with established Black artists⁠ – KAHLIL ROBERT IRVING, Chotsani Elaine Dean, and Gerald A. Brown – in hopes of getting a better sense of direction on how to “make it” as a ceramic artist. I also (somewhat unintentionally) confronted my imposter syndrome head on and allowed myself to grow through experience. [Editor's note: Readers can expect to read the next installments of Corinne's conversations within the field of ceramics in our October and November.]

In this first interview I talk with Kahlil Robert Irving. Irving was at the top of my list of potential interviewees, rather selfishly, since he is from my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. I had imagined that he would direct me to who I needed to talk to, tell me the ins and outs of being a ceramics artist in St. Louis, Missouri, and really provide me with a blueprint to becoming a successful artist. And while he did offer me a lot of insight into the field, he definitely fed me the information in a way I didn’t expect or knew I needed. 

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Michaela Corinne: What does your workload normally look like?

Kahlil Robert Irving: I do project-based work. I don’t create for the need of a gallery. Either it’s a project or it’s a work in a series. I don’t work on things one at a time. My work is also a part of a larger conversation of things that I’ve been working on over the past several years. So, it’s like working through that trajectory. No matter where I stop working, I really pick up where I left off. I’m working all the time. Now, I’m working on buying a new piece of property for my studio and a house for me and my grandmother.

MC: How are the financial realities of that, if you don’t mind my asking? You have to make money to survive and get your basic needs met.

KRI: Yeah, it ain’t cheap. I live a very frugal life, and I have my own desires, wants, and needs. It’s a tough balance between all of those. I have to negotiate what and how and where money will be spent, but I save a lot. The ability to buy this property is based on the work that I sold last year from a project that I did in 2018. 

Sometimes I do work with assistants to help me get things done. That's kind of where I am right now, trying to figure out how to negotiate [opportunities and resources] to get to the point where I don’t have to teach for the income, but can teach because I want to work with students and share.

You know some people think an artist just sits at home, makes their art, and just huddles around the house to drink their coffee every day. Or drinks their coffee in the studio and just sits there looking at the wall. That’s not real. Unless you’ve made it to a point where you’re financially situated in a certain way. But I’m only twenty-eight; I’m not there yet.

MC: A lot of the big artists that people talk about, or even artists I follow on Instagram – it seems like their money was inherited. So, it’s not even the same for most of us. 

KRI: Right, and people really have to take that into account. And that’s also the problem with the question you asked earlier; like this idea of prestige – that sh*t is only relevant for people who have an inherited position that allows them to negotiate the world that way. I went to college because I had a full tuition scholarship. I didn’t go to college because I wanted to go to college. I didn’t even know what college was, really.      

I just knew it was a thing you had to do. But I didn’t even know that until I was a junior in high school. None of my family had gone to college. I’m the first person to graduate from college and I’m the first person to get a master’s degree. And I’m the first person to have made as much money as I’ve made in one year. You know, in one year's time, to be able to hold and manipulate that kind of money, to do what I want, let alone own property. So it’s a bit complex, but I don’t try to hold on or think about those things too much, because it still deters me from the goal. 

MC: Do you feel drawn to St. Louis? I know you said that you have shown in a bunch of different cities, not only in St. Louis, but you are here now. Is it a place you feel drawn back to for any reason?

KRI: Well, I mean everybody is always drawn back to the place that they grew up.

So, I mean I just kinda feel like I’m normal. Like I’m just doing… In a lot of ways it’s emotional. But there is nowhere else to live, because this is making the work what it is, this location. And moving and participating in exhibitions – I don’t move to participate in exhibitions, but I move to attend residencies for fellowship opportunities that then afford me the capacity to do different things that I would not necessarily be able to do on my own. 

MC: Someday I want to do my own solo show. What are the specific steps I need to do? Normally that would revolve around, I need to go to school.

KRI: But you don’t need to go to school to do an exhibition.

MC: I know! But--

KRI: That don’t make sense! You don’t need to go to school to have an exhibition.

MC: That’s what's been fed to me, you know. 

KRI: Who told you you’ve got to go to school to have an exhibition?

MC: My parents and my dad, specifically.

KRI: Is your dad an artist?

MC: No.

KRI: So why are you listening to him? Sorry to your daddy, but if your father don’t know the game and how the game is played, he don’t have no room to speak on it. He can’t speak on the game if he don’t play it! Even people who play the game can’t speak on it. 

MC: So, should Black students reach for a program that has a pedigree but may not have a healthy environment, or should they search for a community?

KRI: I’m going to go back again. That has nothing to do with it. It all has to do with who the person is. It’s about you. It doesn't deal with the school. It doesn’t matter if it’s the pedigree or the bucket. If you don’t know why you’re there... there ain’t nothing I can say. 

Most people don’t know why they are going to school. And even if you tell me, “Oh, I want to study ceramics.” Okay, but what do you want to do with the ceramics? You’ve got to have a dream, you’ve got to have desire, you’ve got to have will to fight all of it, because once you graduate, you’ve got to have the will to survive. 

You know in the end what matters is the histories and the legacies of people who are not being taught, who are not being recognized, who are doing things that are important, but [their works] aren’t getting the engagement that [they] should. ‘Cause we don’t live in a meritocracy. A meritocracy is a place based on skill, on knowledge. Since we don’t live in a meritocracy, prestige doesn’t f***ing matter. It’s a figment of our imagination.

MC: I shouldn’t define my success based on a system that’s not meant for me. I feel like that’s what you’re saying to me.

KRI: But it’s not just that. It’s just bobbing and weaving. It’s not what you can or can’t do yourself. Just let it go. Again, in a lot of ways – do I care that I have work at the WHITNEY MUSEUM? Hell yeah, I care that I have work at the Whitney Museum of American Art. That’s pretty f***ing cool. A lot of f***ing people are going to see that show, and are going to see my work in that show, but that can’t be in my front mind. That just has to be accepted that it is. And there’s a difference. You know like, of course we know that things are bad, we know there are racial inequities in this country, but I want to do X. Is it feasible for me to do X? You know, when opportunity presents itself, I don’t figure out if I say yes or no. I didn’t think about yes or no. I just said yes, I will do this. 

MC: What was your goal that you wanted to achieve when you decided to go to grad school? 

KRI: I just went from undergrad to graduate school. ‘Cause it’s a process. It’s a process you have to submit to. There are some awards and some grants that you can’t get if you don’t have a master’s degree. It’s not like I went because I wanted to get those awards and things. I went because I had more things to learn, more things to do. So going to graduate school helped me make space to refine some of those things. 

I have a good friend who is really successful financially and works with one of the biggest galleries in the country. He don’t have a master’s degree, but he also has the same concerns I just described. “I didn’t get a master’s, so can I do certain things? I can’t get certain awards.” And I was like – sighs – it’s so much. I mean and I did that, and all of it is just so much. And to try to define it and share what one should do, what one shouldn’t do… it’s almost impossible to do that because it is so personal. 

And I’ve had the privilege and the capacity to have several mentors in my life who have awarded me access or community that a lot of people don’t have. A lot of people have parents – I have professionals that became like my family. So how does one negotiate that? Who does one trust with their information? You know, I didn’t have many people to trust with my information growing up, so I almost about trusted anybody who would listen. So it’s like what is there to do? What’s the goal? The goal's always been to survive, for me. 

MC: How would you say you’re defining your own success?

KRI: I don’t define my success. My success is defined by others. I don’t know what success is.

I don’t think of myself as successful. I see myself as living and doing what I got to do. So I can’t even answer any of them questions cause that ain’t who I am – laughs – For me, in a lot of ways, it’s satisfying the need to do what I’ve got to do to get from point A to point B. I don’t sit and revel. I mean, I sit and think about it. “Oh damn, I got a piece at the Whitney, amazing!” and I feel good about it. But in the end I feel good about it and I move on. ‘Cause I have other stuff that has to be done. Or there’s other parts of life I want to experience.  

The thing is no one knows. You have to do something, and if it works, if it don’t work, if you finish it, if you don’t – it is what it is. And you just keep going. ‘Cause it’s not about exactly knowing anything. No one exactly knows anything. So, if you’re going to do something, you’ve got to decide what to do it for, and it is what it is.

I just don’t understand why it’s so difficult. Of course, things aren’t always going to work out, but it’s like, that’s obvious. But, people also live with too much expectation. I never expected that I’d be where I am right now. It just happened to be this way. I have to figure out how I’m gonna make it work, and that’s the same for everybody else too. But, that’s a lesson that people have to learn.