Say this word out loud: "Voice." Go ahead...say it. Voice. Now think about it. Your voice. My voice. Our voices, simply humming with possibility. Sounds good, doesn't it? As a full-time resident potter at the EnergyXchange in western North Carolina, and as newly established small business owner, I credit my voice with being the tool that continually pays my rent.
I came to this realization while sitting at my wheel a few days ago. I had been pondering the word "technology" and how I perceived it relating to my career. The first things to pop into my head were relatively obvious: kilns, the potter's wheel, and the most current technological giant, the Internet. From there I found my mind wandering into contemplation of the word "tool." I thought about how we use tools and why particular tools become such assets to our lives. I then glanced up at my rolling cart full of pottery tools.
I scanned my pile of ribs, my favorite sponge, and the homemade wire tool that touches every single pot I make. I deliberately considered each tool on my cart to see if one of these could, even loosely, fit the description of the career-making, money-taking, deal-breaking ultimate tool. Not one of them did. Wondering why, I sat upright at my wheel and took a long look around at my studio and asked myself, "How on earth did I end up here?" That's when it hit me. I had not arrived here by chance, or by having the perfect portfolio, or by having all the right equipment. I got here because I asked for it.
I tend to think of the past six years of my life as a shy girl's sometimes embarrassing journey toward learning how to use her voice and ask questions. It started when I graduated from college and moved to New Haven, Connecticut. There I took my very first pottery class with Louise Harter at a community art school called the Creative Arts Workshop. I was instantly smitten with clay—so much so that on any given day I could have let loose a barrage of thoughts on how I desperately wanted to make pottery my career and how it was desperately impossible because I had so little training and no tools of my own. This theory was validated in my mind by the Internet. At that point, nearly every opportunity available online seemed to have the same oversized padlock on it, a looming object on which "MFA required" or "BFA or equivalent" was printed in big bold letters. Needless to say, I did not hold the acronym-etched key and, knowing only the format of academia, I wasn't sure of what would be considered one of the "equivalents." Overwhelmed and a little bit frustrated, I turned to Louise and asked, "How on earth did you do it?"
Asking this question was the best decision I ever made. I say this not because Louise then unveiled a magical path to making clay into a career, but because with that question I took my first step into my local ceramics community, where I found a starting point. Over the years that followed, I received from Louise priceless information, in a voice rich with dedication and hard work. I learned step by step, and year by year, to be braver about asking potentially imposing questions of strangers and admitting I had little more than hard work and enthusiasm to offer in return. I turned off my computer and picked up my telephone. I called potters I didn't know in my area, just to see if I could assist and learn. I read articles. I practiced speaking up in the intimate environment of workshops. Feeling stronger, I went forth to question the larger community of voices at the yearly NCECA conference. There I found a residency that landed me in the wonderful little town of Natchez, Mississippi, where, with the help of potter Conner Burns, I started teaching my own pottery classes to the newest round of voices in the ceramics world.
When we form a community that shares thoughts, engages ideas, and respects the knowledge that can come from individual experience, we create a steadfast bond among us. With this bond we have the power to transcend obstacles that can easily look insurmountable on our own. In the end, it was the physical tools and skills I lacked that pushed me to use my voice and gave me my community. Now, every time I enter a pottery classroom and one of my students asks me, "How did you get to be where you are today?" I smile widely and say that I started exactly where they are right now. I tell them that I asked a lot of questions.