For the last eight years I have traveled from place to place applying for apprenticeships, internships, and residencies, worked with many different artists and institutions, and fired a great deal of different kilns. One could say I have designed a lifestyle to facilitate a broad ceramic education and prepare myself with the knowledge and experience for the eventual step of settling down and building a studio and kiln of my own. Another could say that I’ve just been creatively avoiding the inevitable plunge of financial investment into said space. Anyone trying to get a career started as a studio potter is all too familiar with the financial disparity between what we can make selling our work, and the ever-rising costs of living. I wonder, in a world where median rents here in the United States have now risen past $2000 per month, can I afford to buy land or a house, or build a studio or a kiln solely by selling my pots?
In documentaries, short films, and books about working potters, attention is paid to how hard each artist labors in their respective studios, but not much is offered on how they acquired their studios, land, or kilns in the first place. Often the missing piece is an unmentioned source of income or subsidization that makes it possible. Maybe it’s a spouse with a steady income and benefits, an inheritance, a university professorship salary, or even just working additional odd jobs for supplemental income. These things are left out of the narrative because there seems to be some bit of shame associated with financial assistance. It is as if their accomplishments are minimized by acknowledging that they had help, or that you’re not a “real potter” if you don’t make your living solely by selling your pots. But is that really the truth? This messaging scratches that deeply conditioned American itch of the rugged individualist – the self-sufficient doer who needs help from no one and pulls hard on those old bootstraps to make their way. The narrative makes for a compelling story and is one that myself and many others have bought into. But, it is also a narrative that I’ve come to find unhelpful and would like to begin to shift.
I do still believe deeply in the value of hard work and perseverance and feel they are imperative to build the skill set needed to conquer the challenges inherent to the life of an artist. In an effort to shift that baseline narrative, I’d like to normalize the importance of being supported while working extremely hard toward a dedicated goal. We need to release the stigma around supplemental income, and more importantly, acknowledge the support we can find in building relationships and community. When choosing to lead an unconventional life, where the path is unclear, we need not impose further restrictions on ourselves out of some false morality. I have managed to support myself financially and maintain a studio practice by selling my work and working a variety of jobs. But fiscal revenues aside, I’ve received generous support from people and institutions in the form of housing, transportation, meals, tools, facilities, words, and love. All just as vital as the money.
That said, the vision of my ideal life as a studio potter has long been wrapped in a romantic tangle of scenic rural living, responsible stewardship of land, independence, and self-sufficiency. The hermetic potter who spends long, solitary hours in the studio working tirelessly. An intimate relationship between maker and material coalescing in the creation of beautiful wares that get dispersed throughout the local community. Neighbors seek the wares out whenever they are in need of an object to satisfy a functional need or aesthetic solution to proudly display and use in their home.
Taking a nomadic route has allowed me time to think about (and avoid thinking about) the concrete mechanisms that would fulfill that romantic vision. Aside from a deep inner faith that by following my heart I would figure it out, the method of acquisition has been conveniently absent from my fantastical future. There was a subconscious avoidance of logistics, probably due to the fact that facing the financial reality felt insurmountable, especially in today’s world. But when I think about it now, the place my mind wanders is a hopeful space. Now I ask, for those of us who lead unconventional lives, what kind of unconventional solutions are there for creating and sustaining them?
My hopeful headspace was inspired by a conversation with the wonderful Linda Christianson. Linda is a rare example, a lifetime career potter, surviving off of her woodfired pottery. We recently sat down over a video call to chat about how she managed to be the exception to the rule. I wanted to know how she built the infrastructure to create a life that people like myself, people who wish to make a living with their hands, often strive toward. As she shared her story, I was captivated by her dedication to carving out a life as a studio potter.
Rather than recount the whole story, there are a few key points I want to bring to light:
● Linda was creative and opportunistic in her pursuits.
● She didn’t have an interest in living conventionally, but rather marched to the beat of her own drum, which led her to opportunities a “normal” life would never have afforded her.
● As a rule, Linda prioritized her studio practice.
With that as her foundation, she could make clear decisions to push on toward her goals. “I’d rather live kinda, ya know, rough,” she said, “As long as I can keep working, I’m good.”
Working seasonally at a ski resort in the winter and on a fire crew in the spring, Linda came upon a near-free living situation through a coworker. “It was $25 a month rent, and it had electricity, but no running water and no heat.” She was even able to do a work trade for the rent at times. “It had a history of people like me living there. There’s always a place like that, if you can find it, ya know, where most people won’t live – you kinda hear about it word of mouth.”
Here Linda cobbled together a kiln with free bricks she’d collected over the years and made pots on a “crappy old Korean-style kick wheel” that cost $50. She built a wood stove, hauled water, and worked in three of the four rooms. After three years of holding studio sales and continuing her seasonal work, she had saved about $1200 and was able to find and buy a modest log house, plus another house and a barn. She dismantled and moved the three buildings (herself) onto a piece of land that she purchased soon after with two other friends, using a $7000 loan from her mother, which she paid back at $50 per month.
If you think these numbers sound inconceivable, then you’re not alone. Yes, it is very true that we are living in a much different economy now, but the numbers Linda related don’t represent what housing costs actually were at that time. What I’m trying to show is that through her focus and conviction, as well as her openness to whatever life had to offer in service of it, Linda was able to find off-market, abandoned, or forgotten situations that many others would have simply written off or missed completely; loopholes in the system that one can only see if they are attuned to them. It may sound unlikely, but this kind of thing is possible even today.
From then on it was all about frugality. She and her husband Jeff, a woodworker whom she met along the way, have pieced together little by little. “I’ve been very careful to squirrel away extra money and not spend money.” They went years without running water and used an outhouse as their restroom. They did eventually take a loan out for another $7000 to have the property electrified, “but the monthly payment on it was less than all the different fuels we had been using.”
She’s lived an unusual life, one that would not be considered desirable or even acceptable by most. She figured out ways to make her life work that were creative, underground, and subversive. She viewed her “problems as opportunities,” and in doing so, has sustained her chosen way of life. She also worked with her nose to the grindstone, enduring rough conditions because she had a clear vision of what she wanted and needed. She preferred not to compromise even if it meant living badly by other peoples’ standards. “I never expected that I would ever make any money. Honestly, except for what I’ve earned through itinerant teaching and grants, I’ve made the same amount of money, kinda forever. I’ve been able to just get by. I make a modest living that I am really grateful for.” I find this brand of resourcefulness, grit, and right-sizing of what one truly needs are crucial to eking out a living with a focus on studio practice.
Linda chose a path that more closely resembles the romantic vision I mentioned before than any other that I’ve been able to find. (If you have another example, please tell me because I’d love to talk to them.) The unparalleled rarity of her story has motivated me to find other unconventional strategies of sustainable studio access that might exist out there.
Linda pointed me toward the potter Matt Krousey, who purchased the home, studio, and kiln of potter Bob Briscoe using the “contract-for-deed” method. In this arrangement, a deal is made between two folks who know and trust one another. Rather than getting a bank involved, the buyer instead directly pays the seller the “mortgage” plus interest. The numbers might be similar to a conventional mortgage, it depends on the deal you strike, but in this arrangement the friend gets the interest instead of a big bank. There is flexibility and room for creative deal-making within the contract-for-deed method. Beyond that, it also fosters a beautiful intergenerational relationship and a “good mentorship business wise” according to Matt.
The idea of intergenerational relationship feels worthy of amplification.
There are many examples of studios and kilns that fall out of use, into disrepair, or are completely taken down when the property changes hands because the new owners have no use for them. For example, an anagama with a big shed around it is an incredible feat of time, money, blood, sweat, and tears, but it adds zero to the resale value of a property. If anything, it subtracts from it. Younger potters are unlikely to be able to afford to buy out the generation who is looking to retire or downsize. But I wonder what kinds of intergenerational arrangements could be made to carry on the use and legacy of these studios and kilns that would otherwise be torn down, excavated, disassembled, and forgotten. One idea that came to mind was inspired by farmers here in Western Massachusetts.
Small farmers face a dilemma similar to potters in that the cost of requisite land and housing is prohibitive. One way a new generation of farmers are gaining access to land is through Community Land Trusts (CLT).
The CLT in Western Massachusetts mission statement reads:
The Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires ensures permanent access, affordability, and productivity of land for housing, farming, and local industry by securing community-owned land. The conservation of natural beauty and the long-term sustainability of all activities and buildings on Trust land are of foremost importance.
Indian Line Farm of South Egremont, Massachusetts, has secured a “ninety-nine-year lease” of the land they farm through the CLT. The CLT acquired the title of the parcel through the Nature Conservancy. The farmers, Elizabeth Keen and Alex Thorp, purchased the house, barn, and other buildings. It was affordable for them to do so, and continues to be, because there is no cost coming from the land itself.
The concept has been around for a while. In 1968, Robert Swann, along with other southern civil rights leaders, established New Communities, the first land trust in the United States. It took two years to get organized. As the decade turned, a 5,000-acre farm began near Albany, Georgia. Swann was inspired by a trip to Israel and the Jewish National Fund. The JNF had a long history of acquiring and leasing land to planned communities and cooperatives. “[CLTs] provide people with the opportunity to build equity through homeownership and ensure residents are not displaced due to land speculation and gentrification.” The CLT model, pioneered by Black farmers in the south, has spread across the globe as a way to preserve access to land over many generations.
I am envisioning a similar situation for artist studios. I am imagining a mission statement modeled after the CLT mission.
Preserve land to ensure permanent access, affordability, and productivity of land for housing, arts, craft, and local industry by securing community-owned land. Preserve the treasure trove of studios and kilns previous generations of potters have built. Provide affordable and sustainable spaces for a new generation, ensuring continued stewardship of handcrafts.
Could organizations be built to match intergenerational makers with one another in a mutually beneficial and lasting partnership, with physical, financial, and other forms of direct assistance to the retiring generation.
I realize these are rough waters to wade through, both fiscally and philosophically. For many potters reaching the age of retirement, the only hope they have for a financially secure future is the equity they’ve accrued on their properties. Even if a potter wanted to pass along their studio or kiln to the next generation, the existing financial paradigms may not make that opportunity viable, particularly for those who have lived on a shoestring like Linda has.
On a deeper level, we’re talking about the untethering of our conditioning to value private property, individualism, and the “I, me, mine” mentality.
I was given the assignment to seek out working potters who have made their living and built the infrastructure of their life and business in a very specific way. The guidelines were, “their revenue needs to have been based solely on making their work - no university gig, no day job at an art center, no major family inheritance, or spouse with a consistent paycheck.” As I’ve dug into the situation, I’ve been hard-pressed to find anyone who truly has pulled it off all on their “own.”
Linda gave up the idea of a steady paycheck, unionization, paid sick leave, maternity/paternity leave, healthcare, 401ks, weekends, et cetera. She chose to sacrifice these types of conventional securities that many choose to enjoy in order to pursue her personal vision and create a simpler life more in alignment with her purpose.
Linda and her story inspire me deeply.
Yet, I am also coming to acknowledge how much we must look to community for support, and how this is the narrative that might better replace the status quo. I’m realizing that the idea of the lone studio potter who has done it all by themself is an illusion. Linda is just about as close an example as there is out there, but she’d be the first to tell you she couldn’t have done it alone.
I want us to be sensitive to the romantic propaganda that perpetuates the individualist culture and mindset that bell hooks warns us of in her book, All About Love; New Visions, “The rugged individual who relies on no one else is a figure who can only exist in a culture of domination where a privileged few uses more of the world’s resources than the many who must daily do without.”
We need each other. We must support one another. We must appreciate one another as we carve out our lives off the beaten path, and strive for a life well-lived, whatever shape that may end up taking.
No matter who, where, or what you come from one fact remains the same: making a living as a potter is not, and never has been, easy. It wasn’t easy for the salt-glaze potters of La Borne making necessary wares for their surrounding villages while daily breathing in clouds of hydrochloric acid. It isn’t for the village potters of India, firing their terracotta with dried cow pies, tires, and garbage. And it wasn’t, for Bernard Leach in his scenic pottery nestled in the cliffs of St. Ives.
Contemporary studio potters must acknowledge the great luxury and privilege of choosing a career path that goes against the grain. In doing so we must be ready to relinquish many of the benefits that come with conforming to the hegemonic state.
When we decided to become potters, we made a choice. Our choice wasn’t just to say, “I am now going to play with clay for a living.” It was much more than that. We were going to diverge from the herd and live on a different plane altogether – one where we take pride in our work, produce objects that add meaning and value to the world, and fill our existential cups while doing so. We didn’t know exactly how it would go, but we knew it would be difficult, and we accepted this challenge the moment we pledged our allegiance to clay.
But let’s release the notion that choosing the unconventional path means we have to go it alone – that part of the vision, of the story, is pure fantasy. We will work hard because we are passionate about our craft, but we will not work alone. We will have to be creative and pragmatic about our financial lives, in equal measure.
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”