You've caught me at a weird moment: I feel as if I am running full speed at a wall of indecision. For the past fifteen years, I have been working towards "having a career in ceramics," and I have come to realize that it doesn't mean what I thought it meant.
As a struggling college student working my way through my prerequisites, I took a throwing class (something I had wanted to d'o since childhood) at a craft center in Davis, California. I had no idea how much I would love it, or how much it would transform my ambitions and my life's path. Midway through my undergraduate years, my career plans changed from something in anthropology or sociology to ceramics. If my professors were doing ceramics for a living, why couldn't I? From that moment on, it was a relatively straight and well-trodden educational journey (though longer than imagined, as I never do things in record time, except maybe make pots).
I finished with a BA in studio art and went on to get a MFA. Now I find myself at the tail end of the residency circuit, my official title being Long-term Resident at the Archie Bray Foundation. I am coming up on my first-year anniversary at the Bray. The year has been beyond great, and the place is magical and inspirational. But I find myself wondering: what happens when I leave here?
A large contingent of second-year residents is finishing up and heading off into the world, to temporary employment in Alaska, Canada, Georgia. My fellow residents and I often talk about how the landscape of our field has changed, how it feels as if we are trying to navigate our choices on shifting sand. School trained me to be a better artist, more confident in my ability to achieve my vision, and to defend my work and the place of functional ceramics in the world. I am, however, left uncertain as to how to translate all that into making a living.
I count myself incredibly fortunate to have garnered so much attention and visible success, including residencies, awards, and invitations to present at events, such as the Utilitarian Clay Symposium. (I often joke about having won the ceramic lottery.) These highly competitive endeavors have led to my being asked to exhibit and give workshops at ceramic dream locations around the country And I have actually been supporting myself - but my definition of "supporting myself" differs from that of most people. At the Bray, I have a free studio space and a small stipend that just about covers my clay and firing bills. In Helena, I can afford to live on my own (no roommates for the first time in a long while.) But I would still qualify for food stamps, and when I called to say that I thought I could afford to start paying back my student loans, the person on the other end of the line got out a calculator, entered all the numbers, and determined that I could afford to pay... zero dollars a month. So when I step back and take in the reality of my situation, physical, emotional, and financial, I'm not hopeful about being able to continue in such a manner after next year.
Recently I was working late in the studio on a Friday night, with hours of work still to go, when the lights came on and some people came down the hall. A woman came to my door, and when I said hello, she said in all sincerity, "Aren't you just having the best time!" Five years ago, I might have thought, "Hell, yeah!" but that night, it was more like, "It's almost midnight on a Friday night, and I have lots of work to get done before I can go home. No! Not the best time ever!" The experience made me ask myself, "Is this what I want to do for the next twenty years? Can I manage this workload; will this get me what I want from life? What do I want from life?"
I have been working on defining where I would like to be versus where I am, what I want versus what I need, in the hope that it will make the path forward clearer. And right now the big question is: how do I make a better living and life for myself?
In the past year I have met and worked with many young career artists, and we often talk about how we are all surviving and trying to make a living with this clay stuff. We are scattered across the country, with no roots and often only one or two of us living near each other, which makes it difficult to feel the sense of community or colleagues who can help problem-solve. By contrast, in a residency, with access to artists involved in all parts of the field, one has brains to pick about possibilities and opportunities. It has been hard to choose a singular path, because right now seems to require being diverse in my abilities and flexible about my options. It seems that continuing in ceramics requires exploring the possibilities outside what has been considered a traditional ceramics career.
In my experience, change is the only constant. I have always counted my flexibility and adaptability as assets, and they have served me well in the clay game. While a part of me holds on to those absolute beliefs - that what I am doing impacts people positively, that there is a place in the world for what I do, and that my love for functional pots is not just folly - being an underdog is exhausting. It sometimes seems that we potters are left to fight the good fight, but no one but us cares. I know this is just my battered spirit and my uncertainty about the future talking, but it feels true too often. As I have gotten older and further along in my career, stability still seems a long way off.
So what does that mean to me in the immediate future? In a year, I will need to have a place to go. As I have been adapting to the reality of making pots for a living, I remind myself that this passion for ceramics is just like any other job; there are many tasks that I am not good at or find unpleasant. I find myself enrolling in online business courses about marketing and branding, and reading books about how to be a better business person. I have ideas that seem to take form in the ether, but none of them are tangible yet. It's driving my mother crazy! I am casting a wide net, which could lead to interesting possibilities: co-op studio, academic avenues, residencies, design-based business. One of my current endeavors is as a founding member of Objective Clay, a group of artists who have come together seeking new ways of marketing our work, and working to develop a forum for education and discussion about the field. The ceramics community seems keen on our progress, goals, and achievements to date. I am both pleased by people's interest and wary of their expectations. Given the need to telecommute and the individual nature of our career paths, this is a new working environment for each of us. What I value most is the sense of partnership and community I have with these folks, most of whom I met only a year ago. It is wonderful to see that our interest in working toward something is still there after a year of slow going, along with our commitment to ceramics as a field worthy of our time and energy. It often renews my spirit when we chat with one another. Still, it is an experiment, and one that is going to take time to develop, and with fourteen members it is constantly evolving. We will see what happens with the group.
What all this pondering boils down to is that I need to develop plans and invest in strategies to improve my business prospects. In the back of my mind, I hear phrases that come from our business culture, such as "work smarter, not harder," and "don't put all your eggs in one basket." There are opportunities out there for the amazing talented artists I have had the pleasure of running around with the past couple of years. It is just going to take a lot of our creative energy to find and develop them for ourselves.